Self-sufficiency has come a long way since John Seymour's Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, we have seen the move gain high profile coverage in grow your own magazines and on television. Back in the seventies the whole movement was seen as comic fodder in The Good Life. How would Tom and Barbara Good view the generation of kids who grew up watching them who then became adults and left the rat race behind? What was comic fodder back in the decade of flares and monster sideburns has become a massive area in publishing. It is no surprise in the present economic climate that more of us are turning to a self-sufficientish lifestyle, a lifestyle in which we can do something, regardless of the space we have to grow in. The spirit of the Goods still permeate through us from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Dick and James Strawbridge. It is the latter guys though that have become the voice of the Goods, the Heath Robinson's among us and from It's Not Easy Being Green (something we know from experience) to The Hungry Sailors these guys have been on the wagon, a wagon they made themselves, a wagon they draw themselves and who put their green cards on the table back in 2010 with the Practical Self Sufficiency book. So, what can the Strawbridges do for us now that John Seymour didn't?
Seymour always dealt in the amount of land you could get your hands on, from 1 acre to 5 acres and above. Though many of us dream of this, the reality is that there simply isn't enough land for us all to be self-sufficient. That's why the Strawbridges have found their niche, these four books, target those people with 'modest spaces'. The first volume on Curing & Smoking even says in the opening pages, 'Anyone with even the smallest kitchen or yard can do a surprising amount of curing and smoking'. This is true, we like the Strawbridges have been curing and smoking in our modest kitchen and gardens for years. I remember a time that I modified our garden chimenea to smoke some caught fish. The result was wondrous and we were converts from then on in. Smoking and curing though is something that everyone should have a go at, you simply can't buy the same results and tastes that you can concoct. Made at Home: Curing and Smoking is one of those books you can dip into and learn something new, from the gizmos that the Strawbridges construct to smoke their meat and cheese to the vast amount of recipes they come up with. The book, like all the volumes, are broken down into simple chapters that cover the facts you really should know before tackling curing and smoking. They cover Brining, Dry Curing, Air Drying (one of our favourites at Pig Row), Hot Smoking (a fiddly subject for many but the Strawbridges show you how by simple control of temperature you can cook and smoke, rather than burn and turn to ash) and Cold Smoking.
In this book though, it was the recipes that really revealed that these are couple of red blooded men who ate what they made, and wanted to consume it in new and inventive ways. You could say that they are to ITV what Fearnley-Whittingstall is to Channel 4 but the Strawbridges aren't cooks, they are two men who cook, who put things together and don't really go to the corner store to buy a smoker. These guys make it by careful design and it is the images of the smokers, the how to sections and the careful attention to you getting it right that puts them beyond mere cooks, these men are gourmets. It doesn't even matter if you don't have an outdoor smoker, the Strawbridges show you how to smoke in the kitchen on your stove, with them you will be producing your own pastrami, smoked pigeon breasts and smoked mackerel.
The rearing of poultry for meat is a new area to us at Pig Row, we have before reared chickens for eggs but in Made at Home: Eggs & Poultry we are in a whole new dimension of Chickens, Ducks, Geese and Turkeys. You are in no doubt that this is a book about meat, there is an entire chapter devoted to recipes. This is a book that has made us consider about our next intake of poultry, we are now consider chickens for eggs and meat, and for the first time, ducks and turkeys. We have never liked the taste of the latter, finding it dry and tasteless but we recently experienced turkey at a friends, he had reared it, slaughtered it and we all ate it and it was out of this world, a million miles away from the supermarket Norfolk brands. This is the wonderful thing about this book it inspires the reader to try, it may not contain every disease that poultry can get (but this is not the role of such a book), it is though a great book for those people unsure about keeping poultry for meat. Each chapter looks at how to keep poultry, from runs to coops, to laying, incubating, hatching and rearing. Again, the Strawbridges step in with their sketches of coops that you can knock up for the fraction of the shop bought ones. They do not shy away from the slaughter of poultry, and though they do address diseases it is always advisable to buy a book devoted to this or to join a poultry group that can aid you in the early days of keeping chickens, ducks, geese or turkeys. Geese for the record make great watchdogs, I spent my childhood walking past a geese farm and avoiding the pecks and snaps of the geese as they poked their heads through the fence. To some satisfaction, I was delighted that the Strawbridges didn't skirt over the drawing of geese and show a simple but effective technique for the removal of the entrails. The recipes in this book, unlike the previous volume, are mouth watering rather than practical; that is more to do with my carnivore tendencies and my desire to eat my own raised duck and chicken. This will be a volume I will find myself reaching for throughout that process, and no greater accolade can be given to a book that has a practical use.
In the third volume, Made at Home: Vegetables comes into Pig Row's comfort zone. We have been growing vegetable and fruit now for over a decade, and we can happily romp through a row of onions with the best of them. This book though is for the new grower, it gets back to basics to discuss the role and production of your own compost, the use of wormeries and the importance of the right tool for the right job. Unlike the other volumes it deals with the idea of growing in the season, and the joy of eating in the season, this is something we try to cling to at Pig Row, preserving our summer fruits and vegetables for winter use. This volume though is targeted at growers in their own garden, this could be used by an allotmenteer but for a small holder it may not be of much use. It is really, like all the volumes, down to the amount of knowledge the reader has. This is a good entry book for the first time grower, it will show the wonders of growing in the season, the beauty of harvesting and when to harvest, down to the end result of eating it in a great recipe; from sweetcorn fritters (one we will try) to curried parsnip soup (on the recipe board in the Pig Row kitchen and we will report on that one this winter).
In the final and fourth volume, Made at Home: Preserves you get a pleasant surprise. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security by it. This is real preserving, garlic hanging, clamping root crops, storing fruit, drying herbs, peppers, apples, onions, figs and mushrooms. It discusses dehydrators and air drying. Then the Strawbridges show the beauty of their homemade gadgets as they sketch out the plans for a solar dryer for your tomatoes. It shows you how to use your own oven to dry to create crisps, herbs and spices. We spend nearly 50 pages just on the idea of drying produce before we even get into the traditional art of jarring produce, you'd think by now the Strawbridges would have run out of steam, but no. They move through the traditional skills of sterilising glass jars before hitting the reader with hot pickling and quick sauerkraut (again, this is on our recipe board in the kitchen). The book moves through flavoured vinegars, preserving in oil and then into bottling. It reintroduces modern readers to the Rumtopf, something I remember in my Mum's kitchen as a child, an empty vessel no longer used simply because no one preserved anymore. One day it was there and the next gone. The idea of preserving your fruit in rum appeals to us a Pig Row and it is time we invested in one for our kitchen (when we have finished the kitchen. The idea of fruit, rum and lime dust is not appetising). Relishes come thick and fast before we hit our major love, chutneys, jams and jellies. Though I could do without marmalades (a personal taste thing) there is not one single recipe in this volume we wouldn't try. Then the Strawbridges move into curds and fruit cheeses, the latter is an unknown quantity to us but we have full fat milk, we have fruit, time to give it a try (we'll keep you posted on which recipe we tackle). The final part of the book deals with bottles, from booze to cordials, to ketchup and tinctures before we finally arrive at freezing. Though freezing is the easy option for preserving if you have the room, this chapter does show that sometimes, in combination with other forms of preserving you can have a taste of summer in the heart of winter.
These four volumes have something for everyone with a desire to eat better, grow better, be better and lower their carbon footprint. Some of the volumes may not be for the old stalwarts and it is a real shame that the Strawbridges didn't have a volume devoted just to fruit (they are welcome to come up to Pig Row for any ideas on that) but in the main these are great how to books written with passion and knowledge. They will guide new and old through recipes that they may never have tried. It is the can do attitude that drives these books, the simple language, the accessible diagrams, charts and recipes that make these volumes mouthwatering. It is rare that we read a book and find ourselves getting excited about winter but the preserves book and the curing & smoking book did this. Great writing, great guys, great Strawbridges!
Made at Home series by Dick & James Strawbridge, published by Mitchell Beazley on 7th May, £12.99 (each). www.octopusbooks.co.uk
These books were received for free for review. All views expressed are those of Pig Rows.