Archives for the month of: October, 2013

Beech Nuts

Beech Nuts!  Tiny and in shells between paper and thinnest wood. Not as sweet as pine nuts, but not bitter — nice! Today my friend and gardening teacher Emma picked some up off an abandoned kiddie slide in our garden and showed me to eat them. A world has opened up, a possibility. Friends remember eating them as children, walking to school, coming home from school. Little morsels that fall from on high, out of a husk that opens into a butterfly and offers the ground its little nugget.

I do not have time this week to try making beech nut butter, but if I did, and maybe some year I will, here’s a nice how-to:

Feral Gardening

Early last summer from the middle of Wales I took a car to a train to the ferry to a city-bus to a train to a coach to the west coast of Ireland, where a very close friend from the US was having a celebration of marriage to the Irish man-of-her-dreams. Jenny was also having a party in the States, but for reasons a little of money but more of a commitment to minimal flying, I managed to organise with my husband this trip to Ireland on my own. The kids were in school, he was able to work from home, and off I went on an adventure.

It did feel like “Slow Travel,” and rare time in which days expand and contract, go by in a eye-blink but are full of thought, stimulation, sensation, a sense of freedom. I love being by myself, and I love being with my close friends.

Lots of walks on winding roads overlooking the sea, and one day we nosied our way into a garden that looked… messy and lovely and full of clothes lines and flowers and perpetual salad greens and snakes of yellow hose and artist’s mosaics. We popped ourselves in, and were promptly properly invited in, to a sharing of stories and wine and crisps and photographs and memories and paintings and an incredible kind of generosity.

Just inside her front door was this: a crumbling wall and loosening tiles and an escaped kale plant growing in an opportunity of a crack. It must have been born of seed blown in on a frisky wind, and here it was struggling to make its way to sunshine and warmth.

Kale in its hardiness and its healthfulness is almost a cliché of local-food people, because it grows in the cold and it does not fear the elements. It is prolific and possible where other plants fail. Kale is the deepest green. Kale itself is feared by children. Kale can be delicious and it can be wretched, chewy, stringy, bland. Some of the kale seeds I planted in the spring and never managed to transplant are still hanging on so many months later, and I’m putting them, in their almost bonsai state, into the new beds to see what happens. And actually, the kale I did plant barely survived all that caterpillar of the white butterfly that thrived in this summer’s heat.

I love the idea of an escaped seed, and especially one that seeks to go inside. I used to frequently explore the idea of the domestic and “the wild” in my artwork, when I made it. I think I used to feel so bounded by domestic life, by the worlds I create indoors and in solitary wonderment, that fantasies of unboundedness, un-restraint, un-human, felt liberating. But I like when the whole opposition between these ideas is shattered, or at least I guess when the wild permeates the domestic, as in this bit of accidental gardening, or in wild-fermenting foods, or even– inviting the strangers in for tea.

I know there’s a sense among many people I know that there’s not “hope” for humans working it out, getting it right anymore. The climate is reaching tipping points for feedback much quicker than worst scenarios predicted. We’re in a time of petty-minded, pro-corporate, anti-small politics that can feel like a new form of fascism and mass-blindness and consent. Yet among thinkers and dreamers there has been for a while in the zeitgeist a renewed offering of the concept of Wild– there’s Jay Griffiths’ Wild, a beautiful etymological, ethnological and personal exploration, and her new book Kith looking at giving the experience of  wilderness back to children. There’s George Monbiot’s Feral that takes the economics and politics of farming and imagines re-wilding as a way humans could attempt to un-do some ugly damage, and a book that follows on successful projects around the world to restore ecosystems. There is of course the now classic Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, all about re-inviting beneficial micro-organisms into our food and bodies. Wild Economics is all about gifting and community and freeing ourselves from injustices and degradations of the money system. Foraging for wild food. Harvesting wild energy, through the wind and sun and water. And other ways the invitation to wildness can enter our lives? Please comment!

Wild Women. Wild Men. Wild Children. Wild Food. And Wild Kale, there, growing in the Victorian tiles beneath that decrepit wall, still standing.

Rose Hips

Sometimes I can be just shattered by beauty, and this did it for me. Sorry for the photo which I took hastily, which only represents what I saw, not the brake-your-bicycle-squeakily approach to a vision of if-not-neglect then accidental splendour. Either someone just didn’t clip off the dead rose buds, as might be a gardener’s wont, or they were able to imagine this: an arched trellis woven with Rose Hips red in a moment of sunshine. To whoever planned this: Wow! To whoever didn’t plan this: Wow!


Red Apples

Coming home to a gift from my friend Hannah.

Love how she used the litter tray that was floating around for a container. I truly love this. I love resourcefulness. We have no cats right now, and we’ve been using this to sift big bits out of our composted leaf mould into the raised beds.

These are my favourite shoes.

Apples are really plentiful this year, the wet spring, the warm summer. Last year, there were very few. I feel strongly the vagaries of unpredictable extreme weather, records broken constantly in all ways, up, down, wetter, wettest, dryer, driest, strange and ever stranger. A positive mental consequence is that I no longer take anything for granted, and have a much keener sense of gratitude.

Last year, I could imagine that maybe someday apples would be scarce. And maybe they will be, because pollinating bees are in such terrible jeopardy. This year though, there are so many apples around, in shops, on trees everywhere– and more “eating” apples, though I’d come to think of “cooking” apples as those simply less ripe or sweet, having had less time in warm sunshine to become…. so immediately edible. I feel a reprieve, though maybe it’s false– the day apples end is pushed further forward. And a renewed imperative to fight in my small ways for the survival of everything that matters.

It’s a balmy autumn day. There was white sky, and a blue sky, and a sense of changeability, and now some drizzle. Even normal doesn’t feel normal.  I can no longer not have a sadness about so many things, which all feel a part of the cycles of “nature” that have been so … shunted into unknown possibility.  Apples feel a part of this story.  So, gratitude for them, big thank you to Hannah, and slice them in quarters to offer to my children.


PS  I want to write about something I’ve learned about through a friend in London.  On 7th of October, yesterday, Camberwell Community Green Orchard was bulldozed  by Southwark Council for a building scheme that could have happened elsewhere and which was fought by the community.  You can read about this on the internet.  I am really feeling this terrible loss.   It had been a garden project, 20 years ago, in which children established an urban orchard that would be a sanctuary for years to come.   There’s a violence to the destruction of trees, of a garden, of the fruition of people’s efforts towards healing and sanctifying our cities with beauty.  My friend is really upset.  I’ve never been to this orchard, but I too feel upset.  Because we critically need to be creating these spaces, and in a time in which this is so clear, a council, representing government, aggressively spits on our hopes for a livable future.


My first August in Britain, so long ago, I was awed by the late summer’s gift of blackberries arrayed on spiky bramble vines in wastelands near our home. Where we lived then, there was a culvert that collected extra water from the runoff of uphill rain, and a lot of scrub and nettles and some rubbish, broken glass and beer cans, and the blackberries (and dewberries) grew madly there, and in the adjacent field you could climb into over a farmer’s gate.  I never could believe there were people who didn’t spend their free time picking this delicious and free fruit.  Free.  An incredible gift.

My mother-in-law was a great and inspired picker in her day.  She’d picked blackberries, and currants, as a child in the 30s for local jam makers, and they all received a pittance which to them as rural kids was huge and exciting.  She taught me to set out with a stick or umbrella to push thorny canes out of the way.  Once I went picking with my long-lost friend Simon, who was 6’4′; he commented, “the best ones are always just that small bit out of reach,” which definitely set the idea of relative truth in my short-person’s mind!  Another summer I went picking with a friend who always wears white t-shirts; she remained completely clean, a purple stain nowhere.  That’s a mystery and a puzzle to me, how she does it!  Every late summer / early autumn, there’s no getting enough of brambling, especially in glorious years like this one.

Blackberries: you first eat the delicious ones with the big “bobs”  (as my husband calls them) because they are too luscious not to.  You pick and pick until you can pick no more, and maybe if you make apple-blackberry crumble (yesterday with chestnut flour and cinnamon in the topping mix), or pie, or maybe you put bags in the freezer, maybe you make wine, maybe you make smoothies.  Many a year I’ve made jam, and curd, and this year with the seedy leftovers in the sieve (having chosen to remove the gritty seeds) I’ve begun a blackberry scrap-vinegar that’s already bubbling on our counter, threatening to overflow like a volcano of messy purple lava…  [postscript: I prematurely bottled that blackberry seed vinegar, and when I opened the bottle to aerate, it fizzed messily everywhere– which is preferable to a glass explosion but the message is: even if vinegary don’t prematurely seal in glass…]

When I make jam, I feel glad to have learned my basic method from my 1975 The Joy of Cooking– it’s been so foolproof and so adaptable to my efforts to mix fruits, occasionally to add spices.  It’s a recipe based on volume not weight, so somehow the visual allows an understanding of amounts.  Joy says, for example, for “Raspberry, Blackberry, Gooseberry, Loganbery or Elderberry Jam” that you match 4 cups of fruit with 3 cups of sugar.  I always go a little scant with the sugar, though not much, for it’s necessary for preserving this way and creating, especially in relatively loose-set jams, a kind of syrupy compote quality that a friend once romanticised as “French.”   I never use the sugar with added pectin– those jams to me are tight and unappealing–though I like to grate apples and lemon juice and a quince (“the pectin fruit”) if I were lucky enough to have one.  Sometimes I can’t resist simmering blackberries with a cinnamon stick.  Sometimes berries need a little liquid to begin the basic collapse; lately I’ve been using the tiniest splash of a fruit vinegar to amplify flavours and because sour can offset sweet.  It seems to work as a technique (and has an implication for the chutneys I make).    And while sometimes I feel jams are an excuse for sugar, and not necessarily ideal, I also try to use them, through the winter, as a store-cupboard item to use with cakes and desserts; as they are a sweet, they can replace sugar I’d use otherwise, with added flavour and festivity.

Many summers I made Blackberry Curd from a tattered,  yellow-paged paperback copy of The Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys from 1975.  David and Rose Mabey are the authors of this resource of a volume!  But after we moved, and I misplaced this sliver of a book, my mind just imagined the recipe had come from a Mabey, from Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free, and this error of memory meant I could not for years find that perfect recipe, now immortalised  in the photograph below.  Nothing I found on the internet ever matched perfectly enough.  I cannot stress how simple and wonderful Blackberry Curd is, spread on a pancake, between layers of a plain cake, on a spoon or off a finger.  I love the woman in the picture too.  She would be my friend, I’m sure.




A link for you:

I wrote this article a while back, though it’s quite heavily edited, and the photo in it is not mine (and not what my borschts look like) but hey ho.  It appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Permaculture Magazine.  I’m linking to it here because it’s just been put on that wonderful website which makes me happy: people-scale solutions, positivity, DIY, community, openness…

I would nowadays describe making Beet Kvass this way:  Finely chop a few beets, add a teeny bit of salt for taste, and whatever flavours you like: ginger, garlic, orange, clove, fennel seed, lovage, nettle — whatevs!  Cover with water, and weight down the solids to be completely under the liquid. Watch for a few days as the liquid gets pinker, more and more gorgeous a colour, and more viscous and velvety.   At some point it’s nicely tangy, strain out the solids, and if you bottle and cap the drink, which I now see as a fermented infusion, and drink it soon, can be pleasantly effervescent.  (Let the gas out now and then to prevent an explosion– but you’ll probably drink it first.)

The solids that remain in the sieve: yes you can pickle in apple cider vinegar for a soft, traditional British style pickle, or you can grate in a salad. Or add to soups.  Or re-ferment, doing all of the above, again.  I have even used these semi-tired beetroot shreds to make vinegar, by adding a little sugar and water and inviting the alcohol that develops to morph into a wild vinegar, as discussed earlier in this blog.  The vinegar that’s resulted has been a beautiful ingredient to deglaze pans of sautéed bitter greens, and also in soups.

I would no longer suggest grating the beetroot for fermentation purposes, because the slow development of nice souring lactic-acid bacteria is often trumped by all the sugars released this way, and shredding beets can create an unwanted gloopiness.  Chop finely instead.   (I do love raw grated beetroot one way: in a lemony vinaigrette; the sweetness really shines this way.)

And Borscht.  So very much to say.  My mother taught me to make a recipe I now look at askance– lots of vegetables like carrots, onions, beetroot, so it would be that gorgeous purple, but soured with vinegar not by fermentation….   Some people make very beety soups, pureed or not, and call them borscht. I don’t know what technically defines the category of soup referred by this name, but I would not personally consider a soup to be one if it were not sour, and to me it’s more of one if it’s soured with fermented beets.  So I would now always use my “kvass” as the souring agent at the end— maybe it would begin with chicken or beef stock, or veg stock, have many vegetables including cabbage, and maybe even sauerkraut, but be finished with chopped or shredded beets.  Hot and sour is a very bright and healing combination for soup.  Cold and sour too.   I’ve seen versions bright pepto-bismol pink with cream or sour cream, and sometimes chopped hard-boiled eggs.  Potatoes are welcome, and carrots.  I like adding the beet greens too.  There’s a huge range of soups across Eastern European traditions.  It would be a fun anthropological exercise to collect and categorise all that variation and diversity.

I have a wonderful 1956 cookbook which I treasure: Love and Knishes: An Irrepressible Guide to Jewish Cooking, by Sara Kasdan.  It was 20pence at a charity shop! (I am proud to say that I edited the Wikipedia entry on the illustrator Louis Slobodkin to include mention of his drawings which are charming, light-weight line drawings of big breasted women cooking and serving steaming portions to skinny men.)   Kasdan writes about “Russel,” or “sour beet juice” which is basically beetroots fermented in water for four weeks to become the basis of a soup.  I knew a Polish person who described this same method, with a hunk of sourdough bread and garlic– all variations of what we are nowadays as fermenters talking about as Kvass.

Since writing the piece linked above,  I’ve made so many bottles of this beetroot kvass, with various spices (favourite: cloves and ginger and maybe orange peel) — and poured it in so many soups, I still believe in this idea of a continuum between the tonic, health giving beverage, as Kvass has come to be thought about, and the soup.  I’ve also become intensely interested in the idea and practice of the sour soup, which I will write about on this blog some day soonish. No colour is more alluring than these purply pinks that one gets from various intensities of beet-in-water.  Elixer conjures a magic I still stand by.

Earth Apples

I grew these! I’m proud of them! They began with a slightly lesser volume of potatoes that went green in our pantry — and of course I could not simply throw them away or even compost! Instead, I chitted them on the window-sill until they were gnarled with roots (or are they shoots?), then planted them in a plastic pot. Kept mounding up, then moved them, at the end of the summer, into a new raised bed we managed to make happen. And the leaves grew and grew and finally, we harvested them. Not many, but enough for a supper for the four of us, and so good boiled, with butter and salt and pepper. And I really tasted,for the very first time, a sweetness and a freshness, and why potatoes are called Earth Apples.

Hello, Old Bean

The beans as runner beans were old and scraggly and would have been chewy and tough. Inside though– little magic beans, beautiful colours and telling stories of a diverse genetic lineage. It’s amazing really to LOOK at them, to hold them in your hand, and imagine they are both seeds, and security, and food for the winter too– food for indefinite duration, if stored correctly. Beans here in Britain can feel– well, there are Baked Beans, of course, donning in sugary, tomatoey glory many a Jacket Potato with Cheese. But these beans: these feel Old World, and humble, yet mysterious, Jack and the Beanstalkish, something from the past and hopefully the future, a good food future, in which people, gardeners, farmers, still save and plant seeds, a future in which we’ve retained freedom of seeds, the little amulets that communicate the magic and mystery of life-cycles.

Corporate seed control, via patents and elaborate legal regulation of sales, is so absurd I barely can understand it, except in terms of a growing trend in which common (meaning shared) resources are privatised for profit and ownership. How could any of these seeds, these precious living beans, be owned for the life that they can generate if planted and nurtured? I just don’t get it.

Seed Freedom Fortnight is upon us, please see what might be happening near you, or make something happen– even if it’s just saving seed or sharing seed or thinking about the importance of keeping our right to access, freely, joyfully, humanity’s agricultural (and culinary) heritage.


Youth and Experience

%d bloggers like this: