Thursday, 21 January 2016

A very short story

A boy went to study at St Andrews University. There he met a girl who had the name Catherine as one of her Christian names. They married a while after they both graduated.

Some time later they had a son and gave him the name Alexander as one of his Christian names. Then they had a daughter who was given the name Elizabeth as one of her Christian names. Water from the River Jordan was used for the baptism.

Who was the boy’s father?

If you answered Prince Charles you would be correct, but you would also be correct if you said it was me. Everything listed above that happened to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also happened to my son and his wife – but one year in advance on every occasion. 

Friday, 27 November 2015


I know it is not quite the end of the year, but it is a long time since I last posted, and the year end is going to be rather busy so I decided to write a synopsis of the events of 2015 now, at least in so far as my tiny piece of the earth is concerned.

It began very dry and rather cool although overnight minimum temperatures were just under freezing point with -2ºC being the coldest. It continued to be a year of low rainfall and it may well be the lowest annual precipitation since we came here in 2003, but 150mm before the end of the year will take us past the lowest we have so far recorded and that was 2004’s 541mm. We thought rainfall was generally under 600mm because that was what we received for the first 5 years we were here – with the exception of 2006. The last six years have been somewhat better. Of course distribution throughout the year is really of more consequence, and 2006 was also very dry, but 539mm in October and November of that year resulted in a total of 983mm. A misleading figure.

The weather has been the reason for the long delay in making another post. I was frantically irrigating so long as the water lasted, but supplies for irrigation ran out at the end of June. The next three months were a constant long day after long day battle carting water to the young olive trees to keep them alive. I lost four of the most recently planted and the crop from another three slightly older, but fortunately managed to get enough to the rest to keep them alive. Mature trees, with a similar mature root system, can withstand these few months without rain. That is the great advantage of olives; they will grow under arid conditions once they attain a reasonable size. They might not crop particularly well without supplementary water, but they will survive. For anyone familiar with real droughts as in Australia etc. it should be noted that we experience a few months of dry weather each summer, and there is always some rain in the autumn and winter.

We did not receive any really hot weather, four days at 36º being the hottest, but the nights were warmer than most years and this has resulted in the mean temperature for the year being above any previous one. 2014 was the hottest we have recorded and this year is on track to beat that, although a cold spell next month could reduce the annual figures, just as a lot of rain could alter that annual total.

Fortunately we received sufficient rain prior to the olive harvest to allow the fruit to reach a good size. Allowing for the young ages of the trees I was well pleased with the result. The quality was excellent and we sold every olive we picked. My wife and I picked 941kgs of olives individually into buckets held around our necks with bungee cords. This is the way to achieve the best quality. It also meant we did not need to run the crop over the grader to remove twigs, stems and damaged fruit.

If quality is down I need to accept that I can only take oil in exchange. I was also especially pleased that two old trees (that I retained when we grubbed out an old orchard) both topped 50kgs. A few years ago I would have considered that impossible, but as with all other crops I feed them liberally and control insect pests and fungal diseases. Many “authorities” around the world consider fertiliser should be restricted. I fertilise to replace nutrients removed in the previous year – prunings as well as the crop have to be taken into account, and the trees also need to grow and produce the current year’s crop too. Just like animals, plants need to be fed, watered and kept disease free if they are to thrive.

I kept the two trees because they had yielded consistently well in the first few years we were here, and had estimated crops of between 20 and 30kgs every year. The boxes we use for containing the olives between picking and delivering to the buyer hold 17kgs when full, and they are manufactured in such a way that each box is equally marked in three parts. If I want to know an approximate weight harvested from a particular tree it is easy to start a fresh box for that particular tree – and hopefully need another one too.

2014 showed a heavy crop on both so I decided to accurately weigh the crop from each tree. The result was 38.24 and 40.22kgs. The heavier yielding tree is quite a bit bigger. This year they yielded 53.33 and 59.00kgs. The bigger one was originally 58.98, but it is very difficult to hand pick every last olive on a big tree and when I had completed the weighing searched the tree for missed fruit. Sure enough there were a few so I managed to reach the 59kgs. I noticed two olives still on the tree yesterday, but I am not prepared to organise things for two olives. Next year will not be so heavy because I have reduced the height of them both, and pruned some branches that would lead to overcrowding in the canopy next year if left unpruned.

I built a picking platform (with safety rails) to fit in the box for the three point linkage of the tractor – along the lines of the platforms often referred to as “cherry pickers” and which you see being used to assist with putting Christmas lights in place in towns, or for maintenance of street lighting. I do not have the height lifting capacity of the machines used for these purposes and I do not need it. The platform I stand on is about shoulder height from the ground and sufficient that I harvested all trees without the need to use ladders, bending over branches too high to reach comfortably. Tree height will be kept to this maximum.

The lack of irrigation, and the necessity of keeping the olives alive, meant that the kitchen garden was a disaster. A few tomato plants kept themselves alive and that was the sum total of this year’s garden harvest. Weeds, as always, managed to keep going, and the garden is currently in a mess. Hopefully I will be able to get back to more normal management of the place over winter.

The last thing to suffer from my summer of water carting was getting in wood for the heating stove. Fortunately we have not yet had to light it, so it should be a short season for its use, and I do have some wood already prepared, so I just need to keep pace with its use and we will get through. I am still using the stumps of old olives we grubbed out a few years ago. I bust these up into suitable sized pieces with a heavy block splitter and steel wedges. Heavy work, but it is a better workout than using my home gym.  I am sure I will live longer by doing this type of work – and, of course, following the Mediterranean peasants’ usual diet of lots of meat, animal produce in general in fact, and plenty of wine.  Olive oil, fruit and vegetables are also consumed, and I have the extra of generous helpings of butter at every available opportunity. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Simple Unhooked Living

“The Truth About Simple Unhooked Livng” is a book by Estar Holmes and published through Smashwords – the same people as my own book, and it can be purchased either by going through the link on here to my book (when I get a very small commission without detracting from the author’s share) or direct through Smashwords.

You know the expression “Been there, done that”? Well this lady has. My pet hate about lifestyle books, particularly those involving rural life, is where people with a journalistic background and friends in the right places to promote their books get an international publishing house to publish and push their writings on something they have as an idea about, or only limited years of experience. This is not one of them. Anyone who publishes with Smashwords does not have a publishing company behind them – apart of course from the unstinting help of the Smashwords team.

Although aimed primarily at the USA resident, virtually everything suggested by the author (she does not ram things down your throat and say you must do it this way) is applicable globally. All good, sound, practical advice from an experienced person. Much of it is essential reading for those people in urban areas where they are reliant upon electricity to run their homes. One power out without the information in the book will cost you a lot more than its price.

I have practiced what might be called “Simple Hooked up Living” for decades and still learned from the book. My wife and I have had the need to collect, melt and boil snow for a cup of coffee; we have had need to make 190 miles round trips for shopping; bathed under roof runoff in a rainstorm, and a waterfall, etc.; but we prefer an indoor bathroom and toilet (yes, we have carried buckets of water for flushing it too) and my wife likes her washing machine and dishwasher. We have never had to do the things Estar Holmes has merely to survive. I admire her, and others like her, who either by choice or necessity have managed to do so, and I thank her for the information on the numerous things included in the book that we have not had to do. I hope we never need to, but at least we are now armed with the information if the lights go out quicker than I planned for in  earlier posts – Dec. 2012 and Feb. 2013.

Estar gives a very generous free sample, but as with all books, this necessarily includes the background and introductory portion – nevertheless with very sound information and advice. There is a wealth more in the remainder of the book. Go on, buy it. Then read it thoroughly, even twice as I did, and then remember and apply the information in there that will take you through the next failure of your electricity supply. A few readers might even take things further and decide to follow either my planned survival strategies for longer term power failures, or even Estar’s no fail methods whatever happens.

One of the highlights of the book for me was the ability to get by in life with the minimum use of potable water. The world at large wastes more than it uses, and there is a shortage. It is even affecting parts of mainstream USA at the present time. Think about how you can help to conserve this dwindling essential of life.

I take every opportunity to try to persuade everyone that a daily morning shower is one of the worst modern phenomena ever to have been inflicted upon the planet. I grew up in Britain, being born at the end of WWII at which time enormous numbers of houses did not have a bathroom, many not even running water, and those that did, did not have a shower. Sometime in the 1970s or 80s people began to fit various contraptions above the bath and were able to shower. When we bought our Australian sheep and cattle property in 1979 the house had two bathrooms containing a bath and sink, but no shower. No indoor toilet either. That was soon fixed. There were people around about who we knew did not have a shower in the house, sometimes barely enough water to drink either, but it was commonplace for them to say “I am off home for a shower” as if it was expected of them to say so.

My present house did not have a shower cubicle until 2 years ago when we extended the living space and added an ensuite bedroom. There is another bathroom with a shower head over the bath. It was 1993 before I owned a house that had a shower and that was a house we had built for us. None of us died from not having a shower. So far as I recall nobody smelled particularly bad either.

I have recently had the misfortune to be hospitalised for a few days (not life threatening and I will recover) and it was considered essential that every patient had a shower immediately upon rising in the mornings. Since tens of thousands of Portuguese houses do not have running water it seemed weird to me that they expected people who had never showered in their lives to suddenly have to have one every single morning. Obviously I did not comply with the expectation. I did wash thoroughly. I was spending the day lounging about on a bed in a pristinely clean environment so how could I become dirty enough to need a shower every morning? I was really impressed with the place. Apart from the cleanliness, the food was good, the staff were good, and the beds were comfortable and fully adjustable by the patient for inclination and height.

For those of you who do shower every day, why do you do it? I suspect peer pressure began it all. Somebody somewhere decided they would boast about their new shower a few decades ago. Everybody else has to keep up with them, then somebody decided they would claim to shower every day. Soon everybody had to claim to shower every day and some people thought they actually had to do it. Talk about lemmings!!

Potable water is not in infinite supply. It is extremely costly and wasteful of other finite resources to make some supplies from really unsuitable water sources. Take a stand. Stop having as many showers (or baths) and encourage everyone you know to do likewise. I am not looking forward to the time when I expect that the lights will go out, because the world is using its resources far too quickly, but running out of potable water is certain death to all it affects. We must have water to survive.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Some reasons why I like Portugal

I read, see or hear about various aspects of life in, and the culture of, different countries around the world, and it makes me remember the good and the bad of countries in which I have lived.

Perhaps because we have always lived on our farms in rural areas, sometimes a long way from a town, my family and I have met some extremely nice people in all of them. Portugal is no different – except that the townspeople are as friendly as the rural folk. During the summer my wife and I were in a supermarket, the bananas were of poor quality and I only picked up three, asking my wife if she would weigh them whilst I went back to the wine section for a bottle I particularly wanted to try and had forgotten. A Portuguese lady had obviously heard us talking, assumed we were tourists and, by gestures, indicated to my wife (who speaks almost no Portuguese) that she would weigh the bananas for her on the slightly complicated electronic scales this particular supermarket uses. The lady said nothing, just did the weighing, affixed the price ticket to the bag and smiled whilst returning them to my wife.

On our next trip to town we were in the same supermarket looking at several large jars of spices (from which you shovel out what you require) because my wife wanted to memorise the names of one or two she had forgotten – she reads Portuguese reasonably well, especially recipes. A young lady nearby said if we told her the English name for the spice we wanted she would identify it for us. My wife explained why she was looking at the labels, and the lady quickly went through them all, translating into English. In both cases typical Portuguese, always friendly, always giving useful help.

Portuguese roads are the best maintained of any I have ever seen. Little frost throughout most of the country is a great help. I drive to Lisbon airport, 236kms, half a dozen times a year to pick up and return family visitors. The A1 motorway ends about a quarter mile from the terminal buildings and it is rare not to be travelling at the permitted speed limit (it drops from 120 to 100 to 80kph in the final kilometre or so) when I exit for the terminal. The underground car park adjoining the terminal always has free spaces, and I have never been more than 100 metres from the arrivals/departure areas.

As with many countries Portugal has toll roads. I paid €25 for a little gadget that sticks to the windscreen behind the rear view mirror, and tolls (plus parking fees at certain parks including the airport) and any ferry journeys are taken direct from my bank account on a monthly basis. I do not have to stop at barriers to take a ticket that is then used to make payment further down the road, there is a lane without barriers purely for those who have these little gadgets.

Speed limits within towns and villages are readily controlled because there are traffic lights over the road that measure the speed of an oncoming vehicle and any over the speed limit are red-lighted and held up for about half a minute. I have never met anyone who has not exceeded a speed limit at some time, but few will go through a red light, so everyone observes the limits. The police use radar for spotting speedsters, but they publicly announce on which roads the radar traps will be for the following month. Again it means that people obey the limits along the roads where they know there will be traps somewhere.

A few weeks back I read that the UK is losing millions every year from foreign registered vehicles that are used there and do not pay road taxes. They are also often uninsured because of the problems of insuring non-registered vehicles. I know that some ex-pats, particularly British ones, bring vehicles here and fail to register them in Portugal within the 6 months grace period allowed. It is particularly prevalent in the Algarve, and so the police stake out places like supermarket car parks, record the date and number of foreign vehicles, and eventually take action if necessary, including seizing the vehicle. I have no sympathy for those who suffer from this attempt to cheat the Portuguese. I left my vehicle in the UK and bought a Portuguese one immediately upon arrival.

There are some drawbacks, of course, and we have had dealings with some businesses where the proprietor or staff make promises that they have no intentions of keeping. We have had four lawyers, two accountants, and four banks since we came here. I still use a firm of solicitors in England that I have been associated with for more than 50 years; use the same bank in Scotland that I joined more than 20 years ago when we returned from Australia, and the same solicitor there for the same time too although hopefully that firm will not be needed again until we eventually retire and go back. We have had dealings with a few other small businesses that accept work and fail to do it, or do not follow instructions. This is not a language problem. I am aware of a German couple who left the country because of the number of times this had happened to them.

Despite these few problems, many businesses and their staff have gone out of their way to help us, and so far as possible we pass on the names of these businesses to new immigrants. Many people from northern Europe move to Portugal to buy a plot of land and they want to grow some of their own food. The Remax estate agency in Castelo Branco often sends these people out to talk to us as we appear to be the only “estrangeiros” with previous farming experience.

The Remax people helped us with the language problem in the buying, registration and insuring of our vehicle in January 2003. It was 10 years old then. It failed to start one morning early in September.  Having little mechanical knowledge, I only knew it was a serious problem. When it happened I had to go along to the village a few kilometres away, and so took the tractor instead, thinking of what I could do to fix my problem with the car. In the village was a vehicle belonging to the place I bought the car from in 2003. I explained my problem and they took care of everything, including seeking us from home and taking us to the railway station a couple of days later so that we could travel to Lisbon for a flight back to the UK for our grand-daughter’s Christening. The car was ready when we came back, and I was very pleased with the bill. I had had no dealings with the business since buying the car and I consider that what they did went a long way beyond after-sales service.

Apart from the extremely pleasant and helpful population I also thoroughly enjoy excellent food and wine at almost giveaway prices. Just a few of the reasons why I like Portugal.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Old McDonald's Comfrey

As promised in my previous post a few days ago I have set up a new blog called Old McDonald's Comfrey - purely for the purpose of giving some suggestions on the use of dried comfrey.

Monday, 27 October 2014

More about Comfrey

Comfrey is never far from me – either physically or mentally. It is one of those neglected crops that every now and again have a very limited number of enthusiasts to promote their virtues, and yet they never become popular with many mainstream farmers. It is not a difficult crop to grow on a large scale, but it does need different management to most other farm crops grown for animal feed, and either needs to be fed fresh or mixed with some other crop for silage.

A few stalwarts carry on in a small way, but many growers neglect it after a while. Over the years I have seen sellers of root-sets and offsets, dried leaves and roots either cease business or show “out of stock” as a permanent notice and very few who continue. I am continually thinking of suitable mechanical methods of cutting and carting on a farm scale as livestock feed, but have not devised anything better than using a forage harvester that chops and loads directly into a wagon. This is suitable only for immediate feeding or ensiling. An alternative, when used as a mulch and fertiliser is to cut then pick up after wilting, although applying fresh cut leaves around trees in dry situations such as I have in the summer is my preferred use.

The best way to dry comfrey is to keep the leaves whole in a very shallow layer and turned frequently with great care to prevent shattering. Ideally they should be individually separated, but this is impossible except with only a few leaves. Bunched and hung up in a tobacco barn is feasible, but extremely labour intensive, and only suitable if you have a tobacco barn or something similar. I wilt in the field then use my numerous small olive harvesting boxes that have perforated bases and sides. Again, very labour intensive but the boxes are only used for olives in November and December when the comfrey is going into its dormant phase and not harvested.

The great problem for users of comfrey has often been that sellers and advisers do not know much about it, writing the most utter rubbish (often simply copied from other writings) about comfrey in general; Henry Doubleday and Lawrence Hills. I see the same misinformation time and time again, some even repeating articles that purport to be the writer’s own experiences of the crop. Sometimes sellers offer a specific cultivar, usually one of the Bocking series. I am always extremely suspicious of this in countries other than Britain, where Bocking 14 has been readily available for many years. Where did the plants originate? Who identified them?

I know comfrey is a wonderful plant, but I am sure it is not capable of making people into time travellers. I found one site referring to Doubleday in WWII - 40 years after he died, and here is an example from a site claiming to be a Herbal Encyclopaedia:

During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, an Englishman named Henry Doubleday became convinced that the world could be saved from hunger and suffering by using comfrey. He established a charitable organization to research the cultivation and use of the plant that exists to this day and continues to publish pamphlets and books on its usage.

Henry Doubleday’s interest in comfrey was as a source of glue that could be used on postage stamps. He did not import what a century later became classified as Symphytum x uplandicum from Russia until about 1870. His earlier connection with potatoes was that he set up a factory in England to make starch from them. It was some years after his glue idea that he apparently saw the possibility of it as a source of human food, but it seems it remained only an idea. Unfortunately all his notes were destroyed after his death and it is not possible to know what his thoughts were. Lawrence Hills, in the 1950s, founded the research association to which he gave Doubleday’s name because of his work with comfrey.  For accurate historical information use Lawrence Hills’ works as your source, although it appears the botanic nomenclature was not settled when Hills wrote his books.

Many sites show photographs of a comfrey plant in its red or blue flowering phase and refer to it as S.officinale (Common Comfrey) when it is most obvious that it is not. They then claim that it does not set seed. Common Comfrey, as can be guessed from its name, sets seed profusely and will rapidly spread in a garden or field. Its flowers are white/cream/yellow. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that you will come across the red/purple flowered variant. Most other comfreys also set large amounts of viable seed. If you are growing comfrey to use either for animals or plants it should never be allowed to flower anyway. Flowering seriously reduces the productivity of the plant.  

Further misinformation arises when the writer has no idea about fertilisers. They confuse ratios of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium with percentages, comparing them as if they were the same thing and then spout forth about this being better than that, and how to make use of them. This is especially true of those promoting the use of comfrey. Part of the reason for this, although inexcusable by anyone who claims to advise on fertiliser use,  is the habit of some fertiliser sellers showing analyses of their products as, for example 5:10:10. The sign : between two numbers means that they are in this ratio to each other.  Agricultural and horticultural convention is 5-10-10 and also to show the constituents as N-P-K in that order, with other nutrients also shown as their elemental symbol, e.g S and Ca for Sulphur and Calcium.

For those who do not know, 5-10-10 means that the package contains 5% Total Nitrogen 10% Phosphate and 10% Potash. Nitrogen is the total of Nitrical and Ammoniacal; Phosphate is Phosphorus Pentoxide and Potash is Potassium Oxide. I suggest you read professionally written technical fertiliser articles if you require more detail about mineral or organic fertilisers and their availability to plants. A good starting point is the online available UK DEFRA manual RB209 “Fertiliser Recommendations for Agricultural and Horticultural Crops”. It is highly recommended to commercial growers, but only to those dedicated home growers with a thirst for knowledge.

The ratio of N:P:K in a 5-10-10 fertiliser is 1:2:2 but a ratio is meaningless if you want to know how much of that particular fertiliser to apply. You need the figures 5-10-10 or whatever the analysis is. Knowledgeable people can make use of the information and then make their own calculations based on the N-P-K percentages. Occasionally it will be found that some writers put Potassium in the middle. I have even seen this in agricultural books when the author discusses various fertilisers in the order Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus. This is also inexcusable, and has given rise to some articles where I have seen the symbol for Potassium given as P and Phosphorus as K. Organic fertilisers (such as comfrey, meat and bone meal or seaweed) are described in the same way as mineral fertilisers so that users know their analysis and can make use of the information.

I use fresh and dried comfrey. I have made liquid from comfrey but found it did not suit my management systems. Liquid is obtained from the pressed leaves and stems. A favourite instruction is to dilute the liquid obtained from comfrey until it is “the colour of weak tea”. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen this quote. It is sometimes accompanied by “that is about 10:1” or 20:1 or 40:1. There is a big difference between 10:1 and 40:1. Even well-known gardening personalities come out with this nonsense. It is equally as bad as advising the use of a manufactured fertiliser by saying put “some” on your land. You have no idea what you are feeding your plants. The nutrients in a concentrated comfrey liquid are variable to begin with. The amounts in any given sample of fresh material will be different to another sample (more so if grown on a different site) and the moisture content, up to 90%, will also differ. Wilting the leaves is generally advised before pressing, but again how much water is left?

The agricultural college in Castelo Branco analyses comfrey leaves for me in the same way as they analyse olive and almond leaves to assist in assessing fertiliser requirements for the grove or orchard. It is unable to analyse the liquid and that is another reason I do not use it. It is possible to have a liquid analysed, but not locally. I would need to do some calculations based on the dried material of a wilted sample used for pressing in order to have an idea of the liquid analysis. Highly inaccurate, but the best I could do, and given the variability in starting water content of “wilted” leaves it is not good enough for me.

At the same time, if you grow comfrey on a garden or allotment scale, then making liquid concentrate may suit you rather than using the leaves fresh or drying them and a few years experience of using your own materials and methods should be enough that you know how to use it for your own crops. Analyses of leaves and liquid are very expensive (several times more than soil analyses) and possibly not justified for home use. I am on a bigger scale and using it for commercial crops. I am about to offer dried leaves for sale too, so I need to be able to calculate my own applications to plants, and to guide customers. Consequently I need the analyses.

I took samples from August and September cuts of the 2014 crop, did a thorough mixing, and had some analysed. These are the dried leaves I will be selling over the 2014-15 winter and spring. There will be a little variation in the analysis of a plant between the several cuts in a season and I will analyse more in 2015. It will take me a little while from posting this blog before the website is updated to include the comfrey. I will make an announcement here and also set up a dedicated blog that will give some suggestions on using the dried leaves – based on the latest analyses I have. I do not expect them to change to the extent that general advice needs to be changed, but it will be of interest to some amateur growers of comfrey to see if the analyses change.

What the present analyses have shown me is that I can provide all the P and K I need for my trees, and I expect (but do not know for certain) all the trace elements too, solely from comfrey. But not sufficient N. A large quantity of comfrey is required, and my original thoughts were to grow comfrey in the tree lines to make use of the fertilisers applied to the land and not utilised by the trees and also to eliminate carting of the cut comfrey used as mulch for the trees. Unfortunately despite my best endeavours to keep the tree lines clean, I am finding that birds are bringing in seeds and dropping them as they roost in the tree branches. I like to see the wide range of birds that inhabit my olive groves but blackberries and some of the bigger perennial and annual weeds are particularly troublesome.

I have reluctantly decided I would be unable to keep the olives, almonds and comfrey sufficiently weed free, and need to grow the comfrey on a dedicated area. If you have a few fruit trees, then you probably have the space for comfrey too. Think about growing a few comfrey plants close to each tree, specifically for the purpose of mulching the trees. 50kgs of fresh leaves is the minimum amount you will need for each medium sized productive tree. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014


Those of you who have my book will know that the simple recipes at the end have been modified by my wife from more complicated ones. They are quicker, cheaper and easier to make than the originals. They taste better too, because they have been adjusted to suit us. You will also know that whenever possible she makes the recipes flexible so that you are not tied to specific weights or ingredients and you can change them to suit you.

It does mean you need a little cooking experience, or are prepared to experiment. You will soon learn how to modify them, and there are always opportunities to change things as you go. Building in the safeguard of being able to make changes part way through means that tips on how and when to do it need to be included in the instructions.

One important point to note is that unlike almost all recipes for piccalilli this one does not have the vegetables coated in salt overnight. In fact there is no added salt. It is not necessary because of the other flavours. It is also a lot healthier than the salt laden versions. The amount of sugar in many recipes is also excessive. This is the typical “bad” manufactured food scenario - lots of both salt and sugar.

If you are in the northern hemisphere, now or in the next few weeks is the time of year when you (or a friendly neighbour) can supply most of the ingredients from vegetables in the garden – or buy them at their cheapest if you have no garden.

The two things you need to make vegetables into piccalilli are vinegar and spice. We use white wine vinegar because that is what is available in Portugal, but use whatever you have. The British brown malt vinegar is what my mother always used and the only difference is that it makes the sauce darker. The one essential spice is turmeric powder. Everything else is optional. I prefer some mustard seeds too, or you could use powdered mustard. Coriander seeds, powdered ginger and other spices are frequently used in more complicated recipes. The choice is up to you. Use what you like.

Marrows or courgettes tend to overwhelm anybody who grows them, and many gardeners have a few plants. They soon grow bigger than is suitable for a single meal and piccalilli is often the only thing that these fruits are used for in a household. They are also very cheap in shops that stock them. Onions, cucumbers (or gherkins) and cauliflower are traditionally used in addition to the marrows or courgettes. I think it would not be the same without onions and cauliflower. Further options are green tomatoes, French beans, runner beans, peppers (either sweet or hot depending upon your taste) capers and garlic. Omitting the overnight salting means you can have the piccalilli ready in under an hour after you have prepared the vegetables. We do feel that a small amount of sugar enhances the flavours.

Before making the first batch this year we did an internet search and looked at numerous recipes. Most had far too much salt, and only one confirmed our opinion that salt should be omitted. That was on the website of the supermarket chain Waitrose. We saw recipes that use nasturtium pods instead of capers. Carrots occasionally appear in recipes too. Some used weights, others referred to large, medium or small vegetables.
You might want some guidance on quantities to use. The ratio of vegetables to vinegar varied a lot in the recipes we saw, from less vinegar than vegetables to twice as much. Have available a bit more than half the weight of vinegar to vegetables for your first attempt, although it is unlikely you will need it all. Vinegar weighs 1kg per litre, 20ozs (one and one quarter pounds) per British pint, and one pound per US pint. We also suggest no more than 1oz of sugar per pound of vegetables or 55g per kilo – and use a lot less ourselves. We are not being diet goody-goodies, we just think that sweet piccalilli is not right. If you want sweet pickles then make chutney and not piccalilli.

Make sure you have sufficient sterilised jars with non-corrosive lids for the batch being made. Know the capacity of the jars and allow one spare over the combined weight of vegetables and vinegar. You might not need it. They must be kept hot because the newly made piccalilli will be close to boiling point when it is transferred to them.

Our main purpose for a recent batch was to use up an overgrown courgette and excess cucumbers. So, we used 1 large cauliflower, 250g/half a pound of French beans and 2 big Onions in a total weight of 6.5kgs/14lbs of vegetables in their fresh natural state. The single courgette we used was close to 6lbs (2.5kgs) so comprised about 40% of the total weight. Cucumbers brought the total to 6.5kgs. We had not previously used French beans and are not impressed. They add nothing to the flavour and we will not use them again.

We had added 5 large garlic cloves to an earlier batch of about half the quantity plus about half a jar of leftover capers, and I like that. We decided on 2litres of vinegar which is a lot less than any recipe we have seen, and is about one third of the weight of the prepared vegetables. We made the decision because the courgette and cucumbers were harvested from the garden immediately before being prepared and we knew they would contain a lot of liquid. With other vegetables you might need more. The starting amount is not critical to success.  
You will see how to use the dry ingredients during the instructions below and we used 1 heaped tablespoon of Mustard seed, the same of turmeric powder, about 3ozs/90g of flour, and 150g/5ozs of white sugar. All these are less quantities than other recipes will state, but it was enough.  Keep the flour handy in case you decide to thicken the sauce some more, when a tiny further amount of turmeric can also be added.  More vinegar should be available to increase the quantity of sauce if you think it necessary at a later stage. Some prefer the sauce runny, and others for it not to drip off the bottom of a spoon dipped into a jar, and the quantity of liquid in your chosen vegetables will have some effect on the consistency, and quantity, of the sauce. 
Take some notes on what you use and how long various stages take. That way you can decide whether you want to change anything for the next batch. You will make more.

If you intend to weigh the vegetables do it before preparing them – it is easier. Cucumbers and large gherkins are best skinned, as the skins tend to be bitter and the bitterness can persist in the piccalilli. Small courgettes need not be skinned, but if large like the one we used they have tough skins. We peeled most of it but left the skin on a few pieces for additional colour. We also removed the central pith and seeds. Break the cauliflower into small florets and prepare and cut all the other vegetables into the size of pieces you want in the finished product. Keep each vegetable separate from the others. About half an inch or 1cm cubes suits most people, except for garlic if used, which many will like sliced small, or even crushed.

Heat the vinegar and sugar in a pan big enough to take all the vinegar and vegetables. Whilst the vinegar is heating mix the mustard, turmeric and flour into a smooth paste with some cold vinegar. Other seeds or spices that you want to include should also be mixed in this paste. Extra dry spices, or including peppers, will change the flavour. Bulk up the paste with hot vinegar from the pan. This ensures you have a smooth paste that will not go lumpy. It also thins the paste and makes it easier to pour.

Pour the paste into the pan of hot vinegar before it comes to the boil. The mixture, now a sauce, needs to be stirred continuously and heated to boiling point. It should be adjusted to the consistency you prefer. I am happy with it quite thin. You do not want it too watery, nor do you want too much of it. You want jars full of vegetables in sauce, not sauce with some vegetables, so be careful about adding extra vinegar, and remember the liquid that will come out of the vegetables, especially the cucurbits (marrow, courgette, cucumber). You can always add more flour and a touch of turmeric later if you want to thicken it more. The sauce should not quite cover the vegetables when all have been added to the pan, and you can increase the quantity of sauce at later stages. You always have room to manoeuvre.

Do not tip everything into the sauce willy-nilly. The reason for keeping them separate is so that you can add them in order to achieve equal crunchiness in the piccalilli. Onions are always first, and the sauce will drop in temperature and stop boiling. Stir each vegetable into the sauce as you go. When one is thoroughly coated, add the next, but there is no need to rush. Cauliflower follows the onions, then any other hard vegetables such as carrots. These are followed by (if used) beans and peppers. Next comes the bulk - the cucurbits and finally garlic and capers. If the sauce is too thin for you, add more flour and turmeric paste, but remember you have to keep stirring it, so not too thick. 

Continue heating and stirring until the sauce returns to the boil. Liquid from the cucurbits will increase the amount of sauce, and the vegetables should have enough sauce to just cover them when boiling point is reached. If not, merely add some vinegar - and more flour paste if you want. Make sure it reaches boiling point again if you have added more vinegar or paste. You now have piccalilli. It can be removed from the heat now, which is what we do, or left to boil some more, but you must remove it from the heat before the vegetables become soft. A small number of minutes should be sufficient for anybody. Put the piccalilli in the hot sterilised jars immediately. Fill them right to the top and close the lids firmly. It will keep a long time. Some folks like to let the flavours mingle for a couple of weeks or more before using. As soon as it cools is long enough for me.