Monday, August 27, 2012

Sun Safe

In my lifetime we’ve gone from a tan being the ultimate goal of every summer holiday, and a sign of health and beauty, to having a suspicious love/hate relationship with the sun. Yes we love sunny days, yes we need sun to make the plants grow, but let’s keep it off our skin in case it gives us skin cancer, let’s slather ourselves with strong chemical sun-screens at all times before going outside, let’s protect our eyes with wrap-around sunglasses.

It seems that this devotion to sunscreen has back-fired. Current research suggests that incidences of skin cancer have increased since the general white population took to using sunscreen from the mid 70s onwards. Not only that but some kids are so well protected from the sun that they are suffering from vitamin D deficiency. We need the UV rays in the sun to help our bodies make its own vitamin D. Apparently we also need to absorb full spectrum daylight through our eyes for good health. So sunglasses and filtered prescription sunglasses are having a negative effect.

Living in sunny South Africa we have always been dutifully on the sunscreen bandwagon. Our kids have fair skin, summers here are hot and burny. We’d be bad parents if we didn’t surely? This article has me thinking seriously about re-defining our sun strategies. Perhaps we should reserve the use of sunscreen just for days at the beach rather than for every day going to school? And I should definitely look for a physical sun block instead of a chemical sunscreen. And a new face cream for myself without the chemical SPF ingredients. If you’re interested go and read the article – I’m not going to try and summarize it here, as there’s a lot of information and long scientific names for me to get wrong!

Another article on our need for full spectrum sunlight has me taking off my glasses to go and sit outside in the winter sun for a while, baring my arms to soak up a little vitamin D. This second article on the work of John Nash Ott is based on anecdotal evidence due to the impossibility of getting funding for a controlled scientific study, who’s going to fund a study proving that you can get healthier from free sunlight after all? But it makes sense to me. There are many examples of cancers that slowed their growth or healed once the patient was regularly exposed to full spectrum sunlight.

I guess what it all comes down to is getting some fresh air every day outside in the sunshine, being sensible about how long you stay in the sun and not messing around with artificial chemicals, UV filters and all the rest. Chucking the kids off the computers to go and play outside and build up a natural tan gradually, going for a walk instead of switching on the television... all those usual healthy common sense things, that our parents urged on us when we were kids, and not a quick fix pill in sight.

Are you a sun lover or a shade seeker? Do you use sunscreen all the time or just occasionally?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Marmalade Making

When winter is more than half way through and you reach for the last jar of marmalade on a nearly empty shelf in the larder, you know exactly what you will be doing next weekend. At least I do.

Life without marmalade is unthinkable, even if no-one else in the house eats it. A piece of lightly singed toast, butter melting into it and spread with chunky, tangy marmalade is one of the perks of a dull winter morning. The sunshine lingers in the citrus peel, I’m convinced of it.

So the last three Saturdays have been marmalade making days. A last minute panic at the end of the orange season, while we can still buy bags of oranges cheaply and limes are still sometimes available. Eek... August already and usually I start making in June, where did the year go?  One batch isn’t going to last me out the year, two batches might just, three batches allow for judicious gifts to fellow marmalade lovers. If I do a fourth I might even have enough to sell at the market.

I use my mother’s three fruit marmalade recipe and combine eating oranges (we can’t get Seville oranges here), grapefruit and lemons, usually adding limes or naartjies too. So far this year each batch has had its own distinct character. There’s the batch where I had some rather old, hard limes that I squeezed the juice of but didn’t add the peel; the one where I had no limes at all and put in a naartjie (tangerine) instead for an added fragrant note, forgot about the pot on the stove and just made it in time to prevent it from a repeat of last year’s burnt pot disaster; than then the last one where I finally did have fresh limes and got exactly my favourite balance of sharpness and sweetness.

I frequently forget to label them before putting them up on the shelf, so later in the year it’s a lucky dip when I grab a jar and never know which one I’m going to get. Not quite the way to go for serious product development, but as I’m the main customer I forgive myself in advance!

I’ve finally got the perfect tool for cutting up citrus fruit. At the Food Bloggers Indaba we were all generously given this ultra sharp serrated Wusthof knife by Yuppiechef who sponsored the event. It has made slicing and shredding almost effortless, whereas my hand used to ache afterwards – I now realise the difference between a truly sharp kitchen knife and a dull old one. I’m just wondering how long it will stay sharp after slicing mountains of acidic fruit for several batches of marmalade... and is there any way of sharpening a serrated knife like this? Anyone know?

It seems like every year has to have its marmalade post, just as it has to have its daisy post. Here is the one from 2010 where the marmalade recipe competes with the world cup and the blasts of vuvuzelas for attention. And this 2011 post has sun-drenched pictures of the finished jars of marmalade.

Are you a marmalade devotee or do you loathe the stuff?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Spring Flowers, Winter Snows

It’s that time when winter and spring are fighting it out again. Spring sends sunshine to lure out the daisies, so that they carpet the ground in snowdrifts, dazzling to the eye.

Winter sends rainstorms that drum on the tin roof and close up the daisies for days on end. Winter leaves blankets of snow on distant mountains that spring lights up with sunshine as a fitting background for the dazzle of daisies.

Snow on the distant mountains, sunshine opening up the daisies

What distant mountains, rain driving across, daisies tight closed

A hare lolloping through the daisies

We peel off our layers in spring’s warm embrace, wander among the flowers and make daisy chains.

Only to retreat under five layers of clothes and blankets onto the sofa when winter once more gains the upper hand.

Log fires and soups one day, salads and sandwiches eaten on the stoep in the sun another, or often both on the same day.

While the rest of the country was covered in unexpected snow, we  just got rain, which peeled away to reveal snow on the mountains, but none right here, right now.

Our kids would happily exchange the daisy carpet for one of snow, just to experience it once. I prefer the daisies. But then I grew up in England and know the cold of snow-drenched toes, the thrill of sliding down a snowy slope on a sack, the joy of being snowed in and unable to go to school.

Today winter is winning, it rained all night. But spring knows that it only has to be patient. A few more weeks and winter will be a distant memory, while spring unfurls its most colourful flowers, blows hot and cold on us, brings out the miggies and horseflies just to make sure we don’t get too complacent in the midst of all that beauty.

Soon the yellow and pink daisies will join the carpet, the dazzling white will turn to gold, but somehow I have a sneaking fondness for those first hard won days of spring, with snow on the mountains and snowdrifts of daisies cheering on each day of sunshine.

Jewels of colour in the middle of all that white 

Last year's flowers were also stunning. Here are two posts if you want more flowery beauty!
Dawdling through the Daisies
Spring Flowers and Sunshine

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cauliflowers At the Market And A Soup Recipe

We’ve had a break from our monthly market stall this winter, enjoying Camphill market from the other side of the table, free to wander and sample and chat.

Last Sunday we were back sharing a stall with our friends despite the showery forecast. The kids and I got up at seven and they all set to baking, with me as the supervising chef and washer-upper. Once the crunchies (baked by my son this month), the iced biscuits (Middle Daughter) and crustless milk tart (Youngest) were baked and packed, we headed off to our neighbour a few farms away to pick up some of her veggies.

She grows beautiful pesticide-free cauliflowers and broccoli in the winter, to keep her out of mischief, she says, while her bee-keeping business is quiet. She had far more than she could cope with the previous week and gave us a whole crate of them. I suggested selling them at Camphill Market and offered to take some down to sell on our stall.

It proved the ideal product on a winter market day. The forecast had kept away the casual visitors, those who come for a lovely day out in the country with their kids, as long as the sun is shining. The regulars all come along anyway, armed with their baskets and cloth shopping bags, to garner all the organic and home-grown produce on offer that month. Camphill grow their own produce to sell, but there is always demand for more, and luckily they were selling leeks, chard, kale, onions and herbs, but no broccoli or cauliflower this month, so ours started selling like hot cakes. By 11.30 I was messaging our neighbour to see if she could bring another crate along.

They were so freshly picked that a passing cabbage white butterfly was most impressed by their quality and hung out with us for a while.

The sun came out, only dimmed by an occasional shower, and all the stalls were under cover this month just in case, so we weathered the sprinklings of rain with no problem.

The kids all disappeared off with their friends to feed the donkeys, look after the lambs, pay for a pony ride (despite the fact they have riding lessons they are still happy to pay their own money to be led around the road on a pony), leaving the two adults to take care of the stall and selling their baked goods for them.

Unfortunately those didn’t sell like hot cakes this time. Perhaps it was because of the weather, fewer kids to beg for pretty iced biscuits, less dallying and more purposeful shopping by the regulars, but we ended up taking home about half our stock of crunchies and biscuits. They didn’t last long once we got home though as we sat around the table and demolished them over a cup of tea or two.

Our neighbour gave me the few remaining cauliflowers after the market, delighted with the sales of all the rest, so I decided to make soup to keep us warm for the next couple of days. Two of my kids loathe cauliflower so it was a bit of a gamble expecting them to eat soup made with it, but I managed to come up with something that they could choke down with the addition of some melting grated cheese. The flavour is mild, almost bland, with a just a hint of cauliflower nuttiness to it and a dash of chilli heat to liven it up. We enjoyed it with cheese and spring onions stirred in, which lifted it to another level.

Cauliflower soup recipe
1 large onion
1 head of cauliflower
1 clove garlic
25g butter or olive oil
1 bay leaf
Fresh thyme
1 litre stock
Dash of Tabasco sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper

Roughly chop the onion. Break the cauliflower up into florets. Chop the garlic.
Sweat the onion and garlic in the butter until it softens.
Add the cauliflower and herbs and season with salt and pepper. Stir it all together.
Cook for another few minutes.
Add the stock.
Simmer together until the vegetables are soft.
Remove the bay leaf and any herb twigs.
Whizz the soup either with a hand-held blender or in a food processor.
Taste and add Tabasco sauce if you like it. Check for seasoning.
Serve with grated cheese and chunks of fresh bread.

Camphill market is on the first Sunday of every month 11am-4pm

Edited to add: I made this soup again last night using coconut oil, which added a welcome extra flavour to the mix. Perhaps it took over a bit from the cauliflower but it's a nice change.. if you like coconut!

Friday, August 03, 2012

Living in a Plastic Age

Our over-flowing recycling sack
Plastics have been the focus of a lot of my green living reading this week. It started out with discovering My Plastic Free Life – Beth was inspired to see if she could live without buying/consuming any plastics for a year and has been living more or less plastic free ever since.

After reading I was alternately inspired and dismayed all over again at the sheer amounts of plastic in our everyday life. However green we try to be, however much we recycle, there is still  plastic making its way into landfills, or worse into our oceans.

So shopping was accompanied by a guilt trip. Could the fact that we still buy black bin bags, be offset against the choice of bags made of 100% recycled plastic? How to acquire pasta or rice without those non-recyclable crinkly plastic bags? Our local town doesn’t offer the convenient bulk buying stores that seem to be a feature of some Canadian and US cities (going by the blogs I’ve been reading) where you can fill up your own re-used glass containers.  And horrors when the fresh bunches of carrots that used to be just tied up with string have now been promoted to a plastic sleeve... (we're still waiting for several rows of carrots to produce in the veggie garden and some dear, cuddly creature is nibbling the tops).

Fast forward to yesterday, when a lovely prize I’d won in the Tangled Tree Treasures competition finally arrived. They are a new range of wines from the Van Loveren estate near Robertson, promoting green living, bio-diversity and ethical choices. The box contained sample bottles of the five wines in their range, named enticingly and with pretty labels... and bottled in plastic?!

A quick look at their site and at a few other internet forums showed an alternative perspective on green packaging thinking: PET plastic can actually have a much lighter carbon footprint than glass. I found several arguments both for and against this view. The most balanced one was an opinion piece stating both pros and cons and didn’t get all hot under the collar about it - this I think is the one I’ll go with for now.

Basically the view is this:

  • PET uses a whole lot less resources and energy to produce than glass.
  • PET is much lighter than glass and takes up less space, therefore it uses less fuel to ship.
  • PET is much sturdier, therefore less breakage and less wastage.
  • PET can now be recycled over and over again without losing its integrity, just as glass can.
  • PET doesn’t have several of the ooh nasties such as BPA and phthalates that make a lot of plastics a bad choice for food products.

I resisted this a little to start with. I like glass – it feels better than plastic, worthier, greener, more real. Plastics are the big baddies of the eco-system, cluttering up our oceans and killing our marine life.

Common sense eventually makes me re-consider and admit that there is room for wines bottled in plastic, especially if they are being exported around the world, and as long as the bottles will eventually be recycled.

Glass is still going to be the best option: if it can be re-used multiple times before being recycled; if the product is distributed close to where it originates, so not too much transport is involved. Think jars of yoghurt from your local dairy that can be returned again and again.

I guess the crux of the matter lies in responsible recycling. If we could guarantee that all those plastic bottle would make it into a recycling program and be turned back into bottles again indefinitely, it wouldn’t be so bad. And if glass could be re-used indefinitely that would also be a winning solution. So in the end it comes down to our behaviour... and what a challenge that is.

Please feel free to shout at me politely tell me I’m mistaken in the comments, if you have a better understanding of this complex subject. I’m off to finish that first delicious bottle of Tangled Tree Spicy Shiraz (I’ll write more about the wines themselves once I’ve savoured all five of them), before tossing the plastic bottle in the recycling bin.

I’ll leave you with Beth’s in depth research into Pepsi’s much touted PET drinks bottle, released last year, made from plant based plastic.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Bowl of Hyacinths

Secretive bowls of earth snugly tucked up in soft green moss, just the smallest hint of a stubby shoot peeking out at gloomy winter days; a bowl of hyacinths was a standard feature in my grandmother’s sitting room in the darkest December months. There would be a log fire in the grate, dim afternoon light barely making an impression through the small window panes, tea in cups and saucers and best behaviour.

We often had a bowl of the bulbs at home too – they were great as gifts for children to give their mums or grannies for Christmas. The bulbs would gradually send up fat snouts, growing into glossy leaves hiding the beginnings of a flower. We’d peek in to try and see if it would be pink, blue or white. Then one day it would start to open and wafts of fragrance would fill the room.

I’d almost forgotten about bowls of hyacinths until my sister-in-law made herself one this year. For some reason I’d thought that South Africa didn’t have them – our winter months are so much less dark and gloomy than England’s and it’s not Christmas, something I’d always associated with hyacinths. I went into raptures as the nostalgic scent transported me back thirty years, and when we got back from holiday I found that we now had our own bowl of bulbs, thanks to my lovely SIL.

The first two flowers are now open already. Do they grow more rapidly here, or is the remembered slow progress and weeks of anticipation just a feature of time passing more slowly when you’re a child? Anyway the first two flowers are white ones and as fragrant as I remembered. In our huge living room the scent isn’t overwhelming, coming in wafts as you pass the table. The house has never smelled so sweet before! This is definitely a new winter tradition to keep alive in our family.

I've also written about hyacinths over at Green Living Tips as a natural alternative to air fresheners.