September 25, 2012

Sugar & Spice

Harissa. How often we've bemoaned the fact that it is so hard to come by; how well it would go with this that or the other; how it has the ability to transport you straight back to the pungent smells and vivid colours of daily life in Morocco... and it is actually really easy to make!

Essentially you just whizz up fresh tomatoes and chillis with spices (cumin, caraway, coriander), some salt, garlic and onions. You're then meant to briefly cook for ten minutes or so and then bottle hot, topping with olive oil to seal.

I misread my recipe and blended in the oil too. It tasted okay, but seemed to be calling for a base note. So I decided to really cook it down and left it chuckling boldly away on our fire all evening.

It reduced by half and now tastes absolutely fantastic. The intensity brought by cooking down was all it needed. The oil naturally separates off a little, making it look very authentic in the jars.

The other experiment that really paid off this week was plum and tomato jam! Somehow it feels right to put plums and tomatoes together, but I had never considered bringing in sweetness until I found a recipe for tomato jam. Adding the plums brought texture and natural sweetness and the bold spices (fresh chilli, ginger, cumin, cinnamon and cloves, and a generous slosh of fresh lime juice right at the end) gave it a kick that can jazz savoury meat dishes as well as pancakes and simple cheese sandwiches.

To balance our culinary explorations and take a break from the kitchen for a while, we both turned our hands to building. Neither of us have built a proper wall before, but we found the process very appealing. Working from opposite sides of the passage (whose side enclosure opening into Saskia's room I had freed last week) we found a rhythm laying bricks, smoothing cement and straightening in turn until we could only just see each other's noses.

At this stage we noticed how the contracted passage would now have practically no natural light. The remainder of the curved wall had already sustained a horizontal crack at the height of where the new wall now reached. So we decided to take the top section out and put in a window in its place.

Round windows are hard to come by and perspex just wouldn't have felt right... and then the brainwave struck – use glass jars!

The traditional jars that we had been given have glass disks for lids and were therefore the ideal material for the job. A few had cracks (which prompted the idea) and others we simply sacrificed for the good cause.

It was very fiddly work, but the effect is beautiful.

I have learned never to work with cement for long periods of time without gloves. I sustained the most painful, tiny sores on my finger tips and incredibly dry, sensitive skin that lasted for days.

Luckily there is always plenty of washing up to be done!

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 17, 2012

Autumn & New Arrivals

Autumn is arriving, slowly but definitely. The air is fresh now, even though we're still blessed with good sunny days - we even managed a brief swim in the lake the other day, but it could well be our last for a while.

Saskia was given a rabbit for her birthday by some school friends. We've never liked the idea of caged animals, and she seems intelligent enough not to either: one morning, after two days in her hutch she mysteriously appeared in with the chickens. We couldn't work out how she escaped until we discovered the wire roof can be pushed up in one corner. She goes straight through the fence into the orchard and doesn't seem at all interested in going elsewhere.

She is now in with them every day and manages to enjoy the space and the company of chickens and sheep as if a perfectly normal family! We have a job catching her at night, but will experiment with the hutch in the orchard and see if the hens can perhaps lead a good example for her to head to bed at dusk.

A real surprise this week has been our little peach tree in the front garden! The fruits are ripening beautifully, obviously getting enough sun and content to flourish as if deluding themselves that really this is somewhere further south.

The wife of the tractor man comes regularly now for a basket of tomatoes, along with new offers almost every visit. The latest is a whole host of preserving jars – the old fashioned kind that have rubber rings but no metal circuits, just temporary clips that keep the pressure whilst the preserves cool and are then removed. Some of the jars still have preserved fruit in them that is reputedly about ten years old. Although rather sweet, they actually still taste pretty good.

The other gift her mother had tucked away in her garage is over a hundred and fifty traditional clay bricks. These will be perfect for our bead oven.

Another neighbour up the road responded to our notice in the newsletter with an offer of a 'waschkessel' – a wood-fired drum insulated with fire bricks that holds a large enamelled cast-iron vat. These were traditionally used for laundry but are still used today for making sausage meat and pasteurising preserves.

It is a big beast but fits neatly in the hall where the flue pipe connects directly into the chimney. Although a bit rusted on the outside it is still in good condition and will be so exciting to experiment with.

I finally found the opportunity to knock down a section of the wall of Saskia's bedroom to extend her room and close off the draughty passage. It was such satisfying work and makes a great change from the endless processing of tomatoes.

The cooler weather is also much more ideal for plastering. More and more of our time is now spent indoors preparing the walls of our long awaited kitchen and closing in our upstairs quarters to make our winter nest. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 11, 2012

Solidarity & Pink Apple Mousse

Most people would say that now the days are starting to get shorter and the nights gradually longer. Yet for us it feels almost the other way around, with school days kicking off at the crack of dawn and the early dusk heralding earlier fires with endless produce to cook down.

It is a challenge to remain dedicated to rest amongst all the hard work and play. But it is a commitment that we made to ourselves from the very start: this is our family life, our work life, our social life and our private life all at the same time. Therefore, daily rhythms need to be centred around the children, deadlines need to be flexible, visits need to be well spaced and good weather conditions need to be taken advantage of!

This sometimes means that developments on the house lag behind schedule, yet somehow a healthy pace is far more important than the targets. With the floor of the loft nearly insulated it already feels like winter can't penetrate quite as far as previously.

Last month we wrote a brief article for the village newsletter – introducing ourselves and our project, thanking the villagers for all their support during the floods and putting out a call for preserving jars and equipment, farm machinery and poultry, as well as announcing our intention to offer up veg boxes for the village in the new season and (as an after thought) English lessons for all ages and abilities.

The article came out at the beginning of this month and the first call came on the same day. It was the man who runs the beer cellar in the village calling on the off chance we might need plant pots and seed trays, simply keen to help in which ever way he could.

A few days later I gained a young student in need of extra English support outside of school; and then the wife of the neighbour who helped us out with his old Russian tractor turned up to ask whether we might have some tomatoes for her to buy and to tell us her husband has ten sacks of hydrated lime just lying around unused. A few hours later she came back with a box of empty jars.

Hardly a day later, a journalist called from the Sächsische Zeitung (Saxony's main daily newspaper), asking if she could do a story on us. She turned up in the midst of a major tomato harvest and happily snapped away at Saskia and her visiting grandmother chopping their way through juicy mountains of the stuff.

It turns out that the journalist lives in the next village with her family and just happens to be a food enthusiast with lots of local connections. She is a freelance writer and struggles to find much new to write about in these parts. She is now intent on unearthing as much article material as she can squeeze out of us over the coming months.

Today she called to tell us that her husband has agreed to part with their old GDR heating system that heats water pipes without a retaining tank – not as efficient as modern systems, yet simple, effective and free.

Whilst the tomatoes simply keep coming (we've now begun selling some off to a local caterer who cooks for schools) the plums are now in their prime. Raspberries still miraculously keep appearing and we are on the verge of the mighty apple season.

Up on the hill there are rows of trees already filled with fruit and one variety that inspires us every time has a gorgeous deep red colour. Inside, the flesh is almost as red as the skin. You cannot beat pink apple mousse!

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 4, 2012

Food Realities

Our visitors come just in time, and harvesting begins in earnest. Tomatoes and elderberries every other day, plums and raspberries twice this week - the big pot simmers every night over the fire and rests under a large sieve to steam off overnight. The following morning is dominated by clearing the space, reheating the brew, sterilising jars and packing them full before lining them all head down in a corner of our cluttered little kitchen.

I've learnt the hard way not to bottle sauce in cheap clip top jars. Two thirds of my prized Letscho went into these, and the seals just weren't good enough.

Jars have become a big theme. After using all of our saved pickle jars we fill milk bottles and undersized random jar specimens whilst scouting for an abundant and affordable source.

The local shops retail an average sized pickle jar close to one euro a piece. Department stores vary little in price and the quality is often markedly lower. Wholesale - from miles away - works out about two thirds of a euro once tax and delivery have been calculated. And then, in the nearby supermarket, a jar of pickles costs 59 cents!!

The fact that a full jar of food costs less than an empty one, is truly mind-boggling. Consider the picking, the sorting, the preparing, the bottling and the labelling, let alone the marketing and actual selling. Can the real cost of the product be even remotely covered at such a price?

With a full pot of tomatoes ready to bottle, we do buy a case of pickles (simply to fulfil the need with as little expense as possible). Needless to say we're becoming rather tired of gherkins, but at least they've not been wasted (and neither have our tomatoes!)

Word is slowly getting round that jars are needed by those English folk at the old Halle hof in the middle of the village, and donations have begun trickling in.

The hens took a few days to venture out without coaxing, but are now very much at home in the orchard. At night they trundle back into their den of their own accord and all huddle on the highest perch squeezed in a corner seemingly oblivious to the fact that spacious nesting boxes have been lovingly created below to accommodate them all. We can only hope that when nesting instincts really set in they will go for the more practical egg laying corners!

The plums are really coming into their own now, and the simplest and most effective technique for jam has emerged as the do-as-little-as-possible technique – shove them all in a pot, washed but whole with a splash of water and cook vigorously till they fall away from their stones. Strain into another pan, and the stuff that comes through the sieve is a lush, creamy red syrup leaving flaky skin and stones in the sieve for the compost. Then add sugar to taste and cook for a while longer to thicken it up. Bottle and enjoy!

It has been a joy to have so much energy around - some people we’d never met before, (being friends of old friends), and others from way back when in a completely different context. Amidst reconnecting and getting to know one another, it is the land, the peace, the company, the work and the sheer abundance that fire us all up with inspiration and motivation. Work and life fuse into a collective enjoyment centred around the appreciation of food.

Everything we cook from the fresh produce tastes absolutely delicious. It is almost impossible to assess our lifestyle in terms of monetary value, when our needs can be met to such an extent by top quality, life giving nourishment.

So now at the height of the season the most important task besides transforming the goods into lasting food, is to collect, dry and save seeds to enable the whole cycle to begin once again next year. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @