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This has been/still is a hard winter. It’s been one snow storm after another, with long stretches of below freezing temperatures.  Three weeks ago I caught a bug which developed into pneumonia – hence the silence here – and now that I’ finally up and about, Amie caught something as well. That’s how it goes. The winter was hard on the bees as well: all three colonies are dead of starvation in boxes still half full of capped honey.  They just didn’t have the chance to break cluster and move toward the honey.

But things are stirring. Before yesterday’s snow flurries we actually saw dirt. Then it got covered up again, but all that should be washed away by tonight’s rain and tomorrow we may see some outdoor activities. I plan to wash all the seedling trays and pots so I can start the basement garden. If I’m up for it, I’ll also clean out the chicken coop: there’s some good compost in there after months of deep litter.

A couple of days ago I (hot-water-bath) canned the sauerkraut that had been fermenting in big jars on my counter for seven weeks. I usually don’t can kraut as it pasteurizes it (duh!) and kills off all the good bugs. Still, I had too much of it to keep in the fridge, and as I’m the only one who eats it round here, I decided to reserve one jar for the fridge and can the rest.  I hope the canning doesn’t make it too soggy. I like it crunchy.

 

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This afternoon, taking advantage of the warmer weather and the abeyance of snow/rain, I spent a good three hours splitting, moving and stacking close to 1/4 cord of firewood. While I was at it I conversed with the chickens, whose coop is next to the woodpile and the chopping block (eek).

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Two friends happened by to admire my ax form and give me gifts! A. gave me a huge bag of carrots she and her family pulled at our CSA Farm’s carrot pull last weekend, and R. brought me a pumpkin she grew in her garden. I moved all the split wood to the porch and then the sun set.

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I came in and started a fire in the stove, which sealed the deal: a hot shower was in order to wash away the sweat, dust, wood splinters, soot and muscle stiffening. I give thanks for hard work, the reward of warmth, and friendship.

 

 

Last week I ran over to our local High School where they planted lots of rose rugosa. The hips were perfect after a few frosts.

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I came home with about three pints, then did some research. Turns out that:

  1. Rosehips are packed with vitamin C, calcium and vitamin E (especially the seeds).
  2. The hairs that surround the seeds are the trouble. I can attest to the fact that  the hairs are itchy to the skin.  They are actually made into itching powder. I can only imagine how they would irritate your throat and insides if ingested. That said, some people don’t bother removing them.

First I cut the hips in two, which was pleasantly time consuming and possibly not necessary, but I thought it would speed up drying and make the seeds and hairs more exposed for extraction later on.  I spread them out on two racks to dry near the wood stove.

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After a few days they weren’t fully dry yet. I tried removing the seeds by hand, but who has time for that! Also, in this state, it’s tough to appreciate how many hairs there are, and by hand you wouldn’t get them all out.

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Into the blender they went! I blended on low, not wanting to pulverize the flesh to the same size as the hairs, because then I wouldn’t be able to strain them.

As you can see in the video, there are more hairs than you think!

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I sieved this mess, keeping the seeds, which are packed with vitamin E. I don’t know what to do with them yet. The hairs truly stick to everything. Wipe the counter tops!

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The blending and sieving removed most of the seeds, but much of the hairs still remain, stuck to the flesh in tufts.  They’re easier to pick out, but I’m going to let them dry a little more, then repeat the process, with more pulsing.

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I’ve not decided yet whether to make rose hip jelly, or powder for tea.

Today I had planned to clean the house. It badly needs a vacuum and a scrub. But before I could get started, a friend called and said she wanted to go on a walk that my group, Transition Wayland, was organizing though Wayland Walks. Wayland Walks is a great spin-off,  run by two of our core group members. They set up a walk every month, each one with a new theme (Full Moon, Wild Edibles, Walk on Water, etc.). Exceptionally, this one wasn’t local, but a half hour drive away. We used to have cranberry bogs in Wayland, but no longer.

As we drove toward Wachussett Reservoir, the clouds drifted away. By the time we got there, the sun shone on the water. We couldn’t believe our luck! And there were the berries. What a delight! As Amie said: “They like to play hide and seek!” Who knew cranberry plants were so tiny – well, they’re actually quite extensive, but you only see the “uprights,” the branches that poke three or four inches up above the ground. The real meat of the plant is the tangle of underground runners. You can walk forever and still be stepping on the same plant. The berries are hidden low in the brush: you have to almost get down to their level to spot most of them, and rake the foliage with your fingers.

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We picked for hours, Amie with her friend, her friend’s sister with her friend, the adults mostly by themselves. Before two others arrived, the kids were in the majority, which was a joy to behold. Their squeals of delight and their laughter was wonderful. The adults were quieter, no less intent on collecting. There was a lovely, meditative quality to the picking: focused on the bright or darker red, hidden in the red foliage. Kneeling down, water soaking the knees of my jeans. The slow loss of sensation in my fingertips, a creeping clumsiness there, dropping berries…

We picked quite a few berries, gaining real appreciation for cranberry harvesting. In certain situations, the Native Americans and those after them would flood the bog so the berries would float, making them easier to find and scoop up out of the water.  We donated all but a couple of handfuls to a Veterans Thanksgiving dinner.

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 Look at those intrepid pickers and their harvest!

By then the sun was setting and we were all cold. Two of the girls had found the warmth in the car and wouldn’t come out for the picture.

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The Earth Oven series:

  1. foundation
  2. base
  3. hearth
  4. thermal mass
  5. first drying fire and door arch
  6. insulating layer and chimney
  7. Patching up, and first pizza!

The oven mud could have been more clay-ey, but most of the oven has held up well. Not so the part that wasn’t as compacted (it being over the 0pening)  and that gets the most abuse, namely where the door, when fully closed (closing off the chimney) hits it.  It started crumbling.

DH bought some stainless steel bands at the local HD and bent them to the shape of the door. In the picture you can see that, with the door in place, substantial gaps had developed. With the bands in place, DH could fill them up.

Then we made pizza.

Still not trusting the heat retention capacity of the oven, and pushing up against dinner time, we opted not to stoke the fire for another hour and not to clear the burning coals out, but to instead move them to the back of the oven and to keep a little fire going there.

The first pizza puffed up the moment it hit the hearth (measured at 900 F), its cheese bubbled merrily, and it was done within four minutes.  The next one did well too, except that some of the newly added mud came down, adding some minerals to the pizza toppings.   Yum!

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Unfortunately, because we had opted to keep the fire going, we couldn’t close the door and keep the heat in. Whenever we did, oxygen starvation made the fire die down and the oven filled with smoke. Mud is okay to eat, smoke not so much. The next pizza needed a little more time but came out well – only a larger chunk of oven mud came down.

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Still perfectly delicious. By the time the last one went in, a good half hour after starting, the oven had cooled too much (hearth at 350 F) and that pizza was hardly edible.

Lessons learned:

  • Stoke a hot fire for two hours.
  • Clear out all the coals {read update}
  • Clearing space that way, load the oven with larger or more pizzas.
  • Keep the door closed as much as possible {read update}
  • Work faster.

We checked on the opening and the gaps are still plugged, so the mud that came down must have stuck out and not had enough support to stay in place while wet and being heated so drastically.

{Update}: Kiko Denzer commented on this post with some great advice about the crumbling, the heat retention, and the best way to make pizza. I’ll just reproduce it here:

Hey, congratulations on the beautiful oven and pizza. You might try sweeping the oven dome to remove loose stuff before your next firing. Once you get rid of the worst of it, it should stop dropping (unless your mix was too low in clay). It also sounds like there may still be some moisture in the subfloor (quite possible, even likely if it didn’t get time to dry before you laid the hearth floor). If so, performance should improve dramatically when the last of the water finally gets driven out. When that happens, the standard method for pizza is not to clean out all the coals, but to maintain a small, bright fire in back, and to work with the door open. At typical pizza temps, you can expect them to cook in 1-2 minutes (assuming thin crust, light topping — official Italian pizza standards!) For all your other cooking adventures, see Richard Miscovich’s new book, From The Wood-Fired Oven. And good luck! Thanks for the good story…

I recommend that you watch his video on burning a clean, hot fire in the oven, here on his website. It’s good advice, not just for earth ovens but for wood stoves as well. I’m happy to say we do all he recommends, and better now than before now that I’ve got the hang of my splitting ax.

Thank you, Kiko!

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“Mama, can we bake cookies?”

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Because I suspected that the oven is still too wet to retain enough heat, we put the cookie tray right on the coals (which is cheating, really).

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The thermometer went up to 400 and then freaked out.

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Cookies came out a little burned but nice and smoky!

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Steam rising off the oven.

As an experiment, after that first batch I raked out the coals and we put in another tray of cookies. Like I thought, the temperature quickly plummeted to 250 F. That means we don’t have enough heat retention yet.  I got the coals out of the bucket and put them back in, then flipped the cookies over, like pancakes. Yum!

The Earth Oven series:

  1. foundation
  2. base
  3. hearth
  4. thermal mass
  5. first drying fire and door arch
  6. insulating layer and chimney
  7. Patching up, and first pizza!

Advice for the novice bricklayer: when building an arch, when done, remove supports and then let cement dry. You guessed it, when removing the supports under my hastily built arch, the structure sagged minutely, cracking the dried cement. The arch stayed up because all the bricks were wedged, but it wasn’t very stable and, most importantly, the door no longer fit. Positive side: it wasn’t hard to dismantle the loose parts.  We also took advantage of the opportunity to fit the door well into the thermal layer, like a plug. Then we built the new arch, with four hands. And removed the supports.

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While that was drying (and while another peck of apples was drying in the dehydrator), we mixed wood shavings with clay slip and started on the second, insulating layer (about 3″) on top of the outer rim of the hearth which was made with the same material. Denzer in his book likens this to the candy shell around the m&m, or a blanket: a nice, tight envelope to hold the heat in.

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The idea is for this layer to have lots of air pockets, so you don’t compress it as much as you do the inner, heat-retaining dome. Still, I was a little nervous because the trick is to press down, away from the inner dome, which might collapse under such pressure. It’s especially tricky once you hit the top to the dome.

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This took us a good couple of hours, and we needed more of this stuff than we had anticipated. In the end we were scraping the bottom of the barrel for that good clay soil. But here it is, a fully functional earth oven – it just needs drying out.

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At the top of the arch there is a small opening that will become a chimney (to be added when we put the last, decorative layer on).

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When initially firing the wood, the door sits to the front of the arch, keeping the chimney open, like so:

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Once the oven is hot enough and you remove the coals and ashes and put in the food, you push in the door so it plugs the gap, sealing the heat inside.

You know you’ve hit a critical point in a multi-stage project like this one when you get to clean up. I also got my splitting ax out an finallyd gave it its first test run, chopping logs into smaller sticks. “Is this the life or what?!” I proclaimed several times as I swung that ax.  DH agreed.

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We built a nice big fire and I minded it while peeling and chopping apples for more sauce.  The wasps soon found out, and when I was done there were about 10 of them enjoying the juices. It was a little annoying but I found that walking round the table and generally staying in motion really helped. This one I file under the topic of making peace with the true masters of the Earth, the insects.

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A friend asked me why we built such an oven. There are many reasons: our electric oven doesn’t go up to pizza temperatures (800F), you get to cook outside, and, well, there is fire. We all three of us love fire. The first fire in the wood stove is always a ritual, splitting wood and getting it into the porch is a family event, and we can watch it, feel it for hours.  My friend doesn’t have a fire place or wood stove, so he doesn’t understand, but to have added yet another locus for fire to happen (in a controlled way!) feels like a tremendous enrichment.

DSCF3073smIt’s been almost two months since the tribe canned the peaches, but our common purchasing did not end there. We also divided almost 7 lbs of locally grown garlic seed among ourselves, and this Thursday my friend and fellow-blogger Andrea hopped in her car and set out for the same farm that sold us the peaches.

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We pulled up and were approached by two men, the farmer Tommy who we had been dealing

with, and his brother, David. David introduced himself with “Hello, I’m single” and that set the tone for the hour-long visit. I’m sure they found the two of us as much a couple of odd ducks as we them!

First thing we did was offer them our gift of canned peaches (peach salsa, peach jam, peach butter, peaches in syrup and peach pickles – one of each). They proudly showed us the post and beam farm shop they are building themselves. They are four brothers, the third generation to be farming that orchard together, and their mother still manages the farm store.

Then, down to business! We asked for utility “Macs” (McIntoshes) but they didn’t have the five bushels we wanted. Tommy repeated the generosity he had shown us before with the peaches (giving us firsts for the price of seconds) and offered us Honeycrisps for the same price ($10 for 20 lbs or a half-bushel). We ended up buying 11 half-bushels of those and they threw in an extra box.

I had spotted an enormous bin with pears and asked about those. They were my favorite pear: Boscs, just picked! Andrea and I looked at each other,  twinkle in our eye. O what the heck! We bought three more boxes of those, for the same incredible price, and were given another free one. We munched while they sorted the pears into the boxes and talked food and farming and generally joked around. We thanked them profusely for their generosity and we could see they enjoyed having given and made a good deal for themselves too. Everyone was happy.

Looking around the orchard as we drove off, all that fruit on the trees and on the ground – it’s been an amazing fruit year in Mass. – we felt uplifted by the abundance all around us, of this incredibly fertile land and of farmers who still take care of it, and with whom we formed a community of sorts, and of friends with whom to admire and share the bounty.

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Actually Hen-Of-the-Neighborhood-Woods.

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My mycologist neighbor came by today with a paper bag. In October, after a rain storm, I know exactly what’s in it: mushrooms! It was a gorgeous chicken-of-the-woods, so fresh and soft it was still almost entirely white that new creamy white (compare to last year’s). I fried it in some olive oil with onion, garlic, chick peas and half an apple that was at hand, pepper, salt and a pinch of paprika.

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Bon apetit!