Archive for the ‘Home craft’ Category

It has been a while since I last posted here. I think that may be because the last year was one of more “doing”. As much as I love filling Green Jam Jar with inspiring and informative anecdotes about green living- and I did so religiously for several years – about 12 months ago it began to lose its sheen. Weary from long stints sitting in a mental haze in front of a screen and keyboard, I wanted to spend less time on a computer. The day job is mostly digital orientated and after well over 2 decades of staring at a brightly lit monitor, the thought of using precious down-time to blog somehow lessened its appeal. I missed hand crafting. The tactile, slow work of making. To be lost in the physical act of creating instead of drunk on pixels.

So I did lots of experimenting, mixing and fabricating. In the kitchen and the garden – in other folk’s kitchens. Sporadic Instagraming filled the gap usually reserved for blogging. On the whole I didn’t record much of my play time (in hindsight, wish I had…), it was purely about the doing. I made more soap, baked some Yellow Dock seed crackers (interesting..), concocted roasted Dandelion root and Cleaver seed coffee (very drinkable..but really what you’d call coffee). I ground my own tooth powder, made moisturiser, started painting again and learned to make sourdough bread.


It’s good to have a friend with similar interests to egg you on. Mine is motivational-maker-and-baker pal Sharon, pictured above with Joe Fitzmaurice of Riot Rye.

Over a one-day workshop with bread hero, Joe Fitzmaurice of Riot Rye, the chemical process of fermenting flour and water was demystifyed. He walked us through simple step-by-step techniques for making our own bread using a rye starter. He talked about temperature, different grains and ways to score the crust. Each of us brought a dollop of the live culture home with instructions on how to nurture it. And I have been making bread ever since.

Working from a home office allows me to frequent the kitchen at any time. On bread-making days I zip away from my desk every half hour to fold the dough as it slowly proves. The velvety feel of dough on fingers is pure contentment. Watching the sticky mass of flour, water and starter expand over the day to a smooth, pillow-like ball and anticipating it’s transformation into a radiant, crusty loaf makes the work day glide by effortlessly. Somehow the discipline of half-hourly dough folding makes me more focused in the office and I tend to get more done. The slightly sour smell of baking rye is an added comfort, along with the reward of lunch being sorted. I enjoy the balance of hands-on baking punctuated with the humdrum of head work. Most of all I love the taste of organic, wild yeasted bread fresh from the oven. You’ll have to excuse me now- I’m off to give my dough a good stretch.

Check out the Real Bread Ireland website for more info on Irish bakers and bread makers.



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Whoooosh…..And there goes another year. Three weeks ago, 2016 sauntered right in and made itself at home while my head is still entertaining 2015. Time is a strange thing. It has absolutely no regard for my preferred pace of life. Marching along steadily, refusing to wait for me as I ramble off-course. If Time were not so regimented and I not so easily distracted, we might make better friends. Meanwhile, we put up with each other’s shortcomings and carry on regardless. As with any fractious relationship, a little venting eases the irritation. And what better bugbear to start with, than this very blog.

At the beginning, Time left lots of room for blogging. But the novelty lost it’s sheen somewhat when everyday stuff demanded attention. Other activities got priority and Time refused to wait for me to catch up. Time does not tolerate excuses. He is well known for forging ahead regardless. I have noticed that the more activities I plan to cram into each day the more indifferent Time becomes. So perhaps I need to narrow my focus to only include the activities that mean the most to me and allocate a realistic amount of energy to them.

Blogging is most definitely among my favourite activities. I’ve selected a few favourite images from 2015. A look back through the year helps me mend my relationship with Time and be more forgiving. After all it has been a great year! It also helps me reflect on what activities are closest to my heart.


I love the treasures that foraging brings, the act of gathering food from the hedgerows is such a delight. Thinking up new ways to use my bounty is so much fun! Home remedies, food, cosmetics…the list is endless. I’ll never tire of learning and exploring more about the natural world and as for making things by hand- it’s the perfect antidote for someone who spends too much time pushing pixels around a screen for a living.


Our new veggie patch of raised beds was a great success this year and for a few months we just ate what came out of the garden. That gave us a great sense of satisfaction with the added bonus of great-tasting, chemical-free, fresh ingredients.

If there are any fitting subjects that you would like me to cover here on Green Jam Jar please let me know. I like to think there are folk getting something out of my monthly musings – other than the other end of therapeutic venting! (But therapeutic venting alone is good enough!)  So, with your help, and that of my old pal time, Time, let’s take Green Jam Jar into 2016!

Happy New Year to you all! Make it the year to follow your heart.

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Soap making gearGoggles- 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:

Getting ready

  1. After decking the kitchen with several layers of newspaper we read our instructions thoroughly, and once more for good luck…
  2. 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.
  3. Using a digital scales we weighed out all our ingredients, bar the caustic soda.
  4. Then we put on our protective gear (amid giggles and snorts).

The “scary” bit……

  1. Placing our small designated glass bowl on the digital scales we carefully measured the caustic soda and set it safely to one side.
  2. We placed our larger designated glass bowl on the scales and poured in the required amount of water (which was actually a herbal infusion.)
  3. 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…
  4. 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.

Blending ingredients

  1. 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 .
  2. 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….
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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!

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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.

Soap-Prep illustration


  • 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)

Protective ware

  • Rubber gloves
  • Old towels and newspapers
  • Goggles and a mask (seriously, I’m not joking)
  • 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!

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Frosty_MorningThey 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

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My small nieces love to play tag with the dog. The dog loves to be chased by two squealing six-year olds. It’s a happy relay that provides both parties with much entertainment. This morning, after several laps of the garden, all three arrived into the kitchen with food on their minds having run up a hefty appetite. Since their mum is steering clear of gluten, pancakes were the easiest and quickest way to whip up a snack for the whole family. Plus they would be great partnered with the berries I had picked earlier. I prefer to make American style pancakes – not the more traditional crepes that we used to eat as children. Today I used gluten-free flour but when little folk with suspicious taste buds aren’t about I use buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is an acquired taste, much in the way of Guinness or anchovies- either loved or hated. We belong in the first camp. As soon as the the girls had refueled on nutella and jam-smeared pancakes it was back to the garden. Meanwhile, the adults enjoyed theirs with freshly picked blackberries and honey. Delicious. My sister asked me for the recipe so here it is.

Gluten-Free Pancakes

  • 1 cup of gluten-free flour (or buckwheat of you are a lover)
  • 1 teasp baking powder (check to make sure it’s gluten free- most are)
  • 1 teasp cinnamon
  • 1 teasp sugar (or apple concentrate/rice syrup)
  • half cup water
  • half cup of milk (soya or almond can also be used. I used kefir milk)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp oil (olive or sunflower)
  • half teasp vanilla extract

First combine all the ingredients in the order they are listed. Mix well. You can leave to sit for half an hour but really it doesn’t appear to make much difference if you make your pancakes straight away. Pour a third of a cup of the mixture on an oiled, heated pan. Cook on a medium heat for about 3-4 minutes a side. Continue until mixture is gone and devour warm with chopped fruit, maple syrup, nutella ……. or whatever takes your fancy! They are just perfect for foraged hedgerow blackberries that are now coming into their prime.

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