Tuesday 27 February 2024

Saturday 24 February 2024

Wild Food

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. Their most promising pieces were swelled and sweetened, made fleshy or fertile, made unrecognisable to fit our tastes. 

Yet colour and tastes go in and out of fashion with each generation; look how swiftly the perfectly white eggs of supermarkets were replaced by brown ones, with an identical taste but a trendy “natural” image. The centuries have done the same to our crops, leaving behind legions of purple carrots, blue potatoes and other victims of our whims.

In the last century, moreover, we have shipped more and more food across the planet, so that rows of Australian maize or Moroccan tomatoes can fill shelves in Iowa or Scotland. Our crops had to be bred to stand out as consumer products and yet survive the journey, leading to the massive sizes and cardboard flavours of supermarket produce.  The “fresh vegetables” most of us grew up with were, typically, nothing of the kind.  

Genuinely fresh and wild food still exists all around us, though, and this time of year the Irish hedgerows create a vertical salad bar of fruits and berries. Many wild plants are edible and few were bred into groceries, and even those that were domesticated can still be found in their original form -- which often tastes better, as anyone knows who has tasted a wild strawberry.

Hawthorn trees will soon be sprouting shoots, and lindens after them, and both have leaves that when young are edible and delicious. The fruits of the hawthorn, while bland in taste, are also edible and can make an addition to wines and jams.

When summer comes properly, Fat Hen will appear everywhere. It was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today; it formed part of the meal given to Tollund man, one of the “bog bodies” fished out of Denmark. It is basically a wild version of spinach, and its pale green leaves can be cooked the same way. The garlic –flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but a new crop sometimes 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 or sauteed. 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. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly. 

In later summer, the blackberries and raspberries will appear. Many people here take the traditional route of preserving them in jams for winter vitamins, but you can also make them into wine, fruit leathers, add them to salads or spread them with meat. Dandelion leaves are best when young, but the roots should now be at their fullest; try pulling them out and roasting them like coffee. 

Rosehips look similar to haws and are almost as numerous along the hedges. Packed with Vitamin C, their syrup has famously been used as a medicine, but they can also be made into jam or wine. Most of their bulk, though, consists of the sharp seeds, which can be a fiddly job to remove.  Elderberries darken with the days here, and are just at the right stage to be made into wine, jam, pies, syrup, meat sauce or cordial. To make the syrup, boil the elderberries and stir in sugar as you would jam, but without the pectin to make it firm.

Medlars were a popular fruit in medieval times but are rarely recognised anymore, perhaps because they must be slightly over-ripe to be edible, and did not fit well with our modern demand that fruit sit for days on store shelves. Nonetheless, they are very tasty and make a great a pie filling, so remember their appearance and keep an eye out.  

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. Do look up what these plants look like to make sure you pick them and not a similar-looking poisonous plant, but most of these look very distinctive, and telling them apart is quite easy to do. 

Have fun! 


Saturday 17 February 2024

Straw-bale gardening

Many of the straw bales you see across the fields of County Kildare these days are mammoth cylinders that you would have difficulty moving without farm equipment. But on some horse farms you can still find the older kind of straw bales – rectangular, metre-long, hefted by hand.

Straw bales have many uses – as seats, as compost bins, as borders to a garden to keep out rabbits. On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. People still do this today to create sheds, barns, homes and even churches, and they provide great insulating walls – and are no more a fire hazard than wood.

If you don’t have the wood or time to build regular garden beds, you could plant a garden directly inside your bales.

First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales, or add urine in whatever way will not upset your neighbours.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.

The best straw bales for a garden are wheat, oats, rye or barley straw. These consist of stalks left from harvesting grain; they have been through a combine harvester and had the seeds threshed from them, leaving none or very few left. I got mine from a farmer in Maynooth who still uses the small bales.

Hay bales for gardening are less popular as they have the whole stalk and seed heads with mucho seeds. They also often have other weeds and grass seeds to cause trouble. Use what you can get locally — it may even be lucerne, pea straw, vetch or alfalfa bales. Corn and linseed (flax) bales are not so good as they are very coarse, and linseed straw takes a long time to decompose due to the oil residue left on the stalks.

An approach like this is not for everyone – it requires a great deal of water, which was not a problem for me, who lives along the canals. Other people might find it too much trouble. But it can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests. It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it cuts down on the amount of weeding.

Most of all, this approach can work well for homeowners with what I call suburban soil: a thin layer of grass and topsoil, covering clay and builders’ rubble from the construction of the house. Such people need to build up their soil, and straw bales allow you to bring in the organic material to do so – and straw makes a light and easily portable material.

By the time your gardening project is done for the year, the straw bales will be well-decomposed, and you can simply take apart the soil and wet straw and spread it over your garden as winter approaches. The straw will keep weeds down like mulch, but unlike mulch is already partly decomposing and will finish turning back into soil quickly, and can be mixed with the rest of the soil come spring.

If you’re just starting to garden, try doing this with bales the first year, and that gives you an additional year to build wooden or stone beds; by the time they’re done, you have the soil to fill them. In effect, you will have created soil without having to lift the mineral and water content that comprises most of the soil’s weight.


Photo by Mohamed Haddi, courtesy of WikiCommons.


Friday 2 February 2024

Jobs then and now

Johann Hamza, The Blacksmith's Forge. Public domain.             
Somewhere in an elderly relative’s mouse-chewed attic there probably sits a dusty photograph of you – you as a child, smiling and proud one Halloween, wearing a tiny uniform of the thing you were going to be. You had it all planned out; you were going to be a farmer or fireman, cowboy or doctor, or some other role that a child can instantly identify and adore.

For most of us life hasn’t worked out that way. A few become firefighters, of course (one in a thousand) or doctors (two in a thousand), but most of us -- for the first time in human history -- do not work at jobs that any child would understand or care about. Three-quarters of Westerners work office jobs – telemarketers, marketing managers, Assistant Diversity Officers, and other growing titles that never existed until yesterday, all to describe where we fit in an ecosystem of office plankton. Everyone jokes grimly about hating their job and hangs Dilbert cartoons on their cubicles, and waits until Friday, as they cling like fleas to the undersides of corporations for as long as they can before being dislodged.

It was a shock, then, to hear my elderly neighbours talk of their work life. Many learned crafts passed down through families until they became surnames – smith, mason, miller, thatcher, tailor, baker, carter, cooper, and wright. By the time they were men and women they were respected masters, keepers of secrets handed down through generations. They spoke of shaping wood and iron and leather in ways everyone could see and respect. Saddlers and scutchers, farriers and felters, cobblers and cordwainers – even grave-diggers and churchbell-ringers spoke of their jobs with an enthusiasm I rarely see today.

“I jump out of bed on a Sunday morning for my ringing day,” said bell-ringer Leslie Taylor in an interview in Dublin Voices. “I am the elected ringing master, chosen by my fellow ringers who are members of the society ...I’m one of the people who have in one way or another serviced the cathedral in some way since its foundation in 1038. ... I’d like to die in the belfry … when I’m ringing.”

It’s worth examining why most people in traditional societies spoke so fondly of their jobs and modern people do not, since work would seem to be one area where life has unarguably improved in modern times. The long hours and unsafe conditions we remember from Dickens and Upton Sinclair have much improved, thanks to unions and labour laws, and for that we should be grateful.

Victorian factories and coal mines, though, were a historical anomaly, appearing only with the discovery of fossil fuels. Before the mid-1800s in Britain, and the mid-1900s in Ireland, most people were farmers or craftsmen. Also, when people today refer to “modern” jobs, they tend to be those of middle-to-upper-clasFirst-Worlders, not those of the near-slaves that made our clothes and laptops. We compare the worst of their time with the best of ours.

If we compare our eight-hour day in a cubicle to the 15-hour day of a Victorian factory worker, both working corporate jobs for hourly wages, of course we come out far ahead. As Jaques Ellul pointed out, though, we can’t compare our office job to the day of a village craftsman, who chooses their own tempo and rhythm, who mentors and is aided by apprentices or children, and who stops to chat with passers-by. We can praise the progress from 1850 to 1950, he said, but “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable.”

Making hay in Ireland (Irish photo archive)
Even then, Ellul was assuming a 15-hour day, but most of our ancestors -- craftsmen and peasants – worked far less. Historian James Thorold Rogers estimated that medieval peasants – whom we think of as the most menial peoples of the most backward age – worked no more than eight hours a day, a figure backed up by several other studies. Labourers rarely worked an entire day for a lord; half a solar day’s work was considered a full working day, so peasants who worked sunrise to sunset were credited for two days’ work. Medieval Christians, moreover, had so many holidays – in the literal sense of “holy days” – that Nora Ritchie calculated they only worked half as many days per year as modern Americans.

The modern age has many advantages, of course; I can pull open a laptop and work from anywhere, and make more in a month than my great-grandparents made in a year. I'm grateful for all that. But most of those jobs move electrons around a screen; they build nothing, and leave us with nothing that we can feel or use, or say we built. They are part of a world that gives us everything we want, but little that we need. More on that next week.