Purple is the new Green

Think pink - or mauve - when choosing French beans

Think pink – or mauve – when choosing French beans

One benefit of the colder weather is that the beans have started setting pods. They won’t do anything when it is too hot, so it is always worth hedging your bets and sowing some early, say in May, some in June and others as late as July. That way, if conditions are right, you can still be harvesting beans into October.

This year I managed to save one unknown heritage climbing French bean (see picture at top) from the predations of the slugs and snails out of an original 5 plants. At last it has produced a handful of succulent pods. Generally speaking French beans have a nicer flavour than runner beans and are less inclined to be stringy. For those with limited space, they can be grown in decent sized pots.

Beans come in a variety of colours, including purple

Beans come in a variety of colours, including purple

I also have a tepee of purple podded beans which are the offspring of a few pods I ‘foraged’ from the garden of the Castle climbing Centre in Finsbury Park during my Growing Leader training. I am particularly pleased, since when I took them they weren’t completely dry, and I had to leave them for a few weeks to mature without knowing if they would become viable. Obviously they did, because I have had a decent crop over several weeks. They are rather ‘squeaky’ to eat, but like the French beans they have a good flavour. After the disappointment of last year, the very satisfactory bean harvest has encouraged me to investigate growing other interesting hued beans next year. This will be especially eye-catching for anyone visiting the Gardening4Health community gardens which have been set up in partnership with Feel Good Greenwich.

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Meera Excited about Walking – but in the Right Shoes

We are now in our third week of the fitbug Walk to Rio Challenge. I caught up with Meera to ask her about her experience of fitbug so far. What quickly became clear is how motivational it can be to wear a device which counts every single step. For her, the competitive aspect is key to spurring her on, but it took a while to get into it. The first week was just about wearing it, during the second week she began to think ‘Maybe I should walk a bit more’, and now Meera is converted!

‘It’s made me excited about walking’, she said. ‘As a family we’ve been on a few walks, so it’s a shared experience. Mahendra (her husband) is on it and the kids ask, “How many steps have you done, mum?”. It’s got my family talking’. She does admit though, that it is sometimes very tempting to take the bus. But the thought of losing out on steps, and being near the bottom of the league table spurs her on. ‘I am determined not to be at that lower end of the chart!’. She speaks with a smile on her face, but you can tell she is not joking. Even if it takes longer to get to where she has to be, it just has to be planned into the day. ‘Time is of the essence’, she remarks.

One thing to consider, which doesn’t generally apply to men, is which shoes to wear. Obviously heels are out of the question, but even those which are fine for generally moving around in at home or work may start to become uncomfortable when marching along to the station. She indicates the toe strap on her sandals and tells me they can rub after a while. Another downside is that it means she can’t walk as quickly, so can’t reach her step target so easily. Meera is already thinking seriously about wearing her trainers to walk to work, then changing later. There are a good number of weeks still to go, but I expect Meera will have notched up a respectable tally of steps by the end of the programme. Her heart is in it.

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Their final Journey

The initial process of using the fitbug invites all users to set up an account which details their starting weight, height and waist measurement. It also suggests an initial fitness test as a means of assessing each individual’s physical ability to allow the setting of targets. This involved press-ups, stomach crunches (old style, elbows to knees) and a walking/jogging/running session to travel as far as possible in half an hour.

I duly donned shorts and dug out my ancient road-running trainers, purchased when I had had a previous fit of enthusiasm for exercise occasioned by attaining a certain ‘special’ birthday. Needless to say, it didn’t last, so they were practically in pristine condition. Off I set, round the local open space, slowing to a walk after completing one side of the field, before upping the pace once I had regained my composure.

It was as I was completing my first lap, that I began to notice an untoward ‘sticky’ feeling under my left foot. I glanced down but couldn’t see anything to account for it so began to jog again. It was then that the reason for the bizarre sensation manifested itself – the glue had perished so that the entire sole was becoming detached with every step and flapping at the back. A desirable quality in a seventeenth century Dutch ‘clapper shoe’ perhaps, but not the thing to encourage a superb step count. Luckily, I was quite close to my house. I shuffled home 10 minutes into the task and binned the redundant footwear. To add insult to injury, the website wouldn’t allow me to enter any details. Instead, I will be counting and uploading the steps regularly and seeing if my clothes fit better.

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One small step isn’t enough

Here at GCDA the fitbugs have arrived and everyone who is part of a team is wearing them in the office, their every step (whether aerobic or not) monitored. Before the event, there was a fair bit of banter about being on the winning team and thrashing the opposition. The spirit of competition was in the air.

Then it was time to set up the devices to begin the programme. This is no more complicated than setting up a timer, and less difficult than setting up a DVD player. What was less easy to handle was the ‘weighing in’ part; starting weight is a key item of information, used to devise your individual fitness programme. I knew I had put on weight, mainly because of how I felt and looked, and recent weeks have involved rather more carousing than usual. But the scales indicated a weight rather more than I would like, the ‘mythical half stone’ that everyone intends to lose, coined by Vanessa Feltz.

As a general guideline, we should all walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I didn’t hit that either, as I was feeling lazy. Being overweight doesn’t help either. On the other hand, I have shed the pounds before, I’ve seen a few people who have also slimmed down recently, and one advantage of starting below par is that anything is an improvement. And now the weather has finally improved, it will be easier to get out and get active.

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Spend Pennies, Save Pounds – Energy saving tips

There are certain things you can do that cost little or nothing, but which can save energy, and therefore money. Fuel use is the main domestic expense for most people in the UK, so it is worth adjusting our habits to save cash. Some really do cost nothing, like opening the curtains to let the sun heat the room while you are out (or closing the curtains to keep your home cool in the summer).

Until comparatively recently, fuel prices were relatively low – but now that they have soared in recent years, it really is worth making adjustments that in the past we may have thought of as being penny-pinching, such as turning off the lights in empty rooms, and heating the minimum amount of water in kettles and saucepans. This explains the resurgence in popularity of those ‘sausage dog’ draught excluders, for the bottom of doors, easily and cheaply made. If you want to be mildly shocked, observe how quickly the meter dial whizzes round when you put the electric kettle on. Remember to put a lid on the saucepan, and that it is the base, not the sides of the pan that needs heating, so use the right size hob.

For instance, when it’s cold, just put more clothes on indoors; it’s what people did for centuries. Wouldn’t you have liked to mooch around the house in a banyan? Otherwise a spare throw, or one of those nifty fleeces-with-arms might be just the ticket. You could make one yourself. Just remember to slip it off when the doorbell rings, unless you want to cultivate a reputation for eccentricity. On the subject of clothes, remember that modern detergents have been designed to work at lower temperatures, and that you should wait until you have a full load before washing.

Electric devices are relatively expensive to run, especially old, inefficient ones, so potentially there are big savings to be made; leaving things on standby should be a thing of the past. Unplug the mobile phone as soon as it is charged up, and the same goes for the electric toothbrush. The energy saving lightbulbs produced now are not the same dismal affairs as when they first came out, and there are LED lightbulbs which have a more attractive light, so start replacing all your old style bulbs, and if you adjust the brightness of your TV, even that can save energy. There are plenty of other energy saving tips from the Energy Saving Trust here, and a carbon footprint calculator here.

click here to go to the GCDA website

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Volunteer – What’s in a Name?

At a recent training session, one of the participants asked if there were any alternatives to the name ‘volunteer’? He asked because he felt it had negative associations, akin to being labelled a ‘mug’. No doubt he based it on his own experience. I have seen funding applications that blithely specify a number of volunteers who will apparently undertake all sorts of onerous tasks that the person crafting the application would turn down flat if they were asked to do them. That is not sustainable.

The woman sitting next to me was very surprised at his attitude, explaining that she felt valued as a volunteer, and was happy to be described as one. Several others agreed, they were satisfied with the name, as volunteering had always been a positive experience for them. I demurred, because I have had both kinds of experiences. It certainly helps if the volunteer manager has had personal experience of being a volunteer, and is empathic. It is also useful to have protocols in place to support the process, such as an induction questionnaire and where appropriate, supervision meetings. A knowledge of where the boundaries are in regard to the volunteer’s role is vital for the sake of both parties. And it is imperative to have a support network to assist anyone using volunteers in their organisation.

Luckily, in Greenwich there is a thriving volunteer landscape. This is especially important, as the voluntary sector has a certain amount of ‘flakiness’ built in, owing to time-limited funding, leading to turbulence in staffing, and the nature of service users mitigating against immediate ‘successful outcomes’. However it is also true that there is a substantial part of the population that can’t be reached in any other way, either through government or local authority interventions. The ‘flakiness’ allows for flexibility, which is a strength. The proper recruitment and retention of volunteers is of the utmost importance. Managed properly, it can be rewarding to volunteers as well as service users.

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A Personal Choice

I was listening in to a conversation the other day between Meera and Claire. Meera was asking how much Claire spent on buying ‘ecologically sound/sustainable’ food and domestic products. Her point was that she couldn’t afford to buy the ‘good’ products, because of the volume her family would consume during the week. Lots of people would relate to this, especially now that the price of food and other domestic consumables has soared in the last few years. It followed on the back of another conversation about a programme Meera had seen explaining that the nutritional value of the food available in the shops had plummeted over the last thirty years.

This brought up the other side of sustainability – it’s not all about the individual, because the collective actions of many individuals has a cumulative effect. The way food is farmed in the UK, and other parts of the world, is impoverishing the soil, as Claire explained. It is easy to get into a habit of doing something without questioning it. The cheapest option is not necessarily the best value, either in terms of nutrition or the health of the planet. Only when you are aware of facts, can you make an informed choice, which may be a compromise between what you feel is ‘right’, and what you are prepared to pay in terms of money, and/or effort.

Meera must have got carried away, because she suggested we could all look at how we lived and see where we could make adjustments to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Even as the words were coming out of her mouth, she tried to unsay it, realising we would all be held to account, but it was too late. So we will all be looking at our lifestyles over the next couple of months, focusing on Diet, Exercise, Clothes, Energy/Water/Waste usage (domestic and workplace), Entertainment and Relationships in turn. The idea being that we each make changes to move us towards living more sustainably.

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Rosehip-hip hooray!

The foraged food taster at the MVMNT cafe in November entailed preparation of food and drink on a grand scale, far more than most people would ever undertake at home. Fortunately, we had access to the kitchens at GCDA with all the catering sized pans. It was one of these I had earmarked for the preparation of the large bag of rosehips I had collected beforehand.

Let me tell you, it took over an hour to pick through them all, removing any stalks still attached and discarding any that were too manky to be of use. The original wartime recipe gives  instructions to mince the rosehips coarsely; when I made this at home last year, I snipped them up with kitchen scissors, but there was no way I could face doing that after spending all that time in preparation before I had even started cooking. Instead, I washed them and started cooking them up whole, before breaking them up with a potato masher as I had done with the haws at home. As I had to leave off cooking to get elsewhere, I just had time to decant the juice into jars, straining it through a nylon sieve, whilst the part-cooked rosehips were loaded into a plastic container once they had cooled. Both were taken home and stashed in the fridge for further processing later.

The final stage in the process involved straining the jars of juice again – the contents needed heating to loosen them since they had gelled slightly in the fridge, and cooking up the part-cooked hips to extract more juice, before placing a goodly dollop of the mixture in the nylon sieve and agitating over a large bowl to encourage the juice out. The seedy slurry went into the compost bin. All was sieved again (a very important point) to make quite sure to remove the hairs that can irritate the gut and simmered to reduce the volume of liquid by about half before adding an equivalent volume of sugar. Then followed a lengthy session of cooking down, until finally, a thick paste-like jelly was produced, to be spooned out into scalded jars. This can be spread like jam or mixed with water to make a drink. Foraged food is certainly not ‘free’, if you take into account the time and energy used to process it, but that is not the point. It is about producing something you can’t buy in the shops and engaging with your environment, and having fun whilst doing so.

This is what foraging is all about

Click here to go to GCDA website

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A Taste for Foraging

table and stools outside

Harry sets the stage at the MVMNT cafe

The weather was perfect, as was the setting, when the MVMNT cafe hosted its first foraged food tasting event from 1 – 3 pm last Sunday. During the two hours, there were around 30 attendees, many of whom lingered for a long time as they sampled the various delights prepared from foraged ingredients gathered in and around Greenwich.

Checking out the samples

They were able to inquire about what to look out for, and taste for themselves the kind of food and drink that can be prepared using foraged ingredients. From ‘entry level’ foraging, like making the lavender sugar which encased the bachelor’s buttons (little cakes), using lavender spikes from a local front garden, to rosehip paste made from hips gathered from open spaces; then to quince and nashi pears, which were served as membrillo (quince paste), a quinceade, soft fruit jellies in sugar and as a mixed fruit crumble, all generously donated by residents of Greenwich borough who allowed the GCDA to gather the fruit.

Discussing foraged food

The informal style of the event encouraged lively discussion between committed afficionados of foraging and relaxed conversation with friends catching up whilst enjoying dishes they had never tasted before. It also introduced the MVMNT cafe to a new audience who were able to appreciate its unique, versatile layout which is ideally suited to events of this type. Expect another one in spring.

Plenty to see and talk about

Click here to go to GCDA website

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Hawthorn Jelly, easy to make

books about foraging

this is where it all began

Food is a perennial topic of interest – there are always plenty of people floating about calling themselves ‘food writers’ at any food-themed gathering – and now healthy food and foraging are bang on trend. On a recent walk around Ide Hill, my friends and I were struck by the amazing variety of mushrooms growing in the village, some tiny and bright yellow spikes, some enormous like the toadstools depicted in children’s books and some just like the ones you see in the shops. Possibly edible, but we kept clear, and besides it is not recommended to gather mushrooms after the rain.

hawthorn berries in a bowl

hawthorn berries, washed and ready for sorting

Instead, I was after hawthorn berries, just for the chance of cooking them to see what they taste like. Luckily we took a wrong turning near the end of the walk (to be fair, the book we used is nearly 20 years old, so it is hardly surprising if there have been a few changes since then). This meant we ended up walking along a fairly quiet road – lined with hawthorn bushes. Satisfied that they wouldn’t be coated in poison from passing cars, I gathered as many as I could. The recommended method is to pick the bunches, then process the individual berries at home. This I did by soaking the lot, then picking them over, discarding any black or damaged ones.

hawthorn jam

A lot of berries to make not much jelly – but you can’t buy it in the shops!

I then boiled them for an hour, mashing every 20 minutes with a potato masher and left the pulp to drain in a sieve, without pressing, over a bowl overnight. The next morning, there was a bowl of clear, reddish liquid ready to be cooked up with an equivalent amount of sugar and the juice of a lime. (I left the browny residue in the bottom of the bowl when I tipped the contents into the saucepan). I added the last apple in the house, finely sliced, to help the jam set. Apples are the jam-makers friend, being rich in pectin. This one went to a good home. This jelly has a special taste, and I will be foraging for more hawthorn berries soon.

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