Tuesday 22 August 2017

Mud Pies for Grown Ups

Lime plaster with hemp fibres
We are sopping wet. It has been raining pretty much all day as we 'enjoy' the back end of the skirts and train of Hurricane Gert. A big vigorous frontal system sits just off the NW coast aligned SW to NE and sliding slowly along that line. For most of the day it has been a heavy drizzle but occasionally it gets all inspired to downpours of almost Biblical proportions.

Lime-plastering the wall behind me the 'old' way.
As I was leaving SuperValu in Castlerea this morning I was not so much hopping between the puddles but walking with very flat feet across a sheet of water hoping that nowhere would the depth exceed the vent-hole 'draft' of my Crocs (about 18 mm if you're interested). Don't usually need wellies for Supermarket shopping here but that would not have been a bad choice today.

Smear a 'patty' on with the palm/heel of your hand and try to
level the lumps and bumps of the pointed stonework. This was
just the first "coat". 
I have been feeding the birds indoors today (the layers' pellet in particular turns to mush on contact with water and the birds will not touch it), in the sheds with the lights on. The pigs have long since mushed up the dirt inside the bit of fence over which I was passing food, so we have moved along a bit to dryer ground and moved along again this evening. The half apples would just plop into a foot-print and vanish, tho' I dare say the pigs' powerful noses would soon root them back out again, truffling-style.

Pinned down by the rain and feeling a bit 'meh' a blog post on "mud pies" seemed appropriate. Archery coach, Con and his good lady (Niamh) are doing up an out building like our Tígín and as part of this, they are plastering the inside with a trad old mix of white lime mortar and hemp fibres. They are doing this by encouraging the likes of me along by organising a free 'workshop' where the volunteers get to learn and try out the skills and hear all about the history in exchange for all that fascinating info, the fun of it and an epic salad for lunch.

First coat applied to one wall. The plaster is finished by applying
 a thinner, smoother coat and finally polishing it, when nearly dry,
with the heel of your hand in little circular motions.
I had seen the results of this method and material before (much of Con's place is plastered like this and Anne and Simon have a straw-building lined with at least the lime, if not the hemp fibres), but had never met it as a wet building material and a technique. It arrives as a 350 kg pile of lumps in a plastic-lined bulk builder bag, in this case from Monaghan.

A least the thoughtful cats leave their mice neatly stacked
among the china on a shelf. Thanks Blue!
It looks like very pale grey mud flecked with the (very short) pieces of hemp fibre, like "wholemeal" mud, if you like. It is pre-mixed (as a powder?) by the company, then wetted a bit and left for weeks, months or years to 'make'. Our job was to soften it in the cement mixer to roughly the consistency of sticky sausage meat (no lumps!). This involved a fair amount of stopping the machine and slicing through the bigger lumps with a pointing trowel. (Health Warning for the new builder - NEVER put your hand, arm or tools into a cement mixer when it is going. It will happily twist your arm off).

Does my bum look big in this? Lizzie tries
out the three cat-power insulation for bum and
back of legs while curled up on the sofa.
I was singled out (OK, I volunteered) for cement mixer duty as we also needed standard cement/sand mortar for some of the pointing etc and the machine had to be cleaned spotlessly between each of the 4 mixes as we didn't want nasty grey cement in our lovely white lime, or vice versa.

At 8 and a half weeks, Connie's 3 "chicks" are well grown and
fully feathered. More like half-scale hens than babies now. 
The plaster now at suitable wet consistency (you squish some 'patties' of it in your hands to check for no dry, hard lumps) it is time to stick it to the wall. First the wall gets wetted with a watered down slurry of the mix. The technique for applying the actual stuff is to scoop up a palm-full and smear it onto the wall with the heel of your hand, flattening your palm as you push. You try to leave it thicker over the dents (and squished into any cracks) and thinner over the peaks where stones stick out proud. It needs to be fairly flat, though it will be rough textured. The 2nd coat will sort that and finish with a rather more 'polished' (all be it rough to the touch) outer surface.

Back in the Feta cheese game. These the curds
from 8 litres fresh goat's milk, a gift from Sue
and Rob.
I love all this stuff and the old techniques anyway, but it was a superb day working with my co-volunteers, Ivan and Paul, swapping stories and banter and at one point breaking off completely to hear a 45 minute Master-Class (by Con) on the history of the material(s) and their use including all the history of hemp as a source of fibre ("retting" and the like), later as a chill-out weed (so all the fascinating chemistry of cannabinols and stuff) and most recently as a possible alternative to 'chemo' in cancer treatments - I will let the reader look for those him/her-self if interested enough). An epic salad lunch followed. Thank you very much Con and Niamh for sharing you knowledge, skills and food with us. I can't wait for Lesson 2 (Top Coat).

Rather sponge-y curds. It looked to have 'risen' better than
my bread!
Other than that we have been plodding along with everyday life. We received a nice gift of goat's milk from Sue and Rob which we have tried to turn into Feta cheese. For some reason this formed excellent curds but then stayed a bit sponge-y, like last week's puff-ball fungus. Still, we went with it, did the dry-cure and have now drowned it in 15% brine for 3 months shelf-life. When we use it, we dunk it for a while in clean water to soak off the worst of the saltiness.

TOPP left-overing! Sausage meat, bacon and apple PIE. 
I've been carrying on with the bread making. Liz has been building slowly to her involvement in the 'Ros go Run' half marathon etc (Sept 3rd) which this year will include for the first time a little Treasure Hunt / 'forage' walk for the kiddies; clues tied to gateposts etc. Should be great fun. We are thinking we will do rhyming couplets for the clues. We have also had another promising 'tickle'  on the Help-X website so we may be getting another volunteer but more on that when it is really happening. Good Luck now.

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