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Rita-Wild-Illust_2017-05_WEBRita Wild stresses that she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a capitalist. Shaped by several decades working in the community sector, Rita has long been an advocate for social change. Recognising economic viability, however, as a major key to sustainability has led Rita down a more entrepreneurial path. When Rita, a former vegetarian, began eating meat again she found it difficult to source affordable, organic produce in Northern Ireland. That’s when the idea for the organic box scheme, BOXA, began to form. It wasn’t an immediate transition and a lot of soul searching went into the best format to adopt for the business. One thing Rita was certain of – she would run it as a “benevolent dictatorship”. Many years of serving her fellow citizens through committee consensus convinced Rita that her new venture would best perform with an individual at the helm.

Rita has been delivering organic and ethically-reared beef, wild venison, lamb, chicken, pork and fish directly from producer to plate now for five years. By bulk buying and eliminating the middleman it means the farmer or fisherman earns a fair price while the consumer pays competitive rates for food that is local, traceable, and of the highest standard. Flying in the face of conventional business, BOXA has minimal overheads. No fancy website (a facebook page does very nicely thank-you), no admin or marketing costs, no branding or packaging, just a simple monthly email to the 400-plus customers, outlining what’s on offer. This ensures that the organic produce is reasonable priced and more accessible than its supermarket counterparts.

The enterprise started cautiously. With a side of organic beef in hand Rita picked up the phone and found 10 people willing to share it. It is with the same personal engagement that Rita runs her business today, earning her a great deal of trust from both producers and buyers. The meat is flash frozen in large family packs, insulated with sheep’s wool and delivered to a single collection point for pick-up. “potential BOXA customers must be prepared to change their eating and buying habits. It is not like going to the butcher to buy a single lamb chop. You have to take it as it comes. We’re talking, for instance, half a lamb. There is no convenient solution.”

Her buyers travel on a given day each month to collect their BOXA goodies from Ballylagon Organic Farm, located 20 minutes outside Belfast. Up to now payment was only made on collection and Rita has rarely been let down by a non-showing customer- testimony to the success of her hands-on customer relations. The option to pre-pay online has since become available. The price of a box of meat has been sensibly calculated by totting up the precise cost of rearing, caring for and slaughtering the animal and then adding a fair mark-up for the farmer to cover their labour, time and investment. Rita then charges 10% commission to the producer and 10% handling fee to the buyer. No hidden costs.

It’s all about making organic food mainstream. It’s also about keeping food local, accessible and simple. Farmed as it was in our grandparents’ day without the intervention of chemicals. We need more inspirational food rebels like Rita Wild to fight the system, question bureaucracy and remind us what real food tastes like.

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Karen-Nolan_Food-Producer-farmerHave you ever stared at a plastic-wrapped chicken in your local supermarket wondering what exactly “farm-fresh” means? Two words, selected to conjure up images of a healthy, outdoor environment. They may even be accompanied by a charming illustration of rural idyll. Together they imply traditional farming methods and salt-of-the-earth values of a farmer concerned for the welfare of his livestock and the quality of his produce. That may very well be the case, but placing “farm fresh” on the label does not guarantee that its contents ever had access to the great outdoors or even a particularly pleasant existence.

The chicken did originate from some class of a farm and there is no denying its freshness, but that is not telling us the whole story. Was it free to roam outdoors and scratch the earth as is its natural disposition? Not likely if the label does’t read “free-range”. Was the bird raised in the stated country of origin or was it just just packed there? Is it possible that it was fed hormones, antibiotics or GMO grain? Without organic certification who can tell. While consumers are not openly lied to, larger brands tend to gloss over the cold, hard facts of how our food has been treated before it hits the supermarket shelves. The unbridled truth may not make for easy digestion and many people prefer not to ask too many questions.

There is, however, a portion of the population who like to buy food from producers that they know and trust. They are happier in the knowledge that the food they eat that has been reared or grown as close to home as possible. Food that is in season and without chemicals. Some folk want less packaging going to landfill, fewer air-miles to feel guilty about and to be assured that everyone involved is treated fairly.

Farmers’ markets are a great way to connect with food producers in your area. You get to chat with them face-to-face and find out how they farm. If you don’t have a market nearby, your local authority might be persuaded to provide support in setting one up. A good way to dip your toes into a communal enterprise is to start a food buying group with your friends and neighbours. Placing a large order allows the group access to quality produce at a fair price, direct from source, which as individuals would be impossible. According to Suma, UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler/distributor: “Buying Groups vary from individuals to groups of friends, neighbours, relatives, or large-scale community-based projects, ……Buying in bulk can help to reduce your carbon footprint, minimise the amount of packaging you use, and save you money on your shopping.”
Community supported agriculture is where like-minded people come together to employ farmers and growers to produce enough food for the collective. It may be in the form of a club with a subscription, which in turn entitles its members to a weekly/monthly supply of vegetables, cereals, dairy or meat products. It provides a secure market for the farmer and direct access to local, fresh, seasonal food for the community.

The Food Assembly is a technology-assisted method of managing a food club. It is rapidly gaining popularity in the UK but can be applied to any geographic area. The website gives information on how to form a club with the added benefit of an online shop where members can order their weekly shop and pay upfront. The Food Assembly system requires each club to have a “host”. The host deals with the processing of the orders and the organising of a local delivery/ pick-up point. Both the host and the Food Assembly take a small percentage allowing food producers to earn over 80% of the price they set. Far more lucrative than dealing with supermarkets. Food Assembly Producers also know how much to harvest each week for orders, which means there’s no food waste.

So let’s get to know our local producers. Help them earn a fair living for their hard work and we get to eat healthier food, boost local employment and circulate money around our communities. Definitely food for thought….

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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.

Foraging-making-exploring

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.
Gardening

 

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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BeechLeafNoyeau_SMI’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.

 

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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.

Soap_recipe-packaging
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

Containers

  • 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

Gadgets

  • 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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