The Art of the Natural Home: Testing Rebecca Sullivan's Recipes for the Good Life
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Sometimes, it’s the most unexpected of books that change your whole outlook on life.
In The Art of the Natural Home, Rebecca Sullivan sets out to help the reader achieve a healthy, natural lifestyle. The author offers natural alternatives to commercially produced, and often chemically-laden, products for every corner of your home, from cleaning products to cosmetics. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be convinced. A lifetime of TV ads has conditioned me to believe in ‘scientifically proven’ magic dirt-be-gone sprays and youth-come-back creams. It would be a tall order indeed to make me believe that anything they could do, I could do better.
Rebecca Sullivan’s journey to self-reliance began with a mission to learn, and then preserve, the skills of a disappearing generation. Her Great Grandma Lil won medals for her Victoria sponge cake and Rebecca was determined that Lil’s recipe would not be lost. That cake recipe led to further knowledge and more skills.
As Rebecca points out, people of Lil’s generation cooked from scratch, not because it was fashionable but, because they had to. They ate local, seasonal food and abhorred waste. Processed foods and supermarkets may have made life easier but they also facilitated the loss of skills, what Sullivan calls Granny Skills. Convenience won the day and people no longer learned how to cook or make preserves, make butter or jam. What followed was not only a loss of recipes and technique but, more importantly, a loss of confidence. We have now reached a point when the majority of consumers wouldn’t consider themselves to be capable of making even the simplest of products. They wouldn’t even consider it.
The Art of the Natural Home is a very pretty book, benefiting from gorgeous production and elegant photography by Nassima Rothacker. I particularly liked the subtle coding of sections by colouring the page edges. However, the real beauty of this book is that it empowers the willing reader to experiment, to try making products that we have been fooled into believing we have no option but to buy.
Rebecca Sullivan moved beyond homemade foods and learned how to make her own home-cleaning products, detergents, and even cosmetics. The ultimate goal of this book is to help you take a holistic approach to health and well being to achieve a natural lifestyle. Rebecca provides
‘natural recipes and products for the entire home from the kitchen pantry to the cleaning cupboard, from your make-up bag to the medicine cabinet (and, happily, a few treats for the drinks trolley too).’
In this book a ‘natural product’ is defined as something you could eat with no repercussions. Ninety percent of the ingredients are edible. In addition, many of the ingredients are store cupboard staples or can be grown in your garden. Failing that, Sullivan lists online sources for everything you might require, from ingredients to suitable bottles and containers.
I loved the practical simplicity of this book. Most of the products are made by simply assembling the ingredients and stirring the pot. There is nothing in this book beyond your ability, I guarantee it, and you may be pleasantly surprised when you discover just how much you can make.
The Art of the Natural Home is divided into two parts: Home and Health and Beauty.
The Home section offers a selection of natural recipes for your pantry, as well as chemical-free cleaning products, natural gardening guidelines and even some herbal cocktails and suggestions for your drinks trolley.
It won’t surprise you to hear that my first stop was the kitchen. Most of the recipes are for sauces and condiments, the jars you usually pick up from a supermarket shelf. There are myths galore out there that jam-making is a tricky, sticky business, that pickles might kill you and that lemon curd must surely involve some mystical alchemy. It’s not true and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating how easy these treats are to make at home.
As a card carrying relishaholic, I was obliged to test Rebecca’s Apple, Pear and Tomato Chutney. I may be adjusting my own recipe to include her delicious spice combination.
Gathering my courage, I searched for recipes that were completely new to me. I made my first buttermilk pickle, something I’d never heard of before. Pears have been fermenting for three days in buttermilk with cinnamon and bay leaves. I was expecting them to taste sour but the flavour is more alcoholic, almost like a sweet pear liqueur. Decidedly odd but I keep going back for more.
The foodie hot wire has been buzzing over the last couple of years about fermented foods. Convinced as I am of the tremendous benefits to health, and even mood, I have remained reluctant to dive into the brine of fermenting. I thought it would involve buying equipment and probably a trip to a hippy dippy health food store. No such luck. Rebecca’s Sauerkraut recipe requires nothing more exciting than a head of cabbage and a Kilner jar.
It’s alive! I have to tell you, I was nervous about those gas bubbles. I lay awake at night in expectation of a briny explosion. I lost my nerve on Day 4 and called a halt but it was already pretty good stuff. Not having eaten any genuine sauerkraut, I’m not qualified to comment on the authenticity of my creation. Let’s just say it’s very good with a slice of ham and I may be hooked on the adrenalin rush. Watch this space for further adventures in fermentation.
Rebecca seems to have put considerable thought into making these recipes achievable even for absolute beginners. Most of the recipes have minimal ingredients and don’t require specialist equipment. Her no-churn ice cream is as good as any I’ve tried. I recommend doubling the recipe.
Of all the food recipes, our favourite had only two ingredients. We, as a family, made butter. Everyone, from the over-excited kindergartner to the exam-stressed teenagers, demanded a turn at shaking our miniature churn. That half hour of fun alone made this book a winner.
An unexpected bonus: the butter was the best I’ve ever tasted.
The second half of The Art of the Natural Home is devoted to Health and Beauty. I came to this section with healthy scepticism. I’m not a great fan of putting eggs in my hair. Let’s just say I’ve been there, scrambled that.
Rebecca Sullivan does suggest an egg hair mask but, thankfully, there are many more recipes aside from that one.
Did you know, for instance, that you can buy Vitamin C powder and very easily make your own anti-aging face serum? How about a soothing rosewater toner or a coconut body scrub?
All are a doddle to make, literally child’s play.
‘This is the best fun ever!’ said my daughter as she pounded rose petals in a pestle and mortar.
I’ve been taking a twice daily shot of mood-enhancing amusement from swigging homemade mouthwash out of a handsome gin bottle. The kids tell me my Miss Hannigan routine is coming along nicely.
For hair, beyond eggy masks, there are recipes for shampoo, conditioner, detangling spray and salt spray for beachy hair. I’m well past the surfer girl look but I do believe in avoiding sulphates so I was willing to give coconut shampoo a try.
It’s not a simple substitute for shop-bought shampoo; I needed the extra step of a vinegar rinse to feel my hair was really clean. My top criterion when choosing shampoo is that it mustn't irritate my sensitive Celtic skin and this one fits that bill perfectly.
Make-up recipes include a natural concealer, tinted moisturiser, mascara, rose lip balm and the most deliciously scented blusher I’ve ever had the pleasure of dusting on my cheeks.
I’ve been using these products for a week or so now and, look, I’d love to tell you that they’ve taken years off me. Alas, not. All I can vouch for is that they feel, smell, and even taste fantastic. Every product I’ve tried has been a pleasure to use and, at the very worst, will do no harm. That can’t be a bad place to start.
While this is, without doubt, a very pretty book, men are not neglected. A section for gentlemen covers a masculine man scrub, beard oil and a weirdly delicious shaving foam.
I admit that the shaving foam made the sink a bit scummy but that was sorted by the Scum Scrub recipe in the cleaning section.
The final section of The Art of the Natural Home offers remedies for minor ailments. Recipes range from tinctures and tonics to herbal teas, salves and salt remedies. I’m happy to vouch for the sleepy-time bath salts. I hardly had time to button my pyjamas and take a swig from the aforementioned gin bottle before my eyelids dropped.
My first batch of medicinal vinegar, which I am choosing to trust will ease all my anxieties while simultaneously shrinking me to fit a bikini, is still stewing.
A girl can hope.
For me, The Art of the Natural Home represents a friendly and accessible introduction to a wide range of ‘granny skills’. At first glance, this book looks like something you’d give as a gift, a prettily packaged bit of fun. It is fun but it is also empowering. I was thrilled to watch my daughters experimenting with tailor-made shades of blusher rather than buying in to the notion that they must subscribe to the advice of some air-brushed starlet telling them they’re worth it.
You don’t have to make your own toothpaste, of course you don’t, but you could. Knowledge brings choice and having a choice is always the better option.
Rebecca Sullivan has succeeded in convincing me that I can drop a long list of harmful chemicals from my weekly shopping list and I can make more natural products at home than I ever imagined possible.
The Art of the Natural Home is a lovely book; it is clean and refreshing in every way.