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How to cope with total failure

Self-sufficiency writers have multiplied into a cottage industry, filling whole wings of the bookstore with tips on how to garden, cook, preserve food, learn traditional crafts and build community. Such sales imply an encouraging demand; millions of people really do want to learn this. I fear that many such books, however, inadvertently discourage readers with a passing interest and a full schedule. Take, for example, cookbooks.

A few decades ago a bookstore might carry a few cookbooks that everyone used; now they take up vast areas of shelf space, and whole television channels are devoted solely to cooking shows, yet people eat more fast food and pre-packaged food than ever.

The two trends are not necessarily contradictions; cookbooks are consumer products, and must distinguish themselves from their competitors by having twists, gimmicks, by getting more exotic and ambitious, and showing page after page of sculptures, science experiments and food porn that few of us could reasonably reproduce in our own kitchens, and driving the amateur away from getting started. My meals, by contrast, last a few minutes from garden to pan, and while they won’t win any awards, they don’t have to: they’re healthy, quick, free and I like them.

Most of all, though, most self-sufficiency books don’t prepare the reader for failure. Try learning how to do things at home – make jam and cheese, weave a basket, build a shed or keep chickens – and you fall on your face many times before succeeding, and after succeeding you’ll probably fail a few more times. Many failures, though, can still become something else, if you’re creative.

Take, for example, the wine from our parsnips almost two years ago. All my flower wines have turned out well – elderflower, meadowsweet, cowslip and dandelion. But these were my first vegetable wines, and when I uncorked them a year later, they tasted awful. Another year has not improved them, so Plan B has been to turn them into vinegar.

I purchased some unpasteurised vinegar from a special store in Dublin – which should still have the vinegar-creating bacteria in it -- and am mixing them together and letting them set. They’re well on their way to becoming something strange-smelling, and if it’s not vinegar, I’ve run out of plans.

Failure Number Two was the home-made cheese. All the books that claim that cheese-making is dead simple are, it turns out, correct; getting the right kind of cheese turned out to be the difficult part. My first batch of attempted cheddar became a very nice Parmesan, while the next turned into a reasonably good feta.

Failure Number Three was my compost jelly from last weekend. Compost jelly uses fruit parts we might throw away, as well as this season’s surplus of fruit that might rot on the ground, and lets us preserve the vitamins through the winter, longer than fruit would last. I took the fallen apples from the ground, as well as bowls of berries off the hedgerow and whatever rinds we were going to throw away. The flesh of the apples I pickled, so they will keep without refrigeration for the next several months.

The rest of the fruit parts were boiled for 45 minutes or so, and then strained. I put the right amount of sugar into the strained liquid, and boiled it for the right amount of time to turn it into jelly. Nothing happened. Instead of turning into a nice spreadable consistency, it stayed basically fruit juice. I boiled it for twice as long, then twice as long again, and nothing – pure juice.

Finally, I consulted a friend, who came up with a Plan B. “Boil it for an hour straight,” she said. I did so, and when I had poured the results into a jar, it hardened into … candy. Almost as hard as a lemon drop, only in one giant jar-shaped block. Inside a jar.

Plan C was pouring boiling water over it and chipping away at it, until it dissolved in liquid again … back to being juice. After much heating and stirring, I finally got the concoction to the right jelly consistency. The good news is that such difficult experiments often taste brilliant in the end, perhaps because you’re so relieved to finally be done.

Top photo: Various wines, some of which worked. 
Second photo: apples from our trees, which became  pickles and jelly. 
Third photo:  Jelly that barely let a knife through. 
Fourth photo: The final product. 

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