Sunday, May 31, 2009

Homemade Ginger Beer: Part 1

Real Ginger Beer is made with a ‘bug’, which is actually a live bacteria culture made with sugar with ginger. On the first day, add 1 ½ cups of water to a glass jar and then add 2 teaspoons refined sugar and 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger. Put a tight lid on the jar and shake well. Let sit for 24 hours. Each day for the next 7 days, add two more teaspoons each of refined sugar and fresh grated ginger. Each time you add more sugar and ginger, shake well.

By the 3rd or fourth day, the mixture should begin to bubble and give off a bit of gas. This is the beginning of the bacteria colony, which was living on the ginger and is now eating the sugar and multiplying in the ginger, water, sugar solution.

After 7 days, add 2 cups of molasses or dehydrated raw cane sugar to 8 quarts of water and heat until dissolved. Add the juice of a few limes and then when cooled, but still warm (like bath temperature) add just the water from your Bug (name for the ginger, water, sugar solution and the residing bacteria. Put all this in an open-mouthed container and cover with a cloth and rubber band.

After 7 days, transfer to bottles with wire-held stoppers or corks and let sit for at lest 14 days. After that, it is ready to enjoy.

We note that this beverage, which is slightly sweet and a bit alcoholic, is enormously better for you than any soda or beer you can buy on the market. This actually contains a living bacteria culture that is beneficial to your whole body. Live culture foods are a valuable piece of total nutrition. They help keep beneficial intestinal flora, which aids digestion and they help in the assimilation of nutrients and the expulsion of bad bacteria and unwanted chemicals.

Here you can see our jar. This week, we will post pictures of the next steps.


Basil is an incredibly familiar culinary herb that also has a number of medicinal properties. Medicinally, it is mainly used as a tea for colds and flu or for upset stomachs and/or vomiting.

Like many garden herbs, basil prefers light, well-drained soil and partial to full sun. Basil is a great companion plant throughout the garden, growing well with tomatoes and generally repels flies and mosquitoes.

The type of basil pictured here is local to the highland regions of Guatemala. It is actually so well adapted that it grows almost like a weed, often shady out other plants in its area. This plant is almost one year old and was start from a cutting about ¼” thick and 4” tall. Look at it now, enormous.

To encourage bushy growth and longer life (Basil survives for several years or more in sub-tropical areas where there is not harsh winter), it is good to cut the tips of the plant and especially all of the flowers off on a regular basis. We use the basil flowers for tons of things in the kitchen and the chore of cutting back the plant also serves as a harvest as well. With the leftover basil, one can make pesto or dry out the herb for later use.

This is me and Maynor cutting off the flowers from the giant basil plant.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Making Cream Cheese from Yogurt, with the added benefit of Whey

This is a very simple process that yields good quality, live cream cheese, which is infinitely superior to store-bought cream cheese. The whey that is obtained is useful for an enormous amount of things, and is also incredibly healthy for you.
From Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, Whey can be used “as a starter culture for lacto-fermented vegetables and fruits, for soaking grains and as a starter for many beverages.”

From Ageless Remedies from Mother’s Kitchen by Hanna Kroeger, “Whey is such a good helper in your kitchen. It has a lot of minerals. One tablespoon of whey in a little water will help digestion. It is a remedy that will keep your muscles young. It will keep your joints movable and elastic. When age wants to bend your back, take whey.”

To make cream cheese and whey, pour plain yogurt into a strainer, whose inside is lined with a cloth. Set the strainer with cloth and yogurt over top of a bowl, which will catch the whey as it begins to drip.

Leave covered with another sheet or cloth for several hours. When you return there should be some whey dripping into the bowl and the cloth holding the yogurt will be very moist.

At this point, tie the four corners of the cloth (holding the yogurt) to a wooden spoon handle, which can rest on the edges of the strainer. Now the rest of the whey will drip out and the cloth with form a nice ball of fresh, live-culture cream cheese.

After 6 to 12 more hours, the process is basically complete. Put the whey in a jar or plastic container with a tight fitting lid. This can be felt out for several weeks and perhaps even longer and will last 6 months if refrigerated. The cream cheese will last for a few days out, or for a month if refrigerated.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Winemaking: Plum, Apple, Mango, Jalapeño, Rosemary, & Fennel Natural Panela Mead

Our winemaking endeavors stem from a desire to be self-sufficient and control exactly what enters our body. By making your own wine, you can ensure that no sulfites or other harsh chemicals were used in the process and you can also make varieties that cannot be found in local boozer. We try to use all household items for our equipment, local and/or organic fruit, and natural substitutes for all chemical additives. Until now, the only special item we needed to make wine was wine or champagne yeast.

Wine making is basically a specific type of fermentation. What actually takes places is as follows. In the presence of sugar, whether it is sugar from fruits/vegetables or from cane or honey (or a mix of the two), the yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide (in gas form). Once the alcohol concentration reaches a certain point, the yeast dies, as it cannot survive in environments beyond a certain alcohol content, depending on the species of yeast.

Yeast is everywhere and there are tons of naturally occurring varieties. Wine and champagne yeast has been bred to withstand high alcohol concentrations, as high as 21% alcohol by volume. To make table wines, one needs to use this type of yeast, but when making mead, herbal wines, or other less alcoholic beverages, one can simply rely on the natural yeasts that live all around us in the air that we breath.

This is the first natural mead that we made. The ingredients are:
• 5 lbs Apples, rinsed
• 3 lbs Plums, rinsed
• 1 Mango
• 2 Jalapeno Peppers, rinsed
• 4 sprigs of Rosemary
• 4 sprigs of Fennel
• 5 lbs Dehydrated (Sugar) Cane Juice, called Panela
• ½ liter Honey

The process is as follows. First, get the largest soup pot you have, fill it ¾ of the way and begin heating the water. Dissolve the Panela into the heating water. Note that it is easier to soak the panela in water overnight, as it will dissolve faster. Otherwise, you have to cut the panela into small pieces before putting it into the heating water to dissolve.

Into a 5-Gallon food-safe plastic bucket (known in wine-lingo as the Primary Fermenter), crush all of the plums with your hands. Then core the apples and blend the flesh. We separate the cores before blending because you do not want to crush the seeds, as they give off a very bitter taste. That being said, we do add the cores with the seeds to bucket, as they do contain sugars that will ferment.
Also into the bucket, add the peeled mango as well as the pit. Take out the seeds of the jalapeno and add just the flesh to the bucket as well. When the sugar water is getting hot, add the sprigs of herbs and cover while finishing off the heating and dissolving process.

Once the sugar has dissolved, add the sugar water and herbs to the bucket and top up to almost full with water. Cover the bucket with a cloth and tie a string around it, so that it is pulled taught across the top.
For the next week, we will stir the wine mixture daily. After a week, we will take out the fruit and siphon the wine into a water cooler jug, also known as the secondary fermenter. This process will be explained in greater detail when we actually perform it.

Also, I have yet to make a post on the basics of wine making and recipes for basic table wines. They are almost identical to the steps described above, but using cultured yeast to inoculate the crushed fruit and sugar water (also known as Must) in the Primary Fermenter. Will link to this post when it goes up.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coconuts: What Wonderful Magical Fruits

About a month ago, I ate a whole coconut for the first time in a long while. The whole process of removing the husk, cracking the shell, drinking the sweet sweet liquid, and then slowly eating the flesh over the next several hours, is quite an amazing experience.

Since then, Colleen has looked up and shared the Health Benefits of Coconuts and especially their water; we have now vowed to work these magical fruits into our regular diet.

Ah the joy of living in Guatemala. This is Alberto. He is the Coconut guy. Every Sunday he travels about 100 kilometers to the pacific coast and picks up an enormous sack of fresh coconuts. He returns on Monday to our town and can often be heard in the streets, advertising, “Hay Coco, Hay Coco!”

This is the first of our weekly deliveries. Each week, Alberto will bring us 8 coconuts, which works out to four each for Colleen and I, making a lovely addition to our diet.

Because we do not always eat all of the flesh, we have been working on other ways to use the whole fruit. Some ideas have been to blend the flesh and strain it through a cloth to get coconut milk. The remaining blended flesh can be dried and used for baking and other culinary delights.

Raw Honey from African or European Bee (with plans to attract a new hive)

Speaking of bees, the other day I received a gift from the regular honey lady. She lives in the next town over and sells honey, usually by the 5-gallon bucket. The problem is that often times the honey is actually mostly sugar and water heated together to form honey-like syrup. Needless to say, I bought 5 gallons of sugar water honey from her a few months ago. Soon after, I realized that it certainly was not pure honey. I presented this to the honey lady and she was certainly apologetic.

As an act of good measure, she soon brought colleen and I a gift: some pure raw honey, still in the comb of what I believe is an African bee species. Since then, we have resolved only to buy this type of raw honey from her.

Today, she brought this beautiful set of honeycombs, filled to the brim with dank dank honey. For only $2.50, she happily sold them to me. Ridiculous.

The plan is to get the honey out while preserving the integrity of the combs, basically by turning them upside down while suspended above a tray to catch the honey. When the combs are mostly empty, I plan to build a small wooden box with a lid and put the combs in the box, vertically. With the left over honey, the comb structure, and the smell of the beehive, there is a chance we can attract some worker bees, which will proceed to make a queen and begin producing more honey, so as to take advantage of the prebuilt little home we will have provided.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bee Keeping: The First Harvest

Today, I decided to prepare the hive for the division next week, by putting it in a better box and moving it into a more accessible spot where the division process can be done more easily. In the process of moving the hive, I made my first harvest of honey. To harvest, basically you just have to ply the hive away from the box, as the bees tend to connect their hive to the inside walls. Using a machete, I cut around the inside of the box and lifted up the hive.

The honey from these local stingless black bees is different from normal European or African bee honey. The taste is slightly bitterer; it has more medicinal properties, and is typically darker than usual honey, as well. Also, as opposed to honeycomb storage, these bees store their honey in little sacs mad out of wax and about the diameter of a penny. There is also a ton of bee pollen to harvest, which is an incredible health and magic power food. When harvesting, it is important to leave about half of the sacs for the bees to eat off of, as they make more honey. Sadly, these bees make considerably less honey than European or African species, both of which are more common as they have been selected for commercial apiculture.

A note I want to make is that I think I waited too long to make the harvest. Only about a third of the sacks had honey in them, while the majority appeared as though they once held honey, but it was either eaten or leaked out. As you can see, there are many sacs, but only about a third of them are filled with honey.

Considering the limited quantity of honey provided, as well as the ease of harvesting, and the high frequency at which I suspect it should occur, I have a new strategy for making these bees produce a good amount of honey for daily consumption. I say one should strive to obtain 8 hives through division, taking likely a year or more to get 8 from 1 starter hive. Then, harvest two hives each week, which I suspect could provide about ½ liter of honey. After the first two are harvested they should rest for one month, while you are harvesting from the other 6, 2 per week. Once all 8 have been harvested, the first two should be ready for another harvest. Down with sugar!

Stingless Black Bee of the Highlands of Guatemala

So my good friend Charlie, at La Cambalacha, came into a hive of Stingless Black Bees. A local man found the nest in the mountains and brought it down to Charlie. After sitting untouched for several years, a beekeeper from Canada came to our town and agreed to help us divide the hive into two and build some boxes that are fit for holding this type of bee.

The division process is very basic, basically involving a machete, which is used to slowly cut the hive in two. When there are two separate pieces, one should stay in the first area and the other piece needs to be moved at least 500 meters away. This is so the piece of the hive that does not have a queen will be encouraged to start making a new queen for their hive. If the two pieces remained close together, all of the bees would just go to the piece of hive that has the original queen, leaving the other piece to rot. Next week, we plan to do another hive division. My friend Terri, who is helping us start our MILPA, has agreed to make new boxes for the division process in exchange for one of the hives. Thus, I will put up another post with pictures and more detailed information regarding hive division and also bee box design.

As for precaution, because they are stingless, I did not use too many precautions in terms of netting or smoke. I basically put a hood on tightly tied and a t-shirt across my nose and mouth. The bees do not sting, but they pinch and they also tend to climb into your ears, nose and mouth.

The hive was divided about 2 months ago and since then, my piece has sat in a basic cardboard box under the shade of a few lime trees. I just built a simple roof for them to provide a bit more shade and protection from rain, as they cannot get wet. They actually seemed very happy in the cardboard box. Within two weeks of being there, they completely attached their mud hive to all sides of the box. They seem to be quite happy there and I have not bothered them really at all since then.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Our Milpa: Seed

The Seed for our milpa is all heirloom and organic, each variety dating back hundreds of years. All three of these seed crops have never in their genetic history seen or been exposed to any chemicals, they are the same descendants that were planted by the Mayan people for hundreds of years in the village of Tzununa.

The seed is highly attuned to this climate and that makes all of the difference. I do plan to make another Milpa in San Marcos and I will aim to get organic heirloom varieties that originated in this village, just to get the subtle benefit of that specific adaptation developed by these plants over the many generations.

Our Milpa: Part 2- Planting the Seed

For this job, a pickaxe is useful, as well as empty pockets and/or shoulder bags for holding seed. Using the pickaxe, loosen the soil down to about 12 inches, removing any big rocks, for a diameter of about 6 inches. If this is the first time the ground has been worked and you did not prepare hotbeds, it may be helpful to add one handful of compost to each area while loosening the soil.

Spacing is about 1 meter from the center of the first loosened area to the next, but it is by no means exact. It is best to eye ball it and to plant closer together, as opposed to farther apart if unsure. Also there is no need to plant in rows. Just cover the entire area, as large as you want with plantings, all spaced about a meter apart. It helps to think of an equilateral triangle to guide your planting.
It helps to have two people working together, one loosening the soil and the other planting the seeds, switching off at intervals.

In each space, plant 4 corn seeds, 1 bean seed, and in every 4th hole, also throw in one squash seed. The seeds can all be planted in the same divot. The technique used by many is the put all the seeds in the palm of your hand and then press all your fingers together and use them to make a divot into the ground. Go as deep as your knuckle and then let the seeds fall, cover them and pat down so that you know it has been planted.

Our Milpa: Part 1- Preparing the ground

Select a site that is sure to receive a lot of sun throughout the day. Prune branches on any trees that would otherwise provide shade. The space does not have to be all connected, you have patches that are each a few meters, spaced between some trees or other non-plantable spaces. First cut down all of the vegetation that is growing in the area where you want to plant. A machete is very useful here. Pile up branches that re larger/thicker in various piles located in shady spots. The shade not only helps the decomposition process, but you want to plant in all available sunny spots.

For the next step the hoe is an invaluable tool. Use your hoe to scratch the root clumps, grass, and other vegetation up from only the top 1 to 2 inches of soil. It is not necessary to turn all of the ground up like a rototiller would. This is basically a cleaning process to remove most of the weeds and clear the ground down to the topsoil. The roots, grass, and bits of soil that are scratched off these areas are also made into piles in shady areas around the land. These piles will later be spread out over the growing crops.

At this point, if this is the first time that this piece of land has been worked, you could prepare and enrich the soil and remove any big rocks from the area. See Preparing a HOT BED. Note this THIS IS NOT NECESSARY. It is true that a good recipe for growing any crops is to dig down at least 12” (preferably 24’”, while respecting soil level compositions), removing any rocks, and then adding a good amount of organic matter such as decomposing leaves or compost, along with some lime to balance the soil. That being said, merely cleaning the area and planting, as described below, you should get decent results, even in the first year.

Our Milpa

Here are some pictures of the land before we began the process of planting the Milpa. Notice the bananas and other fruit trees growing. The cactus on the rock is actually Pitaya, also known as Dragon Fruit.

The traditional Milpa refers to a cornfield typically raised by Mayan people in Central America. The selected area for our Milpa is in the highlands of Guatemala, in a valley plateau in the village of Tzununa. The elevation is about 5000 ft, with rainy seasoning stretching from the end of April through to the end of October.

The traditional time to plant corn in the highlands in on or around May 15th, this day holding particular significance to some villages, which say one must plant corn only on May 15th of every year.

Our Milpa has about one third of an acre planted with corn, beans (which will grow up the corn stalks), and a local variety of squash known in Tzutujil , as Kum.

What attracts me to the Milpa is that it is a very efficient way to grow an abundance of food that easily stores for a year. On this small piece of land, the eventual yields will be about 150 to 200 lbs of dried corn, 50 lbs of dried beans, and tons of squash. Not to mention all of the fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans that are harvested throughout the year. All that food with only one person doing at most one day of work a week, most of which is harvesting. We also note that this is all pure organic farming and pure organic heirloom seed.

Our good friend Terri actually owns the land that the Milpa is being planted on. As he is a seasoned and highly skilled organic farmer, he is also our mentor throughout this project. We give him much thanks.

Weekly updates of the Milpas progress and details of how to make your own Milpa to come.