Wednesday, 15 February 2017

'Arsenic and Old Lace'

 Did you know that cooked rice is laced with arsenic? This was news to me, but fear not help is at hand

      • Basmati rice contains the least levels of arsenic than any other rice
      • Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice due to the husk
      • Growing rice organically makes no difference to the levels
      • Rice cakes and crackers contain higher levels than cooked rice
      • The levels of arsenic found in rice milk far exceed the amounts that are allowed in drinking water

We are buying more rice products for our children than at any other time. More and more baby rice products are appearing on our supermarket shelves.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element which can be found in soil and water, but because arsenic is found in soil and water, small amounts can get into food. However, generally these levels are too low to cause concern. Rice, however, has around 10 - 20 times more aresenic than other cereal crops. This is due to the fact that it is grown in flooded conditions which makes it easier for the arsenic to leave the soil and enter the rice. When it comes to rice milk the Food Standards Agency advises that it should never be used as an alternative milk for children below the age of 5. However, surprisingly there is no legal obligation for rice milk producers to issue warnings on their packets.
We enjoy rice dishes and I usually make one most weeks, but it is very simple and easy to minimise the risks
During the cooking process the arsenic leaves the rice and enters the cooking water. If like many people you use a rice cooker or cook your rice in a small amount of water so that it absorbs it all leaving the rice ready to serve then the arsenic is all reabsorbed. Better to boil the rice in a large pan full of boiling water then drain it so that the arsenic is not reabsorbed. 
Even better, soak the rice overnight before cooking, this allows the arsenic to escape into the water - drain the rice and rinse thoroughly with fresh water, and then cook in plenty of boiling water. When cooked, drain the rice, and rinse again with boiling water to get rid of the last of the cooking water. Using this method removes more than 80% of the arsenic, whatever is left is extremely negligible, so no need for alarm

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Happy Valentine's Day

Monday, 6 February 2017

Great Survivors

There are several plants and trees inhabiting the planet that are surprising survivors from the Mesozoic period, a time when Dinosaurs roamed the earth. I am showing two examples - a plant and a tree, both of which I am able to photograph simply because the plant lives with us, and the tree grows locally.

The Ginko biloba (Maidenhair tree) has been described as a 'living fossil' because it is the sole survivor from an ancient group of trees that date back to beyond the time of dinosaurs. Ginkgo genus fossils are found in both Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks, but today Ginkgo biloba is the only member of this genus remaining. They can be extremely long lived, the oldest recorded individual tree being 3,500 years old. The Ginkgo has a long history of cultural importance in Asia where it is revered - legend has it that Confucius sat beneath a Ginkgo Tree whilst teaching.
Fossilised ginkgo leaf overlaid with a comtemporary leaf for comparison.

Some people take Ginkgo pills, made from juice in the leaves, on the understanding that they prevent strokes and Alzheimer's. However, as yet, there has been insufficient scientific evidence to prove it works. It may be better to walk 3,000 extra steps a day, and keep mentally active by playing Sudoku or may be even blogging!!
I purchased this Cycad revoluta (Sago Palm) in a Spanish market a good 15 years ago. Obviously it was much smaller then as I was able to return with it on the plane. Although it resembles a palm it is actually a fern whose genus also dates back to before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fossils of the cycad genus have also been discovered providing evidence of their existence dating back over 300 million years. 
Every two or three years our plant produces a new set of leaves which are fascinating to watch as they unfurl 

They look soft like ferns but their appearance belies them - as they mature the leaves become leathery, very tough and strong with sharp points at the tips. Their stems too have needle sharp prongs which can be harmful to the unwary
 unfurling day by day
I have no idea how this giant pre-historic looking bug gained access to the conservatory - all of the windows and doors were tightly shut
He is a Cockchafer or May Bug (Melolontha) a member of the family Scarabaeidae - Scarab beetles were revered as sacred in ancient Egypt.
How do I know that he is a boy? - he has seven leaves on his antannae whereas girls have six

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Creamy Portobello Mushrooms

 Take some firm, meaty Portobello mushrooms - their Italian name 'Cappellone' - 'big hat'

thickly slice

adding chopped garlic sauté in olive oil and butter - season with freshly ground nutmeg, and black pepper

Finish with Greek yogurt, a dollop of cream, and plenty of chopped fresh parsley
Ten minutes only and supper is ready - serve with rice, vegetables and a sprinkling of Parmigianino cheese 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Mosaic

Roll up! Roll up!
a marching band played
the crowds cheered
as Chapman's Great London Circus arrived in Cheltenham town
photo from Cheltenham News
One Spring day in 1934 three elephants were being paraded through Cheltenham town to announce the arrival of the circus. On smelling some interesting aromas drifting across the road from Bloodworth's, a local seed merchants shop, one of the elephants decided to pay a visit, closely followed by the other two.
The first elephant gained entrance, but the second became stuck in the doorway, the third was quickly caught and restrained by his keeper. 
Imagine the surprise of the owner standing behind his shop counter and suddenly seeing this giant shape looming inside the premises. Not only that, but an elephant that was busily helping itself to his seed potatoes, dog biscuits, and other tasty morsels
Yum - delicious
The spectators watched with amazment and some alarm
but finally peace and order was restored
so the wind musicians played on
the drummer banged his drum
and the parade proceeded out of town
This series of mosaics in an alleyway off the High Street in Cheltenham depicts a glimpse of our social history from over 80 years ago. It shows the style of clothing worn, including that of the police, and importantly the use of wild animals in a way that most would consider unacceptable today.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Winter's Beauty

The sap is rising, days grow longer, bulbs busily thrust themselves through the earth, some even have flowers. Trees stand unadorned, silhouetted in their skeletal nakedness against Winter's skies. They too await Spring's arrival, their bare limbs show signs of buds but throughout the year many play host to some of Mother Nature's frilly, lacy, little jewels.
Lichens are a partnership between members of two different kingdoms that live together in a special, mutually beneficial relationship - a symbiosis
Each lichen is made up of a fungus and an algae: the body of the lichen is built up by a tough fungal hyphae, and the algae lives inside that framework 

The fungus protects the algae from the harsh world outside, and provides it with water and mineral nutrients. The algae makes its own food by photosynthesis, then leaks some of this food, which in turn is absorbed by the fungus as it cannot make it's own food
Their partnership is so tough and self-reliant that lichens can grow on rocks in the desert where nothing else survives. When it is too dry, too hot, or too cold, lichens go into a state of suspended animation until conditions improve. Because the algae make up only 5% of each lichen, and are out of action for much of the time, lichens grow very slowly - only a few millimetres per year. They make up for this by living for centuries, or in some cases, millennia 

Lichens have one serious weakness - they must absorb their mineral nutrients from the rain. So if the air is polluted with sulphur dioxide, this dissolves in the rain and is absorbed by the lichens which often die as a result - lichens are a predictor of good air quality.
All of these lichen photos were taken in our garden - the row of skyline trees was taken on Exmoor 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Utstein Monastery, Norway

 The coping stones running along the tops of our garden walls are frosted, but already beginning to melt in the early morning sun. There's no tempting me outside, I am like the cat that got the cream, warm, cosy, and content to stay indoors

Endeavouring to tidy up my iPhoto storage I came across a visit made during a past trip to Norway
The trip was taken at a time when our eldest son and family still lived in Norway. The images are from my first digital camera - long gone now, and not very good, but they hopefully convey a sense of place. 
Utstein Monastery 
To reach Utstein Monastery you travel through a deep undersea road tunnel from Stavanger to the island of Mosterøy in Rogaland. On arrival at the island there is a brisk walk to the monastery across a natural causeway - an area surrounded by inlets of water as far as the eye can see, distant mountains, and sheep grazing along the pathway. 
I had assumed that these sheep were a Norwegian breed but in fact they come from Wales - Balwen Welsh Mountain sheep whose striking tails are traditionally left undocked as in the photo.
Utstein is the only preserved Monastery from the Middle Ages in Norway and one of it's important landmarks

It served as the Royal residence to the very first Viking king of Norway; Harald Fairhair, and is first mentioned in historical records going back to the C9th.

King Harald from the c14th Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók
 The building was later donated to the Augustinian monks of Stavanger towards the end of the c12th.  They lived a pious life of strict discipline and prayer at Utstein Monastery until the Reformation in the c15th.
At its height there were 12 monks in residence, but the abbey was sustained by double that amount of local lay people who worked on their farm, grew produce, cooked the meals, and generally took care of the monastery. The extensive lands belonging to the monastery were sufficient to support 250 people throughout the year.

The monastery church has traditional Nordic/Scandic painted wood and carved stonework

Although medieval they have a contemporary feel, and I suspect that this could already be heralding their innate sense of style and design which many of us admire today
With its tranquil setting and fine accoustics it is now a favoured place for concerts, seminars, conventions, and tourists