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Wild Wine: Part 2

After all the picking, and picking over, and pressing, and settling, and filtering was done, I had 1.35 liters of very strong, very dark, very bitter wild grape juice. Cobbling together a recipe from various sources, but relying heavily on the information here and here, and the wine-making section of my copy of The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency by John Seymour, I decided to add enough water to bring the volume up to 4.5 liters, enough sugar to (hopefully) achieve a sweet dessert wine, and to make a trip to a local home-brew supply shop for a packet of real wine yeast. If, John Seymour, the Grandfather of self-sufficiency thinks it’s worth the $2.30 for a packet of wine yeast, then I believe him!

So I added 2.65 liters of water to my grape juice, and stirred in a half a Campden tablet (to “sterilize” the grape juice, or kill the wild and rogue non-wine yeast that are likely to be in it) because my kitchen is full of bread yeast, which apparently makes poor wine. Then floated my hydrometer in a liter jar of juice. I got a beer and wine-making kit for my birthday with included this neat gadget that measures the specific gravity of a liquid via Archimedes’ principal, and thus tells you how much sugar (and therefore potential alcohol) is in your grape juice. As it turned out, not very much, which was no surprise at all. Eastern Ontario is not known as a grape-growing area, and despite the blistering heat we had his summer, my wild grapes were still far from sweet.

I added 1 kg of sugar, aiming for a quite sweet, fruity dessert wine, (which I figure I have a better chance of hitting than I do a “nice dry Chablis,” for instance) which gave my grape juice a specific gravity of 1.12, and a potential alcohol content of 16.5% I’m aiming high rather than low because all the sugar might not convert, and you need enough alcohol for the wine to preserve itself once it’s bottled, otherwise it will go off instead of maturing.

Then I added the yeast. And absolutely nothing happened. Now, this is my first attempt at wine, and I don’t know what is supposed to happen. My first batch of mead bubbled and frothed nicely when I added the (instant bread) yeast. The grape juice just sat there. I covered it over and left it overnight. In the morning I looked in the bucket, and still nothing, or not much of anything, anyway.

Time for intervention. I brought the temperature of the grape juice (which I should probably start calling “must,” to use the technical term) up to 75°F (my wine-making instructions are all in either American or 1950s British, which is OK, because my canning thermometer is in 1905 British units) by sitting a tall glass jug of hot water in the bucket, in case the problem was that the yeast was too cold. And I added a quarter teaspoon of “yeast accelerant” (those of you keeping score will have noticed that my home-brew shop purchases went slightly beyond a single packet of wine yeast).

Then I covered it up again, and sat it in a sunny corner of the kitchen, and tried hard not to check on it every 10 minutes. 12 or so hours later, it is definitely doing something that is starting to look like fermenting. Pinky-purple-y foam is forming on the surface of the grape juice must. Now all I need to do is figure out how to keep it warm for a week. Right now the bucket is sitting in the corner of the kitchen by the stove, because I just took two loaves of bread out of the oven. I’m hoping it doesn’t get too cold overnight, but I’m not turning the heating on just for the wine, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll drape a blanket or something over it.

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Wild Wine: Part 1

One of the things I’ve learned living out here is that the wild things that grow and live on our little patch vary tremendously each year, due in large part, I suppose to the differences in annual weather. Some years the roadsides are full of Mullen, but this year there are only a few plants here and there. Last year this time, my neighbour’s fields behind our property were full of Black-Eyed Susans, this year there are only a few. We’ve had a hot, dry summer here, and so the crickets and grasshoppers are particularly abundant this year, making our chickens very happy indeed as they hunt the hoppers through the grass. Something else that has had a very good year this year is Wild Grapes:

There are always some wild grapes in the hedgerows, but most years it is too wet for them to grow well and mature without rotting. This year the hot dry weather provided a bumper crop of wild grapes, so I’ve decided to harvest some and see what kind of Wild Wine I can make. At first I was just thinking that I would get some juice to make a small experimental batch of wild grape-flavoured mead, but I might get enough juice to try a very small batch of wine.

I’ve picked over the bunches of grapes, only keeping the ripe ones to get the sweetest fruit. Following the advice on this website, I wore latex gloves while picking the tiny grapes off the clusters, to protect my hands. It also made it a little less icky when I had to pick the numerous spiders and various other bugs out of the grapes as I was sorting them!

The next step is to mash the grapes before pressing them for juice:

In traditional wine-making, the skins and seeds are left in for the first stage of fermentation, but my research has recommended not to do that with wild grapes because the very high ratio of skins and seeds to juice would make the resulting wine too bitter.

This is my pressing set up:

A stainless steel colander is lined with damp cheesecloth. The mashed grapes are poured in, and then a plastic bowl that fits inside the colander goes on top of the grapes. A weight inside the bowl presses the grapes, and the juice collects in the bowl underneath.

And here is the result, exactly one liter of dark red grape juice. So the question is, do I make wild-grape wine (which would actually be more of a fruit wine like rhubarb or blueberry wine, rather than a true grape wine), or wild-grape flavoured mead with it? I’m leaning towards the wine, because in a normal “bad” year for wild grapes, I’m still likely to be able to collect enough to flavour mead, whereas I don’t know when we’ll have another really good summer for wild grapes… In either case, the juice is now going into the fridge overnight to let some of the tartrate precipitate out before I do anything further with it. And if I’m going to try to make wine, it might be worth the effort to harvest another batch of grapes for more juice, though let me tell you, separating out all the tiny grapes is very  tedious work indeed!

I will edit this post to include links to the next steps in the process as I document them:
Wild Wine: Part 2

Two Quilts

This is a “catch-up” post, one I meant to write months ago, but didn’t. It’s been a busy summer!

I made this throw-sized quilt for my husband’s cousin Jason, who married his long-time partner Jasmine in a beautiful, fun, and romantic wedding this spring:

It’s a simple charm square quilt of my own design, made from scraps and leftovers and a few fat quarters that I bought to get the different tones to balance the way I wanted them to. I decided on brown for a few reasons: Jason & Jasmine’s house is decorated mainly in light neutrals and dark woods so I thought it would match nicely; when I make a quilt as a wedding gift, I try to choose colours and styles that aren’t too “feminine”; and I had a lot of brown in the scrap bag! As it turns out (and I had no idea before-hand) brown is Jason’s favourite colour, and he got married in a gorgeous brown suit rather than the usual black! So the quilt was a big hit.

This quilt I bought at an auction at a neighbour’s house. It has a small amount of damage where some of the vintage fabrics have disintegrated, but it was going cheap, and I really liked the style and colours so I couldn’t resist. I paid $17.50 for it. Auctions are great for bargains sometimes! I don’t know who made it, but it was almost certainly made in this community, probably sometime in the 1940s.

I’ve decided to use it, rather than keep it carefully folded away somewhere, so I washed it on my machine’s “hand wash” cycle with gentle soap, and spread it out on the tall grass (on top of an old sheet to protect it from grass stains) to dry.

It has spent the summer looking absolutely lovely on our guest-room bed, but in a few days I’ll be putting it away for the winter. It also makes a great backdrop for cute kitten photos:

There’s another quilt in progress, which I hope to finish by the end of September. It’s going to be really, really lovely when it’s done, and I can’t wait to get it finished so that I can gift it to the sweet little baby girl who is waiting for it!

A Broody Coop for the Banty

Last year, during our adventures in trying to get our Chantecler chickens to hatch out and raise some of their own eggs, we learned a lot about broody hens. After last year’s mostly unsuccessful attempts, this spring I bought a trio of Bantam hens to act as surrogate mothers for the Chantecler eggs. And I waited for one of the banties to go broody. And waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, just over month ago, one of the banties decided to start fighting her way into the Best Nest Boxtm and trying to sit on the same eggs that two or three of the Chanteclers were trying to sit on, but which I kept taking away from them (for our breakfast, and my baking!) We were about to head off to Kaleidoscope Gathering for 6 days, so I ignored them, plus I thought it was too late in the summer for the chickens to start hatching eggs. When we got back, the banty was still sitting, and the Chanteclers weren’t (much), and I talked to a chicken-knowledgeable local friend. She had some eggs being sat on, and didn’t think it was too late in the summer for baby chicks, “Think of it this way,” she said, “by the time the really cold weather gets here they’ll be three months old. And they’re tougher than we think they are, usually!”

So we decided to let the Banty sit on some eggs. I picked (pretty much at random) half-a-dozen of the (Chantecler, as opposed to bantam) eggs that were already in the nest box, and marked them with a big X in pencil so that I could tell them apart from the new eggs layed subsequently. For the past couple of weeks I have been taking the Banty (and no, like the rest of our livestock, she doesn’t have a name) off her nest daily, retrieving all the non-Xed eggs, and letting her hop back onto her eggs. In the past few days, however, the Chanteclers have started trying to get back in on the act, and have started sitting on the clutch of eggs, sometimes shoving the poor little Banty off “her” nest. I put “her” in quotes, because of course she’s sitting in the “best” next box, which is the one they all want to lay their eggs in.

So today I decided it was time to build her a Broody Coop, an enclosure in the corner of the coop to keep the rest of the chickens away from her and her nest.

Materials:

– a bunch of off-cuts and leftover bits of wood, some from the set of last year’s local community theatre production

– two gauges of galvanized wire fencing

– screws (a dozen or so different sizes & kinds)

– nails (3 or 4 different sizes & kinds)

– glue

Tools:

– electric drill, bits

– jigsaw

– extension cord

– backsaw (hand)

– measuring tape

– pencil

– shears

– cup of tea

– hammer

– and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t end up using but was good to have on hand in case I needed it…

The top and bottom frame were leftover pieces of theatre set; I wouldn’t normally choose 2″x3″ lumber as a construction material for this size of project, as it’s much bigger and heavier than needed, but they were the right size & shape, so I used them.

Step 1: Cutting the uprights, marking them, drilling pilot holes for the screws, starting the screws in the holes:

Step 2: Assembling the frame:

Step 3: Cutting and attaching a wooden “shelf” to one end of the frame to hold food & water containers:

Step 4: Cutting the wire fencing to size and attaching it to the frame. I used a combination of staple gun and roofing tacks:

All done:

The nesting area of the coop before:

(The smaller hen with her back end to the camera is the bantam who’s supposed to be sitting on the nest, she’s just been shoved out of the nest box by one of the Chanteclers).

And after:

She looks quite comfy in there:

The eggs she is sitting on might start to hatch as soon as Friday, or as late as Monday, since I don’t know exactly when they were laid. Hopefully we’ll get some healthy baby chicks!

Today I am stacking firewood

This:

Goes here:

Needless to say, we don’t park our car in the garage. Even in the summer when it’s not half-full of firewood, it’s full of gardening tools and equipment, and usually a rototiller on loan from a friend. One day maybe we’ll have a barn or shed for the tools, but in the meantime we clean & organise the garage once a year in the fall to make room for the firewood.

This will be our third winter heating primarily with wood. We have the oil furnace automatically set to go on for an hour first thing in the morning, to heat up the house as we’re getting out of bed, and then I light the fire in our heat stove. For the rest of the day, except on the coldest, windiest days of the winter, the stove is (just) enough to keep the house at a livable temperature. The furnace goes on again for an hour at dusk, when the outdoor temperature drops significantly.

The first year we heated with wood, we bought 6 (face or stove) cords and had about a cord left over at the end of the winter; however we started heating late, since our stove was on back-order and wasn’t installed until the middle of October. The second year we bought 7 cords of wood and ran out at the beginning of April. It was a very dry winter (very little snowfall) and our neighbors all said they were burning more wood than usual – the lack of snow meant less natural insulation around the foundations of houses.

This year I didn’t want to take any chances, so we bought 10 cords. Once stacked it will run the length of the garage, in a pile as high as t! can reach and three rows deep. I won’t be doing all the stacking myself, though it’s nice to know I could if I needed to. I’m managing about a cord an hour, with regular breaks. Most of my elderly, retired neighbors still stack their own firewood (everyone heats at least partly with wood out here, as it’s about half the price of oil). It’s a good job for a day like today when I want to be able to see what I’ve accomplished; having the wood safely stacked in the dry garage provides a wonderful feeling of security, “No matter what happens, at least we won’t freeze to death!” my subconscious mind says as I’m working.

I love my Sun Oven!

A few years ago, back when we still lived in Montreal, I bought a Sun Oven. My idea at the time was to have a way to bake in case of an extended power failure, plus it was a fun “off-grid” kind of thing to experiment with. I used it a few times while we were still in the city, and then a few more times after we moved out here.

Last summer, as you may remember, was quite rainy, but this summer has been hot and dry and most importantly, very sunny. So with Ontario Hydro’s new Time-of-Day electricity pricing to contend with (which means that unless I do all my baking at weekends or after 7pm, my electricity bill doubles…) I decided to see just what the Sun Oven could do. It turns out that it can do just about anything!

Baking:

I’ve used it for my regular weekly baking of two loaves of bread, dozens of muffins, and chocolate cupcakes:

It takes about 30 minutes in full sun to heat up to 350°F, and I give whatever I’m baking a few extra minutes, depending on quantity and what sort of pan I’m baking in. The cupcakes take 30 minutes in the Sun Oven compared to 25 in the regular oven, but my regular dozen breakfast muffins need about 45 minutes, as compared to 25 normally, and two loaves of bread take about an hour; twice as long as I bake them for in the regular oven.

One of the biggest factors is the actual colour of the pan or dish I’m using, the darker the better to absorb heat! So chocolate cupcakes in a black mini-tin bake quickly, whereas a loaf of white bread in a silver tin takes a lot longer.

Boiling:

Something I was thrilled to discover I could do in the Sun Oven is boil dry beans. I use dry beans rather than canned for environmental reasons and for the big cost saving. I soak beans (we eat a lot of black turtle beans, red kidney beans, and chick peas) overnight as normal, and then they go into this dark glass dish with a lid:

It takes three to four hours in full sun to cook two to three cups of dried beans, which is enough for two meals. I freeze the extras for later use. I like the way they come out even better than when they are boiled on the stove. As we’re getting to the end of the summer, I’m trying to build up a store of cooked & frozen beans for use over the winter. I freeze them in washed and re-used milk bags, sealed with a second-hand vacuum sealer that I bought at Value Village for $5. The Sun Oven also makes great brown rice.

Roasting:

I roasted garlic for a batch of humus, again using a dark glass dish with a lid. Lids help to keep the heat and moisture in, though enough steam escapes such that nothing has turned out soggy. The next thing to try will be roasted vegetables (potatoes, etc.):

Slow cooking:

The black ceramic insert for my slow cooker fits in the Sun Oven, so on a sunny day, anything I would cook in the slow cooker I can make in the Sun Oven! I’ve done beef stew, lentil (dahl) soup, etc.

As we move into fall, it will be very interesting to see how late in the year I can continue to use the Sun Oven effectively. The box itself is insulated, so theoretically the air temperature shouldn’t affect its ability to cook too much. I think the shortness of the days and the angle of the sun will have more bearing on how many hours of cooking time I can get later in the year.

The State of the Garden

It’s been a rough summer for the vegetable garden. Spring started out very cold and very wet, and so we were late getting the garden rototilled. I say “we,” but t! is the one who wrestles the rototiller around the garden for two days so that I can plant. The cold-loving veggies (onions, peas, string beans, and greens such as spinach and bok-choi) went in in the middle of May, the potatoes at the end of May, and the things that need more heat (tomatoes, cucumbers, dry beans, and squashes) went in at the beginning of June.

Through June, everything looked pretty good, chugging along slowly but surely the way a garden should. Then July and the heat wave hit. Temperatures up to 35°C and the only rain was the very occasional short, sharp thunder shower. I started watering the tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers by hand with a bucket (next year there will be some sort of irrigation system in place). The only things that didn’t seem to mind the dry and the heat were the soup beans (Great Northern and Black Turtle) and the basil.

Basil

But the first bunch of tomatoes to set fruit had blossom-end rot, which in tomatoes is caused by a lack of calcium to the flower, which in turn is almost always (and in my case certainly) caused by a lack of enough water for the plant to get the calcium in the soil up to the flowers when they need it.

Blossom End Rot (Sorry for the slightly fuzzy photo!)

So I stepped up the watering as best I could, and that seems to have solved it. I have tomatoes, but the crop is probably going to be small. It’s late in the summer, and not enough fruit has set. Small is the word for most of the crop this year. Onions, small. Potatoes, small. Cucumbers, small (and few). Bell peppers. Sigh. I have 15 bell pepper plants (red bell peppers are t!’s favourite vegetable) and 1 pepper so far.

Small Potatoes

As I’ve learned to say from my neighbours with a philosophical sigh, “That’s farming…”