Tuesday 30 April 2013

Front Porch Republic

My piece about the horsemeat scandal has been published at Front Porch Republic, so feel free to check it out if you haven't already.

If you're not familiar with FPR, you should be, no matter your political or religious affiliation. Thoughtful, ecological and spiritual, it feels like what Atticus Finch might create if he blogged. It represents what what the word "conservative" is supposed to mean, and often what it used to mean, in a more learned and civil age.

Monday 29 April 2013

Sunday morning, Ireland

The photo doesn't really capture the loveliness of the setting near the shores of Lough Derg, or the periodic gusts of wind that were making parents hold rather tightly onto their children.

Wednesday 24 April 2013


At the end of the island, at the pier where people left their boats to go to the mainland, there was a post upon which hung a hat.  At the time, the men of Achill would have worn a cap, but when going into town, for that little bit of formality, any man who was going to town would put on that hat and then leave it at the post when he returned. 

A visitor in the 19th century recorded he saw two men in a running contest around the island to decide which one had the right to marry a certain woman, "which was by no means uncommon."

-- "Leave Your Hat At The Sound," RTE radio documentary about the men of Achill Island, 1974. 
Photo: Islanders, courtesy of Irishphotolinks.com

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Wine and beer

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything -- and beer and wine were born.

Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.
These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, cowslips, elderflowers and meadowsweet – the last being the tufty weed that grows along the canal banks in August.

In the autumn hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and bland raw, but they make an excellent wine, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them.

The details differ by the kind of wine you’re making, but the basic recipe is this: First pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of whatever vegetable matter you’re using and two halved lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off. Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet.  

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.
When I did this with haws from our hawthorn trees I calculated the total cost at three euros for two kilos of sugar, plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly.  

Not all your experiments will turn out well. All my wines based on flowers or weeds -- like cowslip, elderflower, meadowsweet and nettle -- turned out fine, whereas my vegetable wines of parsnip, ginger and beetroot tasted awful for some reason. Likewise, the haw wine tasted fine while new -- as a fizzy, lightly alcoholic drink -- and some of it aged into a fine haw wine. The rest aged, unexpectedly, into a very nice vinegar.

Either way they won’t taste exactly like grape wines from the store. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made. 

Top photo: Wines from left to right -- meadowsweet, parsnip and ginger, elderflower, haw, more meadowsweet and elderberry. 
Middle photo: Some of the ingredients I've used for wine and jam, clockwise - orange peel, crabapple, elderberry, blackberry, sloe and rosehips. All but the orange peel my daughter and I picked on our property. 
Bottom photo: Haw wine while fermenting. 

Saturday 20 April 2013

The Lives of Others

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. Most of us spend grew up staring at glowing rectangles without ever seeing a coal-powered turbine. We blithely speed down motorways without ever visiting an oil derrick. Most of all, we eat mountains of meat a year without having to grab a live animal or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, meat just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for people in Europe recently, after the Irish government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. Irish and British discovered their top groceries and restaurants had been feeding them horse for a long time -- probably unknowingly, but shoppers and investors dropped them all the same. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars. Within a few more days food companies took ten million burgers off their shelves -- although the papers don’t say what happened to the meat afterward – and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

The scandal quickly spread across Europe, as country after country tested meat sold in its own shops and cafes and found they were not eating what they thought they were. The latest tests announced this week finally cleared Ireland, the epicentre of the scandal, but mislabelled meat is still showing up across Europe – and as far afield as South Africa.

The irony, of course, is that horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Aside from a veterinary medicine showing up in minute amounts, no one has suggested that eating it had any ill effects, nor is it illegal; my daughter and I happily bought horse-kebab from a street vendor in Dublin the other day. (At least, he said they were horse, but you never know …)

Rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details. If up to 30 per cent of some samples were horse, up to 80 per cent of others were pork. “Meat-filled” pastries in Iceland turned out to have no real meat at all, while South African meats had an interesting menagerie of buffalo, goat and donkey. Other samples allegedly had green mould on them. The horses might have been slaughtered up to two years ago, dead flesh just sitting in freezers.

Most importantly, though, was that governments and stores had such difficulty sourcing the meat. This detail proved especially unpopular with people here, who had already seen UK outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth in 2007 and 2001, as well as mad cow disease in the 1980s and 90s. Restaurants and stores here proudly advertise their “Irish beef,” not only to support local farmers but to distance themselves from such disasters. Now, it turns out, we just don’t know where some of it came from; it just magically appeared.

We accept buying meat from strangers for the same reasons we buy everything else in our lives from strangers these days; because we trust that someone, somewhere, knows what they are doing. On the rare occasions we associate the food on our plates with actual animals, we tend to assume they must have come from some kind of farm, like the overall-and-pitchfork images of preschool toys. We don’t picture supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what country, or how it lived.

Consider how strange this would seem to most of our ancestors, for thousands of generations back. For most of them meat was life; while most foods could be grown or picked, meat was the Leibig’s Minimum that forced people to be predators. Their craving for meat transformed the landscape, wiping out the planet’s large animals as thoroughly as an asteroid impact did the dinosaurs, and we now know Neanderthals or Clovis people by their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests – the Sanskrit word for “war,” I’m told, means “a desire for cows,” and the ancient Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Such concentrated nutrition comes with risks. Until recently we lived much closer to animals than we might like to imagine --- often in the same house – and pigs ran openly through streets in Europe and the USA even into the 20th century. Many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals -- influenza from ducks, for example – and for thousands of years our bodies have been at war with the germs they send us. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, the millennia of accumulated pathogens in their bodies – to which they had built up immunity -- wiped out 95 per cent of the native population, leaving the wilderness the pioneers found. Our desire for meat, in short, is the reason Americans and Australians will read this in English, rather than Parisians reading it in Aztec.

This dealing of life and death might be the reason so many of our religions bind us in meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Many of our rituals do the same, invoking the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most human societies were less finicky than we are today about what kind of animals they ate. People throughout world history have eaten insects, snails and other invertebrates, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals of all kinds; something as mountainous as a cow or stag might be stretched into months of food. Even today, most subcultures eat both less meat than we do and more variety, as anyone knows who visits Chinese or Caribbean stores. I recently saw a letter from a bishop in largely Catholic Louisiana, USA, assuring his congregations that alligator could be eaten during Lent.

When we keep animals for food, they don't always stay put; the snails so common on these islands were snacks brought by Romans, as rabbits were a thousand years later by Normans. Polynesians carried rats on voyages for meat, and their escape helped scour island after island of their native bird species.

Most Americans I know eat two birds, chicken and turkey, and have never held one alive – but most of our ancestors ate many more, both for meat and to protect crops. Elderly Irish, who grew up in agrarian days when money and meat were rare, caught songbirds in wicker traps called “cradle-birds,” and one elderly couple told me that blackbirds were sold as food in wartime London --all to eagerly pluck and stew.

Fishing, likewise, supported many communities, but fewer all the time these days. To take one example from Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, early explorers to places like Newfoundland simply dropped baskets into the sea and came up with them full of fish, so plentiful were the cod. By 1960 fishermen in the North Atlantic were catching 1.6 million tonnes a year, and thirty years later that number had dropped by almost 99 per cent. We are fishing the sea clean.

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else in the world, we have not yet overhunted the land, but that’s mainly because we get most of our protein from the hog or beef “factories” described in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation. I have talked to many Midwestern farmers whose lives have been shaped by these nearby places they can never see but always smell. Towns in my native Missouri, locals tell me, are now filled with two kinds of people: the elderly and the Hispanics that work the meat factories, and neither are expected to be around long.

Of course, such unpleasantness drives some to a vegetarian diet, and they are right to think that most Westerners would be healthier if they ate less meat. In abandoning all meat, however, vegetarians show the same maximalist thinking, and the same disconnection from the source of their food. Calves usually die to get milk or cheese, chicks to get eggs, and the animals will die eventually anyway, more slowly and painfully than they would have by predators or considerate butchers. A vegan diet requires using vast areas of land that were once forests to grow high-protein crops like soybeans, and making our society’s soy milk and designer soy-products requires our society to gobble fossil fuels in a way that will not continue forever.

Where we live, the landscape is still divided up into small family farms, and most people are related to a farmer – I’m friends with several around our land, and we see their cows every day. Most villages also have a butcher, and ours now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives us more meat than we ask for, knowing that we like the bones and cast-off meats for soups.

Everyone here used to get their meat from people like him, if they didn’t slaughter it themselves; it was only recently that the globalised supermarkets, with their shelves of cheap frozen meat and opportunities for fraud, began to proliferate. In my native USA, though, one would have to rebuild the entire infrastructure – local farmers to local shops within walking distance to homes – from scratch.

But we need to. If we want to know where our stuff comes from, and yet keep eating meat, then we need groups of neighbourhood boys raising pigs in the vacant lot, as wartime Londoners had, with neighbours buying shares of the bodies. We need to start sourcing food further down the food chain, to species that are still plentiful and that we will not risk exterminating. We need to expand the number of species we will eat a hundredfold, while reducing our meat dishes to a fraction of their current quantity. We need to relearn how to make eel traps and cradlebirds, to grow snails in the closet and chickens in the shed.

And we need to know people like my farmer friend, who I meet in the morning bleary-eyed from staying up all night with a calf. He gives his animals a better life than any they would have seen in the wild, infinitely better than on a factory farm, before making sure their life ends quickly and painlessly. It’s not easy for him, and his small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. Rather than wolfing mystery meat or snubbing it altogether, we could respect it again. Meat needs to become hard work to get and precious to eat, so that we again put some sacral value in the lives we take.


Timeline of the horsemeat scandal, to February: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/08/how-horsemeat-scandal-unfolded-timeline

Announcement of original results: http://www.fsai.ie/news_centre/press_releases/horseDNA15012013.html

Tesco lost 360 million euros in a day: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/horse-meat-discovery-knocks-300m-off-the-value-of-tesco-shares-28959295.html

One meat product had no meat at all: http://www.grapevine.is/News/ReadArticle/Surprising-Twist-in-Horse-Meat-Scandal

Buffalo, goat and donkey in South Africa: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21588575

“The meat is believed to have been supplied between January 2011 and February 2013 across Europe.” http://www.thejournal.ie/european-commission-horsemeat-report-871583-Apr2013/

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, http://faostat.fao.org/site/610/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=610#ancor 

Photo: Our neighbours, seen from the back fence.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Getting around

People hadn’t much money but times were good. You could dress up and carry your handbag up O’Connell Street and not feel frightened. … There were no shutters, drunks or drugs. Everyone was out walking on every corner, and no one ever felt afraid. 

When there was breaking news all the boys on street-corners rang bells shouting “Stop Press,” and everyone stopped to hear what the news was. 

          --- Frances O’Brien, recalling memories of Dublin in the 1930s

In the mid-thirties and forties having a bicycle of your own meant freedom to come and go just as much as a car means to the people of today… During the war years there was no petrol for cars or late-night buses so there was no other way to get about. 

The centre of the City used to be just one big mass of bicycles being taken care of by men and boys who made jobs for themselves doing that while the owners were off at a theatre, a dance or a film.
              --- Lillian Healy, recalling Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin

Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it. Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars. (Today) no-one has the time to spare, no one has a moment to talk. 

Or there’s the time wasters – the ones who think that taking it easy or slowing down means sitting down and having a few cigarettes and drinking a cup of coffee, watching the day go by.
-                    --- Con Moloney, Mountrath, recalling County Laois in the 1920s.

-          All recorded in the compilation No Shoes in Summer (1995). Photo of Dublin in the 1950s from Irishhistorylinks.com.

Monday 15 April 2013

Lichens growing on moss growing on a tree growing in the woods.

... one of the great old woods still left in this deforested country, at Avondale House in County Wicklow.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Mirabile dictu

On this day off from work I’m running errands in Dublin, and most of the city stretches damp and gloomy across the seaside. I walked past endless streets and side-streets, alleys and shortcuts, all a maze of cement and stucco walls coated in graffiti and green moisture. Occasionally a twisted metal shard reveals a pile of discarded cans and plastic that will not disintegrate into flowers and mushrooms like the sodden bits of wood are doing.

Then I walk into this place, one of the old pubs of solid wood and stone, built before the discarded world in invaded this neighbourhood. I’m sipping Irish coffee and listening to opera faint in the distance. Near me two old men discuss law and money, police and civil servants, philosophy and belief -- the gears and levers of life.

Truly, though, they seem to use language as old storytellers did in pubs like this, shaping the consonants and vowels and the singsong pitch like they were playing a concerto together, throwing in Latin and Gaelic – “Mirabile Dictu!” one exclaims at one point – and growing more animated as they work out the big questions of the universe. Soon some Germans come in, apparently on holiday, and have their own gentle argument over Guinness.

 I realize I’m being romantic, thinking of this as the real, traditional Ireland, rather than the graffiti or the broken liquor bottles. I do know it represents something I treasure, something hard to find anymore. I like your place, I told the barkeep.

“It’s been around a while,” he said. “1823.”

Did everything in the neighbourhood used to look like this? I asked, nodding outside to the mix of Georgian buildings and graffiti-covered wrecks.

He said that most of the old neighbourhood still existed a few decades ago. “Then everyone started to get rich, and for a while everyone turned over the property. They took out most of the old buildings and put in things that no one respects …. Everything looks ugly and tacky now.”

With all our technology, I said, I don’t know why they can’t build now what we did then – a landscape people will respect.

 “We forgot why we wanted to,” he said.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Eating snails

Originally published in December 2009. 

Attitudes toward food change constantly, and perfectly edible food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another. Early European colonists in America almost starved before eating the lobsters all around them, and even then they were considered disgusting, used only for feeding prisoners and servants and baiting fishhooks. Only about a hundred years ago did lobster become prized as a delicacy, until today it drives an industry worth $280 million in America alone.

People today have similarly strange attitudes towards snails. They command a high price in expensive restaurants, where they are shipped in from France at great cost – yet we might have hundreds of identical snails in our own garden, and try to get rid of them.

The common snails seen in Irish gardens are the same species as restaurant snails, and are perfectly edible – you are not likely to see the few bad-tasting or endangered species. In fact, that's how they came to be on the islands -- they are not native to Britain or Ireland, and were brought to England by Romans specifically for breeding and eating, only to get loose -- as rabbits would do under the Normans a thousand years later, and grey squirrels a thousand years after that.

To this day, a few people here raise them in their homes or gardens for profit or food, and they are about the lowest-maintenance livestock – if that’s the word – that you can keep.

Snails love to crawl up wet walls and can often be seen in large numbers after a rain – in the day, or when it’s drier, they wedge themselves in crevices and hide in their shells. Take some children with you, and gathering them will be as fun as finding Easter eggs.

Even snails raised in the safest environments would need to be starved for at least two or three days, and these days there is a particular danger they may have eaten poison or pesticides, so keep them at home and feed them for a while until anything bad has passed out of their system. I keep mine in a plastic tub with air holes for a few weeks, and each day I clean out the tub and give them slices of organic carrot. Some recommend only a week or two to clean out the toxins, but I like to be on the safe side. Don’t give them any food in the last few days before cooking them.

To cook snails, wash them and place them to one side and boil some water. Snails don’t have much of a brain stem, but if you are concerned about their feeling pain you can place them in the refrigerator while the water boils, and they will go to sleep.

I toss them in the boiling water for about ten minutes, pour them into a strainer, run them under cold water, and with a skewer fish them out of the shell. Cut away the gall, the last piece to come out of the shell.

I like to fry a few slivers of finely-sliced rashers (bacon) in a pan and fry for a few minutes until they are lightly done. Then I toss in a heap of de-shelled snails, stir and cook for about ten more minutes.

I add some spices and finely-chopped scallions about five minutes in, a big colander of washed parsley right before the end and sautee the lot for a minute or so. Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.