Rebecca Sullivan’s interest in natural living first began with her work in the granny skills movement. “It’s all about protecting our elders’ knowledge and tradition and skills,” she says.
“I’ve been working on this idea of us living more like our grandmothers for years and years.”
She started taking an interest in food and looking at labels in shops: “It was like reading the Da Vinci Code. I started reading what was in these foods and I was blown away by being told that something’s natural because the marketing company has said so.
“And it’s not natural at all.”
Her book, The Art of the Natural Home, covers a range of traditional recipes and products for your home as well as health and beauty products, all using natural ingredients.
Rebecca is an ethical food and agricultural academic and activist, who is passionate about passing on 'granny skills' to future generations. Back in the days of her great-grandma, food waste was uneconomical and made no sense.
Learning granny skills
The granny skills movement is all about frugality, according to Rebecca.
“My grandmother is the most frugal person you’ve ever known and she uses still to this day bicarb, vinegar and salt to clean everything – and lemons. And it works and costs nearly nothing.
“You know it’s not toxic because you can eat all of those ingredients. I wouldn’t recommend eating spoonfuls of bicarb, but you could if you wanted to!”
Rebecca’s real inspiration was her great grandmother Lil. “I’d been working in food for a really long time and when Lil passed away my mum had saved me some of her things.
“And in her little box of things were all of these awards. It turned out that she’s been an award-winning baker in the ‘30s in the Women’s Own cookery competitions and I’d never seen her bake.
“And you can only imagine when someone’s worked in food for such a long time to then go and find out that her great grandmother was an award-winning baker for her Victoria sponge and you’d never seen her bake… My heart broke into a million, million pieces.”
And so the granny skills movement was born. Rebecca realised that she couldn’t be the only person who regretted not spending time with their elders.
Try some free recipes from Rebecca’s book:
Her grandmother Pauline is, in Rebecca’s words, “the queen of sustainability”.
“But not because it’s hipster and because its’s on trend, but because she’s always done it that way. Because she had no choice. She grew up very poor.”
One of Rebecca’s heroes is Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland. She’s always talked about forgotten skills from boning a chicken to making jam.
“These are basic things that not only bring you so much joy when you learn how to do them – they save you money and they are better for your health,” says Rebecca.
She draws her granny skills inspiration from a variety of sources: “Throughout my entire career, I’ve found myself drawn to grannies and asked them for their recipes wherever I went and this was long before the granny skills concept was an idea.”
“I think it’s because I love granny food. It’s comforting and it brings you so much joy. It reminds me of my childhood, it’s nostalgic – and there’s always a lot of butter!”
Cooking from scratch, fermenting, pickling and preserving are all simple things which we’ve forgotten how to do, but once upon a time everyone had to do it themselves.
While these things may be time consuming, Rebecca says that everyone can find time to make their own food and cleaning products: “People always say to me ‘I don’t have time to do that’.
“Without picking on anyone, everyone has time to do this stuff. I argue that everyone’s priorities now are different to what my grandma’s would have been.
“My grandmother had three jobs and five kids and she still cooked from scratch – because she didn’t have a choice.
“It takes 20 seconds to make your own cleaning spray, it 30 seconds to make your own blusher that will cost you 60 pence and it’s made or arrowroot powder, some raw cacao powder and little bit of pigment powder.
“You shake it in a jar and you’ve got a blusher that cost you 60p, not £30, and you smell like a chocolate bar!”
Sauerkraut – the underrated superfood
Could sauerkraut be the most underrated superfood? It’s packed with vitamins including vitamins A, B, C and K, plus folic acid and a host of important minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, sodium and magnesium.
“Sauerkraut is the greatest of the superfoods in my opinion,” Rebecca says. “It’s one of the easiest things to make – it’s literally cabbage and salt. That is it.
“It’s one of the greatest things you can have for gut health, which is a huge buzzword at the moment.”
She says that fermented food can have a range of health benefits – it can help with moods, helping with any sort of flu – everything is connected to the gut.
Rebecca advises that to get the full health benefits you need to have homemade, unpasteurised sauerkraut, not the stuff which you can buy in the supermarket.
To make your sauerkraut, you need to massage your cabbage with salt to bring out all of the brine, which then ferments the cabbage.
“It’s a lot of fun massaging cabbage. It’s like very cheap therapy and having a spoonful of sauerkraut every day is going to be extra beneficial to your gut.
“When I’m doing it, I’m normally thinking of someone who’s annoyed me that week and taking my massaging out on them! The poor cabbage gets a workout!”
Rebecca loves to experiment with different flavours and spices and adding other vegetables to the mix. “Chilli, ginger and garlic make a more kimchi-style ferment. It’s just delicious and so good for you.”
If you’re making sauerkraut in a jar, don’t forget to ‘burp’ it on the third, fifth and seventh days of the first week. This involves opening it to let the gas out, or it might leak everywhere.
Granny tips and tricks for reducing food waste
Food waste is a huge bugbear for Rebecca and her approach is largely inspired by her thrifty granny. She was always amazed by her grandmother’s ability to cook up a feast from very little.
“I always tell people if they want to live sustainably, take a note from granny.”
Long-term sustainability is all about being frugal and finding new ways to reused leftover food. A great tip from Rebecca’s book is to freeze leftover soup or stew in an ice cube tray to create a ready-made stock for your next recipe.
Even leftover coffee can be put into an ice cube tray and added to milk to make a beautiful iced coffee with maple syrup and ice cream if you feel like a treat.
If you have extra strawberries because you bought a supermarket two-for-one offer, blitz them up with some herbs then pour them into an ice cube tray and serve in sparkling water.
Herbs can be put into the trays and covered with olive oil to make instant stock cubes.
“It’s about thinking before you put something in the garbage,” says Rebecca.
A friend’s mum used to make the best chocolate Rebecca had ever eaten. Her secret? A cup of mashed potato. “It keeps it super moist!”
Baking is an easy way to use up leftovers and can be added to cakes.
Coffee grounds can be put in vases to extend the shelf life of flowers and Rebecca also uses them to create a body scrub.
She simply dries out the leftover coffee grounds, mixes a couple of tablespoons with some raw cocoa powder, raw sugar and a bit of coconut oil. It’s exfoliating and smells fantastic in the shower.
Sharing your makes
Rebecca says there’s nothing more satisfying than getting together to make passata when tomatoes are in season and the Italians have been doing it for centuries.
It’s very much like the Danish tradition of hygge – getting together with friends to make things together.
Like the granny skills movement, hygge is about slowing down and spending time with family and friends.
Trading is part of the granny skills way of life. “It’s about being mindful and knowing your neighbours and knowing your community,” she says.
“It’s about knowing that Meryl down the road has a huge lemon tree and I have an orange tree and why don’t we swap things? You might take some roses from someone’s garden and in return you can give them a rose moisturiser.
“It’s about being part of a community again. So many people don’t know their neighbours and it breaks my heart a little bit.”
“All of these principles force us to stop and breathe and be in the moment and chill and get to know each other. It’s a much nicer way of living our lives.”
Rebecca is aiming to empower people with the granny skills ethos. “I’m trying to get people involved in using granny skills and getting them to spend more time with their grandparents as well. They’ve got a wealth of skills, knowledge and resources.
“Ask your granny something next time you see her and I’ll guarantee you’ll learn a million and one things from her. And your grandpa as well.
“Find your inner granny.”
The Art of the Natural Home by Rebecca Sullivan is published by Kyle Books. Photography by Nassima Rothacker.