Wednesday 4 February 2015

I'm Back and building Lighting Shelving

Hi folks. I have been away for a long time with starting a new job and some other changes, I haven't had much time to write any blogs. But I am hoping to get back into writing a bit more regularly. I also have a Facebook page which I update pretty regularly if your interested in keeping in touch that way.

At this time of year I always seem to get a burst of energy and enthusiasm so far as the garden goes. This year before the season starts we have a few jobs that need doing. We have to replace the the plastic on the polytunnel as the opening flaps on the sides are all torn and its starting to show a bit of wear in a few other spots. We have ordered the plastic to do that, now all we need is the weather to improve a bit to allow us to put it on. Today I ordered some seeds, a little later than I planned, but what's new there.

Every year when it comes to starting seeds the windowsills fill up with pots, trays and propagators. Every year I seem to have less and less space. At some point over the winter I saw a post online about starting seeds under lights. I can't remember where it was to credit the website but there are plenty of different sources when you look around online. I read around online to find out information about how it works and if I would be able to give it a go.

What I have gathered from my research is that the best light to use is fluorescent tubes. The provide the necessary light for seedlings to grow. You can buy special (expensive) grow lights. These are designed for growing palnts that you need to flower, fruit or bud (ahem, ahem). When starting seedlings we only need them to grow from seed to seedling stage, not for the full duration of growing. It is possible to grow lettuce under these I believe. This is to do with the spectrum of light required for different stages of plant growth, which I read a few bits and pieces on it made my head hurt so I stopped. It's enough to know that fluorescent lights are sufficient for growing on seedlings which is what we want to do.

I looked through a few different design types. You can go from a single fluorescent lights hung from a pvc-pipe-built frame right up to expensive commercial units. I decided that if I was going to build this I wanted to do it right and make sure it would be big enough that I wouldn't need to build another one in a year or two.

My 4ft x 2ft lights
My search started first with looking for the lights. I found a few on different second hand sites. I found some that were 2ft square with 4 tubes which weren't ideal but I was considering them when I discovered some 4ft by 2ft lights with four 4ft tubes in them. They looked ideal. After a bit of negotiation I agreed to buy 4 of these lights for €70. They had been taken out of an office that was being updated. This then decided on the size of my shelving unit. A footprint of 4ft x 2ft and I needed to have enough room to hang 4 lights.

I decided on my materials and got them together for about €60. I used 11mm OSB board for the shelves. It comes in 8ft x 4ft sheets which I had cut into four to give me my shelves. I also bought four 3"x 2"s for the legs and some 2"x 1"s for cross members. This isn't going to be a pretty piece of furniture, no frills, just functional.

I cut all the pieces to length and got them together to assemble the shelves.

I first assembled the sides of the unit. I then put the OSB sheets on them an secured them in place. Might be handy to have a second pair of hands but balancing each side against a wardrobe and a door will do in a pinch.

As you can see there is actually five shelves needed to hang four lights. There will be no seedlings on the top shelf but it needs to be there to hang the light from for the shelf below. I will probably use the top shelf for storing pots, watering cans and that sort of stuff. I had some spare MDF to use for the bottom shelf. It doesn't bother me that all the shelves dont match but if it did you could buy a quarter sheet of OSB but it usually costs nearly as much as a full sheet.

I painted the whole unit with two coats of white gloss paint. It will protect from splashes of water when watering and protect from general wear. The white should also help reflect the light also if I remember the science classes from school. (Thanks Mr. Corcoran) Also it was the one that was on special, which always helps.

It was then time to hang the lights. I used four short lengths of chain at each corner hung on a hook from the 2x1 above. The chain can be raised or lowered to suit the height of the plants below. You need to keep the lights close to the seedlings so that they don't become tall and spindly reaching for light. This can happen when they are kept on windowsills as there isn't really enough light for the seedlings in winter and early spring. The lights will need to be on for between 12 and 16 hours a day. I have heard different times from different sources but I will probably start with 12 hours and see the seedlings grow.

 With all the lights working I decided to sort out a timer. I am not a very organised person so remembering to turn on and off lights everyday and having to be home every 12 hours just wouldn't work for me. Luckily I had this timer at home which is perfect for what I need. Actually it is probably more than I need as you can program it to come on certain days and not others. All I need is on at about 8 in the morning and off at 8 in the evening. This unit will be kept in my bedroom so I can't have it on at night, although the electricity would be slightly cheaper at night. I also each light connected separately so if I only have one shelf with plants on it I can just have that light on. That should help keep electricity costs down.

I have not got any seeds on the shelves yet but hopefully I will get some started in the next week or so and I will get to see how it performs. In all the shelf cost about €160. To buy something with this much growing space would cost a lot more than that. It is hard to find places to buy these but in Ireland most seem to be fitted with the expensive growlights so it's not really a comparison as they can cost upwards of €1,000. I guess we will see how good this is after its been used.

 Hopefully I will be posting more regular updates here as things go on. I will probably post again when my seeds arrive. This is mainly to document which varieties I am growing this year so I can look back next year and see how well they grew. I normally do this on a scrap of paper which I lose by the next year.

Until then.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Prosciutto Tasting

Hanging after 5 months
I cured and hung half a leg of pork for prosciutto in early October last year. This has since been hanging in the room off the utility room where the dog sleeps. It was hanging over her bed which was possibly a little cruel but it was the coolest room in the house. The recipe I had used was for a full leg of pork so I had halved the salt, herbs, etc. but was unsure about halving the time for curing. The recipe said 4 - 6 months for a full leg, I left the half leg for about 5 months to be on the safe side. I have heard of prosciutto being hung for 2 years so I doubt it can be left for too long really.

The first slice

Despite everyone that saw it thinking I had wasted a leg of pork, I was hopeful that I had some good quality prosciutto. It might not look very appealing hanging up but any of the meats I had air dried before never looked much until they were sliced.

Once I had taken down the ham and untied it, I washed off the lard that I had put on the exposed flesh. Next I nervously pared off some of the rind which is inedible but apparently good to add to sauces and stews for depth of flavour.
It revealed a lovely deep red meaty interior. It was firm but with a little give, just what I had hoped for.

I then put the leg onto the meat slicer to get the wafer thin slices that are the best way to serve prosciutto. After a little tinkering with the settings I got the slices as thin as I could. This is one of the main reasons I bought the slicer and I am glad I did, the thin slices are excellent.

 I am very happy with the outcome of this. I will be keeping pigs again this year and without doubt will be doing this again. I will probably do a full leg this time around. I have probably about half of my half leg left. It should last a month in the fridge. I don't think any will last longer than that but it should also last a few months in the freezer. Maybe if I do a full leg next time around I will slice some for the freezer to make it last a bit longer.

Today I was building some more raised beds for the garden. I have also separated some chickens for breeding so I will be collecting eggs next week and probably setting the incubator next weekend. I will probably have a post about both of those in the next week.

Until Then

Friday 28 February 2014

Porter Bottling, Tasting and Drinking

It's been a while since I have posted anything on here. Wasn't much happening in the garden over the winter. Things are starting to get going again at this time of year but first I decided to tidy up one of the loose ends from last year. I had been brewing a batch of porter for Christmas. It wasn't quite ready for Christmas but had a bottle or two around New Year's. I will get to that but first up is the bottling of the porter.

When I left off I had a batch of porter in my glass carboy. Once that had cleared I was ready to bottle it. I bought some nice dark glass old fashioned bottles which I thought would look good for the porter. I could have used some bottles that I had saved but I will probably need those for the cider in a few weeks. Also I thought these bottles really looked the part.

My new bottles

When I ordered the bottles from the homebrew shop I also added a bottling bucket. This is a large bucket which holds all the beer and has a special tap which makes it easier to fill bottles. It was cheap enough and definitely made the job a lot easier.

My new bottling bucket
Transferring to the bottling bucket

Once the bucket was filled I added some sugar so that when in the bottle the beer would ferment a little bit again creating CO2 creating some "fizz" in the beer. Porter isn't very carbonated so I only needed a small amount of sugar. There are online calculators that work out the amount needed so no need for confusing formulas. If I hadn't got the bottling bucket it would mean adding a very small amount of sugar to each bottle which gets very messy. This is a much better option. Once the sugar has been disolved in the beer its time to bottle. The tap on the bottling bucket has a valve on the bottom which only allows beer to flow when it is pushed up. So pushing a bottle up onto the tube opens the valve and the beer flows. Once the bottle is full you simply take it away on the beer stops.

Adding the priming sugar

The filled bottles

Once the bottles have been filled it's time to cap them. This is pretty straight forward. You use a special piece of equipment for it. Put the caps in it and push them on and you have sealed bottles.

The bottle capper

A capped bottle

The finished article

Once the bottles were finished I left them for two weeks, by a radiator, to ferment and carbonate the beer. I opened one and it was still flat so I left them another few weeks for aging/carbonation. After this they were ready. The finished beer had a lovely taste, some chocolate and coffee flavours but not over powering. It also had a good head on it which did tend to die off after a few minutes. This seems to be normal with a porter, so it just means not pouring it all first time and leaving a little to add half way through the pint to liven it up again. I have been doing my best not to drink it too quickly. At the time of writing I have 8 bottles left. I would definitely make this again, but definitely a bigger batch next time.

I am already thinking about my next batch of beer. It will probably be an Indian Pale Ale, something light and refreshing for the summer. That is probably a few weeks away yet. All the spare cash has gone on some timber for raised beds this week. Hopefully I should be putting them together this weekend. I also have an update on the prosciutto I started in October which I should be posting in the next few days.

Until Then.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Homebrew update

I have decided to write a blog to update a few of the brews I have going at the minute. I currently have a batch of cider, elderberry wine, blackberry wine and my batch of porter I wrote a blog about a few days ago.

Homemade demijohn
First off is the cider I started brewing in late October. Once the fermentation had run its course, which took about a week I moved the cider from the fermenters into demijohns. I have a few demijohns which my dad had from his wine making days. I needed more for this batch of cider though so I used some 5 litre water bottles to make my own demijohns.

The cider went into these under airlock to allow them to ferment out without the dead yeast cells and general sludge left after the first fermentation, affecting the flavour. I stored the bottles beside a radiator to allow them to ferment out all the sugars so I could then store them without fear of the bottles exploding.

Cider transfered into the demijohns

Lined up beside the radiator

Once the bubbles had stopped coming through the airlocks I knew fermentation was finished. I then waited for the cider to clear. For this they need somewhere cool. I moved them away from the radiator and they cleared in about 2 weeks.

Cleared cider

Once clear I moved them to the attic. They will be kept cool there and they will age for a few months. I had a sneaky taste and it was very bitter. This may lessen with aging. If it doesn't mellow by the spring I will sweeten the cider using an unfermentable sugar. I had expected the cider to be quite bitter as I used mostly cooking apples so I am not too worried about that.

Next up are the blackberry and elderberry wines which I started in early October. After 4 days both wines were strained and transfered into demijohns to finish fermenting without the fruit and pulp. They both bubbled away for a few days in the demijohns. I'm not sure quite how long as I left them to ferment and clear for about a month. When I came back to check them I had two very different results.

The blackberry wine had stopped fermenting before all the sugars had turned to alcohol. This left me with a "wine" with about 7% alcohol and it was very sweet. This is a problem with some brews known as a stuck fermentation. It has a few fixes like shaking up the brew, adding yeast nutrient and moving to a warm place. I tried all these and it had little or no effect. Sometimes fermentation stops due the high level of alcohol killing off the yeast. I had a packet of Turbo Yeast. It says it can ferment up to 20% alcohol so I have added that to the wine to see if it can ferment out the last of the sugar and give me a 13% wine with no sugar left. It is quite expensive as yeast goes. I think it cost 6 euro or so.  Finger crossed it gets the job done.

The elderberry wine was much more successful. I tested a sample of the wine and it had zero sugar left in it. The percentage alcohol is about 12%. I had a sneaky taste (as I like to) and it was nice. A bit like a light red wine. Apparently elderberries have a lot of tannins in them which benefit from aging. So going by that reasoning the wine should improve with time in the bottle. That's if it lasts that long. I transfered it into wine bottles and put plastic stoppers into them. I was considering blending some of it with the blackberry wine so I haven't put proper corks in the bottles yet. Having tasted it I will definitely want to keep some unblended to age so I will be putting proper corks in some of these bottles.

That's most of the homebrew taken care of. Today I took a sample of the porter and it has pretty much fermented out and cleared so it will be ready to bottle soon. I also had a sneaky taste (have you noticed a pattern?) and it tasted lovely. Not just as a homebrew, it tasted like a good craft beer. So I am feeling optimistic about this batch. I will put up a post about bottling it when the time comes.

Until Then.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Porter Brewing

My brewing delivery
Nothing says Christmas like a nice pint of porter. So I have decided for the second year in a row to try and brew my own. (The less said about last year's batch the better) I bought a part grain brewing kit online and after my Pilsner success a few months ago decided to give it a go again this year.

The kit I bought involves steeping some grains in warm water for a while and then adding some malt extract to create the wort. This is somewhere between extract brewing, in which you add boiling water to a syrup and add yeast and away you go, and all grain brewing in which you use a large quantity of grain soaked in water to create the wort without any extract being used.

First things first I set my grains to steep in the water as in the instructions. I added a little more water to make sure the grains were covered. That just meant I would add a little less water later. I left this for about an hour and poured the mixture into my brewing pot.

The soaking grains

The liquid added to the brew pot

I then added my 2 cans of extract into the brew pot and topped the pot up with cold water. The kit was to be made up to 25 litres but my pot can only hold about 20 litres without boiling over so it meant this batch will be smaller than it could have been. A new brewing pot/kettle is being planned but more about that when I have worked out what I am going to do.

Adding the malt extract

Topped up with water

Once topped up with water I then turned on the gas stove and waited for the mixture (wort) to come to the boil. I but a brewing thermometer into the mix to monitor the temperature to see how it was going. It wasn't rising very quickly so all I could do is wait, and wait . .

The waiting game

And wait . . .

After about 40 mins with had a rolling boil. This is another reason I want a new brew kettle as this takes way to long to come the boil.

Adding the hops
Once the boil started I set my timer for an hour and did a little more waiting. After 15 minutes I added the first batch of hops. I then waited until 45 minutes into the boil to add a whirfloc tablet. This tablet helps in the clearing of the final beer if I remember correctly. And then just as the boil comes to an end I then added the second batch of hops. The earlier hops add a bitterness to the beer and the later addition adds flavour and aroma to the beer.

After boiling it is important to cool the beer as quickly as possible so bacteria has less time to get in and spoil things. There is a special piece of equipment which is basically a coil of copper pipe which you run cold water through to cool it but since I don't have one of those I improvised a cold water bath to cool it. It worked reasonably well but I think I will have to stick a length of copper pipe and some fittings onto the shopping list along with the brew kettle if I am going to do this more often.

Improvised cold water bath with icepacks

Once the mixture had cooled I then siphoned off the mixture into my fermenter. You want to do this without getting the hops through the siphon. Again I improvised, with a sieve to stop the coming through. Proper equipment, shopping list, you know the story at this stage. I then added the yeast and let the brew ferment out.

About 5 days later once the vigourous brewing had finished I transfered the porter into my new glass carboy. This stage is to allow for the beer to settle and clear (sounds stupid for a dark beer but I cant think of another word for it). You don't want to do this in the original fermenter as the dead yeast cells can impart a bad flavour.

Fermenter and Carboy

I then put an airlock on the carboy and left it to clear in a cool place.

Once this has cleared I will bottle it and give it a 2 or 3 weeks in the bottle before tasting. Possibly at our family Christmas Eve get-together. I will post another blog here when I am doing the bottling.  **here is the update on bottling the porter**  I also have an update on the blackberry and elderberry wines and the cider to post but that will have to wait because I have to go to work. I should have the update blog up in the next few days.

Until then.

Thursday 31 October 2013

Homegrown vegetable stock mix

My 4 jars of vegetable stock mix
When making soups, stews, sauces etc. it is handy to be able to add a bit of stock to add more flavour. The stock cubes you buy in the shops are full of additives and preservatives, and it can be time consuming to make your own stock from scratch. This is where vegetable stock mix comes in. I first read about it in the "River Cottage Preserves Handbook." You use it pretty much the same way you would a stock cube, just add 2tsp of the mix to a pint of boiling water and you have a full flavoured vegetable stock.

Making the mix is very straightforward once you have a food processor or a blender. The ingredients for this mix are pretty flexible. I have chosen these because they are the vegetables we grew this year and I wanted to make it as homegrown as possible. You can use whatever vegetables are in season, on special in the supermarker or you have lying in the fridge. Just try to keep the veg to salt ratio about the same and you should be fine. The salt preserves the vegetables to stop them going off so if you increase the amount of veg increase the amount of salt proportionately. For my mix I used:

Some of my veg for the mix
250g of leek
200g of onion
200g of carrot
200g of turnip
100g of runner beans
A few sun dried tomatoes
A few cloves of garlic
A bunch of parsley, thyme and sage
250g of salt

The method for this recipe is simple. Roughly chop your selection of veg and put it into a food processor. Blend the veg until it is a grainy paste like consistency. I put in the veg in stages because it wouldn't all fit in at once.

From this

To this

Then add the salt and herbs to the mix and blend again until all thoroughly mixed and blended together. Then put this mix into sterilised jars. This should keep for 6 months in a cool dry place. I normally keep a one jar in the fridge and store the others at the back of the press somewhere. When using the mix, do so before seasoning, then taste the soup or sauce after adding it because there is a lot of salt in the mix and you usually don't need to season it any further.

This recipe is very easy to do and you probably only need to do it twice or three times a year to keep yourself in homemade stock that isn't full of artificial flavours and preservatives.

Wednesday 23 October 2013


After getting my cider press built and up and running it was time to finally process my apples. I got my friend Tom up as photographer /glamorous assistant /slave labour. I had collected some of the apples back in September so there were a few gone black and unusable. The apples that were up to standard were first crushed so they are easier to extract the juice from. I have seen machines designed for this but we used a more rustic method involving a plastic box and a piece of 4x2. We broke up the first batch reasonably well, making sure each apple was broken. Later batches we broke up a lot more so the apples were in a rough pulp. This made it easier to extract juice and we got a better overall quantity of juice as well.

Crushing apples

Once we had our pulp we transfered it to the bucket, which we had lined with a filter bag. When I designed the press I had allowed for a very large bucket but the one I found was a little smaller. It will allow me to adjust the press if I need to process larger amounts of apples so it is a good thing really. But while using it this time I had to put extra bits of timber under the bucket to raise it up and put more timber than I would have liked under the jack to that it would push the plunger down onto the apples.

If the bucket was bigger we wouldn't need so many timbers.

This made the post in the middle much less stable. After the jack becoming airborne once or twice, I decided for health and safety reasons it was probably better to stabilise the centre post. To do this I added two pieces of 2x1 to stop the centre post moving off centre when pressure was applied. This made everything much more stable and once this was done we had no more "health and safety issues."

The angle on the centre post before the changes were made

The two "runners" added to keep the post from slipping

After we had everything stabilised it was a matter of getting down to pressing the apples. At first we tried using a hydraulic trolley jack but it was too big to use. We then used a scissors jack from a Nissan Micra which was a better size for the press. Once we got into our rhythm of crushing, filling, pressing and emptying we got through a good few sacks of apples.

The left over apples

 After we were finished we had that wheelbarrow over flowing with left over apple mush. It made me wish I had the pigs back this year, they would have made light work of that lot. I will have to wait until I have the pigs back next year to make use of left overs, this lot is destined for the compost heap. In the end we had 30 litres of juice. 10l was from apples I got from a friends' grandfather and the other 20l was from a mix of apples from friends, people from work and that kind of thing.

The 20l batch of juice

I decided to keep the two batches seperate to allow me a bit more control over the flavour by blending the two together to get my final product. I also have two sacks of crab apples and a few apples from the garden to make into seperate batches to allow me to blend them together. I chose to add sulphite to my cider. This was to kill of bacteria and wild yeasts in the juice which should prevent spoilage and allow me to add my own yeast which should be more reliable. Some people don't like to add sulphites but I didn't want to risk ending up with 60l of vinegar. I did this on Tuesday night after collecting all the juice and then left them until Wednesday morning so the sulphites could do their work.

Wednesday morning I put my two batches into the fermenters. I measured the pH levels of each juice and they were each 2.8. The ideal range for cider is 3.2 - 3.8. After struggling to remember about the pH scale and whether acidity is high or low I realised I needed to lower the acidity. The acidity can be higher depending on the amounts of cooking apples you use, and I did use mostly cooking apples so I kind of expect this to happen. To lower the acidity you can add precipitated chalk. It is a calcium based powder which I bought from a homebrew shop. I added a teaspoon per gallon which brought the pH level to about 3.1 which was close enough for me. I then activated my yeast in warm water with yeast nutrient. I also added pectolase to reduce the chance of haze in my cider due to the pectin in the apples. I then added the yeast to the juice and left it to do it's work.

40l of cider, blackberry wine, elderberry wine, 20l of cider

Now I have to wait until the fermentation begins, it has been about 10 hours since I added the yeast and there might be a few small bubbles starting to form. Hopefully by the morning I will have full fermentation. I will post when I am taking on the next step with the cider which will be racking the cider, siphoning it off the dead yeast and sludge at the bottom of the fermenter and moving it to finish the fermentation in another container.

EDIT: Here is an update on the cider

Until Then.