Sunday, August 28, 2011

Seaweed salt soap - and my icy cold hands

I went to pick seaweed with my cousin and mother the other day.  We timed it carefully since we wanted to pick a particular kind of seaweed, Pamaria palmata.  Dulce is the common name in English, but we call it Söl in Icelandic.  Dulce has been used for ages here as food.  They are very nutritious and are sold as snacks and some people used them in green drinks.  This is why we were going to collect some, because my cousin uses them in her nutritious morning drink and it is rather expensive at the shops.  Self sufficiency appeals to me, even if I don't really eat that much of the stuff.

Dulce grows at the very lowest point of the beach where there is movement of the sea most of the time and in order to pick it we had to wait for the lowest tide of the month and we were fortunate that this month it happened to be a Sunday.

We only had to drive about an hour from the city to find a nice place to collect seaweed.  There are these two really cute tiny villages with tongue twisting names (Stokkseyri and Eyrarbakki) and old houses made of timber, clad in corrugated iron and painted in vivid colours with white windows.  I really love those old houses, no matter how impractical they are in the modern world with their low ceilings and tiny rooms.  They have some really nice restaurants in those villages, but we didn't stop this time.

We had to walk pretty far out on the beach to find Söl, the species we were chiefly interested in.  We could hardly sea land by the time we found some and had almost given up and turned back.  It was really hard to walk on those round seaweed covered boulders and we had had to leave my mother behind pretty early on.  I left her, bless her heart, sitting on a rock, hoping she would make it back on land without braking any bones.  I had made sure to take some refreshments with us but unfortunately I had the car keys in my pocket, so she was left stranded alone on the beach with nothing to eat and no phone (that was is the car with the food).  She wasn't upset at all, but started to collect plants to show us when we returned.  Still teaching me about plants, like she did when I was little.  So I learned all about the few plants that grow by the sea.

Even if the sun was shining it was pretty windy and cold and we could hardly see land anymore.  But all that was forgotten when we started seeing the Söl.  We managed to collected three bucketfuls before we started to work our way back to safety, with the tide rising steadily.  I was beginning to get a bit worried that we would need to be rescued, but we made it back safely, if a bit tired and cold (did I already say that?).

We didn't just collect dulce. We also saw these really pretty green seaweeds that I now know are Ulva lactuca, or Laver.  I collected some because I wanted to use them in soap to see if I could get the lovely green colour.

That soap just had to be salt soap, I mean how could it not be.  Sea. Salt.  No brainer!  It did turn out green and a nice green at that.  The photo doesn't do it justice.  It will probably not last too long, but I'm enjoying it all the same.

I had decided to make about 2/3's of it non-salt and have the rest a salt soap.  So I poured quite a lot of soap into the mold and them dumped some salt into the soap batter I had left.  It turned out to be the exact opposite.  More salt soap than not.  I should have tried to get some fancy blending of the two.  But I thought it was going to be a straight line.  Oh well!

I used a lot of coconut oil to see if it lathers.  So the recipe is quite simple:

Cocoanut oil      50%     250g / 8.8oz
Olive oil            40%     200g /  7.0oz
Cocoa butter     10%       50g /  1.8oz

Seaweed blended with 200g / 7.0oz of water.

I scented it with a blend of Peppermint and a hint of Vetiver.  It's quite nice and appropriate for this sea inspired soap.  I used fine sea salt.  I like that a lot better than coarse salt.  It makes a smooth rock hard surface that doesn't scratch.   I look forward to trying it.  I kind of like salt soaps.  They are so different and this one is very authentic with real-live-seaweed that I picked myself from the sea with my icy cold hands.  Did I already say it was cold?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fairy candy - Strawberries

Strawberries are Fairy candy.  Or they could be Goddess fruit.  Definitely they are otherworldly good when you grow them yourself.  Much sweeter and juicier than store bought no matter if they are imported or grown locally.  I think it's because they are picked just a little too soon so they don't get damaged in transport.

This summer I got a bowlful of my own homegrown strawberries for the first time.  A whole bowlful!  I've had a crop of strawberries before, but it's always been one or two at a time, but not a full bowl of fully ripe strawberries, deliciously red and sweet and juicy.

I have two varieties of strawberries.  Some nameless one I bought in a garden center (they never seem to care about named varieties here) and a named variety that I grew from seed so the name was on the packet, but I have since forgotten it (but I think I have the empty packet somewhere).  The seeds came from Denmark and the flowers are pink and the fruit is large and dark and juicy.  This variety flowers well and doesn't try to send out runners like the other one does.  That is a good thing since that means it will concentrate on flowering and producing lots of fruit.  But I lost most of the plants last winter so I want to propagate the plant that I still have.  So I saved a few seeds to sow and am hoping to raise a few more plants.

Strawberry seeds need to get a period of cold in order to germinate, so I put them into the freezer after cleaning them well.  I only have 11 seeds, but I find that it never pays for me to sow too many seeds at a time.  It only results in way too many seedlings and consequently neglect and death.  I prefer to sow a few seeds and take very good care of them all.  Putting the seeds in the freezer somehow doesn't feel very kind, but if that's what they want...

I grow them in a long and narrow box that I built and hung up on a sheltered wall in the garden.  I used some left over timber that I had, screwed the whole thing together and hung it up with some chains.  I take the box down in autumn and keep it close to the house, right under the balcony so it doesn't get soaking wet in winter.  That way most of the plants survive until next spring.  I gave them very good soil this spring and added lots of well rotted horse manure as well as some water retaining gel.  I also mulched with the manure and I have fed them with comfrey fertilizer to boost flowering.  I seems to have paid off.

The nameless variety sends out a lot of runners and this is not good for fruit production but I can easily get lots more plants.  I almost can't keep up with sticking them in pots.  I'm growing them to give to my younger daughter (her apartment has a garden) so that she too can harvest her own next summer.  Her husband doesn't really like strawberries.  Why is it that it's just girls that like strawberries?  Most guys seem to be able to take them or leave them.  My husband doesn't really eat them.  I'm not complaining, I would be devastated if I had to share my berries.  There really aren't that many of them.  And after all they are Goddess fruit, so really not for men, are they?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gift from the gods, brought by the butler

Filipendula ulmaria - Meadowsweet is a lovely medicinal plant.  It is well known as a natural painkiller as it contains salicylic acid, the ingredient in aspirin.  The plant is however, unlike aspirin, quite gentle for the stomach and is used to treat heartburn since it neutralizes stomach acids and it is used for peptic ulcers.  It is anti inflammatory and as such it works well for rheumatic pain.  It is also astringent and a urinary antiseptic.  It is even gentle enough to treat diarrhea in children.

It's name in Icelandic is Mjaðurt, which means Meadplant.  Mead is a drink that the vikings drank way back when they were delusional enough to think Iceland was inhabitable.  There are no surviving recipes for mead, but it was probably alcoholic and some think it was made with honey, but it is fairly obvious that Filipendula ulmaria was used in it.

I got the idea to make a drink from Meadowsweet when I had finished the Rhubarb "champagne".  I was sure that it would make a lovely drink that would be even more like Champagne than Rhubarb.  The scent of Meadowsweet flowers is sweet and warm, almost vanilla like, but still very distinct.  The leaves have a slight almond like smell that is again a bit different.  I made a potful to try it out.  And Oh!  Jumm!  I really like it.  This is no drink for viking brutes.  They can drink robust Rhubarb drinks.  This one is a drink for the girls, wearing white lace, sitting in the garden in the sunshine with the butler reverently serving this delicate tasting and lovely natural champagne, like it's a gift from the gods.

The recipe is simple.

Take about 10 - 15 flower heads of Meadowsweet and put in a pot with cold water, about 4 liters/quarts.

A sliced lemon
500g. /1 pound sugar
1 desert spoon of apple vinegar.

Let this sit for 24 hours
Sieve this and pour the clean liquid into 2 liter plastic bottles, close them and let sit for a couple of days.

When the plastic bottles are quite hard, you put them in the fridge to stop the fermentation.

When you open the cold bottle, the drink will have a gentle carbonation and taste divine.
This drink is lovely and refreshing and would go well with Macarons.  You know!  Those French lovely cookies that I'm always planning to make.  That'll be another post one of these days.

I am making another batch of it these days to give to the vegetable club of the Garden society who are coming to visit the allotment (and I offered to be their host).  I did give some to my husband, poor thing, he went into the hospital three times last month and finally got out last week (and no I never did smack him on the head with the bat :) and he's getting all better, finally.  Although that could be a result of receiving correct medical treatment rather than drinking this lovely drink.  But you never know, do you?

Monday, August 8, 2011

My favorite books about soapmaking

I buy books.  A lot of books about all sorts of things.  If I get interested in something, the first thing I do is to buy a book about it.  Or even better, two books... or more.  So I have a few books about soap making.  I love all my books and I am always so grateful to the authors that they took the time and made the effort to write a book to share their knowledge with me and many others.  I would like to share a few of my favorite titles and books about soapmaking are first in line.  I have to say beforehand that I do not know any of the authors.  I have only bought their books and read them.  I haven't read every book there is about the subject, but if I see a book about making soaps, I look it over thoroughly and buy it if it interests me.  What are your favorite books?  I might be missing a few!

I think my absolute favorite book about making soap must be Anne Watson's simple little book with the big title: "Smart Soapmaking: The simple guide to Making Traditional Handmade Soap Quickly, Safely, and Reliably, or How to Make Luxurious Handcrafted Soaps for Family, Friends, and Yourself".

It was my first book on  making soap and I did read an awful lot of reviews about a lot of soapmaking books before I chose that.  I wasn't disappointed.

The book doesn't have glossy photo's, just very nice black and white line drawings.  It isn't big and it isn't expensive.  What the book has is very clear instructions on how to make soap.  It talks about the dangers of lye (so much so that when I made my first soap I looked like I was ready to go to the moon), equipment and ingredients.  And it lays out in very clear steps how to go about making soaps.  Anne gives quite a few recipes and I would think that anyone, anywhere would be able to find ingredients for at least a few of them.

The best part of this book is that Anne doesn't try to make the process complicated.  She simplifies things quite a lot.  Especially that "trace" thing that had me scared that I wouldn't know when it happened and then everything would be ruined.  Or that the soap would seize and then everything would be ruined,  Or that I wouldn't be able to get it out of the mold or that I wouldn't be able to cut it.

This is a book that I would recommend to any beginner interested in starting to make soaps.  It is by far the best in my humble opinion.

Another life saver that I want to mention is Soapcalc.  I use it every time I make soap (I tend to make a new recipe each time, that's crazy but that's the way I am.  I'm sure I'll come up with THE one perfect recipe one of these days).  But Soapcalc is absolutely invaluable.  I know there are other soap calculators out there and I'm sure they are just as good, but this is the one I started to use and have gotten so used to.  Soapcalc lets me choose grams or pounds or percentages and change between them in the middle.  I love that.  It doesn't look particularly good, but it is functional.  The only thing that is that I would say is:  Don't use the default 38% water.  It makes for a very wet soap.  Change it to 30% or even less.

Anne has also written another book with and equally interesting title:  "Milk Soapmaking: The Smart and Simple Guide to Making Lovely Milk Soap From Cow Milk, Goat Milk, Buttermilk, Cream, Coconut Milk, or Any Other Animal or Plant Milk".  That is excellent for those who are interested in making milk soaps.  Milk is a bit difficult to work with and here I learned that the best milk soap makers can make very white soaps using milks of all sorts.

I also discovered in that book that there are plant milks and that in soapmeking the same rules apply to those as to traditional milk.  I come from cow country and it was almost news to me that sheep and goats produce milk, but coconut milk! Almond milk!  That's not milk to me, but apparently when it comes to soapmaking, it is.  Oh well!  You live and learn :)

Another book which I found very helpful was Susan Miller Cavitch's "The Soapmaker's Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques & Know-How (Natural Body Series - The Natural Way to Enhance Your Life)".  What is it with these long titles on books about making soap?

What I liked about that book was the complete opposite of what I liked about Anne Watson's book.  This book had loads of information about all the different additives that is possible to use in soapmeking.  Variations like colors and scents and shaving soaps and exfoliating soaps and ... the list is endless.  And that is terribly interesting when one is starting out and is just very thirsty for more ideas to work on.  So that is one great book to have on the bookshelf.   Again, there are no large glossy photo's in this one, but nice line drawings and plenty of inspiration.

Finally, I have to mention a special favorite of mine.  This is a series of books about absolutely everything.  Well, everything that is remotely related to the country:  Storey's Country Wisdom Bulletins.

I just love them.  They have bulletins about raising chickens, natural remedies, growing the best blueberries and building a root cellar to name but a few.  And they're only around $4 each.  They are all written by different people and they say they have more than 200 different titles, some of them very interesting.  "Axes and Chainsaws".  How cool is that!

I have a few.  No!  I didn't get the one about axes and chainsaws, but I did get the ones about natural remedies, hand creams and cheese and soap.  I think I also ordered the one about beekeeping, optimistically hoping my husband would suddenly change his mind about that.  Or maybe I just dreamed that.  I can't seem to find it now, but I did find a lot of titles that I would like:  "Great Rhubarb Recipes"!  I need that one :)  And "Making Grapevine Wreaths" (although I think my grapevine is about to give up on life), "Planning & Planting a Moon Garden" might be the answer to that or maybe I should just get "Sleep and Relaxation: A Natural and Herbal Approach". That actually sounds really good.  I should just do that.

Sombre colours

I bought this fantastic linen yarn on a cone. It was quite fine and I usually like chunky yarns to knit.  But I love linen and this was a...