So – 2010 will soon be over. A year of miraculous transformations at Nový Mlýn – with thanks to a host of visitors who helped immensely and kept us entertained.
In a sudden rush before Christmas we’ve managed to move the kitchen over into the ‘real’ kitchen – which was, until very recently, a muddy hole of a room. It now has heating, a make-shift island, running water and drainage – something we’ve managed to live without for years. So what if the electrics are unfinished and there’s plaster missing all over the place – what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in functionality.
Last week heating engineers came to the house and made a huge old mess… installing a heating system! Can you even imagine… constant heat is such an amazing thing. We decided on an Atmos system – locally manufactured – this allows us to auto-feed wood pellets or use wood logs as fuel. Solid wood is a lot cheaper (1/10th) but the pellet system is incredibly convenient and will run for several days with minimum effort on our parts. Our plan is to use coppiced willow grown on site as our fuel source eventually. We need to investigate ways of harvesting the willow to make it a suitable fuel source for the pellet burner.
We have also managed to source old radiators from a local scrap yard. These come in 10 cm sections which screw together to any length you want, and fit neatly in the recess under the windows, allowing the insulating curtains to be tucked behind. They are also more in keeping with the style of Nový Mlýn – modern radiators would look weird, and new-old style radiators are out of our budget. I do have some work to do in the spring – with wire wool and spray paint – but they’ll come up grand, I’m sure.
So far we have radiators installed in the kitchen/dining room/utility (currently one large adjoining space) as well as the upstairs bathroom. We’ve decided not to heat the hallways as these are extensive and we don’t sit around in them in the winter. It would be like heating a space the size of our old flat just to walk through occasionally. The heating engineers will be back in a month or so to install radiators in the bedrooms upstairs – it’ll be strange not having to light a fire in our bedroom every evening! But (with belt and braces) we’ll still be able to heat with local fires if necessary.
So – 2010 will soon be over. A year of miraculous transformations at Nový Mlýn – with thanks to a host of visitors who helped immensely and kept us entertained.
Mandarinky is the generic Czech name for all small, sweet orange fruit with soft peel, in the UK we could call them Satsumas, Clementines or Mandarin oranges but they do not exist as separate entities here, so you have to scratch the skin of the orange in the supermarket in order to identify what you’re buying.
The fragrant rind of citrus fruit such as the delicious Mandarinky we have in the shops at the moment can be a real treat with very little effort – and when something has been shipped so far to get to us, isn’t it fair not to waste any of it?
Wash satsuma and/or mandarin oranges before you peel them to eat. Keep the peels. Cut them into fine slivers or chunks. Put them into a glass jar. Cover the cut peel with honey. Microwave the jar until the honey boils – this will not be long so keep an eye on it. Put a lid on it. Let it cool overnight. Put the jar in the fridge the next day to set the honey. Use in place of marmalade.
This month I bought a steam sterilising bath and have been experimenting with bottling both apple sauce and juice. The apple sauce is, for Brits, solely the preserve of Pork (ha) – we’d use a small dollop of it with our Sunday lunch in the same way that you’d use mustard. Not so our American visitors – it’s something it’s eaten with relish (ha ha) at many opportunities – just on it’s own, with oatmeal (porridge) or used as a cooking ingredient. We now have enough to see us through a nuclear winter, as my husband puts it. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
One simple recipe I personally love is to melt a bar of (good quality) chocolate into apple sauce. I absolutely love this as a quick dessert if we’ve been working hard and need some extra calories.
Apple juice! As ever, I’ve been looking for a way of preserving juice without using additional chemicals. I’m prepared to live with juice which isn’t the mellow yellow colour of shop bought organic stuff. To keep it green, you have to process it in an oxygen free environment (unfortunately we don’t have a lab), or add quantities of ascorbic acid or lemon juice – fine if you’re making glasses of, rather than gallons. So, the juice is delicious, if a little brown. I’m not selling it – so if you don’t want to drink it because of the colour, that’s fine with me.
We have been gathering the apples, washing them, then mashing them with a huge bat – a bit like an oversized baseball bat with a flat bottom (as our American workawayer Reba demonstrates) . We use a metal bucket for this bit as the mashing is somewhat fierce. Every apple is squashed up quite effectively using only muscle power. The mash is then loaded into the press (an old fruit press/sausage stuffer which came with the house) which now lives on the back porch. A piece of sturdy nylon hose (never worn) is used to line the press which makes it easy to take the apple out and rearrange it for a second and third pressing. We catch the juice that comes out of the top and leaky bottom of the press and then sterilise and bottle it.
Bottling apple juice is a sensitive subject & the method developed by trial and error has caused many broken bottles. The apple juice is heated to 80 degrees c, and the washed beer bottles are heated in the steam steriliser up to 90. The caps must be doused in boiling water. You need to kill any yeast which could potentially turn bottles of apple juice into little bombs (the fermentation will cause great pressure as the juice is very sweet, causing the bottles to eventually explode). Once the juice is poured into the bottles, we cap them using a crown capper (a special clamp which fixes on the lids of beer bottles). Up until now I have been returning them to the steamer for up to 5 minutes at this point – however this is a sensitive operation and I have lost several bottles – I think because if there is too much of an increase of temperature, the bottle will pop, leaving you with glass, juice and time wasted.
With my next pressing, I plan to go without the 5 minutes in the steamer as the juice and equipment should be fine with the temperatures used above. Currently, we have enough apple juice for us to use a litre and a half every week till next season.
The cider we set fermenting earlier in the summer has now all been racked off into 5 litre bottles which are down in the cellar to mature. It will be interesting to see what is more popular with our visitors, home made cider or non alcoholic apple juice. Adding to these the apple we have dried in recent weeks, we really have made the most of the extraordinary crop of apples we’ve had this year.
May – the Nettles were young and fresh & quickly provided us with a source of greens. We harvested a lot for the freezer while they were young and good. We’ll see how many packets of these we use through the winter. They take up space, but are an excellent source of iron. Last night I used them as an addition to a curry, but they work well in place of spinach in pretty much anything. The combination of weeding the garden as well as gathering food is very satisfying – Marigold washing up gloves protect you from the sting until it’s been removed by wilting the greens.
June – Lambs Quarters popped up on beds we’d prepared for other things, primarily where we’d used an old carpet to suppress the weeds. The plants were best in June, and by the end of July had begun to go to seed. By August the plants could be as big as trees, but the branches were too tough to be edible. We had some peas – which we ate mange tout style, however they needed more support & keeled over into a tangled mess. The broccoli was completely destroyed by slugs. The nasturtiums weren’t.
July – we had abundant chickweed for salads, we also planted pea greens (dried peas soaked for a few days till they sprout, then put in a window box for convenience – delicious in salads). The forest berries also appeared – strawberries first, then bilberries and raspberries – these were still going strong through August. Colorado potato beetles were another less welcome discovery. We dedicated some time to removing these little stripy creatures from the potato crop by hand – they excrete a foul smelling goo when handled. However, the potatoes didn’t seem to suffer. We will have to rotate them next year – into the front garden as that’s as far away as we can get. During early communist times there was propaganda that these crop destroyers were actually dropped over the USSR by Americans.
August – the courgette and pumpkin plants started to thrive. We have enough people here not to have a glut of anything. By the end of August we have many green tomatoes, but nothing ripe yet. The first frost date around here is 15th October – we need to find an elegant way of growing tomatoes under glass as we use them a lot – and I wonder how the pumpkins will get on in this time. We have also realised this month that we’ve planted spring onions, not the large ones we wanted. The apples came into season and we started to experiment with juicing them and making cider, as well as drying slices on racks in the garden.
September – greens such as Ground Elder are now finished – no new plants springing up in shady spots, luckily the Sorrel continues to prosper so we’re using this a lot in salads and other recipes. We have courgettes! Though we are not inundated, and so far we have only spotted 3 pumpkins – not the masses we though we would be facing. September is peak apple season, so we have been picking and juicing on an almost daily basis. Apple pie abounds. I was upset that August was not hot enough to do a lot of apple drying – as our rationed supplies of dried apple always ran out before it was time to open a new jar during the winter and spring – however we’ve discovered that we can use the oven instead. I have masses of cardboard trays for eggs which I slice apple onto and then put five of these stacked up in the oven, set at it’s lowest temperature, on fan, with the door open. They take a couple of hours to dry.
October – time to get the Geraniums inside. Disappointingly, the tomatoes did not ripen before first frost, and the plants are now destroyed by the frost, though we have a fine collection of green tomatoes inside. By the end of the month we still have chickweed for salads and sorrel for a cooking green. We’re using nettle from the freezer, and the ground elder and lambsquarters are a distant memory. Even the types of mushrooms have changed – now we’re onto Hedgehogs and Winter Chanterelle with the very occasional Porchini. We’re busy bottling applesauce and juice… more on that later.
The willow we planted in the autumn did not take, but the living willow fence we put down in the spring has thrived – so at snow melt in 2011 we’ll be able to take cuttings from this to re-plant our fuel supply. As well as using the land on the other side of the lake, we’ll put a row down the very long strip of land we own down the valley – only a couple of metres wide so perfect. It would also be great to have some hazel to coppice – something to think about for the future.
One of the brilliant things about hosting volunteers here is how much they teach us. Over the summer, Rosie returned. She’s been doing all sorts of interesting things since she was here last year – including working in a free shop in Nottingham, taking over an allotment and teaching Forest Schools – where they take little ones into the woods and teach them skills as well as just how to play outside. Rosie know someone who is running an art project called Exponential Growth. This project encourages people to use a yeast culture that they grow, care for and share.
We were sent a starter culture from Loughborough in the UK which languished in the fridge for a bit while we searched for some rye flour to feed it. Luckily it was adopted by Joshua when he arrived at Nový Mlýn. Joshua has been travelling through Israel and Palestine as well as the further flung outposts of Eastern Europe and acted as our master baker while he was with us. Bread was hand made on a daily basis.
We were concerned that our pet yeast may not survive without Joshua to care for it, but we’ve discovered that we can make a daily loaf of delicious sourdough bread in the bread machine. If course, it doesn’t quite have the character of the range of loaves produced by Joshua, however it does have the advantage of at least being bread, made at home on demand and much nicer than store- bought loaves.
We keep the pet yeast in a ceramic jug with a knitted cotton cloth over the top and feed it at least every 12 hours, each time adding matching quantities of water and flour – so the end mix is 1/3 starter, 1/3 water 1/3 flour. It doesn’t seem to matter very much which flour we use as the yeast breaks it down into a smooth bubbly batter. Once the jug is full of a frothy mix, we stir it before tipping most of it into the bread machine – (4 tea cups full, if you’re counting), then add two tea cups of other flour, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil and a flat teaspoon of salt. We then set the bread machine so the loaf will be ready for us first thing in the morning (so often it has an extra 6-8 hours to sit and ruminate further).
We all miss Joshua very much, especially Bunbury, but he lives on with us in yeast form.
A few different people have commented recently about how central food seems to be to our existence at Nový Mlýn. The kitchen is the heart of the house (even though the kitchen is currently in the lounge, with no drainage or running water). As the dishes are put away after one meal, it’s about time to start preparing for the next.
We eat, on average, 3 or more times a day – the usual times plus elevensies or afternoon tea if someone decides to bake a cake, make cookies or flapjack. After some hard physical labour, food tastes particularly nice, and we deserve the extra calories! If people weren’t working hard, then they would risk gaining weight staying here.
This summer we’ve started making our own pasta, basic cheese and bread (with the help of a fantastically useful bread maker). We also incorporate wild food into every meal – nettle & lambs quarters have replaced spinach, ground elder is a tasty bulky herb and chickweed appears in all our salads. We also have Burdock root (a Japanese vegetable), wild sorrel and watercress around and about. Of course, we’ve been picking the raspberries and bilberries from the forest… and adding these to honey to make a syrup. The terrible weather in recent days has also meant that we have fantastic mushrooms right now.
This is also our first year of growing vegetables at Nový Mlýn – a crop of potatoes (complete with a colony of Colorado Potato Beetles), a forest of courgette plants – though only two actual courgettes so far, many tomato plants, peas, carrots, parsnips, rocket, essential coriander (the green seeds are lovely in salads) – however it is the edible wild greens that we’ve had the most success with – I plant peas, and lambs quarters appear…
We also now have 8 hens, who each lay on average six days out of seven. When we have more than 4 guests with us (frequently over the summer) we have to top these up with bought eggs, unfortunately, so we should maybe plan on having more hens here next year.
Finally, 2010 has been the year that we’ve started to experiment with cider making! The valley is full of apple trees, after all. Our first batch from windfalls is busily bubbling away. The neighbour didn’t seem very optimistic about our prospects, but Czechs don’t have a Cider culture – they drink either apple juice or distil it into hard alcohol. You can only buy (very expensive) cider in specialist pubs here. We eagerly anticipate the results of our experimentation.
Anyone who is renovating a large house using little more than elbow grease and some judiciously applied paint , as opposed to a Grand Designs budget… will know that for every repair made, another problem is unearthed.
Currently, my main worries are the reed bed which has bowed under the weight of it’s contents, so needs to be emptied, moved out and restructured, as well as the holes in the upstairs ceiling caused by beam which have crumbled (hence hinting at the possibility that similar damage has occurred elsewhere).
We had a very long, very cold winter – six months under snow – keeping the house warm was a major undertaking, and a problem with the mortgage means that we may not get the central heating system installed this year.
So, for balance, it’s important to take stock of the positives.
- The winter was tough but we survived it
- We have had amazing people visit us over the past 12 months, allowing us to travel without moving & meet kindred spirits from around the world
- Far more has been done than I could manage alone – wood cut, willow planted, the hen house built, furniture restored, the garden started, rubble cleared, walls painted, mosaics designed, dragons sculpted
- The house is clean and tidy most of the time (the housekeeping alone at Nový Mlýn would be a full time job for one person)
- We have eaten many delicious meals with our ever shifting house-sharers
- Mushrooms from the forest! enough said really
- The woods around the house are filled with bilberries – and we have bilberry picking tools we found in the house.
- Ariela found an amazing strawberry patch just down the road
- We went on holiday! For the last 7 years we have only gone to the Czech Republic from the UK or vice versa, so a holiday is a big deal for us. We went to the seaside for a week! And we weren’t burgled because Jaakko looked after everything for us.
- We have hens
- The garden is full of delicious greens we didn’t even plant – we just had to learn which weeds are the tasty ones
- We are living a sustainable lifestyle and sharing our experience with other people
I will keep my mind open for the 87 solutions we are seeking.
This year, with the help of Joann and our other workawayers, we have the beginnings of a vegetable garden. I planted salad ingredients such as sorrel, wild rocket and spinach, and as they began to grow discovered that we had wild sorrel in the garden already, as well as the peculiarly named leafy green Lambs Quarters which are very, very similar to baby leaf spinach in flavour and appeared everywhere in early June, just as nettle season ended. We also have abundant chickweed – which has popped up in any place where the ground has been cleared for planting, and of course, stinging nettles which we used as our spring green up until the time they started to flower, and the ground elder, which is still producing some young leaves we can use.
My acid test of any gathered food is my husband… if he is prepared to eat it then it’s fine. He would absolutely not consume something just because it was good for him.
We have many, many pea plants this year… partly because I threw onto the vegetable patch a bag of dried peas that I had soaked for sprouting. It’s ridiculous not to soak dried pulses for a day or two before you use them, and the nutritional content of a seed which is in the process of germinating is infinitely better than those long dead relatives you get in cans. However, the young leaves on garden peas, are tastier again than the sprouts, so I’m glad I had too many and had to scatter them around the place.
Chickweed is an interesting plant – it is sold as a health supplement to people who want to lose weight – and not because of it being such a tiny green plant. I’ve not read anything in the New Scientist about it, which is a shame, because my personal experience is that it does seem to help you feel full after a meal. My friend Sara says this could be because it’s so nutritious that your body isn’t looking for more vitamins and minerals – non-nutritious food starves our bodies of essentials and causes our appetites to remain unsatisfied. It would seem perverse to dry chickweed out and put it into tablets, though, when it’s so abundant and tasty thrown into a salad. Ironically, if you search for chickweed on google you get ‘how to kill chickweed’ – this terrible, invasive, nutritious & tasty salad ingredient…
And chive flowers! What a discovery. They are delicious. After you pick the whole flower head, just nip the stalk away and you will have a handful of delicate, little, blue, crunchy, chive flavoured bells to decorate your salad.
So, on to the recipe:
- 100 stems of flowering chickweed
- 100 stems of lambsquarters
- 50 sorrel leaves
- 10 chive flower heads
- dressing of your choice – half balsamic vinegar, half olive oil & a dollop of mustard, for example.
Mix and serve.
When I tell people in the Czech Republic that we don’t use stinging nettles as a vegetable in the UK – I’m met with incomprehension – “don’t nettles grow in Britain” was one response. When cooked correctly it’s almost indistinguishable from spinach in appearance, with a nice flavour, a natural organic – those stings protect it from most bugs, so pesticides are unnecessary, and zero food miles if there is any patch of unused ground close to home! However, most people in the UK have in mind an image of the deodorant eschewing as typical consumers of nettles. The nettle marketing board has a way yet to go.
You use the top couple of inches of the plant as a vegetable, so when you’re weeding next time, put this part of the plant aside for dinner, rather than on the compost heap.
Of course, you need to wear protective gloves while picking, and wash them thoroughly as they grow close to the ground. The best method for cooking I’ve found so far is to put them in a covered pan on a high heat in as much water as sticks to the leaves after washing. Within about 5 minutes (heating from cold) they will have wilted down – take them off the heat as soon as they look like cooked spinach – you don’t want to destroy nutrients by cooking longer. Use them in place of spinach in any recipe.
Sekanice is a local Easter recipe here which, according to my students, requires between 30-50% nettles. In my version of the recipe I substitute smoked tofu for bacon and soya for boiled pork – much to the chagrin of my Czech students. I have tested the recipe on non-hippie meat lovers, it didn’t last long despite the perceived weirdness of the ingredients. Traditionally Sekanice is made for the Easter weekend. You can eat it hot, straight from the oven, and then cold, cut into slices over the next few days.
Sekanice uses nettles as the green because in the old days before we had vegetables flown in from Kenya, it was the first vegetable to come up after the snow. The word Sekanice means sort of “Cut thing” – because you can harvest baby nettles using a scythe, and then you can cut the Sekanice into slices when it comes out of the oven.
Vegetarian Sekanice (pronounced Set can it say)
- 8 eggs
- 1 block of smoked tofu, chopped into small squares
- 1 pack of soya chunks – soaked for an hour in vegetable stock, then fried in a generous amount of butter or olive oil
- a handful of chopped chives
- 3 bread rolls torn into chunks
- 2-3 large handfuls of stinging nettles
Prepare the soya – once it holds the same amount of fat and salt as boiled pork, it loses it’s holier than thou taste.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees c. & grease a large ceramic baking dish (if you use oil to grease with, it’s really easy by the way).
Separate the egg yolks from the whites and mix the yolks with the bread chunks. Whip the egg whites into a frenzy (in Czech, they say whip it into snow – when the egg whites are fluffy and form peaks).
Chop the tofu, bread & chives. Combine all the ingredients apart from the egg whites, mixing well. You will need to add quite a lot of salt and pepper as tofu and soya are not salted when you purchase them, like pork and bacon are. Finally, fold in the egg whites and turn the mixture into the baking dish. Cook for 40 minutes or until the top has gone a nice baked brown.
We try to avoid buying junk food at Nový Mlýn, and instead encourage our visitors to bake when they have the urge to eat something sweet. This is a super-easy flapjack* recipe for those with absolutely no baking skill or experience – or if you want to make something really, really quickly. We use honey in preference to sugar because of food miles, and oil is easier than butter, as you don’t have to melt it first.
- Honey (a couple of hundred grams ish or 2 cups)
- Olive oil (a couple of hundred mls ish or 2 cups)
- Rolled oats (up to 500 grams or 5-6 cups)
- A hand full of dried fruit, nuts, orange or lemon peel, chopped – what ever you have in the kitchen. If you choose just two, it’ll have a clearer flavour.
(or – equal parts honey and oil, with equal parts dry to wet ingredients)
Heat the oven to 200 degrees c. and oil a metal baking sheet.
Combine the olive oil and honey in a large saucepan and warm over a medium heat. When it comes to the boil, turn off the heat and add the two or three types of flavouring ingredients – I normally stick to two so that it’s ingredient A and ingredient B flapjack – Almond and Lemon flapjack, or Walnut and Ginger flapjack etc … three flavourings becomes too much of a mouthful to say, if nothing else. Once these are mixed together, add as many rolled oats as you can – ie completely coated by the honey & oil.
Turn the mixture into the baking sheet and pack it down with the back of a wooden spoon. It needs to be an inch or 3 or 4 cms thick. Once it’s packed down, you can use a spatula to cut it into portions, then pack it down again. This’ll make getting it out much easier.
Bake in a pre-heated oven at a medium heat for 20 minutes, or until it’s a nice golden brown. Let it cool before eating.
* Traditional Flapjack is something like American Granola bars.
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