Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

My week below the line… September 28, 2012

Filed under: Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 8:24 am

A summary of my below the line experience. I’d love to hear from others who did the challenge – you can answer these questions on my blog, on my facebook page or on the Live Below the Line and VSA facebook pages (public).

Thing I missed most: coffee

Thing I thought I’d miss but didn’t: meat

Thing I’ll be eating again: my dal recipe, and the tomato-based “risotto”. Also I got in the habit of drinking lemon balm tea and I’ll keep drinking that.

Thing that I won’t be eating again: budget white rice. It’s so processed and bleached etc that when it is cooked, it looks like it is auditioning for a toilet cleaner commercial. I’m back to the nice basmati from the Indian shop or the organic rice thanks – despite being 5-6 times the price. Oh, and I’m glad to see the back of the budget instant coffee!

Hardest thing: the time taken to prepare food when I was really hungry. In one case, I had a few leftovers before heading out to a birthday party (not for me, a 5th birthday for a friend’s daughter). Then I was at the party not eating. Then I went home and cooked, which took nearly an hour. I had dinner after 9.

Best purchases: the budget white rice at $1.08 for a kilo. Ensured I would have sufficient calories and allowed me money for flavour in my diet. And the fresh ginger – 25 grams at $6 per kilo. It lasted the whole week and I used it every day to give flavour to my food.

Low point: a toss up between cooking for an hour and a half to make dinner when I was really hungry on day one, and eating cold rice for lunch on my birthday.

High point: no competition here – my birthday party. That was just fantastic.  High points of the high point included

  • nibbling on a plate of crackers and dip – it just felt so naughty and indulgent, even though there were only about 10 crackers between us
  • the taste of something sweet – with Mona’s semolina cake and the dates that Barbara had saved from her ration
  • the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. It was the cheapest brand, the teabag had made several cups and it had a few lumps of powdered milk in the bottom, and it was PERFECT!
  • and without doubt the best of all, the sense of community formed by the shared adversity of the challenge. This team had never met before last Sunday, and nobody in the group knew everyone. And yet by Thursday we were not just a team, we were friends.

Here’s me enjoying a cracker and dip, with a bench full of our shared ingredients.

Insights into poverty I hadn’t appreciated before: the preparation time made me think about the daily grind of survival for the extremely poor. Truly cheap food is not instant. But also admiration for the sense of community and entrepreneurship that you see in some poor communities, and for people who put in a hard day’s work on an extreme poverty diet.

Way I’ll celebrate the end of the challenge: with a trim flat white and zeppola (Italian potato doughnut) from the Hill St Farmer’s Market. Honestly, they are so good that even in a normal week, I fantasise about the zeppola in particularly boring meetings just to get me through the day.

Before I sign off from the challenge – I’d like to thank everyone who sponsored me. Mum, Dad, Paul, Diana, Kate, Margaret Ann, Jim, Heather, Kevin, Christine, Lincoln, Cath, Deb, Helen, Eugene, Kirsty, anonymous and of course Barbara, Kim and Mona! I’ve raised $652 so far (including some offline donations). I’ve well exceeded my target and I’m standing at 8 on the VSA leaderboard for donations (although with the offline donations I’m actually at 6). I really do appreciate your support. (Oh, sorry if I missed anyone, the list of sponsors keeps rotating and I can’t be sure I’ve got everyone.).

And if you haven’t made it to donate yet but still want to, it’s still open for donations for a while yet!




Day 5 below the line September 27, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:46 pm

Last day…

Breakfast: my 5th consecutive day of porridge and dates. And the last day of budget coffee. Yay!!!

Morning tea: only lemon balm tea. We ate all the crackers last night. The party was worth it, but it was a hard morning.

Lunch: tomato with rice again – only WARM! And half a leftover paratha.

Afternoon tea: half a paratha I saved from lunch.

Dinner: 2 leftover paratha and dal. It was quite liquid so I’ll call it a soup. It was the same as the one I cooked previously – fried onion, crushed coriander seed and the last of my curry leaves (in butter instead of oil since I had some left), added red lentils, water, the last of my ginger, salt and a tiny bit of chili.


Day 4 below the line

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:22 pm

So this was my birthday below the line. One of the more unusual birthdays I’ve ever had, although the trip in the Mauritian police helicopter in 2002 remains hard to top…

Breakfast: budget instant coffee and porridge with dates. You know, I actually like porridge with dates, even after 4 days. It really doesn’t need sugar.

Morning tea: same as the previous 2 days…only watching everyone else eat muffins and fruit.

Lunch: cold “risotto”. I had the same “rice with tomatoes” dish. But today of all days I was at a workshop. We ate at the hotel restaurant, which meant I was sitting at a table with everyone eating from the buffet, and I had my rice. Now for the rest of the week I have enjoyed the highly unrealistic luxury of heating my rice dishes in the office microwave. Since I wasn’t at the office, I didn’t have the microwave. I have to say that it tasted a lot better hot.

Afternoon tea: a few more crackers.

Dinner: this was my below the line birthday party. I pooled resources with 3 friends doing the challenge and we had a lovely meal.

Course 1: my homemade crackers and Barbara’s pea “guacamole”.

Course 2: a piece of Mona’s semolina cake. And a cup of tea with milk (powdered).

Course 3: Kim’s dal, Kim’s fried rice, Barbara’s “risotto-ish”.

Course 4: Mauritian greens, yams from my garden with ginger and a bit of honey from Mona’s budget and Mona’s paratha with my remaining flour.

Course 5: a date each and another cup of tea.

It wasn’t quite as excessive as it sounds. Each portion was rather small. We basically provided what we would have had for dinner. But it was really good and a lovely way to celebrate a birthday.


Day 3 below the line September 25, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:32 pm

Breakfast: same as the last 2 days.

Morning tea: ditto

Lunch: “risotto” from the previous night.

Afternoon tea: ditto

Dinner: the remains of monday’s dal and rice, plus jowar chapati.

The monotony is kicking in. But I’m actually getting used to the lemon balm tea now.

The jowar (Sorghum) chapati was an interesting experiment. Even in New Zealand this is the cheapest flour available. It’s the staple for millions across Africa and Asia. It was challenging to work with – it’s got no gluten so doesn’t bind together, and the dough was made with boiling water – which meant it was rather like handling a dough made from porridge.

Overall it was edible, but far from being as nice as a wheat chapati. It didn’t help that I misjudged the salt, but with a bit more sprinkled on them, they were fine.


Day 2 below the line September 24, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:40 pm

Breakfast: same as yesterday – one cup budget instant coffee with milk (powdered skim milk), rolled oats with 2 chopped dates and milk. Also, I salt the rolled oats slightly – essential!

Morning tea: more “tea” from my wild lemon balm. I’m actually getting used to it and don’t mind it. Although coffee would be better. 5 crackers (based on a recipe I posted previously, but with 10 cents worth of sesame seeds on them for a bit of extra flavour).

Lunch: a reheated chapati from yesterday, dal and rice the same as yesterday.

Afternoon tea: more lemon balm tea and another 5 crackers.

Second afternoon tea: 2 more reheated chapati. This was essential, as I had a birthday party to attend. If I didn’t have food inside me before I went, I’d have passed out. Not to mention the temptation of having the food in front of me when I was hungry.

Dinner: rice cooked with onion, celery, carrot, herbs and tinned tomatoes. Kind of like a risotto (thanks for the idea Mona!). I put a bit of butter on it at the end. It wasn’t bad at all, and I didn’t get to eat until 9 at night which made it all the better when I finally ate.



Day 1 below the line September 23, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 8:34 pm

Breakfast: one cup of budget instant coffee. Rolled oats with powdered skim milk and 2 chopped dates. I decided to leave sugar out of my budget, since I’d only want it on the porridge, and a bit of dried fruit does just as well.

Morning tea: “tea” made from a self-sown plant of lemon balm from my garden, some miner’s lettuce.

Lunch: dal and rice (which I made last night).

Afternoon tea: another lemon balm tea and one rather pathetic carrot from the garden.

Dinner: 3 chapati and Mauritian greens

The Mauritian greens are something I cook occasionally. I used one of the last of the leeks from the garden (well past their best), a good amount of silverbeet, parsley and thyme. I also used a bit of butter, a bit of ginger and coriander seed, a couple of curry leaves, a couple of spoonfuls from my tin of tomatoes and salt.


Below the line pantry September 22, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 10:10 pm

My shopping is done. Here is my pantry for the week (minus garden vegetables).

I’ve done a detailed budget for the things I’ve bought. I’ve mostly purchased from bulk bins, there were a couple of whole packets like the rice and tinned tomatoes. In some cases, I bought packets and split them, for example with the coffee. I split a bottle of oil with the other people I know doing the challenge (well, the Wellington-based ones anyway). Where I already had stuff, like baking powder, salt, milk powder, curry leaves, ginger etc, I just weighed out an appropriate volume and calculated the cost for that amount.

Here’s my final calculations.


I’ve also cooked my first meal of lentils and rice so that I have something for lunch tomorrow. I never cook lentils the same way twice – I cooked this lot with oil, onion, crushed coriander seed (from my garden when I had a coriander population explosion), grated ginger, curry leaves, salt and a little bit of chili powder. It’s quite tasty, unlike the rice which is disturbingly white (I usually use organic or at least basmati, but this cheap and nasty stuff looks like it’s been bleached).


Below the line budget help September 17, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:53 pm

I’ve been putting together some information to work out my budget for the live below the line challenge. It might be useful to others.

Weighing:one cup of…

  • quick-cooking rolled oats = 105g
  • milk powder = 110g
  • flour = 155g
  • masoor dal (red lentils) = 180g
  • rice = 190g
  • sugar = 220g

Costing: I’ve gone to a fairly average supermarket and one of the Indian shops to get some costs. These are approximate but will help to give an idea.

Bulk goods from the Indian shop:

  • whole wheat flour = $2 per kg
  • milk powder = $5.49 per kg (this was on special, regular price $8)
  • various forms of dal and chickpea = $3.99-$4.80 per kg
  • basmati rice = $3 per kg (I’m sure there was cheaper rice than this but I forgot to write it down)
  • dates = $4.90 per kg (these are consistently the cheapest dried fruit)

Also, for interest, jowar flour was half the price of wheat. This is sorghum or millet flour. It’s eaten far more widely than wheat flour by the less wealthy in Asia and Africa. I’m tempted to include some in my budget and try cooking with it. Apparently it’s not easy to work with, but it’s high in protein and it would be an interesting insight to try it.

Prices from the supermarket

  • loose potatoes $1.68 per kg, but a 10 kg sack was $4.99, so really cheap in bulk
  • onions $1.68 per kg
  • carrots 1.79 per kg
  • cabbage $1.99 each
  • pumpkin $3.98 each
  • butter (cheapest) $3.69 per pack (there was a special for $3.29 though)
  • oil (cheapest 500 ml bottle) $1.98 (40 cents per 100ml)
  • oil (cheapest 2 l bottle) $6.97 (35 cents per 100 ml)
  • cheapest white flour $1.72 per 1.5kg bag
  • cheapest wholemeal flour $2.17 1.5 kg bag
  • cheapest rice $2.16 for 2 kg bag
  • cheapest pasta 85 cents for a 500g pack
  • cheapest instant noodles $1.48 for 5 packets
  • cheapest tinned tomatoes 86 cents for an average can and $1.59 for a big can
  • cheapest corn (creamed or kernel) 99 cents per can
  • cheapest iodised table salt was 2 cents per 10g. I’m not buying a whole separate pack of that
  • cheapest sugar $3.15 for a 1.5 kg bag

Garden production costs September 16, 2012

Filed under: Garden,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 12:05 pm
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Is anyone else using homegrown vegetables in the “Live below the line” challenge?

I eat my own vegetables year-round, with a few notable exceptions, and I don’t want to change that for the live below the line challenge. But how do I calculate my production costs?

There are a whole lot of complex factors to account for:

  • whole garden or just vegetables?
  • over what time period – I could do average spending over weeks, months or years (if I could be bothered to dig up the receipts and calculate)?
  • do I add costs like fixing the boundary retaining wall?
  • what about my time?
  • all vegetables – from seedlings, seeds and self-sown or saved?
  • what about weeds from my garden?
  • what about the plastic mesh that keeps off the blackbirds and holds the mulch in place?

I’ve come to conclusion that seems reasonable to me. It will allow me to eat an average amount from my garden over the week and will ensure I have plenty of vitamins.

I really have two season in the garden. The “summer” garden (which runs from November/December-April/May) is abundant, with a great variety but also quite significant inputs. I grow seeds in pots in a mini-greenhouse, I use a cloche and bought mulch and sometimes compost. I buy a wide range of seeds and I also buy in seedlings of various things like capsicum, chili and some tomato and zucchini varieties. I use sheep manure pellets and rok fertiliser. I also grow things in pots (tomatoes for example which are better potted in a wet summer).

“Winter” is different. From about late May until about October – I still grow a mix of seeds, seeds and ferals, but I don’t tend to pot up my own seedlings, the winter stuff is direct sow. I have a higher reliance on feral things like the brassicas, yams, chard, lettuce, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, lamb’s lettuce, puha. I have carrots from seed and leeks and kale from seedlings. I use a little rok and some sheep manure pellets, but the mulch is largely just newspaper (and the re-used plastic mesh). I harvest my own slow compost (mostly made from weeds) in winter and use that.

So winter inputs are minimal. But so is the variety. Some leeks and carrots (but not lots), chard, kale, yams, potatoes (early winter only), broccoli (pretty much finished now), a bit of celery, weedy greens. Oh and endless parsley! I could probably do more but this is all I ended up with.

This is the garden I’ll have for the challenge. And so I decided to cost only this season and do a week’s average. I think it’s fair to leave out all the fruit, ornamentals, and landscaping, since before I did all that work, I still had a typical cheap vege garden for my own vegetables. If I was poor (but still had a patch of earth) then I would be growing and living on my vegetables, just without the neat edging, paths, fruit trees, spring bulbs and unusual plant collection. That’s just what I do.

So what I’ve spent on the winter vegetables is about $24 on seedlings (leeks, some different lettuce, celery, brassicas), and probaby no more than $5 on nutrient inputs and a few carrot seeds. Say $30 total. Yams, chard, most of the brassicas and greens were saved seed or self-sown.

So I think for somewhere around $1.25-$1.50 I can eat a leek or two (small), a few carrots, a few sticks of celery (all I’ve got left) and a good quantity of leafy greens. I’ll have to buy onions if I want them, but that seems reasonable to me.

Anyone else have any thoughts on production costs? Have I missed anything out?


Chewers, crackers and cinders! September 11, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 4:59 pm

I’ve already posted these recipes are already elsewhere, but good to have things all in one place.


I’ve tested out a recipe for crackers, and it’s pretty good. It’s a simplified and much cheaper version of my regular cracker recipe.

1/4 cup fine cut rolled oats (these are the quick-cooking oats, but make sure they aren’t flavoured ones which are too expensive anyway!)
3/4 cup wholemeal flour (I used whole wheat atta, a finely milled Indian flour since I’m planning to use that for the challenge.)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder (scant)
2 tbsp oil
1/3 cup water
extra flour

Put oats in bowl. Sift in flour, salt and baking powder. Add oil and rub through dry ingredients until the mix has a texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Oil will stick to your measuring spoon – don’t waste it. Rub the spoon in the flour and get all the oil off! Mix in the water to make a dough. Tip onto the bench and knead a bit. Cover dough and leave to rest for half an hour.

Roll out dough thinly with a rolling pin, using extra flour to stop it sticking. Cut into pieces using a pizza cutter (works much better than a knife but you can use a knife). Put crackers on a baking tray and bake in a hot oven (190-210 C) for 15-20 minutes.

I’m not very exact on timing as my oven isn’t that reliable on temperature. But after 15 minutes, watch the crackers like a hawk, because the line between “chewers”, “crackers” and “cinders” is very fine indeed!

Makes enough crackers to fill one full-sized baking tray.

For costs, 3/4 cup of flour is about 120g, and probably about 25 cents at the Indian shop, while 1/4 a cup of oats is 25g and about 10 cents. Depending on the amount of oil you buy (if you have enough people to buy bulk), 30 ml of cooking oil would be about 15 cents. Again, salt is really cheap, and a teaspoon of baking powder works out to about 5 cents. So just over 50 cents for a batch of tasty crackers.

But a note – the cheapest salt is NOT iodised. Bear in mind that there isn’t enough iodine in a typical NZ diet, and if you were living on a uniodised salt long term, it wouldn’t be healthy.

Basic dal
I made a very basic dal, with onion, oil, dal/ lentils, salt and water. I cooked the onion until it was nicely caramelised before adding the dal, salt and water. So despite the minimal ingredients, it had a reasonable flavour. The only way I’d change it is that I would soak the dal beforehand rather than cooking it from dry (I used gram or chana dal which can take a while). However if you use red lentils (masoor dal) they cook pretty quickly, and it isn’t necessary to soak at all.

A half cup of dal is just a bit less than 100g, and with dal ranging from $4-5 per kilo in bulk (at one of the Indian shops in Petone), that’s about 50 cents. The cheapest supermarket rice was abou 11-12 cents per 100g, and a cup is just under 200g, so it’s about 25 cents of rice. Onions are less than $2 per kg (I’m not sure what an average onion weighs, but it isn’t that heavy…), and it was less and an 10th of a cent’s worth of salt.

I ate it with carrot and silverbeet from my garden. Not sure about the exact cost of those, but my inputs into the vege garden are not particularly high, except my time of course!

I got 3-4 meals out of this, so it was very cheap.