Easier, better or both?


Our More Sustainable System for Heating our Home and Hot Water

Earlier this year we renovated our house and used the opportunity to revamp our heating and hot water systems.

We live in a rural village where there is no access to mains gas, so the house and the water were heated using an oil (kerosene)-fired boiler.

Our house is a modern (for the UK) detached property, with wall and roof insulation. Windows are double-glazed throughout. While undertaking the alterations, we discovered that there is no insulation under the floors – one explanation for the cold tootsies in winter.

As we both work from home, we needed a system that would keep the house warm during the day and in the evenings, but would cost less to run than the old oil-based system.

Solar PanelsOur new system was planned using the premise that we’d generate our own energy or use renewable energy sources where possible, and that we’d minimise our use of fossil fuels. It was also designed to make us independent of oil.

The wood-burning stove was the first item to be installed and significantly improved our quality of life during the recent long, chilly winter.

We have installed two solar thermal panels that heat our water during daylight hours. An air-to-water heat pump boosts the water temperature, when necessary, on cloudy days. Hot water is stored in a large (250 litre), highly insulated, dual coil cylinder. A bonus of the new system is that we now have mains pressure water for our showers and taps and have been able to remove the header tank in the loft.

Air-source heat pumpThe air-to-water heat pump also heats our home via radiators. As this system runs at a lower temperature than the traditional oil-based system, radiators with larger surface areas had to be installed. Photovoltaic  (PV) solar panels were fitted to generate some of the electricity required to run the heat pump. We import electricity from the grid to supplement what we generate from the PV panels.

We are now independent of oil and so will soon say goodbye to the ugly oil tank in the garden. We no longer have to juggle the timing of oil deliveries against the oil level in the tank and fluctuating (usually rising!) oil prices.

The installation is complete and I’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new system over the next few months.


Crunchy Buckwheat Granola

Before the strawberry jam disaster, I did have some culinary success last week.

During the winter, I saw an interesting recipe in a newspaper using raw buckwheat as an ingredient. However by the time I’d managed to find a shop where I could buy raw buckwheat, I’d lost the recipe. Since then the buckwheat has been hanging out in the cupboard, looking for something to do.

Earlier this month we tried a gluten-free muesli, which was pretty good, but rather pricey (amazing how costly items become once they are labelled gluten-free). Interestingly the muesli contained buckwheat. I wondered if this would work in granola too, so I hit the internet in search of a recipe.Crunchy Buckwheat Granola

I found this super Crunchy Buckwheat Granola recipe on the “Kath Eats Real Food” website.

I made just two changes to Kath’s recipe – I substituted chopped, mixed nuts for the whole raw almonds, and sunflower oil for the canola oil.

For those with metric ovens, 300 degrees F is ~150 degrees C.

The granola was a great success – crunchy and delicious. If you use  gluten-free oats, the granola is gluten-free too. I’ll definitely be making this again & again. Now if only I could remember where I purchased that buckwheat ……??


Baby Birds and Burnt Jam

StrawberriesI went a little crazy & bought too many punnets of juicy strawberries last week, so they started growing beards faster than we could consume them. Inspired by Alys Fowler’s recipe for Strawberry Conserve (June issue of The Simple Things Magazine), I decided to make some jam.

My initial jam-making attempts in 2011 and 2012 using plums from our tree were quite successful. The most delicious batch was the first. It caramelised slightly because I left it a little too long, while trying to work out what the setting point looked like. (Yes I know the theory about the jam developing a skin when placed on a cooled plate, but it didn’t seem that simple in our murky old kitchen.) Subsequent batches were more “textbook”, but never tasted quite as good as that first one.

This is my first attempt at strawberry jam. After two 24 hour “set aside” steps, I was into the last leg; “Boil rapidly until set, about 20 minutes.” I armed the timer, and made a cup of tea.

Then ……. I the noticed a robin feeding it’s chick on our fence. So exciting, as it is the first time we’ve seen baby robins in our garden. Their perch on the fence was soon taken over by a sparrow family – two chicks vying for mom’s attention, one nearly unseating the mother in an attempt to get to the grub. Then the blackbirds started – chick behind mom, bobbing along to lure worms out of the grass.

Spoon welded to plateWhile engrossed in the antics of the baby birds, the smell of caramel started to waft in from the kitchen. The timer alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but the jam had clearly progressed a little beyond the desired setting point. It was a light shade of brown. “No problem”, I thought, this might be like that first batch of plum jam that was so divine.

I continued to follow the recipe; “To stop the strawberries floating to the top, allow the jam to cool slightly…. before bottling.”

Given the advancedSolid jam & a sticky mess state of caramelisation, this was a big mistake. When I tried to pick up my mixing spoon to pop the jam into the jars, the spoon had become so securely welded to the plate where it had been resting, that the plate came along for the ride. After wrestling the spoon from the plate, bottling commenced. Based on what happened later, I am not sure that I’ll ever extricate the “jam” from that bottle.

As the jam cooled it became stickier, it morphed into caramel and then started to solidify into what looked suspiciously like toffee. I decided to abandon further bottling attempts, go with the flow and make toffee sweets instead.

I started popping spoonfuls of the brown gum onto a sheet of grease-proof paper. But soon golden strands of caramel started to proliferate all along the path of the spoon. As the mixture cooled, the stickiness increased, to a point where it was no longer possible to get the goo off the spoon. By this stage I was giggling uncontrollably and hubby came downstairs to investigate. He tried one of my partly-set “toffees”, which proceeded to stick his teeth together. Not sure that the toffee idea is going to work either. Oh well – I’m off to clean the pan now.

Apologies to Alys for turning her lovely recipe into such a shambles, but I just couldn’t resist those baby birds!


Asparagus

AsparagusThe Vale of Evesham is the place to be this month if you’re a fan of asparagus. The 2013 season started slowly, but it’s been worth the wait.  We are taking every opportunity to eat these delicious, crisp, tender spears at the moment.  Our favourite sources for this luscious luxury are Reville’s Farm Shop in Defford and Collis’ Farm shop on the A44 near Broadway.  Both sell wonderfully fresh asparagus, straight from their own fields. Wayside Farm Shop sell local asparagus, asparagus quiche and even asparagus scones! In fact, everyone goes a little aspara-crazy around here at this time of year at the annual Asparagus Festival.


Spring in Worcestershire

Spring is our favourite season, and it’s particularly lovely here in rural Worcestershire.Spring lamb

Each year our spring starts with the first glimpse of snowy newborn lambs. It’s also fun to spot the single black lamb, a standard occurrence in many of our local flocks. Our walks at this time of year are accompanied by little bleats and answering baas from each lamb’s mother. Over the next few months we watch the bouncy, mischievous, skinny babies grow into stocky, woolly, (much less interesting) adolescents.

Malvern Spring Show garden The Malvern Spring Garden Show is another highlight of our spring. This precedes the bigger and grander Chelsea Flower Show. However the Malvern show is friendlier, less crowded and more accessible.  It’s possible to get close-up views of all the show gardens, there are loads of plants for sale and plenty of parking a short stroll across the road from the show grounds. We still love Chelsea, but prefer to see those gardens with our feet up in front of the TV.

It’s the blossoms thApple Blossomat make spring so special in the Vale of Evesham. Blackthorn and plum start the ball rolling, followed by fluffy pink cherry blossom. The apple blossom has been quite spectacular this year – one benefit of the slow, cold start to spring.  May (Hawthorne) trees, lilac and clematis are now providing swathes of colour.  The wildflowers have also been stunning this year – carpets of deep blue bluebells in Dumbleton and Ashton woods, bright yellow buttercups in the meadow behind St Barbara’s in Ashton and pink campion along the paths and hedgerows. The fat, furry bumblebees seem to be enjoying them too!


Stove Top Fans

Stove Top FanOur cute little Sterling engine stove-top fan has arrived.

We decided to buy a stove top fan, to speed up the circulation of warm air around our living room, as it can take a while for the heat that radiates from the surface of our wood burning stove to reach other parts of the room.

We identified two types of stove top fans that are free to run, and don’t require batteries or mains power. Both use heat from the stove (or more precisely heat differentials) to drive the fan and are based on elegant, albeit different, scientific principles.

1. A Seebeck effect fan is driven by an electrical current, which is generated by a thermoelectric effect (i.e. a current is produced when the junctions between different metals are at different temperatures).

Sterling Engine Stove Top Fan2. A fan, which uses a Sterling engine to convert heat from the stove into mechanical energy. In this device, a column of air is heated, it expands, pushing a piston upward, the air is then rapidly cooled, it contracts, pulling the piston downward. The up and down movement of the piston, rotates an arm which turns the fan.

We chose a Sterling engine stove top fan, made by Kontax, a boutique engineering company based in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The fan is beautifully designed in stainless steel, glass and graphite.

This wonderful gadget works a treat. The living room now gets warm and cosy soon after we light the stove. Heat also circulates to the rest of the house. We have lots of fun and get an enormous amount of satisfaction watching the little engine bobbing elegantly up and down. It has been a great talking point with visitors too. We would highly recommend this ingenious device.


Walk From Hailes Abbey

We recently did Walk no. 15 from our “50 Walks in the Cotswolds” book. This 5 mile (8km) circular walk starts at Hailes Abbey near Winchcombe and crosses fields to the villages of Didbrook and Wood Stanley. It then joins the Cotswold Way and heads across beautiful, rolling hills to Stumps Cross and past a stone monument and the ruins of an iron-age fort at Beckbury Camp. The monument is a good place for a little break and a chance to take in the superb views of the Cotswold countryside. The path then heads down the hill towards Farmcote (a visit to the village requires a little detour) before returning to the Abbey.

The walk takes in two simple, but beautiful churches and the much grander, ruined abbey.

Hailes church is opposite the abbey and well worth a visit. It contains the remains of wall paintings from the 14th century and original floor tiles rescued from the abbey.

St Faith’s chapel in Farmcote village is a sweet little building in a stunning setting. It has a pretty stone font, medieval roof timbers and the remains of a Saxon arch.

Hailes Abbey is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage. It was founded in 1246 and was a powerful Cistercian abbey until 1536, when it was closed under Henry VIII’s Dissolution policy. It is reputed that Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell) watched the destruction of the abbey from a vantage point on the hill above. This spot at Beckbury Camp is now marked by the stone monument which we passed on the walk. The abbey audio tour that is included in the entrance fee is quite fascinating. It describes the history and day-to-day workings of the abbey. We were amazed to see the 750 year old toilet/drainage system still in working order. The abbey ruins are in a tranquil spot and very beautiful. A good place to rest and reflect at the end of a super walk.


Apples

I love farm shops. These rural gems provide a fascinating glimpse into the cycle of life on the farms and orchards in the Vale of Evesham. They also hold new surprises on each weekly visit, from season to season throughout the year.

Our village is surrounded by orchards, so it’s usually hard to miss the apple harvest in autumn. But we have been disappointed this year. During blossom-time this spring the bees and their fellow pollinators were unable to fly, due to incessant rain. The result – our apple tree and most others in our village, are bare. Even hubby, who is pretty expert at scrumping, arrives back from each walk with barely a bulge in a pocket these days.

However, a wonderful surprise awaited us at the Wayside Farm Shop this week – an oasis of apples! Lovely, local apples, with such low food miles, that they could have walked there. And the variety – Russets, Jonareds, Spartans, Crispins, Howgate Wonders, in addition to the more common Cox’s, Bramleys and Galas. What a delight.

As most of the apples were the same price, we filled our bag with a selection of varieties tha we hadn’t tried before.  How exciting. We’ve been taste-testing our haul all week. The only problem…… we can’t remember which is which. Oh, never mind. We can always pop back to the farm shop for more.


The Merits of Ash

We had a super lunch in the Crown and Trumpet in Broadway yesterday – a luscious lasagne for hubby and a cheerful chilli con carne for me (spiciness just right).

This old poem was hanging on the wall above our table. Quite a coincidence, after my last post about the performance of different species of trees as firewoods. I’ve transcribed the poem, as the attached photo is a bit wobbly.

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Chestnut only good they say
If for long it’s laid away;
Make a fire of Elder tree
Death within your house shall be;
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for Queen with crown of gold.

Birch and Fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last;
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread;
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould –
E’en the very flames are cold;
But Ash green or Ash brown
Is fit for Queen with golden crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense-like perfume.
Oaken logs, if dry and old
Keep away the winters cold;
But Ash wet or Ash dry
A King shall warm his slippers by.


Firewood

There is quite an art (and science) to making a good fire. Since having our new stove installed, our fire-making skills have improved daily. We can now get the fire going on the first lighting – most days. We have experimented with a variety of woods and have been fascinated to see how log size, tree species and degree of seasoning really do affect how well the wood burns (as all our “stove veteran” friends have been telling us).

After testing wood from a number of sources, we have decided to buy our logs from Tiddesley Wood, a nature reserve near Pershore. Their logs come from mixed woodland and are well seasoned, as they are stored for at least 2 years before being cut. As a result, their wood burns beautifully and the seasoning ensures that we can avoid the perils of a spluttering, popping and smoky fire. The woodland is sustainably managed and the profits from log sales go towards wildlife conservation.

As this is one of Tiddesley’s log-sale weekends, hubby popped over there today to load up his car with luverly firewood. We are so pleased to have our little Clearview stove and to have found such a super source of wood. This great combination is better than heating with oil in so many ways.