Saturday, 30 July 2016

How to make pickled apples

Almost every food-stuff, whether foraged, hunted or harvested, remains fresh for a brief time and then becomes inedible unless preserved. Since humans need to eat all year round, however, the survival of thousands of pre-refrigerator generations depended on how well they could preserve food – by making it too dry for microscopic critters (grains, spices, herbs), too acid (vinegar pickles), too alkaline (limewater eggs), too salty (sauerkraut, bacon) or sweet (jams and syrups).

Even in our refrigerated-and-microwaved era, most of the foods we eat – cheese, pickles, jams, butters, yogurt, salami and many more – were originally ways to keep food during the lean months. Unfortunately, these bits of food culture, carried over from a more self-sufficient age, don’t convey the amazing breadth of foods that could be preserved -- most modern people know peanut butter, blueberry jam and dried parsley, for example, but not walnut butter, dandelion jam or dried nettles.

Pickles make perhaps the best example. Most of us grew up with pickled cucumbers, and possibly with beets or onions – but in other eras or parts of the world, humans pickled a much greater variety of foods, including mushrooms, meats, and fruits. Some cookbooks from the 1800s carried recipes for pickling apples, and old radio programs from the Depression promoted it as a cheap and delicious way to get vitamins all year.

We have several apple trees here, and I’ve been experimenting for the last few years on adapting a variety of old recipes, and let me tell you, the results are my new favorite food ever. This recipe of mine will have a particularly strong flavor, and the apples will be best used as a garnish – or you can tone down the recipe to your taste.

• 1 pint canning jar
• 1-3/4 cups of cider vinegar
• 1/2 cup of water
• 1/2 cup of sugar
• 1 tsp of salt
• 2 tsp of lemon juice
• 2-3 crisp apples, peeled and diced
• 1/4 cup sliced of ginger
• 5 black peppercorns
• 3 cloves
• 3 cardamom pods
• 1 whole star anise
• 1 dried hot pepper

1. First, take the cider vinegar - I also used some of the parsnip vinegar I made, from the wine that didn’t work out. Mix in the water and lemon juice.

2. Stir in the sugar and salt, along with the peppercorns, cloves, star anise, cardamom and chili.

3. Heat it on a stove until it is simmering.

4. Peel the apples – you can use the peels again for making jam.

5. Take the remaining flesh, core it and dice it into cubes about half an inch across.

6. Slice the ginger thinly, as with a mandolin.

7. Drop the diced apples in, with layers of ginger between them, and stuff them in almost to the top.

8. Pour the now-boiling vinegar solution over the apples and ginger slowly, so as not to spill any, and
fill it to the top.

9. Seal the Kilner jar. At this point you could set them in a hot bath to be on the safe side, but my canning jars just snapped shut on their own. Also, too much heat might turn the apples to mush, whereas this way they stay crisp.

The longer you leave it, the stronger the flavor – and the result is a tart, sweet, spicy, intense flavor that goes great with savory dishes like beef or mushrooms. I have left mine for seven months, and they kept just fine.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A Short History of Woven Boats

Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, a dozen kilometres from the seaside, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots, or at least people of Scotland. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, like someone today might be buried in their Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across vast stretches of cold water. (1)

That’s not as strange as it sounds; humans around the world, whether jungle tribes or Eskimos, whether in the Stone Age or the Industrial Revolution, used similar woven boats. Who first thought of it we don’t know; the first basket fragments we have were about 13,000 years old, but we have circumstantial evidence that humans might have been weaving baskets the size of boats almost four hundred centuries earlier. Not four hundred years, by the way – four hundred centuries.

You see, early humans first appeared in Australia about 50,000 years ago, and even with the ice age lowering sea levels, you still can’t walk there. To get there from Asia (presumably, because anything else would be even stranger) they would have had to set out on the ocean -- whole families in boats, not knowing if there was land out there. Obviously they floated on something, and we know of no other kind of boat-making technology for tens of thousands of years to come. Even if they only lashed logs together to make rafts, as you see in so many castaway films, they would have had to use the similar technology of weaving fibres together to make knots.

In the centuries since, cultures around the world wove boats: Tibetans floated in Ku-Drus of woven wood and yak-skin, Eskimos lashed sealskin around their long umiaks, Arabs traversed the Tigris and Euphrates in quffahs, and the Celts of the British Isles – Irish, Scots and Welsh -- had an amazing variety of coracles for fresh waters and curraghs for the sea.

Most were woven from some local pliable wood – although Eskimos used sometimes used bones -- then covered with some kind of skin, and finally waterproofed in some way. They were often rounder in flat water, like the Irish coracles, and more oval or pointed in running or sea waters, like the Irish curraghs or Eskimo kayaks. They also tended to be alarmingly tiny crafts, often just big enough for one – although a traveller to Iraq in the 1930s reported seeing woven boats large enough to carry several human passengers and a few horses. (2)

Coracles in particular had the basic shape of a bowl, and its users needed substantial practice to avoid tipping over. The advantage, however, was that once the user reached shore, the small and lightweight craft could be lifted and carried on one’s back. An English poet in the 1600s described “salmon-fishers moist, their leather boats begin to hoist,” looking like turtles as they walked away from the water carrying their boats upside-down across the countryside. (3)

On these islands coracles and curraghs were used from ancient times – the ancient Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion mentions them, as did Julius Caesar on his trip to Britain. Irish monks like St. Columba in the sixth century travelled around isolated islands in a hide-bound boat, and Hector Boece’s 1527 history of Scotland describes their frequent use of coracles:

How be it, the Highlanders have both the writings and language they had before, more ingenious than any other people. How may there be any greater ingenuity than to make any boat of any bull-hide, bound with nothing but wands? This boat is called a curragh, and with it they fish salmon … and when they have done their fishing they bear it to another place on their back as they please. 

Fishing was not just a pastime for such people, but a matter of survival; the protein they brought in was precious, especially in Catholic countries where meat was forbidden part of the year. Another common use was to gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also, of course, woven of wood like baskets. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.

Coracles also proved useful in other ways; when shepherds washed their sheep, for example, coracle-men positioned themselves downstream to catch any sheep that might be carried away. And, of course, they offered simple transportation across a landscape lined with lakes, rivers and canals, and among many islands separated by the sea.

Each region had its own design – not just region as in “Europe,” but as in each local village or stream; small Welsh rivers like the Teifi, the Taf, the Wye, the Monnow, the Lugg, the Usk, the Dee and the Severn each had their own styles of coracles, each apparently made for the conditions of that place. (4)

Irish coracles and curraghs were woven from willow or hazel, and typically built upside-down. Locals here began by planting a row of hazel rods straight into the ground, continuing in a wide curve until the row came back to where it began. Then, when the rods looked like the bars of a large cage, they wove withies – thin strips of wood – back and forth between the rods along the ground. This would be the gunwale – the “rim” of the boat – when it was flipped over.

Then the hazel rods --- the bars of the cage, as it were -- were bent down across the oval to make a wicker dome, until the whole structure formed a large, solid basket. Then a covering was lashed to the frame – cow-hide was typical, although horse-hide and seal-skin were also used. Finally, the cover was waterproofed – in recent years with tar or some other petroleum derivative, but originally with tallow or butter.

Such ingenious craft opened up new industries, crafts and food sources for ordinary hunters or farmers, allowing them to traverse lakes and rivers easily and travel between islands. They allowed people on islands or in remote areas communicate and trade with the rest of the world. They let people create their own craft for the unique conditions of their place, with nothing more than local resources, knives and skill. In short, for tens of thousands of years human survival depended on such small and unlikely-looking creations.

Originally published in Mother Earth News.  Photo: Men on coracles in a Welsh River. Courtesy of Wikicommons.


1) T. Watkins, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 1980
T. Watkins, The excavation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery at Barns Farm, Dalgety, Fife, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 112 (1984) p. 48 – 114
2) James Hornell, “Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrates,” The Mariner's Mirror, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1938
3) Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House,” 1651.
4) James Hornell, Water Transport Origins & Early Evolution, 1936.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Ripples in a community

For the same reason that I don’t show my daughter’s face, I almost never show pictures of our neighbours here in rural Ireland. Many of our older neighbours grew up in a different world, growing up without electricity or cars, and talking to them is like meeting a different era. Out of curiosity, I’ve looked up a few of them online and can’t find them – possibly some of the last Westerners for whom that would be true. Certainly they don’t need to be plunged into the world of facial-recognition software and phone marketing.

Even out here, we are no longer feel community as people once did, for we no longer need each other -- we can all drive to the supermarket, order online and distract ourselves with endless forms of media. We don’t need to talk to our neighbours anymore, and often don’t want to, as a Youtube presenter will usually be more wackily entertaining than they are.

Of course, I can't judge too harshly, for I'm writing this on a computer, and you're reading it on one; they have their uses. Nor do I have the deep ties from childhood that most people have here; I'm an immigrant to this place myself.

It's obvious, though, that people here still feel the bonds of community more than most modern people I know. Sometimes I'm walking to church, for example, and a neighbour slows down in his car and asks if I need a lift, and I gratefully pile in back with his kids. In most modern societies -- my own USA in particular - people are too scared to pick up hitchhikers, until no one can hitchhike but the genuinely scary.

We see that web of reciprocity when someone dies. A young man who lived near us died a few weeks ago, and people have been talking about it ever since -- at Mass, at the pub, kids at the school, and at the shop. I didn't know him well myself -- I'd merely see him at the pub sometimes -- and of course I didn't grow up with most of the people here. Yet I could get a sense of how, in a more traditional community, everyone's actions affect everyone else, and a death most of all.

Shortly after the death, I'm told, his family held a wake, where everyone comes to pay their respects to the man and celebrate his life. The next day they had a funeral, which here usually means the family carrying the coffin from the house to the church, perhaps miles away, while all the friends march behind. Within a short time various people around us had erected a cross at the site of his death, and the flowers around it have been kept fresh ever since. We have other crosses like that near us, some from decades ago, and people still place mementoes around it.

I talked about the man's death with the teller at my credit union -- we know each other by name, and she knew his family -- and I realised how different such an experience must be from visiting a regular bank these days. I keep a separate account in a modern bank in Dublin, and they refuse to even use tellers anymore -- they rely only on ATMs, which they presumably don’t have to pay. Here, at the local credit union, I know the name of the lady that greets me, and we can talk about all the local news, good or ill.

Likewise, I talked to our neighbour down the road -- we'll call him Bill -- about buying some turf this year. Turf is the fuel we use, centuries of compacted sphagnum peat moss that has become a spongy maroon ground under your feet as you walk through the bog. Where locals have drained the bog and cleared away the brush, they then slice grooves over the landscape, so that strips of turf lie in rows like ropes of liquorice. Then we break them into chunks about the size and shape of bricks, and “foot” them, or stack them in a cross-hatching pattern so they can dry in the air during the summer months. Finally we gather them and bring them home, and for most local people that’s their winter heat.

Bill owns part of the bog near us, and it was he who cut our turf before and helped us cart it home. This time, though, he said he wasn’t sure he could.

“Your man with the tractor cuts it for me,” he said, “and he’s going out of business now. He was going to leave it to his son, but his son was the young man who died.”

In his mammoth work Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam uses surveys, time diaries and membership rolls to track the history of American social life, and the results were staggering. Social clubs like Oddfellows or Kiwanis, bowling and softball leagues, family dinners and neighbourhood poker games, political caucuses and gardening clubs – all these staples of life for decades, which had supported their members through Great Depressions and World Wars, had all diminished to a near-vanishing point.

Life in rural Ireland was less dynamic than mid-20th-century America, but you could see the same social bonds, centred around families, pubs and the Church. In fact, you could find equivalents in almost every society that has ever existed. As far as we can tell, for most hunter-gatherers, peasants, villagers or urban neighbours through history, community did not exist as an aspiration or buzzword, it was the medium in which human life took place. Most writers and philosophers in history did not even have to talk about its value, for it was the one resource no one lacked.

These days, we try to re-create community with support groups and fan clubs of various kinds, but they are Astroturf, planted to simulate the real thing where it won’t grow. Putnam quotes sociologist Robert Wuthnow in saying that “the kind of community these small groups create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. These communities are more fluid and more concerned with the emotional states of the individual … the social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. We can imagine that those small groups really substitute for families, neighbourhoods and broader community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they do not.”

In a more traditional world, community isn't a hobby or cause; people need each other. When you stand in line at the shop, the person in front of you might have made the winning play for the local football team ten years ago, might coach your daughter's school, might be repairing your car next week or checking your horses, might be needed to give you a jump start on a cold morning or might make the best jam around. That's the case everywhere, of course, but in the modern world, filled with crowds and distractions, it's easy to forget.

A more old-fashioned community, though, you can see the bonds of support and obligation all around you. They temper your reactions, help you back down from conflict, encourage you to make deposits in the local bank of personal favours, and keep you from sinking too low when things go wrong. They do not free you to indulge any impulse or float unmoored through a sea of strangers, to invent and reinvent yourself endlessly according to your whims. Rather, they constrain you in all the best ways, anchor you in a cultural harbour, and limit your life to a single road taken. Enough such threads of obligation, layer upon layer, weave a civilisation.

When someone dies, everyone feels it. There's a seat empty at the pub, a pew with a space at Mass, local daughters without a father. One of our neighbours is selling his business, another might have to support himself with his cows rather than his turf, and we will have to rely on firewood rather than turf this winter. In a community like this you can see the ripples people make when they come and go, and no one goes through life alone -- alive or departed, they remain part of something larger and older than themselves.