Monday, January 30, 2012

Mooshine and homemade butter

We've just started to get raw milk (or Mooshine as we now call it, we took this name from our friends over east). Raw milk is unhomogenised and unpasteurised and for some reason it was made illegal to sell it for drinking many years ago in most western countries (it is now sold as bath milk to get around the legal insanity). I think a few people got sick from tainted milk and there was a knee jerk reaction to make pasteurisation mandatory. The fact is that hygiene standards are much better these days and the risk of getting sick from raw milk are tiny. Unfortunately in our risk (and benefit?) averse society the law has stayed with us and the benefits of milk as it should be are lost to most. So you can sell cigarettes, alcohol, guns, coal, McDonalds, etc but you can't sell raw milk! What a shame, have we lost our minds? Not only are supermarket chains ripping dairy farmers off by paying peanuts for their product, but farmers are also forced to make their milk inferior in order to sell it. And companies also have the cheek of taking the cream off and selling it for the same price as full cream milk (then they can sell you the cream separately and make even more money!). Raw milk tastes better and some people have found relief from conditions such as Eczema and Asthma.

We've been getting Jersey milk lately and it has about 2 litres of cream in five litres.

Another great thing about getting raw milk is that you can make your own butter very easily. Here's how you do it. Firstly let the cream settle and pour  or spoon it off into a separate container. Take it out of the fridge and leave it to come to room temperature (30-60 mins). Then put it in a food processor or use a bar mixer to buzz it for 10-20 minutes.

When it's ready you may hear the motor change pitch or see globules of fat and butter forming. This is when you can pour it off through a sieve to separate it from the butter milk.

Then put it  in a bowl with cold water (so it doesn't melt) and press it with butter pats or a spoon to remove milk and air pockets and shape it. We do a triple rinse to get all the milk and water off. You should get roughly half butter and half buttermilk.

That's pretty much it. You can add salt if you like or just have it unsalted. Yum! You can use the butter milk as you like: it's supposed to be great for making scones; heat it up with some chilli and garlic, leave it over night and then warm it up and add it to layer pellets to make beautiful hot mash for your chooks; make your own low fat yoghurt with it; I just put mine in a cheese sauce for Macaroni cheese (Quin's favourite).

So there you go, unadulterated low carbon butter. I dig this youtube video, mainly for the accent (but don't waste the buddermilk!). If you live near a dairy farm speak nicely to the farmer  and you may even get your own Mooshine source (don't come across like a snoopy milk inspector though!). If you live in the city they may sell it at health food shops or there are bound to be a few hippies drinking it, just ask them where to get it... 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Front garden production

When you're a keen gardener and live in the burbs there inevitably comes a time when you run out of room to plant things. Our back garden is full to the brim with productive trees and vegies, so we've started to develop the productive capacity of our front garden and verge. This garden has mostly hardy, waterwise native plants and we love it for its beautiful flowers and the fact that it is low maintenance and attracts native animals.We planted a Macadamia tree a few years ago and it has struggled along without regular water since then. The same goes for our olive trees, so recently I bit the bullet and installed some drip irrigation out the front (I modified the old overhead system so it wasn't too hard). What a surprise, a few months later and the plants are positively thriving. We now have the following productive plants out the front:

Macadamia, which will be a large tree with delicious nuts. It's in the proteacae family, so it's sensitive to phosphorous. It seems to do well on straight compost.

Three olive trees (varieties are Mission, Coratina and Manzanillo), two for oil and one for pickling. Olives do well in our Mediterranean climate. They will take up to ten years to fruit without retic, but five years or so with. Water is valuable, but so is local organic food so they're on the retic. Note that the trees are trained to a vase shape in order to make harvesting and pest/disease control easier and to give the fruit enough light and air.

A curry plant. An Indian curry's not a curry without some of these yummy leaves.

A bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa), which we hope will grow us stakes for the garden. I got this from a friend and although it may not be the perfect variety I like to get plants from friends. In time I can say that's Wally's fig, Amir's pomegaranate or Wayno's bamboo and it will remind me of those people. This bamboo is a clumper and should grow big healthy shoots for staking tomatoes and beans.

Four Acacia plants. These will eventually become hosts for a parasitic native tree called the Quandong (closely related to another well known parasite, Sandalwood). I've planted the hosts now so they will be well established by the time I plant the Quandong in spring this year (two hosts per tree). Quandongs make the best jam in the world by the way.

That's it out the front for now. We are still fossicking around for more space. Just this afternoon Amy and I talked about taking over Quin's sandpit (unused for at least 18 months) for a plum tree...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Banana update

Our first bunch of bananas appeared a few months ago. Since then I've given it some potash, cut the 'bell' (male flowers) off and put a bunch bag over it to stop pests and keep the sun off it. The picture below shows the female (higher up and bigger) and male fruit/flowers.

The male flowers or bell need to be removed (emasculated?) since they serve no purpose and take energy from the bunch, so I chopped it off.

Here is a pic of the bunch covered with the bag, silver side to the North to reflect sunlight.

We've waited patiently as the fruit have grown and in the end we got a bit impatient and  harvested some bananas. Unfortunately it must have been too early because they haven't ripened off the plant. We've never done this before so I guess we'll learn as we go. You can tree ripen the fruit and the taste will be the best, but eating 120 bananas in a week or so could be a bit tricky so we'll try to ripen a hand at a time when the time is right.

The other plant has just started to flower too, so there should be a gap of about 4 months in between them. That's worked out well as we won't be flooded with fruit all at the same time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tomato time

January is the time of year we start to think about preserving tomatoes. In the summer they are cheap and plentiful and fresh and yummy. Last weekend we had some unusually cool weather (26C, cloudy), so we took advantage of it by doing some tomato paste the Italian way. We loaded up the bike with our two Vacola sets and set off down the road to Hulbert Street.

Shani had bought 40kg of tomatoes for $32 at the local Italian grocer, which she had washed the night before.     We had a quick cuppa and then got to work. The process is pretty simple: chop the fruit in quarters and pass it through a special tomato press (this removes the skin and seeds). Pass the skin and seeds through the press twice more to get all the juices out.

Quin had a good go at this for ten minutes before he lost interest!

The sauce then goes into a sieve (such as an old bed sheet) in order to drain as much water as possible.

We left it to drain for a couple of hours while we had lunch (should have been pasta and wine but wasn't). Then you're ready to bottle. We use Fowler's Vacola, which involves cleaning jars, seals and lids and then putting the sauce in. Then you simply put a clip over the lid and boil them in a water bath for an hour or so to preserve them. Et voila (or whatever they say in Italian), leave them overnight and they will be vacuum sealed and preserved, should keep for years. We got 29 litres of sauce from 40kg of fruit, not bad for a few hours work divied up between three families.

When you use the sauce you need to cook it for 30-60 minutes to get the best flavour and nutritional value and to reduce a bit. Add garlic, herbs, salt and pepper to taste.

We also scored some cherry tomatoes from Hilton Harvest. We wash them and remove the stork, then chop them up and place cut side up on an old fly screen. This then goes in the car to bake for a couple of days or until totally dry. Put them in a jar (no salt, no oil, just au naturel) and you're done, as long as they're dry they will keep for 6 months plus. We use these as a tomato paste replacement in soups and stews.

Last but not least come the classic tinned whole tomatoes. Just blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or two. Then pop them in cold water and the skins should peel off fairly easily. Then bottle them up as above with some tomato juice and a teaspoon of lemon juice.

We normally do 40kg to keep us going until next summer. 20 kg down, 20 more to do this year... 

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Chooks year 3

 By now you know I like collecting data, but I bet you'll think I am totally obsessive compulsive when you hear that we've been counting our eggs for the last 3 years. But aren't the results fascinating?! My spreadsheet 'Eggsactly' has shown us that: older hens lay less; hens lay less eggs in winter in Perth and; heirloom chooks suck when it comes to egg production! Below is Holly, one of our Golden Laced Wyandottes and our Australorps Snowy, Martha, Splash and Lacey.

In year 1 we averaged 2.7 eggs a day, in year 2 this dropped to 2.1 and last year it dropped to 1.5 eggs a day. Our flock numbers have declined a bit over the years, but age is an obvious factor in the drop in egg production. Most of the hens were around 6 months when we started taking stats, which means they are now around three and a half. This year has been disappointing and we've come to the conclusion that we need new blood in our flock to re-invigorate it and increase our production. As vegetarians we rely on eggs a lot for protein and of course you just can't beat a fresh, free range, home laid egg. We've have had some problems getting our broodies to sit on fertile eggs, but we just put batch number 3 under Lacey and we're hoping it will be third time lucky. The breeds we now have are Australorp (3) and Wyandottes (2), which are heirloom breeds. They are beautiful hens and I'd still like to keep a few for interest, but our new chooks will be hybrid Hi-line crosses which will hopefully lay loads of eggs for us.

Seasonality is another big factor in our egg production. The averages by season for all three years are 2.5 eggs/day for summer (December-February), 1.7 for autumn (March to May), 1.1 for winter (June to August) and 2.7 for spring (September to November). So despite extremely hot summers and relatively mild winters hens struggle in winter and do well in summer. This highlights the need to give your chooks really good insulation (which we haven't done yet) and good solar access. I'd like to add an extra layer of tin above the roof of our hen house and put in aircell insulation and some insulation batts at some stage. Ideally we'd make a solar passive chook yard, but we don't have room for that unfortunately. Check out this cool 'Chookship' Hilton Harvest are building for their chooks. It's made with used tyres rammed with adobe for high thermal mass. This will be rendered and enclosed with North facing windows to catch and store warmth in winter:

We're hoping for some very happy, productive chooks at HH. This might be a bit OTT for the backyard though, unless you happen to have a gang of keen, fit Woofers to give you a hand...

Friday, January 6, 2012

Electric cargo bike year 1 review

It's been a year since we bought our electric Bakfiets long cargo bike from Dutch Cargo Bike. See this post for some initial views we had on it. We have done over 3,000kms in it this year, so now is probably a good time to review it.

All three of us love this bike, in fact Amy and I fight over whose turn it is to ride it! It's a breeze to ride, thanks to beautifully designed ergonomics, top quality components and superb build quality. The electric assist is super smooth and the box carries just about anything we need it to. Here is a summary :

Cargo carrying: A trip to the beach with a 5 year old, a boogie board, towels, picnic, etc is easy. A trip to the community garden with tools, soil mix, plants, etc no sweat. I've even picked up supplies like chook food and bales of straw down the road and fitted it all in.Grocery shopping, no worries. 3 kids fine. 2 adults plus a kid, hard work up the hills but otherwise easy. Going to the park with Quin and Porridge, our 20 year old arthritic dog is no probs. The best bit has been in helping Quin ride his bike around. When he gets puffed out we just chuck him and his bike in the box and we're away. I would definitely recommend the long box over the short.

General use: We're really happy with the gears and brakes, which are pretty much maintenance free. I now think that derailleur gears are awful, I can't believe they are so common! I was unlucky enough to get a puncture on the rear tyre and luckily got the flat at home. A big cardboard box staple had pierced the side wall (where there is less protection), but it was quite easy to fix. I didn't have to remove the wheel, so no worries there. The tyres were a bit tricky to inflate until I bought a $2 adaptor for our pump (the valve type is quite uncommon in Australia). I find the 'Smart' lights a bit annoying, since they turn themselves on and off according to the light level and whether you're riding or not. This is fine most of the time, except when the lights go on when you don't want them to. Amy loves the covered chain guard and wheel guard for being able to wear anything while riding, even long dresses. Lots of people ask isn't it hard to ride, due to the look of the bike. The bike is very easy to ride despite the handlebar being so far from the front wheel. In fact I'd say that after a few rides it's just as easy to ride this bike as a normal bike (albeit with a wider turning circle) and compared to a tag-along it's much, much easier and more enjoyable.

Electrics: Factory fitted 24V 10a pedelec system, where assist is only provided when pedalling. A controller on the handlebar tells you how much juice is left (5 levels) and allows you to set the level of assist (5 levels again). It's easy to charge the bike, no disassembling of the battery just an easy plug into the wall. It takes about 6 hours for a full charge and uses 0.4 kWh (about 10 cents worth). A full charge gets us 35-50 km depending on various things (wind, level of assist, hills, cargo, etc.). One annoying aspect is that less power is delivered as the battery discharges and also that a bar on the controller's battery level does not give the same number of kilometres. At the highest level of assist we have found that we travel around 20 kms on the first bar, 10 on the second, 5 on the third and maybe 3 on the fourth. You'll be lucky to get 2 kms on the last bar and the power delivery is very low. It's not a huge issue, it's just something to be aware of and we usually charge when the battery is on 3 bars or less. The bike weighs around 45kg, so if you run out of juice you're walking the rest of the way. Although the battery is not very powerful we have found it fine for us. At one stage we found that the electrics had an intermittent fault where they didn't deliver power for a while. This issue has gone for now and we think it may have been due to water getting in a connection. The motor cuts out at 25 kms (this is standard for this model), which is a bit annoying, but a good power saving device. We are definitely glad we got the elec assist. It means the bike replaces a car for 80% of the trips we make and we ride it almost every day. We still get a work out, since you have to pedal to get the motor to run.

Faults: No big issues here. We spent $35 to fix a faulty gear cable and $20 to replace the pedals which also wore out prematurely. We change the seat level very often since Amy and I share the bike and we have worn out 2 saddle quick releasers already. I really think better ones should be fitted since the fact that this is a unisex bike is a big selling point and it's obvious most families will need to change the seat level often. The front mudguard used to rub up against the steering rod and after much consultation we chose the tried and tested 'whack it with a hammer' approach, which has worked fine.

Any other grumbles? A friend built the boxed up bike for us. The instructions were very poor, especially for the electrics. I can't believe that a bike this expensive doesn't come with a free torque key to fit the box together (Ikea style)! The tool was very hard to get (I found one at a fasteners shop in the end) and you need one to tighten the screws every now and again.

Cost: Is it really worth the cost ($5,000)? Absolutely, we have no regrets. We have a few friends with the chinese copies and I hear tales of front wheels coming loose, the bike stand dropping down while riding, poor braking and gearing systems, etc. I can't see those bikes lasting more than 5-10 years, whereas I think ours will still be going in the next century. Our ongoing repair costs will be lower, our riding enjoyment higher and the resale value will be much better. I'm not saying people shouldn't buy chinese cargo bikes, any cargo bike on the road is preferable to a car. I'm just saying that if you can afford the extra then don't hesitate to buy Dutch. FYI here's a link to a blog post with some views on most of the common cargo bikes on the market.

The ultimate proof of the value of this bike is this: we just got rid of our second car. We couldn't have done this without the Bakfiets. This means we'll save at least $5,000 a year on running costs, so the bike will have paid for itself in a year. The car has been demoted to the verge and the garage is now given over to the more valuable bikes. We're even thinking about getting a second cargo bike (a Workcycles Fr8) so we won't have to fight over who gets to ride them!

Sunday, January 1, 2012


We went to Penguin Island the other day. It was 39 degrees in Perth but heaps cooler on the island. We had the most fabulous picnic with home made and home grown mulberry cordial, zuchini slice and salads, bread, shortbread, mulberry leather and jam. Yum! It was like something from Wind in the Willows, but we forgot the potted tongue, oh well, it was still delicious! 

We had a beautiful swim and snorkle and saw heaps of different birds and lizards and of course the Little Penguins. They are malting and looking a bit sad at the moment but still super cute!

But the best bit was seeing the cousins have fun together...