apricot compote

Today I made a bit of apricot compote.

Bought some 5 kg of fruits from the market,  not so ripen.

Ronen opened the fruits, took the seeds out. I sterilized the jars (only shortly boiling them under water), stuffed them with halves of fruit, almost to the top, poured hot water over, to cover.

I made 7 big jars with NO sugar, nothing added for sweetening and 6 big jars with two pills of stevia for each.

I closed the jars then I boiled them into a pot, not covering them entirely with water. Water was only coming to the half of the jars, I covered them all with a wet towel, boiling them for about 40 minutes (two batches: 7 and 6).

Them I took them out fast and put them under thick blankets to cool down slowly.

 

Curious how the no-sugar fruits will stay… how the ones with stevia will taste :).

 

I also cut some of the ripen apricots and put them into the dryers, repeating last year experiment (tasty!).

Solar Food Dehydrators

At the end of last summer I built our first two solar food dehydrators and our first experiments with them were really great. I have been asked a few times about our choices so I finally got around to writing this.

First things first. Why dehydrated food?

  • It is an additional option for preserving and storing food.
  • Dried foods are potentially more nutritious then pickled or cooked (tomato sauce, zakuska) preservation since they don’t go through any cooking … just drying … removal of water.
  • Dried foods require no energy to prepare (just the sun) or to store (such as freezing) … just a sealed jar.
  • Dried foods can generally last much longer.
  • Dried foods are easier to process. It is much easier to cut up tomatoes and put them in a solar drier then it is to process them into tomato sauce.

A LOT Of my research starts (and often concludes) at BuildItSolar.com. Since this was my first solar project I invested quite a bit of effort in developing a basic understanding of thermal dynamics. It wasn’t easy at first but it was well worth the investment. If you plan to collaborate much with the sun (as I do) I suggest you do the same. Make an effort to understand how the designs work.

There are many designs and systems of solar dehydrators. In preparation for this post I found these two documents about solar drying stored on my computer. I browsed through them and they seem to offer a good overview – so you are welcome to have a look at them:

After much research I was able to dismiss some designs by identifying a few criteria that were important for us:

  1. All passive – no electric ventilation – solar heating creates air flow, air flow dries food.
  2. Simple to build – I have woodworking tools and basic skills, I use mostly roughly sawn pine and I am unable (for now) to produce high precision, constant sized wood.
  3. Simple to use – a system with no “options” – no thermostat and no adjustments possible – fresh food goes in and dried food comes out.
  4. No backup heat – no option to hook it up to another heat source (such as a stove) for complementary heat on when the sun isn’t sufficient.

I was left with three possible designs. It seems that the most popular design is a cabinet-like design where a solar collector feeds hot air into a cabinet in which trays are placed with food for drying. The following design roughly describes them though their actual shapes and dimensions may vary:

The solar collector heats air and since warm air rises, in this case it rises into the cabinet (which is placed above the solar dehydrator). This flow of warm air passes across the trays of food, absorbs moisture and escapes out the top.

A major improvement over this design (though theoretical for me since I built neither design) is the downdraft dryer. Once upon a time I found a drawing of such a drier but I have had no luck finding it again. The main difference is that hot air enters at the top of the cabinet, falls down in it  (and across the shelves) … all the way down, and then is sucked out (flows up) through a chimney (often a separate chamber built into the cabinet itself). You can see both cabinet designs in this video:

What is the improvement in the downdraft design? In the first (popular) design as the air rises it collects moisture and cools … and cool air tends to sink … which means that two opposing forces are now at work.  Warm air is trying to rise from the collector and cool air is trying to drop down inside the cabinet. From what I’ve read this conflict can result in diminished air flow, which means that food may not dry well or fast enough, which may lead to mold … a conflicted design. The downdraft design works with the natural tendency of cool air to drop (which can be further improved by re-heating the air in the evacuation chimney so that air is both pushed in and sucked out) so it should result in better, more consistent airflow … and better drying.

Both designs rely on one core feature – air flow. For efficient air-flow the entire system needs to be built as air-tight as possible … so that air cannot get sucked in or escape anywhere but where you want it. That small, often understated requirement can prove to be either difficult and/or expensive to achieve (and maintain … remember, this thing is exposed to the elements). I was about to embark on constructing a downdraft cabinet dryer when I realized that I achieving air-tightness was not going to be trivial (within the constraints of tools and resources I have available to me). I do not believe these designs to meet the 2nd criteria – simple to build (even though they are presented as such).

Both designs are excellent space savers (many trays in a small space). Yet even when such designs do work well there is a functional inconsistency built into them. In both designs the top and bottom trays will never experience the same temperature, humidity and air-flow. In both designs humidity and odors build up as air passes through the shelves. Though this may work it does require more planning and thinking during usage (what goes on top, what goes on the bottom, what things do not go together, etc.). This does not meet the 3rd criteria – simple to use.

So I changed my mind and went looking for something else. Eventually I arrived at Bob & Larisa at Geopathfinder. They have a lot to offer on sustainable living, drawing from 30 years of experience – including solar food drying. Their design is simple to build (with a very high tolerance for error), simple to use and, from our limited experience so far, provides reliable results. One drawback is that their design takes up more space. This is not an issue for us (living in the countryside) though I am not sure it is an issue for anyone if you take into consideration ease-of-use and reliability. I see no need to repeat information that is presented simply and clearly on their website HERE. They offer a free PDF with images from a construction workshop showing in detail how they are built.

Last year I built a pair of solar dryers based on their design and in the coming weeks I will be building another pair. Spring has just started and the dryers are already working drying spring flowers for our year round tea consumption:

solardehydrators

 There is a lot to learn about food dehydration. Different foods require different times. There are varieties (such as with tomatoes) that are more suitable for drying than others. Some things dry really fast (herbs), other take longer and need to be timed properly especially for food (again such as tomatoes) with a high water content – in which case you need to start on a sunny day to get through the initial drying (to prevent molding over night). Most things are dried without direct exposure to sunlight, others benefit from sun exposure (mushrooms are supposed to become saturated with vitamin D).

The Solar Dryers, though a do it yourself project, were not inexpensive. The most expensive material (for us) was the mesh upon which the food was placed – this need to be something that comes in contact with food that you will east (so no rusting, off-gassing, etc.). Following Bob & Larisa’s advice we searched (and just barely found in Romania) stainless steel mesh upon which the food is placed. I estimate the total cost of materials to be ~250 lei per square meter (every dryer is one square meter divided into 4 trays).

 

Three Pigs

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains VERY graphic images of three pigs being slaughtered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there to take the images nor that I would be able to. In the end I wanted to be there, I was there and I was able to take these images. If you feel you may be disturbed by them now is a good time to stop scrolling this page. You are invited to skip to the end where I have noted some thoughts and reflections on this event.

From the end of November through to Christmas in many village homes in Romania  pigs are slaughtered. Pigs are a very popular source of meat here in Romania. It is a somewhat celebratory event as it provides an abundance of meat as the holidays approach and the winter sets in. I don’t eat meat (and I’ve put that to the test here in Romania) but Andreea does crave it occasionally. She prefers red-meat but that’s harder to find and more expensive then the abundantly available pig meat in Romania.

When our neighbor told Andreea that they would be slaughtering their large female pig, Andreea asked if she could purchase 10kg of meat but she was gently refused – there simply wasn’t enough meat. The purchase, feeding, slaughter and butchering of a pig is usually a family effort – so when the meat becomes available it is divided between the people involved in this process. So, though a large pig was butchered (about 160kg) there simply would not have been enough meat. However she did invite Andreea to purchase one of the smaller pigs promising they would also butcher it for her. Andreea took up the offer and we joined in for a day of pig slaughtering. I was invited and welcomed to come with a camera.

We woke up to another beautiful & picturesque frozen morning (I was actually praying that the sun would not come out so I would not lose a woodworking day).

And a short walk down to our neighbors brought us into a warm room where everyone was ready to get to work. On the table you can see two dishes filled with a Romanian pastry called Placinta – large dough dumplings (in this case fried) some filled with cheese and others with a cooked cabbage filling. They were prepared the evening before (we know because we were there to eat them warm as they came out of the frying pa) in a large quantity to feed the group of people who worked throughout the day.

I think they were waiting for us to get to work … knives in hand 🙂

So we headed out back to the get the first pig – the large mother.

You can already tell from the conditions in which the pigs are kept that they don’t get much opportunity to be pigs nor are they familiar with human contact (beyond basic feeding).

The pig didn’t want to come out and was lured to the door with a cob of corn – there they tied a rope around it’s foot.

Still they couldn’t pull her out.

So one of them went in and got her by the tail … and so they managed to get her out.

In case you are wondering, as I was, why the leg, here’s the answer … by pulling the leg out from under her they got her lying on her side.

Which exposes her neck for the slaughter. She struggled and yelled fiercely to no avail.

It took a few gurgling minutes for her to die and was then pulled to the work space for butchering.

And it was then time for one of her siblings (the first of two) to go.

And one was picked out and quickly slaughtered.

… and pulled out to the field

that was starting to get busy.

I took a small pause to again appreciate how beautiful a place we live in.

… and then it was time to torch the pigs … this is both to burn off the hairs and a first act of cleaning/disinfection. Traditionally this was done by placing the pig in a pile of hay and lighting it. Apparently that was a slow process and today everyone is rushing and there is no space for tradition so blow torches connected to home cooking gas cannisters are used. The problems is that the gas is effected by the freezing cold so the canisters need to be heated. At first they torched the canisters themselves (safety is not a big thing here) and later placed them in hot water.

And so begins a very tedious and time consuming process of burning and peeling/scratching:

Pieces of wood are used to support the legs … you gotta get it all … and the fingernails are burned and then pulled off … which is when bone is first exposed.

A victim

and a crime scene

Meanwhile the smaller pig was coming along much faster … it was already flipped over and they started rubbing salt into its skin and cleaning it with warm water.

And then it was time to bring in (or take out?) the 3rd pig … this one was selected by Andreea and will henceforth be referred to as “our pig” or “our dead pig” or “our pig meat”.

And the place started looking very busy … though a quiet and pleasant pace of work was maintained.

Meanwhile the 1st small pig was getting its last scraping and washing

… and then more salt rubbed into it (pity it wasn’t alive to enjoy this)

… and finally propped up between two pieces of fire wood … ready for butchering

… and quickly cut open (it was relatively easy because it was still small and not very fatty … see larger pig ahead).

The procedure starts with emptying the chest cavity … so you reach in, tear through lots of ligaments

and there is the heart and lungs still hooked up

Then the bowels are taken out into a large dish

And the unwanted gallbladder is cut away from the much wanted liver

Which left an empty shell of a pig

Which was then cleaved into two halves

Which were carried inside

This is one example where two halves don’t make a whole

And the butchering continues

Once the large pieces are cut away a blanket of fatty tissue and skin is left … this guy did a very nice and elegant butchering job

Here you can see half the pig piled up neatly in the rear and the second half still whole

The other small pig (our pig) was taking a different route (different butcher and a more improvised work space). The head was cut off first and the rest was … well laid back 🙂

And again in a meticulous and what looked to me a professional chunks of meat and organs were efficiently organized

And … here is Andreea salting a fresh sliver of pig skin

… and reliving a childhood memory she’s shared with me numerous times – relishing its fresh taste

On to the main show … the large pig.

… again some final scraping and washing

… propping up

… and cutting open

… a very large liver and gallbladder

… and a huge bowl emptying

… and a kidney cut up. The kidney is used to determine the “market weight” of the pig. The kidney is weighed and its weight is multiplied by 1000 … so a 50gram kidney (like our little pig had) indicates a 50kg pig.

And again, an empty, though very large, shell of meat remained.

It was cracked in half

And again one half at a time carried to a work table

Where the butchering continued

… and fat was peeled

and loads of meat were carried into the house.

including heavy blankets of skin and fat

which were meticulously carved and cleaned

and set aside for processing and preservation.

Most of the meat will end up smoked. Before it is smoked it is salted (which apparently dries it). A large plastic container was filled with layers of meat and salt. The bottom layers were the neatly arranged blankets of skin and fat – this will be left in salt for two months and then smoked – a recipe for Slanina – smoked fat – considered a specialty dish.

On top of that the rest of the meat is piled – including this heavy slab of meat – a complete leg and thigh … deep cuts were filled with salt and it was added to the container

… no meat gets left behind 🙂

This meat will sit for 2 weeks and then be smoked.

And other parts of the meat are processed into various sausages. One kind of sausage is made of the fattier tissues and another is made of the internal organs together with cooked onions and rice. The meat is ground and packed into the intestines. For this the intestines need to be untangled … a meditative task where the tender ligaments keeping it all together are cut away until the intestines can be pulled apart. A gruesome task (if you ask me) and smelly one especially since the intestines are packed with … shit at different levels of digestion.

Then the intestines are filled with water.

… and their contents rinsed out

and … well piled on the ground

… until they are collected and washed and taken back inside.

The internal organs were washed and set aside earlier.

At this point (around 15:00) I left and went back home. The room was getting to be to intense for me … the smell of meat was overwhelming, some was already cooking (chunks of meat frying in melted fat) for a meal. Smoking had accumulated, I was hungry … and I had enough. So no images of the sausages.

Thoughts & Reflections

One Room: It’s easy to miss, especially for people of a western mindset – that everything indoors in these images happened in one room. The house has two rooms but only one is heated so in winter this room is everything – a bedroom, living room, kitchen … everything. One wood-stove is used for both heating and cooking. It houses two women (Maria and her mother) and occasionally on weekends Maria’s two children. At one point this small room (approximately 4 by 4 meters) sheltered 9 people. One of the sofas/beds was covered with plastic sheets on which the meat was piled. The small table (pictured at the top of this post) has seen the meat from many pigs over its life. Under the table, between the two beds, there is now a large plastic container containing a pile of meat that will be enjoyed over almost a year.

Respect: I have greatest respect for Romanian villagers, they are survivors. They are relatively poor and yet they manage to create an abundant (at least food-wise) life.

Hardship: Romanian villagers are set in their ways – and their ways make for a life of hardship. Pigs are typically grown in a confined and inevitable dirty space (permaculture wisdom is that pigs, if given an option, will keep their shelter clean). They are not given space to roam and range, they are not put to work, they do not live long. They are grown over a better part of a year for meat and meat alone. They have to be fed (expensive and tedious). Pigs here have a poor life and a poor death.

Respect: There seems to be very little respect in life or death towards animals – pigs included. There has to be a better and more respectful way to slaughter animals. There also seems to be missing a respect toward the abundance of food that comes from the taking of an animal’s life.

Appreciation: The lack of respect towards the animals also reflects inwards. Romanians do not seem to be able to recognize and appreciate the abundance of food from such an event. They seem to have lost touch with a capacity to enjoy the gifts bestowed on them by nature.

Biology: It was amazing to see the internals of a living being. I had theoretical biological knowledge – but it went to a different level when I saw the diaphragm that separates the chest and abdominal cavities and the internal organs all in their places.

Strength: I didn’t think I could handle being so close to slaughtering and butchering. Two years ago when I visited Romania I could not sit for long at a table that had just a slab of freshly butchered meat. I don’t know what changed … but except for a first few seconds when blood gushed out of the large pig … I was fine.

Life: I noted that biologically, the pig and I have quite a lot in common. Yes, pigs have a very small brain … but most of the biological workings we share (breathing, digestion, elimination, etc.) are autonomous anyway. Mind aside, What is the magical force behind this? What was it that drained from the pigs eyes as blood was draining from its throat. What was it struggling uselessly to hold on to?

Farm Animals: If When we get around to expanding our livestock (currently poultry only) – slaughtering is going to be a challenge. It is an inevitability – it is impossible to sustain animals on a farm without there being some slaughtering. We will need to figure this out.

Our Pig: Andreea now has 20+ kg of meat – most of it frozen in small one-serving bags she can defrost whenever she feels like having some meat. Some of it will be smoked together with Maria’s batch of meat. Our dogs will also enjoy some of the meat.

Holiday: This event took place on December 1st – a National Romanian Holiday.

Ghee is Preserved Butter

Years ago my Yoga teachers introduced me to Ghee – which is purified butter. It is supposedly healthier then butter, in my opion it is also tastier but more to the Bhudeva-point it lasts longer (much longer) without spoiling. During theh first few weeks here we went with what was familiar to us and got butter and milk from the supermarket. Then we discovered the dairy-room in the market (lapte, lapte, lapte …)  and since then we’ve been getting fresh milk and butter.These tend to spoil faster then their industrial counterparts. So Ghee it is.

First – this is what real butter looks like – white, not yellowish. You place in it a pot on a small burner – too large flame will burn it.

As it begins to melt, a foamy later appears which you can skim off with a spoon and throw away.

It will continue to boil for a few minutes and then the boiling will reside a bit. This is the time to keep your eyes on the pot – soon the butter will become clear.

When it does, turn off the heat completely. Though you can pour out directly from the pot, we filter it through a cloth, preferrably into a glass jar or container.

Be careful when you squeeze it – it’s still boiling hot.

After a few hours of cooling – you are left with Ghee. You will lose approximately 1/3 of the volume of butter you had when you started.

It’s not mandatory to keep it in the fridge but we do. It will keep for weeks – supposedly even months (thoughwe never made enough to verify that theory!).

oh and … if you add water and some soap to the pot, throw the cloth into it and boil it all again … it makes for an easy cleanup.