Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Plastic: a toxic love story - book review

I just read a book that I couldn't put down, its called Plastic: a toxic love story.  Its about how plastic has became so pervasive in our lives and so dangerous to our health and that of our planet.  I've read about this kind of thing before, particularly in "Slow Death by Rubber Ducky", but this new book really explained a few things that hadn't clicked before.

First, plastic is a new thing.  I was born in the eighties, so I've grown up with plastic, but only a couple of generations before me, plastic was totally new and people were trying to find new uses for it.  While it is true that there are no new elements on earth, there are new combinations of elements and therefore new chemicals, such as plastics, and in fact any petrochemical derived from crude oil, that were not found on earth until humans began producing them using high pressures and temperatures, metallic catalysts and clever conversions.  These are chemicals that our body has not evolved to recognise.

Many of these new chemicals look a bit like hormones, so our bodies mistake them for hormones, which disrupts normal processes, these are called endocrine dirupters.  This brings me to the second point, conventional poisons theory was "the dose is the poison", this means that any substance is poisonous in high amounts and not poisonous at low levels.  For example small amounts of cyanide in apple pips are not toxic, but larger doses can be deadly.  Conventional poisons theory does not apply to endocrine disruptors and other new chemicals that our body doesn't recognise.  These chemicals can be dangerous even in tiny amounts as they change our biochemical processes (and those of other plants and animals).

Unfortunately for us, all chemicals are still regulated as if it was the dose that mattered, as if there was a safe level of exposure.  For many chemicals, the effects on the human body are not really understood anyway, they are just too new, and its just too hard to figure it out what damage an individual chemical can do when we're exposed to so many others.  Think of Thalidomide, in the 50s and 60s doctors didn't even realise that chemicals could be transferred from mother to baby!  Now that seems obvious, but it just shows how much we don't really know about how the body works.  A good rule when you don't know how something works is "don't mess with it", but I think its too late for that.

For now, we need to take some more responsibility for which of these chemicals we are exposed to, as we clearly can't rely on the regulators to tell us which chemicals are safe.  Don't assume that just because you can buy something, it won't harm you.  For a start, there are too many industrial influences keeping certain substances in use, and then there's just that lack of knowledge of what does cause harm.  Regulators are struggling to enforce out-dated regulations, with pressure from industry to leave things as lenient as possible, and it seems that public safety is the least concern.  Its up to you to learn more about what substances you should avoid.  Its not easy to avoid plastic and petrochemicals, they are now a part of our modern lives, but if you are conscious of the need to avoid them as much as possible, there are some things you can do.

Brace yourself, this won't be easy!  It just occurred to me that I'm typing this on a plastic keyboard, surrounded by plastic pens and other plastic stationary, sitting on a plastic computer chair and sitting at a desk made of MDF, which is just wood shavings and plastic resin.  There's no way I'm going to rid plastic, or other chemicals, completely from my life, but I can do more to avoid it accumulating in my body:
  • Stop storing food in plastic and especially stop heating food in plastic, you're just asking for chemicals to leach into your food.  Stop eating and drinking with/from plastic plates, cutlery and cups.  Stop using plastic utensils.  Stop using cling wrap/film.  Stop buying food that's wrapped in plastic (this one is nearly impossible, try buying cheese that's not in plastic!).  I don't know what to use to brew beer, our fermenters are plastic and we still vacuum pack our meat in plastic bags.  I've been trying to use glass jars more often for storage instead of plastic (10c a jar at the op shop). (see more on Attainable Sustainable).
  • Read the labels on all food and cosmetics, anything with numbers or crazy long chemical names should be avoided.  Even those sneaky natural flavours may not be so natural.  Most food colouring and flavouring have petrochemicals origins.
  • New purchases should be as plastic-free as possible, but if its electronic, you may as well give up before you start, at least you can try to buy brand that uses cardboard packing instead of plastic.  With furniture try to buy metal or real wood (not MDF).
  • Try to use natural fibres for clothing and furnishings, cotton, wool and linen are good choices.  Anything synthetic like polyester, nylon, lycra etc is just plastic.  Avoid things that are "UV treated", "water resistant" or "stain resistant", that just means more chemicals have been used.
  • When decorating, choose carefully, paint and lacquers are available with low VOC (volatile organic content), but as this link explains, that isn't always the best paint for the job.  The best advice is to minimise the areas in your house that need painting by considering other materials (difficult unless you're building from scratch).
OK enough of my list, I'm running out of ideas.  What changes have you made in your life to reduce exposure to chemicals? and plastics?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hybrid hugelkultur

From what I can understand, classical hugelkultur consists of piling up logs and branches, filling over with topsoil and planting on top.  The decaying wood adds fertility and heat to the heap, which is good for the plants growing above, and it also provides some heat to the heap.  I'd never heard of hugelkultur until I read about it on Craving Fresh, I thought at the time that it was an interesting concept, especially when we have such cold winters here, but I wasn't sure what to do with it.  Then someone from our permaculture group sent around another link with some great pictures and I was even more interested, but still not sure what to do.  The problem is that we lack topsoil as it is, and I wasn't going to buy any.  We do have plenty of logs that are too big for the mulcher though, so I was still interested.

Then we went to a permaculture techniques day with our permaculture group, and looked at some hugelkultur and swales at the Bottle Tree Hill Organics farm.   Swales are kind of like contour banks across slopes, consisting of a trench uphill and a mound downhill, used to hold water on the surface of a slope for longer, to allow it to soak into the mound of dirt and to direct water towards dams etc (diagram and info here).  We have plenty of slopes, erosion, dry spots, so we could definitely see the need for swales of some kind, or maybe more like Peter Andrews style contour banks to direct water and fertility (a contour bank doesn't have so much of a trench on the uphill side).  Even though we have the little tractor, we weren't sure that it was up to the task of digging trenches and building mounds on a large scale.

We decided to build more of a hybrid hugelkultur-swale to help with the rehabilitation of the particularly eroded area on our property and as somewhere to plant any extra seedlings!  The hybrid hugelkutur consists of a pile of logs and branches on the slope above the drain, which has virtually no top soil left.  On top of that, I put 3 wheelbarrow loads of cow manure and then a big load of hay (that our ungrateful lovely cattle didn't finish from their last round bale).  The logs are positioned to stablise the heap and prevent from washing down the slope in the next heavy rain.

Our hybrid hugelkutur-swale-contour thingy
The next step was to plant out seedlings and seeds on the mulch.  My aim here was to grow anything that would produce green material to add to the fertility of the soil in the hugelkultur, so I added any extra seedlings or divisions that needed a home, including parsley, dill, geraniums, comfrey, arrowroot, marigolds and cherry tomatoes.  The main thing was that all the plants were safe for the cattle to eat if they did escape the safety of the electric fencing around the eroded area.

Unfortunately the first part of this summer was not as wet as initially forecast, and the occasional 10 mm of rain here and there, interspersed with impossibly hot days, was not enough to sustain all the plants, particularly with no shade over the mound, and some plants didn't make it.  I tried to be blase about the hugelkultur, but I did end up taking water buckets up there and giving it a few drinks, just to keep something going (if only the microbes and the worms).  Now finally it has rained, and I can see that some of the plants are doing well.  Its quite fun having it as an overflow garden.  It doesn't matter what survives and what doesn't.  It doesn't matter if I don't ever harvest anything, and it doesn't matter if its full of weeds, as long as something is growing up there and starting to establish some top soil on the slope.

Already we can see sediment and organic matter accumulating on the slope above the hugelkultur, this is all fertility and potential soil that would have been washed away in the past.  Last year I did pile grass clippings on the area, but without the logs to stabilise the heap, it didn't last long.  We also learnt that its better to spread out a small thick pile of grass rather than spread more thinly over a larger area.

Since building the first part of the hugelkutur we have continued to to extend it across the slope, with more logs, manure, grass clippings and hay as they become available.  I also put down some wet newspaper under one part of the pile because the pile of useful newspaper was getting too big.  And when we spent some time weeding the garden, the whole lot when onto the hugelkultur as the compost was full.  We hope this will be the beginning of building top soil and eventually a stable grass cover in this area.

If you are wondering how this would work in a smaller garden, see the post on Craving Fresh.

Sometimes it takes a bit of thinking to work out how a permaculture concept can work on your property, at your scale and with your resources, but when you come up with something that works, its a great feeling!  

Have you tried hugelkultur?  

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Nourishing Traditions review - Mastering the basics

Last week I started to review the introduction to Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.  This week I'll start on the first real chapter of recipes, called Mastering the Basics, which includes cultured dairy, sprouts, stocks, sauces and salad dressings.

Cultured Dairy
The strange part here is that we got Bella, our house cow, before I read this book and before I knew anything about the whole raw milk debate.  We drank raw milk sometimes when we visited our friends on a dairy farm, but we never really valued it as we should have.  My husband really wanted a cow because he liked the dairy lifestyle, and I couldn't see a problem with it, as I described previously, it will make it easier for us to get steers for beef instead of having to buy them locally.  Our friends told us they'd found the perfect cow for us, small, tame, already with a calf and used to being milked in the dairy, so even though we weren't totally ready, we brought home Bella and Molly and I'm so glad that we did!

Here I am giving Bella a "thank you" hug

And here's Molly, our future dairy cow!

With all the milk, 6L/day, we started making cheese, and went on the cheese making course where I first heard about Nourishing Traditions, and the importance of raw milk in a traditional diet.  Now that I've read NT, I realise the role of raw milk in making probiotics and starting lactic-fermentations.  So without Bella I wouldn't have read NT and I wouldn't have the key ingredient to a traditional diet!

NT recommends a number of different fermented milk products, including cultured butter, yoghurt, kefir, sour cream, cultured butter milk, cream cheese and whey.  Fermented milk has the benefits of probiotic bacteria and makes the milk easier to digest as casein and and lactose enzymes are retained, as well as increase the vitamin content of the milk. Of course, if you have access to raw milk, its best to use it, but if you don't, any milk is better than nothing as you at least get to eat the good bacteria in the starter culture.

cream cheese with the whey dripping out into a container
Since we got Bella, I've tried to make all of those things.  When we had enough cream, I made butter, sour cream and butter milk, but when the milk production decreased, we've had to buy butter and cream (uncultured) when we've needed them. I have continued to make yoghurt, both from pastuerised Bella milk and powdered milk, kefir from raw milk and cream cheese from raw milk.  I have been saving the whey from the cream cheese to start fermentations, which I'll discuss further below.

Fermented Vegetables
I've explained the difference between lactic-fermented vegetables and vinegar pickling in a previous post.  Basically lactic-fermentation is an ancient and gentle method of preserving vegetables with no heat or pressure, so the nutrients are retained (and even improved by the action of bacteria and enzymes), whereas vinegar pickling is a quick and easy method using heat, temperature and acidity to preserve veges using industrial processes, while destroying much of the nutritional value of the vegetables.

My first jar of sauerkraut
Most of the fermentation recipes in NT call for whey, but if that's not available, extra salt can be used.  I've seen a bit of discussion on whether whey is necessary and whether it even helps or hinders the process.  I can report that I've had no trouble using my raw cream cheese whey, but I do wonder how well it would work with whey from pasteurised milk, as the culture would be very limited to certain bacteria, that may not do well on vegetables (by the way, the bacteria actually consume the glucose in the milk (part of lactose) or in the vegetables, producing lactic acid).  I know that the raw milk is full of different bacteria and enzymes, as well as the bacteria that I add to start the cheese, so there's a good chance that it really helps the fermentation.  If you don't add whey, you're just hoping that you have enough bacteria naturally present on the vegetables to start the fermentation, and people report that it works, so don't be put off if you don't have whey!

I have made sauerkraut and pickled gherkins/cucumbers.  I am growing radishes and beetroot in great anticipation of more pickling!  I think its important to use organic veges for fermenting, otherwise the chemicals on the veges might inhibit the bacteria, so I just try to use up what I grow or grow what I want to use, that way I know I have cheap organic veges for fermenting.  I have just used an old jam jar, but commercial crocks and jars are available. I used a spacer in some of them to hold the pickles under the brine, but in others I didn't bother and it worked fine too.  The hardest part is overcoming the gross-out factor of eating something that's sat on your kitchen bench for several days!  According to NT, you will know if it doesn't work because it will stink, so I am hoping that is correct, and I've been trusting my nose :)

As I've mentioned a few times (here and here), I really enjoy sprouting, its one of the easiest foods in NT to make, and the sprouts can be added to almost any meal.  The benefit of sprouting is that the by starting the germination process, the enzyme inhibitors are deactivated, and vitamins and minerals are made more available, this makes the grains, nuts and seeds easier to digest.

So far I have sprouted alfalfa, fenugreek, mung beans, adzuki beans, chick peas and wheat in my little sprouting jar.  I pretty much have some sprouts in the jar at all times, the only time I don't start sprouting is if I know I'll be going away, as the sprouting jar just needs to be rinsed twice a day, but that's not much work for a very tasty reward!

I love making soups and casseroles and up until recently I had been incredibly lazy about making real stock. I admit to using stock cubes, expensive stock cubes!  Probably full of MSG disguised as "natural flavour".  More to save on freezer space than anything else, but now we have two massive chest freezers, there's plenty of space and I've been using up all our bones and vege scraps to regularly make real stock.  It has been surprisingly easy to do and now I have a freezer full of stock to add to all sorts of meals.  The advantage of making stock is getting all the minerals out of the bones, also gelatine is really good for so many reasons which I won't list here (I admit I always thought gelatine was gross).

Some turkey stock in the early stages
I don't exactly follow the recipes in the book, which call for roasting the bones before cooking, and various other fussing around which I don't have time for, it just depends what I have on hand and how much time I have.  I have followed the suggestion here and kept various vege offcuts in a bag in the freezer, as well as bones from steaks and chops.  My method is to put the bones or chicken carcass in a pot of water with some apple cider vinegar and leave to soak for about an hour.  Bring to the boil, skim, add veges (carrot, celery, silverbeet stalks, beans, onions, whatever else is spare in the fridge or garden) and cook for as long as possible.  NT recommends cooking for 12-72 hours, which I found very difficult to achieve at first!  Often I would leave it on the stove top overnight, but then its still too hot to go into the fridge in the morning and I don't want to leave it on the stove while I'm at work, or to sit on the bench all day, so at times I only cooked it for 4-6 hours, which was better than nothing, but then I discovered the slow cooker method.  I'm far more comfortable about leaving the slow cooker running while I'm sleeping, or at work, and then I can easily cook stock for 24 hours, any day of the week.  During winter when we have the woodstove going I'll probably use that to cook the stock overnight.

I have made stock from every chicken we've killed recently, the turkey made 10 L of stock, fish stock from the tuna my husband caught, and beef stock from Bruce.  At the very least I chuck a beef bone into a slow cooker meal to get that extra flavour (and gelatine).  I also chuck in any spare herbs, peppercorns, wine into the pot too, its great for using up leftovers.

Salad dressings and sauces
These recipes came at the perfect time as we love our summer salads.  NT has two types of salad dressing, those based on oil and vinegar and those based on mayonnaise.  As I've mentioned previously, I've tried making both, and while the first one is very easy, the other one is more difficult without the right equipment!  No success so far.  We usually just have a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but I've mixed that up with mustard and herbs too for something different.  Salad dressings are important for adding enzymes to the diet and making raw food taste great!  Usually we have so many lovely fresh veges in the salad, a light dressing is plenty.

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing and my mayonnaise attempt

Sauces, Marinade and Condiments
This section is probably more about creating healthy tasty alternatives to store-bought over-processed additive-filled condiments and sauces that many people use everyday.  There are recipes for pesto, tomato sauce, salsa, teriyaki sauce, curry sauce, bernaise sauce, none of which I've had a need for so far, but they all look very tasty, and when I have the right ingredients in the garden/pantry I'll give some of them a go.  Our main hot sauce is gravy, which I make from the meat juices of every roast we have, also adding some herbs and stock.  Any left over goes in the freezer, or straight into casseroles/sauces in another meal.

And that is the first section finished, I hope you've seen some things in there that you might be able to apply yourself, and maybe some things to think about for the future!  Really it only gets more interesting from here, the next section is great beginnings, everything from soups to raw meat, I'll post that review in a couple of weeks.

Have you read Nourishing Traditions?  Do you use the recipes?

Here's the rest of the series:

Nourishing Traditions - from start to finish

Nourishing Traditions - Mastering the basics

Nourishing Traditions - more chapter reviews

Nourishing Traditions - Grains and Legumes

Nourishing Traditions - Snacks, desserts and "super foods"

Getting started with homestead dairy
Interview with myself
Interview with Mark and Kate from Purple Pear Permaculture
Interview with Kim from the Little Black Cow
Interview with Rose Petal
Interview with Marie from Go Milk the Cow
Interview with Ohio Farmgirl

If you want to know more about house cows, my eBook is available for purchase on Scribd.  Its only $4.99, and it includes lots of information about keeping a house cow in Australia.  There's more details about the eBook on my house cow eBook blog.  If you don't want to go through all the Scribd/paypal effort, just send me an email on eight.acres.liz at and I can arrange to email it to you instead.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A farmer's life for me

ABC1 Australia is currently screening a British reality TV show called "A farmer's life for me" at 6pm on Tuesdays.  Its a bit like "So you can think you can farm", except the couples have no idea how to farm.  We've only seen one episode and its pretty terrible, but its the kind of thing I just can't not watch!  Its hosted by celebrity farmer Jimmy Doherty, who is apparently a pig farmer (since 2002) and a friend of Jamie Oliver.  Personally I don't think he had a clue how to start a farming business, so its lucky that he has about 10 TV shows to generate some income.

What I would like to see, is this show hosted by Joel Salatin, I can't see him praising the "originality" of the couple who want to grow sheep and root vegetables and sell "shepards pie meal packs", when they don't seem to have a clue about either sheep or gardening!  Joel's advice in his book "You can farm" is, among other things, do something you know how to do, start with something small that can make you money, make sure you have a market first, don't overstock your land, and diversify when you have the first enterprise established.  None of this came through on the program so far, it seems to be just come up with a random idea and buy some animals and seeds and have a go!  No analysis of the land, the business plan or the farmers' abilities.  Anyway, I will keep watching, to see who wins the 25 acres for a year (?) do develop their own "farm", but I really hope nobody is watching it and thinking that its a sensible way to start a farm!

Did you watch it?  What would you farm if you could choose anything?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spaghetti squash - a curcubit with an identity crisis!

My friend from work who also gardens gave me a spaghetti squash to try.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to try it, but she really wanted to get rid of it as she had grown (and eaten) so many of them already this summer.  It sat on our kitchen bench for a couple of weeks until my curiosity got the better of me.  I couldn't believe that a squash could cook up like spaghetti!

My only instructions were to cut it up and boil it until it was soft and then scrape the strands of "spaghetti" out of the skin.  A google search reveals that there are a number of other methods, but this seemed pretty simple.  We only used half the squash for the first night, and I can report that it has a ridiculously tough skin to cut through, I had to enlist the help of my husband to cut it up!  Much like when we make pumpkin soup.  I boiled it for about about 15 mins in lightly salted water, and it then became clear that the strands could be scraped from the skin.

Inside the squash, and yes, I saved those seeds!
Boiling the squash (had so upsize the pot to fit it all in)

extracting the "spaghetti"
I have to say it was less like spaghetti than I expected, more like rice noodles in texture, but quite a pleasant taste, not too bitter.  We ate the spaghetti squash with bolognaise sauce (because the same friend had given me a massive bag of roma tomatoes in exchange for some pickling cucumbers), topped with some of our very tasty cheese.

My recipe for bolognaise sauce
(its probably not very Bolognaise, but you know what I mean, a mince and tomato sauce....)
  • cut up as many tomatoes as are available from garden and friends' gardens and cook in a little stock for as long as possible to create a lovely rich base
  • sauté onion, mushroom, capsicum and garlic in another pan, cook mince
  • combine all the ingredients in a big pot and add any spare red wine, more stock, any spare herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, chives and parsley, my husband love to add chillis and olives
  • zuchinni or button squash could also be added here (although it might be curcubit overload)
  • cook for as long as possible until its lovely and rich (add tomato paste to cheat if you run out of time)
  • taste the sauce, it may need a little salt or brown sugar depending on the veges
  • chop up silverbeet/mustard greens/spinach and stir in when its nearly ready
  • serve with pasta or spaghetti squash :) and a strong cheese on top

Have you tried spaghetti squash?  Or any other weird veges?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Preserving the harvest

The first year in our new garden we had so many zucchinis and beans we were giving them away to everyone.  But we hadn't got to know when we would have gluts and famines, so we didn't keep any for ourselves.  Of course through winter, we had to buy veges again as I hadn't kept any.  A few years on, now I'm starting to learn how to preserve some of our veges so that we will have a supply through winter.  I have been drying herbs and greens, freezing zucchinis and beans, fermenting pickling cucumbers and reading about other people who use canning to preserve fruit and veges.  And I've been thinking, what's the best way to preserve my harvest?

I think the simplest and least energy intensive method of preserving would have to be lactic fermentation.  As this method lets bacteria do all the work, it doesn't require any heat or pressure, or the addition of excessive salt or sugar.  The lactic acid bacteria naturally increase the acidity of the brine.  The lack of temperature or pressure processing also ensures that vitamins and enzymes are retained in the veges.  Apart from getting used to the taste, this would have to be the ideal method for preserving veges.  I have used it so far for pickles and cabbage.

Fermented pickling cucumbers
In the case of drying, food spoilage is prevented by reducing the water content of the veges.  This is an energy intensive method, which I wouldn't use for high water content fruit and veges.  I think its a good way to preserve herbs and greens with low water content, that don't take too long to dry.  So far I've used this method to dry herbs and silverbeet (and other veges).  Drying uses low temperatures(60-70 degC), so most of the enzymes and vitamins survive.  One day I'd love to build a solar drier as well.

Drying sage
Preserving food by freezing also reduces the water content as the water is not available to bacteria when its solid and the low temperatures reduce bacteria growth rates. You're supposed to blanch veges before freezing to destroy enzymes that cause off-flavours.  I freeze beans (sliced into 2 cm pieces), thinly sliced zucchini and squash and whole cherry tomatoes, mini capsicums and chillis.  I also make soups and sauces to freeze, including pumpkin and tomato.  As we have several freezers for meat anyway, its very easy for me to add a few veges to last through the winter, but this would not be ideal is freezer space was limited.

Sliced beans for freezing

Cherry tomatoes ready for freezing whole (not the green ones!)

Roasting pumpkin in the BBQ for pumpkin soup
Preserving veges generally involves preventing spoilage by reducing the "water activity", this means the water available to bacteria or moulds for growth.  High water activity leads to quicker spoilage.  Water activity can be reduced by increasing salt, sugar or acidity, by drying the food or freezing the food.  Generally preserving involves heating the produce to boiling point in a sauce containing sufficient salt, sugar or vinegar to prevent microbial growth.  This includes jams, vinegar pickles and olives.  I don't have any fruit to preserve (yet!), and any veges I'd rather use one of the above methods, as I don't want the heat to destroy the enzymes and vitamins in the vegetables, so I don't do any preserving so far.

Pressure Canning
I don't have a pressure canner, so this is another method that I haven't tried.  Pressure canning allows the food to be heated under pressure to higher temperatures that would be achieved at atmospheric pressure (ie water normally boils at 100degC at atmospheric pressure, but will boiler at higher temperatures in a pressure canner).  This means that botulism bacteria spores are killed.  This also means that salt, sugar and/or vinegar are not required to reduce the water activity, as the produce is practically sterilised, so its good for preserving sauces and veges without changing the flavours too much.  It can also be used to preserve meat.  I'm not sure that the excessive temperatures and pressures used for canning are really good for the nutrients in the food.  I think I prefer the lower temperature methods, but I can see the benefits for preserving large amounts of fruit if you're in a fruit growing area and can get it cheaply.

How do you preserve your harvest?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Nourishing Traditions - from start to finish

This review is WAY overdue.  I keep referring to the book Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and Diet Dictocrats (affiliate link), but many people will have no idea what I'm talking about, so its time for a detailed review.  I found out about this book when we did our cheese making course, the instructor talked about it throughout the day (I'd also seen it mentioned on a few blogs) and I thought it sounded really interesting.  I'm so glad that I bought it because I've already used many of the recipes and I think its really changed the way I think about food.

See more posts on Eight Acres about Nourishing Traditions here.

Nourishing Traditions  is a cook book, with the tagline "The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats".  It is written by the co-founders of the Weston A Price Foundation (WAPF), Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig (PhD). Already you can see that its going to be about more than just recipes!  From what I can find out, Sally is a food writer and has compiled most of the book, however Mary has a PhD in nutrition, specialising in fats and oils, so that gives the book more credibility from a nutritional point of view.  The book is based on the 1930s work of Dr Weston Price, a dentist who documented the diets of several isolated societies that were still living and eating as they had for hundreds of years, without the influence of modern refined and processed food.  He found that these people invariably had very good health, strong bones and teeth, with virtually no cases of cancer, obesity or heart disease.  The only sick people were those who had started eating a modern diet.

Dr Weston Price - looks like a nice sensible man :) 

This book documents the type of foods eaten by those traditional societies, explaining in detail the benefits of the food and who it should be prepared.  The book is split into sections:
  • Introduction - all about the nutrients in foods and the lessons of Dr Price compared to modern medical advice.
  • Mastering the Basics - including cultured dairy, fermented dairy, sprouts, stocks, sauces and salad dressings
  • Great Beginnings - dips, salads, soups, raw meat (!), and appetizers
  • The Main Course - fish, poultry, organ meats, game, beef and lamb, ground meat
  • Vegetables
  • Luncheon and Super Foods - meat salads, south of the border, eggs, sandwiches
  • Grains and Legumes - whole grains, breads and flour, baking and legumes
  • Snacks and Finger Food
  • Desserts - natural sweeteners, sweets, pies and cakes, gourmet desserts
  • Beverages
  • Feeding Babies - untested by me!
  • Tonics and Superfoods
Each section of the book begins with a summary of the benefits of eating the food in the section, followed by the recipes.  On the sides of each recipe page are excerpts from various relevant books and research papers explaining further the importance of each food.  For the most part the references are peer-reviewed journal articles, with some books and newspaper articles.  The book is nearly 700 pages long, and the first time I read it I only looked at the sections and flicked through the recipes, it seemed like I'd never finish it.  The second time I made myself read every word, and I can tell you there is an awful lot of very useful information, so even if it seems like an expensive book, it has been worth it for me.  I'm going to do a series of posts about each section of the book and the recipes and techniques that have found useful.

I've read a bit of the criticism of this book on amazon and most of the comments seem to come down to the following points:
  • the work is "unscientific", the references are old and it doesn't agree with conventional diet advice
  • the recipes are too hard to follow, the ingredients are too hard to source, it required too much preparation and is not practicle
  • vegetarians don't agree with the idea that we should eat meat and shouldn't eat soy products
My response to the first point is that all the explanations of how we digest food made logical sense (as well as being referenced to peer reviewed papers) and were in agreement with other books that I have read on nutrition and digestion (including those on animal health).  I think that conventional diet advice and research is mostly all sponsored by big agriculture, so I don't believe a word of it anyway.  As for the recipes, they do take a little planning, but for me that's part of the fun.  I don't tend to follow recipes step by step anyway, rather as a guide to how things should be done with whatever ingredients I have, that's why I thought I should write about how I've used the book.  Vegetarians just need to read the book, and at the very least, make sure they are getting all the nutrients they are missing out on by not eating meat, vegans even more so.

The introduction sections covers the basics of the "diet dictocrats' guidelines" vs the traditional diet recommended by NT.  The over-arching theme is that processed foods are not good for us and we should be eating fresh food made from scratch.  The subjects covered in this chapter include, in very brief summary:
  • Fats - highly processed vegetable oils (eg canola, sunflower, soybean) are bad, including margarine, traditional fats like lard, tallow, butter, olive oil and coconut oil are good, eat lots of them to get enough fat soluble vitamin A and D in your diet.  We now only eat butter, would like to make tallow next time we have a steer killed, and use olive oil for all cooking (will buy coconut when I can).  (see also my review of Toxic Oil)
  • Carbohydrates - refined carbohydrates are bad, white sugar is terrible, puffed grains are also bad, whole grains should be soaked or fermented to deactivate phytate which blocks mineral adsorption (more on this in later sections).  
  • Proteins - proteins are composed of 22 amino acids, and we need those amino acids to build our own muscles.  The most complete source of all amino acids is meat, particularly raw meat and organ meat. Grain and legumes contain some amino acids and must be eaten in the right combinations to get all the amino acids we need.  
  • Milk and milk products - fermented milk products are easier to digest, raw milk is best, pasteurised homogenised milk is not good
  • Vitamins - all vitamins are important, and best in their natural form (rather than in supplement tablets) as they are accompanied by "cofactors" that aid adsorption, meat products (even in small amounts) are an important source of some vitamins
  • Minerals - aid in production of enzymes and hormones and in adsorption of vitamins, sourced from meat and vegetables
  • Enzymes - produced by the body and found in raw foods, essential for digestion
  • Salt, spices and additives - salt is essential, but raw sea salt is better than refined salt, spices stimulate enzymes, artificial additives are bad
  • Beverages - soft drink is bad, fermented beverages and herbal teas are good
  • Food allergies - can be exacerbated by processed food, artificial additives etc, sometimes a whole food diet prepared as described in NT will help ease allergies, but everyone is different and it depends how much damage has already been done.
It seems that I read this book at a time when I was ready to accept that the ideas were worth trying, and when I happened to also have a dairy cow providing fresh milk, a garden full of organic veges and tanks of rainwater to work with.  If I had read this book even a couple of years ago, I probably would not have tried as many recipes as I have now and certainly 5 years ago I would not have had the resources or the knowledge to try any of it.  

Have you read Nourishing Traditions?  Do you use the recipes?

Here's the rest of the series:

Nourishing Traditions - from start to finish

Nourishing Traditions - Mastering the basics

Nourishing Traditions - more chapter reviews

Nourishing Traditions - Grains and Legumes

Nourishing Traditions - Snacks, desserts and "super foods"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Buying new chickens

Every year in Spring we start trying to hatch more chicks to replace old hens and roosters and raise a few extra to eat.  Sometimes we also buy some chickens if we don’t hatch enough, or if we want to add some new genetics to the flock (rather than having a rooster with all his sisters, aunties and possibly his mother!).  Recently we have found it a real challenge to source good quality heritage breed chickens, so I thought I’d write about what we’ve learnt about buying chickens.

eight acres: buying new chickens

Which breed to buy?
I’ve written before about why we choose to support heritage breeds.  You will find it much easier to source hybrid laying or meat chickens from most produce stores in Australia, but it is more difficult to get heritage breeds.  Some stores will keep them, but I think its best to get them directly from the breeder, preferably at the breeder’s property, rather than a market, so you can see how they are looked after.

Its best to read about the breeds and decide what you want before you get to the market or visit a breeder.  At least you will know what its supposed to look like!  Some of the published information about the breeds is no longer accurate as many of the old characteristics have been bred out of the birds by show breeders.  They are looking for certain aesthetic characteristics rather than laying or meat quality.  This table is a good start.

It is worth reading about the temperament of certain breeds though.  Some are flightier than others and not suited to being confined, so it depends on how you plan to keep them whether they will be suitable.  And some of the climate information may be relevant (ie heavier plumage does better in cold weather), although if you are buying locally, they should be adjusted to your climate already.

I also wouldn’t recommend mixing up too many breeds, particularly if they are different sizes and temperaments.  We had some small flighty hens of unknown breed for a while and they were always picked on and victimised by the other larger hens, they always looked so nervous and unhappy.  We now keep all the Rhode Island Reds together and all the White Leghorns together, which seems to keep them all happy.

What age to buy?
You can buy chickens at any age, they’re usually cheaper the younger they are, but will take more effort to raise up to laying age.  You can even order fertile eggs if you have an incubator or broody hen.  If you buy chicks, you may be taking you chances with the sex of the bird, so if you really want hens it might be better to wait until they’re a few weeks old and its easier to tell what they are.  This will also help to make sure you get the breed that you wanted.  We are set up to raise chicks, so we don’t mind buying them at any age we can get them!  If you don’t want the extra hassle, just buy point of lay, but keep in mind that a dishonest breeder could claim hens of any age as “point of lay”, at least if you get them just before laying you know they are young!  Also see my post about caring for chicks.

Finding a breeder
The best resource we use for finding chickens to buy is  So far we’ve not found any breeders in our local area that we want to go back to, they all keep too many chickens in unhealthy conditions.  We will keep searching!  You can also meet breeders at the markets and ask what chickens they have and if you can visit their property.  Many areas have chicken or poultry clubs, but these breeders are often breeding for shows and will be more expensive, and the chickens may not be the best for laying or meat.

How many to buy
You should buy at least two new chickens, its very difficult to introduce one new chicken (unless it’s a rooster), as small young hens will get picked on by the older hens, at least if they have a mate or two with them, they can hang out together and avoid the older hens.  We even had trouble with a large rooster not getting on with the hens at first as he’d been raised with another rooster and learnt to be submissive, but it didn’t take him long to take charge!

Choosing a bird
Try to have a good look at the bird to make sure its healthy, bright eyes, shiny feathers, no poo around its vent, are all indications of a healthy bird.  We recently bought some young chickens which had feathers missing.  They are ok so far, but I only bought them because I felt sorry for them and we’d driven a couple of hours to pick them up.  As I said, we’re still trying to find a decent breeder to buy from!  This lady had too many in the cage, with no access to grass.  It was awful.  They are our “rescue chickens” and I hope they re-feather soon.  If you’re really serious about starting a flock, don’t buy rescue chickens, try to find some healthy ones!

Bringing the chickens home
You will need a box or a cage to transport the chickens.  They will need to be kept cool, so the back of a ute or inside a car is ok, but not in the boot of a car.  A nice dark box, without too much room to move seems to be a good option.  We sometimes use a cage in the dog box on the back of our ute.  If you put a cage of the back of the ute without a cover, the poor birds will lose feathers in the wind, ok for short journeys only!

When you get home with the chickens they should spend some time in a pen separated from the other chickens in case they are sick or have parasites that you don’t want to spread to the others.  At least a week is enough to keep an eye on them for anything unusual.  Don’t let them out to free-range for a few days (or even weeks if they’re younger than point of lay) to give them time to get used to their new home.  When you do let them out, just open the door a few hours before sunset, so they can’t go too far.  Then you can let them out earlier and earlier each day.

Do you buy chickens?  Any advice?

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, February 13, 2012

Eat what you grow, or grow what you eat?

Most conventional garden planning advice says to "grow what you eat", to look in your fridge for ideas of what to grow in your garden, otherwise your veges will sit out there in the garden untouched and your efforts will be wasted.  I tried this the first year in my new garden, I planted big tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, corn, broccoli and celery, which were all things we liked to eat.  The tomatoes were attacked by fruit fly and grubs, the carrots were short and fat with many "legs", the potatoes didn't grow in our heavy clay soil, the broccoli and corn were eaten by grubs, the celery never grew either - if I'd stuck to that advice I would have given up after the first year!

This loose leaf lettuce is easy to grow and save seeds from.
Luckily I also planted some other veges that we didn't normally buy, and many of those were very successful, and have proven to be useful in meals as alternatives to our old favourites.  This has made me more adventurous and interested in trying different veges.  I think its important to find out what grows well in your area, particularly if you are trying to grow organically, plants that can't cope without chemicals will just be hard work.  Then you need to work out how to eat them, and if you like them, you're onto a winner.  This is all part of the fun!  I believe that you should both eat what you grow and grow what you eat.

I love silver beet from my garden, but I never used to eat it.
When you think about which veges you buy regularly, many are either cheap (carrots and potato compared to eggplant or herbs), or long lasting (broccoli and corn compared to things like silver beet, spring onions and lettuce, which quickly go limp in the fridge).  Before we had the garden, I never bought silver beet, because I knew it wouldn't last long in the fridge, and I never bought eggplant unless if happened to be less that $6/kg, which is pretty much never.  Honestly I NEVER ate silver beet until I grew it myself (even when my mum grew it, sorry mum!).  There's something about putting in that effort to produce food that makes me find a way to eat it.

This mini capsicum resists fruit fly better than the full sized ones.
Having a vege garden means that you can grow veges that you wouldn't normally buy, either because they are expensive or because they don't keep well.  For me this includes:
  • silver beet
  • lettuce
  • radishes
  • beet root
  • rocket and salad greens
  • spring onions
  • herbs
  • eggplant
  • chillies
  • pickling cucumbers
Yes, we had a pretty limited range of veges that we used to buy!  Sad isn't it!

Growing our own also means compromising on things that I used to buy, but find difficult to grow.  For example, I find it very difficult to grow large tomatoes, as they are attacked by pests (big and small, from bandicoots to fruit flies!), so I grow cherry tomatoes instead.  I had the same trouble with capsicums until I grew the mini ones that seem to survive better.  I haven't had any success with under-ground onions, but spring onions are fine.

Button squash do better than zucchinis and taste pretty much the same.
Of the veges that we used to buy, I think the only ones that I've been able to grow are zucchini and green beans, with the occasional broccoli!  We still buy corn, carrots, sometimes a cabbage, but the garden has certainly reduced the amount we spend on veges, without replacing them directly, just changing and adding variety to what we enjoy eating.

The Poor Man's Bean took over my garden fence last year and produced more beans that we could eat!
I still have that list of favourite veges in the back of my mind though, I really want to master carrots, corn, celery and potatoes, but I also need to focus on the veges that do well without much attention, because they are the ones we could live off if we had to and they produce a nice continuous supply of veges, even if the rest of my experiments don't work out.  I especially like to find varieties that grow well and produce seeds that I can save for the future, as this creates a truly sustainable garden.  I love that tomatoes now sprout from the compost, its like instead tomato seedlings without any effort! 

How have your eating habits changed since you started gardening?  Do you grow what you eat or eat what you grow?

My tiny broccoli, at least the grubs didn't get them :)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fermented pickles from my garden

I love the taste of gherkins/pickles, but when I wanted to buy some recently I found that every jar in the supermarket contained green food colouring.  That's when I decided that I'd better grow my own, because I wasn't going to buy any of them!

a pickling cucumber
With my own pickles, I can use a lactic fermentation rather than pickling with vinegar.  I did later find a jar of vinegar pickles at the markets that didn't contain green food colouring, and this has kept me going until I could make my own, however I would rather eat lactic fermented pickles than vinegar pickles if I have the option.

What's the difference between lactic fermented pickles and vinegar pickles?
Lactic fermentation is the traditional method of preserving vegetables using naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to partially digest the vegetables and produce additional nutrients.  This also increases the acid content of the brine, which acts to preserve the vegetables against infestation of pathogenic or food spoilage bacteria.  When food started to be mass produced it was much easier and quicker to use vinegar directly to preserve food (lactic fermentation takes several days or weeks vs a few hours in vinegar), but this short-cut means that we don't get the benefit of the bacteria starting the digestion and converting the nutrients.  Fermented foods are known to add digestion and strengthen the immune system, but now we are all so used to vinegar pickling, most people don't even realise that lactic fermentation is the traditional method of making pickles (I didn't know until recently) and certainly don't know about the health benefits.  

So you can see why I was keen to try lactic fermented pickles as soon as I had enough from my three little vines!  Previous lactic fermentation attempts were sauerkraut and fermented beverages, which I was a bit nervous about eating, but I'm think I'm getting used to this now.....

a baby gherkin, awwww

Lactic fermented pickling cucumbers 
I used this method, but I didn't have grape leaves, so I used some mustard leaves, and I added a little whey to get the process started (and use up the whey), as suggested in Nourishing Traditions.  Lucky I planted lots of dill earlier in the year!  The hardest part was finding big enough jars, I'm looking out for them at op shops and trying to build up a decent collection.  I used a piece of plastic cut from a margarine lid (very old lid, don't eat that "food" these days!) as the "follower" that's supposed to keep out air and allow the lactic fermentation to proceed.  I didn't use anything with my sauerkraut, but I've read in a few places that I should have.

Pickles before

Pickles in the jar and starting to ferment (I hope)

When I'd finished I found this GIANT gherkin on the vine, oops!
I'll chop that up and ferment it as slices with the next batch....
unless the seeds are big and then I'll save them for growing more.

And three days later.....
I took this very out of focus photo of the jar, actually the colour
has got a little duller, but still looks quite green
Before I put the pickles in the fridge I took them all out of the jar and strained the brine to pick out the dill and mustard leaves, as I didn't want them to go slimy, and then replaced the pickles and the brine in the jar.  Of course we had a little taste as well, and they were very nice.  A bit crunchier than vinegar pickles, a bit saltier and slightly less acidic, the dill smells delicious too!  I'm really pleased with them and will be making some more as soon as there's a few more big ones ready.....

Have you tried making fermented pickles?  or anything else fermented?

See my updated pickle method and more on fermentation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Caring for baby chicks

We're still having some trouble with our incubators, but when I work that out, I'll post about incubating eggs.  However, when we do managed to hatch some eggs, we've been pretty good at looking after the chicks from then onwards!  For those of you with reliable broody hens who take care of the incubation and chick rearing process, you're very lucky and you don't need to know anything about this post!  But as we raise Rhode Island Red and White Legborn chickens that are not known for their mothering abilities, we have to do all the work ourselves in order to sustain our little flock.

We collect eggs in spring until we have enough for the first incubator run and aim to hatch about 12 chicks a season, so we do as many runs as we need until we have enough chicks (this should only take one run, but as I mentioned above, it hasn't been easy this year).  The aim is to get about 6 new replacement hens and 6 roosters to grow up and eat (and maybe one to replace the old rooster or to sell), give or take a few, this seems to be about the right number.  Roast chicken is a bit of a treat here, because its such an effort to kill and dress the birds for dinner, but when we do have them, they taste really good.  Anyway, just thought you needed a bit of background info about the number of chicks we're talking about, now back to the chicks.....

After the chicks hatch they need to be kept warm (38degC at first), so they need a nice draft-proof "brooder" box and a heat source.  We use a wooden box, but any type of box is fine, I've even seen a cardboard box used.  The size depends on the number of chicks, when they get bigger, its surprising how much mess they make too, so even if the box seems huge at first, they will grow into it!  For the heat source we've been using an incandescent lightbulb.  These used to be $1-2, a great cheap solution, but we can't buy them any more in Australia.

 I've been trying to find an alternative heat source (that I can still buy), so I bought a special ceramic heat bulb (150 W) and holder from Planet Poultry.  I plugged it in and checked the temperature in the box (before I put the chicks in) and the box got to 60degC, oops!  It turned out that the bulb was for 50 chicks!  I only had 2 chicks in a small box, so no wonder it was too hot.  Then I tried a variable current controller to reduce the temperature, but I think it was just too oversized, as that made no difference to the temperature in the box.  Then I ordered a 25 W bulb from another website (made for snakes and reptiles), it fits in the holder I already bought, but they also sell their own, and this time it was TOO COLD!  Only getting up to 25degC overnight, which is OK when the chicks are a few weeks old, but too cold when they first hatch.  I have now ordered a 60 W bulb, which should work with the current regulator to hold the temperature around 30degC.....  The lesson is that it may take a few goes to find the right bulb for your situation, but they will all be useful for something (the small one is good for hot summer nights when the chicks only need a little extra heat).  UPDATE the 60 W bulb is great, it sits around 35-40degC, so I've connected it to a thermostat to hold it around 36degC for comfortable chicks.  Our box is about 1m long x 0.5m wide x 0.5m deep, made of wood.  This should give you an idea of what size bulb might suit your box.

We usually have a problem with where to put the box.  The shed is not insulated, so its too cold at night and too hot during the day.  Outside on the deck is better, but its in killer Kelpie territory, so inevitably the chicks end up inside our tiny house, lately next to the TV!  That's ok, except they can be very vocal, and sometimes its hard to hear the TV over all the cheaping coming from the brooder box!

I usually line the box with newspaper and change it every few days as it gets smelly.  Then I put the newspaper in the compost bin, complete with chicken poo goodness (sometimes I also soak it in water first, as this helps it to break down, it also helps to rip it up quickly into smaller pieces, however the chicks often help by spilling their water everywhere anyway).

Depending on the time of year, the chicks only need the heat lamp until they have a few feathers.  Particularly in summer, we can turn off the lamp after a week and after two weeks they can go outside in a small bird cage.  I put them in the garden during the day (just in case the kelpies take an interest in getting the cage open) and out on the grass in the afternoon and then under cover at night.  They seem very happy with that!  When they are big enough not to climb out of the chicken tractors we put them into the smallest tractor and watch them GROW.

The chicks will also need food and water.  We get a little "waterer" rather than a dish as they are so small they could hop in and drown in a dish.  We also give them a small feeder so they don't mess up the food so much.  We feed them chick crumble for the first few days, then a little cracked grain (borrowed from the cattle) and then some mixed grain, until they are big and hungry.  After a few days they can also have a little greenery, such as grass, lettuce or silverbeet.  When the chicks first hatch they don't need food and water right away, they can stay in the incubator for 24 hours to recover in the nice warm environment before they go into their new brooder box.  As soon as the chicks go into the box we try to teach them to eat by tapping the floor of the box with an index finger as if its a chick pecking at the food.  When we see them start to eat we know that they're going to be ok.  This is best when there are a few chicks, as at least one will be smart enough to figure it out so that the others can copy, with one chick, you just have to hope he's a smart one.  I also show them the water by putting a drop on my finger and putting on the chick's beak.

After a couple of weeks, you can usually tell the males and females apart, particularly if they are all the same age and the same breed, all the males will have little tails earlier than the females, and larger combs and wattles.  If he have a big hatch, we will then separate the hens from the roosters.  This lets the young hens get used to each other and makes it easier to put a small group of young hens in with the older hens later on, as they at least have some mates and won't get picked on so bad.

Do you raise chickens from chicks?  Any tips?

Here's an update on raising chicks with a few more details.

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

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