My experience hosting a supperclub

(File this one under “things I should have blogged months ago!”)

In November last year, just over a year after I opened our doors for CDWM, we hosted a supper club in our house.

We weren’t cooking, we were hosting for my vegan chef friend who used to blog here but is presently on hiatus.

I think it was a good evening. We had an interesting blend of people, who enjoyed our chef’s food. Our guests were a mix of vegans and not. For an evening, we had a house full of people who had never been here before.

In order to get the house ready we had spent about a week tidying clutter away, and I spent the Saturday hoovering, dusting and laying tables. Our guests didn’t seem disgusted by the state of our house, but then, as we learned on Come Dine With Me, they don’t usually express their disgust to your face! (And they weren’t allowed in as many rooms as the CDWM guys!)

Some things I learned:

* if I borrow a table and six chairs, I can easily seat 16 people for dinner in our house.

* We already have enough cutlery, crockery, glassware, candles, table linen without borrowing any more (!)

* in November, we need to run the heating all day to get the house tolerably warm

* if you deadbolt the kitchen door and put a camping table up against it you can get an extra prep surface. But it will be uncomfortably low down.

Some things that were hiccoughs along the way:

Boiling enough water to feed gnocchi to 16 people takes a looong time. They had to be cooked in separate batches because some of them were gluten free, so we needed two pans of boiling water. The gnocchi had been made ahead and frozen and needed to be plunged into large pans of boiling water. Getting 20l of water to the boil in a domestic kitchen is a time consuming challenge.

The second thing that held us up was plate warming. This is all the more important in our house because our kitchen is unheated and the cupboards fix directly to the walls. In winter, some of our cupboards are colder than our fridge. Our plates are often icy. There’s no point getting the food good and warm if you then By the time we needed warm plates, the oven was very hot cooking puff pastry, and the sink was full of used pots and pans. We actually warmed plates in the end by wetting them and microwaving them, all the while worrying this might break them.

Two of our guests were the hosts of North Nott’s Clarkies Supperclub (last few spaces remaining at their April event!). We had been worried they might be hostile to competition, but that wasn’t the case at all. It seems there is plenty of market share available for another supper club in the Nottingham neck of the woods – in fact there doesn’t appear to be any other one currently running anywhere in the East Midlands. The Clarkies have said they are keen for others to set up just so they have an opportunity to go and eat out instead of hosting for a change.

They had suggestions for the platewarming problem – buy a hostess trolley. They’re pricey new, but there does seem to be a steady supply of really cheap ones on eBay.

Which leads me to my conclusion. Would I do this again? Is it worth buying a hostess trolley off eBay? So far, I only have experience of hosting and not cooking. At our last event, our chef partner did all the cooking, devised the menu, and did all the publicity, mostly through the very obliging Nottingham Vegan website. I’m not sure I could cook as well as our chef, nor present the food as well, nor work out such an interesting menu.

Certainly working as a teacher I could not run an event in term time, as the prep and publicity would take too long. Do I want to spend half terms hosting a restaurant in my house?

If you do it regularly, it does seem to take over your house a little. In her book, Kerstin Rodgers confesses she’s had to move her entire life into the bedroom of her flat as her sitting room is dominated now by tables and chairs. In conversation with the Clarkies, it seems they have had to give over a spare bedroom to holding the folding chairs, tables, extra dinner services and linen they need.

Do you ever make any money from it? We were on a profit share basis with our chef partner and at the end of the evening divvied up the takings. And we got a nice handful of tenners in return for our efforts. We had incurred some cost – heating, and professional help in cleaning up ready for our guests – so we comfortably broke even. But the temptation to buy ever more things to make the evening go better – cooking kit, serving kit, must mean if you do it regularly, you incur costs. Would it ever get to the point where you made money? I doubt it. I guess most people who do it, do it for the love of food and the interesting times you end up with.

Will we do it again? I have not ruled it out forever, but I am sure as heck going to try and get teaching a bit more sorted out before I have another go myself. So certainly ruling it out for PGCE year and (hopefully) NQT year to summer 2013.

Your gardening suggestions please…

… for things you can plant, that need next to no looking after, that yield an edible crop, year after year.

Rhubarb would be an obvious one, I think. Both of us think we don’t like rhubarb, but it could just be we didn’t like it as children and haven’t properly revisited our opinion in adulthood. Then there’s the worry of the “poisonous” leaves – Wikipedia says it would take the average adult 5kg of disgusting bitter leaves to get a lethal dose.

Raspberry canes might be another? I think you’re supposed to cut them down at the end of the season, but I’m sure I remember some self-seeded ones in my grandfather’s garden that did nearly as well as the highly-attended-to ones in the fruit cage.

We do have an elder tree which yields lovely flowers for elderflower cordial around this sort of time each year. This year, I’m also planning to have a go at elderflower vodka as well for something tasty to last a little longer.

We’ve no room for any more trees, and we have far more shaded parts of our garden than sunny, because of all the trees around the edges.

We have a few seedlings that have been kindly donated this year, which is more than we have managed in the past. If we manage to get them past the highly dubious stage where the local slugs eat out all the growing shoots, that will be a minor miracle.

Really cold

The weather station in my garden recorded a low temperature of -6.6deg last night – that is really cold! The Calverton weather page says that’s the lowest in seven years – although last year ran it close.

So cold that in the middle of the night there were strange noises that woke us up. We think they were the conservatory shrinking in the cold. The frost on the roof didn’t melt at all during the day (which is possibly an indication of how much our new conservatory is not actually a suntrap at all). Bedroom thermometer said the bedroom got down to 15 degrees, which given that it’s been remarkably constant at 19deg is quite a drop.

But not as cold as in my parents’ town in Herefordshire – their garden thermometer recorded a night-time low of -8.5.

The last week has shown cold, but sunny days, and the solar panel performance has been impressive. Until very recently I have worried a bit that solar won’t do enough over the summer. But these last few days, even though outside hasn’t got much over 10 degrees, the panel has consistently got above 30 degrees, which makes a good difference to the base temperature of our cylinder before the gas boiler kicks in in the evenings.

Observation shows that it takes the gas boiler a good two hours to heat the hot water cylinder enough over 60 degrees for me to have my planet-killing luxurious long hot shower in the morning. So I know that for the panel to completely replace the gas heating, the panel needs to get up to 80 degrees for at least two hours. That’s looking distinctly more possible over the summer if we can get over 30 degrees on sunny, cold wintry days.

Electric meter reading

My electric meter reading yesterday afternoon was 000000!

This is because Eon contacted me at the start of the new year and said it was time to replace my electric meter, which had reached the end of its life.

So yesterday, we went from this meter, with its old dials and wheels, and the wheel at the front to show how fast we were using power:

Old meter

To this soulless white monstrosity:

New meter

On the way, we also lost our radio teleswitch. No more thunks at 8am as the house is remotely switched off the Economy 7 tarif.

Radio teleswitch

I was a little annoyed that the meter is so basic. Routine meter replacement is an ideal opportunity to put in better meter technology. I was hoping for a smart meter which could be read remotely and give feedback on energy useage. Or at least relocation out of my hall, so that I no longer have to be home to have my meter read. I suspect the lack of a smart meter means it will have to be replaced again before long. The city council has been using remote smart metering extensively in the huge number of buildings the council is responsible for. This has helped them reduce costs and waste by monitoring energy and water use on an hourly basis. You know that a school using lots of water in the holidays has a leak, or has forgotten to turn off 15 minute flushing urinals that aren’t being used.

Back home, the measurements nerd in me is chuffed with a meter that briefly read 0. We have now used about 10kWh in our first day. I have no idea whether this is good or bad, but I do know that visitors to our house have sometimes been surprised at the lights we have on. Being green is as much about reducing routine energy useage as installing novel technology such as the solar panel.

In assessing our own energy useage, there’s good and bad to report. We routinely turn our telly off as we’re advised to. But I leave more computers running all the time than I should. Additionally, we do have a lot of lights on. This is partly because we forget to turn them off, but also because of a tension between green advice and safety advice. The green advice is turn off everything you’re not using. The community safety advice is try to avoid being burgled by using time switched and lights to make it look like someone is home. And further safety advice says things like leave the landing light on when you have visitors to prevent people unfamiliar with your home from falling down the stairs.

One last thing on energy monitoring: last year we switched away from Good Energy, the green supplier that gave kickbacks to the Lib Dems. This was mainly because we could no longer afford to pay the extra cost that came from having our gas and electricity supplied by two different companies. I’m now on an internet-only tarif with Scottish Power, which is useful firstly because they now email me when they want meter readings, and secondly because their online account details include previous data. This helps you manage your useage across years – how many kWh were you using this time last year? By logging in, I can see we averaged 12kWh a day for the two quarters we have data for.

Solar panel performance 07

Rather impressed to hear the solar panel working today, New Year’s Eve, on a grey, overcast day with no hint of sun.  It ran for less than an hour so if I hadn’t heard it, it wouldn’t have been recorded in the stats.

Since it started working in September, its mini-computer calculates that it has generated 385kW of heat for the hot water tank.

Using Nottingham Energy Partnership‘s energy ready reckoner, that’s about  £10.72 worth of gas.  We will have to see how well it performs when confronted with an actual summer.

Solar panel progress – in pictures

So, work has begun on the solar panel.

This is Tuesday:

Roof access

The company turned up, and spent an hour looking at the roof. Access is really tricky. There’s a car-port preventing them putting a ladder straight up to the south-facing roof. Eventually, they decide the easiest way, short of entirely removing the car port then replacing it, is to go up into the attic, out through the sky-light and clamber over the roof to the panel.

Solar panel - incomplete

By the end of the second day, they have fitted the top part and some of the tubes. Because they only have access to the top of the panel, and not the bottom from a ladder of platform, it’s slow progress.

Evacuated solar tubes

Here’s what the tubes look like close up.

Evacuated solar tubes

They’re longer than I am tall – but once they’re up on the roof, they don’t look nearly so big.

Solar panel

The panel was completed by the end of Thursday – but so far it’s not connected to anything inside! Work continues next week – replacing the hot water tank, moving the header tank, plumbing in a new shower, connecting the controls, lagging the pipes.

Here’s a picture of the new tank – with a wheelie bin in the background for size comparison pictures.

hot water tank

And here’s a picture taken through the hole in the top where the immersion heater goes. I love this picture. You can clearly see both coils – a larger one around the middle which will be connected to the ordinary boiler, and a smaller one with fins around the bottom, which will be connected to the solar panel.

inside hot water tank

Lazy weekend

Spent rather too much of this weekend watching TV and drinking coffee, with a break for heading out to the cinema to see Die Hard 4.

We also had plasterers in on Saturday morning. Our heating engineers did something under our hot water cylinder that lead to a square meter of plaster falling off. We don’t know what happened – but it is old plaster, so it may not actually have been their fault. Still, the cost of repairing it came out of their fee.

Hole in ceiling

They’ve screwed plasterboard over the top of the whole, and skimmed on top. They finished yesterday at midday, leaving a ceiling that looked like it had a chocolate covered carpet on it. It’s drying slowly to pink and by Monday we can paint it.

Wet plaster Drying plaster

Next weekend they’re coming back to redo our kitchen. I’ve started uncovering the weird boxes over the sink, hoping that we could remove them entirely. Unfortunately, what we found was an ugly rusty girder propping up an old lintel and bricks. So the best the plasterers can do is the cover it back up again and skim it smooth. Or… we could paint it and make an industrial looking feature out of it.

Girder

But the mess in the kitchen didn’t stop me baking when I got a moment. Homemade bagels. Some of the kneading done in the breadmaker, until the dough got too heavy and started straining the motor. To be honest, I think this falls well within the “life’s too short” category.

Homemade bagels

Extension

When we first moved in, one of our earliest thoughts about what to do to the house was to replace the tired lean-to with a new conservatory.
About two months ago, in talking about what we wanted from a conservatory, we then started to think maybe what we actually wanted was an extension, and started to think about talking to an architect.

This week I found out by chance that it’s National Architect Week, and many practices, including the one a colleague used to extend is house, are offering an hour of time with an architect in exchange for a modest donation to Shelter.  We’ve got our consult booked for a few weeks from now.  This year’s theme is how to make your house more environmentally friendly, which is great.
What we’ll actually end up discussing with the architect by then is anyone’s guess.  The first few weeks of extension planning ended up with a fairly modest proposal.  Then it started to get silly, and the latest des res plan now includes glazing the full height of the house, a mezzanine, a retrofitted solar chimney for passive solar air conditioning.

One thing is certain: following a slightly bizarre set of events, all councillor planning applications to Nottingham City are now decided by the Development Control committee, of which I am a member. For obvious probity reasons, I wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the decision myself, and neither would any of my close friends.  So it will mean in a meeting like today that I have to leave the room while the rest of the councillors get shown photos of my house and discuss the relative planning merits of my plans.

It’s important to me that the extension is fairly green. Not least because since I have invested a lot of time extolling the virtues of sustainable development to the committee, it would be hypocritical of me not to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to my own house!

I’ve been trying to read around the subject of extending houses, but haven’t found a suitable google term.  “Extension” means something else in computing terms, which throws up all sorts of distracting hits in searches.

I did, however, find this lengthy horror story of a loft extension gone wrong. – I spent far too long last night reading it through as the nightmare developed step by step.  Eeep!

Fruitful bank holiday weekend

Well, what with all the rain and everything, I’ve barely ventured out this weekend. I’ve had a lovely relaxing time playing with my computer, watching The Sopranos for the first time, and, this afternoon, adding the Wii numbers of 30 or so acquaintances from a gay social networking site to my own Wii in the hope of increasing the numbers of Miis in my Parade.

Saturday evening was also spent with friends and their six-month old baby, which was lovely.

So, not a whole lot done, as far as I’m concerned. P however was determined to achieve something with his time off, and kept indoors by the weather turned his thoughts to DIY. Emboldened by friends of ours who have recently removed a stone fireplace, and colleagues of his who lent him a big hammer and chisel combo, he set to work on our own stone fireplace.

This is what was there when we moved in:

Lounge

It was rather more cluttered by the time P removed it! The woodburner is electric, but the flue is real.

This was halfway through. It was a surprisingly quiet process – I was upstairs and didn’t hear much more than tapping.

P5271185

Here’s a closeup of the rather delightful wallpaper revealed in the process:

P5271188

And here’s what it looked like when he was done.

P5291190

The sofa didn’t quite fit, but is probably going to stay there, because the room feels an awful lot bigger now! The ugly flue pipe is mostly gone. There is a remaining cosmetic job to do to remove the box at the top and repaper the bottom half. The previous owners actually left a couple of spare rolls of wallpaper that match, so that shouldn’t be too difficult.