Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category

hands with just picked radishHow did it happen? That food grown simply and naturally, without the addition of synthetic chemicals, has become a premium commodity that so few of us can afford to buy? That it costs money for a farmer to earn the right to label his produce organic. In the name of  “progress” we allowed substances- toxic to the environment, our health and the fertility of our planet- to permeate our food sources. These pesticide and herbicide laden ingredients are processed, packaged in plastic, and placed on shelves to be bought at a low price to feed our families. How has this become the norm? Organic food should be the norm. Would it not be fairer to penalise those who are placing poisons in our food chain rather than those that farm naturally? But it’s not even a case of organic verses non. We shouldn’t be having that conversation. It’s a case of placing economic and social value on food that is ethically farmed in an organic manner by people that we know and trust.

How easily we were seduced by the convenience of large scale, internationally controlled supermarkets. Operating a system of high volume turnover and market price fixing enables them to offer flexible opening hours, low prices and a huge range of fashionably exotic foodstuffs. This universally accepted model sees Ireland import 70% of our food. Yes, that’s SEVENTY PER CENT…., while Irish food products to the value of €4…wait for it…BILLION leave the country annually. Does any of that make sense? Something tells me we need a collective slap about the face with a wet fish…

Long term, there are not many who benefit from this arrangement. We’ve got to peel back the layers and ask ourselves – who controls the market prices? How are the large pharmaceutical companies infiltrating so many aspects of our lives? The answers to these questions will invariably lead back to a small group of very wealthy people whose sole focus in life is to remain that way. Our passive shopping habits make them richer while our communities are silently robbed of their independence and natural resources. Society has been deliberately constructed to distract us from the absurdities happening beneath our noses, as zillions of us worldwide labour on the hamster wheel of modern day living. And we, my friends, are the lucky ones. There are many around the globe that are less fortunate, already stripped of their natural capital and human rights.

I don’t have the solutions but I do know that we need to start caring about how, where and by whom our food is produced. Supporting our local small growers and producers that farm in an organic manner is one of the most profound things we can do for our families, communities and the future of the planet. We are infinitely more powerful than we believe. Collectively, we can change. And you can start by signing the Irish Food Sovereignty proclamation here, and help “build a vision for a better food and agricultural system for Ireland and our world.” It’s a good place to begin.

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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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Irish_book_pile“Just… six…. weeks” Sinead whispered. Her horrified expression told of santa letters requesting all sorts of elusive items, festivity mania and the pressure to conform to the popular ideal of Christmas time. I nodded sympathetically. My hairdresser told me two days ago that she had secured her little boy’s Christmas present in June, such was the demand for the particular item. We have no santa believers in our immediate household. I’m grateful to be excused from the mad rush to hunt down the latest new-fangled, must-have, super-sonic gadget, for which the marketing industry has worked offspring into a frenzy. Our extended family has gone so far as to impose a no-present policy for the last few festive seasons. We do however break the rules a little for smaller family members that still hold faith in the industrious elves that churn out toys in the north pole.

I’m not going to go all humbug and push for pressie abstinence. I’m all for the spirit of giving but choosing items that are locally-sourced, sustainably produced and send little or no waste to landfill seems like the most sensible way to approach it. Difficult I know when little Tommy has his heart set on that plastic ride-on tractor economically produced in Asia. I always think there’s nothing like receiving or giving a good book. Even if not produced locally, a book has a long lifespan (sometimes generations) and can be passed on until it becomes tatty to the point of illegibility. At that stage it should decompose nicely. Some folk disagree with the felling of trees for the production of paper but I would argue that the paper industry has long since pulled up its socks. Forests grown for paper production are now sustainable managed. In fact the whole industry relies on continual planting and growing of trees, offsetting considerable amounts of carbon.

I love reference books. Any that cover nature, cooking, gardening, herbal remedies, foraging, design and illustration will always capture my attention. There are that many great books in my collection I would be waxing lyrical ’til the cows come home to cover all my favourites. So I have narrowed my selection here to themes covered in the blog and to books whose authors I have personally met in recent times. Here we go:


The Wildflowers of Ireland is a conveniently sized field guide to wild flowers of the Irish countryside. Written and photographed by the lovely Zoe Devlin, it’s a terrific accessory for an outdoor stroll. It’s my go-to reference for identifying unfamiliar species or confirming the lineage of those that I’m unsure about. I met Zoe on one of her amazing and informative wildflower walks.

Trevor’s Kitchen Garden is the work of multi-talented, friend and neighbour, Trevor Sargent. This detailed growing guide draws on his 30 years of organic gardening. As well as practical growing instruction Trevor shares fascinating facts and words of wisdom making it an invaluable companion for anyone who grows, or aspires to grow, their own food.

While on the subject of growing your own, I have to include Grow, Cook, Eat to my list of recommended reading. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the dynamic and inspiring Michael Kelly. Michael, founder of GIY  (Grow it yourself) has compiled oodles of seasonal recipes and interspersed them with useful tips on how to grow your own ingredients. A very attractive volume and a useful reference for tending your veg patch through out the year.


And last but not least, I’d like to give my recently acquired The Extra Virgin Kitchen a mention. Written by the effervescent Susan Jane White this book is for anyone keen to avoid wheat, dairy or refined sugar. It’s packed with super-healthy recipes that are easy to prepare and taste great. I met Susan at my local healthfood store where a delicious high-octane banana flapjack and her infectious enthusiasm for all things wholesome, won me over. Behind her entertaining, up-beat writing style are nuggets of well-researched, nutritional wisdom- invaluable for anyone who has ever struggled with food intolerances.

If you are already on the hunt for great gifts this festive season you’ll find all of the above and thousands more excellent reads at your local bookstore. It’s as good place as any to start!




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Ragwort_FlowersYou 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.

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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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Saurkraut_Homemade_LRFor a long time I’d been itching to try my hand at making sauerkraut. The commercial stuff on the supermarket shelves tastes fine but to obtain maximum health-giving probiotics, vitamins and minerals it should be fresh and unpasturised. After scrutinizing many a Youtube tutorial and reading lots on the art of fermenting vegetables I still had niggling doubts about my success rate without the proper equipment. So when we discovered an unusual-shaped jar during the big move it all started to look more feasible.

The lovely grey earthenware crock had originally been used by my Mutter-in-law’s family to preserve autumn fruit in rum to produce a potent, winter-warming tipple. Ingeniously, the lid houses an airlock “moat” that when filled with water allows air to be slowly released from the jar but at the same time preventing any air from entering it. I’d been scouring shops and markets for a saurkraut crock for years. Of course you can buy them online but delivery is precarious not to mention expensive. For me this was a gem of a find and I had every intention of giving my newly acquired friend a new lease of life.

Saurkraut_CrockMaking Saurkraut

  • Having sat unused for several decades in a dark corner our jar warranted a good scrub. Good hygiene practice is paramount anyhow to ensure that only the good bacterias are allowed to prosper.
  • Three robust heads of cabbage were retrieved from the veg patch, finely shredded and packed tightly into the jar. No need to wash the cabbage as this is where our good bacteria will come from.
  • I vigorously pounded a layer of cabbage with the end of a wooden rolling pin, added a copious sprinkling of sea salt, followed by a spattering of dried juniper berries and continued with these three steps until the jar was almost full.
  • To apply more pressure to the compacted leaves I filled a food-grade plastic bag with water and pastry weights and placed it on top of the final layer. The moat surrounding the opening of the jar was filled with water. On went the ceramic lid. The whole lot was left sitting in corner of the kitchen for a week or so until there was enough liquid extracted from the cabbage to cover the leaves entirely.
  • At this stage I removed the bag altogether and replaced the lid. We kept an eye on the water level in the lid making sure it was not allowed to evaporate completely. It gurgled and popped sporadically as air was released – perfectly natural.
  • Six weeks later, after a taste test confirmed it was time, we decanted the cabbage into sterilised jars. I filled four large screw-top glass jars, placing cling film between the metal lid and the jar to prevent and any corrosion from the lactic acid produced during fermentation. They were stored in the fridge. Though not for long as we are already down to our last jar.

The taste is sublime. Slight crunch still in the leaves with a beautiful sour taste, unlike anything I’ve previously tasted. Without a doubt it is worth the effort. Now, I’m off to plant some cabbage seeds for next years batch!

You don’t need a specific airlock type ceramic pot to make saurkraut at home. You can use a normal crock or a mason jar.

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