Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)

Waxing lyrical

The winter solstice is looming and for the third year in a row it has caught me on the hop because it simply doesn’t feel like the December I know. Not that I’m complaining; this mild weather with its generous sunshine, high light levels and soft, soapy air suits me just fine. I have been busy in the garden, stripped down to a t-shirt, digging over the empty patches and spreading oodles of manure and homemade compost around, feeding our soil while it rests before seed time comes round once again. Give me that over Christmas shopping any day.

Along the lanes, the verges are studded with primroses, violets, clover and knapweed and there is plenty of floral beauty and scent in the garden, too.

The honey bees have no thought for a winter cluster yet; they are still busy filling their pollen baskets in the rosemary.

Despite the bare patches, the vegetable garden continues to bless us with a fresh and nourishing bounty of seasonal delights.

Some not so seasonal, too . . . I think the asparagus is a little confused!

With trugs full of veggie gorgeousness like this one – carrots, Florence fennel, leeks, parsnip, salsify, rainbow chard, kale, calabrese and a bunch of herbs- there will be no need for a festive Brussels sprouts bunfight.

Of course, our winter is yet to come here (and it will) but as we head towards the longest night and that tipping point where the days slowly but surely begin to stretch and lengthen, I feel this is an appropriate time to reflect on the past year and start to make plans for the months to come. After two and a half years of hard graft and upheaval, the house renovation is practically finished which means we will have time now to concentrate on some major outdoor projects. Time, too, to really get to grips with our commitment to zero waste and sustainable living; we don’t do too badly but there is still so much scope for improvement. The ancient Iroquois philosophy of giving thought to a sustainable world for the next seven generations almost seems like an impossibility in today’s society; I fear greatly and passionately for the world we are leaving our children and their little ones, yet alone our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. However, we are committed to doing our bit, no matter that it is a tiny drop; the smallest, simplest gesture that helps us  to reduce our carbon footprint and tread lightly on the earth is worth every effort. Our main approach is to buy less, consume less, make do and make our own. This doesn’t mean we go without. Far from it, in fact: I would argue we are ‘richer’ now than we have ever been.

Plastic waste is hot news at the moment; it’s not the only thing to consider in a zero waste lifestyle but it is a biggie and one that taxes my green-living brain a good deal. In May, I made beewraps and they have proved to be brilliant things; it’s amazing how quickly we shifted to using them and I can truthfully say we haven’t bought any cling wrap this year. Result! Pushing on further, then, this week I have been making cloth bags for food storage. We bake sourdough bread two or three times a week, always making an extra loaf or rolls to go in the freezer. Although we wash and re-use freezer bags as much as possible, how much better not to be using them at all for ‘dry’ foods like bread where there’s an alternative? I used a strong cotton gingham fabric left over from a curtain-making project from several years ago and it was the easiest sewing activity ever. I simply cut a rectangle of fabric and folded it so I only needed to seam the bottom and one side (some might say lazy here, I prefer efficient! 🙂 ).

I zigzagged the non-selvage edges to prevent bits of cotton fraying into our food; the whole point of these bags is that they can go through the laundry so they need to be robust. Next, I turned a double hem at the top to make a casing for the drawstring. A heavy cotton piping cord would be ideal but I didn’t have any to hand so used up scraps of elastic from my sewing box – not as aesthetically pleasing, but actually perfect for the job. I whizzed up five bags in well under two hours, including at least one coffee break!

I’ve made three different sizes and time will tell which are the most used so I can make more in the future. I had thought the smallest bag would be perfect for freezing things like root ginger but it also turned out to be just right for half a dozen mince pies to go into the freezer for a picnic . . . pressed into action within minutes of being finished (this was a necessity as mince pies have always had a habit of disappearing at speed in our house when my back is turned) . 

While my sewing machine was set up, I decided on a second simple activity: making hankies. I always used to carry a cotton handkerchief when I was younger and I’m really not sure when tissue culture became so prevalent. I know tissues aren’t plastic, but they’re a good example of ‘single use’ packaged products and even if ours end up on the compost heap, they’re still not very green. It can be argued that hankies aren’t very hygienic but as long as they’re changed often and laundered properly, they are no less hygienic than tissues and far less wasteful. So, I cut squares from a lightweight cotton fabric remnant and stitched narrow hems along the edges, each one taking a matter of minutes. I plumped for seven in the end – a clean hankie a day! – with plans to make another batch before too long.

Sourcing truly natural, sustainable products and materials isn’t always easy so I was very thrilled to be given a large amount of beeswax recently. This was the ‘real deal’, wax straight from beehives melted into a cake; it’s wonderful stuff but full of propolis, pollen and various undesirable bits and bobs so my first job was to render it along with a pile of shattered wax foundation well past its useful life. When The Beast is lit, we have a constantly hot hob and oven which is perfect for this sort of activity and very satisfying as we are still burning the old roof timbers – free energy indeed!

The easiest way to clean up this much wax at a time is to place it in a pot of barely simmering water (beeswax melts at about 65 degrees Celsius and overheating can destroy its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties); the melted wax floats to the surface and the impurities sink below.

When the wax is cooled and hardened, the rind of impurities can be shaved off with a paring knife.

I decided to repeat the process once more, then broke the cake into smaller pieces for storage while it was still soft. It looked just like fudge, almost good enough to eat!

I used a very small amount of the cleaned wax to re-coat our beewraps, giving them a few seconds’ blast in the oven which is a good idea from time to time anyway as it helps to sterilise them. I want to save most of this wax for making toiletries but as there was plenty I decided to make a couple of small candles, too. I love candlelight but can’t bear scented candles and to me even the plain white paraffin ones aren’t wonderful. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, smell lovely- just like the inside of a summer hive (there are claims that they purify the air through ‘negative ionisation’ but this is open to much controversial debate). You can make very artistic candles using moulds but I don’t have any so I opted for the simple container type, using some dainty Japanese tea bowls we were given a few years ago. Beeswax can be tricky stuff as it burns hotter and faster than other candle waxes so the advice generally is to mix it with other things (coconut oil, for example) to ‘slow’ it down and also to pay very careful attention to wick size. Mmm, needless to say I ignored all that: I do have coconut oil but it’s so pricey I’d prefer not to burn it and as I had a few wicks left over from previous candle projects I wasn’t about to buy more. I put some lumps of wax in an old tin and sat it in a pot of simmering water, weighed down with an old flat iron to stop it bobbing about and popped the bowls into the oven for a few minutes so the hot wax wouldn’t crack them. When it comes to wicks with metal bases, it’s possible to stick them to the container with a hot glue gun or use a special ‘stickum’ thing but as my life has thus far been complete without owning either, I simply dipped the base in melted wax and used that as glue. Strangely enough, it worked.

I then carefully poured melted wax into the bowls, leaving the first bit to set a little before topping them up.

As there was a bit left over, I poured it into a small bowl lined with parchment paper so it would cool into a block I can use again; no worries about cleaning up the tin as I shall keep it for future wax projects. The wax didn’t crack as can sometimes happen, there was a little bit of shrinkage away from the sides but with their wicks trimmed and combined with a small posy of greenery from the wood, these candles will be the perfect decoration for our Yuletide dinner table.

Green cleaning is second nature to me, the more chemicals I can ban from our newly-renovated home the better and I love the fact that it is so easy to render everything clean and sweet-smelling using small quantities of a few simple ingredients, many of them perfectly edible. For example, lemons literally fall off the trees here; they are fantastic for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen and as a pre-wash soak for whites, they come in their own ‘packaging’ and what’s left is fully compostable. You don’t get more zero waste than that! I’ve been making my own laundry powder this week, mixing equal quantities of grated Marseille soap, washing soda and bicarbonate of soda with a few drops of lemon essential oil (more for its disinfectant properties than fragrance). It’s done in a flash and although the quantity in the photo doesn’t look much, there is enough there for a couple of weeks’ laundry at least.

No need for fabric conditioner, a splash of white vinegar in the dispenser drawer balances the pH and leaves everything feeling soft and lovely; our clothes smell simply of soap and fresh air and most importantly, are beautifully clean. Whilst grating the soap – one of those little therapeutic moments I love- it occurred to me that here is another area where I can experiment with pushing things further. Why not make my own laundry soap, using all natural products? How about body soap for the bathroom and a solid shampoo? No plastic bottles or packaging, no toxic nasties or artificial colours and scents? Is this another way to reduce our impact a little further, to try and leave a beautiful world for the seventh generation and beyond? Mmm . . . sounds like an exciting solstice challenge to me! 🙂

 

Ramblings

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. 

John Muir

I love a good walk. I run regularly because I appreciate the health benefits it brings but given the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other at a more leisurely pace, I’m first in the queue. For me, it’s such a simple, lovely activity that fulfils my fidgety need to be outdoors and moving . Of course it’s interesting to set personal challenges but there’s no need to be bagging Wainwrights or marching up Monros; it’s always fun to explore new places but in all honestly, there is a deep pleasure and quiet joy to be had by going through the door, choosing a direction and wandering around locally. To immerse myself totally in nature and watch the seasons unfolding in tiny detail is a privilege I will never take for granted.

Human beings are designed to move so it goes without saying that walking is good for us, both physically and mentally. I was fascinated and delighted to read recently that GPs in the Shetland Isles have started prescribing ‘nature’ to help their patients. What a truly wonderful and inspired idea that is. No surprise that it is based on a Scandinavian tradition; let’s face it – our northern cousins excel when it comes to understanding the true benefits of time spent outdoors and how much better if walking in fresh air and communing with nature proves a more successful remedy than medication.

I suspect there is an element of ‘prescribed nature’ here already. Walking is a huge Asturian pastime and plenty of people pass through the village on their daily jaunt, many of them very elderly; we often see a lady who walks literally miles on crutches and a chap who carries an oxygen bottle over his shoulder as he goes. There’s no such thing as bad weather stopping play, either – just take your brolly and carry on! I can’t be sure but a big part of me thinks there may well be a connection between this happy walking habit and the astonishing longevity in our valley.

Although I am happy to wander in solitude, there is something very special about walking with others, too. It came as no great surprise when downloading the photos from our recent trip away to find most of them had been taken on walks. I love walking with our grandchildren; there is something so precious about feeling a warm, trusting little hand in mine, now tugging me along (‘Come on, Granny!’) impatient to be off with a hop, skip and jump, now dragging backwards to look at things, poke with sticks, splash in puddles.

What an amazing thing it is, this opportunity to see the world once again through the eyes of a child, with their astounding capacity for observation, curiosity and wonder.

A long walk is a much-loved tradition whenever we get together with Sam and Adrienne, usually punctuated with large quantities of delicious home-cooked food! This time was no exception: a hearty breakfast of all-too-moorish pain aux raisins set us up for a walk along the River Ouse to Lewes. So many of our walks in West (and East) Sussex seem to have a literary connection and this time it was the turn of Virginia Woolf, passing the pretty house in Rodmell where she lived before tragically taking her own life in the river. The waters were turbulently tidal, the banks seaweed- strewn and studded with gulls; the view drew our eye constantly towards Lewes in the distance, dominated by its formidable Norman castle.

There is something about this landscape which always imbues me with an overwhelming sense of history; the very spirit of the rolling hills, chalk streams, swathes of woodland, richly fertile land and wide, far-reaching skies seems to whisper of the successive peoples who came and made it their own. 

Lewes has a very colourful history, one of the legacies being the lively Bonfire Night celebration; preparations were well underway for this year’s event as we entered the town. We sat in the peaceful grounds of the Priory, eating our picnic (ah yes, more delicious home baking!) and enjoyed the play of sunlight on the autumn colours.

What a place this must have been before its inevitable destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries: the Priory church alone was longer than Chichester Cathedral. I was fascinated by the Battle Memorial and as a passionate gardener, thought the medicinal and kitchen gardens were a wonderful touch. We wandered through the pretty streets up to the castle, then back along the river once more. 



Home again in Asturias and no surprise that to celebrate my birthday this week, another walk was on the cards. My first idea had been to wander from home and climb the mountain behind the house in a seven-mile loop of forest and stunning scenery. However, the need for a post office and butter (we hadn’t taken account of birthday baking needs when we last shopped!) suggested a long stroll along the coast path near Luarca might be a better idea. I love this stretch between the beautiful sweeping sands of Playa de Barayo and the pretty harbour town of Puerto de Vega, it is a place I never tire of.


For me, this is exactly how a coast path should be: lots of ups and downs along the clifftops, ins and outs around headlands and hidden coves, far-reaching views along the coastline, carpets of wildflowers, flurries of birdlife and that deliciously intoxicating sea air. I much prefer the seaside away from the hectic summer months, there is something fantastically wild and untamed and invigorating about it in December . . . although quite honestly, the weather was so beautifully warm and the air so soft and butterfly-laden, it felt just like summer! 

Immersion in nature here is complete. Apart from a few solitary silhouetted fisherman perched on rocky outcrops, motionless as herons, we saw no-one. In the soft sunshine and low light of the season, colour spooled across the landscape like bold brushstrokes on canvas and with every step and every breath I felt an intense awareness of the four elements at play. Fire. Water. Earth. Air. What greater way to mark the anniversary of my birth than in such a joyful celebration of the natural world and my connection with all things in the worldwide web of life? Good medicine, indeed.

To round off a perfect day – before cooking a lovely meal together –  a glass of bubbly in the garden, faces turned to the warmth of the evening sunshine. Nature, it seemed, hadn’t quite finished with us . . . 

Ah, John Muir certainly knew what he was talking about. Here’s to him! 🙂