Friday, 6 July 2012

Elderflower and Wild Strawberry Ice Cream

An ice cream that sits on the tongue like a pair of lounge slippers. One of the nicest tastes of the 'summer' so far.

This came from one of those panic moments of dad husbandry. I was home alone and nothing much to do. I'd made elderflower syrup the week before which wasn't great to drink (too much stem and not enough lemon since you ask) but was still very fragrant and I was surrounded by a wild strawberry crop creeping over the garden.
Wild? I was livid...

Our cultivated strawberry growing attempt was a disaster this year, with slugs, deer and especially squirrels leaving nothing for us. Apart from a shoot to kill water pistol/squirrel policy, it's left me convinced wild strawberries are the way to go. They grow with very little help in our garden and provide the kind of ground cover Forest Gardeners love. The only downside for us is that Miggins (Eliza's latest nick name) can't stop eating them. She doesn't care if they're ripe or stems still attached, she just grabs them and grabs them.

So, it was great to find a single use for them we can all enjoy!

Ice Cream Ingredients:

  • A couple of handfuls of wild strawberries. 
  • One tablespoon elderflower cordial.
  • 250ml double cream.
  • 120g caster sugar.
  • Juice of one healthy lemon
  • An ice cream maker or a box in the freezer and a fork. 
Obviously better with home made elderflower cordial. Heat 750ml water and stir in 400g caster sugar. Once sugar dissolved, leave until tepid then add juice and zest of 1 lemon and 10 heads of elderflowers (with stalk removed). Leave for 24 hrs then strain and bottle. Add 1 tsp citric acid to help colour and shelf life if needed. OK, back to the ice cream... 

All churned up. 
Whiz cream, sugar and lemon juice in a blender  - enough to smooth it out without whipping the cream. Add the elderflower cordial to taste. You're adding flavour and sugar with this, so go slowly. You'll want the unfrozen mixture to be slightly sweeter/punchier than you like and it will calm down when frozen. 

Pour this mixture into your chosen ice cream device and start to churn. About half way through, once the mixture has got thicker, tumble in your wild strawberries and complete the churning. 

Freeze for at least a few hours before eating. Mine is in the freezer waiting. I haven't told the kids yet. The combination of lemon, elderflower, cream and strawberry mini-bombs is awful.

More Strawberries!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

How To Make A Fence and How to Build A Website

I've been busy with two vital activities for any budding smallholder, building a fence and building a website. Both lead to aching fingers and eye strain, but you can only see one of them from space.

The Fence!
Everyone has their own way of starting something new. I usually visualise a perfect end result, utterly detatched from reality, then bustle in like a monkey on espresso, get it all wrong, break everything and have to do it all again.

That's not all bad. It turns my aversion to planning ahead in to a virtue. It works really well for virtual tasks like video editing or web site building. A 'second draft' is usually better anyway. But for physical, real world projects, having to take them apart and put them back together again is really messy.

So it was with building a fence. The wreckage in wasted wood, sucked teeth from onlookers and damage to myself was not good. Of course I could have asked someone to help. But then I wouldn't have got to learn how to do it, which was partly the point in the first place. My dad once swapped a car engine entirely on his own with a hand built block and tackle. So it's probably a family trait.

Building a website for a local theatre company,, was a good companion activity to the DIY. It seems to use different bits of the brain to cope with the sheer range of possibilities. 
Website for IronClad Theatre Company

My fence has a clear utility - it has to stop people (especially children) falling over a wall. It rapidly becomes clear that even a well planned website has several competing reasons to exist, so it's easy to feel you're always wrong! You also have to invent the context - a bit like having to create a whole new genre for a script you're writing. A fence seems to happily create its own context. 

And It's dangerously easy to keep tweaking a website. In 'Snowcrash' Neil Stephenson (coiner of the current use of the word 'avatar') suggests being digital actually rewires your brain. I'll build my own MRI next to test it out, but I certainly get more obsessed with computer projects than anything involving hammers and nails.

I started this post saying the best thing about doing something new was learning from your mistakes. So to finish, here's a quick summary of what I learnt from my building projects. Maybe it'll save me time and effort next time. Maybe.

Top Tips for Building A Fence:
  1. Always put the posts in first. Don't try and assemble it all on the ground first, you can't line anything up. So long as your posts are nice and deep it's easy to cut them to size and nail the railings on afterwards. 

  2. Get the right length nails. Big nails split the wood and poke out the other end like a pointy elbow through a worn jumper.

  3. Take time to avoid School boy errors. Easy ones include miscounting the number of posts (it's always one more than you think) and nailing things on the wrong way around.

  4. If you get carpal tunnel syndrome from all the sawing, nailing and digging, these exercises really help. 

And here are my top tips for building websites:
  1. Give it a clear utility - a prime reason to exist - even if you have to invent one.
  2. Don't rely on redirects. Build it on the same server as your domain name host. You can use redirects but google hates them. This is the equivalent of putting the posts in first.
  3. Sites aren't meant to be finished, they are always work in progress, that's the point!
  4. If you get carpal tunnel syndrome from all the mousing and typing, these exercises really help. 

Fence - mark I. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

It's Good To See Eliza Here

There's strong competition for the toddler pound in our local community, but one group has gone too far. 

One of the big challenges of office life is giving meaning to your day so you're not fire fighting the whole time. Having the ability to carve out identifiable time and space can make or break a career. At heart, I always thought that's what having a strategy was really all about.   

No surprise, life at home with the kids presents the same challenge. It's easy to find yourself spending the whole day calming tantrums and chasing peas around the floor. Having a purpose to the day, and getting out and about is vital. Luckily, our village is not short on things to do with small children. 

"...there is no messy play club."

[SPOILER ALERT: I'd like to stress that I have huge respect for all who run the groups below and they are a life line for me and many others. Any mild mocking should be taken entirely at my own expense.]

Toddlers (£2) on a Monday is a no nonsense affair. If it was a cup of coffee, it would be nescafe and infact that's what's on offer. Up to ten babies and toddlers plus mums and occasional dads in the local cricket pavillion. Sometimes the older kids roam the room grabbing toys, sometimes the babies take over and the smell of trapped poo is overpowering. 

Messy Play (£1), Tuesdays, seems to be a bit of a village institution. It's on every other week with occasional gaps for holidays. There's a sense of expectation and genuine excitement when details of the next date are released. People will catch your eye in the playground and say the delicious phrase, "Messy Play, it's on!" Held in the Baptist Hall with different activities laid out: sand pit, painting etc. Then a story (usually Bible based) and a sing song. If it was a coffee, it would be a nice but overfull  cup of filter. Though as you'd expect, they serve instant. 

Recently, it looks like the local CofE have spotted a gap in the market for the every other Tuesday slot when 'Messy' (as I've now learnt to call it) is not on. So they've launched 'Bears and Prayers', with songs, stories, prayers and playtime. Now, I'm not what you'd call an alpha male. If I was a cup of coffee, I'd be a latte not a machiato. But this one is over even my manhood limit. I just can't bring myself to go to a group called Bears and Prayers. I mean for goodness sake, I used to work for someone who worked for someone who worked for the Director General of the BBC (well, until we all got restructured). I've spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on pointless software at the click of my fingers. I've nodded at Jim Naughtie in the lifts of Broadcasting House, and he's nodded back! I have a reputation to maintain. So Eliza (who'd probably love it) won't get to see this one in action. Sorry Eliza. 

But, she will always get a place at Jumblies (£1.50). Held in a church in the next village along on a Wednesday, it's a very slick baby music group. Two sessions so you can choose your time. You get a name badge on the way in for you and offspring. The songs are themed to help give it purpose, and best of all we always start with a sung introduction for each child...

"It's good to see Robbie here,
It's good to see Eliza here,
It's good to see Sarah here,
how are you today?"

Now that's something I'd happily take back to working life. All good meetings start with everyone introducing themselves. Imagine how much more ice would break if it was sung? 

"You have to choose between the church and the pub..."

Earlier this week, a woman sidled up to me in the playground and gave me a key. Apparently I put my name down on a list and I'm 'opening up' for Toddlers on Monday. I have to unlock, buy the fruit for snack time and bring the milk for teas and coffees. It's a clever idea, I feel more involved already.  

All these groups are of course a huge help to a family like us finding our feet in a new location. It's also interesting to see the Churches reaching out to folk who I'd guess rarely set foot in the door on a Sunday. I think rural, or even semi-rural communities need the Church. As the song line has it, move to the country and you have to choose between the pub or the church. Pubs are rubbish for toddlers and with the Church declining, that just leaves the off licence. The novelty of the 5 'o' clock beer because I'm at home and I can hasn't worn off yet, and I don't think I'm the only dad to use it as an occasional way to structure the day. But it's not a strategy I'm keen to rely on with a toddler in tow, so I won't be founding the Beers and Tears group just yet.  

Saturday, 10 March 2012

How to grow a Forest Garden on a North Facing Hill

It doesn't involve digging, the plants come back year after year and you grow things with great names like Szechuan Pepper or Jostaberries. We've read, we've planned, we're trying for a Forest Garden...

Martin Crawford's epic book.

With nearly a half acre of more or less virgin garden to tame, we've hit on creating a Forest Garden. At heart this is built on the idea of 'working with nature' to mimic the conditions in a forest.

Excitingly, it has an architectural side:

  • A canopy layer of trees or large shrubs (preferably edible)
  • Below this a shrub layer of,er, shrubs (preferably perennial and edible)
  • Then ground cover. Vigorous, low plants to fill in the gaps, stop the weeds and give everyone food. 
And it has some defining principles:

  • Get all the layers working together (ecosystem is the risky word) and they do lots of the hard graft for you. e.g. nitrogen fixing shrubs like Broom mean you don't need to add compost.  
  • Mostly plant perennials - they come back year after year, unlike annuals. 
  • Use a wider range of edible plants to add diversity and flexibility. We're planting a rose hedge as an edible wind break (Rosa Rugosa). 
But, we have a big complication.... We could only afford our half acre because it's on a steep north facing hill. The foothills of the Mendips to be precise. So this will be more trial and error than usual. 

The planting so far...

We've sheet mulched as much as we think we can handle this year. Used our removal boxes in one spot. We've planted four fruit trees (canopy layer). These are Victoria plum, 2*Pears and a Morello Cherry. We've planted a wind break hedge in a couple of places (it increases yields). 
We're adding shrubs slowly. A broom for nitrogen, a Jostaberry and a Redcurrant are in the post. Ground cover to follow but that'll need to come from seeds when we've got something to propogate them in. 

There are some great people/books/sites we're using to help:

Work in progress:

Bottom of the garden. Removal boxes as sheet mulch. Looks messy but seems to be working - pleasingly green. 

Victoria Plum added in the middle and a rear hedge of wild roses added this weekend (not in pic yet).

Spring is springing

Woody helps water new hedge
Wild rose hedge to be

Our soil is healthy but soggy (north facing slope)

We're planting shrubs late, may need more watering!

Friday, 2 March 2012

We Are The Dads

Lunch out with a couple of other stay at home dads today. Mobbed by little old ladies. Apparently we're some kind of super race. Welcome, but undeserved. Maybe it's only ourselves we're saving. 

A new dawn for dads? Not really related to the post, but it was a nice picture...

Every now and again on a Friday I meet up with one or two other stay at home dads and their children. I launched in to this business cold when we moved to our village last Summer. I was hugely relieved to find I wasn't the only dad at playgroup or in the playground during the week. 'Does it really matter?' you might ask. 

It does matter! And here's why (for me at least):

  • A chance to start a conversation on common ground. Small talk is not something I (along with 90% of the world) find natural. Any extra pressure, e.g. 'you're a woman, I'm a man', can make it harder. 
  • Dads are still more likely to be anticipating going back to work or mixing child care with work. I know this one doesn't reflect well on what I'm doing here. I miss the identity that comes with a successful bit of work (conversely, I'm much happier without the lonely crap you get the majority of the time). It's more likely conversation will touch on work and it's strangely comforting to get back in to the language. 
  • I've been more honest about the difficulties of this role with the dads than with mums. There's also cathartic honesty about how relationships with your wife/partner have changed. This mostly seems to involve complaining about having to pick her clothes of the floor so they can go in to the wash.  
  • It increases the 'stranger praise' factor by 50% for every dad/child added to the group. Which brings me back to lunch.

"It's the mundanity that gets to me."
Sometimes we meet at a playground or petting zoo (animals, needless to say), and sometimes we have lunch. This one was a pub lunch to mark the return of one of the dads to full time work the next week. He was mostly relieved as far as I could gather, financially and identity wise. He has a slight Rob Brydon twang, and the first time we met he said 'it's the mundanity of it [child care] that gets to me'. I was in the first flush of staying at home at the time. Six months on and I know what he means. Monotony would be my word of choice, but it's the same cry for help. 

So, three dads and three kids, none older than three. We found our table and got on with chatting, ordering and keeping the kids busy with the usual range of crayons, books, cutlery and crawling under the table. It being a week day, most of the other tables were full of retired folk. There were a few business lunches going on, and it still makes my heart constrict to see a man in a suit at lunch. I hated business lunches.

An elderly woman who'd been dining with her husband stopped by our table on her way out, and that's when it came. A double barrel of praise and wonder at us being dads looking after our kids, and weren't they well behaved, surely that must be because they were with their fathers. Surely. 

Best of all, she assumed out loud that this was a one off and we were helping our other halves out for the day. When we explained this was our full time role, she nearly fainted, then explained she was nearly 80, and in her day men were not and could not be involved. I tried to catch her husbands glance to see if there was a glimmer of objection. But his eyes were dead. He hovered a pace behind her, silently, patiently waiting for her to finish, a mild smile set on his face. 

Is that the deal we've made, I wonder? It's a familiar sight of chatty older woman and patient partner waiting, not joining. Will that be reversed or equalised by at least sharing home building? I'm urging myself to make new friends and find playmates for Woody and Eliza. During the week I run the rhythm of the house (and pick up clothes from the floor). At the weekend my wife will step back in for some of this and the passivity I feel makes me sadly cross. During the week, this is my domain. 'You'll need to put those potatoes on now if we're going to eat before 6' is sometimes the best I manage at the weekend. But are we building an equal space for when/if we finally manage to retire? I hope so. 

Anyway, the praise was lovely of course. And I get it fairly often from the older generation, in playgrounds or post office queues. I'm guessing they don't randomly praise women out with their kids. What they're doing is normal, but we, apparently, are super dads. Of course we are... 

"Woody, stop fussing, I'll come and help you when I've finished writing my blog."

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Woody's Words of Wisdom, Feb 2012

This started as a chance to jot down some of four and a half year old Woody's statements, the product of the brilliant logic of childhood. But over the last few days, he's suddenly leapt forward in his ability to change the world. His words may get less silly, so I'm glad I caught some of them. 

Who me?

"If you see a big dark fish like this, that's Bacon!"

"And then I could take it into school for show and tell." (said about any random object)

Looking over my shoulder at the computer screen and reading album titles (he's just learning to read, very exciting development) :
"Have you ever been to Electric Ladyland? What was it like?"

"When I'm grown up, I'll let my child have ice cream even when it's a cold day."

Reading the computer screen over my shoulder seems to be the tip of an iceberg. A moment of change as he steps towards our world. I can't pretend (or is 'lie' the word?) about what I'm doing on the computer anymore. 

And there's more. The other day he took himself off and re-filled one of our bird feeders. Reaching in to the tree to unhook it, taking it to the shed, pouring in new seed and taking it back to the tree. All by himself. 

Of course, while I type this he's upstairs lying on his bedroom floor doing anything possible to avoid changing out of his uniform in to play clothers. Oh how I envy his ability to calmly lose an hour stairing at the ceiling making up stories about the shadows!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

What Did You Do This Weekend?

For some reason I'm always completely flawed by this question in the playground. So, just in case anybody asks me, here's what we did...

Caning it!
Our neighbours (who have their own smallholding) donated a load of spare raspberry canes. So we planted them in the patch by our front door. The sunlight was slanting around the house and Woody played war with his toy tape measure while I dug a trench then sheet mulched them. They're Autumn fruiting. Roll on Autumn!

Lonely Daffodil
We spotted the first daffodil flowering in the back garden. There's drifts coming up under one of the massive cherry trees we've inherited. Snuck up with camera and Woody after lunch to grab the picture. Collected a few sticks to feel like we were doing something real.

 Inspired by a recipe on Em's website, I got some pork belly from our utterly fabulous farm shop. They cut it into strips before I could stop them so I used a Hugh recipe instead (so I've nicked his picture - mine didn't look like this - and I was too hungry and busy to take a picture anyway). Eliza grouchy for the last couple of days with teeth or something, but she eat her fair share. We had it with: roast parsnips, lightly boiled broccoli, mayo cabbage, apple sauce, rice and potato cake from last nights left over mash. If you exclude the rice everything was grown or oinked from a 5 mile radius. It's fresh, it's local, it's Sunday dinner! Apple sauce and roast parsnips particularly fine together and pork crackling and cabbage also unexpectedly ace. 

So, repeat after me, what did I do this weekend? I :

  • planted citizen canes
  • saluted first daff of the year (and of our new home)
  • went big on pork belly