Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Staff of life

In my family of origin, bread was our religion. My maternal grandmother only ever bought a commercial loaf called "Hollywood Bread" and there was great angst when we could no longer find it available. My paternal grandmother considered a thick slice of homemade white bread with butter and jam as dessert and ate it with a smacking gusto that remains one of my favourite memories.

In a long-ago post, I began a sourdough starter trying, finally, to get one to work. Using the methods outlined at I now have to lovely living starters, one white and one whole wheat, in the kitchen. I try to make two loaves a week from them and experiment occasionally with other things such as pancakes, cinnamon buns and, for the last couple of days, I have finally gathered the courage to do an artisan loaf.

What does courage have to do with bread you might ask? Well, artisan bread is a real commitment. While my humble daily loaves take a maximum of 20 minutes to put together (not including the 10 minutes spent the day before making the sponge or baking time), an artisan loaf requires some attention on each of four days. For the complete process see but basically you make a wet dough on day one, let it rest overnight in the fridge. Day two, fold it in half and put back into fridge. Day three take it out in the evening and each hour for 4-5 hours stretch it out and fold it, then put back in bowl to rest. Then after 5 stretches, put into a banneton (a very odd looking wooden oblong bowl) that gives artisans that distinctive oval shape and ridged crust. and set back into fridge for its final sleep. Morning of day 4 bake in a steamy oven at 420 F for 15 minutes and 410 F for 30 minutes. Voila, an artisan bread with the romantic name of Pain a l'Ancienne! Doesn't that just scream for a good cheese and red wine by the fire?

Ok so maybe the work load isn't that tough but just try remembering the stretch and fold routine while you are engrossed in a good book or movie!

Anyway, it turned out. Not exactly as pretty as the bakery loaves (more John Merrick than Angelina Jolie) but a good honest loaf. Now to figure out what to slather on it??

For those of you who prefer to gather your culinary expertise from a good book, try Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. It is a treasure-trove of bread varieties and methods. It was gifted to me by a friend from Honeymoon Bay and remains one of my favourite cookbooks. Not for the faint of heart but worth the adventure! 

Monday, February 21, 2011

In anticipation of bees

I have always been fascinated by bees. Their ability to transport their tiny bodies, laden with the pollen of summer flowers, on wings too tiny for flight is, truly, awe inspiring. Bees, in fact, shouldn't be able to fly at all. In 1934, it was recorded that bees defied all the laws of aerodynamics. But there they were, humming busily between the calendulas, apple blossoms, and bee balm, blissfully unaware that they should be treading about on the ground.

It wasn't until last night watching "Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds" (and the groundbreaking slow motion photography of Michael H. Dickinson that sorted all this out in 2006) that I learned what a feat of aviation marvel bees perform. During flight, their bumpy half-drunken flight, they actually use short choppy high speed flapping and twist their wings so that both the backward and forward motions create lift. For their body size, their flapping is outrageously fast. Nothing short of amazing!

But really amazes me about bees is honey. I love honey. Its gooey goldenness on a spoon was used by my mom as a cough suppressant when I was a child. An evening of laboured coughing was invariably met by a spoonful of sweet goodness to be sucked. I don't actually know if there is any medicinal benefit to honey in this use, but the slow coating of my throat seemed to help. I would drift off to sleep comforted at least.

For my children, when they were young and wouldn't swallow a pill, I would often crush it up and hide it in a thick dollop of honey on a spoon. One upping Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar, I felt much better giving the kids something a little closer to the garden than the factory.

So tonight, I extend my affair with bees on their terms. I enrolled in a beekeeping course and have been looking to the first night for weeks. I have a spot picked out for the first of possibly several hives right along the drainage ravine that runs beside our house. It is thick with blackberry brambles and promises a sweet and dusky honey reminiscent of a forest in late August. If you ever had the chance to be in a Pacific coast forest late summer, you know the smell I, musky, and above all blackberry scented.
As part of my overall yard revamping, my adopted children will gain a place of honour and we will have to spend many a day pondering their needs, their society, and their work. And while the payoff of honey may take until next year to really flow (pardon the pun!) we will likely have a little reward by early Fall this year.  They will also be the deciding factor for future plantings. Everything in the little land around our house will now be chosen with their bee friendly nature in mind.

Then the big decisions will come. Mead or gifts? How much do we hoard away for ourselves? What can I do to take out the sugar and substitute honey in my baking and cooking? What kind of jars would be best to give away at Christmas. Like the bees, I will be flapping quite hard here for a while.

(Thanks to IslandMoments Newsletter Jan/Feb2010 for the gorgeous bee picture at the top of the blog!)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Magic Geranium Day

Today the sun is out. After a long and sometimes oppressive winter, hope and energy have returned. The song birds woke me up this morning and I have been like a windup toy ever since.

Noticing that it is threatening to take over the small hydroponic operation we have going, I have made a basil marinade for some  pork chops that will be bbq'd for dinner tonight. Then I excavated the kitchen counter from the miscellaneous build up of things that should be elsewhere and sorted and cleaned up parts of the garage that were beginning to take on a life of their own. The sun really is my "Magic Geranium" (If you have never read this story, you really must look it, and its author Jane Thayer, up READ ALOUD FUNNY STORIES)

But sunny days are for outside work so I called the gardener who does my heavy lifting to tell him of seven junipers that have to go to make way for plants that produce food. There will be fruit trees down the east side of the house and on the west side of the back yard where we removed a rotten old and unused deck. The fig tree we bought last year will find a place of honour in the front garden and a new herb bed is brewing in my mind. Some serious planning will have to occur to fend off the voracious deer but I think we can win that battle. The lemon tree (now sitting in the garage with the lime waiting for an end to the -3 overnight temperatures) is full of buds that give hope for a fragrant and delicious summer.Can you imagine the joy of a hot day paired a Hendicks gin and tonic and a garnish of your own lemon and lime wedges?

This week the local food security org in town ( is coming to start the design of my vegetable garden. We are going to revamp an overgrown and unused part of the yard for some raised beds and my bees. Hopefully they will be coming mid to end of March so I need to have a lovely site created for them. I can hardly wait for the hypnotic drone of my little workers and the sweet glory that they create. There will be at least one batch of mead bubbling away by the fireside for us this winter. 

This year I committed to seeing how far along the self-sufficiency path two full time jobs, my feeble elbows, and our astronomy hobby (for which we spend our entire summer vacations travelling) would allow. I want the work of self-sufficiency to be sustainable too. Much too often I have started something and made it so much work it was un-sustainable considering our life.I want to avoid this and see just how much we can do for ourselves.The sunshine today just affirms that it was the right decision.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Sustainability Debate

I have read a couple of interesting articles lately with a sustainability focus. Matt Ridley suggests at ( that a move towards self-sufficiency romanticizes sustenance living and ignores the fact that specialization in product and food creation has brought real benefit to the global population.. Balance that thought with "One Local Family" ( -- blogging a year in the life of the Levitch family of Scotsdale Arizona who have committed to buy everything they need from local shops and vendors for 365 days. The Levitch's aren't giving up electricity or anything, they are just committed to supporting their local shop merchants, restauranteurs, and farm markets in order to keep a vibrant economy alive in their area.

Then there are those who are giving up the creature comforts of life -- in the 70s they were the back to the landers, and now they are typically the "off-griders". Evidence of this continuing trend is more than amply supplied at the Off-Grid Living blog ( forums. Off-grid living does mean giving up electricity and returning to a way of life focused on sustenance and simplicity. Then, for those of us interested in food as our passionate endeavor, there are both the 100-mile Diet and Slow Foods movements to consider.

Here at the Modern Sufficiency "headquarters" (really my desk in the living room), we have decided that we don't want to go back to life without Google, the KitchenAid, coffee or the propane fireplace (my elbows just couldn't take it). But we DO want to know where our food comes from and attempt to increase the quality and health benefits of our food. And we do enjoy the "work" of considering what we cook, eat, buy, and grow. And we are looking for ways, sustainable ways (I mean we both still work outside of this) to achieve a closer to home diet.

It is immeasurably pleasurable to me to have a carboy of mead bubbling away beside the propane fire; to have the sourdough starters (one whole wheat locally sourced and ground by me and one that is made with your basic supermarket white) springing to life on the bookshelf beside the kitchen table. The breads that come with these starters is better than anything we can buy.

I love our homemade sauerkraut and am assured of the nutritional whallop of all the fermented foods that I make. On the other hand, I don't think I am willing to make sausages without a tiny bit of preservative to ensure I don't poison everyone. After all, Saltpeter after all has been used for centuries to preserve foods for long periods of time.

Today in our southern windows, we have two Aerogardens (small hydroponic growing appliances) sprouting heirloom tomatoes and saved-seed hot peppers for early spring consumption.

So it doesn't have to be an either/or choice. You don't have to give up on your sustainability goals because you don't have a woodstove or become Amish to achieve them. Producing something for your family that is edible, wearable, or tradeable doesn't mean everything has to be hand grown, hand sewn or produced by your own hand. But some of it, quite a bit of it, can be.

It can be as simple as changing out some of your landscaping to include food producing plants. An apple tree in the yard is beautiful both to look at and to provide fruit that is miles ahead in taste from the long distance travelers in the supermarkets. Or you could, like us, try your hand at making your own pastrami and cheese.

Sustainability is a mindset -- a mindset that is aware that the global spice trade made our food more enjoyable but requires a transportation system that sometimes harms the very places sending us those fragrant additives. It is a mindset that says, yes, I can grow a few tomatoes on my deck in the summer and then buy and preserve an area's bounty in glass jars in my basement for consumption during our long winters. It is one that seeks some balance between the rampant consumerist culture that we live in and our romaticized notions of our forebearers life of sustenance. It is also one that says: "I am tired tonight, let's go to the local burger joint for dinner. I will deal with the weeding tomorrow."