Friday 22 December 2023

Upcoming article on Dublin riots

Dublin a few nights ago.
The same scene during the riots.

Sorry for not posting much - I'm flying to America tomorrow, and between that and the article I'm writing on the Dublin riots, it's been busy. 

From the article: 

"Most other attacks had been rural or in poor areas, easier to sweep under the rug. This was in the heart of the city, the main shopping district at Christmas season, in a square named for a national hero, in the neighbourhood where the Irish Revolution began a century ago. It was next door to where Irish icon Oliver St. John Gogarty once lived. It was around the corner from a memorial to the innocents killed by an IRA bomb in the 1970s. It was at an Irish-language school, favoured by people proud of their heritage, in neighbourhoods now populated heavily by migrants."

Sunday 3 December 2023

Avoiding the Same Old Crops

As pleased as I am to see so many people here turning back to allotments and backyard gardens, I don’t want to see people rely too heavily on the same potatoes and cabbages. Relying too much on only a few varieties of a few plants, though, makes for a very fragile kind of self-reliance. Eat a surfeit of one food and your health declines; meet the wrong caterpillar or fungus, a summer too hot or a winter too long, and much of your food is gone. The Irish did that once with potatoes, with disastrous results.

Most of us, though, have little idea how many edible plants are all around us, and how many could fill our salad bowls or soups. Even if we restrict ourselves to the minority of plants that have become domesticated crops, we typically recognize only a few varieties of each – the ones bred recently for fossil-fuel transport, not for taste, health or your climate.

Take the colour, for example – most of us have never seen green oranges, purple carrots, striped beets or blue potatoes. Or look at breed names -- most of us have eaten Johnagold or Green Delicious apples, perhaps without knowing what they were called, but I have never had Seek-no-Furthers or Belle-de-Boskoops, and you probably haven’t either.

Even many ordinary vegetables have become widely unrecognized. When I was in charge of a magazine in America, we made an arrangement with a local CSA to get a weekly box of whatever was in season. I waited until everyone else had their share and took the rest home – which meant I took most of it home every week, because my colleagues had no idea what to make of the vegetables or what to do with them. Some of these people were environmental activists or vegans, but they stared quizzically at the kohlrabi, fennel, mange tout, swedes, daikons, parsley root, beetroot or sunchokes as though they were specimens from an alien planet.

Still, I didn’t grow up knowing many of these crops either, and had to learn them over time. When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

As another example, I grow scorzonera, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. I also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

Acquaintances of ours experiment with other roots and tubers: yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Sometime soon, though, we really must experiment with yacons, which can be eaten raw and, I’m told, taste like sweet radishes.

Most people think kiwis come from the South Pacific; in reality the name was a 1960s marketing ploy, a Cold War rebranding of the Chinese gooseberry. They too grow in this damp and windswept country, perhaps not as big as the ones in supermarkets but just as tasty --- and without using their own weight in fossil fuels to get here.

We will never approach resilience unless we wade into the vast pool of little-known and rarely used plants. This time of year, as many of you are buying seeds for the spring, consider devoting a piece of your land for experimenting with new crops and new varieties. Not all your experiments will work, but some might prove easier, healthier, more pest-resistant, tastier, or more suited to your particular patch of the landscape that what you are planting now.

Photo: Morning dew on my strawberries.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Great write-up by Rod Dreher

 Between going to Budapest to visit Rod Dreher and dodging the riots in Dublin, I've been a bit busy lately -- and I'm preparing to go back to the USA at Christmas. Thus, I'm late in posting a link to this, but Rod Dreher gave me a generous write-up on his Substack blog, and I'm quite chuffed:

I've finished the book and am searching for an agent and publisher, so I'll keep you posted.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Been a bit busy here in Dublin

Believe it or not, this is my third time seeing part of my own neighbourhood smashed and burned. I grew up near Ferguson, Missouri, which made the news with a race riot in 2014, and then I lived in Minneapolis and worked around the corner from where George Floyd would later be killed. Most people don’t see this happen to their neighbourhood even once, much less three times in three separate neighbourhoods. I would be the dot in the middle of a very strange Venn diagram. 

I'm writing about it at the moment, and will be doing an interview -- details to come soon. 

Photo: Irish Independent.

Saturday 18 November 2023

The 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.  Photos: Irishmen carrying their coracles. Courtesy of Wikicommons and Flickr, public licence.


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.


Thursday 9 November 2023


Making food – gardening, preserving, cooking – is generally time-consuming work, and very few foods leap out of the air and volunteer to make themselves. Fortunately, sourdough does just that.

Sourdough is a kind of bread made with naturally-occurring yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria, already floating in the air all around you. Because the lactobacilli create lactic acid, it has a slightly sour taste compared to breads made quickly with dried yeast powder from the store.

The preparation of sourdough begins with a starter of flour and water, which can be a solid, liquid or somewhere in-between. The starter carries the yeast and bacteria, and when you mix the starter with the rest of the dough you are giving the micro-organisms much more food, enabling them to spread throughout the dough. The bacteria and yeast have a symbiotic relationship: the bacteria ferment sugars that the yeast cannot digest, and their by-products are metabolised by yeast, which produces carbon dioxide gas, which leavens the dough.

First take a tablespoon (about 10 millilitres) of flour and a tablespoon of milk and mix them together – exact quantities aren’t that important. Then you leave it sit out – say, on your kitchen shelf – and stir it every morning and evening for about a week.

When this gooey, pale mix begins to bubble and smell sour and tangy, it has become sourdough starter. If it smells pongy, it pulled the wrong kind of bacteria out of the air, and needs to be thrown out -- there’s really no way to ensure either result or predict ahead of time.

I added some organic grape peels to the mix; the grape’s sugar is food for the yeast, and grapes are often covered in yeast themselves – that is the powdery coating you see on the surface of grapes, one reason ancient people so easily discovered they could make the juice into wine.

Once you have a good batch of starter going, you keep feeding it a little bit every day. Keep it at room temperature – say, 20-25 degrees -- and take out a portion every week or so to make the bread. Some people keep their starter in their refrigerator, where it ferments more slowly and only needs to be fed once a week.

Sourdough needs to be stickier and wetter than other doughs – the wetter the better. Generally it should double in size within six hours of each “feeding,” and it should be full of bubbles. One tip I got from the Prairie Homestead blogger was that “if you place a teaspoon of the starter in a cup of cool water, it should float on top of the water.”

To make the bread itself, you bake it as you would bread in general, except that instead of a packet of yeast you use some of the starter – don’t use it all, of course. I use about half a cup of starter – 120 ml -- to about 300 ml lukewarm water, and then add a teaspoon-and-a-third of salt, or about eight ml. I then mix in 720 ml of flour; I use about 20 per cent rye flour to about 80 per cent wheat. I mash it together until it’s somewhat stiff, form it into a ball, and let it sit in the bowl for about 30 minutes.

When this is done, I stretch and fold the dough a few times, cover it with a clean dish towel and I let it rise overnight until it’s doubled in size. The next morning fold it over a few times and let it rise for about three hours, or until it’s doubled.

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Centigrade. Sprinkle cornmeal in the bottom of a baking pan lined with parchment and place the loaf into the pan. If you have a Dutch oven, bake it for about 20 minutes with the lid on, and about 30 minutes without. Wait until it’s cool before slicing into it.

These figures and this recipe are meant to be approximations; people have different tastes, different kinds of bacteria and yeast in their homes, different room temperatures, and different luck. Some bread-makers advise novices to get someone else’s sourdough starter first, in order to see what one should taste and smell like. Some “proof” the starter before making bread dough; that is, mixing it with three parts flour to two parts starter, letting it rise about an hour, and then mixing in the rest of the dough. Sourdough does have more of a learning curve than most kinds of bread, so it takes a lot more tries to get it right, and of course every culture of sourdough has its own rules. That's part of the fun; you get to feel your way along your own path.


Sunday 5 November 2023

Growing Flax


Most of the clothes we wear today are made of oil, or coal, or gas, mixed with chemicals and turned into mylon or rayon or some other synthetic. They will not decay as natural fibres do, and when bits of them come out in the wash – almost every wash – they flood into the sea. Scientists recently said they expected the ocean to soon have more plastic per weight than fish, and we have no idea what effects it will have on life there as it disintegrates into chemicals.

Once, though, Ireland made its own clothes, giving thousands of people useful work – raising sheep, of course, but also growing flax to turn into linen. Flax – ‘lint,’ they called it – made linen cloth and canvas, string and rope. It was “a money-making crop because there was very little work with it,” said Davy McCrory, but that was just to grow it.

Turning it into linen was a long and complicated process that involved uprooting the plants, removing the seeds (“rippling”), soaking them (“retting”) in a bath (“dam”) until the outer husk rots, drying them again, smacking the stalks to remove the rest of the husk (“scotching”), and combing them (“heckling”). The end result was long yellow fibres of flax that became linen cloth and canvas, and a lot of short loose ones called “tow” – the reason long blonde hair is called “flaxen” and blonde children are called “towheads.”

Flax had to be pulled out of the ground rather than cut, and here too neighbours assembled to help. “You went to the neighbour to their pulling and they come to you, so that you had eight or nine men to attend and to pull it, all in one day,” said Annie McKillop. Then the plants went into the dam to be soaked so all but the fibres rotted away, and “oh the smell was wild altogether,” Francis Quinn said.

“It was the custom for the farmer whose flax was being dressed to call at the mill with a bottle of whiskey, for all the workers to share a drop on breaks,” Maurice McAleese said. “If this custom was not upheld, that farmer could count on his flax being treated with less care than the rest. The workers took two breaks, at 10 am and 3 pm, for a snack, shot of whiskey, and a smoke.” (Back Through the Fields, 112)

Women handled the scotching and heckling, said Martin Keaveny, “but scotching wasn’t all work for them! They did a bit of match-making as well, planning who would make suitable partners. There was a party atmosphere and a singsong.” It also seems to have been an opportunity for community organising; flax workers had a reputation for being political independents who talked back to public speakers, something we still call “heckling.” (Growing Up with Ireland, 24)

“It was the custom for the farmer whose flax was being dressed to call at the mill with a bottle of whiskey, for all the workers to share a drop on breaks,” Maurice McAleese said. “If this custom was not upheld, that farmer could count on his flax being treated with less care than the rest.” (Back Through the Fields, 112)

Once the linen was taken to market, “it was taken to the linen halls in Ballymena,” Harry Hume said, where cloth buyers had strict standards and long experience examined them carefully. “The buyers came along and pulled out the flax and they knew by the fibre whether it had been properly retted in the dam, or properly scotched, or dried or hadn’t been dried properly and hadn’t heated in a pile or anything.”

In our time, we have become accustomed to clothes just showing up in stores, made by slaves somewhere and travelling around a planet for us. We have become so used to cheap fabric that we have stopped mending clothes when they have holes. And we have become accustomed to widespread rural unemployment. All these problems, though, could solve each other if we brought back some of the industries that sustained small farmers and villages across Ireland for hundreds of years. We would also have clothes that did not make us dependent on Middle Eastern nations where the oil is found, or Third-World dictatorships where the clothes are made. We could clothe ourselves again.


Thursday 26 October 2023

The Age of Kinder-Gardens

In our modern world, most of us have joked that school never taught us anything we needed to know – algebra, but not how to do taxes. How true that is depends on the schools and teachers, of course, and learning should be prized for its own sake. Once, however, schools taught a wide range of highly practical and scientific skills that farm children could implement in their daily lives.

A syllabus from the early 1900s in American schools included plant diseases, erosion, insects, surveying, engineering, glaciations, and geology, all to improve their farming. Touring dirt-poor rural America in the early 1900s, Clarence Hall Robison found that agriculture and floriculture were required courses for all students – 320 hours for boys – in addition to botany, zoology, physiology, physics and chemistry.

Robison describes a “typical Ohio village” in which gardening was introduced as a class and the children threw themselves into it. Nor were these students just bringing home a seed in a paper cup, as a few students might do today – in one class the 12 students could not use the standard textbook, for “it proved too easy, as the boys already knew most that it contained.” The boys’ plan that year – just the boys, mind you, so perhaps six students – was to experiment with varieties of corn in “288 hills.” Some boys read about how beehives were made and immediately went home and constructed some of their own, and one child described how he caught two wild swarms of bees and set them in a hive.

In some cases the students lobbied for these classes themselves. After a school heard a lecture on poultry, a group of sixth-graders, Robison said, was “in a class studying Shakespeare, taught as it happened by the instructor in agriculture, [when] one of the girls suddenly exclaimed, “Mr. Button, why can't we study poultry?” The idea was so popular that a class was immediately organized.”

This wasn’t just in schools; some Midwestern advocates of modern farming practices, wanting to popularise them in rural areas, began after-school “corn clubs” that became the 4-H. The Boy Scouts, in one of their earliest manuals, lists a badge for agriculture. To receive it scouts had to “a practical knowledge of plowing, cultivating, drilling, hedging, and draining,” show “knowledge of Campbell's Soil Culture principle, and a knowledge of dry farming and of irrigation farming” and “[g]row at least an acre of corn which produces 25 per cent,  better than the general average.”

In the 19th century, it was all the rage in Europe to turn school-yards into teaching arenas – “child-gardens” or in German, kinder-gartens. In Ireland, Horace Plunkett, who helped found many co-operatives across the Irish countryside, urged that “Children should be given elementary notions of science and a training in the faculty of observation through illustration … drawn from the physical surroundings of rural life.” In 1917, H.S. Sheridan wrote that school gardens teach children “to observe and to think, to use their hands, eyes and minds in conjunction. Concrete facts are presented, and the pupils are taught to think in realities and not in symbols.”

By learning how to grow their own food, children learn the basic skills needed to provide for themselves and their families in a crisis, and lets them live with fewer expenses and less financial stress. They learn that food does not magically show up on store shelves, that we depend on fragile things to stay alive. As a classroom activity, it is a perfect way to demonstrate how plants and animals depend on and fight each other. It teaches chemistry: some plants do better in boggy soil or chalky, can better tolerate warmth or chill. It teaches world history: the limestone under your feet is a coral reef hundreds of millions of years old, mountains made of the shells of a billion billion creatures.

It also teaches a patience needed in this age of texting and Snapchat. An entire generation grew up knowing the world mainly through a glowing rectangle -- the television, a computer or the text screen of a mobile phone. But life is not inside the screen, and neither is childhood. 

Photo: Gardening class in the UK, courtesy of the Garden Museum.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Masonry Ovens

Almost no one enjoys the cold, yet most people in the world live where it is cold for part of the year – even subtropical or Mediterranean climates get chilly in the winter, and deserts get very cold at night. We can keep warm by huddling together or wearing heavier clothes, but sooner or later we have to start burning something.

We currently get much of our heat from fossil fuels – coal, oil, gas – or from electricity that comes from burning fossil fuels. In a few decades we will see many more people in the world and far less fossil fuels, and we will have to warm ourselves in some other way. We could turn to building wind farms, solar arrays or nuclear plants, turning their power into electricity and then into heat, but that would be a long and complex process. It would be much simpler and cost-effective for people to use the oldest method of heating, fire.

Using fire, though, presents a few problems. For one thing, we destroyed most of the world’s forests when we only numbered in the millions, or hundreds of millions. Now there are seven thousand million of us in a world with a fraction of the forest we used to have, and what remains – the great rainforests of the world, for example – are needed as the home of much of the life on Earth.

We could coppice trees (cut them off at the base) or pollard them (cut them at man-height) and let them grow back. It is an old, and still valid, method of preserving forests, but trees like hazel still take a decade or more to return.

Also, traditional fireplaces were spectacularly inefficient: A fireplace and chimney send only 10 percent of its heat to the room, and the other 90 percent goes out into the sky. Old buildings in Ireland will have the fireplaces stuffed with newspaper the whole way up, and there is still a draught.

There is, however, a little-remembered method that was used in Central and Eastern Europe until the beginning of the fossil fuel era – the masonry oven, also called a Russian stove or tile stove. It relies on a simple concept: it is a hearth surrounded by a thermal mass like cob, brick or tile, which heats up with the fire and slowly releases heat throughout the day.

Instead of having a single vertical flue that takes the heat directly into the sky, masonry ovens have a flue that winds around several times before heading outside -- the smoke is typically cold by the time it reaches the outside. All the heat is transferred into the mass, and thence into the room. Since the smoke and heat rise inside insulated ducts which do not conduct heat quickly, interior temperatures rise very high, and makers of masonry stoves claim their products are 85-90 percent efficient.

Fires in masonry ovens do not need to be tended and kept going, as it is not the fire itself that keeps the house warm but the thermal mass – most oven owners simply set one fire in the morning, and then let the heat radiate through the day. As they release the heat slowly, so they tend to be warm but not hot to the touch – some old Russian ovens were made with spaces where children or elderly could sleep.

Perhaps most importantly, since the ovens need only a brief and quickly-burning fire, they do not require chopped wood for fuel, but can use faster-growing and more common material like straw or sticks. The fast-burning straw creates little soot to build up and block the flue, so their users say they require little cleaning.

Masonry ovens, like thatched roofs, bale-building and cob, is an old method recently revived when more people began to realize its advantages. If it takes off, millions of people could build sustainable heating systems out of nothing more than clay and stone, and heat themselves with material that is renewable and almost free.

For more information check out David Lyle’s excellent Book of Masonry Stoves, or an article on the subject by Low-Tech Magazine.

Photo by Wikicommons. 



Friday 13 October 2023

Planetary refrigerators

It’s getting cold again, and while I look forward to seeing more days when I can work outside without bundling up, the cold is useful for many things. For one thing, it’s as cold as a refrigerator outdoors, and that means you have less need to spend electricity on a refrigerator inside. In fact, you can do the same thing year-round, simply by keeping some of your food underground.

Look over the houses of County Kildare and you will see many garages, tool sheds, trampolines, storage units and even swimming pools, but you are unlikely to find many root cellars, or even many people who are familiar with the term. Yet root cellaring seems to have been practiced in most times and places, and even, in a sense, by animals who bury their food. It is a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated.

Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on. Many vegetables and fruits can be stored, however -- krauts like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale; onions and their relatives leeks and garlic; fruit like apples and pears; herbs and even salad greens. Most of the vegetables come from late-season plantings, when the crops are ripening at the latest possible moment before they must be stored for winter.

You can keep potatoes or carrots in boxes of earth, sand or sawdust; I did this last year with beetroots to see how long they would keep, and was delighted to find that they remained firm and delicious after six months. After a year they began to get a bit wrinkled on the outside, like a raisin, but not rotten --- and I can attest that they were still quite edible.

You can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can poke two pegs in the ground at either end of a crop row, pull string taut between them, and wrap plastic over the rope to make a long small tent. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food – a literal electricity-free refrigerator, although of course you might want to have the chemical fluids drained first, in case they leak into the soil.  

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes is covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Here in the bog we can’t have cellars, but those who do can turn it into a refrigerator for food storage. Put shelves in the corner, to maximise the cool space nearby, ideally on the north side (in the Northern Hemisphere). Have a pipe go through one of your window spaces to let the damp escape, with each end covered in screen to keep pests from using it as a highway. Even better, install two pipes at opposite ends, to allow as much air circulation as possible. You want to keep the air cool but dry and circulating, as much as possible.

You could also dig a pit about a metre deep and a few metres across, lean two wooden walls against each other in the pit to make a triangle, nail them together, and cover the top with a thin layer of earth. The result is a root cellar with an insulating earth and grass roof that can be a walk-in refrigerator during the winter months.



Friday 6 October 2023



In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. When I took a blacksmithing course under the guidance of an old pro, the experience was more realistic: A plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping.

The forge this time was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, and the blower was a refurbished Electrolux vacuum motor. You don’t even need the electricity; on another course we sculpted a forge out of clay and horse manure, and turned some old fertiliser bags into bellows.

We began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, we placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed.

We quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and sparking. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

This time, I took an old car part and hammered it into a straight bar, flattened it into a knife-shape over the next two days, and a bit of cutting and polishing did the rest. I cut a handle from a hazel branch, heated the “handle end” of the metal until it was yellow-hot, and seared the hot metal into the handle, with a gust of steam and a few bursts of flame from the wood.

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal, and all the landfills we have created in the last few decades could become our mines in the next few decades. 

Top photo: A forge. Bottom photo: The knife I made. 

Friday 29 September 2023

Making Butter


Milk is not only an amazing food, but can be made into many other foods as well – butter, ghee, kefir, yoghurt and thousands of kinds of cheese – and all of them can be made at home. We are fortunate to be able to use them; in many parts of the world, people cannot digest milk products, so they tend to be found mostly in Europe, and occasionally in India or the Middle East.

Butter was deeply important in this part of the world; for dairying peoples it was the most accessible form of oil, needed for cooking food and releasing the extra nutrition. Back when people milked their own cows and goats, they made their own butter with a churn, but you can do the same thing with a screw-top glass jar or some other sealable container.

First fill the jar one-quarter to one-third full of cream – a greater proportion than that and it won’t work.  People in times past would use whole, un-homogenized milk, but that’s difficult to find these days, so cream is a good place to start. 

The next step is to shake the jar vigorously for perhaps 20 minutes ; try putting on some dance music and giving yourself an aerobic workout, jumping around the house shaking the jar all the while. Don’t worry if it takes more or less, as it will be fairly clear when butter forms inside . At first the cream will become, effectively, whipped cream, and if the jar is more than third full you never get enough agitation to get past this stage. Eventually, though, you should see the liquid become thin again inside, with a clump of something in the middle. That clump is your butter, and the liquid is buttermilk.

To separate them, place a strainer over a bowl, unscrew the jar and dump the contents into the strainer. You can drink the buttermilk or use it for making pancakes or any number of other uses – it should keep for at least a week. The butter you can lift out and put in a bowl to sweat.

By “sweat” I don’t mean making it hot; in fact, you could put a few ice cubes in with the butter to keep it cool. It means that you have to chop, press, squeeze and knead the last of the watery buttermilk out of the butter, so that it will not go rancid. As in a party game, you must do this with spoons, touching the butter as little as possible with your hands – the warmth of your body could melt the butter. 

When you are sure the last bit of liquid has been squeezed out, you have butter. If you like you could use it this way, as Europeans do, or add salt as English and Irish do to preserve it longer. You could mix in chopped herbs, like parsley and chives, to spread on bread, or sage, garlic and rosemary to bake a chicken. Use your imagination.

In warmer countries – or in Ireland in warmer weather – butter will not keep long in the heat, so before refrigeration Europeans used clarified butter, and Indians developed ghee. Ghee is essentially spiced clarified butter, and while there are many variations, you can make a simple version at home. 

First put your butter in a pan on the stove on very low heat – I put a thin metal plate on our gas stove, and the pan on top of that, just to dissipate the heat a bit more. The butter will quickly melt and begin bubbling, which is good – but be very careful not to let it darken.

The butter should separate into three layers; a white film on top, the oil layer that is most of the butter, and the milk remains on the bottom. Only the middle layer is what you want. Early on you can spoon off the milky bits on top, and spread them on bread if you like. After that you can add spices, like bay leaves or fenugreek seeds, as the Indians do.

Keep it on very low heat for half-an-hour to an hour, checking frequently – again, it might take more or less for you. When there is no more bubbling or hissing, just the oil and the milk deposits at the bottom, you can strain it through a tea strainer and stop when you get to the milk deposits. The milk deposits, browned at this point, are still edible, and are good on popcorn. The rest should be a clear, golden-brown oil that will keep for months without refrigeration.

Or, you could bury it in a bog if you have one nearby, as I’ve covered here: