Sunday 27 May 2018

Wild food in spring

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. In many cases, they were bred to have more flesh, like the giant carrots over their smaller root of the Queen Anne’s Lace, or for their orange colours over the white originals.

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.” Since carrots have been bred there have been white, orange, yellow and even purple varieties, breeds suited for different tastes, climates, times of year or for fashion –to match what consumers imagine to be nice-looking. 

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, while others have no domesticated equivalent, like fat hen or jack-by-the-hedge.

Hawthorn trees still have a few shoots in the shaded areas, and the shoots – leaves just coming out -- make an excellent addition to salad. Later this year their berries – haws – will cover the hedgerows, 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-crab-apple wine.

Every spring we use the youngest leaves of the linden tree as a salad (also called the lime – no relation to the fruit) and it gives us two weeks of free and edible greens. Dandelions are still flowering now, and their younger and less bitter leaves can be put into salad, while their flowers can be battered and fried, or made into an excellent wine. Come autumn the roots will be at their fullest; try pulling them out, dry-roasting them, grinding them into powder, and using them to make coffee.

I’ve mentioned the amazing properties of nettles many times – sautéed they make a great vegetable, added to soup they flavour the stock, dried they make a great tea or can flavour beer, they can be made into wine, and their fibres can be made into cloth.

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 makes a good dish sautéed with leeks. Fat Hen was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today, and its pale green leaves are quite nutritious. 

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, and can be sauteed like spinach and used as a vegetable, doubling as both the vegetable and the sprinkling of garlic in one.

The flowers of chamomile, seen above, make an excellent evening tea, and can be added to salads. Cowslips, oxlips and primroses, all in the same family, can also be eaten raw or made into some of the richest and sweetest wine I've ever had. 

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.

If you are not sure what these plants look like, of course you can look them up online or get a book on foraging -- I recommend Food for Free, although it is written mainly for the British Isles. 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.

Sunday 6 May 2018

Community-Supported Agriculture

We think of innovations in cars or computers, but rarely of innovations in farming and food. Yet a new type of farm has caught on rapidly in recent years, in both America and Europe – Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

CSAs are small farms owned, jointly, by a nearby community, and that supplies food for people who live nearby. Sometimes townspeople will buy a plot of land close to town, hire a farmer to work it for them, and share all the crops. Other times the community can sell the surplus for a profit.

In some circumstances the farm is affiliated with a farmer’s market that sells the produce back to local people, giving the town a source of civic income; in other cases, townspeople simply own shares in the farm and get part of the harvest as profit. Still other times the farm is more like an allotment, with families owning their own sections. There are almost as many models as there are farms.

Such community ventures solve many problems at once. First, they find a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.  

In an interview with Global Public Media, community farmer Jay Martin made the point that many farmers must go deeply into debt in order to begin or keep farming – and when they have a successful crop, he says, they must deal with transport and the uncertainties of the market. When he turned his farm into a CSA, on the other hand, the costs were covered by the community, and he had no transport costs and a built-in market.

Turning a local farm into a CSA also means giving one’s money to local people means that the money keeps circulating nearby, rather than going to faraway corporations. It means that your food comes from people you know and trust. It means that people near you are getting work and staying fed and housed, which benefits your local community.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is keeping local areas self-sufficient. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import most of our food. If there were another oil crisis, or a war, or any other kind of emergency, we would have to rebuild a great deal from scratch.

Food transported from one kilometre away, rather than 10,000, eliminates a major source of climate chaos and pollution. At present, many foods must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage, and even the healthiest vegetables are less nutritious after sitting on a shelf for weeks. If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, and no rubbish need be generated. In an age when fewer people feel part of a community, a CSA allows people to invest in a project together, with their neighbours, and share in the rewards.

When I worked at a magazine in America, our business bought shares of a CSA, and they grew a variety of crops for the shareholders. As one crop after another came into season, they sent us boxes of whatever vegetables we had earned by our share, so we got weekly deliveries of rutabaga, beans, corn, onions, rhubarb or whatever was ripening. This was in Minnesota, up near Canada, so the growing season was quite short, but we got plenty of food for our money, and the farm stayed in business when so many others went under.

Finally, it gave young urban people a chance to experience foods they might not have ordinarily, and to learn to cook things they could not, at first, identify. Many of the office workers, I suspected, had grown up on a diet of takeout and crisps, and didn’t know what to do when they first saw a kohlrabi. When I peeled the skin off and at it like an apple, though, they tried it as well and were hooked. I had to caution them not to try it with celeriac, however – not all roots are the same.

Of course, Ireland cannot import all its foods – we won’t be growing any bananas here for a while, climate change or no, and even local food is not always in season. But simply cutting our imports can make a big difference in many areas -- the difference for some people between having a job, or having enough food in a crisis, or having hope.