Sunday, 16 April 2017

Sustainable shopping - buying in bulk

Grocery shopping - like it or not, it's something most of us have to do.  But rather than thinking of it as being a bit of a drag, there is a positive way to look at it. Grocery shopping is one way that we as customers (we hate the word consumer) can use our purchasing power to help bring about changes that we want to see in the world.  We can exert our influence by shopping mindfully. No company or store is going to stock products that don't sell.  By buying a particular product we are sending a message to the manufacturer to produce more of it. The rise and rise of cage-free eggs in Australian supermarkets is one such example. That means what we spend our money on counts!   Over-packaged products full of hard to decipher ingredients and way too much fat or sugar - is that really what we want to see more of?, I don't think so.   Organic, environmentally friendly goods that support our health and that of local businesses - well, yeah.  So let's get voting with our dollars 😊

There are lots of ways we can use our purchasing power for the good of our health and the environment and buying in bulk is one of them.

Buying in bulk can take different forms. One way is for a group of people to put money in to purchase a large quantity of an item and then portion it out amongst the group. Many people will have heard of Community Supported Agriculture schemes that supply boxes of fruit and veggies straight from the farmer to customers. Our permaculture group has done this with biodynamic spelt, as well as other things. This can be a great way to access quality products direct from producers who don't deal in small quantities. And the producer doesn't have to pay a cut to any middleman. Win win.

Another way is to shop at a bulk store. Bulk food stores, relatively common overseas are now catching on in Australia. These stores stock food in large unpackaged quantities, allowing customers to purchase as little or as much as they like of any item.  

One such store opened up a few years ago not far from where we live. It's called The Source Bulk Foods and it's where we buy our dry goods such as grains, beans, lentils, pasta, spices, seeds etc. 

Our local bulk foods store

Bulk food stores can benefit the environment in multiple ways.

Firstly the food and other goods are completely unpackaged - this is waste free grocery shopping.  The Source encourages zero waste shopping and I bring my own recycled glass jars, mesh bags and homemade cotton bags when I shop. Zero waste living, a concept popularised by Bea Johnson in her terrific book  Zero Waste Home, aims to eliminate trash from all aspects of life by following a simple guideline she calls the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (and only in that order). Any steps we can take toward zero waste living is a way of helping us to live more sustainably.

The second benefit of shopping at a bulk store is that you have access to a carefully considered range of products. Previously we had sourced organic products from a variety of places, making shopping more time consuming. Now I can find local/organic/biodynamic options all in the one store, which also focuses on supporting Australian producers and growers.

Then there's the range of options available. The list at The Source is extensive, carrying many hard to find items. 

Finally, while you are buying quality products, because they are free from packaging, the price you pay can work out cheaper than what you'd be paying for a similar item in the supermarket. I have certainly found this to be the case with some of the things I buy. We make our own muesli from a combination of rolled oats, quinoa flakes, sunflower seeds, linseeds, sesame seeds and cinnamon. I buy all of these organic items at the bulk store and save money. 

Below are a few more photos taken at my local store. As you can see, the store is well laid out, with all items clearly labelled and easily accessible.

Rice, beans, spelt and other goodies in barrels

seeds and spices along the top shelves

the brown rice I purchased

freshly ground coffee bean (left) and fresh nut butter (right)

Top row: black tahini, hulled tahini, unhulled tahini, tamari. Middle row: 2 kinds of extra virgin olive oil, macadamia oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil

Top row: blackstrap molasses, coconut syrup, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, dark agave syrup. Middle row: 2 types of honey, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar

So how does bulk store shopping work? It's pretty easy really. I take my empty jars to the counter to be weighed and the sales staff mark the weight on the jar. Then it's off to fill the jars with whatever I need. Back at the counter the jars are re-weighed and the weight of the jar is deducted from the total - so I'm only paying for the contents. Same deal with my homemade cotton bags - I write the weight of each bag in pen on the bag and this weight is deducted at the checkout.

Some of my purchases at the counter

Customers using the paper bags supplied by the store use a pen to write the item number on the bag before filling it, for easy identification at the checkout. There are scales available to check your quantities.

the friendly staff

This seems like such a sensible way to shop - it would be great to see bulk stores become as common as supermarkets.  

Have you ever shopped at a bulk store?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Homemade Yoghurt

As part of becoming more self-reliant, we've been enjoying making some of the food and other products we use at home. Foods like honey, preserves such as olives, jam, sauces and fruit, and products such as soap, dishcloths, laundry detergent and home cleaners.

With an interest in fermented foods from a health perspective, I had been wanting to make our own yoghurt for some time. Well I finally got around to it, and now that I've made several batches, I don't know why I put it off for so long!  

Breakfast - homemade yoghurt and homemade muesli

The basic process involves adding yoghurt culture to milk at 37C, whereby the culture consumes the lactose (or any other sugar) in the milk.  After a minimum of 8 hours at this temperature the milk becomes yoghurt.  

There are all sorts of nifty ways to keep yoghurt warm while it ferments.  Some of these include:
  • put it on top of hot water heaters (unfortunately our HWS is located outside in the open air so the option is not really suitable for us) 
  • on top of coffee machines (we don't have one) 
  • in a warm oven (we didn't want to wait for the oven to have been used in order to make our yoghurt) 
  • wrapped in blankets 
  • in an esky (cooler) with hot water.  
After considering our options I took the easy way out and bought an EasiYo yoghurt thermos ($23.50 from BigW) to incubate the yogurt in.  I'd heard that this system worked well so I thought I'd give it a try.  It consists of a thermos and a jar that sits inside the thermos to hold the yoghurt. Yeah, it's plastic, but it works well and makes the process simple ........... which means I'm far more likely to make yoghurt than if I had to fuss around with blankets. But that's just me.

EasiYo thermos

Boiling water is poured into the hole to fill the space below the red shelf

For my first batch I used some live yoghurt culture bought from Green Living Australia.  I bought the Tangy Yoghurt Culture ($16.95) and the Non-Dairy Yoghurt culture ($17.95). Each sachet contains enough culture for 100 litres of yoghurt (you only use a very, very tiny amount to make 1 litre) and you can make this stretch even further by using some of the previous batch of yoghurt as the starter for the next. The culture will keep for 2-5 years in the freezer. I liked the idea of purchasing the culture as it means I don't always have to have a previous batch on hand if I decide I want to make yoghurt.

We have a thermomix so that is perfect for mixing and heating.  However you could easily do it on the stove using a thermometer.  

The method I followed was from the Thermomix Everyday Cookbook but I have played around with quantities and use slightly less than the recipe in the book:

Ingredients: (makes 1kg yoghurt)

  • 800g full cream organic milk
  • 50g milk powder (the addition of milk powder makes a thicker yoghurt - I used 20g or none)
  • 3 tablespoons yoghurt containing live culture (I used the Tangy culture for my first batch and 2 dessert spoons of homemade yoghurt for subsequent batches)
  1. Combine milk & powdered milk in Thermomix bowl for 10 seconds, speed 7.
  2. Cook for 30 minutes at 90 degrees, speed 1. (This kills any bacteria in the milk, preparing it for the addition of the live yoghurt culture)
  3. Cool mix to 37 degrees. The mix must cool to this temperature before adding your starter or you will kill the live culture. It may take up to 60 minutes but you can speed this up by putting the bowl in the fridge.
  4. Once at 37 degrees add your starter (the yoghurt or the purchased live culture), mix to combine for 4 seconds, speed 4.
  5. Then heat for 10 minutes, 37 degrees, speed 1.
It's very important that the utensils you use to make your yoghurt are clean and sterilised. While the yoghurt is cooling to 37C I wash the yoghurt jar and lid in hot soapy water and then rinse them. Then while the yoghurt mix is heating in the final step I fill the clean yoghurt jar with boiling water and let it sit until the yoghurt is ready to add. I also pour boiling water over the underside of the clean lid, let it sit for a little while then put the lid, underside down on a clean tea towel. 

Once step 5 is complete, pour boiling water into the EasiYo thermos up to the correct level. As shown in the photo above, the yogurt jar sits on a shelf above the level of the boiling water in the EasiYo thermos. (You don't want the container holding the yoghurt to come in contact with the boiling water).  Empty out the boiling water sitting in the yoghurt jar and pour in the yoghurt mixture.  Screw the lid on and put the jar inside the thermos. Leave the thermos somewhere where it won't be disturbed for at least 8 hours, and longer for a thicker yoghurt. Once done, you can  transfer the yoghurt into another jar to free up the yoghurt jar for making another batch.

Two batches of yoghurt in the fridge - some from the batch on the left was used to make the batch on the right

As you can see, yoghurt made in this way is super easy. The organic full cream milk we used was purchased on special (50% reduction) so that made the yoghurt even cheaper to make.  I've yet to try making the non-dairy yoghurt but as I only drink soy milk I'll have the ingredients on hand. 

The Green Living Australia website has recipes for dairy, soy, almond and coconut yoghurts so there are plenty of yoghurt making options available.  Making your own yoghurt is not only easy, it will save you money while at the same time, give you control over what goes into the yoghurt you eat. I won't have to make many batches before I've covered the cost of buying the cultures and the thermos.  What's not to like about that?

Saturday, 18 March 2017

An unexpected harvest

Last month we set up a hive on our country block. At the time we weren't sure of the forage supply so we gave the bees some sugar syrup, just in case. Five days after installing the hive I had a quick peek under the lid. It didn't look like the bees had been feeding on the sugar. Two and a half weeks after installing the hive I did a more thorough inspection. And I was pleasantly surprised.

Once I'd opened the hive I could see that the bees were not feeding on the syrup.  So we took that away. Looking into the hive it seemed clear that they were finding some sort of nectar flow - the hive was full of honey.  In fact there was very little room left for the queen to lay. Yikes!

Ideal size box containing the sugar syrup

Nobody was interested!

I had spare boxes on hand but no frames (another beekeeping lesson learnt - when tending more remote hives be prepared for abundance!).  The hive was in danger of becoming honey bound and I didn't want the hive to swarm if they ran out of room.  Fortunately we did have a supply of clean 2 litre icecream containers in the shed. 

Here's what we did to make some room in the hive:
  • Removed a full frame of honey and took this back to the shed.
  • Found 4 clean 2 litre icecream containers with lids
  • Cut the comb out of the frame and put this into the icecream containers. I cut a quarter of the comb out of the frame at a time, which fitted nicely into a 2 litre icecream container.  
  • Left an inch of comb along the top of the frame to act as a guide for the bees to build on.
  • Put the frame back in the hive.

We hoped the bees would get to work building comb on this empty frame and give the queen some more room to lay.  We planned to come back in a few days with frames to add a 2nd box to the hive.

So what happened?

Well, we came back 4 days later to find that the bees had almost completely filled the frame with fresh comb.  Go girls!  

To give the bees plenty of room we added a second box with fresh frames. We don't wire our frames - instead we use a thin strip of wax in the top of the frame as a guide and let the bees build their own comb. Yes, they consume honey in order to make the comb but we figure it's better to let them build the comb that they want rather than use frames with full foundation.

To make room in the brood box we moved 2 frames of honey up into the second box and put 2 fresh frames with wax starter strips into the brood box.  Based on how quickly the bees had filled out the frame we'd put in a few days prior, it seems likely that they should be able to build out the 2 empty frames.  The presence of the honey in the 2nd box will hopefully draw the bees up there too.  Just how much comb they build in the top box doesn't really matter - we just wanted to make sure there was room in the brood box for the queen to lay. 

Here's how we processed the comb once we got it home:

One of our 4 containers of comb

Using a potato masher to mash the comb

Fully mashed comb on right

Mashed comb is spooned into the double strainer sitting over the honey bucket

Honey is left to drain from mashed comb into honey bucket. Because the lid of the honey bucket doesn't clip on when the strainer is in place we use a plastic bag secured by a rubber band to cover the lot.


Here's the harvest from our single frame of honey. Well over 2 kg of honey:

Honey harvest from single frame - large jars on left each hold 500 gms of honey

We hadn't planned to harvest from this hive this season, thinking that it might struggle to amass stores. Our suburban hive is certainly not making much honey. Just goes to show that as a beekeeper you need to be prepared for multiple outcomes, especially when you are tending hives in more remote areas.   Now that the country hive has plenty of room we can leave it to do its thing and check back on it in a few weeks.

If you keep bees, how are your hives going?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Spoon carving with the Green Woodsmith

Some time back we did a day-long spoon-carving workshop in Kyneton.  Unfortunately we never managed to quite finish those spoons. Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) is quite hard even when green. We wrapped the partly-carved spoons in foodwrap and put them in the freezer but the plastic has ripped. The spoons have now dried out and are even harder to carve.

Not being too familiar using an axe, I found my first foray into spoon carving to be rather slow going and my arm got a bit tired from using the axe.  Which kinda explains why I didn't finish my spoon in the workshop.  I still had a hankering for more instruction on the subject so as a Christmas gift, Mr PragSust kindly enrolled me in a spoon carving course in January with Paul, the Green Woodsmith

The Green Woodsmith spoon carving courses are run from Paul's property in Buninyong, 15 km from Ballarat. He has a lovely outdoor setting for the course and despite the hot weather, it was a very pleasant spot to work. The inquistive alpacas were a lovely bonus - I mean where else can you get the chance to get a kiss on the head from a gorgeous alpaca!!

The shaded outdoor classroom

The axes Paul uses in his class are a variety of specific carving axes. They were lightweight which made them fairly easy to use, even for those of us who aren't too familiar with using axes.  Paul encouraged us to try out the different axes to find the one we liked best.  

We used willow for our spoons and this soft wood proved easier to carve for a newbie than harder woods such as blackwood.  Paul gave us some instruction on the types of axes and how to use them safely, and the steps involved in taking our willow from a lump of wood into a spoon and then we were into it!

Directions showing which way to make the axe cuts

We had a break for a relaxed lunch in the shade. My friend and I had brought along food to share and we also got to taste some of Paul's wife Jenny's preserved caperberries - yum.

Then it was back into it, with instruction on safely using the carving knives to further shape our spoon - the straight knife for shaping the spoon and the hook knife used to carve the bowl.  

Marking out some cutting lines, with friendly alpaca in the background

Getting some instruction from Paul

The next step in shaping the spoon- using the straight knife

Shaping the bowl with the hook knife

Carving the bowl

I didn't quite finish my spoon (I'm definitely a bit of a slow coach!) but by the end of the afternoon I did have something recognisably spoon-like 😌  I have stored it in a ziplock bag in my freezer and plan to see if I can find the time to finish it sometime soon. Paul said it should be okay stored in this way for around 6 months so I have a bit of time up my sleeve.

If you're interested in having a go at making a spoon using only an axe and some knives, I heartily recommend doing a spoon carving course with Paul the Green Woodsmith. Check out his website for details of upcoming course dates.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hive goes on a road trip

Back in December we split our hive so that we could take a new hive to our country block. An inspection in mid-February showed the 5 frame nuc was pretty full and bees were starting to build comb in the roof space.  A good indication that it was ready to go into a full size box. So we decided it was time to take this little hive on a road trip.  

We had always planned to move the hive while it was still in the nuc for the following reasons:
  • Nuc base is attached to hive body - no chance of separation occurring during transit
  • Hive body has clips that securely attach it to the lid
  • Good sized ventilation hole at back of hive that should provide sufficient air when front entrance is blocked for transport
  • Nuc fits nicely in back seat of car and can be secured with a seatbelt.
  • Nuc size makes it easy for one person to lift
Our 5 frame nuc, viewed from the back

I'll admit to being a bit nervous about taking a 2 hour trip in the car with a hive. To make sure we were as well prepared as possible we created a step by step plan of how we'd go about the move and ran it by a couple of experienced hive movers.  In our plan we also had to incorporate a means of feeding the hive, at least until we could establish if it was finding enough forage in the surrounding area.  

A hive in suburbia has ready access to some sort of forage most of the time; particularly in Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs. However our country block is surrounded by grazing farms and large monoculture eucalypt and pine plantations. Local grazing farms - and our block - at times can have areas of useful bee fodder weeds such as capeweed and wild radish/turnip. We have some clover in our pasture. There's also some smallish areas of native vegetation starting at about 1km distance, various other weeds in roadside verges and on our block some paddock trees and earlier plantings that provide some pollen and nectar. And we're planting a load more trees that all going well will eventually provide excellent bee fodder. However, what's available now might not be enough for a new hive to amass enough stores in time to see out the winter. There are wild bee colonies in dead tree hollows - standing dead blackwoods do a good job of providing this accommodation -  around the place so bees live in the area but as we were taking the hive down there at the tail end of summer, we wanted to make sure it had enough supplies if current forage was slim. 

To further complicate things, we have curious wombats (not so jokingly known as 'bulldozers of the bush") on our block. This makes attaching an external feeder more problematic as these rather large critters could easily knock it over if they decided to investigate the hive on their nightly rambles.  Any time we do anything new at the block the very next visit shows that wombats have given our efforts the once over and usually left a deposit to show they've visited. A month or so prior to the hive move we'd placed a large concrete paver in position for the hive to sit on. Our very next visit showed this has been well truly pooped on and scratched around! 

Wombat on nightly ramble - source

Okay, back to the hive move. The process of moving our hive was done over 2 days in February, as described below.

Day 1
Materials used:
Spare 8 frame box
Bee escape gear
Entrance closure equipment - piece of wood and gaffer tape
Large ziplock bag
Sugar - to prepare a solution of 2:1 sugar syrup

The nuc was going into an 8 frame box so we needed 3 additional frames.  Foraging conditions in the country are quite different to suburbia so we wanted to ensure the new hive had plenty of stores.  To do this we took out 2 frames of honey and one frame of drawn comb from our main hive and replaced those frames with new frames that had wax starters strips. To get the bees off the frames we used our bee escape gear. We placed the frames in the spare box and used the bee escape lid to enable the bees to leave the frames of their own accord.

Bee escape lid and base, box contains frames of honey

Bees starting to crawl out the mesh cones - see far left and far right cones

A couple of hours later there were no bees in the box.  We took the frames inside and securely packed them in a foam broccoli box so they wouldn't move around during the car trip.

Bubble wrap and cardboard used to stop frames from moving and spilling any of their contents

Once it was dark it was time to close up the hive in preparation for the relocation.  We used a strip of wood and lots of gaffer tape to close up the entrance and secured the hive with an emlock.

We also ensured that the car had enough petrol for the trip so we wouldn't have to stop on the way. We didn't want to make the 2 hour journey any longer than necessary.

Day 2: Moving day
Materials used:
1 8-frame box, lid and base, hive mat
1 ideal size box
large ziplock bag of 2:1 sugar syrup  
large plastic container in which to sit bag of sugar syrup
sharp knife to slit holes in sugar syrup bag

We packed the gear into the car and then put the nuc on the backseat (rear end with ventilation hole facing forward) and strapped it in using the seatbelt. Fully confident in my hive closure technique, Mr PragSust opted not to wear a bee suit as he drove. I, on the other hand, sat in the back next to the hive in my full suit - just to keep an eye on things.

We were on the road by 6.30 am and reached the block around 8.30 am. There were no escapees during the drive which was great.  The forecast was for partly sunny and 20 degrees but it was pretty cold and overcast when we arrived.  

Arriving at final destination

We put the nuc in the pre-determined location and left it closed up for 30 mins to let the bees settle.  

Nuc in position, still closed up

After around 30 min we opened up the nuc and were prepared to exit the area quickly. However there was no rush of bees exiting the hive - just a few came out.

The weather didn't improve and actually got steadily worse throughout the day with heavy rain falling on and off. This meant we were not able to open the hive to transfer the bees into a full size box.  Opening the hive when the weather is too cold will chill the brood. This can  harm and potentially kill a hive.  We had to wait several days for suitable weather to do the transfer.

Two days later was forecast to reach 24 degrees and mostly sunny so things looked promising. After an overcast and drizzly start the promised weather actually arrived about 1 pm so we got to it. The nuc was moved to the side and the full size box was put into position. We made sure the entrance was sited in the same position as the nuc's so bees could easily find their way into their new home.  A honey frame was put on each side of the box (frame positions 1 and 8) and then we opened the nuc. The frames were transferred gently into the new box in the same arrangement as they had been in the nuc.  It's important to do this gently so as not to squash the queen.  We then checked for the queen in amongst the bees remaining in the nuc box and lid but didn't see her.  Our frame of drawn out comb was then put in position 7 and the hive mat was put on top of the frames. Once all this was done we put the ideal box on top. Inside the ideal we put the large plastic container holding the ziplock bag of sugar syrup and made some slits in it so the bees could access the syrup. The lid went on followed by the emlock and all was complete.  We left the nuc on it's side by the hive so that the bees in it could make their way into their new home.

The last of the bees entering their new home. Photo taken late afternoon

We were really pleased with how the whole process went. The bees went quickly into their new home and after a bit of flying around investigating their new digs, foraging recommenced.  Lots of the bees were bringing back pollen so that was a good sign. Some of the pollen was bright orange. Not sure what that was coming from!

Spring at the block this year saw unseasonally cold weather and lots of rain - in short it has been a very bad season for bees throughout the general area. As has been the case for us in Melbourne, beekeepers in the area have had to feed their hives. lt rains a lot there, especially in autumn and winter, and bees confined to the hive can easily work through the stores they've brought in. With this in mind we decided to start this hive off with some sugar syrup. We want the bees to have the opportunity to build up some stores so they can better handle inclement weather and potential dearth of forage. Weather permitting, we'll keep a check on how quickly the sugar syrup is consumed by the bees and feed again as required.

Hive located in shelterbelt, facing east to catch morning sun and shaded from hot afternoon summer sun. Photo taken 6pm. Paddock with cows is next door's block. For those with an interest in agroforestry, the shelterbelt contains mainly silver wattle, blackwood and assorted eucalypts with smaller quantities of several other wattles, banksias, casuarinas and a few western red cedars to maintain an international flavour.