Monday 30 April 2018


Cabbage has come a long way from its origins as a little beach-weed called sea kale – over centuries, our species has bred it into an amazing variety of different vegetables. We’ve bred it for its head of leaves – green cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard, rocket, mizuna and others. We’ve bred it for its flowers – broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco. We’ve bred it for its buds -- Brussels sprouts – and we’ve bred it for its roots, kohlrabi.

In all its forms, it remains one of the best crops for the Irish climate, as for similar climates like the Pacific Northwest, but it grows in a wide variety of climates. It’s a famous staple here in many of its forms, the basic vegetable of many dishes. Amazingly, though, few people we know here make sauerkraut or kimchi, methods used in other parts of the world to preserve cabbage, make it easier to digest and to give it flavour. You can make sauerkraut very easily at home, and it will be much tastier and more nutritious than the canned variety.

The biggest trick is to find 1.) a cylindrical container, not made of metal or plastic, and 2.) a lid slightly smaller than the top of the container, so that it slides down the interior with little air in-between. The cabbage has to be pressed down in salt water away from oxygen, you see, but not sealed off completely. We have a ceramic pot and lid; you could hold it down with a plate slightly smaller than the pot and hold the sauerkraut down with a stone. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar and use a glass or ceramic candle-holder as a stopper. Use your imagination, but of course wash and sterilise everything well beforehand. 

First cut a cabbage into quarters and chop it finely with a knife or through a mandolin. Mix up a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage, put it in the container, and pound it down for a few minutes with something heavy like a rolling pin. Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full.

Then fill the container with water – from the cold tap, but heated on the stove until lukewarm – until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment at room temperature – about 20 degrees Centigrade is ideal, so try near the heater or stove.

The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and one of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to wait until it’s “done.” It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to top it up with more salt water if you need to – about a tablespoon per litre of water – as you have to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Your sauerkraut might develop a slight scum on top as it ferments. Just skim it off and clean the plate when you take some out -- it’s just the result of contact with the air, and not very dangerous. Also, don’t worry if the kraut has a faint yeasty smell – it’s fermenting, after all. If it starts to go pink on top or smell genuinely bad, something has probably gone wrong.

After about a month, take out the sauerkraut and eat it straight, put it in the refrigerator or cook it, as you like. You can also add other vegetables into the mix, like onions, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot, or spices – juniper berries and bay leaf are the classics, but you can also experiment with ginger, chilli peppers or other things.

This is a great way to preserve cabbage through the winter without refrigeration, also, and to give vitamin C during the months when it’s most needed and least available.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

How not to build a chicken coop

Originally published back when we had the chickens. 

This week’s entry in the How to Live Sustainably series: How to build a chicken coop in 157 easy steps. Note that everyone is different, and not every step might apply to your situation.

1.) Decide you want to keep chickens. Perhaps you want animals to provide you with companionship and entertainment until you get hungry. Perhaps you want to play tricks on animals that lack the wherewithal to be indignant, allowing you a certain freedom from guilt.  Perhaps you want free protein for when the Eurozone collapses, oil prices skyrocket again, another Icelandic volcano erupts or the Zombie Apocalypse takes place.

2.) Decide what kind of chicken you want to have; there are docile and aggressive breeds, white and brown egg layers, and breeds that look like they stuck their beak in an electrical socket. Many of the more bizarre-looking breeds are purely for show, by people who enjoy that sort of thing. Others were bred for fighting, by people who apparently love the mess of chicken slaughter without having to bother with the inconvenience of eating fried chicken afterwards.

3.) Decide what kind of chicken run you need. Some people build a mobile run, basically a cage whose one end rests on the ground and whose other end rests on wheels, and which can be picked up and dragged. With a mobile run, you don’t need much space, for the chickens strip the small area and poop all over it in short order, but the next day you can roll their cage to a different patch of ground as the first patch recovers.  The disadvantage, though, is that you need to move the run, and as it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home, there’s no time to do so; I would kill myself wandering across the land in the dark even looking for a chicken run that didn’t keep moving around. 

4.) Dig your trench. As we plan to have as many as six chickens, we want to have at least 50 square meters, so I had to dig a perimeter of 30 meters (5 x 10 x 2) half a metre deep to keep out foxes. Try to remember that there is now a giant trench on your property, and try to make sure no one sees you when you tumble to the ground. Remember: how you got all muddy is a long story, and no one can prove anything.

5.) Take scrap wood and begin hammering it together. Take careful measurements of all your wood, calculate the length and depth of each piece, and plan your coop accordingly, so that no piece of wood is wasted.

6.) Realise that much of the wood has rotted. Start over, but mixing scrap wood and lumber purchased from the hardware store, costing more than a year’s worth of eggs.  

7.) Accidentally step on a nail and hop to the car on one foot to drive to the A&E, assuring your daughter that you are fine and no one can prove anything.

8.) Invite your mother-in-law, who knows some carpentry, to inspect your progress so far, and collect your dignity as she points and laughs at you.

9.) Start over.

10.) Bring your electric saw, electric drill and other power tools outside to piece the wood together into a workable coop, with hen boxes and door.

11.) Rush the tools inside as it starts to rain, frantically wiping them off so no water shorts out the electronics.

12.) Wait until it stops raining. Bring tools outside again.

13.) Feel  the first drops of Irish weather again; frantically gather up the power tools and run inside.

14. - 155.) Repeat steps 10 – 14, putting the coop together a few pieces of wood at a time over a period of several months.

156.) When coop is done, ask a very nice friend to help you pull a fence of chicken wire around the run, and fill in the gap on either side of the fence with stones, thus discouraging foxes and getting rid of the boulders that have been our most prolific garden crop.

157.) Write a blog post asking if anyone has chickens they’d like to sell.

Sunday 8 April 2018


This is the time when the chilly rain and gray landscape of the Irish winter gives way to the cool beauty of summer, when the fields erupt in oxlips and daffodils, the hedgerows swell with delicious hawthorn shoots, and the riverbanks ripple with nutritious nettles. In these months the usually solitary herons flying in pairs over the canals, and while jogging along the banks I spot the occasional bullfinch and kingfisher. Yesterday I spotted something extraordinary -- a goshawk flew out of our hedgerow and into our woodlot, followed by an explosion of panicked swallows and other birds flying in all directions. 

This year, though, everything is late; after six months of Irish winter and a month of Scandanavian winter, the hawthorn shoots are only now timidly peeking out of the tips of branches, and the usually brilliant blackthorn trees have not yet even hinted at blooming. Bluebells would ordinarily be spreading across the forest floor, flooding the woods with a brilliant violet light. 

Ordinarily our linden tree would be sagging with bushels of tender leaves that make an excellent salad, but this year we will have to wait until May. Only now are the primroses peeking out of the slowly drying mud, and the fields slowly turning green with new shoots -- the newborn lambs wobbling across the fields are scrounging for good meals this year. 

I visited my neighbour Seamus today -- I feel the need to check on him, although he's spent a lifetime working the Irish countryside here, and at 86 he seems healthier than most 30-year-olds I know. Ordinarily he's over the moon this time of year, t's his time to plough and plant the fields, to pat the chitted potato shoots into his patch of dry soil in the Bog of Allen. 

"We've lost a month," he said. "The fields are still too wet from the winter snows to plant, and no one can take tractors into them -- they would get bogged down, or rip up the fields until you couldn't plant. We've never had a winter like this, and now I don't know if we'll have a hot summer, or a late one, or no summer at all -- you can't tell anymore." 

When the blackthorns do bloom, I will set out with The Girl to mark them again, either with ribbons around the trunks or simply by counting steps and remembering where they are. Their small plain leaves are not obtrusive most of the year, and their small black fruits hide easily in shadow, so we must mark them now to gather sloes in November. At the same time we'll gather comfrey from the canal banks, an excellent addition to our compost. 

Thankfully, we have seeds already saved for this year, we have raised beds and a greenhouse, and we have seedlings planted inside and ready to go. This year I'll be quite busy with work and studying, and trying to write more, and The Girl is now a teenager working on her own projects, so it was to be a light year for the garden anyway -- good timing for us. 

We cut our grass for the first time this past weekend, and will probably do so about once every month or two for the next six months. Many people cut their grass far too often, keeping it from developing healthy plants. When I could, I replaced grass with edible and attractive plants like cowslip, primrose, Good King Henry, fat hen and chamomile.

I'm hoping that the warm weather will give me the chance to see more people, in the same way that the snow did. The unseasonable weather, like any emergency, brought people together, reminded us how we’ve lost touch with each other – and gave us a chance to turn that trend around.

Top photo: The forest floor around now. Bottom photo: See those bluebells? We don't.