Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Storing eggs for winter

No matter what else you have in your kitchen, you probably have eggs. Whether you boil or fry them for breakfast, brush them over meat, whisk them into egg-drop soup, bake them into pastries, eggs provide one of the simplest and yet most versatile of foods, prized the world over as a rich source of easy protein.

If you raise your own chickens, moreover, you have a ready source of eggs, as well as fertiliser and comedy relief. Hens convert your leftovers into your next breakfast, keep your garden free of pests and mow your lawn for free. Other animals can do some of these things, but not many of us have the time, space or will to manage a suburban herd of sheep or swine, or to slaughter them in the garage. Hens, however, require little space or maintenance, and turn any home into a homestead.

They lay eggs seasonally, however, speeding up in summer and slowing in winter. You could give them more indoor light or Vitamin D supplements, but they cost money and interfere with the chickens’ natural cycle – and saving money and being all-natural are two of the most popular reasons for keeping backyard chickens in the first place.   

Another way would be to collect the extra eggs in summer and preserve them through the winter. Eggs can be preserved in several ways; one, well-known to pub patrons here, is to pickle them. A typical recipe involves hard-boiling eggs and removing the shells, and then creating a pickling solution of cider vinegar, small amounts of salt, sugar, herbs and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil, then simmer for five minutes and pour over the eggs – they should keep for at least a few months.  

You can also soak the eggs in a solution of sodium silicate, known as isinglass or water-glass. One popular recipe from a century ago recommended dissolving sodium silicate in boiling water, to about the consistency of a syrup (or about 1 part silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs -- as fresh as possible, and thoroughly clean -- should be immersed in the solution in such manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid, then removed and let dry. If the solution is kept near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect was said to be much more certain and to last longer.

Perhaps the best and longest-lasting way, however, is to preserve eggs in limewater. No recipe could be simpler; take fresh raw eggs in the shell, set them gently in a jar, and pour in a simple lukewarm mix of tap water and lime powder. I’ve done this with our eggs, and they lasted for up to a year and remained edible.

“Lime” here means neither the citrus fruit nor the tree, but refers to calcium hydroxide, a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years humans burned limestone in kilns to create the dangerous and caustic “quicklime” (Calcium oxide), and hydrated that to create lime powder (calcium hydroxide). Sumerians and Romans used it as a cement, while farmers mixed it with water to create whitewash, tanners used it to remove hair from hides, gardeners to repel slugs and snails, printers to bleach paper. 

Perhaps most importantly, farmers here in Ireland spread lime over their boggy fields to “sweeten” the acid soil and increase crop production as much as four-fold. For hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, lime supported a vast and vital network of village industry in this part of the world-- County Cork alone was said to contain an amazing 23,000 kilns, or one every 80 acres.

In his 1915 monograph “Lime-water for the preservation of eggs,” Frank Shutt describes a series of egg preservation experiments at an experimental farm in Ottawa, which found lime-water to be “superior to all other methods” – how, he didn’t say.

When I first tried to preserve eggs in lime-water, I simply mixed equal parts lime and water – which did no harm, but most of the lime simply settled to the bottom. It turned out a fraction as much lime would have sufficed – Shutt says that water saturates with lime at 700 parts water to one part lime, but adds that “owing to impurities in commercial lime, it is well to use more than is called for.” In any case, if you use more lime than is necessary to saturate in water, the rest simply condenses out.  
Since exposure to air causes more lime to condense over time, some articles recommend keeping the container sealed, either in a Kilner jar or by pouring a layer of oil over the top. I kept mine in an ordinary mayonnaise jar, and they kept fine for a year.

Eggs kept this way do come out with their whites darkened slightly, and with a faint “musty” smell like old clothes. It does not, however, have the unpleasant smell of a rotten egg – believe me, you won’t mistake one for the other. The difference can perhaps be compared to that of rehydrated milk vs. fresh milk – not inedible, just slightly different than expected. As Shutt puts it, nothing “can entirely arrest that ‘stale’ flavour common in all but strictly fresh laid eggs.”

I’m not aware of an upper limit on how long eggs could be kept this way – I kept mine a year, with no ill effects beyond the stale smell – but I would not recommend going longer than several months to be on the safe side. Several months, however, still allows the homesteader to continue harvesting eggs through the winter.

Shutt recommends keeping the water at a cool temperature – 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit, or five degrees Centigrade, to help the preservation. That’s the temperature of a refrigerator, but a cellar or underground storage container would probably be fine. I kept mine at room temperature during an Irish year, where the temperature ranges from freezing (32F, 0C) in winter to lukewarm (75F, 25C) in summer, with no ill effects. Some old texts say to boil the lime-water, dissolving as much of the lime as you can and letting it cool before immersing the eggs; that might be slightly preferable simply to maximise the amount of lime dissolved or to sterilise the water, but I tried it both ways and noticed no difference in quality.

Some old recipes recommend adding salt to the eggs, but I tried it with and without salt and found that it didn’t make a difference, and neither did Shutt a century ago. Still other 19th-century recipes mixed the lime with salt-peter and even borax, but I would not try those until I had confirmed their safety.

Experiments like this might seem pointless when we have refrigerators, freezers and a convenience store down the road. Many of us, though, like being able to do things ourselves, with simple ingredients, for a lot less money than processed food at the store would cost. Money and electricity, moreover, are less certain than they used to be; I know many friends who have lost jobs, or whose power now goes out regularly. Here in Europe we know people whose governments have collapsed or gone bankrupt, or been torn by civil war. These scenarios are not as apocalyptic as most people imagine -- crises are rare, and even in a crisis life goes on – but they happen occasionally, in an emergency our local village would benefit from someone who knows how to do things the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Masonry Stoves

Almost no one enjoys the cold, yet most people in the world live where it is cold for part of the year – even subtropical or Mediterranean climates can get chilly in the winter, and burning deserts can get cold at night. Right now, we keep warm through burning fossil fuels, or from electricity – most of which comes from burning fossil fuels. In the future, however, we can expect billions more people in the world, and far less fossil fuels.

The simplest method of keeping warm, of course, is the oldest one -- fire. Restoring fireplaces to our homes and offices, however, would present a few problems. First, we destroyed most of the world’s forests when we only numbered in the millions, or hundreds of millions, and now there are seven thousand million of us. We could coppice trees (cut them off at the base) or pollard them (cut them at man-height) and let them grow back, and willow grows man-high shoots in a year, but they are suitable only for kindling. Also, fireplaces are spectacularly inefficient; according to author David Lyle, a fireplace and chimney send only 10 percent of its heat to the room, and the other 90 percent goes out into the sky.

There is, however, a little-remembered method that was used in Central and Eastern Europe from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the fossil fuel era – the masonry stove. It relies on a simple concept: it is a hearth surrounded by a thermal mass like cob, brick or tile, which heats up with the fire and slowly releases heat throughout the day. Instead of having a single vertical flue that takes the heat directly into the sky, masonry ovens have a flue that winds around several times before heading outside -- the smoke is typically cold by the time it reaches the outside. All the heat is transferred into the mass, and thence into the room.

Since the initial fire burns fast and hot, it does not generate a great deal of soot to build up inside, and does not need to be cleaned -- although cleaning one would be a much more dificult task, with the internal bends and turns. Fires in masonry ovens do not need to be tended and kept going, as it is not the fire itself that keeps the house warm; thus most oven owners simply set one fire in the morning, and then let the heat radiate through the day. As they release the heat slowly, so they tend to be warm but not hot to the touch – some old Russian ovens were made with spaces on top for people to sleep where it was warm.

Perhaps most importantly, since the ovens need only a brief and quickly-burning fire, they do not require chopped wood for fuel, but can use faster-growing and more common material like straw or the aforementiond willow shoots. The fast-burning fuel would create little soot to build up and block the flue, so their users say they rarely, if ever, require cleaning.

Masonry ovens, like thatched roofs, bale-building and cob, is an old method recently revived when more people began to realize its advantages. Barring any unforeseen complications, millions of people could build sustainable heating systems out of nothing more than clay and stone, and heat themselves with material that is renewable and almost free.

For more information check out David Lyle’s excellent Book of Masonry Stoves, or a recent article on the subject by Low-Tech Magazine. 

Article originally published in 2009. Photo of a German masonry heater, courtesy of Wikicommons. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Only in Ireland

Sign along the canal in Doolin, County Kerry.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Human Time and God's Time

One of the many reasons I enjoy John Michael Greer's blog is that his posts, and the comments, spur me to write about things I find fascinating but might ordinarily let pass, and inspire me to make time to post something new. Today he wrote about the term "Anthropocene," newly popular among the ecologically-minded. 

The term is meant to reflect the fact that humans are transforming the face of the planet as deeply as the asteroid did at the end of the dinosaur era, or as deeply as the Earth ripping open at the end of the Permian. Therefore, they argue, we can't call this era by the old biological or geological classifications; it is an era in which the chemistry of the air, the acidity of the seas, the temperature, the albedo, the animal and plant species, are all defined by humans. It is, they say, the Anthropocene. 

Greer is not fond of the new term, and gives a good argument as to why, which I won't sum up here. I did, however, contribute my own thoughts: 

You make an interesting point, JMG. 

A bit of rumination on your theme: I’m not personally bothered by the term “Anthropocene,” simply because all these divisions are, to a point, imperfect teaching tools created by and for humans. Our divisions reflect a physical reality, of course – there really is a K-T boundary about 65 million years down through the rock, for example – but as you mention, they represent modern scientists building on and adapting the terms handed down to them from their predecessors, who did the same, back to the beginnings of science. 

Someone doing the whole thing over from scratch might make the major division the Great Oxygenation Event – or the Iron Rain, as I call it when teaching my daughter – when the seas and sky became saturated with oxygen. It would be about halfway through the Earth’s history, and it changed the planet in what, for us and most living things, are the most tangible ways – the seas and sky turned blue, the iron rained out of the sea, and most life was wiped out. Or before and after eukaryotic cells, or Hox genes, or land vertebrates, or any number of other game-changing developments. 

Our divisions tend to be biased towards what we can see, because we can see it, and biased toward animals rather than plants, because we’re animals; the spread of mammals also coincided with the spread of flowers, fruits and grasses, which changed the world more than mammals did, yet we think of the Age of Dinosaurs and the Age of Mammals. We divide eras or divisions into single-digit groups of three or seven, rather than thirty-three or five thousand and seven, partly because that’s what human brains can remember. 

I mentioned in a comment some weeks ago the difference between fact and truth; facts are data, but how we put them together reflects the truths we believe in. It doesn’t mean we’re not describing reality – we are, and can back it up with evidence. But we can describe the same reality in a number of different ways. 

In other words, it’s like the debate over whether Pluto is a planet – no one can deny that there are several large bodies and many small ones orbiting the sun, but the inner rocky planets are small, solid spheres, asteroids are smaller, solid potato-shapes, gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn are stillborn stars, and Pluto and the comets are dirty snowballs with weird orbits. 

We group the four rocky spheres and the four gas giants together and call them “planets,” and possibly Pluto if we feel like it, but not the asteroids or comets. The planets and their orbits are proven facts; how we group them with our human language reflects our human truths. We group them into eight or nine partly because we remember that a lot more easily than the several million smaller bodies. 

We called Pluto a planet when we discovered it in the 1930s, partly because society believed in progress and wanted to celebrate new discoveries, partly because the growing power of the USA in the 1930s wanted to claim its own astronomical discoveries, and partly because Percival Lowell (whose initials, supposedly, were part of the reason it was called Pluto) had long predicted there would be another planet out there, and people thought Pluto was it. 

What I’m getting to here is, if referring to the current ecological disruption as an era helps us take it more seriously, call it an era – it is from our human perspective. It won’t be an era to God, who -- as Aquinas pointed out -- exists outside of time, but we can’t second-guess Him anyway.


Monday, 3 October 2016

Chatting with neighbours

When I lived in a regular American suburb, we would be surprised to see a tractor rolling up our driveway, but here it’s a normal thing. Today, it was our neighbour’s farmhand carrying a giant round hay bale for us, a gift from our neighbour.

My neighbour – we’ll call him Liam – has raised cows down the road for 75 years, and whenever I drive, jog or bicycle down the canal road, we stop and chat. I mentioned to him my daughter does archery, and uses bales as targets; he had bales that had sprouted grass and were no good anymore. Thus, we get a free archery target sitting in our driveway, and this week we’ll roll it to some suitable location behind the house.

Liam also passes on news about all our neighbours – not idle or intrusive gossip, but information you’re thankful to have. He tells me that his farmhand’s trailer was robbed recently; they suspect a few shady local kids rumoured to use drugs. Ireland has far less crime than the USA – one-fourth the number of homicides, for example – but we still have drugs and petty theft, and every area has its share of ne’er-do-wells and troubled souls.

The difference is that in more traditional communities, everyone knows who they are, and you can’t get away with much. It’s not that there’s no privacy – not like living in an internet culture, where people’s browsing history and bathroom photographs can be displayed for everyone to see. Rather, most people out here keep to themselves, and don’t nose into each other’s lives – but what you do in public matters. 

Everyone here knows the “boy racers” that drive too fast along narrow roads where children play, and some neighbours, I’m told, run to stretch spike-chains across the road when they hear the racers coming. Everyone knows to dogs are blind, and to slow down when they pass that stretch of road. If there's waste clogging up the canal or a bad smell coming from the mushroom factory, someone will complain; these things affect everyone, so everyone has a right to know.

Today I ran past my neighbour’s field --- we’ll call him Padraig – as he was picking his potatoes, and asked if he wanted help. He’s 86, and still sows and harvests his own crops by hand. He refused the help, but chatted amiably for a while.

Your potatoes look good, I said – ours got the blight.

“When did you plant them?” he asked.

I believe it was around St. Patrick’s Day, I said.

“You shouldn’t get the blight like that,” he said “We planted the same time, and we had a crop by July. Did you buy the seed?”

We chitted our potatoes, and then planted them from ones we bought, I said.

“Ah, those are bag potatoes,” he said. “Try certified seed next time, and if they don’t get the blight, use the eyes of those to make the next year’s crop. Do you have any sallies around?”

When I first got to Ireland, that sentence would have made no sense, but I knew he meant willow trees. Quite a few nearby, I said.

“You don’t want sallies too close to potatoes,” he said – “They encourage the blight. They attract the things from the air that cause the blight, and if potato fields are nearby, you’re more likely to get it.”

I haven’t looked into whether this has any scientific basis, but I like that people here carry that kind of local lore. We talked about the blackberries growing all along the hedgerows, distracting me from my morning jog, and he said they weren’t as tasty as last year’s, but were larger – he put it down to when the summer rains came. “That makes all the difference,” he said, and he might be right.

In fact, the hedgerows that line each field are positively sagging with berries of all kinds -- poisonous yew; lovely blackberries; the rose-hips that are so good for jam, and the sloes that grow on the blackthorn trees, so good for making into gin. We also see a profusion of haws on hawthorn trees and elderberries on the elders – the first is too bland to eat raw and the latter too tart, but both make a nice wine. Most years we’d be spending our spare time gathering them, but this year we’ve been busy with other things.

Right now, it’s merely cool and dry, a high wind is whistling across the bog, all our neighbours’ gardens swell with crops ready to be picked, and the leaves are changing rapidly. Everyone – people, animals, plants – seem to be in a hurry, doing their duty before the wheel turns and we plunge into the long and rainy darkness of the Irish winter.