Thursday, December 31, 2009

The infinite beauty of an ice crystal

I spent some time over the last week trying to look at snowflakes under my flea-market microscope. And it seemed that it is true that each one is different. I couldn't photograph them, but wanted to put up some pictures here, most taken on Christmas morning, of the snow here. The most snow I've ever seen in Ireland.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A year of bread-making

Rye sourdough

Coming to the end of the year, I realise it was this time last year that I started baking in earnest, wondering to myself if I could make all the bread I eat... and so began a love affair with baking bread. I think I have bought about two loaves of bread since then - which was unsatisfyingly gungy and flavourless, particularly as there are no good bakers I know of in Longford... and made all the rest of the bread I consumed since then.

Sourdough starter

I've learned a huge amount, mostly from books and friends, and have settled on some favourite recipes. But most helpful has been Daniel Stevens' River Cottage Handbook: Bread. This book gave me a lot of confidence to experiment, and gave me a basic bread recipe as a starter point, which I give here.

Basic Bread Recipe

Makes 3 loaves, or 2 loaves and a focaccia

1kg strong flour
2 tsp fast-acting yeast
2 tsp salt
600ml warm liquid

Optional extras:
1-2 tablespoons Oil/butter
Handful of nuts or seeds
Millet, barley, spelt, or rye flakes

You can use white or wholemeal flour, but you will need extra liquid for the wholemeal unless you want to make concrete. I tend to make white or a 50:50 white:wholemeal mix.

For the liquid you could use water or half and half water and milk for a softer bread. One thing I've learned is not to be afraid of wet doughs. They are easier to handle and can rise easier than a stiff dough, making better bread. It just means you need a lot of flour on your work surface.
Also you can make the liquid quite warm as the temperature of the flour will cool it to a yeast-friendly level.

Mix everything except the fat and nuts/seeds together in a bowl until you have a scraggy dough, then add your fat, if using. (If you are using nuts or seeds, leave them until the end to add.)

Knead until smooth, shiny and elastic, shape it into a round, tucking the edges to the inside to stretch the dough, then pop it back in the bowl with a shower cap on top to double in size. (That said, my wholemeal bread never doubles in size...)
Then pull it out, deflating it gently, shape into a round and pop it back in the bowl.

When it has grown enormous again, like a big soft and delicious balloon, (and I have been known to stick my whole face into my dough on occasion...) take it out and cut into three pieces of equal size, and shape into loaves. If you want to make one into a focaccia, then press it into an oiled baking tray. (A cake tin will do nicely.)
Proved loaf ready to go in the oven.

Leave the loaves to prove inside a blown up bin-bag, looking like a big puffed-up plastic cloud.

When almost doubled in size, dredge the loaves in rye flour, and drizzle the focaccia with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and rosemary, or thinly sliced onions.
Ready to go in the oven

Your oven should be preheated as high as it will go, and the bread put in for 10 minutes at top heat. Then turn it down to 180 C. The focaccia will take another 10 minutes, the loaves 20-30 minutes.

Onion focaccia and rosemary focaccia

That is the basic recipe. My favourite bread at the moment is a multi seed, multi grain version, using the following recipe:

900g white flour
40g each millet, spelt, barley and rye flakes, (ground roughly)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp quick yeast
650ml water

When kneading is finished, work in:

15g linseed
25g pumpkin seed
25g sunflower seed

and finish as for the basic recipe

This is a particularly delicious and textured bread.

Its also cheap and very good for you! I think we worked out that it was less than 50c for a loaf of organic white bread, including electricity... Of course the price goes up depending on what you put into it, but it still remains cheap, considering what you get for it - gorgeous, flavour-full chewy crispy homemade bread...
...and a love affair with dough...

Focaccia and two loaves

Sunday, December 20, 2009


By popular request...some photos of snow in the midlands.
Above, our road. (Spot the dog...)
Some of the chickens were out in it...
and some sought shelter! (Spot the kettle for thawing their water!)The garden. (While we are at the spotting game, spot the septic tank!)

And, in unrelated but current news, the family brought me a giant lump of Parmesan back from Venice.
Yay cheese! Its not just the picture, it really is as big as my head!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I needed a little christmas cheer, so needlefelted this robin. (Spideog in irish)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adventures in Spinning 1: Herdwick

I thought I'd document here the research I've been doing on different sheep breeds and what they are like to spin with, now that I am completely addicted to spinning and totally fascinated by the story of where fleece comes from, what breeds have produced it, where they lived etc. It lends so much to the finished product to have more of a connection with the materials I use.

First up is Herdwick. Herdwick sheep are from the Lake District in the U.K and are one of the hardiest breeds - left to graze on the hills even in the winter. As a result their wool is pretty tough too. They are associated with Beatrix Potter as she raised them, and are born black, turning dark brown and then lightening to grey. Their wool isn't prized at all it seems, but is used for carpets and as insulation, yet it is so lovely to spin. I think its an excellent wool for a beginning spinner, as it drafts easily and fluidly, and it is very easy to get an even yarn from it (yes, even with my bockety spinning!)

Fascinatingly, Herdwick sheep remember their own heaf or pasture, (the ewes even teach their lambs where they live), and do not stray, so don't need fencing. I also read that they can't be moved if the land is sold - they go with it.

Their fleece has several types of fibre, including a soft woolly undercoat to keep them warm, Kemp and a hairy water-repellent outer coat, helping them get wet more slowly and dry out faster than other breeds. Apparently clothing made from their fleece, while being itchy, is also pretty much weather-proof.

The wool has a long staple - roughly 4" in my sample, and is obviously coarse, but has such amazing texture with all those different fibres. (It was also softer than I expected when spun.) And it drafts like a dream - I suppose its the larger size of the fibres that makes them both slide past each other, (and make me feel like an expert spinner...hooray! ) and also gives the finished yarn a depth of colour with coarser black and white fibres, and finer grey ones showing.

Yes, add to that the incredible water-repelling and insulating qualities, and I'll give top marks to Herdwick sheep.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The beauty in my garden

Its a gorgeously-frosty-crispy morning here, the sun is falling through the trees and the frost is slowly steaming away in the heat of it.

The cat has left a trail of paw-prints in the ice.

The sun is glancing off the last few yellowed leaves in the apple nursery.

The fallen leaves have a frosty coat defining their empty veins.

And a host of skeleton-daisies are frozen, as if caught in stop motion in a stiff breeze, looking for all the world like musical notes randomly dancing in a blue sky.

A mushroom has popped up, delicate and perfect in the greenhouse.

Frosty droplets are melting in the sun on the gate.

And the sun is creating stripes across the land, long shadows on glistening grass.

Meanwhile, a seed has managed to get itself into a bag of compost, and pokes out, happily growing in its giant home.

The world never ceases to amaze me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Keeping warm...

Now that the weather's got colder, (with thankfully no major floods down here...) its time for knitting some warming devices.
After quite a lot of learning I have managed to spin enough yarn for a scarf.
Its been a bit of an epic scarf project, as the first yarn I spun was fairly chunky and the next yarn I spun was thinner, and the next one was lace-weight and so on....
(There was therefore a high ratio of quantities of yarn produced to quantities of yarn actually used...)
On meeting with some spinners living in the midlands, I was informed that it is much harder to produce thicker yarn, which made me feel better about my slubby inconsistent attempts!
But here is it anyway. A 2-ply of Blue-faced Leicester (beautiful to spin) with tufts of dyed merino for a bit of colour, spun worsted.
Its hard to photograph the colour.
Concepta jumped in to provide some perspective in the next shot of the finished scarf. You can't really see all the lovely greeny-bluey bits, but they are there. I knit it up in a k2, p2 rib.

I also produced some wraps-per-inch counters out of wooden rulers. Just cut out a section between the lines for one inch, et voila!
And managed to knit a one piece hot water bottle cover using up some nice tough wool from the stash.

Hooray for keeping warm!!

Incidentally, I saw an ad in the Longford Leader a few weeks back for a workshop called "Keeping Warm this Winter."
Only in Ireland.

I doubt it was about knitting scarves and using hot water bottles, but its possible. We imagined a fat red-faced man shouting in a Longford accent "Now, I can't stress the importance of jumpers enough!!!"

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Well, this is not me yet, but give me 50 years...

I am very much enjoying the spinning wheel, and love sitting down in the evenings and spinning up a small amount of wonky yarn. I am also enjoying learning more about fibres and where they come from, making me want to only buy organic and fairly traded cotton, and local animal fibres, farmed in a sustainable way. (Although if anyone is planning a visit to the zoo anytime soon, please ask for some camel hair...)
And I seem to have turned into the type of person who thinks it is perfectly reasonable to spin hair out of the contents of the dog brush - why not! Sure the possibilities for spinning seem endless!

Here are some of my lumpy efforts...
From top to bottom, a 80/20 wool/silk mix spun from top; carded merino, carded Badgerfaced Welsh Mountain Sheep (Tor Wen) (great name) spun in the grease; and Massam spun from top.

And, left to right, merino spun from top, Bluefaced Leicester (deliciously nice to spin) from top, and a thicker version of the Badgerfaced Welsh Mountain Sheep.

I've always considered knitting, crochet, spinning and such to be evening activities, best carried out by the fire in the autumn or winter. Recently reading Lilias Mitchell's Irish Spinning, Weaving and Dyeing, I came across an explanation for why this is the best time, given in the seventies from a woman in Achill Island:
It is best to work with wool while the sheep are at rest - "from six o'clock in the evening till twelve o'clock, when the fairies appear. Then...the wool is much more easy to handle and tangled threads can be undone without any trouble."

In fact, in certain houses, the drive band was taken off the wheel when work stopped, "in case the little people might be tempted to use it."
(In my home, it is usually the cat, who comes in and starts trying to play with the wheel, often removing the band in the process...)
(And one wonders when they say "any mischief might happen to the wool" whether it might have more to do with poitin consumption than the little people...) But I like the idea of using wool while the sheep are resting, so I'll go with that one!

I've been wanting to post a picture of this amazing carder for a while. A friend brought it back from Columbia for me. It is made of teasels, all sandwiched between two thin bits of wood and held in place. Its so beautiful I don't even want to use it!
I know teasels were also used in Ireland for teasing out wool, I presume that is where they got their name from.

My friend also brought me back some amazing hand spun yarn. Pictured here is one of the balls. (the other is white.) I knitted and felted a pair of slippers out of it. It was like knitting with part of Columbia - full of bits of vegetation, dirt and thorns, and with a strong smell of sheep.

I could really imagine someone making it by hand. The yarn you buy in shops is so highly processed in comparison that it was a totally different experience to work with this wool. My mind was filled with pictures of little old ladies spinning outdoors in Columbia with a drop spindle or a stone, and my nose was filled with the scent of sheep, of plants, and the smell of the outdoors. It was great to work with such evocative material, and that, especially, is what I am enjoying about spinning - how close to source you are, using wool straight off the sheep's back and going through each process yourself. It makes you appreciate it a lot more.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I've been meaning since starting this blog to get some pictures of my work up, so without further ado, here are some of my puppets...

A family photo here, with (left to right), the Sea Baby, Boris (stage name when in drag - Esmerelda), Needlehead and the MC. (All about 2 foot tall)

Close up of the Sea Baby. He's a very good flier.

This one never really got a name, but I think Surprise is a good one, because she permanently looks it... Her face is made of a doll's torso, with opening and closing eyes fixed in where the nipples should be. Her heart is missing in this photo, but normally hangs in her chest, a dangling and stained yellow withered organ...
She is about 18" tall.

This guy's head is made from salt-fired ceramic, and his body from a branch of the cherry tree from the garden of the house I did most of my growing up in. (15" tall)

The Old Man. He is a very sad little character, who frequently collapses while knitting in his armchair. Pictured here on a tor on the moors in Devon. (8")

The Man with the Wooden Heart. (2'6" or so)

It makes a nice knocking noise in his chest.

Close up of Boris (Esmerelda) and Needlehead. Needlehead's torso is made from a piece of wood my friend found that had grown over a length of barbed wire. (How amazing is nature?) The barb wire forms his arms.

The MC.

The Rabbit. He is made from wood with a roadkill rabbit skin and rusty wheels from a skip. He has a vicious squeak when he adds to the ridiculous horror-show feel. (12" tall or so)

Hammond Organ, shown here with his zip open and organs pouring out. (2'6")

Here with the Old Man.

Boris and Needlehead again.

And a close up of the Key Bird. She also has opening and closing eyes and her feet are made of keys.