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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Finding and feeding

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Spice mix for the Hyderabad style Biryani I made last week for a party and chutney sampling!

This week Mandy and I had an epiphany of sorts. We’re doing it all wrong!

Well, some of “it” at least. Through a few lucky clicks on the interwebs, leading to a couple of tropical permaculture groups and sites, and then a few agroforestry sites, came the realization that we’ve been ignoring many tropical (even native) species that are growing prolifically all around us, while slaving away at maintaining a traditional western-style vegetable garden – most of the inhabitants of which are miserable in the heat and thereby susceptible to all manner of bugs and blights. We’ve come to the conclusion that while northern salad greens, tomatoes, bell peppers, etc are really nice to have, in order to create a more sustainable, higher yield, far more natural system, we need to be working with the native plants and natural climate, rather than constantly racing against them.

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Flower buds on Mandy’s little Carambola tree.

Our goals are to produce as high a proportion of the food consumed by our household(s) as possible, preferably with additional marketable produce, and sufficient fodder to raise a few meat animals and maintain a small flock of laying hens. For the household, that goal includes daily greens (preferably varied), fruit, and herbs, some amount of starches (breadfruit, plantains, sweet potatoes, yams), spices including hot peppers, seasonal veggies such as okra and beans, and some pulses/seeds.

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Stuffed pumpkin roasted in the barrel oven. The pumpkin was bartered for bread, with Ridge to Reef Farm, and the stuffing was made with left over sourdough bread and our own eggs. Keeping it local!

Due to space and labour considerations, multi-use plants are key. For example, we just discovered that the Caribbean “pidgin pea” not only has prolific edible (if bland) peas that can be eaten green or dried, but also can be used as fodder, mulch, live-trellises (for tomatoes etc), and partial shade for smaller plants. Plus they are nitrogen-fixing legumes! If we get tired of eating the pidgin peas, apparently chickens love them, so we’re all set! So far I’d only planted a couple of these bushes, which are now some 3′ high, but I see many more in our future.

Another great plant, that we’ve had for years but never before tried eating, is the common red hibiscus. Now it’s commonly known that the bright red flowers can be used to make tea, and we’ve been feeding the flowers and leaves to our tortoises for a long time, but who knew they were edible to humans? It turns out that the leaves are not only edible, but rather nutritious and make a great spinach substitute with no bitter taste, though they require a few extra minutes of cooking time to make them tender – possibly the fault of our recent drought. These most prolific bushes grow huge here unless trimmed regularly, are green year-round, and require almost no effort to grow and maintain, started from short stem cuttings set in the ground and watered once in a while. Sure, I don’t wish to eat hibiscus every day of the year, but when I sauteed them the other night with a drop of coconut oil (which we hope to soon be making ourselves), and a dab of ginger-garlic paste, they were quite a hit!

I’d been searching high and low for an edible, non-invasive, low to the ground ground-cover and/or living mulch to keep down the weeds, provide fodder, and keep moisture in the ground during dry spells. Again, it turned out that I had already been growing just the thing, albeit in a tiny quantity. Sweet potatoes are apparently the answer to everything. Known for their nutritious tubers, the leaves are also edible, and are quite delicious both raw and cooked. The plants spread by sending out “runners”, which can be harvested as greens, or allowed to spread and choke out all the (inedible) weeds! The sweet potato vine also aids in moisture retention by forming a dense ground-cover – what more could we ask for?

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Prickly pear cactus. Commonly eaten in the South-West, but not so much around here.

Lastly, I finally got around to experimenting with the prickly pear cactus – not the fruit, but rather the cactus pads. They are prickly. The almost-invisible needle-like hairs growing in little clusters over every surface of the pad feel almost like fibreglass when embedded in your skin. Once you (very carefully) get past the prickles – or rather, remove them with a sharp knife, one cluster at a time – you’re left with a firm green pad, about 8″ long and 5″ wide, which is oozing a mucilaginous clear juice from each cut. Now that juice is a pain! It’s stringy and gummy and sticky. It gets on everything, and while it does wash off, I’d swear that it jumps from surface to surface on its own! This only gets worse when you start slicing the pad into 1/4″ slices, when more and more slime leaks out. Have I put you off yet? Hang in there, I did. First I tried roasting a few slices over an open flame, as I might do with a bell pepper. Strangely, it came out tasting just like a grilled pepper, with a very similar texture if still a little slimy. Fine, but boring. So, I heated a skillet, added a dash of coconut oil, the remaining sliced cactus, salt, and a sprinkle of chilli powder…five minutes later…wow! The oil dealt with the stickiness perfectly, and the chilli was a wonderful flavour accompaniment to the mild, fresh flavour of the cactus.

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Sliced and gooey.

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Yummy!

As well as it being an exciting week mentally in regard to the agriculture side of our existence, it’s been an exciting week on the Nid! I finally reached the stage of splitting bamboo and attaching lathes to the outside of the posts, thereby forming the basis for the thin-shell cement walls. Splitting the bamboo continues to be a learning process, as every stalk splits differently – some split easily into just the right thickness, others I fight with, my most trusted weapons being a hatchet and hammer. Once I have the lathes ready to go up, it’s a matter of screwing them in place on each post, making sure that each part of the curved wall has the right amount of bulge or dip. I know that the walls will be very uneven due to the curved and lumpy nature of the posts, but I must be sure the even those discrepancies out as much as possible so as to not end up with huge hollows or voids that might allow water to sit, or be impossible to plaster. So far it’s going very well, even the first window opening! Tomorrow I’ll be harvesting more bamboo, and I hope to be done with the bamboo of the walls and roof within a couple of weeks.

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First lathes going up!

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More lathes!

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Detail of lashing on a window opening.

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First rough window “hole”.

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Lathes up to the lowest rafter height in the kitchen! And starting on the bathroom.

In case I wasn’t busy enough this week, I also started building a second chicken tractor (mobile coop), as I’ve decided that I should get another half dozen laying hens. This will mean having a decent volume of eggs to feed ourselves, our guests, and to sell or barter locally. I’m also using the chickens as weed control, so far they seem rather more effective than weed whacking!

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Making A-frames for the new chicken coop.

Now that’s enough – til next week, cheers!

Chaotic Chutneys

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Sweet bread with almond flour, home made candied citrus peel, freshly laid eggs, etc, baked in the wood fired oven.

Will I ever get to write that I had a relaxed week? Maybe not, but my weeks are so much more exciting this way! It’s another week for you foodies out there, though the Nid is also transforming at a rate of knots.

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Five kinds of chutney!

It’s been a fortnight of chutney making, as mango season is at its peak and neither Mandy nor I can stand to let anything go to waste. We have some recipes that we go back to year after year, such as the Mango Tamarind Chutney and the Banana Ketchup. Each season we also conduct a couple of experiments, making first a small batch to see how it comes out, and if successful following up with a larger batch. Somehow, we don’t usually end up with any that are terrible, and most times the experiments come out really tasty! Our first experimental batch this year stemmed from an over-prolific pepper patch; small red and green seasoning peppers that look like Scotch Bonnets but are in fact quite mild. We took a week’s harvest of those (about 1/2 a gallon) and pureed them up with the first few ripe mangoes of the season…some other chutneyish ingredients and next thing you know we were straining and bottling a gorgeous orange-hued sauce with a lovely soft medley of tropical flavours! I’m currently eating it on everything, and hoping that the next harvest of peppers in a couple of weeks is equally prolific so that we can make the next batch!

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Mango Chilli Sauce.

I was still hungering for something really spicy, so I decided to take matters into my own hands with the chutney experiments. I took the basic concept of the Mango Chilli Sauce, added good amount of my go-to dried Indian red chillis, a variety of curry spices, and some extra salt. I wanted something to spice up a plate of rice and beans, or to add some zest to a sandwich or a slice of roast meat, so I decided to retain some texture for visual interest including a few whole cloves and lots of whole mustard. The result was perfect; a hot, salty, spreadable chutney with a definite hint of India in the subtle undertones of cardamom, clove, and turmeric. Forget about that bottle of hot sauce on the shelf, this is so much better!

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Mango Chilli Curry Sauce.

Each year Mandy gets into a slight panic that all the mangoes will be too ripe for her signature Green Mango and Tamarind Chutney, which we’ve been making every year for at least 10 years. So there’s always a big rush to get at least one batch of it made and in the cupboard as soon as the mangoes start dropping so that we shall never ever run short of mango chutney! I can’t remember a year when we’ve run out, I have to admit. This year, however, we’ve been unable to find our usual source of tamarinds (a thin, brittle pale-brown pod with sticky dark-brown flesh inside surrounding large black seeds), already processed to remove the pod and seeds and sold by the jar. In fact, tamarinds of any kind were hard to find, so the first batch we ended up making without, ending up with a Hot Green Mango Chutney. For the second batch we did manage to find tamarinds (with seeds) to process for the chutney, so we were finally able to make the real thing! If the mangoes hold out we’ll still make another batch of that, plus possibly some jam? I’m still trying to find something to do with papaya, I’m thinking pickled green papaya, and possibly ripe papaya barbeque sauce, utilizing its natural meat-tenderizing properties.

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Mango Tamarind Chutney.

Now, you’re probably wondering what in the world to do with 5 or 6 different kinds of chutney? All those choices, how would you ever decide? Well, eat them on everything. Ok, not your cereal, maybe not on your icecream either, but pretty much everything else! We rarely serve a lunch or dinner, even just for the family, without at least one kind of chutney. If we’re having a spicy meal, I like to serve a mild chutney – either the slightly sweet Mango Chilli Sauce, or the sharp, tangy Mango Tamarind Chutney. I like to spice up a somewhat bland meal, say rice, beans and salad, with something zingy such as the Mango Chilli Curry Sauce or the Hot Mango Chutney. Last night we had a spicy goat curry with rye bread and a finely chopped arugula and baby bokchoy salad. A spoonful of yoghurt on one side and a spoonful of Mango Chilli Sauce on the other completed the meal and took the bitter edge off of the summertime greens. A sandwich is not a sandwich without a slathering of chutney. Forget the mayo (unless it’s homemade garlic and herb mayo, preferably with olive oil and fresh eggs from your own backyard), and instead pair your cheese, meats, or veggies with an appropriate chutney! I prefer to pair cheddar with the mango chutneys, chicken or fish with the banana ketchup, and a bean and salad pita or wrap with a good spicy sauce that will penetrate the layers, such as the mango chilli curry sauce. The possibilities are simply endless – mango chutney mixed with yoghurt or sour cream makes one of the best dips ever, for veggies, tortilla chips, or pita wedges.

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Last Saturday: toasties, pita, chutneys, sweet rolls, lunch pizza, rye sourdough, and whole grain sourdough!

Now that you’re drooling uncontrollably, just a few words about the Nid before you hop on over to our Products page where you can place an order for some of these delicious goodies! It is possible to ship the chutneys to the U.S. at your expense, via USPS in flat-rate boxes – please email me for details if you’d like to arrange that.

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Putting up the last two posts, above the door frame. Little tricky single-handed, but it happened!

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Detail of the rafter coming back to the loft.

The Nid has reached the next stage! This is an exciting point to have reached as it marks the end of the stone work and the carpentry (for now), leaving mostly bamboo and cement to be done. The posts are all up and built into the foundation wall, the rafters are all on the posts, and finally I am able to put a tarp up, providing a little relief from the elements. This also allowed me to move my workbench “inside” and take down the old sail that I’d been using for shade and shelter from the rain – removing one huge eyesore from the construction site! This morning Mandy and I took a little field trip to harvest a few stalks of bamboo for me to experiment with splitting and attaching it to the upright posts before I harvest the main quantity – it’s best done green, so I didn’t want to have large quantities of bamboo drying out whilst I try to figure out how best to process it in order to make usable lathes. So far so good!

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First bamboo harvest stacked against the Nid, waiting to be split into lathes.

Til’ next week, cheers!

Post and Beam

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Building the oven roof – it’s fortunate that I so enjoy looking down on the world from above…

It’s been a challenging week here at Nidulari and Little La Grange Village. The premature and somewhat acrimonious departure of our first two WWOOF volunteers left a bad taste lingering for days, and has made us think deeply about the implications of being WWOOF hosts, and of how to end up with the right kind of people, who are coming here to learn with genuine interest and respect for what we are doing, rather than treating a stay here as a cheap vacation opportunity, doing as few hours of work as possible and then disappearing to party it up all other hours of day and night. We are trying to hold strong, view our experience as bad luck and lack of experience in screening potential volunteers, and to look forward to our next volunteers who will be arriving in a couple of weeks! We are hoping that the next ones will be able to settle in peacefully and enjoy all the many experiences we have to offer; sustainable building projects, many forms of agriculture, exciting cooking projects, art, etc, both in and out of work hours, as well as our glorious West End white sand beach, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, and so on.

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Water kefir, and a resulting lemongrass-ginger bubbly drink.

Meanwhile, it turns out that stress, frustration, and perhaps a little anger thrown in makes for a most productive week! On Monday we got the tin up on the oven roof, except for a very small section along the eave on one side which requires an extra row of off-cut tin in order to be long enough. Once that has been added we’ll be able to patch the tin (there are quite a lot of holes in the tin as it was all reclaimed material) and paint it – we’re thinking a nice traditional dark-red colour on the outside.

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The oven roof at a functional stage! Of course there hasn’t been a drop of rain since we built it…    

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Posts and rafters up on the western end of the Nid.  

On Tuesday I put up the last three sets of posts and rafters on the West end of the Nid, with a little help from Mandy. That completed the posts, apart from the two that sit on the door frame, and the beam across the loft which support the center two rafters. These I will hopefully get done next week, bringing the Nid to the next stage, bamboo lathes!

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The Wednesday Locally Grown market spread.

Wednesday was bake day…I’m kicking myself for having been talked into a second bake day each week, it’s exhausting! However, I continue to be well received at the Locally Grown market, and am glad to reach a wider audience, including those who are unable to make it all the way out West on Saturday afternoons. It’s also great to see what other people are growing and making each week – this week I had the opportunity to sample fellow farmer Violet’s home made Sorrel Wine, which is absolutely delicious! To those of you who are able to come directly to me, however, nothing beats getting to see the oven in action, and being able to tour all our projects while you are here! Wednesday also marked my first time shipping an order off-island, to a very special customer who wished to be the test-case for Nidulari + USPS. So, if you really must try our newest Hot Mango Chutney, Mango Pepper Sauce, Banana Ketchup, or even toasties, it can be arranged. Of course, in the interest of keeping local, I’d much prefer that you all come visit instead!

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Final stretch of stone!

Thursday marked the end of the Nid stonework phase! You’ve no idea how exciting that is to me, despite the fact that I’d finally become really good at laying and cementing seemingly random-shaped rocks into a cohesive wall. I’m thrilled with how that part of the wall came out, and only hope that the next stage works out equally well! I think the little cement mixer deserves the title of Demigod – I am quite willing to proffer sacrifices in order to keep it running smoothly. For a little background on that statement: a) I mixed most of the cement and plaster for our previous building projects here by hand, on a board with a shovel b) I’ve always read too much Terry Pratchett. Anyway, that mixer saves hours each batch, and leaves me with energy left to throw at actually using the cement that is being mixed.

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No more stone!

It’s been somewhere around 90ºF all week, with only a little breeze on and off. The dogs lie, inert, on the concrete floor for about 10 hours each day, and even the chickens were suffering until I moved their tractor into the deep shade of a large genip tree. Nonetheless, Mandy and I have both spent hours not only baking, but also stirring hot, bubbling pots of chutneys on the stove. Delicious, but we are mad! I would love to wait for a rainy, cold week in which to do the large batches of mango-season cooking and canning, but down here you never know when or if those might come, and it’s easy to miss out on the height of mango season and be left with mushy, over-ripe buckets and boxes of mangoes catching fruit-flies everywhere and turning to vinegar in front of your eyes. Mango wine is my answer, involving no heat! One demijohn down, one to go.

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Hot Mango Chutney!

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Mango wine…and fresh cheese. I just can’t seem to do enough cooking?

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Quiche, papaya pie, sausages, and baked potatoes – yep, we’re still British at heart.

Now just to get through tomorrow’s bake day in the heat, and then go on to more building next week! One day will be a “field trip” to harvest large bamboo from a roadside, who wants to come help? I’ll then be splitting those bamboo into the thin lathes to form the basic shape of the Nid walls and roof. Speaking of baking, I have a couple of new items! I’m now offering rye bread, instead of the whole wheat. Rye is even more delicious and a little lighter than the wheat. I’m also offering white and wheat pita breads for the first time! They make really great “quick pizza”, as well as sandwiches, snacks, and many other things. Some of you will be sad to hear that I’m taking a short break from granola production, but I promise to soon come up with something else to cater to your sweet tooth as well as your carb habits!

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Spicy mango and pepper chutney.

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Stuffed and roasted squash.

Just one more note: you can now follow Nidulari on Facebook, which is a great way to share my projects with all your friends. Until next week, cheers!

Mangos!

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Cocktail du jour.

So, who’s into cocktails? Yes?

If you know me, you probably already know that I can’t resist messing around with recipes, be they for food or for beverages…particularly those of the alcoholic nature. I don’t drink that much, but when I do mix a drink it’s something interesting, unique, and above all, tasty. Last summer I had various infused liquors left over from the winter, so I messed around with them for a while, and then went on to my signature drink of the season; a beautiful blend of gin, ginger, chilli, and lime. As fall crept up I was seeking warmth in the mellow tones of whiskey and stumbled upon an amazing combination of rye, balsamic, and lime; smooth, full, and simply glorious. Now, however, mango season is upon us – and will be for the next several months – so I must figure out a good stiff mango cocktail! My first attempt (as seen above) was a last minute concoction loosely based on a “Collins”, made with fresh mango pulp, gin, lime, and simple syrup with just a hint of fresh garden mint to it. It was fine, but not what I was looking for. The mango was still too sweet, yet the lime wasn’t subtle enough…and it was much, much too thick. No slushies for me, thanks! The gin worked surprisingly well; I was concerned that rum would be too cloyingly sweet with the mango, and…ummm…I didn’t have anything else? Now that’s embarrassing. So perhaps the next attempt should be more sangria-like? Chunks of mango soaked in white rum with a little citrus thrown in…some bubbly to lighten it up? Even soda instead of wine…we’ll see! What’s your idea for a tasty mango cocktail? I’d love to mix it with something more savory to take the sweet edge off, just haven’t yet figured out what…if only I had lots of time to mix and “taste” experimental cocktail recipes…

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Hopefully soon there will be passion fruit too! This one started forming after flowering a week or two ago.

Now here are some progress photos, in case you aren’t sick yet of seeing all the construction! This week’s project is an 8’x8′ roof over the bake oven, directed by Mandy. Our temporary tarp-over-hoops shelter was indeed temporary and left much room for improvement, so the new set-up is a tin roof set on four posts to shelter the oven from the elements and to provide a somewhat dry and shaded work area for when the oven is in use. It had to be fairly heat proof, due to the extreme heat emitting from the oven’s chimney vent, as well as being strong enough to (hopefully) withstand storm winds. So here goes.

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Four posts set into the ground around the oven. “Damaged” lumber is 70% off at Home Depot!

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Mandy built the rafters flat on the ground, after drawing a pattern on the concrete. The 2x4s were all salvaged from a timber rack on the property.

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Salvaged tin for the roof.

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Attaching the wall plates to the upright posts; this is what the rafters sit on.

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Putting up the first rafter.

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Attaching the final rafter!

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Leveling everything up.

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All ready for the purlins and tin bright and early tomorrow!

Now let me mention that I seem to have spent my entire week driving endlessly around the island trying to buy, borrow, or steal one thing or another, and by now I’d be pretty happy to get to stay home and work on my house! The errand running is perhaps even more exhausting than all the hard work, and far more frustrating. It’s rather amazing how many miles you can drive in a week on a less than 30mile long island…

Which brings me to, where are all your bread orders for this week? Even if you aren’t ordering anything, send me some mango recipe suggestions through the comments (public) or via email on the Contact page (private). Cheers!

Pita patter

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Freshly laid eggs!

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At this rate I could almost go for a Locavore challenge

As I sit, exhausted, after a hard day’s work on the Nid, in the garden, digging holes or cutting trees, there’s one thought that keeps me going and gives me the energy to keep up the same pace tomorrow, next week, next month. That is, that I’m sitting here eating my own eggs, on my own bread, with my own garden greens and fruit; that soon I’ll be doing all of that, in my own tiny house that I built with my own hands! And how many people can legitimately say that?

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Temporary loft floor and staging over the doorway so that we can reach to work on the rafters and roof.

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First two rafters up.

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From above!

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Putting up posts and rafters with Nick, one of our WWOOFers.

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More posts and rafters!

This has been our first week as WWOOF hosts, and so far it has been great! Hopefully our WWOOF volunteers feel the same way. I’ve made great progress with posts and rafters on the Nid with a couple of mornings of help, and there has been much cleaning up of the property and the old ruins; moving rubble, pulling and cutting vines, taking out or trimming unhealthy/unwanted trees, digging out stumps, and removing old sections of fence. Next up is the building of a trellis, a new gate to make bringing firewood to the oven easier, building a small roof over the oven, and starting to clear for a new vegetable garden near the back of our land. Plus, of course, continued work on the Nid. We certainly aren’t in danger of running out of work.

Quick bake day lunch on Wednesday of delicious sourdough pizza.

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Whole wheat pita in the wood fired oven.

Baking is still going full tilt, now with two bake days per week; Saturdays for private orders through the Products and Produce page here at Nidulari, and Wednesdays through VI Locally Grown. The pita bread went down great this this week, so they will become a regular product in addition to the sourdough! I’m also getting really good at making sourdough pizzas in the brick oven, so perhaps there will be a pizza afternoon sometime. Committing to the second bake day every week so soon is a bit scary, but the first week of it went smoothly, and I hope to keep up the energy and enthusiasm!

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Saturday’s bake day: 18 loaves of sourdough, 2 dozen pita bread, 2 dozen sweet rolls, granola, toasties, and a myriad of household fare: a roast, 3 casseroles, cookies, rice pudding…

Mango season has hit us, so soon we’ll be making mango chutney, mango jam, mango pies, you name it! I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with mango season; mangoes are amazing, yet they come in too many for too long, ending up in ankle-deep fruit fly-mango-vinegar mush coating half of our garden. This year my main goal is compost, compost, compost, hopefully thereby avoiding some of the mango mush build-up.

Did I mention that I spent all day baking yesterday on some 4 hours of sleep? Well, I’m too old for that, so I’m going to leave you now, take a nap, and then go to the beach to remedy a severe “farmers tan”, and maybe…maybe get to relax for a few hours.