Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Zoo, Birds of Prey and the rest of August...

As home educators things here quieten down in August, it is the school holidays and all the places we love to visit become very busy. We have found lots of places put the entrance prices up in August and we think you get far better value for money and everywhere is much less busy in September. So usually we harvest, forage, preserve and the children do some work on various projects and crafts close to their heart or current interests, we also plan and look forward to all our Autumn adventures. This year, however, to take advantage of spells of good weather we have made a few day trips, my son has had the time of his life at a bird of prey display.

We sat in the front row and had some very close encounters with a number of very beautiful birds, a common buzzard stopped to eat on the fence just inches in front of us, looked us directly in the eye and then flew off over our heads wafting our hair with it's wings. My son was in raptures... he had never been this close to the birds he loves so much, little did he know a large vulture was weaving its way through the audience. It made me jump a little when it came under my seat, around my legs and looked up at us...but it was such a thrill to see up close and gave my son a day he will never forget. The photograph below is of a larger vulture than the one which passed through the audience, a ruppell's griffen vulture.

At the zoo my daughter was very eager to see her favourite animal, the giraffe and we had to race all the way around to their enclosure first. They have had three giraffe births this year. It was the first time she has been to a zoo, that she can remember, we have recently been to a sea life centre and a reptile park so it was more than a little exiting to see much larger animals. She was quite disappointed to find she wouldn't be allowed to cuddle or stroke the giraffes but we bought her a soft toy one from the gift shop at the end of the day to bring home and love. A keeper in the reptile house also brought out a bearded dragon for the children to look at much closer and to see what it felt like, which brought many smiles to their faces.

In the farm area they enjoyed looking at the animals and posing on a tractor before milking a fake cow, this was obviously a very enjoyable activity as I think they half filled the bucket. So I expect we'll have two very willing volunteers if we ever get a goat.

The excursions are still being talked about here my daughter had a 'great day' and everyone is now looking forward to the Autumn days out... we have a really full itinerary with lots of suggestions for many places to visit.
All of the above photographs were taken by my lovely husband.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Jam Time!

It's the preserving season again, as you have seen in some previous posts we have managed to forage some wild fruit so this has all had to be dealt with and a lot of it goes towards jam making. We found a wild tree which produces huge apples and the smell of these freshly picked wild apples filled my house with a beautiful fresh apple smell not usually found in the supermarket ones.

We have used the simplest possible recipe for jam probably used for generations, which is use the same amount of sugar to fruit ratio. So if you use a kilo of fruit you use a kilo of sugar, very simple. The fruit is put in a large pan and enough water added to reach the top of the fruit, then add sugar and boil. We use a jam thermometer to monitor the temperature and the pan must be stirred regularly, when it thickens you can test set-ability by putting a little on a plate you have had in the freezer. After a few minutes on the cold plate the jam gets a skin or rucks up when you run your finger through it, this means it is ready to jar up. Don't forget to sterilise the jars, this is a very important step and fill the jars whilst hot as this helps to seal the jar.

This year we have made our blackberry jam seedless and as you can see in the above photograph the apple is added for pectin to help the jam set. Some fruit like apples and plums have a lot of pectin but berries do not, this is why we added apples. To make seedless we first cooked the blackberries for a few minutes until they were soft, mashed them and strained them through muslin or straining bag. Then returned the strained mixture back to the pan with the apples and sugar to continue the jamming process.

These are some of our jams as you can see people have started to eat some already and a jar of wild plum has already gone and the next jar started, looks like a jar of the blackberry is nearly finished too this one is my son's favourite. The apple jam is always very useful in this house, it is used all winter as cake fillings, especially apple turnovers. The plum and the blackberry jams have beautiful bright jewel like colours and they looked lovely on the jam drops we recently made.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Egg Box Caterpillars

We have recently been studying the life cycles of caterpillars and have had a caterpillar in an insect tank in the house for the children to watch. Everyday it was cared for and given new leaves to eat and we were eagerly watching for the first signs of a transformation. All efforts  were rewarded early one morning when it started to shed it's caterpillar skin, after much wriggling the pupa below was free and once exposed it changed colour to a very dark brown.

The shed skin with all it's caterpillar features can clearly be seen in the photograph above. We have kept the skin to study under the digital microscope and the pupa has been put in a safe and quiet place to continue with it's transformation. The children have enjoyed this life cycle study and have also been watching cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort outside. Last year we studied the life cycle of frogs and pond ecology and we had tadpoles in a tank on the kitchen table.

The children have also been doing some caterpillar related junk modelling with egg boxes, as you can see above we have cut the egg box in half, keeping a long row to resemble a caterpillar. This has then been painted and decorated along with some other critters and left to dry.

After the paint had dried some pipe cleaner legs, antenna and googly eyes where added to complete the caterpillar look.

These are the finished caterpillars... colourful little critters, don't you think?

The children will be closely watching the status of all the pupae we have, for any signs of hatching as we are hoping to film the process if it happens during the day and will let you know how that turns out.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Cherry Plum Cordial

Due to some recent foraging we have found ourselves with 5kg of wild cherry plums and I wanted to expand on the things we made last year. We will still be making the wine, as it was fabulous, and the jam but the children wanted to make a special drink that they could enjoy... so plum cordial it is. We have made some cordials before, rhubarb, elderflower and lemon so I have just adapted those recipes.

This is what we started with... I boiled about 1kg of wild cherry plums in 500ml of water for around half an hour, I crushed the plums slightly with the potato masher to help them release their juice.  After you have finished boiling leave it to infuse and cool.

After cooling slightly the wonderfully fragrant plum concoction was sieved through a colander to remove the larger pieces of plum pulp, skin and stones and then strained through muslin or a straining bag. The liquid is then measured to find out how much sugar to add and returned to the pan to heat through to help the sugar dissolve. We added 500g of sugar which was around half the measurement of our liquid which was one litre . This seems like a lot of sugar but we first tried 250g and the children decided it was still a little sharp, so we added some more. If you make this, the sugar can be added in stages until you find a level which is suitable to your taste buds.

Then the concentrated liquid can be bottled up and diluted to taste when ready to drink. We ended up with about 1 litre of concentrate, which has quite a syrupy consistency.

Beautiful colour isn't it?... I was hoping for a sunny photograph to show off how vibrant the colour is but it was cloudy this morning and please excuse the fingerprints on the bottle, I had little helpers. It tastes really wonderful, we took some to enjoy on our picnic today, definitely a big hit with the children.