You will find swathes of bright yellow swaying in fallow meadows and roadsides despite attempts to eradicate it completely from the land. As a child I remember scouring fields for *buachaláns. Its strong, acrid odour would fill the air as you grabbed the stalk to tug it out. A smell so potent you could almost taste the unpleasantness in your mouth. The reason for its unpopularity lies in its toxicity. In the unlikely event of cattle or horses eating the plant, given its unpalatable smell, the presence of alkaloid poisons have the potential to cause severe or fatal liver damage. It poses more of a problem when the plant is cut and dried as it still retains its toxins. Hence our annual family ragwort purge. The plant is considered such a threat to the agricultural community that it is cited as an offender in the Irish Noxious Weeds Act of 1936.
Ragwort tastes so woeful that it would never be considered as food for humans so it is not a real danger to us. Some alkaloids may be absorbed through skin contact but these are eliminated from the body without causing harm. Ragwort may however cause dermatitis or an allergic reaction to sensitive individuals.
Is it fair to portray the ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) as a demonic scourge? It is, after all, host to over 70 insect species about 30 of which feed exclusively from it. The most well-known is the Cinnabar Moth, whose larvae can safely chomp away on the leaves, unbothered by predators. The plant’s alkaloids are absorbed by the caterpillars, giving the grubs, I imagine, a particularly nasty taste. The clusters of yellow flowers that emerge in late July and August are a great source of nectar and pollen for insects while its downy seeds provide food for birds in the autumn.
The Manx people refer to ragwort as cushag and liked it enough to appoint it as the Isle of Man’s national flower. This may be down to it’s extensive medicinal use in former times. There is early documentation reporting of the use of ragwort leaves as a poultice for rheumatism, sciatica and gout and the plant has even been cited as a cure for “staggers” in horses.
It goes without saying that livestock should always be kept safe and the practice of pulling the plant from grazing pastures is sensible. A prolific seeder and hardy perennial, it is unlikely that ragwort will ever become an endangered species but consider the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) and other insect life that the plant supports. Next time you come across a **bauld buachalán enjoy the beautiful display of radiant yellow, have a scan for any stripy passengers on board and wonder at the marvel of everything having its place in this magical ecosystem we inhabit.
*buachalán buí: Irish for ragwort (probably derived from Irish word buachaill- meaning boy, while buí means yellow) **bauld: Irish slang for bold or naughty
Note: I would not recommend self-medicating with ragwort, despite the wonder-cure claims.
Posted in Nature, sustainability | Tagged Cinnabar moth, irish, Noxious weeds, yellow flowers | Leave a Comment »
I’m not one-hundred percent sure what Noyeau actually means but from mooching around blogville I’m picking up that it is a tipple with a vague association with brandy. Interestingly, the addition of a single French word always transforms the mundane into instant sophistication. So I’m sticking with it.
It’s too late in the year to make this drink as the beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves have now lost their fresh, bright green lustre. When they first emerge in spring they are beautifully soft and downy with a translucency that plays with the early May sunlight. And that is what we are looking for. I picked my leaves at the end of May and already they were beginning to take on a more robust, viridian hue. Sensing the urgency, I filled a large bag. Although it looked like a big harvest, when I packed them tightly into a Kilner jar they only half filled it. But that was fine – it seemed a bit mean to strip the tree bare. I washed the leaves before making sure to press them down into the jar with some force. Apparently that’s important. I then poured in enough gin to cover the leaves and left them to stew for four weeks.
Four weeks later I strained the gin from the leaves, squishing them to extract as much liquid as possible. The boozy leaves went on my compost heap – your compost heap is allowed to get a little tipsy once in a while. As with us- moderation is key. The gin had taken on a greeny-brown hue. I then made a syrup by boiling sugar and water. When it was cool, I added it to the gin along with the obligatory splosh of brandy and decanted the lot into a suitable bottle. And….oo la laa…. we have noyeau! Drink neat or enjoy with a mixer of choice. I’m going to sip mine, very lady-like, with tonic water… and a certain air of decadence…
As a guideline should you want to make this next spring: for every 100ml of beech leaf-infused gin you will need about 43ml water and 32g of sugar to make the syrup. I added a modest 15ml brandy per 100ml but you may prefer more.
Posted in Nature, Seasonal foods, Smallholding, Wild food | Tagged Brandy, foraging, harvesting, hedgerow, recipe | 5 Comments »
South of Curracloe beach is Culleton’s Gap where a wooded walk, teaming with all sorts of interesting flora and fauna, meanders behind the sand dunes. The sun was shining, there was a cockoo calling and a red squirrel was spotted scampering through the tree tops. A magical backdrop for our forest forage led by Mary White of Blackstairs Eco Trails. The group huddled close as Mary and her partner Robert went through the ethics of foraging for wild food. We were advised not to over indulge – to leave some for the insects and animals to feed on and enough to enable the plant to reproduce. “We take no more than a third of a particular species in a given area” Mary explained “and if it is a rare specimen, such as pig nuts, then we leave it alone altogether to give it a chance to re-establish itself”. Most importantly, “if in doubt- leave it out”. Some plants are easy to identify but others require some experience. There are several plant species with white umbel flower heads that look remarkably similar and while a lot of them are safe to ingest there are a few that are poisonous- some deadly. So bring along a good wild plant guide to help you make informed choices and if you are unsure please don’t take the risk.
With the sensible advise underway we continued on our walk. Stopping frequently to point out plants of culinary interest, Mary and Robert highlighted their individual characteristics to aid identification. They shared interesting tips and facts as well as practical recipes to try out. So engaging were our two guides that the 90 minutes flew by. I was particularly taken with a recipe for fried dandelion heads so I rushed home to scour our lawn for ingredients to make an afternoon snack. Everybody knows dandelions, or Pissy-beds as they were charmingly referred to round these parts due to their strong diuretic qualities. Also embedded in our childhood memories are the floaty seed heads which we would puff at to tell the time. But if you actually go hunting for a dandelion there are a number of yeller flowers that bear a striking resemblance to it – like Lesser Hawkbit and Sow Thistle. So here are a few tell-tale signs to make sure you’ve made the correct choice.
Apparently it’s best to harvest them at midday or when the sun is at its strongest so that the flower will have maximum sugar levels. Sun still blazing I filled my colander with the yellow heads, washed them, patted them dry and removed as much as the green calyx as I could. Then I dipped them in whisked egg and coated them in flour mixed with salt, pepper and a few herbs. I used some thyme and oregano and my flour was buckwheat but you can alter the recipe to suit what you have to hand. I fried them in olive oil and -wow! Totally delicious- we scoffed them down in the blink of an eye.
Posted in local food, Nature, Seasonal foods, Wild food | Tagged curracloe, dandelion, forage, identification, plant, recipe | 2 Comments »
Goggles- check, mask- check, rubber gloves- check…….Yes, we did look like a couple of nerds about to embark on a scientific experiment. By this stage we had our equipment to hand and our ingredients organised. Our soap saga was ready to take to the next level – the actual making of the soap. The process involves chemicals and (potentially hazardous) reactions so, as you can see, we togged out accordingly. Here’s how we proceeded:
- After decking the kitchen with several layers of newspaper we read our instructions thoroughly, and once more for good luck…
- We decided to use an infusion of herbs instead of pure water so first off, we poured boiled, filtered water over fresh herbs and and left it to cool before straining.
- Using a digital scales we weighed out all our ingredients, bar the caustic soda.
- Then we put on our protective gear (amid giggles and snorts).
The “scary” bit……
- Placing our small designated glass bowl on the digital scales we carefully measured the caustic soda and set it safely to one side.
- We placed our larger designated glass bowl on the scales and poured in the required amount of water (which was actually a herbal infusion.)
- After that we moved both vessels to the sink, close to a large open window (ventilation is important) and as one of us very carefully poured the caustic soda into the water* the other gently stirred the mixture with a hand whisk. We both held our breaths during this step to avoid inhaling any fumes. I’m pretty sure our faces went a funny colour…..*CAUTION: NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE CAUSTIC SODA – IT COULD HAVE EXPLOSIVE CONSEQUENCES…
- When all was combined we left the bowl standing in a safe position in front of the open window to cool a little while we finally gasped for air.
- The bain-marie was then brought to the boil, using a large saucepan of water and an equally large pyrex bowl, to melt the hard fats. The liquid oils were added to the melted fats/butters. This was also left to cool down a bit as the temperature of the lye and the oils must both be within a certain range- between 40°C and 50°C .
- We used one thermometer to read the temperature of both bowls making sure to wipe it well after dipping in the lye- we were still wearing our gloves and being very cautious. On reflection – 2 thermometers would be handier….
- After about 5-10 minutes we had reached the correct temperatures and it was time to carefully pour the lye into the oils. This is where the stick blender comes in, making sure to use it as low as possible in the pan to avoid any splattering.
- We blended until the mixture became the consistency of custard. What is known as “trace” occurs at this point. When you lift the switched-off blender out of the mixture and run it across the surface it should leave a line or trace for a few seconds before the surface becomes smooth again. Time to stop blending when this happens.
The final stage
- This is the time to add the smelly, scrubby elements. It’s important to work fairly quickly to avoid the mixture becoming too thick to pour. We swiftly mixed in the essential oils (and for one batch, our poppy seeds) stirring the mixture well.
- Next up, the whole lot was poured into our moulds. We had a mixture of plastic moulds. Some were specifically for soap making – one large tray for a slab-like block that would require cutting (not best choice) and another with individual sections for complete bars (good choice)- and then some small takeaway containers which had lids (perfectly adequate- lids a plus). We later made a mental note that silicon moulds would be the easiest to work with.
- The moulds were covered with cardboard (plastic lids for the takeaway boxes) and left in a warm place for 24 hours before removing them from their moulds. We cut the larger slabs of soap into bars (no need if you have dedicated moulds) and left all the soap to air. We did have some difficulty removing the large blocks from their moulds, even after 48 hours and had to cut the soap in its container first. Leaving it in the fridge for a spell can help with loosen the soap- if your container is small enough to fit. We then placed the soap bars on cooling racks in a dry dust-free spot to air for 4 weeks. The soap needs this time to cure.We’ve been using the soap for a few months now and find it lovely and creamy with a great lather. The lavender version is my favourite.
And that, is how we made our own soap! I hope I have demystified the process enough for you to give it a go. I imagine we will be making the ritual a bi-annual event so that we have enough for our familes and some for gifts. Have you made any interesting soaps? I would love to hear your recipes and stories.
Posted in Family, Green household tips, Home craft, Smallholding, Traditional crafts | Tagged diy, homemade, recipe, soap | 4 Comments »
By now you should have all the hardware and equipment to hand to make your first batch of cold-process soap. Next you need to pinpoint a recipe and source all your ingredients. There are zillions of recipe ideas to be found online but the basic elements will consist of fat, lye and some “flavour” ie. nice smelling stuff.. You may also want to add some texture that will allow for some gentle exfoliation while you wash, such as poppy seeds, oats…etc.. You can also use clays to add colour but we haven’t progressed to that level yet!
Often it is the use of lye that cause folk to shy away from making their own soap. Lye is a strong alkaline called sodium hydroxide or caustic soda (bit confusing as it has highly corrosive acid-like qualities, but that’s chemistry for you!) which is added to water. This is then combined with the oil/fat ingredients (the actual acid in the equation) to produce a chemical reaction known as saponification. And that is how a hard bar of soap is formed. Extreme caution is needed when handling and preparing the lye – protect your skin against any contact and avoid inhalation of fumes. It is worth noting that all the sodium hydroxide evaporates from your soap and will not be present in your end product- it is just needed to instigate the saponification process.
Our soaps are based on the following basic recipe with variations in the herbal tea and essential oil ingredients :
- 400gr Spring Water or Herbal Tea
- 150gr Caustic Soda
- 550gr Solid Fats: 300gr Coconut Oil, 200gr Beef Tallow, 50gr Cocoa Butter
- 500gr Liquid Oils: 250ml Olive Oil, 250gr Almond Oil
- 25ml Essential Oil
When devising your own recipes you need to work out the water/caustic soda/oils/fat ratio. Consult a Lye Calculator to get exact measurements- there are many more online to help you. Alternatively you can follow our basic recipe with some personal variations. Most recipes beyond the most basic ones call for a mixture of both oils (liquids) and fats (solids). Many oils have unique properties that when combined form a well balanced soap. This link provides information on the differing qualities of each. For instance, coconut oil makes fluffy suds and olive oil is very moisturising.
When it comes to the addition of fat there is much debate over the use, or not, of animal fat. Palm oil is commonly used as it ensures a hard, creamy soap bar. Recently, however, it has fallen out of favour due to it’s extensive, monoculture cultivation. This in turn leads to widespread deforestation of valuable rainforest and the destruction of Orangutang habitat in SE Asia. Not wanting to take any chances we opted to use animal fat. It is available locally and a by-product of the meat industry- more good reasons to use it. I assured my butcher he was doing his bit for the conservation of Orangutangs when he handed over the beef “dripping”. He still smiles nervously when I go into his shop…. Before I get too side tracked by the ethics of palm oil- I just want to add that some palm oil is actually sustainable produced and is a valuable income for small farmers in Brazil, Africa and Asia so I am not endorsing a total boycott. More of check-the-label-first tactic. It it doesn’t say sustainably produced then it probably isn’t…
Essential oils not only add gorgeous scent to your soap but have therapeutic benefits. For instance we used lavendin for it’s calming effect. It helps ease aches and pains and has a positive effect on the respiratory system. Lemon aids the removal of dead skin while eucalyptus is mildly antibacterial. We combined both with some scrubby poppy seeds for a more invigorating morning wash. You’ll find a lot of ingredients in your local health food shop. For the more specialised products there are many online providers. Have fun tailor choosing your ingredients and drop back soon for the finale….deh,deh,dehhhhhhhhhhh….Soap-making part 3 – the METHOD!
Posted in Family, Home craft, Smallholding, sustainability, Traditional crafts | Tagged animal fat, debate, homemade, lye, palm oil, soap | 8 Comments »
Last year my friend Sharon and I completed a very informative soap-making workshop run by Natasha and Martin of Sun Rose Garden. Since then we’ve been plotting a soap-making Saturday where we could make enough soap to keep us and our families squeaky clean and fragrant the whole year round. Commercial soap brands can contain nasty chemicals and additives under the guise of perfume and colorants so our homemade suds would, first and foremost, be made of natural ingredients. The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Whatever it comes in contact with is absorbed into our bloodstream and other organs so it pays to be picky. A good general rule of thumb is: don’t rub anything on your skin that you wouldn’t feel safe eating. If the list of ingredients on your shop-bought soap reads like a pharmaceutical bunfest then chances are it’s not the healthiest option for you.
First time soap-making requires much planning. There are gadgets to gather. A multitude of containers are needed. For the inexperienced it’s useful to work out a system. Sharon made a spreadsheet. I scribbled all over it. Between us it took about 3 weeks to gather enough paraphernalia and bravado to make our first batch of soap. You’ll need a free afternoon and access to a well ventilated kitchen. As you’ll be handling sodium hydroxide, aka caustic soda, you’ll need to declare your space off-limits to kiddies and pets for the few hours. Once your equipment, ingredients and head are all in place then the process moves along quite quickly. But the prep work is key. For that reason this post is dedicated to the bits and bobs you need to gather before you touch on the fun part- recipes, ingredients and the endless possibilities for smelly, scrubby or colouredy combinations.
- Moulds in which to pour your soap- the easiest ones are silicone cup cake moulds or loaf tins. Used plastic take-away containers are also fine. You can buy specific soap making moulds but hey- you’re a beginner! Save the fancy pants stuff for later.
- A glass or heavy plastic container for measuring the dry caustic soda granules
- A Bain Marie to melt the fats: A large saucepan and a pyrex bowl to fit over the top
- A glass/stainless steel bowl to mix the caustic soda and water
- A whisk to mix the caustic soda and water
- A thermometer (without plastic or aluminium fixtures)
- A digital weighing scales
- A hand blender (a cheap and cheerful one is just fine)
- A scraper (silicon or tough plastic)
- Rubber gloves
- Old towels and newspapers
- Goggles and a mask (seriously, I’m not joking)
- A Geiger counter (ok – now I’m joking…)
You have now assembled all the equipment for your first soap batch, and all the other batches from here on in. Well done! The next time will be a less stressful experience….provided you remember where you have stashed away your dedicated soap-making-equipment-box……
My next posts will cover ingredients and our actual soap-making experience. So, stay tuned!
Posted in Family, Green household tips, Home craft, Smallholding, sustainability, Traditional crafts | Tagged caustic soda, diy, equipment, homemade, molds, moulds, preparation, soap | 13 Comments »
They say it’s best to wait til after the first frost to gather haws. The cold both softens and sweetens them. Just over a week ago we had our first frost of the winter. I woke to a white blanket of ice crystals twinkling in the morning sun. Donning hat and gloves I braved the chill to gather fruit from a hawthorn tree in our boundary hedge. There is very little wild food to be found at this time of year so, if the birds haven’t already savaged them, those little red baubles are foraging gold-dust. Haws are full of vitamins and minerals and can be used to make jelly, chutney and even a kind of fruit jerky/leather. The hawthorn fruit is also a useful heart medicine, healing on both a physical and an emotional level. It is used to regulate blood pressure and, as with other members of the rose family, to mend broken hearts. Not wanting to totally strip our garden of winter nourishment for the birds I decided to pick some more haws on my usual dog-walking route. The route that I have been frequenting for many years was home to several hawthorn bushes. As luck would have it they were also still bearing berries and flanked by some flowering gorse bushes. The bright yellow blossoms caught my attention (more foraging gold-dust) so I helped myself to a handful.
After rinsing the berries I placed them in a kilner jar with about half their weight of sugar, added the gorse flowers and covered the lot in rum. I would have used brandy but for the addition of the gorse flowers. Their lovely coconutty scent would have been completely overpowered. I placed the jar on a shelf in the kitchen to be shaken daily.
A few days later, dog and me ambled down our familiar track. We rounded the corner to the spot where we had gathered our berries and blossoms only to be greeted with a bare ditch. One side of the half mile stretch had been mechanically removed of all the plant life that I had become acquainted with over the course of many years. My heart sank. I know, in time, the wild carrot, thistles, hemp-agrimony, fleabane and many, many others will return but how long will it take for the bigger shrubs and trees to become established- if they are allowed? Well, I shall certainly savour my rum, even if its flavour will be tinged with little sadness. Perhaps the hawthorn will mend that.
“Things do not change; we do” Henry David Thoreau
Posted in Home craft, local food, Nature, Seasonal foods, Wild food | Tagged change, foraging, gorse flowers, hawthorn berry rum, recipe | 4 Comments »