Minted Eggs in Waterglass….

I should say for starters, we didn’t intend to have mint-scented (or flavoured?) eggs in waterglass!

I ordered a litre of waterglass (sodium silicate solution) which arrived yesterday, so I diluted it out to 1 in 10 and we cheerfully lowered 3 and a half dozen eggs into the stuff. Now waterglass is an old egg-preservative – my grandmother used it through the Second World War to keep eggs from her flock through the winter – and my mother remembers using it when she was a small child, so we were (and are) pretty confident about it.

At least, we were until my daughter called me in from the garden to ask if (a) I could guarantee that sodium silicate solution wasn’t toxic (which I wasn’t prepared to say – I mean, it’s fine on the outside of an eggshell but I certainly plan on washing the eggs before we use them and I wouldn’t drink the stuff!) and (b) if I could tell her what might happen if she happened to have dropped lumps of sugar into it. (I had, and still have, no idea – but it hasn’t frothed, changed colour or exploded yet, anyway….!)

It turned out she’d opened the cupboard above the crock of eggs and accidentally tipped the contents of a packet of Kendal mint cake into the crock. It dissolved quite quickly – I caught a glimpse of greyish mush at the bottom of the crock when I looked in, but it was gone within a couple more minutes. Apart from a strong smell of mint, the whole thing looks unchanged.

In due course I will find out if the smell of mint has penetrated into the stored eggs, though hopefully the couple of hours of un-minty soaking that they’d had before the accident would have given the solution a good chance of sealing up the pores in the eggshells (which is how waterglass preserves things – by preventing any oxygen getting in through the shell) and by the time we get to eating the eggs, the smell will have dissipated.

Oh well. The crock has a plate sitting on top of it now and I’m in the process of making a new lid for it. Nothing like shutting the door after the horse has bolted!

On the rabbit side, one of my old pet bunnies, Biscuit, died yesterday. As a neutered and elderly male rabbit, he wasn’t part of the prepping side of things, just an old friend and ex-houserabbit, but it does mean his cagemate and pal of the past seven years is all by herself. She’s also neutered and very friendly, so I’ve given her the run of the shed by day so she doesn’t get lonely. She’s mostly been snuggling up against Tigger’s cage, though apparently she’s taken against Delilah and doesn’t think much either way of the babies within sight. Today she passed the time by chewing through the string that held up Tigger’s and Delilah’s water bottles so she’s back in her cage and I’ll fix up wire bottle holders for them both in the morning.

Jezebel’s litter is still growing well and she’s ravenous every time I look at her. I did count nine in the nest yesterday and there were still a few possible wriggles in the fur out of sight, so she’s good reason to be hungry! I’ve stepped up her concentrates and she gets as much greenery and hay as she can eat – she’s doing a grand job of covering the nest up every night and uncovering it every morning in this hot weather we’re having at the moment, and eating for nearly a dozen can’t be much fun but I’m very impressed with her mothering ability raising that many so well!

I had a bit of a windfall tax rebate earlier this week so I’ve decided to invest in a vacuum sealer. We’ve also ordered a new, much bigger chest freezer so this next week should be very satisfying in terms of new and improved food storage abilities!


Pickled Shallots and More Rabbits.

I meant to post an update on the shallots on Sunday after I’d pickled them but life overtook me and the day turned unexpectedly busy, so it’s here now instead.

shallots skinned and back in brine

shallots skinned and back in brine

The shallots were drained of brine on Saturday morning, skinned, then submerged in a fresh brine solution.

Shallots weighed down with a plate to keep them submerged in brine

Shallots weighed down with a plate to keep them submerged in brine

On Sunday morning, the brine was drained off, the shallots were packed into Kilner jars, with the overflow from my 2 big 1.5L jars going into an old pickled-onion jar, and then the jars were filled up with fresh pickling vinegar.

Pickled shallots - the final stage!

Pickled shallots – the final stage!

They’re now in the cupboard, maturing, and should be ready to eat in 3 months or so. If you’re wondering about the different colours of the jars, the two big ones are filled with white vinegar and the middle one is in malt vinegar – it’ll be interesting to taste the difference in due course.

Another kg of peas came home this morning, were podded and are now in the freezer, so that’s good. The courgettes are in flower with baby courgettes just starting to swell nicely, so we’re looking forward to those soon, too.

Also on the preserving front, I’ve ordered some sodium silicate and when it arrives, we’ll be diluting it in water to make waterglass, in which we intend to preserve some eggs before the hens go off their lay for the autumn moult and then their winter rest. We could run an electric light to their house to keep them laying but we rather feel that, given how hard they work the rest of the year, they’re entitled to a rest for a month or two in the winter, so we prefer to let them go off lay for the winter. They’ll come back into lay in the spring again, but that gives us a gap in egg production. My grandmother used to preserve eggs in waterglass (sodium silicate solution) during WWII, so my mother suggested that we go back to this tried and trusted method of her childhood to add to the pickled, dried and frozen eggs we already have in the stores.

I went into the rabbit shed late last night, while the dogs were having their last-thing-before-bed potter around their run, and Jezebel was bustling about her cage with mouthuls of fur, so I wasn’t surprised to see a nice, tidy little nest full of wriggling babies this morning. I haven’t counted thoroughly but a brief glance over the surface of the heap suggests she had at least 8, which is a very good first litter, and right on the dot of schedule, too. Jezebel looks quite confident about what to do so I gave her a sow-thistle as a reward and left her to it.


2014 Shallot Harvest

We’ve finished lifting the shallots and weighed them now, so I can record the final figures for the crop.

Here’s the large armful this evening as I was stacking them up to start processing them:

2014 shallot harvest, stacked on the freezer.

2014 shallot harvest, stacked on the freezer.

Once topped and tailed, we weighed them as we dropped them into a preserving pan: 2,740g or just over 6lbs. They’re still in their skins at the moment – they’ll be skinned tomorrow morning, after a night in brine.

In the pan, ready to brine.

In the pan, ready to brine.

The brine we’re using is 2 oz salt in 1 pint water per 1 lb of shallots, which is a pretty standard brining strength for pickles. Having stirred the salt into the water until it dissolved, we poured it over the shallots, just floating them, and then put a plate on top to hold the shallots under the surface for the night.

Expect a brief update tomorrow when they’ve been skinned and put back into brine for another 24 hours!

Also today we’ve frozen our first peas from this year – up to today we haven’t picked enough at a time to freeze, just enough for immediate eating, but today we brought home enough to freeze a couple of servings (family-size servings) and we’ve also frozen a couple of servings of cauliflower from the garden. There will be another heavy picking of peas in a day or two, and there are another 3 or 4 cauliflowers coming ready so they’ll go in the freezer, too.

All good!

Mid-July: another update

The harvesting is coming along steadily and we’re regularly eating our own potatoes, peas, beetroot, radish, onions, shallots, spinach and kale at the moment, so I thought it might be a good moment to pause and round-up how the first half of the growing year is getting along.

The onions have been superb, with some of the red and most of the white still to lift on the allotment and all the whites at home now lifted. The bulbs are as good as any in the shops (and much fresher, of course!) The shallots are now all lifted and I’ll weigh them tomorrow after I trim them and just before I put them into brine ready to pickle. We’ve lifted a moderate potato crop so far – 1.5kg of first earlies and 2.35kg of second earlies (half the 2nd earlies still to come) but considering they’ve had poor soil, no earthing up, no additional feeding and got frost-nipped early in the year, I think they’ve struggled through gamely! They certainly taste delightful.

Beetroot are only just coming ready to harvest and we’ll probably eat them as fast as we harvest them, because we never plant enough and we love them!

The peas have now reached the stage where we’re podding the dwarf earlies, having enjoyed them as mange-tout up to now, and the maincrop Lord Leceister peas are looking very promising, though not quite ready to pick yet. Another week or two should see us filling up the freezer with peas, not just filling up our plates!

The runner beans are looking very disappointing – peely-wally, as the local idiom has it; pale and feeble. The brassicas seem to be surviving, though we have fought a battle of catch-up with netting and the local birds over the past week!

On the subject of freezers, we’ve just got round to clearing enough space in one of our sheds to put in a big chest freezer. At the moment we run three small freezers in the house, which is about the least efficient way to run a freezer! One of them is a real PITA, being a front-opening affair with drawers, so every time the door’s opened all the cold air falls on your feet and the freezer has to start chilling all over again. It ices up at the drop of a hat and the shelves use up a lot of space, reducing the storage capacity. Freezers are most efficient when they’re full and when they’re kept in a cool place, because then they have less work to do chilling their contents down to temperature properly, so one big one out in the shed will store a lot more produce, more efficiently and for less power used, so cheaper into the bargain.

On the rabbit front, Trudy’s litter are still growing nicely and devouring their own weight in fresh grass and weeds every day, Jezebel has nested in her nestbox ready to kindle (she’s due on Sunday) and both Delilah’s mating with Samson and Trudy’s mating with Tigger seem to have taken, so they’re be two litters due in August. It’ll be nice to prove Tigger’s fertility, too – Samson’s is already proven, as those 6 little devils of Trudy’s show!

A Different Sort of Food Security!

Someone may have spilled the beans to the baby rabbits that they’re destined for the freezer….

I went into the bunny shed yesterday morning and was faced with a locked door mystery; all cages correctly fastened up but two innocent-looking fluffy little bunnies in the middle of the floor. Investigation showed that I had one escapee from each of the cages of babies.

Now, this mystery didn’t puzzle me for more than a couple of minutes becuse I’m fairly familiar with what passes for a thought-process in a rabbit. The little darlings had eaten all the hay in their racks, climbed into the racks and straight out through the top, then fallen onto the floor. Fortunately rabbits bounce quite well and can jump many times their own height quite safely, both up and down. It’s still not desirable, of course!

The hay-racks on most of the cages are constructed by taking a rectangle of chicken wire and fastening it on the inside of the weld-mesh doors, which even a Houdini-rabbit can’t escape through. On the three older cages, though, they’re made from ice-cream cartons wired onto the outside of the doors and with a slot cut in the top so I can stuff hay in. A slot cut through the weld-mesh at the bottom of the door allows the inhabitants to reach in and pull hay out from the rack.

The ice-cream carton hayrack from the outside - cheap and easy feeding strategy.

The ice-cream carton hayrack from the outside – cheap and easy feeding strategy.

When I put these together, I had slightly bigger bunnies in the cages and there was no way they could slither through a gap in the wire a mere inch and a half tall. Baby rabbits, on the other hand, can wriggle through crevices like furry toothpaste.

View from inside the cage door - slot cut in wire to allow rabbit to pull hay through

View from inside the cage door – slot cut in wire to allow rabbit to pull hay through

I restored the babies to their cages and stuffed the hay-racks full again, then went away to ponder the problem.

I was still pondering when I went out last thing to top up food, check water and generally make sure everyone was safely in bed. This time there were four of the little beggars scampering about the floor! All of the lower cage plus one from the upper cage. After some scampering of my own and with the assistance of my daughter (she only came to spectate but got roped in!), I recaptured them and put them back in the cages again.

Some ferretting about in the various piles of wood off-cuts (you never know when something may come in handy!) produced two small pieces of 2×4 timber, each just the right size to slip into the top of a hay-rack on top of the hay. As the bunnies eat the hay from the bottom of the rack, they move downwards and end up blocking (hopefully!) the slot the escapees have been using for their break-outs.

The quick and easy gravity-powered fix to a problem...

The quick and easy gravity-powered fix to a problem…

This morning all rabbits were still safely in the proper cages, so I think it worked. I just have to wait and see what the Escape Committee comes up with next….

El Nino, Drought and the Price of Wheat…

I was browsing gently round the web last night and checked on a few El Nino sites to see how that fickle piece of climatic whimsy is getting along this year. I mentioned in a previous post that this year looked like it might produce an El Nino event and the forecast probability remains high (about 70%) but the predicted strength of the El Nino seems to have been downgraded to moderate/mild.

Good news for India and Australia, where the monsoon fails and temperatures rise during El Nino events, but bad news for California’s long-running and now extreme drought!

Of course California isn’t the only part of the States affected by long-term and serious drought; a glance at the US Drought Monitor site clearly shows how much of the US is now in extreme and long-term drought – practically all the south and west of the country, with dust storms reported in Nevada and Oklahoma, amongst other places.

Quite a few years ago, I read Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees and was impressed by his account of the history of megadroughts in the American south-west; further reading and research confirmed for me that the geological history of much of the prairie lands of the US is indeed of a land that was, fairly recently, sand-dune desert – and those light, sandy soils are only tenuously held static by vegetation at the moment. These are the easily-eroded soils that are the parents of the dust-storms we’re seeing at the moment – reminescent of the infamous Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s and certainly worrying some residents of the affected areas! – but they’re also usually part of the agricultural heartlands of the USA. California, while not affected by dust-storms, is one of the most fertile and productive farming states, exporting fruit and vegetables to the rest of the USA and beyond.

These crops can only grow, however, with a supply of water – precisely what they haven’t had falling out of the sky for the last few years. To some extent, irrigation with fossil water pumped out of aquifers or supplied from the reservoirs along the Colorado can replace the lack of rain, so the next stop on my journey of research was to look at the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two biggest reservoirs on the Colorado and responsible for supplying drinking water and irrigation water to a vast swathe of the American south-west.

Lake Mead is currently predicted to achieve its lowest ever level (since it was first filled in 1938) during this week, dropping to a water-level of only 1,080 feet. That’s still a lot of water, mind you – 10.2 million acre-feet (for those of us who can’t visualise 10.2 million acres flooded to a depth of 1 foot, 1 acre-foot is 325,851.427 gallons, or 1,233,481.84 litres… so a LOT of water!) To put it into perspective, however, one acre-foot of water is a year’s supply for 1 average Nevadan family, so assuming Nevadan families aren’t very different from other American families, that’s enough water for one year for 10.2 million households.

Lake Powell, upstream, currently holds another 12.7 million acre-feet of water. This lake, however, suffers quite high losses through seepage, as it sits on porous sandstone, as well as through evaporation (it sits in a hotter area than Lake Mead, so evaporation rates are higher) and is estimated to lose in total about 870,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Between them, these two reservoirs supply 7 states with water – California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming – as well as Mexico. These states do have other water sources, but the Colorado is the biggest source of supply….. and between them, that’s over 58 million residents (2012 figures), plus the 40 million tourists passing through Las Vegas every year, who could be affected as water levels drop – and I haven’t even looked up the acreage of farmland that’s irrigated from the Colorado!

Figures from Scripps Oceanographic Institute suggest 1 acre-foot supplies 8 people with water for a year, so a quick and dirty calculation suggests that the available 22.9 million acre-feet in the two reservoirs can supply a population of 58 million for a little over 3 years.

Just as well they have a few other water sources, then!

Incidentally, it’s worth reading the whole of that Scripps article I linked to – they also predict a 50% chance that Lake Mead will fall so low by 2017 that the Hoover Dam won’t be able to produce electricity anymore, and they were using historically quite high levels of river flow, as seen over the past century, not the much lower figures suggested by looking at a longer history of the area. If the current drought is merely the beginning of a return to much dryer (and more normal) climatic conditions for the area, then the situation could be worse, and for far longer, than expected.

What impact do all these water-problems in the west of the USA have on a prepper in the UK? If the US wheat harvest is reduced, then the US exports less wheat to other places around the world. That reduces world supply so the price of wheat on the world markets goes up. At the moment the USDA are forecasting that increased yields on the northern plains will offset the reduced harvest further south, but it’s possible that there may be knock-on effects on the price of hard wheat (bread wheat) later in the year.

Or, to be really practical, now is the time to put away a few more kg of pasta and whole-grain wheat in the long-term stores and fill up any spare freezer space with bread and strong wheat flour!

Just Another Update….

Today was a big day for Trudy’s litter – they’ve been moved into another cage, leaving their poor mum looking slightly confused (didn’t I have some babies around here somewhere?) and relieved (phew, I can eat my own sowthistle without 6 hungry mouths muscling in!) They haven’t gone far – only into the two smaller cages next door – but the appetites of these starving gannets has been approaching plague-of-locust proportions over the weekend, with every scrap of food vanishing three or four times a day, so they’re ready for their own pads. I’ve not sexed them yet, since there’s no need to worry about any incest taking place before 6 weeks and they’re only 4 weeks old, but there’s now 2 cages of 3 rabbits, plus Trudy in her own cage. I’ll sex them in a couple of weeks and make sure they’re putting all their energy into growing, not breeding.

Research in the past has indicated that young rabbits grow fastest between 4 and 8 weeks, with quite a drop in the rate of growth after 8 weeks, and that the less competition they have for food the faster they grow, so I’ll be shovelling the greens in as fast as they can eat for the next 4 weeks, then I’ll weigh them. I’ll weigh them again when I kill them out and see what kind of gains they’ve made.

Fortunately, the haul of rabbit-edible grass and weeds off the allotment currently exceeds 15kg a day so I can just keep packing the cages with greens! They do still get a big helping of rabbit pellets and ad-lib hay as well, but fresh greens, particularly bore-cole, is the preferred food for all the bunnies.

On the allotment, we’re still eating the mange-tout peas and the podding-peas are coming along magnificently. New potatoes are keeping pace with our appetites, the bore-cole is providing the first few meals, the white alpine strawberry is ripening a couple of dozen berries a day (plus we have another plant at home and a whole heap of self-seeded youngsters growing up!), the onions and shallots are ripening well and I’ve started to lift any that allow their tops to flop. At home, the cauliflowers are nearly ready to start cutting a head or two, the purple sprouting broccolli is delicious, and the beetroot are looking very promising! The spinach has all bolted like racehorses so we’ve ripped it out and sown fresh.

The overwintered onions we grew at home are proving surprisingly small, compared to the spring-planted onions on the allotment, so we’re just pulling them and using them as we want them in the kitchen. The red onions from the allotment, on the other hand, are rivalling anything in the shops and we’ll be keeping them for later in the year.

The shallots will be pickled, once they’re all lifted and have cured for a few days.

The courgettes are now all planted out and today we pricked out another couple of dozen brussels sprouts and romescu cauliflowers, too.

The allotment committee have asked for us to keep a record of what we produce on the allotment, so we sat down and did a few sums today. So far, we’ve had a few kilos of potatoes, quarter of a kilo of strawberries, a kilo and a quarter of peas and quarter of a tonne of rabbit food! I haven’t weighed the onions or shallots yet – I’ll do those once all the harvest is in and we’re preparing the bulbs for storage.


And more rabbits….

I had sort of decided that three does and a buck was enough of a rabbitry for home consumption but then I stumbled across an advert for Rex bucks on Gumtree. The genetics of Rex rabbits are such that crossing a Rex with another breed means you don’t get Rex babies. You can see in last night’s pic of Trudy’s bunch that their coats are longer than hers already (they’re just about three and a half weeks and she’s teaching them by example to leave the cage!)

Trudy, leading her babies astray....

Trudy, leading her babies astray….

You could tap back into the recessive Rex gene by crossing the babies together or crossing them with a Rex, but getting a Rex buck to cross to Trudy would guarantee Rex babies. Some quick emailing and a phone call later, I was on my way to Cupar, south of Dundee, to choose a Rex buck.

This is Tigger, he’s one of a litter of 12 so there’s some good genes for litter size there! As you can see, he’s a harlequin rabbit (like his mother, though his father is a tricolour dalmation, with small harlequin spots on a white background; I saw both his parents as well as most of his littermates), so Trudy’s next litter should throw up some interesting patterns and colours!

Tigger, the new Rex buck.

Tigger, the new Rex buck.

He’s settling in well and seems very calm and friendly; he’s about 6 months old so will be ready to “work” when I wean Trudy’s litter. I’m going away in August for a week and don’t want to leave my daughter up to her ears in imminent litters or billions of weaned bunnies so I’m delaying re-mating Trudy for a couple more weeks. Jezebel will have a litter in the cage, though not quite weaned, when I’m away and Delilah will be in kindle but not due until the week after (hopefully!) so I’ll time Trudy’s next litter about the same. This litter should be ready for the freezer before we go away so the work-load shouldn’t be too high in my absence.

Garlic Harvest 2014

Having lifted the garlic last week and put it in a dry, dark place to cure a bit (the boiler shed, in our case), it was time to preserve the harvest. The best 10 heads of garlic are stored in the shed ready to be planted in the autumn, to give us next year’s harvest, and the rest are now pickled.

2014 Garlic harvest, pickled

2014 Garlic harvest, pickled

We do this very simply – just top, tail and skin the cloves, then put them into a pan of cold water (stops them reacting with the air and changing colour while you’re busy). Choose the jars, wash and dry them, then put them in the oven at a little over 100 degrees Centigrade (this makes sure there’s no nasty sudden changes of temperature that’ll cause the jars to crack).

While the jars are heating up (we usually give them 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven, standing on the wooden breadboard), work out how much vinegar you’ll need and bring it to the boil. I always over-estimate the amount that’s required – it’s better to have some vinegar left over than to have not enough and your pickles exposed to the air to go off!

When the vinegar is boiling, bring the jars out of the oven (be careful around hot glass – it looks perfectly normal but if you brush against it with an arm or hand, it’s very painful!) and spoon a little of the vinegar into the bottom of each jar, this just stops the garlic burning when it lands in the bottom of the jar. Fill the jars up to about half an inch below the top with garlic, then pour in enough vinegar to cover the garlic completely, leaving quarter of an inch of headspace. Put the lid on the jar and tighten, then leave to cool. As they cool, the contents form a partial vacuum, sealing them tight. Once they’re cold, put them away in the cupboard and admire the sight of your year’s food security on the shelf!

I wait until the left-over vinegar is cool, then pour it through a coffee filter paper in a funnel, back into the jar it came from, ready for the next lot of pickling that needs doing.

That’ll be eggs, later today – the chickens are getting ahead of us again and we have about 5 dozen eggs in the cupboard…..

I use pickling vinegar, which is stronger than ordinary table vinegar and thus preserves things better. It’s easy to get in the local shops and we aways have a few quarts in the cupboard – plus the jars it comes in are designed for pickling themselves once empty.