Learning about hot weather

Ceiling fans are running full blast, rearranging the hot air, and I’m wondering if the a/c man, promised a week ago, will ever turn up. Outside a security guard moves his chair deeper into the shade and takes another swig from his water bottle and I wonder how most of the millions who live in this teeming city without air conditioning survive. It’s been over 40C most days for the last two weeks and at this stage my body seems to be one constantly pouring sweat gland and my digestive system is refusing to function at all in daylight hours.

Despite the heat we occasionally stagger out using taxis, metro and kind friends, attempting to find places with air conditioning to disport ourselves. The Craft Musuem comes under that heading in theory. Although the working demonstrations in the open air have sensibly ceased until after the monsoon the galleries are still open and there are some stunning pieces on display. Much to my chagrin I find the reference textile collection just as it is time to go home. I hope my health holds up and the weather cools off so that I can revisit it when we return to Delhi next week. The textile museum is also home to our favorite Delhi restaurant which offers a strong challenge to the marvelous Indian Essence in terms of food quality, at a tenth of the price.

But to return to the topic of cooling. Presumably to help conserve the collection the Craft Museum uses big water coolers, delightful in the dry heat. But it is hard to get the full benefit because each is turned sideways onto a staff chair. I’m not cribbing – if I worked there one would be turned onto my chair, but it is entertaining when the pattern dawns. Anyway it keeps the temperature down to a point where we can identify the table brought home after WW2 by Michael’s father as Gujerati thanks to the beautifully rebuilt haveli from that area. I’ve tried to find a good English word to translate haveli but we haven’t really had the concept for several centuries.

Pause for rose petal sherbet.

Hydration is part of the problem at this temperature, along with replacing salts. Another, only recently discovered by Swiss scientists, is that in very hot weather gastro enteritis gets followed a week later by irritable bowel syndrome. So you think you are over it and then the fun begins. And of course that dehydrates you too. The locals deal with it with lassi, the lovely probiotic yoghurt drink that is a meal in itself, and nimbu panne, made from lime juice, water, sugar and salt. The local salt tastes foul and sulphurous, but I’m told it is good for me.

(note to would be tourists, do not visit Delhi this time of year unless you can afford to a) live in a luxury hotel and b) hire a full time air conditioned car and driver. Read Kipling for descriptions of summer without a/c)



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Rant about Plastic

Last night we had dinner with members of staff at a local boarding school here in the Niligiri Hills. Good Shepherd is a wonderful school with fabulous facilities including organic food raised on their own farm as well as staff student ratios to make the mind boggles. Over dinner I learned something new about the impact on the environment and it really shocked me.

If you are reading this at all you probably already know what a huge proportion of landfill is made up by plastic, how long it takes to break down, and how much of it finishes up eventually in the ocean, concentrating in one of the gyres and filling the stomachs of fish and sea birds so that they eventually starve to death.

But did you know that a single plastic bag or bottle can cause hundreds of square yards of erosion on a hillside? (and so can any other non-biodegradable waste for that matter.) Appalling thought but it happens to be true. Here in these steep mountains there is a fragile balance between plant life, soil and rock. Where the streams tumble down the hillside after rain the steep nature of the terrain quickly builds up sufficient force to wash off the thin soil covering and expose the granite surface beneath. Drop a plastic bag and it will likely damn a tiny rivulet, diverting the water so that it cuts a new channel, joins up with a different water path, changes the flow and bobs your uncle, more soil is heading down from the hills to the valley. By the acre.

This isn’t just a problem for the wildlife – and the local native shola forest is seriously endangered by a mix of agriculture, building of holiday homes, and invasive species escaped from gardens – it is a disaster for the local farmers who produce tea and coffee for our tables in the West here, along with intensive vegetable production for more local markets. And all because of a simple plastic bag or bottle.

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My World Has Grown

It’s been a while since I last posted anything to this very occasional blog and at the moment my world is defined by a perfect blue sky, exotic trees and a Victorian veranda where my cup of Earl Grey rests beside my sofa. There’s just the perfect amount of cool breeze and my only care is whether I’ve downloaded enough novels to my iPad.

All of which should indicate that I’m not in Ireland. Instead I’m a month into a holiday in India and my veranda is in India’s blue mountains, the Nilgiri Hills, where once the English fled from the summer heat on the plains and now the rich of modern India do likewise. We’ve turned and twisted up the winding road where the hair pins are so frequent and so extreme that even Indian drivers go slowly and carefully, looking across green gulfs to the shadows of waterfalls, almost dry at this season, and especially so since the southern monsoon has failed two years in a row. Nonetheless the hills are covered with lush growth, much of it in bloom at this season. Many of the flowers are foreign invaders from Australia, central and north America, China, Indonesia and Europe but it is hard to grudge them their space when they are in full bloom.

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Those New Year Resolutions

I wasn’t going to make resolutions this year but my editor at the Dublin Informer wants some, so I thought I’d make them available to the rest of the world as well. My Informer column is all about environmental issues (and if you have some you want me to cover let me know) and I’m determined to keep it simple. So here goes with the old mantra – Reduce, Re-use, Re-cycle. In that order. So resolution number one is “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.” Sounds obvious. Why would we buy what we don’t need? but we were told that a third of the food that went into the supermarket trolleys this year would go to waste – and certainly looking at some of them I could believe it. So resolution number two is “Make a shopping list and stick to it.”

Which sounds pretty simple but how do we decide what should be on that list? As it happens there’s help from Caitriona Redmond of the award winning Wholesome Ireland blog. She’s got a couple of free downloads there which may seem scary at first but really help if you actually screw up your courage to use them. They are stock lists for your cupboards, fridge and freezer, along with meal plans. The frightening bit is taking the time to actually go through all the cupboards and find out what is lurking at the back of them, and how long ago it went out of date. Which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw it away – even things like sugar and salt have best before dates  but best before doesn’t mean inedible after. Use your common sense and check with the FSAI guidance. So turn out the cupboards, enter the data on Caitriona’s stock sheets and use the information to design meal plans. I’m betting that most of us don’t need to shop for a week or two after Christmas – we just need to redesign. And if something has been sitting there because you don’t actually feel like eating it maybe someone else would enjoy it. Just because Christmas is past it doesn’t mean that organisations like Simon, St Vincent de Paul and Penny Dinners don’t still need our support. So if it is surplus but still good pass it on – but maybe contact the organisation first to make sure it is something they can use.

And I haven’t even got to Re-use and Re-cycle yet! They’ll have to wait for another day. One item we did decide we needed over Christmas was a steam cleaner. We borrowed one first and loved how clean all our greasy surfaces came without having to use any chemicals. So we did a careful assessment of what needs cleaning regularly and chose the model that will do it best, then shopped around. Interestingly the shop we eventually bought from had a price tag in store that was considerably higher than the on line price. We queried it and got the extra money off. So 99% of all known germs will now get killed without using toxins (bicarbonate and soda or white vinegar will actually shift most things) and cleaning will be faster and more efficient. So it may actually get done.

Happy New Year!


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Living with food intolerances

One member of the family has food intolerances – lots of food intolerances. Diagnosed by a reputable tester using blood tests at considerable expense. Some show up as quite severe, some as pretty mild, but to stay on the safe side he tries to stay away from all them as much as possible. By doing this he can hold down a job and have a social life – previously getting through school and college sometimes seemed impossible. This adds complications to the family catering. When he’s around we don’t eat gluten, most dairy, soy, bakers yeast, a whole host of grains, many nuts, several fruits, shellfish, some algae and seaweeds, cinnamon, mustard or pepper, avocados – the list goes on and on.

So does this make our diet limited? Of course not. Only a few generations ago my ancestors’ daily bread would have been oatcakes leavened with wild yeast, none of our native vegetables are on the banned list, and most vegetables are fine, as are all the fruits that are easy to grow except plums and strawberries. My peasant ancestors would have depended on dried peas and the family pig for protein, but they would have eaten a huge range of wild herbs and cooked greens beside which the limited collection in a modern supermarket, or even a modern farmers market, pales into insignificance.

Meanwhile I made these for breakfast today

Oatmeal and Apple muffins

Dry ingredients: 1.5 cups flaked oatmeal,1 cup gluten free flour, 2 tsps baking powder, half a cup sugar

Wet ingredients: 1 cup coconut milk, 1 tbs organic sunflower oil, 1 egg, 1 tsp vanilla

2 apples washed, cored and chopped

Heat oven to 200C (400F), 180C in a fan oven

Whisk dry ingredients together in one bowl, whisk wet ingredients together in another bowl, combine the two and stir in the fruit. Divide between 12 large or 24 small muffin cups.

Bake 20 minutes for small or half an hour for large muffins. Eat warm – they got a bit stodgy cold.

This was an adaptation of a very common recipe. I was going to make them with blackcurrants or raspberries but the family were hungry and didn’t have time to wait while I picked them. They would work equally well with fresh or frozen berries – don’t defrost frozen ones or they shed liquid into the mix and mess the proportions up. Spelt would have given a better texture but I was in a hurry and used the nearest bag of flour. More baking powder would have made a lighter muffin
Coconut milk is sweeter than the low fat milk usually specified – next time I’m cutting the sugar to a quarter cup.

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Birds and Berries

Much discussion today on one of my favourite lists of the difficulty of persuading birds to share the berries you grow for them. You didn’t know that was who you were growing them for? You must be new to fruit growing.

An American friend asked whether owl cut outs will scare them off – well not here they won’t.

Hawk cut outs can work on a field scale but in the garden blackbirds, thrushes and other berry snatchers sneak around under cover of the fruit bushes and munch away. In the end the only solution is to plant enough to share or net. However, one does not wish small birds to get entangled in netting – finding just wings in the netting because predators have taken entangled birds before you could release them is extremely distressing, and cutting holes in the netting to release trapped wings does not make one exactly happy. Another friend mentioned the difficulty of crawling under nets and getting buttons caught in them. This is another problem which I am very familiar with. The best solution is to make sure one constructs a rigid frame, high enough to get into, with a  doorway.At one point we had a frame some 12m square when we were doing small scale commercial growing. The blackbirds found this very handy since they had sole use of all the berries around their nest in a blackcurrant bush.

Quite a bit of our soft fruit is now planted under a disused polytunnel frame. Unfortunately we didn’t clear the nettles and scutch properly before we planted it so at the moment we haven’t bothered to net it but, clearing the weeds and completing the movement of the soft fruit garden to that frame is part of the very long to do list

My experience is that the birds head first for the redcurrants, which they take as soon as they have the first hint of colour, then gooseberries, then black currants, white currants and raspberries about equally. So if I plant enough raspberries they graciously allow me to keep a few of those and the blackcurrants. They didn’t bother to wait for colour to show on the redcurrants this year and ate every berry before I could get the nets out. As I type a thrush is bouncing up and down on the netting of a gooseberry bush close to the house – but ignoring the ripening blackcurrants only four or five feet away. (yes, I know that I said there should be tight netting over a frame but this was a late night job in gathering darkness and I’m going to pick the whole bush at once so I’ll take the net right off for that)

Water is certainly a significant factor – they get it from the fruit, and if I remember to put out plenty of water they do slow down their consumption a little – but only a little. But then we usually have wet summers so  they don’t normally need berries as water sources. I’m certainly putting it out at the moment though. Yippee! summer continues! we’ve had record temperatures this week –  – indeed we’ve nearly got up to 30C occasionally. Only a couple more days before normal July weather returns though.

I only have two blueberry bushes and once again they weren’t pollinated this year because of our insect free spring. In the days before the death of the insects they got eaten by hares before ripening.

In summary

It is possible to plant enough raspberries here to share with the birds if you have sufficient acreage – about 40 square meters gives us enough for all. 14 blackcurrant bushes is just enough to give us each a handful of berries with breakfast for about 80 days of the year, plus a few crumbles through the winter – the birds probably get about four times as much as we do. Six netted huge old gooseberry bushes gives enough for wine and pies. Un-netted they give a few handfuls. A dozen or so red currants, massively laden with berries, give us no ripe berries at all – I need to start new plants somewhere I can net – these are against a boundary fence so the birds come from the other side. It took the birds two years to discover mulberries were edible. We went from 30 lbs three years ago to about three pounds last year despite the fact that the bushes tripled in size and production in that time. They are too big to net

I got a cherry or two last year – now they know about them so although there was a good set this year we wont’ get any.

Discovery is their favourite apple variety. If I was starting again I’d probably get all dwarf trees and put them in a cage and abandon cider making.
No I wouldn’t. I love my big trees and we get quite enough of them for eating and if I can only get some bees we’ll have cider apples again

And now back out to the courtyard while it is shaded by the house to deal with sneaky dandelions that have somehow managed to get established

And to take lots and lots and lots of cuttings of the cottage pinks and lavender. Of which more another day

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Washing Lines

A fellow blogger recently posted about the joys of washing lines and watching your washing floating in the breeze. Today there wasn’t enough breeze to float the washing and the sky was pretty gloomy and grey but it wasn’t actually raining and the temperature was in the high teens so the washing went out on the line as usual. I have one of those revolving lines – the biggest of the breed I could get because I like to save the washing up and just have one wash day a week. That way I always have full loads of the different categories of wash. Revolving lines aren’t the best of garden ornaments and they aren’t as efficient as a straight clothes line in terms of actually getting the washing dry, but I don’t have a good space for a straight line and I do have a big garden with a spot that gets sun and wind but isn’t too obtrusive so I don’t have to put it away every time I want to use it. In fact it only gets put away if we are having a party that is likely to spill into the garden – and not always even then.

The washing line isn’t just a double whammy – it’s a multiple whammy. It doesn’t use any energy to dry clothes except the sun, the wind, and my effort putting the clothes on and off the line. So it doesn’t use any money either except money I might have earned in the time it takes to do that hanging and taking off and folding. And it also means that clothes get UV sterillisation. They smell good too.

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Beginning bee keeping

Although my Dad was a bee keeper I’ve somehow never got around to it. For the last two years I’ve had two Warré style top bar hives but they have been tenantless. Arrangements for a nucleus keep being stymied, largely by the appalling difficulties facing beekeepers in this world of climate change, pesticides, and new diseases and predators. Hives were supposed to arrive in our orchard this spring from a local bee keeper but the long wet winter weakened his colonies to the point where they weren’t strong enough to be transported to a new home in blossom time – and their absence can certainly be seen in the poor set of apples on many of our trees.

So I was delighted when a friend said his bees were showing signs of swarming. I’ve dusted off one of my hives, applied wax foundation to some of the bars along with granulated honey and lemon grass, and it is going visiting – it won’t be home until a young, strong colony is ready to investigate the joys of life in Tobersool.

But what is a Warré hive? Most beginning bee keepers have only heard of National’s or Langstroths, both of which take a lot of looking after – indeed manipulation seems to be one of the attractions of the hobby for many bee keepers along with the honey of course. They are made with great precision and fitted with ready made foundations for the cells in which larvae will be raised or honey stored. A Warré top bar hive is a little different. It mimics more accurately the hollow tree which was the preferred home of our native bees and the bee builds its own cells to whatever size it likes. it encourages the bee to move around more and spend more time grooming and less time manufacturing honey for the beekeeper to harvest. What? you say. Less honey? Yes, I’m afraid so. But the beekeeper does less work and the bee may need less medication and care and attention. To add to the honey shortage Warré suggested that instead of harvesting honey as the modern beekeeper usually does, feeding the bee sugar syrup instead to take it through the winter, the honey should be left for the bee all winter, only being harvested in May or June. He believed that honey is the natural food of bees and had micronutrients that were lacking in sugar syrup.

I’m inclined to agree with him – I’m sure that creatures fed their natural food – honey full of pollen and minerals – are going to be healthier than those living on syrup. We’ve seen enough research on this for humans in late years and why should bees be different? And I’m sure that movement and grooming are also going to lead to improved health. We’l see

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Teaching slugs to swim

Turns out slugs can’t swim. I’ve just been out with my trusty phone switched to torch mode and a handy recycled takeaway container to see why so many of the plants in my (very) raised beds are failing to thrive. Well you’d fail to thrive too if about a billion slimey little greyish things – and a few whacking great black or orange ones – were chewing away at your skin.

Now if it had been day time and I’d been hunting under pots the slugs would get tipped into the hen run for the delectation of the egg layers, but that doesn’t work after midnight when the hens are tucked up asleep for the night dreaming of whatever it is hens dream of. Those sleepy chirrings and cluckings always sound as if they are dreaming.

Anyway, they aren’t around to gorge on slugs. So I tipped the slugs into the water bowl anyway – a nice deep old washing up bowl. Most seem to have stayed exactly where I dropped them though a few made it out. From experience I know that quite a few of these survivors will decide the safe place to spend the night is under the bowl so tomorrow morning I’ll dump live and dead slugs onto the spot where the ark is being moved to, and the hens will breakfast royally

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What is a Spanish omelette

I doubt if a Spaniard would recognise this version of a Spanish tortilla but it is more or less the recipe I grew up with – or rather the guidelines I grew up with since it was always too vague to be a recipe.

If you keep hens, as we tend to do, you find yourself at times with a lot of eggs so an egg dish becomes a main meal at least every couple of days. Our family tortilla is something of a dustbin recipe and therefore very cheap, especially if the eggs come from hens which are getting a proportion of their food as table scraps, insects and the slugs I gather every evening. (Don’t say ugh! this is the natural food of hens and they will be healthier an happier with slugs and insects, as well as grass and clover, in their diet.)

Yesterday we ate at one of Dublin’s tapas restaurants and our friends had tortilla. We looked at the pallid objects in the tapas dish and decided it wasn’t for us. We are used to bright orange yolks and a lightly browned surface. These slices had neither. So here is what I made for lunch today for three of us.

In quite a bit of olive oil I gently fried a small piece of left over salami, diced, about four scallions (spring onions if you are English), sliced, three medium potatoes, diced small, a slightly overgrown courgette, diced small. It became obvious that the potatoes were going to take their time to cook so I threw in a few tablespoons of water, put a well fitting lid on, set the timer for five minutes and went to watch Dustin Brown finishing off Leyton Hewitt at Wimbledon – this guy is quite something. When the timer went off I threw in half a cup of frozen peas, left at the bottom of a bag, and congratulated myself on clearing out some freezer space. Five more minutes of tennis followed and then I headed for the bowl where I keep the eggs on the counter – we write the date on each egg in pencil when we collect them so I used up the oldest which were laid five days ago. And a couple from four days ago. Six in all for the three of us. I turned on the grill, beat up the half dozen eggs with a pinch of salt, stirred the vegetables around and spread the eggs over them in the pan. Then I left everything alone on the gentle heat for a couple of minutes so that the base was quite well cooked but the top still liquid. Two more minutes under the grill and the top was set and lightly toasted. Normally I’d have spent that two minutes running out for some salad leaves from the garden but Tsonga was now on the screen so that was me rooted to the tv again. Maybe I’ll do something for dinner that involves salad instead.

Just time for a cup of tea and a couple more games of tennis and I’ll head out to plant up some more perennials in the bed I’m reviving in the back garden.

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