Foraging or Poaching?


 

I went yesterday to the usual little bit of damp woodland I visit once or twice a year to pick a little bit of wild garlic. I make pesto out of it, maybe a little risotto : its a nice seasonal flavour that you can only buy as far as I know from farmer’s markets and box schemes, which are pretty small scale.

Usually in this season, its a beautiful site : the winding river bed, sunshine dappling through the trees, bluebells up on the banks where its drier, and the starry flowers of the garlic plant waving above a sea of rich green leaves.
This year all I saw was a grubby looking swathe of tiny new seeded leaves where the recent rain had splashed up from the bare earth, and bunch after bunch of cut off stalks where someone had clear felled an entire patch of roughly 3 square metres.

I am all for a little forage here and there, but in that quantity, and taking all the flowers as well, so the plant can’t self seed : that looks to me like its been taken for sale to restaurants, who will buy without asking too many questions.

Much as I like wild garlic, a large part of the pleasure is the walk : the being in nature, the effort involved, the time is takes to pick it making sure not to take too many leaves from one plant, avoiding ones with bird poo, leaving the flowers so the plant can self seed.  I feel proud to see at the end that my little forage leaves no impact on either the beauty or the survivability of the resource. I feel I have respected both nature, and the people who might visit this place after me : It’s like the antithesis of the supermarket where you can have everything from everywhere all the time for cheaps.

I don’t think people should necessarily be prosecuted, like that Lithuanian woman in the news last week, that was caught with three carrier bags full of foraged mushrooms, ( Three full bags! That’s either really greedy, or to sell) but I do think that people in a city the size of London need to be educated, in how to gather and enjoy wild food without treating it like supermarket sweep.

forageur
Me, foraging for weeds in Camden without a bag.

Community Gardening and the Pareto Principle


On my way to Canonbury School every week for my garden club, I cycle through an estate by Clissold Park built 1960’s style with concrete blocks, big windows, and literally acres of grass. Designed originally for the frolicking and the picknicking, the idea was to have an unbroken flow of landscape for people to use. None of this actually happens : no-one even bothers picking the legions of municipal daffodils, and I’ve hardly seen anyone even exercising their dog in the play areas.

Last week I went to a meeting to launch the garden group, and credit to them, they were prepared to fight for their right to par-tay : no accessible water, no available keys, access to only the tiniest of raised beds hadn’t defeated them.

There were 11 residents there : and eight others : the local councillor, the estate manager, three people from Garden Organic and Octopus, who have funding to help community garden groups, a local paper photographer, a lady marketing the local Transition group, and me, scoping out the estate for possible work for little red hen, which works with community groups to set up and run gardens.

I am interested in these kind of anarchic self formed groups, partly because I want a bit of a sneak preview of the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, but also, because I would like people to rediscover the lost art of working together, that capitalism has encouraged us all to forget. Gardening is the easy bit, the hard part is other people : but paradoxically its quite easy to get grant funding for community garden projects, but almost impossible to get paid to help people stop arguing, complaining and blaming, and do something fun.

I read about the Pareto Principle from this blog on the Decathlon Website about increasing the impact of your training,( having just bought some climbing shoes! ): http://www.decathlon.co.uk/blog/nutrition/7853/

Basically, you get 80% of your results from a productive 20% of what you do, while 80% of your effort brings no results. Good news for anyone on a salary, because this means your boss is paying you for FOUR DAYS EVERY WEEK for doing NOTHING. In sport, it means don’t bother dragging your sorry butt round the park every day : do a proper energetic run twice a week.  80% of the World’s  wealth is owned by 20% of the people, ( who do little with it, incidentally) and in business, 80% of your work comes from a very useful 20% of your clients. Pareto himself, as a gardener, maintained that 80% of his peas came from 20% of his pods, which I think is frankly taking what might be a good principle to a ridiculous extreme.

So the point is : ( apart from that you could have skipped 80% of this blog to get to this bit ) community groups are tiring themselves out doing all manner of pointless work, which is just making them annoyed:

producing leaflets and delivering them to every door, when they could just be saying hello occasionally and chatting to their neighbours : its a much more efficient and human way of ‘engaging’ people : any angry reclusive nutcase that lives near you can produce a leaflet and shove it up your slot, but people are more likely to go to local events where they know people.

Setting up new committees and running separate meetings when they could just piggyback on existing general residents structures, such as TRA’s. People want to do fun stuff, and nobody, but nobody, ever has fun sitting in a draughty hall listening to people moaning about why they are having to do all the work.

Organising large Community Events, with the sponsorship of funded groups, when a regular informal meeting would be a lot less work, and get more people involved. The Walthamstow Village Residents’ Association who are my gurus in this, have certain principles which are key to their success :

Meet every month no matter what, so people who miss one can go to the next, and momentum can be maintained.

Get everyone to bring some food to share, because everybody likes cake.

Have fun : even if you are moving 15 tonnes of compost in the rain, because its the fun that people come for and its the fun that will bring them back.

Have fun : because if you are working for free and you aren’t having fun, then you need to take a very long hard look into your psyche, and ask yourself what the heck you are doing it for.(Hint : Your ego might know the answer.)

I’m worried I might not have mentioned FUN enough times.

 

Little Red Hen : Food Sovereignty Activist


One day, a little red hen was scratching around in a field near the farmyard, when she found some grains of wheat that had been missed by the farmer. Instead of eating them, she gathered them up, and took them back to the farmyard.

“who will help me plant these grains of wheat” she asked the other farm animals.

“Not me” said the pig “ I’m too comfortable lying in this lovely mud”

“Not me” said the cat “ can’t we use them to try and catch mice instead?”

“Not me” said the mouse “ I’m too busy just trying to stay alive”

“Not me” said the dog “ My master gives me all the food I need out of a tin”

“Ok then” Said the little red hen, “ I will do it myself.

So the little red hen planted the grains of wheat, and once they had germinated, went back every week to water them and every day to make sure they hadn’t been trampled on or eaten by pests. It was quite a lot of work, so she went back to the other farm animals to ask

“ Who will help me water my wheat?”

“Not me”, said the pig “ you planted them too far away”

“Not me” said the cat “It looks like it’s going to rain soon anyway”

“Not me” said the mouse “I might fall in the bucket and drown”

“Not me” said the dog “I’ve got this new chewbone toy I’m playing with”

“Ok then, said the little red hen” I will do it myself. And she did : she watered the wheat so it grew strong and ripened in the sun, and when it was ready she went back to the other farm animals to ask

“who will help me harvest the wheat?

“Not me” said the pig “ I’ve got no experience of this kind of thing so I’d be no use anyway”

“Not me” said the cat “You never say please when you ask”

“Not me” said the mouse “that knife you’ve got there looks a bit dangerous”

“Not me” said the dog “ I’m not allowed in the field without a lead”

“Fine” said the little red hen “ I’ll do it myself”

So the little red hen harvested her wheat by herself, and she found that her handful of grains had turned into a small bag of grain, enough to make one small loaf of bread.

She went to the farm yard to show the other animals :

“ Not again” Said the pig “ I was just about to have a nap”

“ Oooo you think you’re so clever” said the cat “why don’t you go and boast about your harvest somewhere else?”

“ Are you sure it’s clean?” said the mouse “usually it comes in a bag”

“That’s ok” said the dog “but wouldn’t it be easier to just buy it from the shop?”

The little red hen said nothing, and stopped asking them for help. She took her grains to the miller, who ground them into flour, then she took the flour to the baker, who made it into a lovely little loaf for the chicken to have for her tea. She carried it back to the farmyard.

“ what’s that smell?” said the pig “Is that for my dinner?”

“ it’s a bit small” said the cat “ but I don’t mind tasting it for you”

“ Ooh, fresh bread!” said the mouse “ that’s my favourite food!”

“Wow!” said the dog “ That looks as good as shop bought!”

“Well, would you like to help me eat it?” said the little red hen.

“Yes, please” said the pig.

“Yes please” said the cat

“Yes please” said the mouse

“Yes please” said the dog

“Tell you what” said the little red hen “I’ve only got a small loaf, and that was quite hard work, but here’s some grains of wheat for each of you : I’ll show you how to make your own loaf”

And that was how the little red hen started her own sustainable growing consultancy, making sure, after she’d eaten her loaf, that she pooed in the field where she grew the wheat to maintain the fertility of the soil.

 

The Old Way of Shopping


I spend too much money in supermarkets : there, it’s out, I’ve admitted my guilty secret, my name is Rachel and I’m addicted to easy shopping.

I have tried and failed a few times to kick this one : The first year, I made a grand announcement of my intentions, then had to explain to people in March why I was still going to Sainsbury’s. Turns out its cheaper : who knew?

The second time, I didn’t say anything, so I wouldn’t get the pressure of other people’s expectations, then I forgot about it, and slipped back into my old routine of popping in to the shops on the way back, and somehow finding two panniers’ worth of groceries that I didn’t know I needed until I saw t on the shelf.

The problem, of course, is time : they are open and there from 8 in the morning to 10 o clock at night as a bare minimum, and so they have insinuated themselves into our lives, much as the devil himself might do, were he a chain of food shops. Every Little Helps, Good with Food, Try Something New Today ( like what? a farmers market? ) Why Pay More? : These glib little slogans, designed to slide into our consciousness, convincing us they are on our side, keen to help, are the earworms of an industry designed to hide the sound of the waterfall that we are drifting ever closer towards.

I do know how to shop : I learnt in the 1970’s with my mother : we’d get the string bag, which was the weird khaki of plasticine all squashed together, and take it to the high street in either Halesworth or Bungay. Halesworth was better because we parked in the market place, near the pet shop with the Mynah Bird that squawked ‘Allo. One by one, we’d visit the greengrocers, ( three onions and a pound of spuds) the bakers ( sliced wholemeal and a free lollipop), the butchers ( He’d ask if my name was curly, which is a difficult question to answer at any age, let alone three) and the International Stores for butter, milk, and biscuits. Technically a ‘super’ market, in reality it was anything but : two aisles and a fridge with a single checkout, and a strip of green shield stamps for your book.

The Vegans Have Landed


Recently, I went to a permaculture association camping weekend, attended by many of the vegan persuasion, and catered entirely with plant based foods : this community is keen to show that a righteous life is one where no being has to suffer to feed another. While I understand where they are coming from, I found it interesting but wasn’t in the end convinced away from my meat and dairy eating ways.

Now, I have some experience of being vegan : it was a long time ago, in a house share in Norwich, where everyone else was vegan, and indeed, quite often freegan, back in the day when bakeries and supermarkets didn’t even think of locking their bins. It was fun :  there’s nothing so boring as having unlimited availability and funds to cook with : the challenge of culinary creativity lies in making something good with whatever you’ve got, rather than having to get all the right ingredients. Its why I make pesto with easy to grow rocket and cheap sunflower seeds, rather than hothoused Basil and imported pine nuts. It’s why I like foraging and growing my own : supermarkets, with their infinite reach have taken the fun out of exotic ingredients from far flung places, so that local ingredients, especially ones that are free, are paradoxically the rarest and most valued.

Even now I still make the occasional vegan meal : Quorn Chili, pastas all’arabbiata, Chi Vruoccoli, and con Ceci, Pesto doesn’t really need cheese: salads with grains and hoummous.

But now we get to the But : vegan food should be animal free and proud of it : no apologies should be made for  the ‘lack’ of protein, flavour or anything else, and above all, no vegan food or ingredient should be a version or substitute of an animal one. So: as a vegan I learnt to make shoyu seeds as a delicious sprinkle to add to salads, and grain based dishes, to add protein, healthy fats, texture and flavour to dishes which won’t be getting any cheese on top.

Vegan cheese  and meat exist : these are made in Switzerland :

New customers special

but I am confused that the way these highly ethical foods are presented is like sausages and pate : highly processed and packaged and resembling artificially rendered meat, which is surely the worst food the world of meat can offer, rather than the best. What is it that vegans seem to be missing in their diet? Processed paste?

We were proudly offered Soya Dream instead of custard, and ate beans and greens and beetroot as Chili and Curry with sticky brown unsalted rice.  Honestly, there’s just no need : nowadays you can get brown Basmati, which is nutritionally whole, but doesn’t stick together, and you can make curries with squash, coconut and nuts that are so delicious and fragrant no-one will care there’s no animal in it even if they notice. This is how you win people over, vegans : by giving them a Vegan Horse of food so delicious they can’t claim that giving up meat is a loss. Not death by beans.

Of course meat eaters are annoying as well : in the west we have become so used to our habits of wasteful abundance, that most of the food produced is thrown away before we even buy it.

People who love the anonymous pink, red or white slab and balk at eating anything that looks like an animal that was once alive : trotters, tongue, wings, tail and most internal organs, and anything with a face. In my veg box trials, I have been interested to note the variety of different meat on offer : my favourite so far has been Farm Direct, for offering whole wild rabbit, for a mere £5.50 a pop. It arrived de-skinned and without a head ( thank heavens, because although I believe that you should kill what you eat, and waste nothing, I am fairly near the beginning of this process, and generally go out of my way not to kill anything at all if I can possibly avoid it) for that £5.50, I made Rabbit goujons, rabbit stew, rabbit stock for risotto and gravy, and my cats ate the meat that went into the stock. I was going to eat the internal organs that were still there, but in the end, only managed the liver ( you have to take these things slowly) and the heart, lungs and kidney went into the stock.

The rabbit had lived a free life in Essex, eating greens and living a natural life until it was shot, which for my money, is worth so much more than even organic free range chicken, at more than twice the price. This is the food that our ancestors would have eaten : huge amounts of roots and greens, with a few seasonal morsels of meat and cheese every now and then. Very little processing, no food miles, humane and tasty. Given a choice between this and a tofu burger, made from imported processed soya, I feel that consciously chosen meat is the better choice.

Making & Living


I am currently tandem reading two books written in the late 1950’s that are giving me a very interesting perspective on the current ‘trend’ for 1970’s style self sufficiency :

‘The Fat of the Land’ by John Seymour (1960)

The Waste Makers’  by Vance Packard (1960)

books The first of which describes the authors learning process in self providing in Suffolk, and the second describes the drive to ever increasing consumption in the US. Both of them, although probably now disappeared from print, perhaps never to reappear, seem to have much to say to us now, nearly two generations on.

John Seymour does an amount of moaning about the extent to which the government was restricting people’s ability to self-provide : rules about home brewing and animal slaughter, which were discouraging people from continuing these ordinary traditional  ways of making their living.  My father grew up in Walthamstow in the 1930’s and 40’s, which was in most respects, given the age of most of the houses there, much like the Walthamstow of today. He lived at the bottom of the market, and remembered local pig farms, and that most people kept chickens or rabbits in their back gardens, as well as growing their own vegetables.

Chicken

By the time I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, most older people still grew veg in their back garden, but most younger families had stopped, and most English people I talk to about growing food now are usually at least a generation away from someone with experience. This was when the supermarkets came : first in the town centre, then on the edge of town, then , when their need for car parking outgrew the towns, they were built on land that used to be farmed, in a plasticised vernacular of an American farmstead, the irony of which I am sure is lost on most users.

Tesco: supermarket chain plans new store
Tavistock’s new farm style out of town : Build it and They Will Come

It is always fun to look back on what seemed like progress to the people of the past : well do I remember  the excitement of that weekly shop in Tesco’s in Lowestoft, that must have arrived in about 1981! : we went along ‘en famille’, probably on a Friday like everyone else, and always had a post- supermarket feast of exotic items like baguette ( bread, in the shape of a stick!) and brie ( mouldy cheese! That you eat!) that were not available in the bakers, or the International Stores. When we first moved to our council house (the shame!), we had a chicken run next to the veg patch, and they would alternate year by year, so the soil could be picked free of pests and manured, and the chickens could find some of their own food, and provide us with eggs, and a useful place to recycle kitchen food scraps. But I think gradually, it all seemed like too much hassle, and it was easier and cleaner to just buy it all in.  Great Britain did become ‘Great’, after all, by kicking the peasants off the land, so they were hungry and available to work for low wages in the Victorian factories: the second phase being to create willing and dependent consumers with no idea where food comes from, let alone how to grow it. Londoners from further afield tend to be less alienated from the land : almost without exception : Cypriots, Italians, Somalis, Bengalis, Caribbeans, Africans, Irish, Polish and Romanians : all seem to have a clearer and more recent memory of raising food at home : London’s diversity has always been the key to its survival, and this untapped knowledge is yet another unrecognised benefit that its adopted sons and daughters can bring.

Vance Packard’s book laments the invention of the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ : whereby household machines were built to break down or go out of fashion as quickly as possible, to keep the economy growing, and never mind the waste of resources involved. As an interesting aside, he briefly discusses the dire implications of American dependence on other nations for resources, and wonders if this might result in political interventions in future struggles, where supplies of raw materials are threatened. Is it going too far to say that every war since the end of the Cold War, has been to some extent about control of oil?

It doesn’t seem that much has changed since the time these books were written : advertising still works by removing our sense of well being in ourselves and offering to sell it back, except now its not just our clothes and machines that need replacing, but our bodies as well. Governments still hamper our freedom to use the land we live on to live, except now its by welcoming rich oligarchs to stockpile it for future profit, and by surrounding the lucky few in social housing with deserts of grass, cut short for dogs to crap on. Nowadays there are again urban back to the land dreamers, especially concentrated in places like Stoke Newington, where I now (almost) live, and they are teaching themselves to use the land to grow food, and dreaming of a dream of resilient living.

IMAG0903
Castle Climbing Centre Veg Garden

 

Local is the new Exotic!


It’s a measure of the distance ‘we’ have travelled in the last 100 years or so, that the meaning of the word ‘exotic’, has drifted from the original ‘ coming from outside’ to mean anything new and exciting : it is perhaps a relic of the victorian rush to colonise the world through trade, and bring back fabulous commodities that had never been seen before, from the farthest flung places of the globe.

I have been engaged recently on a so far fruitless search for some local honey : my nephew had hayfever a few weeks ago (its the trees! there is no hay!) and wanted to try inoculating himself with local pollens. I know it’s a bit early, but I like a challenge, and, after all, how long does it take to produce 375g of something by sucking it out of flowers  and condensing it with your wings?

I have so far found Essex and Hertfordshire Honey, which is quite local to North East London, as well as honey from Norfolk, Sussex, and Dorset. But by far the most prevalent is honey from ‘more than one country and outside the EU’, Portuguese, Brazilian, and I even found some from Malawi. I haven’t really bothered looking in supermarkets, as you can imagine, but even in my really local health food stores ( Whole Foods doesn’t count) it is really hard to find much home produce, of any kind, not just honey.

Last year I got a jar, harvested in Tottenham, from the beekeeper Ian Bailey : maybe I primed myself for this by my sheer excitement at possessing something so precious its not available in any shop, but it really was the nicest honey I have ever had.

The second law of capitalism is supply and demand (the first : find a natural resource and exploit it!) so I can’t understand why highly prized local honey that is not commonly available in shops, and has to be sought by much travel ( by bike!) and development of contacts,  still only costs about a fiver, which is pretty much the same as the boring old ordinary honey shipped over from the Brazilian rainforest.