Eco-hacks – Episode 4: Meal Planning

Meal planning saves money and resources.

You well may ask, how is meal planning an eco-hack? Meal planning reduces your global environmental footprint AND saves you money because if you do it properly, it will reduce food waste.

If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest emitter after the US and China.

FAO 2013

It is an oft-quoted stat that Australian families waste approximately 20% of the food they buy. Put another way, one in every five bags of groceries you lug into the house could end up in the bin!

It’s not just a waste of money (the average family wastes $1036 p.a!!!)  but also a waste of valuable resources. Apart from the food itself, there is wasted energy in materials in the growing, processing (even lightly processed foods), transportation through the various stages. Next, you have to get to the shops and back,  cart the food home, store it and cook it.

The BIG issue apart from the economic waste, is the contribution that rotting food adds to greenhouse emissions. Unless you live in a place where you can compost ALL your food scraps, or are lucky enough to live in a council area that does FOGO, it’s likely your food waste will end up fermenting away underground in a landfill site. This anaerobic fermentation leads to the production of methane gas which is right up there in terms of greenhouse gases. You can calculate how many kilograms of methane gas you are contributing from food waste at this site.

It makes good economic and ecological sense to reduce food waste.

This graphic from the Sustainable Table gives some facts about food waste. Lack of planning is the most significant cause of food waste.

Why I plan my meals.

Meal planning is one of my happy places! Sad, I know, but apart from the joy I get from being organised and being able to draw up lovely lists, it genuinely makes my life easier. I like cooking, I love trying complicated recipes, and I am very committed to eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet.

While I have always planned my meals in some shape or form, I have upped my game considerably over the last two or three years.  The fact that it contributes to reducing waste is a bonus.

I  was originally spurred on to be more proactive about meal planning for four reasons:

  1. To reduce decision fatigue. What to cook for dinner is a vexed question even in a household of one! Coming home after a day of work and thinking what the f$%# to cook for dinner was a drag, despite my love of cooking! It also makes shopping easier. More on this later.
  2. To ensure I eat properly. After my divorce, there was a time when I survived on potato wedges and wine. (Oh and BBQ sauce!) I couldn’t be bothered cooking, and my nutrition was suffering. Meal planning helped drag me out of that hole by giving me something concrete to concentrate on. That, and the blood test result that showed my liver was starting to revolt!
  3. To save money. By planning my meals, I only buy what I need and don’t have mystery ingredients in the fridge getting slimier and slimier! I make sure I use up what I have before I buy more and I use a shopping list.
  4. To save time. These days I only cook a couple of days a week and make sure I cook at least four servings each time. One for the current meal, one to take for lunch the next day and two for the freezer. I use the frozen meals for the remainder of the week. I usually try and put a week between the time I cook it and when I eat it, so I am not eating the same thing every day. This meant that I have had to buy some more freezable food containers, but these have come from the op shop. (BTW flatter, skinnier containers freeze quicker and allow you to play better freezer-Tetrus)

How I plan my meals.

Now that I am on a money-saving kick, I have changed my planning a little. In the past, I planned the meals and then went shopping. Now, I do it the other way around. I go to the fruit market and look at what is in season and cheap and buy that. I’ll then build the week’s plan around these foods.

For instance this week, pumpkin, parsnips and beetroot were super cheap, so I bought those as well as the usual staples of tomatoes, onions, leafy greens etc. Then, I come home and use either the recipes I have stored in my head or sites like Delicious, Yummly and others to come up with recipes.

This week, the beetroot got turned into beetroot risotto and a warm beetroot and lentil salad. The parsnips will get turned into parsnip mash, some of which will be frozen and some parsnip chips and the pumpkin was turned into pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins and three meals worth of pumpkin gnocchi.

Spreadsheets, of course!

You will not be surprised to know that I have some meal planning spreadsheets! Several! Feel free to copy and adapt as you like.

  1. A general weekly guideline: this is the blueprint or skeleton from which I start. I don’t stick to it rigidly, in that I will only eat lentils on Tuesdays but rather that within the week I make sure I have at least one lentil-based meal. This is a static document. Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.56.33
  2. A weekly meal plan overview: On this sheet, I consider things like
    1. what’s already in the freezer,
    2. what food I need to use up  (Priority ingredients)
    3. if I have any social/work things on where I will be eating out.Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.55.55
  3. A blank weekly plan: The final level. Here, I write the actual meals I have decided on and what recipes I’ll be using. If there is a web-based recipe, I copy the URL and add it to a note on Google Keep, so it’s easy to re-find. Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.55.41
  4. I use an app called My Shopping List on my phone. I am sure there are plenty of others, but this one works for me.

It takes me about half an hour to plan out the meals, and I think it’s 30 minutes well spent with a cup of tea and my iPad!

From a logistics point of view, I think a larger freezer is a must for successful meal planning and reducing food waste. However, be careful it does not become a morgue full of forgotten food! Label your items with the contents and date.

Thankfully, my Council has just announced that it is introducing FOGO from November. Even with a concerted effort not to waste food I still generate more peelings etc than my worm farm can cope with.

My contribution to reducing climate crisis may not be much, but every little bit counts!

 

 

 

 

Ecohacks – Episode 3 – Beeswax wraps.

Beeswax wraps are pieces of cotton fabric which have been soaked in melted beeswax. When the beeswax hardens, the fabric becomes water-resistant. The wraps function to replace plastic film in most, but not all situations. This helps reduce the amount of single-use plastic you use. It won’t save you much money, but you can feel good about making the swap and reducing your impact on the planet.

How to use the wraps.

Because the wax melts at a low temperature you can use the heat of your hands to mould it around the object you are wrapping.

You can not use the wraps for food that is:

  • Very wet or sloppy – they are water-resistant not waterproof.
  • Likely to leak. They do not form a very close seal with the edge of a bowl or plate so you can not create a leak-proof barrier.
  • Intended to be stored for a long time. The barrier is not perfect, bread for example will dry out after a few days.
  • Hot – the wax will melt.

Beeswax wraps are perfect for

  • Wrapping the sandwich which you make in the morning for your work lunch.
  • Covering a plate or bowl of food in the fridge for a day or two.
  • Wrapping up some crackers or popcorn.
  • Wrapping up things like muffins and bread rolls.

Do it yourself Beeswax wraps.

Beeswax wraps are super easy to make in your own kitchen and there are lots of YouTube videos to show you how.

Essentially the process is

  1. Pre-wash and iron the fabric before you start. This will remove any sizing or other chemicals that are lingering on the surface.
  2. Cut your fabric to size using pinking shears. I find a good mix of sizes is 25 x 25 cm, 30 x 30 cm and 35 x 45 cm.
  3. Preheat the oven to about 80 – 100ºC. If you can set it at 70ºC that would be better. The wax melts at around 60ºC. If the oven is too hot you will burn the wax.
  4. Line a deep baking tray with baking paper or foil (keep this to re-use)
  5. Lay the fabric in the tray and sprinkle with wax pellets. Approximately 1 pellet per 2 cm².  Another guide is about 15 g of wax for a 25 x 25 cm square.
  6. If the fabric does not fit in the tray, you can fold it over and sandwich the wax in between the folds.
  7. Place in the oven and keep a close watch. It takes about 2 – 3 minutes for the pellets to melt.
  8. When the wax melts, take the tray out and use a brush to spread the wax evenly.
  9. Pick up the fabric carefully by the corners and let it drip into the tray for a few seconds.
  10. Lay it down somewhere to cool and set. Repeat.

A few tips for your DIY:

  • Use lighter colours rather than dark colours. The folds in the fabric turn the wax white and you get ugly lines in your wraps.
denin wax wrap
This is a wrap I made with dark blue denim. Not recommended! Still works but it looks gross!
  • Use lightweight fabric like lawn or gingham. Denim is too thick and soaks up too much wax making them uneconomical. Do not use synthetics.
IMG_6012
This is made with organic cotton. The lines might still be there but you can’t see them.
  • Use pinking shears to cut your fabric. This, in combination with the wax, will stop them from fraying.
  • If you are going to make lots of wraps,  buy a 1 kg bucket of wax pellets, don’t buy the block. The block is cheaper and yes, you can grate it, but it takes ages and is very tedious. I buy mine from Australian Wholesale Oils or Happy Flame.
  • The organic wax is yellow and will change the colour of your fabric. The refined wax is cheaper and whiter.
  • Put a big sheet on the floor to catch the drips of wax. Believe me, you’ll be grateful you did. The wax is hard to clean up.
  • Put a towel or another sheet on your workbench to catch crumbs of wax.
  • Buy a silicone pastry brush to help you spread out the melted wax.
  • Some recipes use pine rosin. I don’t. The pine rosin makes the wraps stickier but some sites say the pine rosin is carcinogenic. It is also expensive and hard to get.
  • Make a big batch and give as gifts.  You’ll get a bit of a production line going.
  • If you want to earn extra eco-warrior points, use pre-loved fabric. The material used for men’s shirts is a perfect weight. I have also bought old serviettes and used them. They are already pre-cut and hemmed.
  • To care for your wraps, wipe down with warm soapy water. You should not wash them.
  • Some recipes also call for jojoba oil. I bought some and used it but to be frank couldn’t tell the difference.
  • I have also tried using the iron to melt the wax. I sandwiched the fabric and wax between sheets of baking paper. It worked OK, but made a bit of a mess! It was however very quick! If you have an old iron and a spare ironing board cover it’s worth a try.

I have been using beeswax wraps for 3 IMG_6009years. I have made lots, with the intention of selling them.

I have discovered that after a few months of use, the wax wears off. I have re-waxed these ones to rejuvenate them rather than making new ones. If they are really past their best you can compost them. Vegans can make wraps using soy wax, but I have never tried that.

 

 

 

PS if you don’t want to make your own, you can buy some of mine! Most of the wraps I have seen at markets are very ‘girly’. I have used more gender-neutral colours and patterns. I call them KingBee wraps. Cute hey! You can leave a comment or click on the contact page to arrange to order.

 

KingBee2

Healthy weight and mathematics

Maintaining a healthy body weight is a simple matter of mathematics. If your energy intake is higher than your energy output, you’ll gain weight, and if you use more energy than you eat, you’ll lose weight.

Energy in = Energy Out

As simple as that!

Pffft – yeah, right!

Our bodies are burning energy even when we are doing nothing, and because we have not mastered the art of photosynthesis, that energy must come from food. If you eat more food and hence consume more energy than you need, you will store the excess as fatty tissue. It’s not rocket science, even if it is maths!

This not-so-tricky maths gets in the way of things! As is the case with most people, I like eating!  I’d like to be able to eat more and maintain a healthy body weight. To do this, I need to use more energy.

Is there a way I can increase my energy expenditure without noticing it?

Our energy use is divided into three components:

  1. Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. This is the energy we use merely being alive. It is the amount of energy we use when we are at rest, after just waking up and with an empty belly. It accounts for around 60% of the energy sedentary people use each day. BMR is influenced by gender, age, and body mass. Essentially the bigger you are the more energy you need to keep your body idling. The older you get, the less energy you use. (So if your a little old(er) lady like me you’re not burning up much!)
  2. Thermic Effect of Food or TEF is the extra energy we need to digest and absorb our food.  It takes energy to break down the food in our digestive system and get it into our bloodstream. TEF is a bit like a service fee. The energy in our food needs to be converted into the type of energy our body can use, and this comes at a cost. It turns out that protein needs more energy to be converted into usable energy. TEF accounts for around 10 – 15% of our average daily energy expenditure.
  3. Activity Thermogenesis (AT) is the energy used up in moving around and is further broken into two categories.
      1. Exercise-related activity thermogenesis is the energy we use in deliberate exercise such as going to the gym, running, lifting weights, etc.
      2. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT is the incidental energy we use in walking around, picking up the kettle, sitting, standing, talking, shopping, cooking, doing the housework. The stuff we usually don’t change into active wear for!

Energy expenditure

We have the power to control activity thermogenesis. Since it makes up between 25 – 30% of the energy a sedentary person uses, it is the pathway to tipping the balance in favour of weight loss or gain.

Let’s pause for a little more maths.

  1. Every day has 24 hours.
  2. Let’s say you sleep for 8 of those hours where you are running on your BMR.
  3. That leaves 16 hours for you to burn up more energy.
  4. You spend one of your 16 waking hours at the gym (or running/swimming/whatever) and the other 15 hours doing the rest of life.
  5. That means only 6% of the time is used for exercise activity thermogenesis! For most people living ordinary urban lives, we sit on our butts for most of the other 15 hours! That means for 94% of our waking hours, we are using low levels of energy.

 

Thermogensis

Can you increase the amount of energy you burn in those other 15 hours?

The solution is self-evident! You have to increase the amount of energy you expend in all activities! Be more active and less sedentary! Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

In real life…not as easy as it sounds.

Life is busy. You can’t spend 5 hours at the gym every day. You have to go to work. You have to get to work, you have to look after your family. You have to DO life. You may not have time to increase your exercise-related activity, but you can increase the amount of energy you expend in non-exercise related activities?

How do you increase NEAT-ness in your life?

Here are a few suggestions. (some more sensible than others!)

  1. Fidget! Fidgeting wastes heaps of energy! Be careful you don’t annoy too many people though.
  2. Don’t sit when you can stand. If you work in an office, get a standing desk.
  3. Don’t stand still if you can fidget or move from side to side or jiggle around on the spot.
  4. Get your smart gadgets to buzz you if you are sitting still for too long.
  5. Walk to the next office to talk to someone rather than ring or email them.
  6. Ditch the remote control. Tape the remote to the TV, so you have to get up to change channels etc.
  7. Don’t sit in front of the telly and do nothing. If you’re going to watch telly – do something! Lie on the floor & do yoga stretches, get some hand weights or resistance bands and do a few (hundred) biceps curls while you’re bingeing on the newest must-watch show.  Alternate arms with legs and do some squats, lunges, hopping, hula hooping, etc.
  8. Don’t drive when you can walk or cycle. Pick a minimum distance and walk it. For instance, only drive if your destination is more than 3 km away.
  9. If you do have to drive, there are ways to do a sneaky car workout! It might not use much extra energy, but it’s better than nothing!
  10. Carry heavy things. Carry heavy things further.
  11. Park the car further away from the entrance when you go to the shops
  12. Get off the bus a stop earlier.
  13. Do 50 quick squats/lunges/calf raises while you’re brushing your teeth.
  14. Crank up the tunes while you’re doing the housework and dance like no-one is watching. If you’re doing the housework, probably nobody is watching! Check out these tips for exercises while cleaning. (some are a bit intense!)
  15. Play outdoors with your children/spouse/friends
  16. Take active holidays.
  17. Go for a hike rather than the movies.
  18. Choose more active leisure pursuits. Play tennis, not trivia. Go bowling.
  19. Choose a more active job! A labourer is going to use a lot more energy than an accountant!
  20. Wear fewer clothes and live in a colder climate! If you need to keep yourself warm, you’ll expend more energy.

The bottom line is, just move MORE and move more often.


Just for the record, sitting is NOT the new smoking. Research shows that the increase in mortality brought about by an excessively sedentary life is around 10%. The increase in mortality due to smoking is approximately 80%. So while both are bad for you, sitting is healthy compared to smoking!

Source:

Levin J.A. Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Nutrition Reviews Vol 26 No 1 pp S82-S97

 

 

 

Soup Season: Winter, a time for great soups.

I am getting excited because we have entered soup season! Who doesn’t love a good heart-warming (or is it gut-warming)  soup? I enjoy both creamy and chunky versions.

Soups have so many advantages:

  1. They are a great way of using up those close to expired vegetables lurking in the bottom of your fridge.
  2. They are economical and can make ingredients go a long way
  3. They are usually easy to prepare, but that, of course, will depend on the recipes that you choose.
  4. They are versatile and flexible. How many varieties are there? Google “soup recipes” and you get 672,000,000 hits! No doubt there are lots of double-ups but still, that’s a lot of soup.
  5. They are filling, especially with some nice crusty bread
  6. You can freeze them for later.
  7. You can add in all sorts of good for your gut ingredients.

I make lots of soup in winter. Lots! I always have the image of the Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi in my mind as I cook. I hear that fellow yell out “No soup for you!” but change it to “Yes! Soup for You!” A few years ago I even had the idea of doing a new blog based entirely on soup! I still might do that. It was provisionally entitled Sunday Soup Sessions.

Here are a couple of my favourites.

Harira (Moroccan lamb, tomato and lentil soup)

Lots and lots of good things in this soup. I am not sure if it would work so well without the meat.

Lamb Soup
Those Moroccans sure know how to make a good soup!

 

Orange Vegetable Soup

I make up my own recipes and it’s a bit hard to give the precise list of ingredients for these.

A case in point is this pumpkin, sweet potato and carrot soup spiced with ginger and turmeric.

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 12.02.31

The ingredients and method could be roughly translated as

Ingredients
  • Pumpkin – as much as you have depending on how much you want to make – cut into cubes
  • Sweet potato (orange variety) –  about half the amount of pumpkin – cut into cubes
  • Carrots – about the same as the sweet potato – cut into chunks
  • Stock and water – I would have used chicken stock but vegetable stock would be fine. How much…well that depends on how many vegetables you are using! At least a litre.
  • Tumeric – powdered or fresh, grated
  • Ginger –  fresh grated
  • Onion – at least 2 – sliced
  • Garlic – 1 tablespoon-ish
  • Olive oil
  • Lime juice to serve.
  • Feta cheese for garnish
Method
  1. Fry the onions and garlic in the oil till soft
  2. Add the turmeric and ginger and saute for 1 – 2 minutes.
  3. Add the veggies
  4. Stir around in the oil to coat and saute for 2 – 3 minutes
  5. Add enough stock to partially cover the veggies
  6. Put the lid on and simmer until the vegetables are tender. (maybe 30 minutes?)
  7. Use a stick blender to blend in the pot, adding more stock/water as needed to get the right consistency. Or transfer really carefully to your jug blender/mouli thingy and blend till smooth.
  8. Adjust seasoning
  9. Serve with lemon or lime juice and garnishes as you like.

Have you got any soup season recipes to share?

 

Mini-Doc of the Week 3 – Making Pasta

Is making your own pasta worth it?

I have been investigating ways to reduce my grocery bills, plastic packaging and keep an eye on what is in my food. I thought I’d give making pasta from scratch another try. I’ve done it a few times before but still had more problems than I thought I would.

A little longer than the advertised 1 minute! I’ll get better at making shorter ones as the year goes by.

I hope you enjoy my struggle!

 

 

Recipe

600 g flour

370 g eggs (4 really big ones!)

Kneaded by hand for 12 minutes

Then mixed in an ancient Kenwood for about a minute

Rested for 30 minutes

Mixed again in the Kenwood!!

Another rest (for us both!)

Then struggling with the pasta roller!

 

If you want to have a look at someone who really knows what they are doing, check out this lady! She makes it look easy!

As it turns out, given pasta is cheap, lasts well in the pantry and tastes more or less the same as the homemade stuff, I don’t think it’s worth it. A packet of dried lasagna costs  $A3.70. My afternoon’s efforts made the equivalent of  3 boxes for around $A5:00 – a saving of $6… let’s not factor in the labour cost! I did have some fun which should be factored in.

Shot entirely on my iPhone SMAX and edited using iMovie on my iMac.

Coffee and your wallet

A cappuccino in a green cup.

Black gold

Last week I wrote about the nutritional value (or not) of coffee, this week the focus is on economic factors. This is a simplified analysis and not meant to be an economic treatise. There are no doubt, lots of angles I have not considered.

Microeconomics – your budget.

Café coffee:

As a point of reference, I am going to use my regular order of a skim milk regular sized cappuccino as the “standard” purchase. You can pay anywhere from $A3:50 – $A6:00 depending on size and location so I will use a cost of $4 per cup.

If you buy one cappuccino every day, you are going to spend $4 x 365 = $1460 per capita per annum.

So maybe you only buy coffee on the days you work. Using a 5 day work week and four weeks annual leave that’s $4 x 240 = $960.

Let’s say your working life is around 40 years;  you’ll end up spending between $40,000 – $60,000 on coffee! If you’re living as a couple, that could be $80-120,000 over your lifetimes.

SHIT that’s scary money!

That’s three years of mortgage payments! Is it worth it?

Do-it-yourself coffee – instant.

Ok, so you’ve decided you can’t do without coffee. Can you save money by making your own?

Well yes!

A  200 g jar of instant coffee will set you back around $13 from Woollies and will make around 100 cups of coffee. Plus there’s milk and sugar or sweetener if you use it. I am not going to try and factor those in here.

If we stick to the one cup per day, every day of the year you will spend $47 per annum.

Over your work life and not allowing for inflation; $1900.

BOOM!  An instant saving of $38K per person. But you aren’t going to switch to Moccona because we have all become coffee snobs who want “proper” coffee from the trendy cafe! And in reality, you’ll probably drink both the made at home/work and the cup(s) from the cafe.

Maybe you can buy a coffee machine and save money that way?

P1520256-11

Do-it-yourself – coffee machine.

This calculation presents a few problems. It’s a bit of a “how-long-is-a-piece-of-string” argument. Just typing “coffee makers” into Google; gives you machines ranging from $3000 to $59. If you spend $3000 on a coffee machine, it will take you 2 years to make your money back, and I bet you won’t!

Why?

Because even if you have a fancy coffee maker, you’ll still buy coffee from the cute little cafe near work! You know you will!

Using a pod machine will save you money too, BUT you’ll have to deal with the environmental cost of all those plastic or metal pods. AND you’ll still buy coffee from the cute little cafe near work! You know you will!

Of course, you could grind your own coffee too and use a plunger or lots of other methods which would be cheaper than cafe coffee so you could potentially spend much less than that estimate of $60,000 over a working lifetime.

I’m not here to tell you how to spend your money or tell you if you can afford that or not. You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but you may have not given it much thought. I think the main point is that coffee is a luxury. While some of you will argue that it is essential, it’s not. Not like food or shelter. The money you spend on it is discretionary.

Macroeconomics – the global economy

The Production Side of Coffee

Coffee is derived from two main species Coffea arabica and C. Robusta. It has only been in widespread usage as a beverage for around 500 years. It is thought to have originated in Ethiopia where it was domesticated before being distributed widely. The now huge South American crop originated from the seeds of a single plant taken from the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens.

The ten biggest coffee growing nations are Brazi, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, Peru, Ethiopia, Mexico, India, Guatemala and Uganda. The countries that consume the most coffee are (in order) United States, Germany, Japan, Italy and France.

I think you can see how things are going to pan out here. There is an imbalance between the economic power of the people who grow coffee and the people who drink coffee.

Poor people grow it, rich(er) people drink it.

The price of coffee is controlled by the commodity markets in New York and London, a long way from the growers. It is the second most traded commodity after crude oil. I have no idea how these commodity markets work, but I’m sure that the people on the floor yelling and shouting at each other aren’t thinking about whether a grower can feed his family on what he will be paid.

According to the documentary  Black Gold (2014), Ethiopian farmers are paid around 65c per kilo. It costs them 90c to produce one kilo of coffee. (huh???)  There are up to six steps in the chain from grower to consumer with each step adding to the price. The coffee part of your daily cup is only worth around 3 cents. While this data is now five years old, the principle remains the same. The growers are not given a fair price for their labour and have to endure significant hardship so you can be perky.

I recommend you download the Black Gold documentary. You can watch the trailer here or buy/rent the full version.

Watch it,  then try and drink your coffee with a clear conscience!

The consumption side of coffee

I live in the small city of Wollongong which has a population of just under 300,000. A Google search of cafes in Wollongong throws up 8 pages of results. The people at Wollongong Council told me there are X cafes. (I’m waiting on the council to get back to me with that number but it’s lots! ) That’s a lot of cafes and a lot of jobs. Multiply that by towns in Australia, and then the world. There must be a bazillion million million dollars sloshing around in coffee.

People who work in or own cafes aren’t exactly rolling in cash either. In Australia, there are more small traders selling coffee compared to big chains like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.  Many cafe workers are students earning the minimum wage. Then there are the roasters, the distributors, the drivers who deliver the coffee, the importers, the cup manufacturers, the barista trainers, the espresso machine makers, etc. etc. etc.!

According to IBIS World, the cafe and coffee shop industry in Australia alone is worth $10Bn with a growth rate of 2.2%. 139,091 people are employed by 20375 businesses. (I don’t think this includes all the ancillary services listed above.) Contrary to what I was thinking, this represents only a tiny proportion of the total value of Australian business which was estimated to be around $1.7 trillion in 2016.

So, perhaps the Australian economy wouldn’t fall over if we all stopped buying coffee, but it would be sleepier and grumpier!

Can you be a more ethical coffee consumer?

Yes – to an extent.

  • Buy your coffee from a small business rather than big chains or multinationals. That way your money goes to pay for a family’s expenses and not making faceless corporations bigger.
  • Choose places that offer fair trade or direct trade coffee and be prepared to pay a little more if needed.  Read more about ethical coffee buying here
  • You can look at helping finance a grower directly through an organisation such as Kiva which provides micro-loans directly to people in need. You can read about Kiva here.

 

Small Bars In Wollongong

Wollongong’s nightlife grows up.

Part 1

Somewhere between me being 45 and nearly 60, Wollongong’s nightlife has been through a metamorphosis. At one time, Wollongong had a reputation for being violent. Rolling brawls spilled out of places like the Glasshouse onto the streets and kept people like me at home.  We didn’t feel comfortable sharing noisy venues with barely-clad chicky babes and young men whose sole goal was to get “maggoted”. My friends and I stayed at home and had civilised dinner parties, sometimes venturing out to the popular Little Prince* only to be disappointed because we couldn’t find a seat.

(*I’ll review the Littel Prince in another post)

More recently and I’m reticent to use the word “suddenly” because I’m sure it has not been sudden, there has been a torrent of small bars setting up shop. These places have style, the music is quieter, the seats more comfortable and the lighting more subdued.

It’s not so much a case of Wollongong changing from an ugly caterpillar into a butterfly, because some those rowdier places are still open for business. Rather, new classier blood has moved into the neighbourhood offering more choice to a broader range of patrons. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice at the moment!

My friends and I are not looking for somewhere to “hook up” or meet a date. We want a place where we can feel comfortable alone or with a group of friends for a chat. We enjoy good food and are fussy in our choice of drinks.  We want background music that stays in the background and excellent amenities in terms of toilets, glassware and seating.

So which small bars are a good match for Old Chooks?

In the interests of research, I decided to hit the streets and review the boutique and small bar scene, systematically and scientifically. Armed with an online survey, I enlisted the help of some dedicated Old Chooks (Diane and Karen) to critically evaluate what was on offer.

So far, we have checked out six small bars over two nights in Febraury and March 2019.  We will bravely venture out again to check out more bars in the coming months. Tough work but someone has to do it!

Methodology

I must say we approached our task with enthusiasm, and frankly, I think we got a little overexcited. It was funny how having a purpose changed the dynamics of a night out, transforming it from a simple social get-together to a serious mission. It also meant we were more observant than we would have been otherwise. The methodology is simple. We each pick a bar, then work out the most efficient walking route between them. Once at the bar, we carefully check the food and drinks menu and the toilets. These are the deal breakers in our view! We try to engage the bar staff in conversation without giving our game away. We order a drink each and some food to share and then after an hour or so move onto the next bar.

Three bars, three drinks, three snacks.

In that hour, we are busy on our phones filling in the survey and discussing the lighting, the ambience, the crowd and the facilities. The survey is comprehensive, and each question is given a score. The scores are then added up to provide an overall rating. There are a few inherent biases in the method. The first bar on the list is reviewed early in the night, and it may not have yet reached its peak ambience. Another factor is that the third bar is considered after 2 drinks. Hopefully, we are not such cheap drunks that our focus is too frayed!

The reviews

Juniper Bar

121 Keira Street, Wollongong

Juniper was our first review, and we started there at about 7:30 PM. There were plenty of available tables. The crowd was made up of three male/female couples and a group of eight 30-40-year-old females. Four men walked in, looked around and walked out. Perhaps it was a bit girly for their taste? The concrete walls were sponged with pastel tones, and there was no other decoration. The wooden tables were garnished with small candles and a bit of greenery in a recycled jar. The concrete floor and walls created a noisy vibe, and the music was too loud for easy conversation. There was a definite need for some soft surfaces to act as noise dampeners. The bar itself had a charming backlit display which was very interesting.

Juniper, as the name suggests, is a gin bar. There was an extensive selection of gin but little else besides. The printed menu was very informative and gave good descriptions of the gin varietals.  They offered gin-based cocktails as well as straight nips and various tonic mixers. The drinks ranged in price from $11 – $19. The food menu was minimal (a choice a three) and there was no vegetarian option.  We chose the drinks plate: a platter of cheese and meats with very crunchy toasted bread ~ $25. The two wait staff were friendly.

BEST:  Excellent subdued lighting. The bar was nicely lit and looked very pretty.

WORST: Noise levels and food choices.

Black Cockatoo.

88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (behind the Creamies gelato shop)

I felt like a secret agent entering the Black Cockatoo with its hidden entry off an ice cream parlour. I wish you needed to give a secret handshake! Once inside the dark interior was reminiscent of an American bar. Booths lined the walls with a few standing tables as well as seats at the bar. It’s a small venue with a capacity for around 30. A large painted mural of a cockatoo and a few band posters were the only decorations.  Still, it had a nice ambience tending to retro. Two 20-something men were serving. They were very casually dressed in long shorts and t-shirts. The food menu was again minimal and this time consisted of packet chips, sausage rolls and cheese and spinach pies. Don’t come here looking for a meal! The drinks menu was small and limited to canned beers, a few imported draft beers and a  small selection of wine. Drink prices were reasonable, ranging from $6 up to $15.

When we arrived at 8:30, we were the only ones there for a few minutes, and the boys were happy to chat while not being obtrusive. With a very late licence, this would be the place for a late night meet-up, not an Old Chooks night out. There was one toilet which had no hand towels although it was tidy in other respects. The music was great, probably meant to be retro but it was all our era!

BEST: The secret agent feel and the music.

WORST: Food. Although, to be honest, if you were here late at night, a sausage roll might be perfect!

Births and Deaths.

2/74 Kembla St, Wollongong

Births and Deaths has had a fair bit of cash thrown at it. The black walls frame the $6000 -worth of Italian tiles that back the bar. There is one long re-manufactured stone table in the middle of the room which would comfortably seat 30 and cafe style seating around outside of the room as well as a few stools at the bar. The bar was half full, with an interesting mix of people. B&D offered table service, a nice touch. We chatted at length to one of the owners, Jared. He explained his philosophy which focused on sustainability. He said they reused as much as possible. The straws were metal, the coasters, washable fabric. The kitchen ran on the concept of minimising waste with the beetroot and pumpkin scraps leftover from the tasting plates used to make syrup for drinks. According to Jared of Births and Deaths, my friends and I are part of the targeted demographic boutique bars in Wollongong are looking for. Cashed up and older.  Young folk, you see “pre-drink” and are stingy about buying food. Old Chooks like us, on the other hand, go out early, buy more expensive drinks and order lots of food. He is also part owner of the Howling Wolf and works in partnership with Cavaeu (a hatted restaurant nearby). He was very accommodating and chatty and talked to us about his plans and the issues of getting a licence and permission to operate.

B&D is also a gin bar but has a broader selection of wine and beers than Juniper. The food was unique, and while not vegetarian, was mostly plant-based. We tried a pumpkin plate which included morsels of pumpkin cooked a few different ways as well as some cheese and tomato toasties.

BEST: The food and the staff.

WORST: The toilet while not unisex, was not very private and it was easy to “disturb” the privacy of other patrons.

Night Parrot

69 Crown St, Wollongong

The Night Parrot was our first stop on the second research night. The technical hitches we had with the online survey (Diane’s phone going flat and Karen using the wrong form)   had been solved, so we were ready to go! A fourth researcher, Tanya, joined us. There were five other groups of people and seating was not a problem. The other patrons were well dressed and included a few couples. The decor was dark and classy with one wall lined with highly varnished wood panels. The remaining walls and ceiling were painted black and gave the place a cave-like feel.  The Night Parrot is a wine bar and features a walk-in wine cabinet which takes up one of the on-street windows. The busy kitchen was visible from the bar and added significantly to the atmosphere with steam wafting up from the stoves. There was seating at the bar as well as open tables and three padded “booths” which seated three comfortably with the fourth at the other side of the table. There was table service, and it took a little longer than expected to give our orders. I had decided to do Feb-Fast and was not drinking alcohol, and while the others were quickly served their wine, I had to ask a second time for my soda water. The volume of the music created a pleasant, unobtrusive feel and allowed for easy conversation. The lighting was on the dark side. This along with the dark walls, gave it a cozy atmosphere. The bar area was brightly lit. The one toilet cubicle was unisex. It was large and spacious with plenty of extra rolls of paper, gentle soap and a blower dryer. The decor was eclectic with a large suspended branch acting as a chandelier.

A small selection of food was on offer. I had the dumplings which were tasty and good value at four pieces for $14.  The wine selection was a mix of local and imported wines and over a wide price range. Both Diane and Tanya ($22) were pleased with their grenaches, one local ($14) one imported ($22).

BEST:  The decor and the wine selection;

WORST:  We thought that with the way the seating was arranged, it would be tough to feel comfortable as a solo visitor.

Moominn

68 Crown St, Wollongong

Moominn is a  quirky, warm, cozy place. It reminded me of someone’s  Grandma’s lounge room. There is a mixture of seating from a few lounge chairs around a fireplace to kitchen tables with old lino chairs. Some seating at the bar is also available. There are all sorts of bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling. Baskets, flowers, light fittings,  bottles, umbrellas etc. The walls are entirely covered with mismatched pictures which scream out OP SHOP find. A large blackboard shows the specials as well as a few witty quotes. They had flavoursome zero alcohol beer, and I would have had another if we were staying longer.

 

The others all had the same red wine and seemed satisfied with their choice. The drinks were served in very simple, practical glasses.  The barkeeper was friendly and offered advice on what beer they had when I asked for no alcohol. The food was OK. I found it a bit oily although the others enjoyed the mix of deep fried mushrooms, cauliflower and cheese bites. A second plate with bread and meatballs was very garlicky. The two dishes were $50 in total. They were small servings, and this seemed expensive to me. The single well-lit toilet is out back through the kitchen.  Quaint sayings are painted on the walls, and the jumbled, over-decorated theme continues here.

The music, while pleasant, was too loud. There was a good crowd of around 20 in attendance, We originally sat at the bar and swooped on a table when it was vacated. The partons were a very mixed group with a good spattering of older people.  It would be easy to visit Mooninn as a solo traveller with the lounge chairs near the fire being cozy and private.

BEST: Quirky fun feel

WORST: Noise levels

The Throsby

2/88 Kembla St, Wollongong

The Throsby is one of the more established small bars in Wollongong and has been open for several years. I had been there before. The waitress seemed to be annoyed when we walked in, and her face showed it.  It looked like we had crashed a private party. It was only 10:10 PM. The first thing she said was the kitchen has closed. Most of the tables were empty, and there were two other groups. A group of four young men at the table nearest the door and a group of six young people at the bar.

The decor is muted and sophisticated. You could describe it as Scandi with blond timber and fine lines. A petite arrangement of flowers/leaves was on each table. The light fittings were chic woven timber. Their glassware was elegant, and I had a tasty pink grapefruit-soda water mix. The music was bland but at a reasonable volume. The one toilet was a bit messy and smelly. It might have been OK  at the beginning of the night but needed a clean at this time.

IMG_5870

Karen and Tanya both commented that the wine was a bit acidic. We could not comment on the food as we did not see a menu. Although the vibe was quite pleasant, we did not interact with the wait staff at all beyond ordering our drinks. We did not score the Throsby well, and we perhaps were over critical because of our less than enthusiastic greeting.

BEST: decor and glassware:

WORST: Reception on arrival. If you’re not open for business, close the door!

And the winner (so far) is…

The graph below shows our overall scores for the six bars visited to date. Births and Deaths has come out as a clear winner for many reasons. Jared was a star. Friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend time chatting with us telling us about his philosophy. This made all the difference.column graph showing scores for bars in Wollongong

(not great photography sorry!)

Is your daily coffee habit making you fat, farty, and broke?

A cappuccino in a green cup.

I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.;  it got me thinking.

Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?

My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)

Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.

Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.

Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?

Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?

Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.

I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.

With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.

On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.

  1. Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
  2. Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
  3. I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!

I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!

I’m still working on Parts 3 – 5!

 

The Vietnam Cookery Center

A few years ago I went to Vietnam on my way home from Israel. Not exactly a direct route… but since I was transiting through South Korea it was not too much out of my way.  The main focus of the trip was to join a small group tour with Intrepid Travel from Hanoi in the north down to Ho Chi Min City. I stayed on in Ho Chi Min City for a couple of days to catch up with some friends who were living there at the time.  Vietnamese food is a favourite of mine so I was keen to try a cookery school.

Vietnam Cookery Centre - Ho Chi Min City
Vietnam Cookery Centre – Ho Chi Min City

Australia has a relatively large population of Vietnamese people who came here as refugees in the 1970’s and 80, when Australia had a more humane and sensible policy towards refugees than it does now … but that’s a different story.  As a result, it’s not hard to find a good, authentic Vietnamese restaurant.  Their cuisine has become almost mainstream with school canteens offering rice paper rolls as a matter of course. I have always found it tasty, light and satisfying.

Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leave with prawns.
Green Spring Rolls – Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leaf with prawns.

I booked an afternoon class with The Vietnam Cookery Center after reading reviews on Trip Advisor. The Cookery School is still open and gets consistently good ratings.

The School was on the fourth floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong St and easy to find. I was able to walk there from my hotel without a problem although it didn’t look like a cookery school at first!

a dark lobby area with a kitchen just visible through a doorway
View from the elevator

The three hour lesson was around $US40. There were two other women who were from Sweden doing the course with me. Their husbands joined them to eat what they had cooked after the class.

A group of 3 people two men and a women at a table waiting to start eating.
Sitting down to eat the fruits of our labours.

We were welcomed by a young woman who spoke good English (and whose name I don’t remember sorry)  who explained what we would be doing before we were introduced to the rather stern looking Chef  – Bai Van Bao.  I don’t think he spoke the entire time and he only smiled once… right at the end.  I got the impression this was part of the performance. Very much like the Iron Chef if you have seen that Japanese Cooking show.

A chef with black hat and jacket rolling up his sleeves preparing to cook
Chef Bao – a very serious chap!

The Chef would demonstrate first and then we would copy. The ingredients were all laid out, pre-measured and chopped.

A Chef stiring a pan with various dry spices over a gas flame.
Preparing the spice mix for Pho

All the dishes were made from scratch, except the pho (a beef  and noodle soup, pronounced “fur”). The stock and meat requires about 5 hours cooking time so this would not have been possible to make in the time frame we had. The stock was bubbling away when we got there and the Chef showed us how to add the spice mix at the end and assemble to soup.

The ingredients were very fresh, the recipes uncomplicated and the resultant dishes very tasty. As participants, we made  green spring rolls with a dipping sauce; sauteed chicken with spicy sauce and sweet basil and steamed rice with pandan leaves. The pho and a fruit dessert had been made for us. We walked away with a full belly, a recipe book and a nice apron. In my mind a great way to spend the afternoon.

a bowl of beef and noodle soup with a beer on the side
Tasty Pho

Finally a smile!

a chef dressed in black smiles as he holds a cook book.
Smiling Chef Bao

These photos were taken 2 cameras ago using JPG rather than RAW which I use to shoot now. Looking at them I can see my photography has come a long way!

Reflection of the photgrapher in a mirror
A theme from this trip to Vietnam was to take mirror-Selfies.

If you are looking for other things to do in Vietnam check out this post with 50 things to do in Vietnam