Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Food Calendar

Gardening involves taking plants’ natural bounty – roots and tubers, leaves and stems, fruits and nuts – and stretching them to meet our ends. We start them early indoors as seedlings, prepare beds of earth, place cloches over them to keep out frost, weed out their neighbours, pick their pests and prune their misguided growth. We pamper our kohlrabi and celeriac like breeders groom their horses -- and they need it, for generations of breeding have made them more bountiful and more fragile than the bitter lovage and wild sea kale from whence they came.  

Foraging wild foods, however, keeps you on a tight schedule. Those mushrooms that appeared today will likely be slimy tomorrow, and those edible leaves will likely be inedible next week. We picture Stone Age people living by a leisurely rhythm of the seasons, but in fact they needed to manage their time precisely according to their own calendar. 

If September through November give us most of the garden’s bounty, these months of April and May are the truly rich foraging months here, when The Girl and I rummage through the bog-country and return with bushels of foodstuffs, ready to be dried, pickled, frozen and made into wine for the coming year. 

The beginning of April here sees the first hawthorn shoots, tender enough to be eaten raw for two weeks, or sautéed and added to dishes, or chopped and thrown into soups. Around the same time as the hawthorn shoots appear, the blackthorns burst into flower – they bloom first and beat the rush, only later growing their leaves. In that blackthorn window, however, we can mark their position along the canals – most times of year they are unobtrusive and hard to spot amid the other trees, so you must know where they are first to search for the prized black sloe fruits. 

The blackthorn flowers are long gone now, and the hawthorn leaves are getting tough, which means the hawthorns are ready for their turn to bloom. For this reason the hawthorn is also called the May plant; the lyric “here we go gathering nuts in May,” refers to the tree, not the month, as nothing grows nuts in May. 

A week or so after the hawthorn shoots appear, the first nettles grow large enough to pick, and the last six weeks have been prime nettle season for us. I’ve written before how nutritious nettles are, and how they can be eaten as a vegetable in their own right, like spinach, or made into tea, beer, soup, kim chi, or put into any number of dishes. I’ve been freezing bags of them to eat this winter, and drying them into tubs of tea to consume through the rest of the year. They are also useful for fibre – I saw an entire wedding dress made of nettle fibre once – but that doesn’t come until later in the year, and fibre is not my specialty. 

I pencil in the first two weeks of May in my calendar long ago, for that to us is cowslip season. These yellow flowers, hanging like tiny golden bells from short stalks, illuminate the forest floor here like fireflies for precious short time, taking advantage of the spring window when the weather is warm and the forest floor is covered in dappled sunlight. They are already fading now, as the trees regrow their canopy and the forest grows dim. 

We’ve been picking as many cowslips as possible in great bags, freezing as many as possible until we had enough, and last weekend I began cowslip wine. I boiled several litres of water – enough for a carboy and several wine bottles down the road – and mixed in sugar and the juice and zest of two lemons, and finally mixed in the cowslips. I let them boil for five minutes, turned off the heat and mixed in a champagne yeast my friends gave me as a gift – cowslip wine has a definite champagne feel, so the result should be quite good. My last batch of cowslip wine, from last year, and it didn’t turn out as fragrant as the flower deserves, so I’m hoping this will be an improvement. 

Also fleeting are the daisies that peek out of the grass; the sweet woodruff that can be dried and used to flavour wine; the bramble shoots we use for evening tea; and the wood sorrel massing like disciples around the feet of the great trees.

The best part of May, though, are the nightly linden salads. The tree right outside my window is a lime or linden tree, and when the leaves first appear at the beginning of May they taste rather like spinach. Every night I’ve been getting home on the bus from Dublin, riding my bicycle from the nearest town, coming home, and picking myself a salad from our tree. 

Now that May is leaving us behind, we are seeing the first inchoate elderflowers, green and folded in a fist, but ready to unfurl to a June of elderflower champagne and pancakes. The first meadowsweet stalks are unfolding along the canal, preparing to grow their August tufts, which we will collect for next year’s wine. Fish in the canal will peak as the days stretch to eighteen hours, then fade back again as the days shorten. The garden will erupt with bounty, and we will gather and preserve everything we can before the year plunges into darkness again.   

Monday, 25 May 2015


When I can in the evenings or weekends, I stop and visit with our elderly neighbours, most of whom grew up in this area -- surrounded by precisely the same landscape but a different universe.

A sixty-year-old in my native USA would have grown up with cars, highways, televisions and electronic devices of all kinds. Their generation – as pampered as any that will ever be -- knew childhood in a time of unprecedented prosperity, youth in a time of unprecedented decadence, and approaches dotage at a time of unprecedented power and comfort for seniors.

A sixty-year-old in rural Ireland might have grown up during the same years but a different era – growing their own food, repairing their own materials and getting to town on horse, bicycle or their feet. Yet their world was also highly prosperous in its own way; they might have made less money than Third-World workers today, but they provided for most of their own needs, and money was less central to their lives.

At least in the mid-20th century, though, most people here had lifespans as long as people's today, and were probably healthier. Crime was unimaginably low, both by their testimony and official statistics. People had high levels of education --- school tests and letters from the time attest to a literacy and eloquence that would be rare today.

Their lives involved long hours of physical labour, and people had far fewer choices in their lives than we have today, so I don’t want to romanticise the past too much. Nor do I claim that people are improved by paucity alone, merely that people can build a peaceful and decent world without much money, if they know how.

Since these people knew how, their skills and attitudes might be valuable to my countrymen, who are growing poorer again but with no ability to cope with that change. My new project, then, is to take a video camera along and interview as many of my neighbours as possible, in the hopes of passing on lessons of a world whose memories are disappearing.


I mentioned a few months ago how we had seen Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice in Wonderland in the cinemas, under a great new system that films plays, operas and ballets live and broadcasts them to cinemas around the world. It’s been a godsend to us, allowing us in rural Ireland to see performances that would ordinarily have entailed a trip to another country and a few hundred euros.

A fortnight ago, then, we saw La Fille Mal Gardee, Frederick Ashton’s lovely 1960 ballet, based on the 1828 play The Wayward Daughter. While my own daughter is to some extent a normal ten-year-old and had just enjoyed the Avengers film, I was pleased to see that she was not only willing to see the ballet, but thoroughly enjoyed it.  

This past week we saw The Pirates of Penzance; I had introduced her to The Mikado on television last year, but this was her first time seeing such a thing in the theatre. She had been understandably apprehensive about sitting through an opera, but I sold her on the fact that it was 1.) in English, and 2.) funny.  Gilbert and Sullivan offer a very accessible entry to the art, even for modern kids, and now she feels ready to see something in another language.  

Top photo: Glendalough, a monastery near us, founded as a retreat from the world in the 500s and continued for more than a thousand years.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Reading Plutarch

First of all, Greeks were funny. We don’t usually think of them that way. We think of them as marbled patriarchs in togas, Important Men from the Dawn of Time, whom we are supposed to revere for some reason.

Admittedly, we don’t usually think of them at all; after being a cultural standard for most of the last 25 centuries, referenced by writers and thinkers ever since, they’ve almost disappeared from modern pop culture. Occasionally a television character name-drops an Aristotle or Plato, demonstrating that they are the Brainy Character and can rattle off exposition. Schoolbook blurbs on ancient poets or philosophers bounce off an overstimulated generation; suggest to young rappers that they could listen to poetry, or to anguished teens that they learn philosophy, and you are likely to get nothing but horse laughter. Our cultural allergies run deep.  

In fact, though, the ancients were fantastic; lusty, flirtatious, petty and noble, and often dryly comic, witnesses to a world as dramatic as any fantasy epic or crime thriller today. A modern adult needs to tune in to the writing style, admittedly – and the legalistic translations often don’t help – so when I teach them to my ten-year-old, I compress the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we act out the characters. The other night, we read Plutarch’s biography of Solon, for example -- the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – and acted out his defiance of the Athenian dictators.

With sticks for swords, we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens forbade any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone had to pretend like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone secretly knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.

“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but the penalty for everything was death. That news delighted my daughter, and soon we acted out a new scene of our impromptu play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.

So you see, I said, that Solon was risking his life by defying the ban.

“What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem – a song, really – about the defeat at Salamis, put on his best hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of the entire city, and sang the entire story of the defeat. He couldn’t say it, so he sang it.

“What happened to him?”

The rulers were pressured to take back the island, I said – and the people of Athens figured out a way to win this time. It was …

“Yes?” she asked.

I paused, not sure how to proceed. Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?

“Right?” she asked.

Well, I said, the Athenians did that.

There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.

After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth.

He even attracted the attention of a Scythian --- Scythia included what we now call Russia, on the far side of the Black Sea, so a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.  

We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. We had just seen 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You, so she acted the part of Solon as played by Jimmy Stewart, and I played Anacharsis like Russian character actor Mischa Auer.

Solon! I said in my best Russian accent, playing Mischa Auer playing Anacharsis.  I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!

“You know,” my daughter said, playing Jimmy Stewart playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want  to make friends, you should start at home.”

Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.

“Um … yes,” Solon replied.

Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly.

All this provides some bedtime fun for my ten-year-old, of course, but by doing this, we learn the stories that inspired later Greeks like Socrates and Aristotle, who inspired Romans, who inspired a thousand years of monastic traditions, and so on. We take the thread of civilisation that wound through so many centuries and spin it anew.