Like many who find themselves socially isolating in the days of coronavirus, I have been busy in the vegetable garden. The difficulties of shopping, coinciding with the start of spring proper, have reminded many of the importance of a good vegetable patch. This may become even more important in the financial collapse and recession we are likely to meet after the plague has settled.
I had been planting and sowing and found that I needed labels to identify what I had put where. Without labels I would never know what had failed to grow in each bare patch of earth. Normally these labels are scattered about the greenhouse and garden scribbled with hopeful names which only occasionally become useful. But now that I needed some there was not one to be found. I could not go into town to buy new tags, as in nobody’s view could this be seen as essential travel. I needed to improvise.
Fortunately we buy a number of sheep licks each year. These come in large tubs with colourful plastic lids. These are often pressed into service as frisbees for the dogs but I realised that they could also help in my predicament. Five minutes work with some scissors and we have wipe clean colour coded plant tags and less plastic that will need to be dealt with as waste.
In miserable times, such as these, simple successes like this do tend to raise the spirits slightly.
Unfortunately this blog needs the reader to understand the basics agricultural science and animal husbandry. I will try and simply these as best I can and I hope that what follows is not too dry nor technical. I am sure that any reader of average intelligence will be able to grasp the fundamental principles with only a modicum of effort. Let us start with the basics – the animal. Figure 1 is a schematic of a basic farm animal and, as we will show later, is a satisfactory diagram for all livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry or exotic species such as llamas or alpacas.
As you will see from Figure 1 there are two ends to your animal : the front (or pointy) end and the back (or round) end. One of the first tasks in farming is to be able to tell these ends apart. The front end the the usual end that leads when the animal is moving and the end it will present to you when it wants to be fed, or wishes to injure you. For this reason, the pointy end often comes complete with jaggy horns or sharp teeth. While the front, or pointy, end is the prettier end it is also usually the more dangerous.
The round back end is the end that follows when the animal is moving. This is the end you will see when you are trying to capture your animal. Something you will learn quickly, when you have animals, is that all your animals are faster than you when you want to catch them. You will spend a lot of your time looking at the rear ends of your animals as it disappears into the distance. A primary reason for knowing the ‘ends’ of your animals is that it helps understand the throughput of the animal. The front end, to use the modern computer jargon, is the input end while the back, or round, end is where all the output arises.
The rear end has multiple outputs. At the bottom , on some species, there are dangly bits; these, with a bit of manipulation, give production of milk and subsequent dairy products. Above this is the first of two openings. This one, if all your stockmanship has gone well, will give rise to meat production by giving new small versions of the animal. Above this is the most prolific output opening. This is the source of animal excrement something the budding farmer has to become familiar with very quickly as they will spend a large part of their time covered in this.
It is a mistake to call this last product animal waste. It is only waste if you waste it. The entire agricultural revolution that allowed humankind to start to grow and colonise the world was based on animal excrement. Humans discovered that by rotating crops, interspersing harvests with periods leaving the ground fallow, and using animals to manure the fields they could make land much more productive and stop the loss of nutrients from the soil that otherwise would follow on taking the crops as produce. This allowed a sustainable cycle to be developed. The soil gave nourishment to the plants, the animals and we ate the plants, and then we and the animals nourished the soil. Ultimately by being buried in it when we died.
This revolution allowed us to expand as a species and provided the energy and population growth which permitted the next great revolution : the Industrial revolution. In this there was the formation of large towns and cities and a growing disconnection between town and country. This broke the cycle that had been established. Now nourishment was taken from the land and moved to the towns for consumption. In the urban areas the excrement was not returned to the countryside and the nourishment was not returned to the land. There had been systems where ‘nightsoil’ was collected and returned to be used as manure but after the link between cholera and human excrement became known this fell from favour. The problem became much worse with the development of flushing toilets and sewers which meant the excrement was sent out to sea where sometimes it us harmful rather than contributing to a growing cycle.
Even Karl Marx was aware of this problem and he wrote :-
“Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population, crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.“
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1894
For a while this breach in the cycle was filled by importing large amounts of guano (bird poo) from across the other side of the world until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch Process which allowed the production of chemical fertilisers. All modern agriculture now uses this method of chemical enrichment of the soil to try and compensate for the loss of sustainable and natural ways for farming. However, there are serious concerns that this method of working is not sustainable and we are ignoring potential irreparable damage to our soils.
Indeed, rather than dealing with this threat we are increasing its risk. Our growing use of monoculture crops and the practice of feedlot farming (where animals are penned and fed concentrated feedstuffs, usually cereals, to rapidly fatten them) further break the sustainable cycles we know we need. Even with regard to waste we have not learnt much. We have, on rather faulty logic, essentially ended the recycling of food waste by feeding swill to animals (usually pigs). Now this food waste which could have, after going through the guts of a pig, given manure for the land and food for the people (and hence reduced the need for production) instead finds its way into landfill. At best it finds its way into anaerobic digestion plants to create biofuels which is a very inefficient way of dealing with it. This is only considered because the food waste is considered ‘waste‘, were it considered a resource it would not be undervalued like this.
So, in conclusion, the round end, although it is often the smelly and dirty end of your animal, is possibly the most important part of the beast and what comes out of it should be treasured and not squandered. There are good reasons to think that this also applies to our own round ends and we should seriously think how we start using the one thing all of us manage to effortlessly produce.
If this sparks an interest the book Humanure may be well worth reading.
Harvesting marrows this week lead me to think on the importance of anticipation and deferred gratification. The ability of humans to think ahead and store foodstuffs, to enable them to cross through the lean months of winter, is one of the vital skills we developed in our evolution and possibly, in the opinion of Jordan Peterson, the basis for our understanding of time itself.
“The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). “ Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life.
The temptation would always be just to eat what we had at hand but our development as a species depended on learning that it was wiser to store foodstuffs for eating (or planting) later. Our overall happiness is much greater than the temporary happiness that we might get through a bout of gluttony. Even today this is an important skill. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment has shown that children who are able to wait and defer their gratification (one marshmallow now against two marshmallows if you wait 15 minutes) generally do better in life on a variety of fairly robust measures. Deferred gratification is the basis of most planning, it is why we save, it is perhaps why we don’t mate with the first attractive person we meet (That may be also be because they don’t want to mate with us). If we are as individuals, and as a species, to maximise our happiness it is important, in many things, to forgo the immediate short-term fun for the future prolonged pleasure which is often more satisfying.
However, in addition to this utilitarian advantage of delayed gratification there is another reason we should consider waiting and anticipating. This is really quite simple, anticipation itself can be part of the pleasure, Waiting with the knowledge of future reward can often give as much pleasure as the reward itself. People often wish to know how to get ‘happiness‘ as if it were a thing that could be found. It is much more likely that happiness is the process of creating a good life for ourselves rather than any single thing which brings us temporary pleasure. When we know our striving has been successful, and when we can imagine future success, then we are likely to consider ourselves happy. While I have no doubt want and poverty are the scourge of happiness, I also doubt that a farmer in Africa who tends his fields, sees his herd healthy, and knows his family is cared for feels one iota less happy than I do, despite the massive disparity of material wealth between us. As Peterson again notes, happiness is to be found in the journey rather than being a destination.
“Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.”Jordan Peterson, ibid
A great deal of pleasure is the anticipation, Through March and April I watched for the Elderflower to bloom knowing that once it arrived we would make Elderflower cordial and champagne. The following month I looked forward to the new potatoes. Last month I waited for the beans and courgettes and this month my wait for the marrows ended. I am now starting my wait for soft fruits and honey. On the small holding our dietary pleasures are seasonal and we have to watch and wait but this adds to the taste of the produce when it finally arrives. New potatoes just pulled out of the patch boiled and served with a knob of butter are a sensational, if plain, meal. The wait I had, the work I put in, the anticipation I experienced, all magnify the taste meaning I will not find anything better in a restaurant no matter how good the chef.
Our supermarkets and farming systems have largely taken this pleasure away from us. There are really very few seasonal foods today. You want strawberries in winter ? no problem. Fresh tomatoes out of season ? likewise no problem. Not only can we have foods from all over the globe we can have them at any time. There is no need to wait or plan and, because of this, nothing is special. Industrial farming keeps our foodstuffs cheap but the hidden costs to our environment are not minor and nor are the costs to our dietary habits inconsequential. We, in the developed world, eat more and have diets Kings and Queens in the past would have envied, However, we can’t enjoy simple foods, as we did before, and we need our foods spiced, coloured and made in exotic combinations to pique our appetites. We are no longer happy with the novelty that used to follow seasonal foods. These changes in our diets have lead to us being unhealthier. The strategy of boosting foods’ sugar and fat ingredients and increasing portion sizes, to titillate our jaded palates, has lead to worrisome statistics; for example, in Wales more people are overweight and obese than are of normal weight.
I have found that by trying to live in accord with the local seasons I do get more pleasure from my food. This is why, difficult as it may be to believe, I found myself looking forward to the marrow crop. However, there is a possible downside to this. When the seasons decide that the time has come there is no arguing with them. It all comes at once and dealing with gluts of fruit or vegetables is a skill that has be acquired. Next month chutney making will be to the fore in dealing with the excess number of tomatoes I hope we have. This month it is marrows. Not just a lot of marrows but very large marrows as well. Faced with these huge tubers I don’t think the local populace has enough appetite for chutneys and jams to cope, so we needed to be more creative. Thankfully marrows are versatile and can be used for both sweat and savoury recipes. Today’s way of dealing with half a marrow used both recipes, I hope you enjoy them.
Marrow & Bean Soup
Cut 1kg of marrow into chunks and season with rosemary. Place in a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 30 – 40 minutes until the marrow is soft.
Boil runner, any other, bean in 2 pints of stock. Add a generous teaspoon of cumin,
Add the roast marrow to bean and stock mixture and simmer for 10 minutes
Blend with a mixer and thicken with cream
This recipe gives a very filling soup, it is easily a meal on its own with some crusty bread. It freezes well which is helpful, as it is a warm hearty soup better suited for autumn and winter.
Beat 3 large eggs and add 400g sugar, 250ml vegetable oil, and two teaspoons of vanilla
Gradually mix in 350g plain flour, 300g grated marrow, 3 teaspoons baking power, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons of nutmeg. Stir fully
Place the mixture in two greased loaf tins and bake in an oven at 170c for 45 minutes.
These are best buttered when still warm and are like a very moist banana loaf. If you slice these loaves they will also freeze, though to be honest they are so pleasant that they are unlikely to last long enough to see the inside of the freezer.
At the risk of sounding big headed I would like to announce that I have solved one of the major problems facing humanity today: ‘What to do with the Jerusalem Artichoke ?‘ As everyone will know this is a cunning and devious vegetable which starts its nefarious plans by the very choice of its name. This ugly tuber has no special link to Jerusalem nor the Holy land. This is simply a trick to fool you into believing that it has saintly properties : it does not. The term ‘Jerusalem’ probably arose from the Italian name for the plant – “girasole” – the Italian name for the Sunflower. And herein lies the truth, the “Jerusalem Artichoke”, this dreadful plant, is no form of artichoke at all, it is a form of sunflower masquerading under the name Artichoke to suggest to the unwary gardener that it is pleasantly edible. However, early in its history people discovered that while is can be eaten there is a question as to whether it should be eaten.
The carbohydrate in the Jerusalem Artichoke is stored as inulin. Decent, pleasant root vegetables such as the potato or parsnip store their carbohydrate as starch. This is why we like to eat them; the starch is easily digestible and this is the reason that I, and millions of others, am overweight as the starch in these root vegetables are an easy way to get far too many calories into your diet in a single sitting. Inulin, on the other hand, can’t be digested by us so it is left to the bacteria in our large intestines to do the job. These bacteria do this with gusto, creating a lot of gases in the process which gives rise to flatulence and bloating. In 1821 it was written in Godard’s Herbal that Jerusalem Artichokes “which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men”. So we were warned many years ago !
But in addition to the tricks with its name there is another way that this loathsome plant continues to trick gardeners into growing it. Though it tubers are unsightly its flowers are rather pretty and, most importantly, no matter how poor a gardener you are, no matter how much you mistreat and neglect this plant, it will still happily grow and thrive. Dig a hole, drop them in, cover and then just forget about them, they will grow. Months later you will have large impressive plants with pleasant flowers for no effort whatsoever. If we just left it at this there would be no problem. But, unfortunately, people feel tempted to pull up the roots, reveal the tubers and think “how will I cook this ?”. The answer was it doesn’t matter, whether you fry, roast or boil, the result is a disappointing mush that doesn’t even repay the modicum of effort that you put in. That is until now !
I have discovered a way of using the Jerusalem Artichoke that is better than leaving it in the ground or tossing it directly into the compost heap. Firstly scrub the tubers to take of the soil that covers them. This will reveal the tubers in all their horror. They look like something from the “Day of the Triffids”, this is the way they are meant to look.
Next take a potato peeler and slice the tuber into thin slivers. Place these on a dehydrator tray and sprinkle salt over them. It is important not to omit this step. If one does one will be rewarded for your labour by something that tastes a bit like paper. (If you follow this step then, after all your work, you will have something that tastes a bit like salty paper). Next dehydrate the slivers overnight.
Once the Jerusalem Artichike has dehydrated you will have a subsitute for crisps ( or potato chips as they are called across the pond). It is not a great substitute but they have a couple of advantages. Firstly they are low fat and low carb which is helpful to some on diets like myself and secondly they are not that great tasting which helps with the tendency to overindulge that is so easy with real crisps.
A possible final advantage might occur if one has guests. Sometimes my more cultured guests turn their noses up when I put out the Cheesy Wotsits or Monster Munch as nibbles. These would look sufficiently homemade and rustic as to appeal to them (and there will be more wotsits left for me). As I said, I don’t want to be big headed but I suppose it won’t be long until that call comes from Sweden with the information about the Nobel Prize.
A very handy way to recycle the plastic containers is to use them as temporary cloches. When the cauliflower have 3 or 4 real leaves they are ready to be planted out. However they could still benefit from some protection and these containers are ideal. All that you need to do is to fit a hold in the base to allow air to circulate. They are also good protection against chicken attacks. Normally the chickens are helpful in the vegetable garden as they eat the wire worms, leather jackets and other nasty visitors. But sometimes, just out of badness, they will go for the seedlings and this is a handy defence.