Tuesday 27 February 2024

Saturday 24 February 2024

Wild Food

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. Their most promising pieces were swelled and sweetened, made fleshy or fertile, made unrecognisable to fit our tastes. 

Yet colour and tastes go in and out of fashion with each generation; look how swiftly the perfectly white eggs of supermarkets were replaced by brown ones, with an identical taste but a trendy “natural” image. The centuries have done the same to our crops, leaving behind legions of purple carrots, blue potatoes and other victims of our whims.

In the last century, moreover, we have shipped more and more food across the planet, so that rows of Australian maize or Moroccan tomatoes can fill shelves in Iowa or Scotland. Our crops had to be bred to stand out as consumer products and yet survive the journey, leading to the massive sizes and cardboard flavours of supermarket produce.  The “fresh vegetables” most of us grew up with were, typically, nothing of the kind.  

Genuinely fresh and wild food still exists all around us, though, and this time of year the Irish hedgerows create a vertical salad bar of fruits and berries. Many wild plants are edible and few were bred into groceries, and even those that were domesticated can still be found in their original form -- which often tastes better, as anyone knows who has tasted a wild strawberry.

Hawthorn trees will soon be sprouting shoots, and lindens after them, and both have leaves that when young are edible and delicious. The fruits of the hawthorn, while bland in taste, are also edible and can make an addition to wines and jams.

When summer comes properly, Fat Hen will appear everywhere. It was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today; it formed part of the meal given to Tollund man, one of the “bog bodies” fished out of Denmark. It is basically a wild version of spinach, and its pale green leaves can be cooked the same way. The garlic –flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but a new crop sometimes appears this month, so this is a good time to go looking for it. Its large, deeply green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers make a great ingredient in salads or sauteed. The shamrock-like leaves of wild sorrel carpet forest floors beginning in spring, and can still be seen this time of year. Its lemony leaves make a perfect addition to salads. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly. 

In later summer, the blackberries and raspberries will appear. Many people here take the traditional route of preserving them in jams for winter vitamins, but you can also make them into wine, fruit leathers, add them to salads or spread them with meat. Dandelion leaves are best when young, but the roots should now be at their fullest; try pulling them out and roasting them like coffee. 

Rosehips look similar to haws and are almost as numerous along the hedges. Packed with Vitamin C, their syrup has famously been used as a medicine, but they can also be made into jam or wine. Most of their bulk, though, consists of the sharp seeds, which can be a fiddly job to remove.  Elderberries darken with the days here, and are just at the right stage to be made into wine, jam, pies, syrup, meat sauce or cordial. To make the syrup, boil the elderberries and stir in sugar as you would jam, but without the pectin to make it firm.

Medlars were a popular fruit in medieval times but are rarely recognised anymore, perhaps because they must be slightly over-ripe to be edible, and did not fit well with our modern demand that fruit sit for days on store shelves. Nonetheless, they are very tasty and make a great a pie filling, so remember their appearance and keep an eye out.  

Do remember not to remove plants from the roadside, where they could have been bathing in toxic fumes, or from anywhere you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Do look up what these plants look like to make sure you pick them and not a similar-looking poisonous plant, but most of these look very distinctive, and telling them apart is quite easy to do. 

Have fun! 


Saturday 17 February 2024

Straw-bale gardening

Many of the straw bales you see across the fields of County Kildare these days are mammoth cylinders that you would have difficulty moving without farm equipment. But on some horse farms you can still find the older kind of straw bales – rectangular, metre-long, hefted by hand.

Straw bales have many uses – as seats, as compost bins, as borders to a garden to keep out rabbits. On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. People still do this today to create sheds, barns, homes and even churches, and they provide great insulating walls – and are no more a fire hazard than wood.

If you don’t have the wood or time to build regular garden beds, you could plant a garden directly inside your bales.

First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales, or add urine in whatever way will not upset your neighbours.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.

The best straw bales for a garden are wheat, oats, rye or barley straw. These consist of stalks left from harvesting grain; they have been through a combine harvester and had the seeds threshed from them, leaving none or very few left. I got mine from a farmer in Maynooth who still uses the small bales.

Hay bales for gardening are less popular as they have the whole stalk and seed heads with mucho seeds. They also often have other weeds and grass seeds to cause trouble. Use what you can get locally — it may even be lucerne, pea straw, vetch or alfalfa bales. Corn and linseed (flax) bales are not so good as they are very coarse, and linseed straw takes a long time to decompose due to the oil residue left on the stalks.

An approach like this is not for everyone – it requires a great deal of water, which was not a problem for me, who lives along the canals. Other people might find it too much trouble. But it can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests. It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it cuts down on the amount of weeding.

Most of all, this approach can work well for homeowners with what I call suburban soil: a thin layer of grass and topsoil, covering clay and builders’ rubble from the construction of the house. Such people need to build up their soil, and straw bales allow you to bring in the organic material to do so – and straw makes a light and easily portable material.

By the time your gardening project is done for the year, the straw bales will be well-decomposed, and you can simply take apart the soil and wet straw and spread it over your garden as winter approaches. The straw will keep weeds down like mulch, but unlike mulch is already partly decomposing and will finish turning back into soil quickly, and can be mixed with the rest of the soil come spring.

If you’re just starting to garden, try doing this with bales the first year, and that gives you an additional year to build wooden or stone beds; by the time they’re done, you have the soil to fill them. In effect, you will have created soil without having to lift the mineral and water content that comprises most of the soil’s weight.


Photo by Mohamed Haddi, courtesy of WikiCommons.


Friday 2 February 2024

Jobs then and now

Johann Hamza, The Blacksmith's Forge. Public domain.             
Somewhere in an elderly relative’s mouse-chewed attic there probably sits a dusty photograph of you – you as a child, smiling and proud one Halloween, wearing a tiny uniform of the thing you were going to be. You had it all planned out; you were going to be a farmer or fireman, cowboy or doctor, or some other role that a child can instantly identify and adore.

For most of us life hasn’t worked out that way. A few become firefighters, of course (one in a thousand) or doctors (two in a thousand), but most of us -- for the first time in human history -- do not work at jobs that any child would understand or care about. Three-quarters of Westerners work office jobs – telemarketers, marketing managers, Assistant Diversity Officers, and other growing titles that never existed until yesterday, all to describe where we fit in an ecosystem of office plankton. Everyone jokes grimly about hating their job and hangs Dilbert cartoons on their cubicles, and waits until Friday, as they cling like fleas to the undersides of corporations for as long as they can before being dislodged.

It was a shock, then, to hear my elderly neighbours talk of their work life. Many learned crafts passed down through families until they became surnames – smith, mason, miller, thatcher, tailor, baker, carter, cooper, and wright. By the time they were men and women they were respected masters, keepers of secrets handed down through generations. They spoke of shaping wood and iron and leather in ways everyone could see and respect. Saddlers and scutchers, farriers and felters, cobblers and cordwainers – even grave-diggers and churchbell-ringers spoke of their jobs with an enthusiasm I rarely see today.

“I jump out of bed on a Sunday morning for my ringing day,” said bell-ringer Leslie Taylor in an interview in Dublin Voices. “I am the elected ringing master, chosen by my fellow ringers who are members of the society ...I’m one of the people who have in one way or another serviced the cathedral in some way since its foundation in 1038. ... I’d like to die in the belfry … when I’m ringing.”

It’s worth examining why most people in traditional societies spoke so fondly of their jobs and modern people do not, since work would seem to be one area where life has unarguably improved in modern times. The long hours and unsafe conditions we remember from Dickens and Upton Sinclair have much improved, thanks to unions and labour laws, and for that we should be grateful.

Victorian factories and coal mines, though, were a historical anomaly, appearing only with the discovery of fossil fuels. Before the mid-1800s in Britain, and the mid-1900s in Ireland, most people were farmers or craftsmen. Also, when people today refer to “modern” jobs, they tend to be those of middle-to-upper-clasFirst-Worlders, not those of the near-slaves that made our clothes and laptops. We compare the worst of their time with the best of ours.

If we compare our eight-hour day in a cubicle to the 15-hour day of a Victorian factory worker, both working corporate jobs for hourly wages, of course we come out far ahead. As Jaques Ellul pointed out, though, we can’t compare our office job to the day of a village craftsman, who chooses their own tempo and rhythm, who mentors and is aided by apprentices or children, and who stops to chat with passers-by. We can praise the progress from 1850 to 1950, he said, but “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable.”

Making hay in Ireland (Irish photo archive)
Even then, Ellul was assuming a 15-hour day, but most of our ancestors -- craftsmen and peasants – worked far less. Historian James Thorold Rogers estimated that medieval peasants – whom we think of as the most menial peoples of the most backward age – worked no more than eight hours a day, a figure backed up by several other studies. Labourers rarely worked an entire day for a lord; half a solar day’s work was considered a full working day, so peasants who worked sunrise to sunset were credited for two days’ work. Medieval Christians, moreover, had so many holidays – in the literal sense of “holy days” – that Nora Ritchie calculated they only worked half as many days per year as modern Americans.

The modern age has many advantages, of course; I can pull open a laptop and work from anywhere, and make more in a month than my great-grandparents made in a year. I'm grateful for all that. But most of those jobs move electrons around a screen; they build nothing, and leave us with nothing that we can feel or use, or say we built. They are part of a world that gives us everything we want, but little that we need. More on that next week.

Sunday 28 January 2024

The past and future of food


When I give talks about a good, healthy future, I tell the audience that living sustainably doesn’t always involve inventing new technologies or ways of living. Quite often, I say, it involves rediscovering old ways that our grandparents knew but that we have forgotten.

I get a lot of objections to this from people who insist – as is fashionable to do these days – that everything in the past was terrible. Everyone was dumber than we are, everyone was a religious fanatic or a Nazi, everyone was starving, everyone died at 30, and so on. I’ve talked before about how educated most people were a century or two ago compared to ourselves, and I’ll talk more later about how we’ve taken the Nazis and retroactively superimposed them on every complex human situation. Right now, though, let’s look at some of the claims about food and health.

First of all, there was never an age when everyone died at 30. It is true that more infants died in the past, and while we are lucky to be spared that horror, it does warp the average; in many times and places, young adults could expect to live as long as they do today. A book of the Bible written perhaps 25 centuries ago said that humans live “threescore years and ten,” or 70 years, and that tracks with many traditional peoples around the world. Of those who survived infancy, 1850-era British men – mostly working-class -- lived to be 73 on average; life expectancy today for working-class British men today is only 72.

Nor were people starving in most times and places. Nineteenth-century British weren’t all begging for gruel, but usually enjoyed diets “vastly superior to that generally consumed today, one substantially in advance of current public health recommendations.” They ate more fruit and vegetables than most First-Worlders today, as well as nuts and organ meats high in micronutrients – most of the things fitness instructors recommend today, and they ate up to twice as much as we do. Similar examples come from many traditional societies; they lived more vigorous lives, so needed extra calories to survive -- and they did, because you’re reading this. As writer Chad Mulligan put it, starving people don’t build cathedrals.

Of course there have been severe famines in history, most famously Ireland. Yet that resulted from the British seizing the land for plantations to export food to Britain, while small farmers were forced to rely on the one crop with enough calories to feed them. When that crop caught a disease, there was nothing to fall back on, and what might have been unfortunate but survivable turned into a mass death. It was also genocide, as British plantations continued to export food to Britain even as their Irish workers starved.

Another truism of modern life is that all food until yesterday bland, rotten and generally disgusting. Just as people today insist that all earlier generations were less free, less healthy, less educated and less tolerant than we are, they insist that food must have been a daily ordeal, tolerable only because they were too ignorant to realise how miserable they were.

Sometimes people cite the often-repeated stories of bakers padding out bread ingredients with ash and bone and lead. As historian Frederick Filby demonstrated almost a century ago, however, those stories – 18th-century clickbait– could not possibly have been true. Filby tried baking bread with the alleged ingredients and found that it almost never became anything resembling bread, and were often more expensive to make than the real thing anyway. Also, food manufacturers put dubious substances into our food now, as we will see later.

Also, the examples many people give – say, of their grandparents’ olive loaf or fruit jello -- are not traditional foods at all, but were early examples of processed factory-made food that have simply fallen out of fashion, or marked as unforgivably working-class. Other people point out that old cookbooks never call for much seasoning, and are bland if you cook the dishes as described. But old recipes tended to give the basics of preparing a dish, with the assumption that people would add whatever herbs and “seasonings” were, well, in season.

Most traditional peoples eat far more variety than we do; English farmers record eating now-neglected meats like pigeons, rabbits, pheasants and geese; now-forgotten vegetables like cardoons, chicory and scorzonera; underappreciated fruits like damsons and medlars, and of course wild foods like Fat Hen, nettles, hawthorn, sorrel, dulse and samphire. These weren’t inferior foods that we ate out of desperation -- I can personally attest that most of these taste amazing – but they have been largely forgotten. Some were abandoned because of changing fashions, others because they did not fit our modern mass-production systems – medlars, for example, need to be picked when they are just slightly over-ripe, and cannot sit on a shelf for weeks. 

Also, the elders I talked to worked hard, and worked up an appetite. Few of us today have ever done this, but when you do, food tastes great by itself, and doesn’t need a lot of added chemicals to make it appetising. “It was wholesome food, plain and simple, and the golden rule was ‘get it into you and it will do you good.’” John Curran said in his memoir Tides of Change. They were also grateful for the food they had worked hard to earn; they had overseen the plants from seed to crop, and the animals from womb to adulthood to knife. We have no such connection to the hog factory workers or the genetic laboratories where the corn was designed, or the Godzilla-sized machines that harvest it. We have mountains of food, but it appears before us without context, removed from our capacity for gratitude.

In addition, meals were communal, and the company was as important as the food. Some of my most cherished memories are of Thanksgiving or Christmas at my grandparents’ small house, with aunts and uncles laughing and chatting as they prepared the meals together, set up the tables and finally packed together snugly to eat, chat, laugh and share stories. The food was great because it was shared in the company of loved ones, not because it was heaped with flavour chemicals.

“They were great old days,” John Lyons said in his memoir Joy of my Boyhood Years. “There was not much money around, but we had happiness and joy in our hearts, and every neighbour’s house was the same as your own. You could walk in any time of day or night.  The kettle was always on the boil, the tea was made, you sat down and you were handed a mug of tea with plenty of sugar and a yellow square hot off the griddle, with lashings of butter – a delicious feed. My mouth waters with longing when I think of it.”