Peasantry

Some things that I enjoy doing most are simple and ordinary crafts of long ago – crafts of the ordinary peasant folk. I love what Lucille Clifton wrote about being ordinary, “….the thirty-eighth year/ of my life/ plain as bread/ round as a cake/ an ordinary woman.” I’m a little older than that but otherwise it sounds quite like me. I like being an ordinary woman, and I like being a peasant woman.

Peasantry: Sand Candles (I wish I had pictures for a tutorial but I don’t.)

I like to make sand candles in the children’s sandbox. It’s located out in the grove of cedar and oak trees in our backyard. There we have a firepit and picnic tables and on beautiful autumn days when the outdoors calls my name I begin thinking about making sand candles.

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First, I gather some wood, get a gentle fire going, then set an old enameled coffeepot filled with tired candles over the fire. As they melt I keep adding more old candles until the pot is filled to the brim with good, melted candlewax. The wicks collect on the bottom of the coffeepot so don’t worry about them. As that melts I go play in the sandbox, making deep wells with tin cans, mason jelly jars, or whatever is handy. They will be the candle molds. Place a canning jar lid (flats) in the bottom of the well. They will help protect the surfaces the candles will be setting on when you use them.

Next comes the pouring process. The sand has to be good and wet and the wax needs to be quite hot. Once the wax looks almost like water, clear and thin, it is time to begin watching it closely. DON’T walk away from the coffeepot at this stage. Stand right there and slowly stir the hot wax with a stick until it is as hot as you like it. Very carefully, pour the hot wax into the wells of sand that you’ve prepared. Depending on the moisture of the sand and the temperature of the wax there will be a lot of sizzling going on. The moisture/temperature combination determines how thick the crust of sand will be on the outside of the candle once it cools. After the small fireworks show is over tie a stone around the candlewick and lower it into the pit, letting it rest upon the tin jar lid on the bottom. Allow about 4″ of extra wick at the top to wrap around a twig. Lay it across the top of the candle and weight it down carefully to hold it in place.

Its better to make sand candles in warm weather so the candles cool down slowly. If they cool too fast the wax will dip down in the center around the wick. When all is good and cold (about 8 hours) you can lift out your exquisite candle. Gently brush off loose sand and run water over it to clean it from dirt and grime. Sometimes the candle becomes lopsided in the sand mold and you’ll need to level it by shaving a little off the bottom until it stands straight and is sturdy “on its feet.” If you plan to take it indoors spray it first with spray varnish or acrylic sealer because it will always shed loose sand if you don’t. Cover the bottom with soft felt to protect your furniture.

Peasantry: Weaving

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(This one is my least favorite weaving but its the only one I still have. I’ve given the rest away. My favorite one is three times this size and at a Conservation Center at a National Wildlife Refuge. Children who visit the center keep it decorated with the treasures they find on their nature walks. It even has a snake skin woven through the warp.)

I enjoy weaving, especially if the yarn is homegrown and handspun wool, which I can get from a local shepherdess. The lanolin makes my hands baby-soft and I can weave all day and never grow tired. I have made quite a few woven wall hangings, using tree branches for the top and bottom frames and decorating the finished weaving with my stash of natural treasures.

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This hippy relative of mine stole some of my bo-dock slices off of the black weaving (above photo) and used them for earrings.

They’re made from horse apples (as they’re called in my neck of the woods:)

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Take an o.l.d. knife and slice the green balls that fall from beau d’arc (pronounced bo-dock) trees into slices about 1/4″ thick. Do n.o.t use a good electric knife like an old peasant woman did once, because inside of the balls is a white sticky substance that’s stickier than Elmers Wood Glue! In fact, when I was a child we used the juice from horse apples to glue paper together. When that peasant woman began slicing a horse apple with her trusty electric knife (that had been a wedding present from her favorite aunt and uncle over 30 years earlier,) the blades glued together and broke the knife!
Lay the horse apple slices on a baking pan lined with a good layer of tin foil. Dry for a few days in a scarcely heated oven. S.l.o.w.l.y. Once the slices are only slightly pliable anymore push a wire up from the center of the slices, thread a pretty glass bead on to the wire, and then push it back down to the back of the slice and twist tightly in place. The wire will serve as the hanger in your decorating projects. Continue the drying process until the slices are rock hard and no longer sticky. They keep for years.

Besides my own collection of beautiful natural treasures, my children have brought me seashells, driftwood, tree leaves, pretty stones, pine cones, and pressed flowers from their worldwide travels. The grandchildren also love to find bird feathers and bird nests, pretty sticks and snail shells for me. In time those find their ways on to a weaving, too. I love each one!

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These are some natural treasures two of my grandchildren gave me just last week. They will wait here on the white shelf until I make my next weaving.

Peasantry: Bread Baking

This week I made peasant bread. My daughter-in-law introduced me to artisan bread about a year ago and I latched on to that method very quickly. There’s no kneading, which makes an ordinary peasant woman much too tired, and the dough can be stored for about two weeks in a plastic container in the refrigerator.

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The recipe goes something like this: 6 cups good, high gluten flour, 3 tablespoons each salt and yeast. Mix that together in a large mixing bowl, like a huge dishpan. I use King Arthur brand bread flour, Redmond brand sea salt and Fleischman’s regular yeast (not RapidRise.) At this stage you may add your choice of herbs and seasonings or different types of flours. Most times I leave it plain because too much of even a good thing seems a little overdone after a while.

Pour 13 cups warm water over the flour mixture. (A little warmer than body temperature.)

(This recipe comes from “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg, M.D.)

Stir dough only until the flour mixture is completely moistened through. There’s no kneading required for this bread so don’t wear out your strong, suntanned peasant arms stirring a lot. Cover the bowl with a nice peasant cloth and let it rise undisturbed until it crests and falls. (About 2 hours.) At that point the dough is ready for baking or storing for later. Two 1 gallon-size ice cream buckets are about right for storing this batch of dough. If they are filled more than halfway with the punched-down dough, use a third bucket because as they rest in the refrigerator they will rise again, and woe is me if the bucket is too small. Dough will walk all around your frig and become acquainted with every pickle and pepper hibernating in there. After the first day or so the dough settles down to a nice, fruity, sour-dough type of bread dough.

Whenever you want a loaf of hot bread, cut off a chunk of dough about the size of a grapefruit, cloak it with a dusting of flour and form into a nice round ball. Let it rise about thirty minutes while you heat the oven to 450 degrees. Just before popping it into the oven slice grooves into the top of the loaf so it will bake through to the center evenly.

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Place a pan for water (I use a cast iron skillet) on the bottom rack of the oven while its heating and once it’s good and hot pour about an inch of water in it to create steam. Place the bread (preferably on a good baking stone) in the oven and bake till done, around 20 -25 minutes. The crust of the loaf will be crunchy and the inside very moist and chewy. It’s the type of bread you pull apart to eat instead of cutting into slices.

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Don’t you love peasantry?

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