the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Treasure in the garden

The new rental gaff has not much in the way of a garden, but it has a three tiered patio system with a few beds, and is a definite sun trap so I’m already thinking tomatoes. There is also a little bodged wooden conservatory that will be great to bring on anything, as it is ferociously hot at the moment (and no doubt ear piercingly cold in the winter).

Before we get started though we discover amid the dandelions and other weeds, a few surprises left by the last tenant.

Prodigious quantities of mint. With the hot June/July sun, and a determination to keep up our good water drinking habits we developed while travelling in the campervan, Digger and I have taken to putting a sprig of this in a jug of water and leaving it on the dining table at all times. Tiddler not so keen, but we are keeping very mintly hydrated as a result.

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The forgotten veg patch. Leeks going to seed, potatoes and gnarly carrots- all a bit left to their own devices but I used to make a stock and soups.

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More herbs- Rosemary and thyme, evoking our Greek travels. The mug, a gift for me on Tiddler’s birth from a sadly now passed friend, M, the jokey slogan on it exactly her take on things to a tee.

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Flowers in need of some TLC

 

The best surprises though came in terms of the wildlife. Tiddler of course was straight in there, picking up all the snails, and her new favourite thing, these little critters.

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The birds flit from side to side in the overgrown hedges, and after a few days of putting out seed we see them gaining more confidence with the feeder, and grateful for the water. Robins, blackbirds, pigeons, and sparrows so far, and more that I am yet to identify. Skitter skitter skitter go their feet on the conservatory roof.

But the best is yet to come, as Tiddler runs in shouting ”I’ve seen a snake!” We hotfoot it out there fearing adders, but spot this female slowworm instead, and as the days go by we spot her and her other half on a regular basis, particularly in the early mornings before the sun is up, sunbathing themselves by the snapdragons.

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Tiddler and her cousins run wild as various forms of make believe wildlife themselves.

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Given that I have missed a lot of the planting slots, I cheat and head to a local plant sale to pick up a few established seedlings to replace the vegetables I have dug up. Tomatoes, courgettes and french beans to start with, I’ll let you know how it all goes if my not-sure-if-they-actually-are green fingers can get busy in between the obligatory slowworm hunting and woodlice husbandry.

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Summer in a bottle

Relishing the reality that we are now in a house, with a garden, and all our things around us that were in storage for a year while we roadtripped it around southern Europe, it was about time I got back in tune with my thrifty and self sufficient principles.

Job number one:
Elderflower cordial.
Digger rings me on his lunch break. “I’m cutting a hedge around a house that backs onto a field. There are elderflowers. Do you want some?”
I dial up on google and see that a typical recipe requires 25 ‘umbrella heads’ of the tiny fruity smelling white flowers. I relay this to Digger.
Digger returns with a carrier bag squashed full of heads.’I got bored of counting but I figured it will just make it taste more intense. Let’s whack them all in.’
We don’t have any citric acid, so we steep the heads overnight in boiling water and dissolved sugar with double the quantity of  lemon juice and sliced rind to try and balance out the recipe without it.

Preparing the heads


Adding the lemony zing


Letting it stew


Straining it out


The finished article
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A little bit cloudy but looked fine when diluted with sparkling water for a little bit of summer bubbles. We also had a further four jam jars full which have gone into the freezer to be defrosted at a later date. Rumour has it in the fridge the cordial will last for up to five weeks, but it was finished off by a thirsty Digger and Tiddler far quicker than that. Delicious.

Any thoughts please on your elderflower recipes and experiments? I’m keen to try an make a sparkling elderflower champagne next year!


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How to set up a life in three weeks

Landing on the wharf in the UK with nothing at all concrete about where we would live, what we would do, how things would work out, it has all gone rather swimmingly well:

1. I was incredibly seasick and suffered for 10 days with mal de debarquement after our 23 hour ferry crossing returning from our road trip across Europe. Tiddler kept herself amused with Granny and Papa Westcountry who were hosting us. Leo remained packed, our stuff remained in storage, and we lived out of a bag of ‘stuff’ in my parent’s spare room.
2. Ten hours after arriving, Digger secured himself 4 days a week work gardening/landscaping with a local company. (We arrived at 11pm, and he went for an interview at 9am the following morning. Thankfully gardening type interviews are not that fussed if you turn up looking like you have just lived in a campervan for a month. Fortunately).
3. Five days after returning, I went for a whole day interview at a school round the corner from my parents (rather more formally attired than Digger had been). This included two observed lessons aswell as the formal interview, all of which was rather tricky when my sea legs meant I felt I was on the swell every time I moved an inch. Despite my fear of looking like I was bobbing up and down worse than the Churchill dog, I succeeded, and will be on a one year contract (part time) from September 2018 teaching my subject, geography. Tiddler will be able to attend a preschool on the same site, so all is looking rosy as long as I can keep her entertained till then.
4. After the interview, Digger and I meet up to view a rental property. It is pokey and small and we cannot believe the prices in this locality. The estate agent however turns out to be an old flame of sorts of my sister, and he suggests we look across the road at a property on for more money. He doesn’t have the keys on him so we peer through the window. and jimmy open the back gate. We phone up the following morning and offer 10% less than the asking price, given that we can move in immediately. The landlord jumps at the chance.
5. The following Friday we move in, after much messing about as everyone’s computer says no. We have no income records for the last year. Digger”s records of employment are from our little island and the checks won’t go outside the UK. Digger doesn’t have a bank account ( he couldn’t open one in the UK last summer without ID, and he couldn’t get ID without a UK utility bill, or UK driving licence). Our credit rating is not actually low, it just simply doesn’t exist in their paper trail. Eventually estate agent ex lover-boy and landlord see sense and knock all of that on the head. I’m a teacher gawd darnit; I must be respectable.
6. Leo comes into his own again, as he now doubles as a removal van. Fourteen days after our arrival in the UK we spend our first night in our new home, albeit sleeping on Leo’s mattresses on the floor. We have no furniture.
7. My good friend puts out a plea on social media, that is answered with a rally cry from this market town that is very bohemian/hipster/new age and more. As she puts it, ‘Wow, when I moved there I really had to up my game to stand out!’. I scour the freebie sites and those on facebook buying and selling. I raid my parents shed. In the end we get for absolute free, by hook or by crook: a dining table, 4 dining chairs, a leather sofa, a footrest, a flatscreen TV (Digger thinks he’ll hook it up to the laptop- we don’t have a licence and not had a TV at home for years, but it was offered with the sofa so we didn’t want to say no), a dresser, a bureau, a single bed and mattress, a wicker chair, a sewing machine table to double as a desk, a office chair, a slimline dishwasher, a tiny freezer, a chest of drawers, curtains and a potted geranium.
We cough up 50 pounds for a washing machine, 20 pounds for a fridge, and eventually a whopping 379 for the most beautiful mattress in the world. We are still sleeping on it on the floor though as I type this. No progress on the bed front, but it is far more comfortable than Leo’s mattresses that had to be bound in place with a strategically placed fitted sheet to prevent Digger waking up on the other side of the room at 3am.
(Please excuse the lack of pound signs- this is being typed on Digger”s Bulgarian keyboard and I can’t find the symbol!)
8. We spend time with old friends. We scour the lists of playgroups, and events, and programmes and try them all. The weather burns bright and hot. We plant french beans, and courgettes in the garden, and set up buckets of tomato plants in the conservatory. We relax.
9. Digger gets the first of word-of-mouth work, and takes on additional private customers and odd jobs on top of his four days. I sign up for a Saturday summer job, being a housekeeper for a three bedroom house that is moonlighting as a holiday cottage. The owners are due to set off on a road trip through Europe at the end of July, and the house is let every week through till October. I offer them tips of life on the road, and they promise to pay me to keep their guests happy. Digger plans on having Saturday as a Bulgarian language day for him and Tiddler, but we still have to see how it all pans out. We are in the finer points of negotiation at the moment, such as whether the welcome tea tray should have biscuits or scones on it. They are the other end of the spectrum from us, with our free furniture and converted minibus. I shall think of them off in their deluxe van while I am busy polishing the fiddly bits on their grandfather clocks.

To do list:
Get Digger a work van. Poor Leo is not cut out for all that green waste on his lovely carpet, and branches up his inner cupboards.
Get the garage sorted as Digger’s man lair i.e. wood workshop.
Get crafting- what can I sell alongside his wooden toys to make some cash on the side?
Get back into our thrifty ways. I have a whole 379 pounds worth of mattress to offset. I’ve made a start with making elderflower cordial yesterday.
Look for a house we can buy. Not here as it is too expensive. Maybe across the county borders, somewhere with a bit of land, with some potential. And so you see dear readers, when people comment that Tiddler seems very confident and well adjusted for a child who has undergone a lot of different places and people, we reply, that for her change is the norm. Digger however has put his steel toe-capped foot down.
“This is the last house move I make, until we move into our own house”
“Aha” I say, “change is the norm”


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Nuts! Ohhhhhh, Hazelnuts!

Digger and Tiddler have both been confined to their sick beds this last week, and in between administering medicine, tissues and general sympathy, I’ve not had much time to call my own. This little post then is a sum up of previous enterprises in the kitchen, given some of the wonderful ingredients that we have been fortunate to have supplied from Diado and Baba’s stockpile of homegrown and foraged foods. Many of these cooking items may seem run-of-the-mill to some of our readers across the pond, but tend to be either seasonal and/or expensive back in the UK so I’ve been enjoying experimenting with something I perceive as a bit of a treat. A good thrifter of course should never ever waste food, so what better than to cook up a glut of something into something delicious, and save money on our food bill at the same time. My challenge then was to find recipes with butternut squash, honey, walnuts and hazelnuts as the main ingredients, and given that we have no weighing scales here I’m going with the cup measuring system, or the more generalised lets-chuck-it-in-and-see-if -it-works approach.
If anyone has any other tried and tested suggestions for recipes with these ingredients please drop your ideas into the comments section. Thank you!

WALNUTS

Bulgaria has a very famous use for walnuts in tarator, a yogurt soup. While this mix of yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill and walnuts is delicious enough on a summer’s day when temperatures can often reach above 40C, a cold soup doesn’t really take my fancy at this time of year. So once Tiddler and I have spent a goodly time cracking the nuts, and then picked all the bits of the floor and hoiked out the ones that have rolled under the fridge, we have a stab at something a bit more warming.

 

Sweet potato, walnut and thyme soup.
1 large sweet potato (or similar quantity butternut squash)
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
half cup red split lentils
splash of olive oil
1 cup walnuts
tbsp of thyme (or dill)
salt/pepper
litre of water

I chopped it all very roughly, boiled it all up (add walnuts halfway through), and for Tiddler to eat it we blended it up with a hand blender, but it could have been finely chopped and left as a more rustic soup. The freshly shelled walnuts had a very high oil content and made a deliciously smooth and creamy texture to the dish.

 

 

Banana and walnut cake/bread
3 bananas
half a cup butter
4 tablespoons of Diado’s own honey
1tsp vanilla essence
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 egg
brown sugar

Melt butter and honey in a saucepan, mash in the banana, add in all other ingredients. put in lined cake tin and sprinkle brown sugar (and cinnamon if desired) over the top. 180C for an hour.

 

 

HAZELNUTS

Date and hazelnut bombs
In an attempt to make Tiddler something without processed sugar in, and a suitable snacking food for me too, we came up with this little gem. It was fairly time consuming given that I don’t have a food processor, and ended up having to squeeze the dates through a garlic press, but the finished product were delicious and lasted very well despite my constant visits to the fridge while they were there!
Digger assisted by producing some sort of 1970’s plastic gadget from a cupboard that turned out to be a hand-operated nut grinder. Who would have thought such things existed, and I was charmed by the kitsch-ness of it all. I had to fight Digger away from it so I could have a go at turning the handle myself.

dates
raisins
roasted hazelnuts
spoon of honey

Chop/grind everything up and mix it with a dab of honey if necessary (optional addition is add in some cocoa powder but I felt the roasted hazelnuts gave enough of a chocolaty vibe).  Shape into little balls and chill, wherein the ‘bombs’ firm up and become an ideal snacking go to. Feel free to vary the dried fruit/nuts according to taste.

 

 

Hazelnut, coconut and honey biscuits

1 cup flour
1/2 cup cornflour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter
3 large dollops of honey
1/2 cup desicated coconut
1tsp vanilla essence
1 cup roasted and chopped hazelnuts

Mix dry goods together. Melt honey and butter in saucepan and add coconut to soak. Mix all, shape into rounds. 180C 15 mins. These, did not last more than 20 minutes. We discovered, as they are quite a dry/biscotti-like texture they are the bees-knees with a cup of coffee.

 

 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH

We have been eating a lot of butternut soup already, or cubed and roasted butternut with a baby leaf salad is my other favourite, but I needed a bit more of a challenge.

Butternut squash cheesecake
12 oat biscuits (or Digestives for the UK folk)
half cup roasted hazelnuts
5 tbsp butter
1 tbsp sugar
Melt butter and sugar, stir in crushed biscuits and nuts, flatten into a lined cake tin and bake blind for five minutes.
3 x 8oz cream cheese packs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup pureed roasted butternut squash
3 eggs
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
Mix all these ingredients together to form a smooth paste, layer over the top of the biscuit base. 180C 60 mins.
Beautiful.

 


Butternut and cheese scones
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal or wholemeal flour
half cup butter
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 cup roasted pureed butternut squash
1 1/2 cup grated cheese
milk

Rub flour and other dry ingredients into butter.  Stir in squash and most of cheese, milk if necessary. Roll out, cut, sprinkle a few pieces of cheese on top. 210C fan, 20 mins.

Tiddler was a dab hand at doing the cutting out for these, and then decided she wanted to make a tiger. The colour theme worked very well and we added raisins for the eyes.

 

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As always, there is just as much fun in the making as there is in the eating!


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Initiation into a Bulgarian Christmas

Having now lived through our take on a Bulgarian Christmas, here’s a little update on our celebrations- I’ve been giving Digger the Bulgarian Inquisition and have tried to make sense of it all!
We started early with indulgent food right at the beginning of the month on December 6th, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Now in the UK we tend to know the story of St. Nicholas leaving (or throwing over a wall) a purse of coins for a poor family, and hence the legend of Santa Claus began, even though he didn’t end up as the bearded, red and white figure of today until marketing and consumerism really got involved, although this image of him looks like he pretty much had his style down pat.
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Here in Bulgaria he is known as Saint Nikola, and the day is Nikulden. He is venerated as a the protector of fisherman, sailors, travelers and hunters, the master of the underwater world, and folklore includes a tale of how he plugged the bottom of a storm-broken boat with fish from the ocean, and thus saved the lives of everyone on board. Dinner on the 6th must include carp, (sometimes baked in dough to form a ribnik), and bogovitsa bread (bog=god).

(credit for bread images from zanus.eu, snimka.bg, moreto.net)

Traditionally, the bones of the carp must be thrown back into flowing water to allow continuing fertility and prosperity, apart from the head bone which was sewn into children’s clothing to protect them from the evil eye. Now we certainly didn’t go that far, as I personally was not that keen to have Tiddler walking around smelling of fish and acting as a street cat magnet!

This feast day is especially important to us though, as is it also the name-day of Digger’s brother in Canada. Name-days (imen den) are a curious phenomena, and anyone who is named after Nikola, or a derivation e.g. Nikolai, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina, Nina gets to have a day of celebration. Digger actually gets more phone calls and messages on his name-day than he does on his actual birthday. So we drank a toast of rakia (Diado’s eye-wateringly strong homemade fruit brandy) to Digger’s brother, and then ate plenty of cake on his behalf while we chatted over Skype.
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Christmas itself though, while clearly celebrated in Bulgaria, is less ‘in your face’ than Christmas back home. We did see Christmas lights on houses and a tree and sledge display in town, baubles on trees in peoples gardens, shops selling tinsel and reindeer deely bobbers, but there was not the ever present Christmas tunes in the shops, the constant stuffing our faces with mince pies, and the endless craft fairs and Santa’s grottos.

Let me revise that, I tried to find a Santa grotto or a fair to take Tiddler to, but in our provincial town Christmas entertainment was limited. Fortunately, her nursery school organised a party with a visit from Santa (one of the dads) so she got the experience. The system here was parents provided a gift in advance for their own child to be handed out by Santa, and my only comment on that was clearly when Bulgarians give gifts in public, bigger is most certainly the better. Thankfully, Tiddler didn’t clock on to this, and was more than happy with her reasonably sized gift of a board game from us.
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In general, I would say the whole build up to Christmas by Bulgarians was very refined and calm. Snow fell, and people did their shopping without any chaos or upset (as far as I could observe). Not so the British ex-pats living in the area. Panic stations!
From as early as November, ex-pats on Bulgarian facebook groups have been advertising ‘man and van’ runs to the UK, where people can place orders for food or other items. This clearly happens throughout the year anyway if someone is making the journey, but the Christmas orders were coming in thick and fast if the comments were anything to go by. People were requesting mince pies, quality streets, chocolate oranges, jars of cranberry sauce, christmas crackers and so much more. Familiar food from home was clearly an essential luxury, and the ex-pats are willing to pay the shop prices, plus the added purchase/delivery charge for the service that was being provided. Others were busy arranging pick up and drop off points for the van drivers to send and collect presents from family back home. There was a flurry of posts. Nearer to the big day, the concern took a worrying shift closer to home as the perishable goods needed to be sourced.

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I’ve decided the way for Bulgaria to boost its flailing economy is clearly to go into sprout production. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t track any down in our smaller town, so I had to resign myself to a sprout-less Christmas dinner. Digger seems ever so slightly happy at that prospect.

Christmas proper then starts in Bulgaria not on the 25th, but on Christmas Eve. This is a time the family to cook a special evening meal, which has very specific requirements. Firstly, plan wisely, as you need an odd number of people to sit down at your table. We ended up with seven at the table at Diado’s house, as Digger’s aunt, uncle, cousin and wife arrived from Sofia for the holidays, piling out of the car laden down with bags and boxes of food. It was like a vehicular cornucopia exploding into rural V_L_.
The meal is strictly vegetarian (following the Orthodox 40 day advent fast, though we have not kept that of course), and also must include an odd number of dishes often up to thirteen in number, traditionally salads, bean soup, walnuts, unleavened bread (with a coin baked inside) and sarmi (stuffed vine and cabbage leaves), fruit compote and baklava. Straw is pushed under the table cloth to guarantee a good harvest next year, and the dishes and table at the end of the meal was left as it was overnight, in order for any ancestors to come and share any of the remaining food. It sounded slightly creepy to me, and clearly adds extra work to the christmas morning kitchen chores, but we were back in the apartment by that time so no ghostly visits at all. Just Santa, and of course that is perfectly normal.

Following this, Midnight mass is usual, but we settled for a christmas morning service instead with Tiddler, and even then she didn’t last the whole time. She managed to mistake the three priests for the three wise men as they went in procession, spent some time holding a random lady’s hand a few pews ahead of us, and then faked a coughing fit when the incense was swung from the censer. On her way out she bumped into the devotional candle stands and nearly took that out too.
For our first visit to a Bulgarian Orthodox service, I understood the confusion. People were wandering around, coming in late, and then kissing things. Other people were taking photographs of the priests. Things were going on behind the iconostasis and she wanted to see. Other people were chanting and singing up high up in the eaves and she thought the angels had arrived. Digger didn’t help by muttering how miserable everyone looked, and grumbling that I’d made us all come in the first place. ‘I can’t understand the point of a service that is just all chanting and formulaic fancy words’ he says in a stage whisper. Old grannies turn and look at us.

Back to the kitchen quickly then, as we needed to prepare for dinner for twelve. Although I had explained I was doing the dinner, everyone ignored that and turned up with enough food to keep Digger and I in leftovers for the next two weeks. We sat down to start eating at 12.30, and finally cleared away at 5pm. Bulgarians NEED rakia to start a meal, and they need salad to go with that, so they’d munched their way through three enormous enamel serving bowls of cucumber and fennel salad, crab and apple salad, and pasta and pickled gherkin salad before we even got to their main course. Turkey (first time ever cooking by me), lemon and thyme stuffing, pigs in blankets (that created much amusement of the funny English ways), parsnips, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli (no sprouts to be found near us!) and sauces and trimmings. Diado didn’t think was sufficient so had brought a huge earthern pot filled with pork stew, the usual Bulgarian Christmas day main, so everyone ate some of that too. After this, plates of salami and banitsa on the table. After this, nuts and raisins and fruit. After this, finally, gin trifle and yule log (from me) and gifted cream cake and baklava that we really didn’t need but ate anyway. Followed by wine and whiskey.

Our little rotund tummies eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, with so many visitors, there was plenty of help with washing up at least. Digger and I, stupefied by food and exhaustion, silently surveyed the remains after everyone had gone home. I ask him the general verdict, having missed most of the conversation as it was predominantly in Bulgarian. ‘All good’, he says, ‘they’ll be back for breakfast’.

Link to list of Bulgarian name-days.
Nikulden recipes
Link for more information on Bulgarian Orthodox churches