Tuesday, 23 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Counting down

My £1-a-day food challenge takes off in a couple of days. I've decided to run it from Thursday to Tuesday, across the weekend even though it's a Bank Holiday one. I am looking forward to it actually, if that doesn't sound a funny thing to say. Having invested a lot of time and thought and planning in the project, I want now to see if it will work in practice.

I am afraid it may be a bit boring to read, so my apologies in advance, if that's the case, but I am intending to post at the end of each day (or beginning of the following one) with a summary of my meal plan, the costs involved and recipes that I've devised or altered, to fit, or get round the demands of the challenge as well as any reflections as I go along. That is in part a kind of accountability exercise that I think will help to motivate me sticking to it, if the going gets, er, hungry! I'm also keen to record the minutiae of the challenge on a day to day level for my own retrospective reading and analysis.

So the first of these daily posts will be at the end of the week. I am also planning to do a kind of round-up post after the end of the challenge, with a collection of tips and tricks for future reference both for myself, should I be so rash as to undertake a repeat exercise, and in case anyone else might find them useful, either on a similar challenge or just generally. Thereafter normal, intermittent blogging service will resume!

Meanwhile, my preparations have been focussed this last week on ...

... some foraging...

Not for nettles which, as you will know if you read my Cucina povera post, were unceremoniously evicted before I could get to them, but for dandelions.

I always knew you could eat the leaves - they're good added with other wild green leaves to soup as their strong flavour gets muted by the heat and other ingredients but raw and travelling solo, they're quite bitter, so a few go a long way in salad.

There 's a lovely passage about a dandelion leaf salad in Serge Krebs' novel, "Aux Mains de l'Ennemi", (In Enemy Hands"), in which an English and a German soldier, Edward and Hans, strike up an unlikely friendship when they inadvertently cross one another's path behind the trenches in northern France. Edward, is wounded in the initial encounter and the pair lie up for a while in the strange territory of no-man's land, finding shelter in the abandoned farmhouses that litter the landscape. Food is scarce and they have to live off whatever they can find, mostly "pommes flétries" (withered apples) and dried up, old onions. After some days of this fare, Hans suggests collecting dandelion leaves for "une salade de pissenlits", which still grow in profusion, despite the ravages of artillery bombardment. Edward is very suspicious as to the edibility of dandelion leaves but Hans assures him that "les Français s'en raffolent" ("the French enjoy them") and that "ils sont pleins de vitamines".

Anyway, there's nothing else to hand so they pick a big bagful and hit on the bright idea of raiding the kitchen cupboards of the abandoned mill where they're holed up, for the sour dregs of a bottle of vinegar to dress the bitter leaves. On its own, the vinegar makes the leaves barely palatable but one idea leads to another and incurring very considerable risk for the sake of their precious salad, they leave the relative safety of their hiding place and manage to get hold of a bottle of oil from the cellar of another abandoned farmhouse. The bottle is almost empty and the oil that is left is turning rancid but there's enough to dress the leaves along with the vinegar and they feast incongruously but triumphantly on the results. I think you would need to be pretty hungry to enjoy this - I am hoping I will not find myself in that scenario this coming week! - but there's something very appealing about the foraged meal and the delight with which it is eaten. Bitter and tough though the leaves must have been despite the make-shift dressing, in the circumstances, the salad is a defiant and stylish solution to "ventres crispés par la faim" ("stomachs cramped with hunger").

Sorry - I am digressing; back to real life! While, as I say, I knew that the leaves were edible and also that you can eat the root of the plant - in hard times people have made a kind of ersatz coffee from dandelion root - I didn't know that you can also eat the flowers, but, to my surprise, I learn that you can.

I usually have a spoonful of maple syrup on my everyday porridge. I adore maple syrup and have to ration myself as, even away from a £1-a-day food challenge, pure maple syrup is very expensive. Even a single teaspoonful was off limits for the challenge however, so I toyed with possible alternatives - a teaspoon of soft brown sugar from Aldi would be OK, as would a teaspoonful of Aldi honey, which is ridiculously cheap compared with the price of honey elsewhere. And then I came across the idea of "cramaillotte" or "dandelion honey".

"Cramaillotte" is not a true honey, as made by honeybees, but something that tastes most disconcertingly like it, made from dandelion flowers, sugar and some citrus fruit. I was almost too late - the lawn and flower-beds have been covered in bright yellow dandelion flowers (hurray for lazy gardening!) and I thought it would be an easy matter to pick plenty. But dandelions only flower with their glorious, yellow, pom-pom heads for three days and then the golden petals turn, to the characteristic puffy seed-heads and when I went out into the garden, full of optimism, I found a sea of fluffy clocks and not nearly so many golden heads as there had been only a few days previously. I moved fast and gathered all I could find and added a few more from a bank down the lane that seemed reasonably clear of the possibility of contamination, either from traffic or dogs. There were just enough flower-heads to have a go at this recipe if I scaled back the quantities to ⅓ of the orginal. Phew!

"Cramaillotte" originates in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. There's not much you can teach traditional French countryfolk about thrift (my mother always tells me that it is our French peasant ancestry that encourages any thrifty family tendencies!) and this recipe is a good example of that. It's extremely good and the funny thing is that "cramaillotte" tastes exactly like real honey, even though it isn't, if you see what I mean. If you are reading this and there are still dandelions out there in your garden to gather, I encourage you to lose no time in so doing! You will not regret it.

For the recipe, I had to use the ingredients I already had in the house, as I didn't want to lose any time, having picked the flowers, so while I had a lemon (which I used in full), I had no oranges. I did however have some dried orange-peel shapes, left over from making orange-peel-bunting last year so I added some of those to the mixture. That's why the orange peel is in those little shapes in the pic with holes for threading string through.

I didn't have any of the "sucre gélifiant" (jam sugar with pectin) that the recipe asked for, either. I do use jam sugar when I make preserves - I find it takes the stress out of getting stuff to set - but I realise that it is a great deal more expensive than plain sugar so perhaps it was just as well that the cupboard was bare, as it would have pushed my budget to accommodate it. I did have ordinary granulated sugar though, so that's what I used and it's worked fine. The cost of the whole batch, (using granulated sugar from Aldi (22p), a lemon from Aldi on their Super Six Offer (7p) and the leftover dried orange peel (0p) ) worked out at 29p for around 330g. That means a teaspoonful costs less than a halfpenny, 0.43p to be precise.

The finished product is like a runny honey - it would be difficult to spread it on toast and for it to stay there perhaps but it's perfect for my everyday porridge on the challenge - more fragrant than soft brown sugar, considerably more flavoursome than Aldi's (amazingly cheap) real honey and every bit as good as any good quality, wildflower honey. I guess it would be amazing on some Breton style crêpes made with buckwheat flour or on Belgian waffles ... I'll try that next week perhaps!

The name "cramaillotte" has a quaint and convoluted pedigree. It comes from "cramaillot", a country name in la Franche-Comté for dandelions. "Cramaillot" is itself a diminutive of "cramail", an old form of the word "crémaillère" - a technical term for a notched, metal piece, or rack in a mechanism that meshes into a gear wheel. It refers to the toothed leaves that distinguish the dandelion leaves. Of course, although I'd never thought about it before, dandelion in English is simply an anglicisation of "dent de lion", (lion's tooth), which also refers to the jagged leaves and the same thing applies in German where the word for dandelion is "Löwenzahn" (lion's tooth). The other common French name for dandelion is "pissenlit" which refers, unkindly and exaggeratedly, to the diuretic properties of dandelion. Diuretic qualities apart, I believe dandelion honey was originally made to combat symptoms of "mal de la gorge", but never mind whether you have a sore throat or not, this is just delicious in its own right, so, as I say, if you have any dandelions out there for the picking...

... some searching...

We discovered that one of the bantams had disappeared and gone into broody hiding one evening so a massive hen-hunt had to be launched before night-fall in order to deprive Mr Fox of a takeaway chicken. Eventually after hunting high and low, we found her ... sitting on top of 14 lovely fresh eggs! The eggs are a bit smudged and grubby from having been laid among the goose-grass and comfrey but they're all fresh - I tested them in a jug of water - so I have some unexpected extra ammunition in the way of ingredients should I need it over the coming days. The main relief is finding the bantam, not the eggs, although she wasn't exactly pleased to be found and restored to a cosy nest box with only miserable old, ceramic, dummy eggs in place of her own clutch.

... some growing...

Even if you only have a windowsill, you can grow herbs from seed or cuttings in pots in a relatively short time, for negligible or no cost. My very-frugal-basil-plant is a case in point. He started as a single stem from a pot of basil from Aldi. I followed the instructions here and was amazed that they worked. It's much quicker to get to harvesting than growing from seed although it's taken about a month to get from cutting a single stem from the parent plant to this.

I also have a load of basil seedlings in the greenhouse, grown from very ancient, vintage seed packets dating from 2009. A surprising number of the seeds have germinated but, of course, even though they were planted over a month ago, starting from seed, they are nowhere near harvesting in quantity yet.

In addition I have dabbled with planting chervil, dill, Greek oregano, lovage, chives and caraway. All going quite nicely but not really useable yet in the kitchen. The oregano and lovage I planted because I thought earlier in the Spring that they hadn't survived the winter in their normal habitats but I was wrong - there's a happy forest of both so while the wee chaps in the greenhouse are too tiny to use, their longer established cousins in the flowerbeds are most certainly not. I've always used oregano in my cooking but I am new to using lovage - it has quite a strong celery-type flavour and is very good in stock to provide a celery component without using any celery, if you see what I mean, so it's proving a bit of a frugal friend.

I have also been growing the remnants of a slightly less ancient, but still vintage, (2010 as opposed to 2009!), previously opened packet of cress seeds in an even shorter time-frame. Who says growing mustard and cress is just for children? And despite their antique status, like the ancient basil, they've, more or less, all germinated which I've regarded as a freebie bonus. I've been saving these ugly old trays that mushrooms in the supermarket are packed in. D kindly cut them down, as the sides were too high to allow easy harvesting and they've made perfect cress-growing trays.

A few pieces of kitchen roll folded up as a base, a liberal sprinkling of seeds, regular watering and voilà! Fresh salad on tap, packed with vitamin C and minerals! I've got several trays on the go in succession so that supply will keep up with demand.

... some basic cooking ahead...

Making homemade vegetable stock for example, from the peelings and trimmings of vegetables left over from other cooking and herbs.

I've found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps such vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. As it's made from herbs growing in the garden and stuff that would otherwise go straight in the compost bucket, it is also effectively free, apart from the salt. I cook it for 20 minutes under pressure in my pressure cooker, before cooling and straining. What I don't immediately need, I freeze in washed-out, old 450ml yoghurt containers.

... and some creative hooky distraction!

More of this once normal service resumes hopefully!

E x


  1. I'm glad you found your bantam - it's surprising how well they can hide themselves when they're sitting on a clutch of eggs.

    First thing tomorrow, I shall be scouting around for dandelion flowers to try the dandelion honey - it sounds a lot more inviting to use for a sore throat than my usual raspberry vinegar. The recipe does seem to need rather a lot of dandelions though so I shall scale back too.

    Don't some people roast the roots of dandelion to make a coffee substitute? I'm sure I also saw a recipe somewhere for dandelion leaf soup though can't help feeling that may be rather like nettle soup. A little more investigation needed I think.

    1. Yes it does take a lot of dandelions but they mount up pretty quickly, I found, even though the garden wasn't as awash with them as it was a few weeks ago. You can also flash-freeze the flowers on an open tray in the freezer (shake off any insects or obvious dirt but don't wash the flowers first) and then one can add to the tray as and when one collects them. I'm doing this for a second batch of cramaillotte as the first has been disappearing rather fast! Hope you enjoy your dandelion harvest! E x


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