I wish there were free public classes in household economising. My upbringing in remote North West England taught me a great deal about thrifty living. Our only heating was solid fuel, wood from the land, and anthracite delivered periodically by a muscular man in a leather tunic, face black with coal dust, who’d dump a small mountain of the stuff in one of the byres.
On very cold nights, I loved it when the little open fireplace in my bedroom was lit, feeling cosy and entranced by the flickering light from the flames making shadow figures on the walls. For 25 years, and all my childhood, my mother ran a vegetarian guest house – a rarity during the rationing years of the 40s and 50s – and I have no idea how she coped. But she did. We had no fridge or freezer, just a solid stone extension with big stone slabs as a larder, and in the corner was a huge slipware jar filled with fresh eggs preserved in isinglass.
It was a big, draughty, damp and cold stone house. We’d put our clothes for next day under the top cover on our beds, so they would not be frozen stiff in the morning. We had draught excluders for the doors, and windows. Heavy curtains make a huge difference in cold weather even in my double-glazed, well-insulated little London terrace house. Charity shops often have large, proper, lined curtains, also more and more quality clothing as people are simplifying and decluttering. A most excellent gift my daughter made me is a draught excluder stuffed with plastic bags, and its weight holds it tight against the door so no gale around the ankles.
Maybe instead of everyone in their own rooms trying to keep warm and staring at their screens, we’ll revive the tradition of family gathering around the “fire,” a single source of heat, for the evenings, for homework, for playing games, story-telling, for conversation and meal times. Nobody needs a heated bedroom if they have a cosy bed with a duvet and a wool blanket under the bottom sheet and on top of the duvet. I still have some of those lovely old wool blankets with satin ribbon bindings, and you can still find them in charity shops, along with sleeping bags and sometimes eiderdowns.
Polyester duvets keep nobody warm. And of course the best is to have someone you love to cuddle. I read that Chinese mandarins used to have lapdogs tucked in their wide sleeves to keep them warm in public. Some people love to have their dogs or cats on the bed. Things to reintroduce from those cold old days: Bedsocks! Priceless. A warm scarf round the neck and in extreme cold, a woolly hat or head covering. In other words a nightcap. Whisky might warm you up fast, but it won’t last long.
Proper wool clothing is essential. I despair when I see people wearing acrylic or polyester clothes and plastic shoes, thinking they will be warm. People in care homes are almost always dressed in man-made fibres – the rationale being ‘easycare’ – no wonder hypothermia is on the rise. Hand washing woollies and spinning most of the water out before hanging out is the fastest way to keep them looking good, or skip the spin and roll tightly in a towel to dry before hanging or pressing to keep the shape.
Thick socks – preferably wool – and leather shoes with good thick soles, ankle boots, and cosy house shoes help keep your lower limbs limber and active. A hat, gloves and scarf are essentials for going out. Layers are really a great idea with clothing, starting with a proper vest. Two thin jumpers, or a shirt and a cardie, under your coat will be much warmer than one of those trendy chunky-knits. Choose them longer to cover your lower body. I recently discovered the wonderful cosiness and comfort of a tradition – adopted by Ghengis Khan, by warriors, and by many tribespeople and including national costume – of a broad sash or scarf wrapped around the body from waist to pelvis. I now do it every day in winter. It’s pretty stylish too!
With a bit of planning, it’s possible to cook a decent meal with less than 30 min of oven or stove top fuel. For several years I’ve made a practice of cooking one-pan meals…a proper steamer is an essential bit of kitchen kit and one I use most often. An example… rice, potatoes or pasta boiling in the pan, adding shredded cabbage to the steamer, and a couple of eggs in their shells, or veggie sausages, for protein, to steam along with the cabbage.
I often add a handful of nuts and raisins to the rice, and capers after cooking. I’ll sauté some root veg with onions in oil and water and pop them in the oven with something protein like nut burgers, and if I’m baking, that can go in too. I usually make enough for three days, and re-purpose leftovers into soup. Or make potato cakes and freeze them, assuming the freezer is still working. Finely grated veg like carrot, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, marinaded in a dressing, with caraway, lemon, raisins, seeds and capers don’t even need cooking. A pan of rice, pasta, grains or beans can lend itself to three days of different meals. Soaking oats, beans, and grains overnight reduces the cooking time. Using a flask for the kettle hot water is a very sensible thing to do, even if it seems minimal, over time it will make a significant saving. And I am going to investigate creating and using a Haybox. If you’re a carnivore, all the above is easily adapted for meat dishes.
At the first warnings about food shortages post-Brexit came through, I bought a dehydrator, and plan to use it 24/7, for fresh veg and fruit while the summer and autumn abundance is still with us. I rarely use tinned foods, and if I make a dish in the oven, I’ll make sure to cook two or three more dishes at the same time. I make a lot of preserves too and started making pickles as well. I have a store cupboard with a fair amount of dry goods.
Oh and some years ago,, I got familiar with moving around my house (three floors) with my eyes shut. (Can’t remember if I thought I’d go blind, or if there would be a power cut.) So I could walk across the room blindfold, and with confidence put my hand straight on the switch of my bedside light, go up and down stairs with confidence, and got familiar with other tasks too, such as making a cup of tea without spilling or burning myself, finding things in the dark, and having candles, matches, torches with batteries in handy places. Showering or bathing in the dark is a fun experience, worth a try before you might have to.
I’ve got to replace my fridge and cooker this autumn as they have pretty much fallen apart, and I’ll choose highly economical ones, for the sake of the environment as much as for my own purse.