Wednesday, 6 May 2015

I vote for change

Tomorrow is election day in the UK. It is funny how quickly it is here and my complete lack of anticipation this time. What is there to be excited about? Will May the 8th be any different from May 6th?

I started watching The Trews - the news if it were true. I admit that I used to find it extremely uncomfortable to watch Russell Brand, but on his own for 10 minutes he seems a lot calmer and he has been saying the kind of things that I want to hear. I even watched his new film with Michael Winterbottom The Emperors New Clothes that came out recently. It was really hard to track down a cinema to watch it in, so in the end we paid Amazon and watched it at home. (It is all about not supporting big corporations who don't pay tax like....Amazon!)

Honestly, it is brilliant and well worth watching. Like Russell says, there is nothing in the film that you don't already know, but he puts it across in a way that is powerful, easy to understand and with humour, especially when he drives around in his 'Shop a Banker' van. (In this meaning 'shop' a banker means to grass them up and turn them in to the police, and mimics the government's campaign after the London riots when they used 'Shop a Looter' vans to try to catch people who had stolen a pair of trainers, rather than bankers who cost the country millions.)

One of the vans showing pictures of suspects

Well I was coming round to Russell's idea, that "things can change" and his stance on voting was not to vote for anyone because they are all the same and none of them stand for real change. For instance the labour party didn't regulate the banks or prosecute any bankers before they lost the last election and the conservative and liberal democrat coalition hasn't acted to rectify this since. They all support the bankers, they all listen to big corporations and put their interests above working people and they are all for austerity measures.

I think Russell has lost sight of this recently and has been charmed by Ed Miliband into advocating voting for his party if you are not in Scotland or Brighton! The Ed Miliband interview looked like Russell was hypnotised, but for the rest of us it was just Ed Miliband saying the same non-committal political spiel that he used in the TV debates.

I haven't followed much of the politics, but I watched the TV debate with 7 candidates, and although we don't usually vote for the same parties, both hubby and I agreed that we would both vote SNP (Scottish National Party) if we could, which of course we can't.... unless we move to Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon had a clear strong message that was anti-austerity, abolishing tuition fees and the bedroom tax - the kind of policies I would really want and expect to see labour supporting. Plus she came across as a strong determined women. There would be no more childish name-calling and bullying in parliament if she was in charge, which I detest from our current prime minister.

I will NEVER vote for conservative, not because of David Cameron or any of their policies, but because I remember growing up during Margaret Thatcher's government. Neither will I ever vote for labour after Tony Blair took us to war with Iraq based on lies. People seem to have forgotten that the labour party didn't regulate the banks and continued privatisation with underhand PFI schemes. They didn't build more council houses, strengthen the unions, or re-nationalise anything. They are not the same party that Clement Attlee led after the war. They are just slightly more left than the conservatives. (As the Green party political broadcast points out)

I read the Liberal Democrats manifesto last time round and it sounded good, so they got my vote. However Nick Clegg completely sold out to the conservatives just to be in a coalition government. There is no point being part of a coalition government if you are not going to stand up for the policies that matter to you. The real joke is that Nick Clegg still thinks that they did. Yes - they have been added to my never-forget-not-to-vote-for-them list!

I am fairly certain that they will be part of a new government though, because they have shown how weak they are. If I was going to try to make a coalition with another party, I would choose one that will go along with everything I say, and the Liberal Democrats have proved they fit this role perfectly!

Thinking about coalitions made me wonder whether Russell was onto something in suggesting voting for labour. For English voters we can't vote for the SNP, but if we want to see them as part of a coalition then really the most likely scenario would be if labour won marginally more seats than the conservatives, though not a full majority. Is there any possibility of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party forming a coalition? Wouldn't that be amazing?

I think Russell was wrong to throw his weight behind labour. He apparently had 10 million followers and if he had supported the Green party or Left Unity that could have made a difference and that could have brought these parties onto the playing field, ready for a Syriza style victory at the following election. Even supporting the "don't vote because they are all a bunch of liars" stance is better than suggesting more of the same. So much for wanting a revolution.

I want a revolution. For the first time I have a local green candidate that I can vote for, called Mark Sissons, who has written a book that sounds rather interesting. I am voting for the green party, because they are anti-austerity, anti-trident and support environmental policies that may yet mean that the planet is still inhabitable for future generations. I am voting Green for what they stand for and my vote still counts even if the Green party don't win the seat, because my vote is about being true to my feelings and views. I vote for change.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Tastier Than Bear's 6: Meat on the Menu

A lot has been happening the last few weeks, and I have a so much to blog about, yet very little time. I left you all on a cliff-hanger over 2 weeks ago with my quest to kill a pigeon, so it seems only fair that I start with an update on my foraging antics.

Well................I still haven't killed a pigeon, though I bought Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'The River Cottage Cookbook' (at the carboot sale for 50p) which follows his early antics at River Cottage. He has a whole chapter on Hedgerow, including wild meats, and is informative on preparing pigeon, rabbit, squirrel and ......snails (Hugh and Bear would get on a treat!). So having read more on the subject, I am feeling much more prepared for the pigeon-caught-in-a-net day to arrive.

But all was not lost on the meat front. Driving along a country lane I spotted some road kill. It was a cock pheasant and looked in very good condition, considering it had been hit by a car. I quickly jumped out and having some compost sacks in the boot, I stuffed the pheasant inside one and drove off full of excitement. This was it - true foraging with my first road kill dinner!

I was heading to collect horse manure from Suella, who is always very generous at sharing her horses' produce and there was quite a gathering. So I consulted with the wise Suella, Janet and Martha on my road kill and the first question was 'Is it still warm?' Why did that not occur to me? I had managed to bag the carcass without touching it, so I tentatively reached inside and yes it was warm, so very fresh. It was a bit smelly, but as they pointed out 'All living creatures are smelly'. Here it is.

Note to self: Don't stuff it in a bag next time, lay it flat! Nice how David Cameron is thoughtfully positioned to be consulting with my dead pheasant ;-)

Hugh doesn't mention pheasant, so I checked out some simple techniques on YouTube for removing feathers and gutting, but they all had shot birds whereas mine was already a bit damaged with guts spilling out. I was quickly losing my nerve, as a pre-packaged chicken doesn't come with the same smell, feathers, feet and undigested corn falling out. So I just dived in and cut out the breasts and quickly discarded the rest. I know it was such a waste, but I was overcome with squeamishness. Bear just rips off the head, feet and wings and skewers it for the fire, but I am not up to that yet (if ever).

I calmed down once faced with just the 2 pieces of breast and chopped them up for a stir-fry. I then dashed out to the woods (not shops) for some accompaniments - more wild garlic, hogweed shoots and stinging nettles.

I decided to break the rules and use some olive oil for frying as it is much easier than to keep adding dribbles of water. The hogweed shoots are absolutely delicious fried and were the best tasting part of the meal still. I may have forgotten to mention that I ate them last week on a bed of dandelion leaf salad, and they are so much more delicious fried than steamed.

The pheasant wasn't gamey (probably because it was too fresh), but rather plain and overcooked. I had thought to cook the breasts whole, so that I could leave them pink in the middle, but this was road kill and overcooked seemed a far safer option, if somewhat less appetising.

So I have eaten foraged meat and I survived ;-) There may be more meat menus to follow, if I can catch one of those darn pigeons.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Tastier than Bear's 5: Not quite pigeon

Well, Bears challenge has gone out of the window last month. Partly because it has been a busy month at the allotment and partly because I have set my sights higher for the next meal. The last meal had basically composed of a salad, and really I wanted to find some more nutritious food for the next meal. So I decided to target 2 new foods.

The first is pignuts. Not only do these involve a bit more pre-meditation than just pulling a few leaves while I am out walking, because I need tools for digging up the root and permission to dig, but I am having trouble identifying them without digging up the root. There are loads of plants with similar leaves in my woods, but they may also be something nasty like Hemlock, which is somewhat similar. So I need to take a mat and some plant identification books and sit and investigate, which needs the luxury of time and weather.

The second is pigeons. Yes I am carnivore and though I am not keen on eating bitter wiggly worms like Bear Grylls, I am game for some pigeon. A google search for pigeon brings up some really mouth-watering recipes. The wood pigeons we get in the garden have been grazing on locally grown vegetables, bird seed and other delights from the fields nearby, whereas city birds scavenge on rubbish so may not be a good idea. The problem of course is how to catch one and kill it. Road kill is definitely an appealing option, as I am used to dealing with dead carcasses, rather doing any slaughtering myself, but I have not been in luck.

Mr Twit used Hugtight Sticky Glue, pasted on the branches of a tree to trap birds for his bird pie. I must admit that it does seem a simple idea, not requiring any skill in the catching, but it is also indiscriminate. We really get some of the fattest pigeons in our garden, so a couple of years back, son and hubby decided to rig a trap. It involved my washing basket, propped on a stick. There was a rope tied to the stick and the other end was held by my son, who was sat in a camouflaged hide a few metres away. It was very entertaining, and as you might imagine totally unsuccessful! The pigeons were far too wily to walk under the basket. It was also somewhat of a relief because I didn't really think that either of them would be happy with killing their victim, and I did not want to be the one to do it.

So my mind had moved from traps to weapons. Eldest son has offered to shoot them with his bow and arrow, but having such a small garden with a public path along the side, I am scared of stray arrows causing harm. Maybe I could learn to master a slingshot, although I am the most appalling aim, and slow to boot. Look at these fancy ones which you can buy with seedball ammunition! At worst I would scare the pigeons off my vegetables, and if I got lucky, dinner would hopefully be dead from the impact.

But what if the pigeon was just injured and I had to catch it and kill it? There was only one thing for it. I needed help from an expert. The allotment is full of such experts. The netting designed to protect tender plants from the voracious appetite of greedy pigeons, is not always pigeon proof. A couple of times last spring I saw pigeons that had found a hole to get in, then couldn't escape .......the perfect pigeon traps! I have enlisted the help of an allotment friend and the next time a pigeon is trapped she will guide me to catch it and kill it. She seems quite an expert despite being a vegetarian, and has already dispelled my image of breaking it's neck, as apparently it is too easy to pull the head off - yuk! Bashing it over the head is her preferred technique. You really are going to have to stay tuned for a few more weeks to see whether I have the nerve to pull this one off.

There were several foraging successes this month though, although not a completely foraged meal. The wild garlic leaves are out everywhere now, so I felt no guilt in picking a bag full of leaves and making a batch of wild garlic pesto, following the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No. 7: Hedgerow by John Wright which is shown below.

50g Wild garlic leaves
30g Pignuts/ cobnuts/ pine nuts, lightly toasted in a pan (I doubled this amount)
30g Parmesan cheese grated
80ml Olive oil plus extra to cover
Salt and pepper to taste

Put in a food processor and blitz, slowly adding the oil. Transfer to a jar and make sure the pesto is covered with olive oil. Keep in fridge for several weeks.

Having not found any pignuts, I roasted some of my remaining cobnut stash, but the resulting pesto was like extremely strong raw garlic. I threw in an equal amount of pine nuts, which balanced out the flavour enough so that I could taste it without burning my mouth. A small spoonful added to pasta sauce is great! Or even as a substitute for garlic butter in garlic bread or very sparingly in a salad dressing.

I also picked a bag full of nettle tops. I think I suffer with mild arthritis in the joints in my hands and have found that nettle stings seem to help. I run my hands through the nettles until they are stung all over, then quickly rub some chewed up plantain over my hands to stop the stinging. The stings still tingle for up to 24 hours, but after that scrubbing the bathroom or weeding the garden doesn't make my joints ache.

The nettle tops were so bright and fresh looking. I made them into nettle soup using another River Cottage recipe. It tasted good, though was not thick enough for my liking, so I will add more potato or some swede next time.

Half a carrier bag of stinging nettle tops
50g butter
1 large onion peeled and chopped
I litre vegetable or chicken stock
1 large potato, peeled and cubed (or maybe 2 if you like a thicker soup)
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp. crème fraiche
A few drops of extra virgin olive oil
A few drops of Tabasco

Melt the butter and cook the onion until soft. Add stock, nettles, potatoes and carrots. Simmer for about 15 mins until potato is soft. puree with a stick blender and season to taste. Spoon into bowls with a teaspoon of crème fresh and drizzle of olive oil and tabasco.

I also picked some hogweed shoots and had them steamed with some chicken risotto. They do resemble asparagus in the texture, though not quite as delicious. Certainly very edible and something I will pick again.

I am still learning new plants all the time and keeping my eyes peeled for any delicious morsels, but growing vegetables is more productive and has to take priority for me over spring, whilst there is so much to be done.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Gold-plated DEC

I spent a couple of days recently responding to a government consultation, which will seriously effect the work that I do and could leave me looking for a new job. Improving the Display Energy Certificates Regime for Public Buildings is a consultation from the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG), with the objective to simplify and "reduce the burden of compliance" of energy certificate legislation.

Display Energy Certificates, known as DEC, provide an energy rating for public building such as schools and hospitals over a certain size. This A to G rating is based on the actual energy consumption for the building, so if the energy consumption decreases, the rating will improve. For the DEC shown above, the graphs on the right show that the energy rating has improved significantly each year for this building, from a G in 2012 to an E in 2014.

The DEC need to be displayed in a prominent place, so that if you walk into your local town hall or hospital you can see how much energy they consume compared to the average for that building type. They are a good way of raising awareness, and staff walking past these ratings on a daily basis may become more active in reducing their energy waste.

At the same time Leicestershire County Council's newsletter dropped through the door and the extent of cuts they are facing over the next few years as a result of austerity measures is horrendous. The cost of DEC is only a very small slice of the budget, but the focus is clearly going to be on keeping essential services going.

Whatever the responses were to the consultation document, it was already clear that there was a very negative slant towards DEC in the document, referring to them as a 'burden'. DEC have been a large part of my work for the last 7 years, but the picture painted was that they no longer had a future. I was left feeling rather gloomy, that I would inevitably have to find an alternative way to make a living.

Then some of my old colleagues kicked me back into touch. (Thanks Phil, Nick and Bryony!)

In 2008 the legislation forced DEC onto reluctant building managers. Gathering all the data needed was a pain the first few years, because in many cases energy wasn't being managed. Where energy was being managed well, the DEC seemed somewhat superfluous. But over the last 7 years building managers have adapted to using DEC as a tool. The DEC is an independent, annual energy review resulting in a visible, clearly understandable, and easily comparable energy rating. It provides useful information to help building managers make decisions on maintenance, justify investment in efficiency projects and target awareness campaigns.

I know of County Councils who use the DEC energy ratings to help them monitor the energy consumption of their buildings and to target their improvement measures - improvement measures that save them money on energy bills. They want to keep using the DEC as they are a valuable tool.

Headteachers, who have far more to worry about than tracking their complicated energy bills, can see at a glance how their school performs compared to an average school. And yes - they do check out the DEC rating in other schools that they visit! Displaying the energy rating in reception means that a poor G rating cannot be ignored, and is visible for parents, governors and teachers to see. It is a powerful motivation for making improvements.

Back in 2009 I compared how the DEC ratings I had produced had changed from the previous year. You can see that in general there was a shift towards the higher A, B and C rated certificates. The graphs above show that even in just one year there was an improvement in energy ratings, which means my clients actually reduced their energy consumption.

The above DEC is for a leisure centre, where the CHP (combined heat and power unit) was old and the efficiency was deteriorating. The effect of replacing it for a new CHP unit and additional improvements can be seen with the increase in the energy rating for the building from a D to a C. The cost saving was over £20,000 the following year, even after allowing for the effect of weather. What part the DEC played can't really be quantified, but raising the awareness and priority of energy efficiency improvements can have some significant financial benefits.

DEC aren't a financial burden, they are a money saving tool. Evidence from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, shows significant energy efficiency improvements between 2008 and 2012, which outweighs the cost of providing DEC. Shame that CLG, sees DEC as a 'burden' and wants to reduce or eliminate DEC requirements. Many of the proposed changes in the consultation would undermine DEC and make them almost useless as a tool for encouraging energy efficiency. CLG must understand that, yet they continue to push for dismantling them.

All the options DCLG provide in the consultation (my summary above) are to cut corners, whilst trying to stay just within the boundaries of the mandatory EU Directive. If the intention was to save money rather than reduce the 'burden', there could have been several options for improving the DEC to make an even bigger impact on reducing energy consumption. This would be a win-win for public bodies looking for efficiency savings, and also the government who has a legally binding carbon reduction target to meet. I get the impression this has all been tossed aside in favour of protecting energy company profits instead, as they are the only ones to lose out from further energy efficiency measures.

Well, if you have been following for a while, you may know that I am not a 'cut and run' type of person. If I can't make a stand and act when it is about DEC, which I am an expert on, then when will I ever make a stand on anything? So......... I have made a decision. I am not waiting for any of these bad outcomes to be enforced by people who are really rather ignorant about energy certificates.

Saving energy is hard. It is an uphill struggle, with investment seen as the lynch pin. My clients want things that are easy and that work to reduce energy consumption, and for this the current DEC aren't good enough. With some small tweaks, they could be so much better - Gold-Plated in fact, but with little to no change to the clients 'burden'.

For example, the value on the current energy certificates is a carbon ratio, quite meaningless to most people. But in the process of gathering all the energy data, I end up with all the cost data too. Displaying the cost of energy consumption as well would help understanding. As in the leisure centre example above, a £20k saving has a much bigger impact on people than seeing a C rating. Equating that cost into something real, like how many nurses or teachers that money could employ if it wasn't spent on energy, would help to hit the message home. For an individual, using the stairs instead of the lift may seem like a tiny insignificant amount of energy in a large hospital, but when that energy is equated into real people and jobs saved (or climate change and lives) it is energy that is well worth saving.

I can't change the actual DEC certificate, but I can change how it is presented and provide additional information with it. I can't change the legal requirements of DEC, but I can demonstrate the benefits of having them, and encourage voluntary DECs. Already I have clients who have decided to go beyond the minimum requirements. And as an energy assessor I always strive to provide more value than the basic energy certificates require, with advice on energy bills and added details for recommendations.

Working with my regular clients I will be setting up some trials to see what improvements to the DEC give the best results for the least additional burden. My target is that within 3 years, every DEC I produce will be a Gold-Plated. I will also make all the results and Gold-Plated DEC templates freely available for everyone to benefit from. So if you are a disenchanted energy assessor, accreditation body or building manager and want more than CLG are offering, spread the word - Gold-Plated DEC will be coming your way soon!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Tastier than Bear's 4: Allotment weeds

I am getting a little behind on my foraging challenge, partly because the weather has improved and I have spent more time at the allotment, throwing a ball for the dog, rather than taking her on walks. I have fixed the shed door, spread my remaining manure, planted fruit trees and bushes, and dug up buckets and buckets of couch grass, mixed in with the threads of old carpet.

There has also been Transition meetings, including a lovely seed sowing workshop last weekend, led by a very patient and knowledgeable Andy. My youngest daughter said, "How can you do a workshop on sowing seeds - you just get some soil and put them in!" How little she knew! I picked up lots of tips, such as what compost to use and mixing in a little sharp sand for moisture retention. I also had a chance to ask questions about things that had gone wrong for me. And of course it was a very sociable event with home made refreshments too. If you are local you can check out the Transition Loughborough website for upcoming events.

Then this Sunday was the first car boot sale of the season. I decided to have a stall selling, the idea being that I raise funds to spend in following weeks. It turned out to be a very quiet event, so I didn't do as well as I had hoped. Still I emptied a few bags of outgrown clothes from the garage and made £21. Except that I spent £2 on a new basket, £2 on a wheely trug, 50p on a bag and....50p on something else that I can't remember.

I also attended my first ever political meeting, as Amelia Womack, deputy leader for the Green Party was speaking locally. There will be a general election in May, and for the first time we will have a member of the green party standing locally. It was an opportunity to hear their policies and ask some important questions, and Amelia was a friendly and easy to follow speaker. She certainly gave me food for thought. And talking of food.......

It turns out that Couch grass roots are edible. Wish I had known that before I dumped buckets full of them.

Actually they smell quite sweet, so they should make an interesting basis for a meal. So this weeks theme became allotment weeds. Alongside the couch I collected some red dead nettles again as they were so plentiful and pretty, a few stinging nettles as they needed to be weeded anyway, and the two new flavours of chickweed and hairy bittercress. How does this look for a bagged salad?

There was groundsel growing in and around the chickweed, so I brought some home to look up and was shocked that some websites described it as a salad plant whilst others said it was seriously toxic. I wasn't going to take a risk, but it just goes to show that it is worth double checking everything before you decide to eat it.

The chickweed had very pretty, distinctive white flowers, but they had closed up completely by the time I got my camera out. The stem has a single line of hairs down it, which help with the identification. John Wright describes the flavour of chickweed in The River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow as "...mild and pleasant, not unlike lettuce but with a bit of freshly mown cricket pitch thrown in." I had collected loads, and though it had a nice texture, the cricket pitch flavour was too much for me, so I only used a small handful.

The hairy bittercress was amazing though. It smelled and tasted just like cress and was not bitter at all. I mixed it in with the chickweed and some raw red dead nettles for the salad, but unfortunately the lovely cress flavour didn't come through. Maybe I need more next time.

It would definitely work in egg sandwiches. I will be keeping all the hairy bittercress I dig up from now on, or just nibbling it raw in between digging.

I fried the chopped couch grass roots with the nettles and some of the dead nettles, but I decided to taste them before adding them to my salad. Good job too, because they were really tough, like chewing twigs! The flavour was fine - no bitterness like the dandelion roots, but they were too tough to eat. Luckily I had picked lots of dead nettles, so I chucked the first batch with the couch grass away and fried the rest on their own.

The fried dead nettles really were the star of the meal and very tasty. The salad was a lovely texture, but raw dead nettles aren't as tasty as the cooked ones, and the chickweed was the overriding flavour. I won't use chickweed again, or else in very small amounts, because I am not so keen on the grassy taste. Still I finished it all off..... well apart from the couch grass. Glad I did throw bucketsful away, because you would have to be very desperate to try eating it.

Besides this week's meal I wanted to make another batch of dandelion coffee. The first attempt weren't roasted enough and tasted vile. The second attempt I followed guidance from River Cottage no.7 to cook them for 30minutes at 200 degrees C. They were burnt within 10 minutes, maybe because I had chopped them quite small and they were very dry to start with. Half of this batch weren't too burnt and it did make rather a lovely drink. Hopefully the next batch will be perfect again.

I also found some coltsfoot whilst I was walking round the local reservoir. It is supposed to be a good remedy for coughs, so I will pick a few more to dry next time, because it wil be good to have some remedies in for next winter. I have just dried a bunch of sweet violets on my windowsill too

Every time I am out, I have brought one or two plants back for identification and tasting, so I am gradually increasing my wild plant knowledge. Where I really think that it will save me money is with herbal teas that I drink regularly, and with herbal remedies. I am gradually increasing my store of little bottles with dried plants, so that I should have enough variety to make more remedies soon. I had better start adding labels too, as I will no doubt forget what each one is! Let me know if you do any foraging or make any wild remedies?