Monday 28 November 2011


Say “dehydrated food” and people think of army rations or those little pills people eat in science fiction, but you probably have many dehydrated foods at home already. All grains are dehydrated, for example – rice, oats, popcorn – along with powdered grains like flour or cornmeal, and grain products like pasta. Most beans and lentils come dried, as do staples like salt and sugar. Most people also are familiar with raisins, sultanas, sun-dried tomatoes, dried herbs and, of course, tea. You can dry all kinds of food outside of these, however, and it remains one of the most effective and efficient ways of preserving food through the winter.

Vegetables can be dried, even those parts we don’t ordinarily eat fresh. Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, kale – all these can be dehydrated and saved indefinitely as ready-to-go soup ingredients. The dried vegetables can also be ground into powder and mixed into soup or bread, adding to its nutrition. Meat is difficult to dry in this climate without a dehydrator, but if you have one you can make jerky, a source of protein that can last for months at room temperature without spoiling.

Dehydrating food saves money, allowing you to spend cents on what would ordinarily cost several euros (or whatever currency you use). A can of soup, for example, has more salt than you need in your entire day, is exorbitantly expensive for the amount of nutrition you receive, and costs perhaps three euros. On the other hand, you could keep enough dried vegetables in your pantry for months of soup, all for no money and a little effort, with no salt, no chemicals and plenty of nutrition.

Herbs can be dried, of course – basil, oregano, thyme and dozens of others. Other plants can be dried for teas – nettles, dandelions, mint, and chamomile. To dry them be sure to pick them when they are fresh and already somewhat dry – that is, not after it’s been raining, which is not easy in this country. Then shake off any moisture, pat them off with a towel, tie a string around the stalks and hang them in a cool dry place like your pantry. Don’t hang too many at once or the herbs will just go yellow without drying properly, as parsley did with me this year. If you can get your hand around the thickest part of it, you should be fine.

Teas can be made from almost any dried edible leaf, flower or fruit, but a few are particularly well-suited: clover, dandelion, bramble shoots, nettles and sage all make good teas. Mint, fennel, dill and anise are good for stomach problems, while chamomile flowers are good for relaxing before bedtime. You don’t need to make just one kind of tea – take a variety of herbs and mix them together, perhaps with a bit of honey or fruit juice. Remember that you generally need a lot of leaves to give boiling water taste and colour, compared to black tea.

Every autumn most people will have a glut of excess fruits and berries around them, most of which will go to waste. Dehydrated, however, and they can last the rest of the year – apple rings, blueberry raisins or whatever you like. If you have a dehydrator, you can also dry mashed fruit into fruit roll-ups. All these make nutritious sources of vitamins through the winter, and a dessert-like snack for children.

To dry apples, cut out the core and then slice the fruit half a centimetre thick. To slow the oxidation that turns the fruit brown, you can dip them in lemon juice first or place the slices with a candle in an upside-down jar – the candle will go out, but all the oxygen in the jar will have been removed. Then you can hang the apples or set them on a lightly oiled tray in a ventilated area if it’s warm and dry, or – more likely here in Ireland --- over a fire or in an oven set on low, with the door open slightly.

If you need a dehydrator, there are some available online for around 50 euros and up, and if you use it regularly it should pay for itself in short order. To use a food dehydrator to dry fruit and vegetables you want to select produce of good quality, as overripe produce might not work well. Cut them into similarly-sized pieces, as this will ensure that everything dries evenly. Some people find it better to blanch vegetables in boiling water for a few minutes first – check what your dehydrator recommends, and then experiment.

People have been preserving food as long as they have been eating – drying, fermenting, pickling, smoking – but in the last few decades people have abandoned all these in favour of one device: the refrigerator. Fridges and freezers remain handy, of course, but they have limited space, require constant electricity and cost money, so we might find it worth our while to remember how to preserve food in other ways if necessary.

Note: My job is sending me to London on business later this week. Will post more when I return. 

Monday 7 November 2011

Able Hands

When my neighbour brought his horse to the farrier – horseshoe-fitter, pronounced like “carrier” – I sat in to watch and learn, and the farrier seemed happy to answer my many questions. He looked like a teenager, with a face you’d expect to see in a drive-through window, but he wrestled the stallion’s legs and shaped the hot iron like a man who knew his business.

His van folded out like a tackle box, with rows of hanging tools and a miniature forge like a barbecue, and when the shoe was ready he kept the stallion calm even when the hot iron caught its fetlock on fire. He told me he apprenticed for four years to learn his trade, and when I asked how quickly someone could learn the basics, he said, “Four years.” No shortcuts.

Once young men like him were normal; crafts and craftsmen whose callings – smiths, wrights, thatchers, tanners, millers and coopers -- survive only in surnames. Each town had its own set of craftsmen, known to everyone and identifiable at a distance by their clothing.

Nor would the farrier’s age seem unusual decades ago; children apprenticed from an early age, learned a skill for several years, and entered the world as craftsmen at an age when teens today are looking sullen in a corner of a mall. Only today do we assume that everyone must spend their prime years bored, warehoused and indebted.

Of course, most people did not attain such rank, but most people of any rank had a palette of survival skills unknown to almost any modern person. Farmers with little money or formal education would have known how to deliver a calf, weave a basket, butcher a pig, keep bees, shear sheep, turn autumn fruit into wine or spirits, make hay and silage, forage for wild plants, dig the peat bog for winter fuel and coppice trees on a timetable that stretched across the generations.

You can see such casual knowledge on display in, for example, cookbooks from a century ago, which began recipes with instructions to “pluck, draw and wash” birds before cooking, or to first “prepare the sheep’s head in the usual way,” assuming this was something any idiot could do.

A world of craftsmen creates an economy alien to modern Westerners; instead of cheap belongings meant to be thrown away quickly, goods had to be made durable, to be fixed, recast, re-forged or re-sewn over and over. The mountains of trash that rise outside our cities did not exist then, nor did the Texas-sized garbage patch in the Pacific, for few goods were thrown away.

Such an economy had few corporations or anonymous transactions. Writers from a century or two ago described recognizing particular barrels, nails or saddles as we would recognize someone’s handwriting, and the craftsman’s reputation hung on the quality of their work. When everyone knew where products came from and could identify the makers of the superior and inferior work, they could reward the hardest-working and most skilled craftsmen with their business – what used to be called capitalism, before the word came to mean the system we have today.

Today, of course, we drive long distances to buy underwear and palm pilots made to last a matter of months and be thrown away. We never meet the Third-World workers – possibly slaves -- who make such products, nor the crew that shipped them across a planet, nor the truckers who delivered them to a store larger than the Hebrew Temple. Few craftsmen remain in this world, and those that remain are often elderly hobbyists. Our modern system won’t last forever, though, and we know a world of craftsmen can be sustainable for centuries -- because it was.

I asked what work there was for a farrier these days, and the young man said he had more work than he could handle. Few people in Ireland or the USA can say that these days, as the people have less need of marketing managers and web designers. But horses, he pointed out, will always need shoes.

Photo of US farrier Pete Cote at work, by William D. Weisenburger Jr., EdD. Used with permission from 

Friday 4 November 2011

Published at Front Porch Republic

Front Porch Republic is one of my favourite online publications: both agrarian and intellectual, both ecological and conservative, both worldly and spiritual. It reminds me of a more Republican version of The Sun or Orion magazine, the kind of magazine Wendell Berry would write for.

Now it's pubished an article of mine, found here.