Renaissance Women

May Session – Bees

Ah, May, oh so long ago, I barely remember you. I do remember some things about the bee workshop, however. Like, bees are interesting.

Actually, bees are incredible. We’ve all heard some random amazing snippets about bees – ever see the youtube video of the Japanese bees vibrating to kill the invading wasp (I do sort of feel bad for the wasp – not a nice way to go)? We know that bees are the master pollinators that keep our gardens and fields growing, but these little ladies are also a genetic marvel.

The idea of the workshop was to help demystify the idea of bee-keeping for those of us who might be thinking about the delights of fresh honey from our own backyards. At least, that’s what I think the workshop was meant to be about, but I’m not about to run out and get some bees anytime soon. John might, though.

Our facilitators were amazing. They welcomed us into their home on a rainy day and showed us a slide show explaining how hives work and how bees pollinate plants and make honey. They were a wealth of knowledge about bees, and we had a lot of questions. Maeve (fellow Renaissance Woman), answers many of these questions on her blog: http://cowichandale.com/2011/05/15/the-queen-bees-broken-appendage/, so I will focus on my reaction to the workshop rather than the details which I can’t really remember and would have to plagiarize anyway.

This workshop frightened me. John had been interested in keeping bees for a while, and having seen Jen work with the hives at Growing Opportunities, I was supportive. After this workshop, I wanted John to join the local beekeepers club before diving in, and contrary to our Renaissance Women ideology, I wanted him to do it – not me. A couple of weeks later, our Cowichan Agricultural Society toured a different local bee farm, and John and I learned some more. We found out how fragile these hives can be, and how detrimental it can be to bee populations in the entire region if you mismanage yours, and this all made me feel a little overwhelmed. Bees wander up to 5 km away from their hive when searching for nectar, so disease in your hive can spread to all of your neighbours’ hives, and then their neighbours’ hives before you even know your hive is unhealthy. Yikes – considering how important bees are for farmers, this is scary.

At the same time – keeping bees would be extremely rewarding. Not only would you get some of that delicious honey, but you would feel good helping the plants and playing a role in supporting pollination.

I guess the main thing this workshop showed me was that if I even want to keep bees, I need to learn as much about it as possible. My usual farming experimentation would be too dangerous here, and neglect is not an option (like it can be for some of our crops).

I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment. I will be ready to support John when he is, though.

April Session – Kombucha and Fermented Soda

Kombucha

I first tried kombucha last summer when Jen brought some to a grow op (see www.growopfarm.ca) work day. I wasn’t overly impressed that day, and couldn’t really understand why someone would go to the trouble of procuring a “mother” and fermenting a beverage over a week in order to drink it. I think the discussion about its health benefits registered in my mind as something like, “blah blah blah… good for you….blah blah blah…”, so it wasn’t high on my list of things to learn more about (it was a hot day).

It turns out that kombucha was a bit of an acquired taste for me… after Joan moved in with us, she brought her slimy kombucha mother (or SCOBY) and I gave it another try. When it is on the sweeter side and nice and cool from the fridge, it is a refreshing drink with an interesting and ever-changing flavour.

So, having also tried some of the fermented sodas that Heather has been producing, I was really looking forward to understanding a bit more about these fermented beverages that I apparently could feel good about drinking.

Holly, our wonderful facilitator, put together an amazing workshop that somehow showed all of us (I think we had 14 or all 15 of us there) how to make our own sodas and kombucha, while also convincing us of the health benefits of consuming beneficial bacteria.

We’ve all heard about the problems of living in too sanitized an environment, but for some of us, it can still be difficult to accept the idea of adding bacteria to our diet. Others, like my father (just ask him about his homemade sauerkraut – I dare you), embrace the concept and can report the amazing effects of cultivating and eating these lifeforms. Although I have now read that the health benefits of kombucha are not validated by scientific study, I am more than willing to believe in the anecdotal evidence of its purported detoxifying and digestion-enhancing properties. Of course, if it tasted bad, I really wouldn’t bother, no matter how good-for-you people said it was.

So, how does one make this refreshing, potentially life-changing beverage? First, you get a mother from one of your progressive (or regressive, depending on your point of view) friends. She (or he, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with she) will be happy to provide you with one of her SCOBY babies, as she will likely be producing them on a weekly basis. Then, you brew some tea in some sugar water (one quart of water for one cup of sugar and 5-7 tea bags). We steep the tea for 15 minutes. We put half a gallon of water in a gallon jar, add the tea, and then put in the SCOBY baby (which is now technically a mother) with whatever liquid she has been stored in. Try not to make too many icky faces while handling the slimy SCOBY or no one in your house will try the finished beverage – actually, that would leave more for you, so maybe that is a good strategy. Finally, you put a covering (possibly a paper towel… not airtight) over the jar and let it sit in a warmish spot for a week or so. Your SCOBY will produce a baby over that time, floating on the service, as she eats the tea and sugar and produces the kombucha.

Holly told us that the caffeine and sugar is mostly gone from the tea, so you are left with a guilt-free beverage. Some people report getting a little kick from kombucha, but I haven’t noticed anything other than the normal mouth reawakening that comes with drinking anything refreshing and cool. The wikipedia page on kombucha doesn’t mention caffeine, either, so I think it is safe. People do recommend that pregnant women or anyone with suppressed immune systems not start drinking kombucha, however, as there is some concern about the detoxifying effect. Or something.

To make a long story slightly shorter – my kombucha is still going, even though Joan still has hers on the go. This means that we now have a bit more kombucha being brewed than we likely need, but it’s better than running out. I definitely drink less pop now, too; although I have to confess to downing a Dr. Pepper at work the other day when I was feeling a little foggy.

We also learned how to make a lacto-fermented beverage – rosehip hisbiscus soda.

Rosehip Hibiscus Soda

I just love this stuff. I haven’t been able to make it since the workshop, however, as it contains whey, and I don’t want to make it until John is allowed to have some dairy again. It just seems cruel.

We get the whey from straining yogurt. I have done this before in order to get delicious creamy yogurt cheese, but at that time, I didn’t know what to do with this strange liquid by-product. In this workshop, the cheese was the by-product of getting the whey. Perspective is a funny thing, sometimes.

We added water, lemon, honey, rosehips and hisbiscus, and then we sealed the container for three days. At that point, we strained the liquid and put it into bottles designed to hold carbonation (i.e. sparkling water bottles). After another couple of days, we transfer the bottles to the fridge, and when we are thirsty, we carefully open the bottle and enjoy the delicious soda. I say carefully because the natural carbonation is really quite impressive and you will end up with a sticky floor if you are a little too cavalier in your treatment of the beverage.

I don’t remember if there were many health benefits mentioned for these sodas, but that may be because I just found them so delicious, and knowing the ingredients, I know I am better off drinking these than the sugar-laden pops of the store.

This workshop was truly amazing for me because I never thought that making beverages could be so interesting and rewarding. I probably would never have thought to take a workshop on fermented beverages on my own, so I am glad that I was outvoted on this one and got to experience this with a group of interesting women. If you haven’t started your own Renaissance Women group, yet – what are you waiting for?

March Session – Sewing from a Pattern

OK – so I took home ec in grade seven like everyone else, where I learned how to sew a perfectly useless windsock. Unsurprisingly, this experience did not sow in me a love for the stitch (heh heh). A few years later, after some mild success patching together a Halloween costume on my mother’s neglected machine, I thought I could throw together a simple sundress out of some material I liked. The result was worse than my normal fashion gaffes, and even I knew enough not to wear it outside of the house.

Since then, I have always felt that sewing was just something for which I did not have the knack, and I have avoided sewing machines with their dangerous moving and possibly stabbing parts.

Needless to say, I approached our March session on sewing with some trepidation. But good news! It turns out that sewing is something you can learn to do. Who knew?

Our facilitator for the session was wonderfully patient. Before the workshop, we were told to go to the fabric store to buy a pattern, and to buy the fabric we needed for the aprons we were to create. Keeping it relatively simple was the name of the game, so no pleats and no zippers.

I was especially lucky as my roommate Joan is an experienced sewer, and not only did she give me a pattern that she wasn’t planning on using, but she also accompanied me to the fabric store.

Thank goodness – those fabric stores are overwhelming for us newbies. There is a reason they call it Fabricland – it’s a whole other world in there, and they speak another language. I had no idea what “bias tape” or “interfacing” was, but Joan was my patient interpreter.

Seeing all the options of fabric was scary, so Tanya, another of our group as inexperienced as myself who we ran into at the store, and I found the clearance rack and decided to restrain ourselves to the options there. Joan counseled us to avoid patterns with straight lines as they can be difficult, so I went for something bright and busy.

Despite my fear of sewing, I still couldn’t refrain from adapting my pattern and even going for using contrasting thread that would show the stitching. I figured that it would be a character piece if nothing else.

The morning of the workshop, I cut out the pieces of the pattern. This is when I realized that I am not nearly as handy with scissors as I thought. “How precisely do I have to cut the pattern?” I asked Joan worriedly. She shrugged. I later asked her the same question when cutting fabric and got the same answer.

After we set up our machines, our facilitator explained some terms to us and told us about lining up the grain of the fabric. I had no idea that fabric had a grain. I’m sure that’s where I went wrong with my sundress all those years ago – if only I’d known…

Then, without further ado, we pinned the patterns to our fabric and when she was satisfied with our alignment, the scissors flew. Apparently, I am somewhat more pin-happy than I need to be, but I quickly learned the value of the ball-headed pins over the flat-headed ones.

Once I had massacred my fabric into pieces vaguely resembling the pattern, I got to work with the machine. It wasn’t quite as scary as I remembered, but it didn’t take long before a familiar pattern emerged: sew, sew, sew, DAMMIT, rethread machine, sew, sew, sew, DAMMIT, rethread machine…

In the end, I was pretty pleased with my finished product – just don’t look too closely:

Ready to bake or strut? You decide...

Now, will I rush out to buy a sewing machine and start revamping my wardrobe piece by piece? Uh, probably not. Will I keep my eyes open for a good deal on a machine for future projects? Definitely. I sense that one day, a sewing machine and I will be great friends. Just not during farming season.

February Session – Bread-Making

Yes, I am that lax. I am two months behind on my Renaissance Women art and I am shamed.

To be fair, I missed the February session on bread-making due to some projectile vomiting, but I could hear the squeals of delight come up through the floor, so I’m pretty sure it was a good time.

The session organizers used the Maple Groove kitchen and with some careful planning there was sourdough and gluten-free bread to taste and enjoy. I did get to enjoy some of that when solid food was once again welcomed in my system.

Fortunately, from living with one of the session organizers and our own personal sourdough guru, Tessa, I have been able to glean some information on sourdough bread-making and participated in the making of several delicious loaves. I have no pictures of any loaves I participated in, and I have to admit, I think I need the dough to remind me when to do the next step or I may have week old dough sitting on top of the cupboard waiting to be loved and divided and baked. There must be an app for that.

Making sourdough bread is a bit of a commitment. You have to take care of your “mother”, and plan ahead. The whole process takes 24 hours. This makes this a particularly difficult task for those of us who like to live a little more on the spur of the moment by the seats of our pants (from cliche to cliche). Even when I have been in charge of only one of the stages, I have forgotten and neglected my duty, leaving my poor roommates to pick up the slack and deal with sub-par bread. The only stage I participate in reliably is the final stage – eating the delicious bread.

Homemade sourdough bread is definitely superior to any other homemade bread I have tasted. I wish I had known about the delights of sourdough when I was a Project Leader because I had to eat some rather interesting breads in those days. Breads I have blocked from my memory due to intestinal trauma.

I do feel that I have learned something useful. As long as I can manage the whole time-management thing, I am fully capable of making delicious bread. That’s kind of a nice thing to know.

Roar.

Introduction

That’s right, I will soon be a Renaissance Woman. Hear me roar.

For those of you who have never heard the term “Renaissance Man”, it was used to describe a man who was skilled in many different areas. To quote wikipedia (which is undeniably handy for informal writing such as this), “The idea developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): that “a man can do all things if he will.” It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymath).

You may have noticed that there is a growing spirit of reskilling afoot these days. People are taking the time to learn skills that our grandparents couldn’t live without. I, myself, have in recent years learned how to can vegetables, grow vegetables from seed, and make jam, pickles, and sauerkraut. Many of my friends are becoming expert knitters, are actually using sewing machines or making their own block prints, and are preserving local food for year round eating.

For some people, this interest in recently neglected skills stems from a sense that the Earth is approaching a crisis point that will lead to a total restructuring of society – an apocalypse of some kind. For others, I think it’s just about that satisfaction that comes from actually creating something physical.

At any rate, just like those forward thinking Italians from so long ago, we know that we can keep developing and learning new skills throughout our lives. Sometimes, though, it’s a little hard to find the time in our busy lives to actually learn those things that we wish we knew how to do.

Enter Heather W:

Our fearless leader, photo by Joan Kallis

Heather W, of Makaria Farm fame, realized that she knew a bunch of interesting women (and she included me!) who she wanted to get to know better, and that she had a list of things she wanted to find the time to learn how to do. In her very Heather way, she concocted a scheme – a group of women would meet once a month and learn a new skill together. A social fun time, but there’s more. As part of the deal, each woman must represent her experience in her chosen art form.

So, step one: meet and discuss. We met on Sunday night at the fabulous Affinity Guesthouse, courtesy of the super hospitable Vanessa, ate some delicious snacks including homemade sprouted grain bread (go Heather!) with yogurt cheese and garlic scape jam (I have to come clean here… I gave Heather a jar of that stuff a few months ago, and although she told everyone I had made it, that was actually John’s handiwork – I’m sad to say I’m a fraud).

Chatting and snacking, photo by Joan Kallis

Heather also shared some of her delicious homemade fermented sodas – yes, you can make homemade pop that has healthy enzymes in them!

Tasty and refreshing!, photo by Joan Kallis

Step two: brainstorm a list of workshop ideas. Collectively, we generated a list of ideas including everything from learning how to kill and process a chicken to learning how to properly appreciate wine. By the way – only one of those two things made the final cut – guess which one?

A few ideas to ponder, photo by Joan Kallis

Once the lists were posted, we each voted on ten items, and the the top ten made our plan for the year. We also have a couple of alternates in case we have time or problems with any of the top ten. Our final list includes:

* make/distill essential oils
* milk a cow/goat/water buffalo
* make fermented sodas and kombucha
* make yoghurt
* make ice cream
* make/use sourdough starter to make bread
* make soap (without animal fat)
* identify wild edible plants and mushrooms
* sew something from a pattern
* cheese-making and wine appreciation (surprise – wine tasting beat out killing chickens)

While we recognize a certain bias towards dairy products, we are all pretty excited not only by the new skills we are planning to acquire, but by prospect of seeing how each of us represents this learning in our art. Some of these workshops can actually be facilitated by women from the group who have already acquired these skills, and for others, we will recruit teachers. We have committed to each contributing $10 or so in order to pay a facilitator as needed, and we have also committed to making up for any missed workshops by learning a new skill on our own and representing it in our art.

As you may have guessed, I will be using this blog to write about my experience, and I’m including photos from Joan – another member of this intrepid group of skill explorers.

There are two reasons for the commitment to expressing our learning through our art: to force us to do these things that we love doing and often put by the wayside for more ‘important’ things, and to publicize our project so others may feel encouraged to develop their capacities and get into the renaissance spirit. We fully encourage you to go out and start your own group of reskillers.

By the way, the name for the group arose when one of the ladies in the group, Heather K actually, said something about being a Renaissance woman. I love how the name represents a connection to the past with a drive for self-improvement with a little feminist flair thrown in.

Tanya, another member, embodied that spirit by creating a block print which will be the final word on this introduction. As Heather says, “Reskillers Unite!”

Go Renaissance

Links:
Heather W’s blog: ayearofreskilling

Joan’s Flickr: the_diner

Maeve’s blog: cowichandale

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Maeve Maguire on January 19, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Had I known the definition of Renaissance Man before, I’d never have challenged the name — it’s a perfect fit! Thanks for enlightening me.

    And thank you for including Joan’s photos. Just seeing the fermented soda made my mouth water. Can’t wait to make pop!

    Maeve

    Reply

  2. Beautiful! You explain everything so well. Doesn’t it feel amazing to check “create art for January” off your list?

    Reply

  3. Yes I was confused about the name as well! Thanks for your explanation, I agree with Maeve…it’s perfect!

    Reply

  4. FYI – yoghurt & ice cream are relatively simple to make, yummy and just need a little preparation.

    Biggest thing – make sure you’ve sterilized everything….

    Reply

  5. Interesting group and exciting to know some young women are doing these things. A good name for your group would have been “Grandmothers’ Skills” as the older genrations now in their 70s learned all these things growing up, including killing and plucking chickens, knitting, canning, jam making and sewing etc etc. Maybe the schools should teach them in today’s world!
    Good luck and best wishes to your group. I am sure you enjoyed the sourdough bread experience the other day.

    Reply

  6. […] workshop organizer, and find the door to the Cowichan Neighbourhood House Association space, where Cindy works. Yay! Once inside it’s all Renaissance Woman goodness, lots of smiles and love and […]

    Reply

  7. “There must be an app for that.” Ha!!

    Reply

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