Sunday, 27 May 2018

Wild food in spring

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. In many cases, they were bred to have more flesh, like the giant carrots over their smaller root of the Queen Anne’s Lace, or for their orange colours over the white originals.

Yet colour and tastes go in and out of fashion with each generation; look at the white eggs that were fashionable a few decades ago, and how completely they were all replaced by otherwise identical brown ones, simply because brown eggs carried an image of being more “natural.” Since carrots have been bred there have been white, orange, yellow and even purple varieties, breeds suited for different tastes, climates, times of year or for fashion –to match what consumers imagine to be nice-looking. 

Most importantly, the varieties we get at the store were selected for bland flavours, giant sizes and their ability to sit in a box or on a shelf for weeks while being transported across an ocean to your neighbourhood store. Fresh vegetables, typically, are nothing of the kind.

The wild food still exists all around us, though, all over our fields, and our hedgerows create a vertical salad bar filled with food for the taking. Some of these are wilder versions of familiar vegetables, like wild parsnip or sea beet, while others have no domesticated equivalent, like fat hen or jack-by-the-hedge.

Hawthorn trees still have a few shoots in the shaded areas, and the shoots – leaves just coming out -- make an excellent addition to salad. Later this year their berries – haws – will cover the hedgerows, and a single tree can yield thousands of berries. They make a colourful wine and jam, and are easy pickings, and while they are not the most strongly-flavoured berry, they can be mixed with other ingredients – try hawthorn-and-ginger jam, or hawthorn-and-crab-apple wine.

Every spring we use the youngest leaves of the linden tree as a salad (also called the lime – no relation to the fruit) and it gives us two weeks of free and edible greens. Dandelions are still flowering now, and their younger and less bitter leaves can be put into salad, while their flowers can be battered and fried, or made into an excellent wine. Come autumn the roots will be at their fullest; try pulling them out, dry-roasting them, grinding them into powder, and using them to make coffee.

I’ve mentioned the amazing properties of nettles many times – sautéed they make a great vegetable, added to soup they flavour the stock, dried they make a great tea or can flavour beer, they can be made into wine, and their fibres can be made into cloth.

Bistort’s long columns of lavender flower clusters appear all over our bogs and wastelands, and people in centuries past often ate its leaves on Easter. It makes a good dish sautéed with leeks. Fat Hen was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today, and its pale green leaves are quite nutritious. 

The garlic –flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but often a new crop 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, and can be sauteed like spinach and used as a vegetable, doubling as both the vegetable and the sprinkling of garlic in one.

The flowers of chamomile, seen above, make an excellent evening tea, and can be added to salads. Cowslips, oxlips and primroses, all in the same family, can also be eaten raw or made into some of the richest and sweetest wine I've ever had. 

Finally, 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, taking the place of some of the vinegar in dressing. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly.

If you are not sure what these plants look like, of course you can look them up online or get a book on foraging -- I recommend Food for Free, although it is written mainly for the British Isles. 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. When you do find one of these plants, try not to strip them of all their edible parts – leave some leaves for them to continue to grow, seeds for them to continue, and so on.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Life with Teenaged Girl

Not a recent photo, but one I still love, and taken near the opera house; The Girl camouflauged in Dublin. 

This is close to the tenth anniversary of this blog, and I feel like I should write something more momentous to mark the occasion. This year, however, has been a frantic one for us, filled with the burning usual of life.

For ten years I have filled these pages with The Girl, who toddled along unsteady legs when we first moved here, pointed with awe at the creeping mini-beasts, fluttering birds and distant cows that we adults have learned to ignore, and like Adam she gave them all names. I have written about our walks through the woods, our bedtime stories and conversations, and our folk songs and old movies that passed the long winter nights.

As she grew older I shared our homeschooling lessons about Homer and Hesiod, our experiences getting chickens and bees, and her taking up of horseback riding and archery. We travelled all over these islands, from  the ruined monsteries of the far islands of Scotland, where we stood inside the roar of Fingal's Cave, to the Blasket Islands off the Dingle coast, where we saw humpback whales breach out of the sea around us, and dolphins leap out alongside our boat. Finally, I took her to my native Missouri, where we both saw our birth country with new eyes.

These days she is now The Teenaged Girl -- she rides horses every weekend, brings home many archery trophies, and sings in the school choir. Our relationship went through a rough patch last year with the onset of adolescence and high school, but seems to be relaxing now; most evenings we hug and recap her day, and she tells me about the latest melodrama among her friends or whatever's bothering her.

Occasionally we gently argue over politics and religion, and I welcome that too -- I accept that she won't always agree with me, but if she continues to ask probing questions about the world, listen politely to other people's point of view, and argue logically for her own, she'll be ahead of 99 per cent of people I meet these days.


One interesting feature of her upbringing: the school's music teacher warms up the class by leading them in songs from musicals, often Disney movies from the 1990s. The Girl was the only one, she said, who had to learn the Disney songs, as she was the only one who had not grown up with Disney movies.

"I'm not mad about it," she said to reassure me. "On the other hand, I was the only one in the school who didn't have to learn the words to "Puttin' On the Ritz."


The other evening her choir went to Dublin for a concert, and before the concert she and her group of teenaged girls -- a gaggle of girls? A giggle? -- went into some of the stores in Dublin, and they lost a few of their friends and were briefly concerned. Finally, she said, her friends emerged from Top Shop, which is apparently where all the cool kids go these days.

"You have to watch out for Top Shops," she said. "Their clothes draw teenagers in, and the store just swallows them whole for a while."

Do they spit them out again eventually, like a catch-and-release rule? I asked

"Well, this was a particularly aggressive Top Shop," she said. "It held onto my friends like a dog with a bone, and didn't want to let go."

I'll remember to spray our fields for Top Shops this season, I said, to make sure they don't spring up around us like triffids.


Even if The Girl wants to mostly do her own things these days, she still watches things with me occasionally. The other night we watched Duck Soup -- coincidentally, a few nights later I would kill my neighbour's ducks for her, and we had duck soup ourselves. Last year I took her to see Citizen Kane and The Shawshank Redemption,  as she is old enough to see them now. And a few weeks ago she let me take her to a live opera, where we saw The Marriage of Figaro.

I'd taken her to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and to The Magic Flute a few years ago; here in Ireland cinemas often live-stream performances from the Dublin or London stage, so we can see things like that for the price of a movie ticket. This was our first time seeing a live opera, though, as well as one with such mature themes -- which I described to her, knowing her adolescent taste for the adult and formerly forbidden, and sure enough, she was excited to see it. 

For those who don't know, Marriage of Figaro revolves around servants in a wealth household -- Figaro and Susanna -- who are about to be married. Their employer, the Count, has an eye for the ladies and an unwholesome attraction to Susanna, however -- which appalls her, Figaro, and the Count's wife. The three of them conspire to serve a bit of revenge on the Count -- a story far ahead of it's time and surprisingly relevant today.

One snag came up when we left the house and got in the car to drive to Dublin, though -- the latch on our car door stuck, and the door wouldn't close. We could only drive while The Girl was holding the door shut so it wouldn't swing open -- which was fine on our country roads, but not on the motorway to the city. Instead, I drove to the nearest bus stop, we parked the car in an out-of-the-way place, and hoped no one would notice that the door was open.

We caught the bus into town, but then we realised we had a second problem: the last bus came home at 11 pm, right when the opera ended. To catch it we'd have to race from the Opera House to the bus stop on the quays of the River Liffey, and we'd be cutting it close.

The opera was lovely, and both of us had a great time --- but as the last song died down, I checked my watch, and it was exactly 11 pm. I whispered to The Girl, "Time to go," and we tip-toed out of the crowd toward the door.

Once we were at the door I shouted, "GO! GO! GO!" and we sprinted flat out, in our Sunday best, down the streets of Dublin to the river -- about half a mile at least -- until we made it to the bus stop, noting with relief that no bus had come yet.

Then came the third problem: No bus came after that either. They had cancelled the last bus, and we were standing in the drunkard section of Dublin on a Saturday night with no way to get home. Finally I had us take the last bus, which took us vaguely in the direction we were going, until we got to the town of Kilcock, where we ordered a country taxi to our car, and drove home. 

We didn't get home until around 2 am, but it was worth every penny, and every second. She's growing up so fast, and I want to take every second I can while she lets me.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

How not to become a beekeeper

This is a reprint from a few years ago; sorry for the re-runs, but I've been quite busy this year. We're re-doing our garden, my now-teenaged daughter is competing in archery competitions across Ireland, I helped my neighbour dispatch her ducks, and we're preparing to visit my native USA for the first time in years. I'll write more about these things later. 

If you're thinking of becoming a beekeeper, there are a few things to remember. First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Community-Supported Agriculture

We think of innovations in cars or computers, but rarely of innovations in farming and food. Yet a new type of farm has caught on rapidly in recent years, in both America and Europe – Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

CSAs are small farms owned, jointly, by a nearby community, and that supplies food for people who live nearby. Sometimes townspeople will buy a plot of land close to town, hire a farmer to work it for them, and share all the crops. Other times the community can sell the surplus for a profit.

In some circumstances the farm is affiliated with a farmer’s market that sells the produce back to local people, giving the town a source of civic income; in other cases, townspeople simply own shares in the farm and get part of the harvest as profit. Still other times the farm is more like an allotment, with families owning their own sections. There are almost as many models as there are farms.

Such community ventures solve many problems at once. First, they find a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.  

In an interview with Global Public Media, community farmer Jay Martin made the point that many farmers must go deeply into debt in order to begin or keep farming – and when they have a successful crop, he says, they must deal with transport and the uncertainties of the market. When he turned his farm into a CSA, on the other hand, the costs were covered by the community, and he had no transport costs and a built-in market.

Turning a local farm into a CSA also means giving one’s money to local people means that the money keeps circulating nearby, rather than going to faraway corporations. It means that your food comes from people you know and trust. It means that people near you are getting work and staying fed and housed, which benefits your local community.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is keeping local areas self-sufficient. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import most of our food. If there were another oil crisis, or a war, or any other kind of emergency, we would have to rebuild a great deal from scratch.

Food transported from one kilometre away, rather than 10,000, eliminates a major source of climate chaos and pollution. At present, many foods must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage, and even the healthiest vegetables are less nutritious after sitting on a shelf for weeks. If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, and no rubbish need be generated. In an age when fewer people feel part of a community, a CSA allows people to invest in a project together, with their neighbours, and share in the rewards.

When I worked at a magazine in America, our business bought shares of a CSA, and they grew a variety of crops for the shareholders. As one crop after another came into season, they sent us boxes of whatever vegetables we had earned by our share, so we got weekly deliveries of rutabaga, beans, corn, onions, rhubarb or whatever was ripening. This was in Minnesota, up near Canada, so the growing season was quite short, but we got plenty of food for our money, and the farm stayed in business when so many others went under.

Finally, it gave young urban people a chance to experience foods they might not have ordinarily, and to learn to cook things they could not, at first, identify. Many of the office workers, I suspected, had grown up on a diet of takeout and crisps, and didn’t know what to do when they first saw a kohlrabi. When I peeled the skin off and at it like an apple, though, they tried it as well and were hooked. I had to caution them not to try it with celeriac, however – not all roots are the same.

Of course, Ireland cannot import all its foods – we won’t be growing any bananas here for a while, climate change or no, and even local food is not always in season. But simply cutting our imports can make a big difference in many areas -- the difference for some people between having a job, or having enough food in a crisis, or having hope.