GARDEN NOTES: Radishes and Finding Peace in a Tidy Shed

It has finally started getting cold recently, though still mild for late November. The meadow near where I live still gives a few blackberries, and the absence of frost has meant that sloes are still thriving in places (all the more for me!).

We recently harvested most of our radishes and leeks, all very delicious. It is only later, as I was chomping on a radish that I realised that they were the first thing harvested from the garden that I had grown entirely myself from decision to harvest. So there’s hope for me yet! Work has started on repairing the fencing for the compost area, but that might take a while to do it properly and in sections, as I would preferably avoid having to move that muck more than once. Franco came by with a tray of planted broad beans to keep in the shed until they sprout, to add to those we planted a couple of weeks ago.

Speaking of the shed, on another triumphant note, it is now tidy(ish). The garden tools are hanging on the wall so they don’t get tangled with other items on the floor, all the wood and stove materials are tidied together in one box and the hay sack has been tied up tightly so it takes up less room. We’ve even gone to the extreme and arranged our books onto a bookshelf. I moved one of the garden benches into the shed for seating, and the table is relatively clear of crap (just needs a wipe), ready to prepare food on it. With that done, the shed has never quite looked so inviting and homely before. They say that English men become increasingly attached to their garden sheds as they get older, and I can now somewhat understand why. That little structure is more than a tool cupboard, it is a refuge from the outside world.

Last Monday after a long morning of lectures, feeling tired and weary, I went into the now tidy shed and ate some lunch, consisting of a pork pie from a shop, but accompanied by pickled onions, pickled cucumbers and pickled eggs that I made myself. It was my first time trying them; the cucumber and onions were nice but a bit strong, my fault for not sweetening the vinegar, but the egg was perfect (if I do say so myself), tasting just like the kind you would find in a traditional English pub (if such a thing still exists). Altogether, this was one of the most satisfying meals I have ever had, a hearty English lunch in a cold but well lit shed, all the better for most of it having been homemade. I then unrolled a mat on the shed floor and lay down for a nap. Although it was cold outside, I slept very comfortably for a good hour, and was woken up by the rustling of a mouse (something else I need to deal with). All that was missing – at the risk of being picky-picky – was a hot cup of tea for when I woke up.

Perhaps it is not so much a sense of refuge that I get in the shed, but more one of peaceful simplicity. With all the bells and whistles that surround us daily, there’s not many places left in Central London where you can find a little peace.

Now to deal with that mouse…

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BUSHCRAFT FOOD: ROASTED BEECHNUTS

While I don’t want to go into every individual bit of foraging one can do in the UK, I did have a go at making roasted beechnuts over the summer, and thought I would share with you that particular experience. Beechnuts, of course, can be eaten raw, though they can taste rather sour if not fully ripe. Roasting them can overcome this little flaw, although some slight bitterness might remain.

When I picked my first batch of beechnuts, full of novice enthusiasm, I laboriously set about breaking each of them open to get at the nut part, using a brick and a hard surface, not completely crushing them, but just adding enough pressure to crack the shells, then destroying my fingertips as I forced them open. It is only through subsequent experience that I have discovered that once picked, beechnut shells tend to open up all by themselves within 12 to 24 hours, saving you a lot of effort and a few fingernails, provided you plan ahead.

I didn’t have any recipe to follow, but just fancied having a go at roasting them the same way one would roast pumpkin seeds, mixing the beechnuts in a little oil and salt and spreading them out on a tray for the oven. You have to keep a close eye on them as although it takes a little time for them to roast into a nice golden brown colour, it is then a very short step away from them turning black and charred.

Roasted beechnuts are satisfyingly crunchy, but with that in mind it is important to chew them gently and slowly, otherwise you will be flossing out bits of beechnuts from between your teeth for the rest of the day. If anything, it is nature’s way of reminding you not to eat too fast.

FORAGING: GETTING STARTED

There is something very satisfying about being able to identify a plant or berry in the wild and knowing if it is edible or not. Even just the tiniest amount of foraging knowledge can make you look like Ray Mears in the eyes of others. But like any skill that is worth learning (and a few that aren’t) foraging can seem a little daunting at first, especially as it ultimately involves putting things in your mouth that didn’t come off a supermarket shelf. So here are a few tips on how to get started with foraging.

While there are foraging courses available around the country, these might not suit the keen beginner. Not only can they be expensive, the overload of new information and plant names can also leave one forgetting a lot more than they remember, ultimately not learning much from it. To learn the basics it can be much more effective and enjoyable to just do it yourself, taking your time . . . oh yes, and keeping it safe. So keeping on the earlier theme of self-sufficiency (rather than hard core survivalism, which is too exhausting to my taste), the best way to explore and develop foraging skills is by enjoying it as a leisurely hobby, you’ll end up learning much more that way.

As with starting any new hobby, the key is to keep it cheap until you can decide that this is the thing for you. So never mind the courses at this stage, just buy a book on foraging, making sure it is clear, concise, well illustrated and not overpriced. Richard Mabey’s Food for Free is something of a classic and an excellent one to start with; it usually comes in a handy pocket edition and can often be found on the internet on in second-hand bookshops for under a fiver. Whichever book you do get, look through it, you may be surprised at how many edible wild plants you already know about but either never thought of or never realized these can be found in your area. Then you just need to go for a walk in a nearby meadow, forest or wild park and just look around. Actively searching for a particular plant is often counter-productive, unless you already know where to find it – if you go to a forest randomly looking for blackberries, not only are you probably not going to find them, you will also miss a dozen other edible plants in the process. Rather, just take your time and keep your eyes peeled, looking around, appreciating the scenery until you spot something that looks familiar or interesting, and then try to identify it in the book. Don’t just identify one thing off the plant. If you find a familiar berry for example the next step is to confirm it by positively identifying the leaves and other features on the plant (like thorns, flowers, bark, etc.). Be precise! Tiny details such as whether the plant has or hasn’t dented leaves can make all the difference between two similar looking yet different plants. Whilst the foraging beginner should focus on only identifying edible plants, it is also important to know about the ‘false friends’ or ‘toxic lookie-likies’. So, if in doubt, don’t touch it. And remember that even once positively identified, make sure that the plant isn’t intermingled with any other non-edible plants.

Note that the above tips only apply to plants and berries . . . mushrooms are a different story altogether.

Foraging for mushrooms is a skill that requires proper training and very careful observation. In this case, just using a book is not good enough – chances are that in trying to identify a particular mushroom there will huge discrepancies in what you can reliably recognize. I don’t know about other people, but I have yet to find a mushroom in a book that I could positively identify growing on the ground, and vice-versa. Even when a book contains very clear pictures, they are usually difficult to compare with the genuine article. Even the rule-of-thumbs for identifying poisonous mushrooms (bright colours, spots, etc.) still leave out many dangerous varieties that can look just like edible ones. Furthermore, while edible mushrooms are delicious, they are not particularly nutritious, so even on a practical level it is not worth taking the risk, unless you absolutely know what you are doing.

As for finding a places where to forage one doesn’t have to go too far to begin with. Foraging is partly about being familiar with the terrain, so it is worth looking around one’s local park or even in wild patches along a road just to get used to spotting and identifying plants. Word of warning though: roadside plants will have been exposed to a fair bit of pollution and are best avoided. Plants found along pathways and at the foot of trees and posts might also have been urinated on by dogs, foxes and desperate humans. For similar reasons, when picking berries off a bush it is best to only pick those that are above knee height. We have to accept that nature is not a sterile environment, but it is still best to avoid some of the things it throws at us. The key is to be adventurous in where we search but cautious in what we eat.

If anyone thinks that London is no great place to learn foraging then think again. There are plenty of wild patches here and there worth looking through (even if to just find a bit of fat-hen and dandelion), lots of parks with chestnuts and lime trees, among others. As for finding fruits, just check out this amazing website: http://fruitcity.co.uk/the-fruit-map/

Happy hunting!

GARDEN NOTES: Turnips, Nasturtiums, Beans and . . . Franco

What with it being the mid-term break (laughingly referred to as reading week) most of the students have gone home, so it was just me in the garden last Wednesday. I mainly pottered about, doing a bit of weeding and tidying the shed. The radishes, parsnips and celeriac are good to pick, though I will wait until other people turn up to share them out, or cook them in the garden. When I sowed turnip seeds a couple of months ago I didn’t actually know what young turnip plants looked like, and so when the bed grew out a whole raft of weeds I was reluctant to take them out for fear of also uprooting the young turnip plants. But the turnip plants have finally grown to a size where I can (hopefully) recognize them out of the riff-raff of weeds and sort that patch out. The lettuces are looking good, and although their bed is relatively free of weeds one end of it is full of nasturtium seeds which I am having to pull out as they grow out of the soil. This is my fault for not having properly managed the nasturtiums over the summer. Although a delicious and hardy plant, it can be quite invasive if not kept in check.

The broad beans we had planted with the winter vegetables are holding out well, but that is probably only due to the mild weather. It might be a little wetter than it was last week, but I’m still in T-shirt mode, so there is a way to go. Three weeks ago we decided to re-pot five of the bean plants to store them in the shed over the winter, and ironically two of those have died, while the other three are not looking too good either. But like I said, I am just treating these bean plants as an experiment, seen as they turned up so unexpectedly in the winter parcel; heartless as it sounds, they are expendable.

Our neighbouring gardener Franco, who grows vegetables on the balconies overlooking the garden, popped in as he regularly does to check out my handy-work. Franco is an elderly Italian who originally befriended the Common Ground founders as he saw them creating the garden. I think he respected them for their enthusiasm, ambition and skill. And by contrast, I think I amuse him with my bumbling gardening antics. I appreciate his visits, as his advice is always useful, if occasionally a little harsh.

Ever since I planted the broad beans Franco has told me to get rid of them, telling me they are useless. But although I know he is probably right, I still want to carry on with this experiment and give them a chance. Today, however, after once again telling me I should get rid of them, Franco told me that now was the time to sow broad beans in the ground, and so with his help I did so, sowing beans in the same bed as the existing bean plants. Who knows? Maybe the bigger plants can serve as big brothers for the little ones.

November is a time to plant things, such as beans, garlic and onions, that will settle nicely in the ground until the New Year when they then start pushing upwards. The mild November made me forget that now is the time to plant them, so I need to plan for that. It goes to show that proper gardening is a year-round job, and not just something for the Spring and Summer.

It also goes to show that everyone should have a Franco.

Preserving Food (part 4): SALTING MEAT

Naturally, we don’t keep livestock in the garden (shame too), but I have been interested in traditional ways of preserving meat. Without wanting to open a can of worms over the meat-is-murder debate, our ancestors in many cultures relied on meat to provide the type of nutrition that their environment could not provide through plants alone, especially to see them through the winter. Hunting animals was for our ancestors a difficult and energy-consuming undertaking, hence meat was too precious to waste by allowing it to spoil. Compare that with our attitude today in developed countries, where most of us throw away food like it was going out of fashion. If the idea of eating dried meat in unappealing to some, I still prefer it to the idea of letting it go to waste.

Just like with all my earlier food projects, I first turned to the internet to look up methods of preserving meat. This time, however, I hit a little snag. While the internet is full of recipes and advice for making salted meat or beef-jerky, most of them finish with the words: “keep in the fridge and consume within a week.” The trouble with that is that I don’t want to keep it in the fridge. Funnily enough, I want to make beef-jerky specifically so that I don’t have to keep it in the fridge. If I want meat in the fridge I will buy a steak.

In the end I took a leap of faith and decided to make beef-jerky myself based on the little I knew, so (here comes the disclaimer) what follows is just an account of what I did, without suggesting that you try the same unless you seek out training in proper and safe techniques. The little I knew, however, came from something I saw on a BBC television program with Ray Mears (again), watching a Native American Indian hanging some salted meat on a frame to dry in the sun.

I bought some cubes of raw beef from a supermarket and cut them into thin strips, unrolling each cube as I cut along the surface. I then sprinkled some salt on the beef strips and gently rubbed them into the meat before hanging them on a plastic coat hanger. At this point I noticed that the beef strips almost immediately began to drip out their juices as the salt took effect, drawing out the moisture from the meat. Even the smaller strips of meat dripped off quite a few drops of juice, so I had to place some old newspapers underneath the hanging meat in order to avoid making a mess. I also gently dabbed the meat strips with a paper towel to absorb more of the juice. Finally when the juices stopped running off, I placed the meat near a radiator overnight, although the central heating was only set to run for about two hours. By morning the meat was already dry and stiff, but taking advantage of the good weather (at the time) I left them hanging in the sun for several hours, finally putting the end result in a plastic bag.

Following this first attempt, I realised that I had put far too much salt which had subsequently crystalized into a thick layer over the meat. It didn’t spoil it, but just made the jerky less palatable without rinsing it first, not to mention it was a waste of salt. On my second attempt I did initially use less salt, but I later chickened out and added some more during the dripping process, afraid that it was dripping off the meat. It worked better, but it was still too much salt. I now know that the salt is really just there to create the dripping effect, and the reduced amount left on the meat after dripping is still sufficient to season the meat. It does taste good, too, if jerky is your kind of food, and I’m still alive to write about it four weeks later. I’m planning next time to try adding spices to the salt, such as paprika and chili. Now that I can make it, I may as well put my own spin on it.

GARDEN NOTES: The Indian Summer and Making Sloe Gin

Okay, I know what I said earlier (see Sept 29th post), but come on, joke’s over now. It’s November, the Christmas lights have been turned on in the streets, and yet I’m still walking around in a T-shirt. This is the time of year when good old Mother Nature usually manages to water the garden all by herself, and yet in the last seven weeks we’ve only had about two days of proper rain. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the North East coast of the US has been battered by unseasonal snowstorms! In the past two months, the Met Office has announced three times that our Indian summer was coming to an end. I guess they are bound to be right . . . eventually.

Still, taking advantage of the warmer weather, Common Ground organized some sloe gin workshops on Sunday and Wednesday. I provided the sloe berries, having found some in a meadow a few weeks back which I then kept in the freezer. Mind you, I did ask those taking part to bring their own gin (or vodka if they preferred), seen as they get to take it home with them.

 Traditionally, sloes are picked at the end of October or beginning of November, right after the first frost, when the sloes are ripe and their skins have been broken by the frost. The trouble is if you wait that long then there are often no sloes left to use, having all been picked by other sloe gin aficionados or eaten by the birds. Furthermore, based on the Indian summer we’ve been experiencing, waiting for the first frost would be unwise, as the remaining (less reachable) sloes I recently spotted have already started rotting.

Four of our CG 'sloe gin-ers', showing off their results.

The basic formula for making sloe gin is to half-fill a bottle with sloes, add half their weight in sugar, fill the rest with gin, give it a good few shakes to help the sugar dissolve, and then leave the bottle for two, preferably three months, gently shaking it at least once a week, allowing the sloes to infuse into the spirit. In as little as a day the gin begins to turn pink, getting darker as the weeks go by. Usually the sloes need to be pricked to speed up the infusion, but as we were using frozen sloes, reproducing the effects of frost, we didn’t bother pricking them. There are many variations on the technique of making sloe gin, so it’s worth investigating and experimenting, finding what works for you. Meanwhile, we’ll find out in about two or three months whether our members liked their own self-made sloe gin. If they nail me to the shed then I’ll take that as a no.