Sun print magic

Sunshine plus homemade cyanotype paper equals a recipe for a good experiment. When the sun shone this weekend, I was ready for it. I had my water colour paper painted with cyanotype chemical mix and had been looking forward to the day when I could eventually experiment with sun printing. This Prussian blue and white dream had finally emerged from a short online course done during the darkness of winter.

So I foraged about the garden picking out pretty weeds, leaves and flowers to create patterns. To be honest, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with them or how well things would turn out. I selected my paper, carefully arranged the leaves and clamped the glass on top. Then I left the collages out in the sun, taking note of the timings. The paper started to change colour almost instantly to a blue green. However, I read I should leave it until the paper took on a more bronzed hue.

When the colour looked about right, it was time to take off the glass and leaves and wash the paper. The colours initially faded, but then transformed into a beautiful deep blue. I was transfixed. My little experiment had worked. I’d made a print!

First prints hanging up to dry

Now that I could see what leaves worked better, different plants came into focus. I’d try lupin, black currant and raspberry leaves, as well as daisies and forget-me-nots. The prints started to take on better compositions, and I even got a little cocky – why not try soap suds and cling film for more texture? I’d been inspired by watching YouTube videos from professional photographer Stephen Mcnally.

Different leaves and flowers have different effects

I found the whole process of selecting plants, making compositions, experimenting with layers and liquids completely absorbing. What would happen if I added this? Or changed that? The icing on the cake was to have a set of beautiful blue prints, made completely from scratch by me. I’m already thinking ahead to my next cyanotype experiment, and the cotton material is already on order!

One print without and one with soap suds and clingfilm

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Time to tool up

I like to make things. Always have. One thing I’ve wanted to do was saw wood and make useful things. On and off I’ve envisioned beachcombing and creating fancy picture frames with driftwood. Or more recently, being able to build a shed with salvaged wood and windows. But I never learned any carpentry skills from school, friends or family, until now.

A friend recently posted on Facebook that she was doing a 10 week course for women to learn trade skills such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical. I wish I could do a course like that too. I could be handy at home and know how to fix things, and not feel so helpless. I saw no similar courses advertised here, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had neighbours who knew stuff, and had sheds full of equipment and materials. So I asked for help to build a small cold frame for my garden.

I thought a small project, such as a cold frame, would be a good start. It’s basically just a box. I was told, “Oh, you just need to find some old wood or a pallet”. I’m shy about asking for things like that, or even taking things that have been put out on the street. I also owned zero equipment, something hard to believe if you’re used to tinkering about, fixing and making things. Thankfully my neighbour sorted me out with wood he’d got from a skip after another neighbour was having his roof redone, and a window salvaged from his work.

I’d never picked up a saw before, so it was a weird experience dragging it across the wood the first few times, feeling it judder and stick. After some tips from my neighbour, I quickly got the hang of it and started cutting the wood to the dimensions that he’d calculated. Yet another first was to pick up a power tool and use it to drill in screws. No hammer involved here as the banging would rattle the wood about. While I’m still not brilliant at driving the screws in straight, I certainly got plenty of practice. I also learned how to attach the window by adding hinges and a handle. As the window was old, I even learned to apply putty around the frame.

After two hours, the cold frame from recycled wood was made. I felt very proud to have done most of the work, and learned lots of tips and basic techniques. In my eyes, it’s a thing of beauty. I’m willing my newly planted seeds to germinate so I can move them into it to harden off. What to make next? A shed might still be a step too far, or is it?

Cold frame made of recycled wood

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Making Tatarstan pumpkin belesh

I’ve done more YouTube viewing than usual these days and one evening came across a vlog by a young Russian couple, The Ulengovs, capturing local traditions in the Russian countryside. They’ve transported me to Tatarstan, Dagestan and Udmurtia, places I’ve only heard of in travel documentaries. I’ve watched amazed by the skill each person has at cooking in traditional wood ovens. The food made is wholesome and filling. The homes look cosy despite the snow in the winter, but this simple life must be far from easy.

One video captivated me more than the others. Transported to a blue and white painted wooden house surrounded by snow, a local Tatar woman makes pumpkin belesh, a traditional pie filled with pumpkin, millet and raisins in a crisp pastry. The house is silent except for the cracking of eggs, wet mixing of ingredients and the chopping of pumpkin. The pie is made without measuring, just a pinch of this, a handful of that and mixed mainly by hand. The juicy content of grated pumpkin, millet and raisins is topped with generous slices of butter; the dough kneaded softly and carefully pinched around to seal the contents. How comforting this was to watch. I wanted a bite of this simple, steaming hot pie.

So why not give it a go? The ingredients were finally posted on the vlog, and I was right – there was mayonnaise in the pastry! So with a bit of guesstimating, I got my hands in there and squished, pounded and pinched until I had a pie that I felt resembled the one on my screen. In the oven it went, guessing at both temperature and time. Almost an hour later and I had an impressive pie. But after a day spent walking and foraging in my local woods, I was hungry and forgot to photograph my pie after it came out of the oven. All that remained for the photo was this one delicious slice. I’m so happy I gave this a go.

Pumpkin belesh

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