Monday 30 September 2013

Published at Low-Tech Magazine

For those who don't know about it, Low-Tech Magazine has carved out a unique and desperately needed niche on the internet -- well-researched papers, often historical, dealing with old and largely forgotten technologies that allowed societies to do more with less.From aerial ropeways to optical telegraphs, modular hardware to timbrel vaults, Low-Tech gives you the esoteric craftsmanship of the world that existed before everything became cheap, short-lived and easily discarded.

I was honoured to write a piece for them last year, on basketry, and I'm delighted to do so again. My article on lime-burning kilns, "Burning the Bones of the Earth," will appear here eventually.

Photo: Lime kiln near our home.

Sunday 29 September 2013


We boiled the ink cap ink to reduce it, and have tested it on paper:
... and now we'll see how well it stands up to sunlight and time.

Other projects we have running right now include:

We dried all the peas for sowing next year, and I'm preserving eggs in limewater. We'll be cracking them open soon to see how well they lasted.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Making ink

In other news, The Girl fell behind us in the bog to look at the occasional mushroom, and I didn’t mind – when we and several adults went into a forest to find mushrooms, she found more than everyone else combined. It must come from being so close to the ground.

Mushrooms are supposed to be quite scarce in bogs, but The Girl found a lactarius, a boletus and a puffball, the latter two of which were edible. We also found, in our own yard, an Ink Cap mushroom -- edible when young, although they become toxic when drunk with alcohol.

These were a bit too old to eat, but I remembered that monks in the abbeys around us used to soak and boil them to create ink for their writings. Thus, The Girl and I have tried to do the same.

I let the mushrooms soak with cloves for a few days, and then simmered to reduce the liquid. We've been able to use the resulting ink, but we don't know yet how long it will last.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Gathering the turf

The Girl and I spent Saturday walking to the bog and gathering our turf for the winter, with the help of our neighbour and his tractor. For those who don’t know, we live in a dry patch along a canal in one of Europe’s largest peat bogs, the Bog of Allen.

“Turf” is the peat that lay submerged for centuries, now exposed like red earth after the bog was drained relatively dry. It is cut – by tractor these days, but until recently by hand – into strips that lie like giant ribbons of liquorice. Across vast areas of land around us the turf is still mined on an industrial scale, and packed into bricks sold for winter fuel at every petrol station and hardware store.

More importantly, however, it is burned in giant plants that furnish much of Ireland’s electricity. At the same time, turf-cutting is being restricted by the government to protect the bogs as wildlife habitats. Between the turf industry on one side and the cutting bans on the other, the local farmers who cut their own turf are growing rarer, squeezed in the middle.

For now, though, most of our neighbours spend autumn weekends driving their tractors into the bog, the fathers at the helm and the wife and children sitting in the trailer. You see them driving home at the end of the day, their trailers loaded deep with turf and the wife and children hanging onto the sides as they drive down the road.

We bought a modest strip of turf from our farmer friend last spring and had to “foot” it – break up the liquorice and stack the pieces cross-ways – several months ago. Now, as the days grow shorter and the rainy season sets in, it was time for The Girl and I to load up the now-dried bricks – if you can picture bricks being maroon, shaggy and misshapen – and cart them back to our land. Our neighbour drove his tractor on a winding path out of the bog, through clumps of forest and cow pasture, with me running behind in the distance and The Girl behind me. We dumped the turf – which we should be able to stretch out at least three winters – into a giant pile in front of our very bemused chickens.

Friday 20 September 2013

Now to be published at Grit Magazine

Good news, everyone -- I've been invited to be a regular contributor to Grit magazine, so my articles will start showing up there soon.

Grit magazine deals with rural life; gardening, raising animals, preserving food, cooking and all kinds of traditional crafts. It's owned by the same people who create Mother Earth News and the Utne Reader, so if you like those publications, you'll probably like this. My first articles should show up in a few weeks -- I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The wisdom of sheep

"I realised these animals were not unreasoning, brute beasts, but had a reasoning power of their own, and whatever they did was done for a reason, a reason they knew even if we didn't."

"The old Donegal hill farmers tell beautiful stories that illustrate the intelligence, the 'cuteness' as they put it, of sheep, and if you listen to these stories carefully enough you begin to understand the intelligence of sheep and the way their minds work.

I remember Jimmy Burke told me about an old ewe he had ("yo") who would spend the night at the top of the hill and come down at the break of day, and she wanted to get into his cornfield, which he had fenced off. To teach his corn she had to swim around the fence, and she would actually go into the river and swim around the fence and eat some of the corn, and when she had had enough she would swim back, upstream, before he got out of bed.

I learned that the older sheep are smarter than the younger ones -- they definitely learn -- and that they know the hours I keep. If they have any thieving to do they know when to do it."

-- excerpts from a 1978 national radio interview of Robert Bernen, classical scholar turned sheep farmer. Photo: Taken on the Curragh, the plains near our house used for communal grazing since Roman times.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Going to market

Every elderly person I talk to now, who grew up in the Irish countryside, grew up with the sound of carts on the way to market. Supermarkets only reached many parts of Ireland in the 1970s, and only now are US-sized shopping centers springing up outside of each town. When local elders were growing up, however, farmers drove their donkeys or horses to town, and there they sold their goods directly.

“Different people would specialise – milk, turf, vegetables,” said one farmer in a 1975 national radio documentary. “They used to bring out messages to town for people, like postmen, or transport devices to repair shops. Family members would sleep in the carts on the way there and back.”

In the documentary, horticultural economist Peter Bobrick said food was actually more expensive in rural parts of Ireland after grocery stores appeared. “The farmer might have to drive long distances to the market, and drive further distances to get back home again, all to buy the same vegetables that they grew in the first place for not much more money than he sold it,” he said.

William Cobbett had made the same observation in rural Britain a century and a half earlier, in his book Rural Rides.

“After quitting Soberton Down, we came up a hill leading to Hambledon, and turned off to our left to bring us down to Mr. Goldsmith's at West End, where we now are, at about a mile from the village of Hambledon.

A village it now is; but it was formerly a considerable market-town, and it had three fairs in the year. Wens [large overcrowded cities] have devoured market-towns and villages; and shops have devoured markets and fairs; and this, too, to the infinite injury of the most numerous classes of the people.

Shop-keeping, merely as shop-keeping, is injurious to any community. What are the shop and the shop-keeper for? To receive and distribute the produce of the land. There are other articles, certainly; but the main part is the produce of the land. The shop must be paid for; the shop-keeper must be kept.

When fairs were frequent, shops were not needed. A manufacturer of shoes, of stockings, of hats; of almost anything that man wants, could manufacture at home in an obscure hamlet, with cheap house-rent, good air, and plenty of room. He need pay no heavy rent for shop; and no disadvantages from confined situation; and then, by attending three or four or five or six fairs in a year, he sold the work of his hands, unloaded with a heavy expense attending the keeping of a shop.”

Sunday 8 September 2013

Signs you are in Ireland

1.) A notice in the newspaper that a local woman has been brought before the magistrate for driving a car toward town very slowly with the boot (trunk) open, while her husband sat in the boot holding a rope pulling a horse trotting behind.

2.) Signs on the road announcing that Jedward -- the two teenaged identical twins who occupy a role similar to Justin Bieber among tweens here -- will be the starring attraction at this year's local sheep-shearing festival.

3.) You see on the map that you can get to the village of Cloonboo by going through the village of Cong, after you've crossed the River Suck.

Friday 6 September 2013

Wild food part 2

The following post will appear next week in the Nationalist newspaper, Kildare, Ireland. 

Many of the most famous wild foods have domestic equivalents, or have been widely cultivated for use. Last week we mentioned the wild foods emerging right now, and many of them -- hazelnuts and elderberries, rose hips and blackberries --- are already widely recognised.

Other foods, however, remain more obscure, even though they surround us, and they could not only prove useful in an emergency, but provide an interesting new range of flavours and vitamins in more comfortable times.

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.

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 should still be edible now, though, and makes a good dish sautéed with leeks.

Medlars are rarely seen – or when seen, recognised -- although they are still widely grown on the continent where the climate is more amenable to them. In medieval times they were used more frequently as an autumn fruit in these islands, perhaps because they flourished during the unusual warmth Europe experienced during medieval times and were almost exterminated by the Little Ice Age of the 1500s and 1600s. Thus, as the climate gets hotter on average, they could be due for a comeback here. Or perhaps they faded from popularity becausethey must be slightly over-ripe to be edible, and the need to pluck them at just the right moment probably made them difficult to fit into our modern system of breeding crops to be able to sit for long periods on ships and shelves.  Nonetheless, they are very tasty and make a great a pie filling, so if you know where you can find a medlar tree, check it out.

If medlars have become rare, however, Fat Hen can be seen everywhere from spring to autumn. 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, and its Old English name “melde” apparently forms the root of a number of town names. 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 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 or sauteed, doubling as both greens and the sprinkling of garlic in one.

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. 

Do look up what these plants look like to make sure you pick them and not a poisonous equivalent, although there are few extremely poisonous plants in Ireland, and deaths from eating wild foods are extremely rare. The same can be said of mushrooms -- but that will be a future article.

Crops and seasons relate directly to Ireland, but more generally to the temperate Northern Hemisphere. 
Photo of field near our house.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Wild food

The following post first appeared in the Nationalist newspaper, Kildare, Ireland. 

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 bred over and over, to be sweet and swollen, to be fleshy and fertile. They were bred until they were unrecognisable, merely to fit with our tastes.

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.” We do the same thing with our crops, leaving behind legions of purple carrots or some other victim of changing fashions.

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. Mostly, however, the woods and meadows teem with foods that have no domesticated equivalent, like fat hen or jack-by-the-hedge.

Beech nuts are coming into season, and while any individual beech only produces nuts every few years, you can usually find several in a small area. The pods open to reveal four nuts of three sides each, and while they are fiddly little things to gather, a good source can make it worth your while.

Blackberries and raspberries are coming out in force this year, and while many people take the traditional route of preserving them in jams, I find that most of my friends have enough jam to last them the rest of the decade. Try something new, like mixing them into salad  or crushing them into a paste and spreading them over 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.

Hawthorns are just coming out now, 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-crabapple wine.

Hazelnuts should be coming ripe in a few weeks, and there are plenty of them around. Packed with protein and nutrition, these nuts are worth giving the nearest hazel bush a shake.

Juniper berries have traditionally been used to make gin, but have many other uses. Some peoples make the berries into a kind of beer, others roasted them and ground them into a kind of coffee, others to flavour meat.

Rosehips are packed with Vitamin C, and its syrup has famously been used as a medicine, it also can be made into jam or wine. Always remove the sharp seeds first.

Elderberries are just darkening now, and by the end of the month can be made into wine, jam, pies, meat sauce, cordial or just added to salad. To make a cordial – with this or any berry – just fill a jar two-thirds full with berries, pour in a bit of sugar – how much depends on the type of berry – and then fill the jar with vodka.

This will be the best autumn for foraging in many a year -- last year’s constant rain washed away all the pollen, and we saw very few fruits or berries – so you won’t find a better time to start. Of course, these are all the best-known wild plants, and if you have other enthusiastic foragers around you might find the hedgerows well picked by the time you get out there. There are other wild foods all around you, however, that are largely forgotten. More on that tomorrow.
Crops and seasons relate directly to Ireland, but more generally to the temperate Northern Hemisphere. 
 Photo: Crabapples, elderberries, blackberries, sloes and rose hips, all from our hedgerow. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013


Poitin (pa-CHEEN) is spirit distilled from potatoes -- moonshine -- and farmers used to make it in hidden and isolated places.

"At Christmas all sorts of people used to come up the mountain looking for a drop," one old person said. "If you wanted the TDs (politicians) to do anything for you you had to provide them with poitin."

"Everyone always condemned it," another said. "Everyone always was after the poitin makers, yet it persisted, and to its credit, it saved lives. When the Great Flu was on, it made a disinfectant, it created tinctures for medicines, and of course it provided many desperately poor people with an income."

-- "Drop of the Craythur," RTE radio documentary, 1976.