Bio Bargain Hunting - City girls' trip to a farm

Thursday, January 8, 2009 · 0 comments

This morning, Another City Girl and I took a bus trip (very environmentally friendly, I know) to the Nos Pilifs farm (la ferme nos pilifs), just outside Brussels. It's a place that produced food and garden goodies in a sustainable manner. Ah, and it's an "adapted employment" enterprise - according to the latest issue of the farm's magazine, it gives work to 90 workers, 75 of which are handicapped.

OK, if you want, insert your own funny farm joke here, but don't forget to balance your karma by a tax-free donation.

Anyway, since the farm is a not-for-profit and subsidized establishment, we were kind of suspecting they'd have a lot of fabulous, flavourful seasonal foods for a fraction of the price. Me, never the one to suffer from the lack of imagination, was secretly picturing something like taking a walk in their animal park, meeting a lovely goose or a cute piggy, with a chance of taking them home - sliced into nice fillets.

What-evah.... As my little brother used to say, if God didn't want us to eat animals, he would've made them of something else than food.

And before you start to accuse me of anything - I am against animal cruelty. We should strive to ensure they live the most healthy, secure and fun life possible up to the moment they're called for the very honourable duty of fueling our bodies. After it happens, we must honour their service by wasting not - in fact, right now I am paying tribute to the anonymous little lamb by making stock of the bones that came with those chops.

But I digress...

We didn't meet animals this time - since the Recession DreamAirhead managed to miss the right bus stop we ended up amidst the fields, caught a Flemish bus with a very helpful (and friendly) driver, who showed us the way through the snowy meadow, after which finding the farm was a child's play. It's in fact easily accessible by the city transport, a trip from downtown will take around 40 minutes, and they have a nice parking place in case you have to come by car. But we were out of time (yes, I have life outside this blog too!), so we just visited the shop.

The great thing about their shop is that they have quite a diverse selection, if you feel like it, and don't mind the prices, you can stock on all food groups there - fresh goods, canned goods, teas, drinks, flour, condiments, you name it. And they sell this fresh bread, baked the same morning, wholegrain if you want. It's clear they are not profit-driven, so don't expect everything to be on display at 11 if they were to open at 9, but it's in fact quite heart-warming to see them bringing the fresh veg out.

We've got some bread, pears and veggies. We also got a hundred grams of oyster mushrooms - for just over 10 Eur/kg it's not exactly a steal, but a very good price nevertheless - mushrooms other than farmed champignons are expensive in Belgium. Maybe I shouldn't be bleaching my kitchen and bathroom after all? I also got some fresh cream. The bread was very tasty if you like wholegrain, the pears were good but not exceptional (at around 3 Eur/kg I think I'll pass next time), and my creamy mushroom sauce was licked off the plate. The veg prices are in fact lower than what you pay for the "bio" in a supermarket, but higher than I normally pay for non-organic veg. We are absolutely ordering a mixed basket from the farm to try more of their selection for a reasonable price.

What I was not so psyched about was that the shop, while stocken on organic/fair trade/artisan produce, doesn't necessarily feature that much of farm produce. It's a nice ethical consumption shop, but I wouldn't really travel god-knows-where for a chocolate bar I'd find around the corner (OK, I just live in the ethical-consumtion corner). I understood that not all their vegetables are grown at the farm, but come from a variety of Belgian farmers, and that's fine. I just wish it was more about fresh produce than dried/canned, and more about the farm produce - hey I want those eggs right out of those hens! They just didn't have the eggs today - now you know the real reason of me complaining.

Anyway, I am planning another visit to the farm to write a proper profile on it, with the price comparison and the flavour report. It will probably be the end of this month, when the farm cafe and jardinerie is open again. Now, I'm going to be busy patting myself on the back, since my lamb stock seems a success.

Check back tomorrow,


A scientifc proof we can still afford to have principles

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 · 0 comments

Previously in this blog...
money is scarce and fair-trade-organic-eco is expensive,
however, you can still be kind to the planet, and no, I didn't mean loan sharks.

According to some very authoritative research I discovered today, at least British shoppers started buying more fair trade, animal welfare etc. produce as the times grew bleaker. However, the figures come from market research, which has its limitations. Much more interesting would be to take a look how both the "ethical" producers and "ethical" stores (their price tags coming with some "karma bank" investments) perform in terms of turnover and profits. I still maintain that we should maybe rethink our definition of ethical consumption; paying attention to which supermarkets have a horrible workers' rights' record is quite efficient for a start.

Ah, and somehow I discovered a very old article on what meats are OK to eat. Basically you should stay away from most fish unless you can ask the fish where it swam from, and chicken/pork is also dodgy.

Lamb (as I always knew) is quoted as one of the best choices, both in terms of what's good for you and what's good for the little lamb. Somehow reminded me this story I heard as a child (growing up in a virtually lamb-less country) that sheep are very stupid, to the point of not understanding when they're about to be transferred into lamb, ergo it doesn't produce adrenaline at the slaughterhouse - meaning their meat is very healthy.

And the only time I seriously considered becoming a vegetarian was when I saw a sheep herd peacefully nibbling on the grass outside this meat factory in a tiny country that basically had to import all foodstuff but meat. Seeing those critters outside at 9 p.m., seeing an empty turf at 11.p.m. and having a predictable (but delicious) meat dish for lunch kind of made me think of the value of life.

But seriously, how can you give up on this???

And it's cheap too. I got my lamb chops for 6.50 per kilo on Sunday, and frankly could have found as low as 5.80/kg. One kg of lamb with the same amount of onion, carrots and rice and some spices I know you still have in your pantry from your reach times can make up to two dinners for a moderately gluttonous family of five, and with some luck you'll arrive to the 1.50 eur per dinner per person.

Tomorrow, I'm going on my biggest frugally ethical consumption trip yet, so watch this space


Frugal Fun - what to do with 6 Eur

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 · 0 comments

Went out to a cafe with a friend. Wrote 6 Eur off my entertainment budget. Lovely evening. Visit this cafe when you can still afford it. The place is listed as a cafe, but I'd still call it a bar - a decent selection of beers and spirits but not too much emphasis on the deserts. Ah well, they have these kriek-beer-filled chocolates for sale, so it's a cafe-bar.

If you are more into culture and/or name-dropping than into discussing beers and candy, then keep on reading. This lovely hidden gem of Brussels, Het Goudblommeke in Papier (a golden flower in paper), kind of has no website, but does have a Wikipedia page. Considered one of the most "historical" joints, this used to be a place for the famous artists to get all drunk and inspired: first it was a "home" to dadaists, then to surrealists, with most famous visitors including Hugo Claus (even married his first wife here), my favourite artist Rene Margritte, and Hergé, the creator of Tintin comic strip. In 2006 the place went bankrupt, but since it's already been declared national heritage a decade ago, you couldn't just buy a sweet spot in historic centre and place a sushi bar there - everything had to remain as if Margritte and Co. would return any day and if they weren't inspired, it would be the cafe's personal fault. But there were enough crazy people in Brussels to take the place over, and it's been open for more than a year now. So you all should hurry up, you know how economy is, places are coming and going, although I wish this stays open.. forever! It does have this authentically artistic flavour, not a cheap imitation for wannabes, and the owners have some plans on having art workshops etc. there. Just be careful with their signature beer, for a philistine like myself it tastes like apple juice gone bad. But the genievre, the "dutch gin", was fabulous!

Otherwise, if you just have six euros to spare in Brussels, come listen to a jazz concert - I know I will. Next Friday, for just a fiver I can go downtown for some darkwave, new wave and post-punk dancing. And then there is a free Burning Ice festival for the environmentally conscious...

That, and I do want to see the global freezing battling the global warming. I was thinking of the latter this morning, when, first time in Belgium, I saw my windows iced over (quite pretty patterns though).

But I digress. Time to log off then. Check back tomorrow!

Frugal Shopping - Making Room for Principles (Part 1)

Monday, January 5, 2009 · 0 comments

This post inspired me to ponder a bit on whether, and how, should people stick to the fair-trade-ethical consumerism in case we are financially on the edge.

I've always been a responsible shopper. I try to research not only the brands, but the shops/supermarkets I buy my stuff at, favour bio/ecological production and check where the stuff comes from (that being said, I still have this special brown sweater from Promod that's been made in Burma - as a memory that I should pay attention). However, just a few weeks ago I've been kneeling in front of a supermarket shelf, trying to chose between three brands of chocolate spread - one "bio", another "fair trade", but finally buying the one that cost 97 eurocents.

The answer to the question - can I shop ethically in these dark times - depends on our budget, but just in part. Theoretically, we can always buy less things and pay an "ethics" premium on what we do buy, but eventually we arrive at the point where costs cannot be cut any further - especially if you have children to feed (I don't). However, there are less expensive ways to be a responsible consumer.

Our shopping needs, barring the big items such as houses, cars and like, can be roughly divided (in terms of how often we shop for them) into groceries, essential household items (many of which are chemicals, such as cleaning solutions), fashion, and bigger household items such as electronics or furniture. Every big group can be divided into subgroups, and I don't think that you can even theoretically commit to fair trade everywhere, but you can take a number of small steps towards ethical consumption in each and every group:

  • check your supermarket - this is probably the most important thing. Why should your fair-trade money support a shop that behaves like this (OK in this case the shop's commitment is more than questionable). Thanks goodness we do not have that monstrosity in Belgum. Even if you do not, or cannot buy fair trade, you should stay away from "unethical" supermarkets. This and this pretty much means me staying away from LIDL, and this made me cautious about ALDI - maybe I should write to them and ask to keep their suppliers in check. OK, you still need cheap stuff, but now virtually all supermarkets feature their own economy brand. Somehow, I've been unable to find any dirt on DELHAIZE, and I quite like their "365" brand, which, regardless of delhaize's pricey reputation, is occasionally the cheapest choice. Of course, choosing the most reputable of affordable supermarkets does not guarantee that the suppliers/manufacturers behave, but it does make a difference in terms of who cuts prices by exploiting employees. It is a good idea to check your favourite supermarkets on the Internet, and if you are serious about ethical consumptions, you can write them - please do something about the problems reported by so-and-so, otherwise I'm taking my hard-earned-money to someone else;
  • groceries: take solidarity to the local level! Fair trade is essentially there to support developing countries, which makes it quite pricey. If you cannot afford it, think if you can support local producers instead - hey they're in recession just as you and me! If it makes you feel better, just tell yourself that you are choosing environmental concerns (think of all those "food miles") over development concerns just this year. And stick to the seasonal foods - better chance to snatch them cheaply;
  • groceries (and maybe other items): check if there are any subsidies producers near you - I found this farm that employs handicapped people (and therefore qualifies for some government subsidies); their bio-veggies basket prices start from 8 Eur, as opposed to the 36.90 bio-basket you can order otherwise. I plan to visit the farm this week, and will tell you all about the prices!
  • groceries: don't ignore the markets. OK there are a number of concerns with open markets, but I just don't think they are worse than discount stores. Yesterday I made substantial savings on meat at the Clemanceau market, and there are some local producers' stalls at Midi market that are quite a bargain. Come late, and you can snatch unbelievable discounts:
  • household chemicals - again, you can chose environmental concerns. I did buy some powdered Marcel soap for less than 3 Eur/kg, which is very kind to the planet and relatively kind to my wallet; Ecover delicate at 4.23 for 22 washes is not exactly cheap, but a good value for money and still cheaper than Woollite (I love Ecover all-purpose cleaner by the way, but the upholstery/carpet cleaner was too foamy for my taste). Again, there are cheaper solutions, so what I did was to buy something cheap for my main laundry and use this Marcel soap for my wool/silk - not 100% Eco, but hey at least I did something (carrefour own brand for wool/silk would still be cheaper). I am also learning to use white wine vinegar for my stainless steel surfaces - if you live ecologically in some parts of your house, it makes you feel better about that cheap toilet cleaner!
  • fashion - OK, here is a big one. Clothes need to fit, feel good, be comfortable and appropriate. They also need not to come from sweatshops. The big thing to remember though is that high price tag does not mean it was produced in fair conditions. My problem with buying clothes/footwear/bedlinen is that I might know what to avoid, but can never make a "safe" choice. The ultimate authority in ethical fashion shopping, the Clean Clothes Campaign, admit that there is no whitelist. The solution can be found by either checking your favourite brand on their website or consulting their reports. Just in time for winter sales, the Belgian chapter of CCC released a free report on a number of fashion brands. I can also recommend the report on the leading UK high street brands;, however, it's a couple years old, so you might want to check the companies' page of the CCC website for the updates. And stay away from clothes produces in China, Burma or other countries with known human rights issues! Regardless of what cause they support, you are not helping by endorsing the status quo;
  • Electronics and larger stuff - I don't really have a solution here other than check the shop, check the brand, and try to re-use as much as possible - if you are revamping your shelves (I did!), use some eco-friendly paint if your budget stretches to it.
Finally, try to view fair-trade stuff as your "karma bank" - you don't have to buy a fair trade chocolate bar and live without fresh veggies, but if you have some of your groceries' budget left, go get some free trade rice or coffee - you give to the others, and you will be given in return - good karma is what's essential in recession.

That's all. Check back tomorrow!

Recession Drembreakfast Part 1 - Nutritionally balanced for 0.25 eur p.p.

Saturday, January 3, 2009 · 0 comments

This morning, I've had a warm oatmeal porridge with a dash of butter and a spoon of confiture. Swap the jam for a tangerine, add a small cup of yoghurt, and you are getting a perfectly nutritionally balanced breakfast for less than what you paid for that croissant I know you'd grabbed on your way to work.
How so? You see, I've been using the carrefour/gb no.1 brand oatmeal for years just because I think most breakfast cereals are evil, loaded with sugar and whatnot, and I just want some plain honest porridge (or one of my favourite brand over-prices muesli, but maybe not this year :)). I make porridge with water; the recipe calls for 2 cups oatmeal for 3 cups water, but that's about double of what I can eat in the morning. So you can budget your breakfast like this:
100 g oatmeal from the 0.67 pack - 0.07 eur
a teeny coffeespoon of butter - 0.06 eur
(you can get economy brand butter for 3eur/kg, i've just checked in a shop :))
1 tangerine - 0.05 eur
(just got 1kg of the same no.1 carrefour/gb brand, and actually counted the tangerines just for this blog)
100 g of cheaper skinny drinking
yoghurt - 0.07 eur

My spreadsheet arrives at 0.25 eurocents. Add salt, water, electricity to boil, and even some of this confiture if you want - it's still really cheap, while fueling your body in a proper way and keeping you full until the lunchtime.

Those who think it must taste like scrap paper or take effort to make - thank you for the compliment, but I do not possess a kind of self-discipline required to stay loyal to this particular package for four years just for the price/healthy factor. It tastes really good, it takes but a few minutes to cook, and if you are bored with the porridge, you can always let the oatmeal soak with some milk and dried fruit while you take your morning shower, and voila - almost eco-muesli. If I got my hands on some (cheap) frozen berries, I'd put them in a chopper with yoghurt and just a gram of sugar, and then add the oatmeal to thicken my smoothie. Finally, there must be a way to make some delicious oat-cookies I don't know about.

Another way for the all-food-groups-pastry-price-equivalent breakfast is a medium egg, one slice of wholegrain traditional bread cut in half (one with frugal jam, the other with frugal butter), and whatever small vegetable/fruit you could get cheaply. I'll be back with the seasonal food charts quite soon. Yet another way is my made-from-scratch-pancakes, which are more Sunday brunch due to the time involved. Even then I focus on the cut-price basic ingredients such as cheap flour, cheap milk, cheap fruit or cheese.

You see, early in the morning economy brand food is justified. Our senses are not awake yet, so we are probably unable to appreciate nuances that come with fine foods. And while with food you often get what you paid for, there are a few exceptions - for example, this trailer that sells dairy on Sundays - when it comes to milk, they are superior to whatever you find in a shop in terms of both price and quality. The only cheap ingredient I feel bad about is eggs - I now get barn chickens' (wouldn't go near caged ones), but just because of my super-frugal-phase. Everybody, myself included, should buy free range or bio, as much as you can afford it. Egg-laying hens should not suffer THAT much for us :)

That's all. Come back tomorrow!

Hit by the heating bill, hope to bounce back

Friday, January 2, 2009 · 0 comments

The last thing I did before going to sleep last night was..
switching the heating off!
And I only regret not having done it on the night before, and the night before that.

One of the things that sort of messed my financial planning up was a huge heating surcharge. In September, I just got paid for a big assignment, took a mini-vacation and invested something in my personal comfort at home, and then there was it. The paper bearing "techem caloribel" sign in the top left corner, travelling from my concierge to my landlord to my post box, and resulting in me having to reimburse extra central heating costs incurred during first three quarters of 2008 - the amount exceeding two my months' rent. Can you believe it? And I wasn't even heated that much - travelled a lot for work in the first half of the year, and then there was summer.

Ah well, nobody is safe from human error - I could have gone away for a week or two and forget to switch heating off. Still, this doesn't explain the monstrous amount I had to pay and makes no sense in terms of consumption patterns - I had no surcharge for 2004-2005, a tolerably big one for 2006 (fuel oil prices increased then, and it was a summary for the whole 3-year period), then a token sum for 2007 and then this... just for the first three bloody quarters!

I must admit that madame concierge was really sympathetic; she took time to explain me how to read the heating counters, and how her family kept their bills within limits. She even made me measure the windows and sent them to some companies so my landlord could get a quote for double-glazing (by the way, you can get a tax rebate for that in Belgium); haven't heard from them since but OK, at least we tried.

You see, many of my centrally-heated faced the same problem - but of much milder proportions. That is, I was doing something really wrong and had to make a change, but what should I be doing exactly? Well, here's the plan:

  • dress for the weather, even at home. I've been feeling much warmer and happier having found those two pairs of woolen socks I once brought home "just in case". The blue-and-green ones actually even look nice. Right now I'm wearing cotton jazz pants and a very nice long-sleeved t-shirt, with a really warm fleece that came with those cat-and-mice pyjamas I never admit to own :) - and feeling fine, but the socks make all the difference;
  • always remember to switch the heating off when you are away from home, even for the week-end. The key word is "remember". Make it as much a reflex and checking whether you left your iron on. However, on its website techem, the company responsible for our heating bills, recommends lowering the temperature but not to the point when the radiators would freeze;
  • think how much heat do you really need - madame concierge, for example, uses only two radiators out of five, with the one in the kitchen and the lobby permanently off. Me, I don't like cold kitchens, so I'm just trying not to spend time there unless cooking or cleaning. Techem recommends to lower temperature in all rooms you're not using;
  • if you switch the kitchen/lobby heating off, your other radiators will still continue to heat those places, so keep all doors closed. This should improve your feng-shui situation too, if you are into this sort of things;
  • ok this one is without any academic reference, but i trust the source: a friend told me that if the temperature at your place is even one degree higher than at your neighbour's, then you'd be heating your neighbour's place too. The young lady downstairs, by the way, had very little surcharges, so I might have been heating her place! Try to keep temperature a bit lower than you would if someone else paid for it, and put those socks on!
  • Belgians are very fussy about not opening the windows when radiators on. In fact, this was the first thing madame concierge asked about when she saw my bill. Apparently, even five-minute-long airing of your place with heating at max messes something up;
  • techem says never cover the radiators. I took all furniture away from them, although I must admit to drying my bedlinen on radiators occasionally - which is a big no-no;
  • In 2004-2005 I had my bed positioned in a way that I could switch one radiator on and off out of bed. Always switched it off at night, not for the costs but for some strange assumption that it's healthier not to have your bedroom heated. As long as I put my bed somewhere else, bills soared. 7-8 per day of unheated bedroom goes a long way! So I'm doing this again. The key is a good blanket, maybe a woolen throw over it, and keeping your bathrobe, old cardigan or whatever takes you from bed to bathroom, close to you - otherwise you'll never get out of bed!
  • A word for windows - I grew up in a cold climate, where my parents would put some special tape around the windows during the winter. Me, I like to air my place frequently, so paper is not the solution - I saw monsieur concierge hanging out of his window doing something with the window joints - must find the way to have it done to my windows! When you do air your room, have the window wide open for a few minutes rather than half-open it for a long time. Techem recommends to keep your curtains down when it's dark, but I haven't really seen Belgians do so. Yeah, and getting a quote for double-glazing might be a good idea, especially if you still have enough income to look for the ways to optimise your taxes;
  • Sometimes, life is just not fair and there is nothing you can do about it. The heat loss can occur through your floorboards and through your roof. Apparently it's just better to live on the middle floor and have nice fluffy carpets; otherwise hot tea and going out should help.
For those who can read in local languages, here is the techem ticks-and-trips link

And yes, my consumption seems to be reasonable according to the electronic meters at home. If you want to know if my plan actually resulted in less surcharges, you have to check back when the next bill arrives. I promise to blog about it.

That's all for now. Check back tomorrow!

Why everybody (yes, you!) should read this blog

Thursday, January 1, 2009 · 0 comments

I am starting 2009 “in red”. This is blog about living on an extreme budget and enjoying every minute of it – in Brussels, Belgium, Europe.

You know what I mean – well in fact I hope you don’t – but this is not important; the important thing is actually HOW to get through the tough times when, ahem, material resources are not as readily available as I’m sure many did imagine.

Did any of you, readers (well hopefully there will be readers at some point, ha ha) have this feeling – on one hand, being scared of hell of falling below the poverty line, but on the other hand being weirdly content, because of this oh-so-well hidden but still intense suspicion that our consumption-crazy way of living is wrong, wrong, wrong? Welcome to my world then: I love to have a lot of work and nice earnings, hate to be on the budget, but in the meantime hate to measure one’s worth in the sum of items owned, foreign vacations taken and basically spending habits. Therefore, to say I’m unconditionally irritated with the global and personal recession would be a bit of hypocrisy.

Which brings me to the point – well, three points, exactly:
· Have to be extremely careful with my cash;
· Need to still have a lifestyle which is “me” – pro-kindness, as opposed to the cruel way of treating the earth and people who make whatever we need;
· Must have fun – otherwise why we all just don’t curl up and cry until collected by social services?
To find out how you can combine all three you have to read my blog.
In the following days, weeks and months you will learn
· Why Brussels is actually a great place to be in right now;
· Free (or really low-cost) entertainment in town – what’s cool and what should be avoided even if THEY paid you;
· How to have a (almost) free lunch and other meals of the day – and actually make them taste good;
· Innovative tips (not found elsewhere) on eating out with minimum damage and maximum enjoyment;
· How to save on your utility bills;
· How to learn a new profession in 30 days (or less).

And much, much more.

If anyone wonders why this blog is different than others, go to the first bullet points and pay some attention. Still need to be convinced? OK, here’s another one: this blog is personal, and any advice given must come from either authors’ experience or authors’ friends experience in which authors do trust.

Of course I’m learning still, very much so – and this post will probably be edited. I can promise a lot of spelling, grammar and style mistakes for additional entertainment.

That’s all for now. See you tomorrow!