Saturday 20 January 2018


This article will appear in the Kildare Nationalist in County Kildare, Ireland next week. 

Supporting yourself generally requires land, tools, weeding, composting, practice, and finally the months of waiting for things to finish growing. There is one kind of food, however, that can be grown by anyone, indoors, in any time of year, in a few days – sprouts.

I don’t mean Brussels Sprouts – nutritious as they are -- which are the buds of a certain type of cabbage. I mean seeds or beans – mung beans, broccoli seeds, radish seeds, alfalfa seeds -- that have been soaked and kept moist for a few days and have begun to turn into green shoots, as they would in soil.

The Chinese have sprouted for at least 5,000 years, and many Westerners have found growing sprouts an easy source of nutrition in lean times. Captain Cook used sprouting as a source of Vitamin C to avoid scurvy on long ocean voyages, as did soldiers in World War I and Indians during the famine of the 1930s. Sprouts are also high in protein – seven cups have an average person’s daily recommended allowance.

You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants – the only common ones to avoid altogether are nightshade plants like tomatoes or potatoes, whose sprouts are as poisonous as the leaves of the grown plants. Mung beans -- for sale in most health-food stores for a euro or two a bag -- are a common and easy way to begin. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I get fine results just from letting them sit in a bowl-sized plastic tub or (unsealed) Ziploc bag.

Rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about six hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit in the damp tub for the next few days, rinsing them every eight hours or so -- the beans need to be kept moist but not swimming in standing water. Every morning before work, every day when you come home, and every night before bed, fill the tub with water again and then let it drain out.

Take care that the damp seeds do not grow mouldy – I found this to be a hazard with broccoli and alfalfa seeds, but never with beans. In three days or so the beans should have sprouted into white-and-green shoots, at their height of nutritional value. Sprouts can be eaten in salads – I include a couple of recipes below -- and many people eat broccoli, alfalfa or radish sprouts on sandwiches instead of lettuce. Soybean sprouts, popular in Chinese cooking, are the only ones that are better cooked.

Personally, I found that the smaller sprouting seeds, like alfalfa, gave me too little finished sprouts to make them worth my while, and had far too great a risk of mould. The larger beans, like lima or adzuki, tended to sprout more slowly and can often go bad before fully sprouting. Mung beans, on the other hand, tend to work perfectly.

As mung beans cost very little and keep for years, you can get all your protein and many of your vitamins for only a couple of euros a week. You might love them, you might not, but you should have them handy for emergencies.

You can make a sprout salad in a couple of different ways. My favourite is to mix 50g of yogurt, 10g of Sriracha or other hot sauce, 5 ml of lemon juice, 5g of powdered vegetable stock and pinches of turmeric, cayenne and pepper. Mix all these together into a sauce and add 20 grams of finely chopped scallions. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300g of mung bean sprouts, and slowly mix it in with the sauce.

Alternately, you can mix 30g of olive oil, 10g of cider vinegar or lemon juice and mix them well. Add 10 ml of dark soy sauce and add a pinch of salt -- I put in a bit of wasabi for a spicy kick, or you can leave it out. Coarsely grate 100g of peeled carrots, 50g of apples and 20g of chopped scallions, and mix them into the sauce. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300 grams of mung bean sprouts, and mix them in as well.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Scenes from the village

We had a great Christmas; The Girl got a new bow and arrows, to keep up with the passion that occupies most of her free time. She’s been going to archery events across Ireland -- and soon, in other countries -- and coming home with trophies, so I’m satisfied to shell out the money to keep her going. She got me a book that she knew I’d love, and we also got some Hitchcock DVDs -- we watched Rope the other night, and as jaded a 21st century teenager as she is these days, afterwards she said, “That was intense!”
This is always a difficult time of year; the heating never works as well as it should, so we’re relying on the fireplace to keep the house warm. Of course it got colder in parts of the USA where I lived, but somehow it feels colder here; perhaps it’s the fact that it’s damp, or that we live in the giant heat sink of the bog.
Also, as I’ve mentioned, we’re at the same latitude as Alaska, so the winter nights are long and dark. I don’t leave the house unless I have to, and have spent most of the time curled by the fire writing what I hope will be a book.
Still, my elderly neighbours are hardier than I, and grew up in this area before it had electricity, much less under-floor heating. After Mass today I saw my neighbour Liam, haler at 75 than I am now, and he exclaimed, “’Tis a fine frosty morning, isn’t it Brian?”
“’Tis lovely,” I said, “But I’m not suited to it - I’ve spent a lot of time by the fire.”
“I just lit my first fire this morning,” he said.
We talked some more, and I promised I’d stop by for tea, thinking to myself, Remember to bundle up before you go.
I went back to my usual schedule this week, returning to my day job in Dublin. Every morning I wait in the darkness for the double-decker bus to come barrelling down the country roads, and stop and pick us up. Also returning to work were my neighbours; Cahil, who works at the hardware store down the road; Sean, a local handyman and construction worker; Betty and her grand-daughters.
Me: How was your Christmas dinner?
Betty: Sure it was lovely, Brian; now that I have daughters to do my cooking, so suddenly I enjoy Christmas dinner a lot more than I used to.
Me: Seeing your children to adulthood should have some rewards. Speaking of, I see your grandchildren around, Lauren and Shannon. I can't tell them apart, but then they're usually well bundled this time of year.
Betty:  Ah, go on - they could be in beach clothes and still look the same, sure they could.
Me: Does everyone in your family look alike?

Betty: Not too different -- I have four daughters and six grand-daughters, and none of the apples fell far from the tree.

Me: In appearance or where they live?

Betty: Aw sure, two live in our village, and two in the next village down. Not a one that can't bicycle to the others' house.

Me: That's great -- and they all get along?

Betty: Completely -- my youngest granddaughter is still in the school here, Rosin.

Me: I know Rosin! If you don't mind my asking, is Martina -- the woman who works at the shop in the village -- her other grandmother?

Betty: (laughs) yes, her son married one of my daughters. We're co-grandmothers.

I suppose it was not too unusual here, but would be most places -- every morning Betty and I wait by the bus stop, while across the road in the village shop she sees her grandchild's other grandmother in the window.

Me: Is Rosin in secondary school yet?

Betty: No, she's a year behind yours, but will be going to the same school later this year. How's your little one finding secondary school?

Me: She's not so little anymore -- we used to do things together all the time, but now she wants to do her own thing. She spends a lot of time doing archery and choir, and I don't mind -- kids can get into a lot worse these days.

Betty: Sure, we all do that for a while. In the end, though, we come back home to our family.

Me: I’ll be counting the days.

Thursday 4 January 2018

Hay-boxes and tea cozies

Whether you grew up in Texas or Tasmania, Manitoba or Macedonia, you were probably raised in a modernised Western culture like me, with electricity and motorcars and other modern infrastructure. If so, you probably grew up blithely spending massive quantities of energy to do the simplest of tasks.

Instead of boiling water by lighting a fire and putting a kettle on the stove, for example, we might blow up the oldest mountains in the world to mine the remains of forests older than dinosaurs, set those old forests on fire to boil water, and then use the steam to turn turbines to send electricity through miles of cable to an outlet on your wall to power a kettle to boil water. The details might change depending on where you are, but most of us live this way – and so does my family, to an extent. It’s not easy to live any other way these days; one must deliberately and daily choose, on abstract grounds, a life of greater inconvenience, and slowly learn an older set of skills.  

We do this, of course, because we have so much energy at our disposal – the equivalent of 300 slaves by one common estimate, making each of us richer than medieval kings. Of course, we can’t keep doing this forever – there were only so many ancient forests to burn, and doing so has played with the knobs and dials of the world’s weather control panel. Thus, most discussions of the future focus on producing enough energy to meet our escalating needs -- escalating because each generation grows up with more comfort and convenience, and because there are more of us. 

The same is true in our personal lives; most of us fantasize about making more money, not about spending less, even though it amounts to the same thing, and even though your current spending might not be making you happy. Adverts and articles tout new and more fuel-efficient cars, not buying fewer or older cars and driving them more slowly.  A major magazine a few years back showed their concern for the future with an “eco-issue;” I showed mine by refusing to buy the magazine. Most discussions of energy, similarly, ignores the central and necessary factor of making do with less, often by reviving now-forgotten skills.

Take, for example, the old technique of hay-box cooking, done by people here a few generations ago and by the British during the lean times of the Second World War. A hay box is just what it says, a box lined with hay or some other insulating material that will keep heated food hot and cooking for hours. Manufactured hay-boxes were built in the early part of the 20th century, and stores used to sell elegant and decorated models, but to make one at home all you need is a box – or in my case, two smaller boxes, one flipped upside-down and placed over the other – with blankets stuffed around the sides.

To use this method I started by making a few litres of lentil soup with vegetables from our garden, and brought it to a rolling boil. On the stove I would have to cook it for an hour or more until the lentils were soft, but here I only needed to bring it to the boil, take the pot off the stove and place it in the hay-box. I surrounded the pot with blankets in lieu of dry hay – people here make hay while the sun shines, so there hasn’t been much in Ireland this year – covered it over with more blankets, and went to bed. In the morning I took the cool pot of soup out of the box and found it had cooked perfectly, after using a fraction of the fuel.

Another example of using what you have comes in an even more unassuming package, the tea cozie. The Irish are among the most prolific tea-drinkers on Earth, and a “cuppa” is the standard greeting offered to family, friends and just passers-by. Boiling tea cools quickly, and if you like your tea strong – sitting in the pot a while – or want a second cup, you want to conserve the heat. The tea-cozie solves that by insulating the pot like the hay-box insulates tomorrow’s dinner, keeping it hot longer. A thermos does the same thing for a drink on the go.

The same logic applies to our houses; most of us in the modern world live in homes far larger than we need, and if many people heat their entire homes in winter while wearing summer clothes indoors.  BBC science advisor David MacKay, in his book “Without Hot Air,” writes that British homes in 1970 had an average temperature of 13 degrees in winter – 55 degrees Fahrenheit – and I’m betting that in poorer and more traditional Ireland it was colder still. Yet people got by; they were more psychologically accustomed to colder temperatures, , they gathered in rooms together and allowed their body heat to raise the temperature, they remained physically active, they wore heavy clothes indoors, and they heated certain central rooms and let unused rooms provide insulation

As Kris De Decker notes in Low-Tech Magazine, “the reduction in energy use for space heating thanks to more efficient homes was less than 20 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Lowering the thermostat by 2° C (or 4°F) would thus result in energy reduction comparable to that. Turning down the thermostat from 22° to 18° C would initiate an energy savings of at least 35 per cent.”
DeDecker notes that insulating the body itself is the most efficient option, as there is so much less space to cover. Using American “clo” units, where one clo equals the thermal insulation required to keep one person comfortable at 21 degrees centigrade, he notes that briefs provide 0.05 clo, light socks 0.10 clo, a heavy shirt with long sleeves .25 clo, a sweater .30 clo, and long pants .30.

Someone wearing the ensemble described above would feel comfortable in a home heated to 21 degrees Centigrade – the level assumed for the modern USA by the standards company ASHRAE -- but in just a t-shirt would need 24 degrees. With long underwear they would only need the house to be heated to 17 degrees to feel the same comfort, and since lowering the thermostat just 1 degree C yields an energy savings of nine to ten per cent, such a change saves 50 to 70 per cent on heating costs compared to the t-shirt.

All of these are things we could change quickly in theory, but realistically, they will take time to grow used to – I hail from a hotter climate and am used to blasts of central heating in winter, and shifting away from that was slow and sometimes uncomfortable. In this, as in so many other areas, though, it helps to take the first steps in a different direction and keep going, and then one day you look behind you and realise how far you’ve traveled.