Archive for the ‘Flour’ Category

Pine Pollen

January 8, 2014

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I finally got round to processing the pine ‘catkins’ – or ‘pollen-bearing male cones’ to be more precise – which I harvested back in the latter stages of November or the beginning of December from a client’s garden (shh, don’t tell anyone!) and which have been sitting patiently in a cardboard crate in various warm, dry places waiting for me to do something with them. So, with apologies to them and to H who has to put up with the clutter of my various projects (which, to my shame, I occasionally fail to ever follow through) here’s how I went about it:

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Step #1 – Harvest. Following Feral Kevin’s advice I picked mainly immature cones which hadn’t yet shed all their pollen in the wind and put them in my plastic lunch box to avoid spillage. These were then left to ‘ripen’ in the aforementioned cardboard crate, laid out in a thin layer on newspaper to maximise contact with the air and provide a surface to gather the pollen grains.

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Step #2 – Sieving. It turned out there was a great deal more pollen still attached to the cones so I ended up by crushing them individually by hand which, with the help of a basting brush, got pretty much all of it. Only a few bits of chaff managed to get past the sieve, with the pollen getting variously shaken, tapped or brushed into the bowl beneath. This took me the best part of an hour, but I figure it’s possible to do it much faster with practice or if you don’t mind making a mess (eg: by rubbing all the cones at once with both hands).

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Step #3 – Re-sieving and final storage. I decided to keep my pollen in a jam jar to avoid the possibility of paper bags breaking open. Hopefully it was dry enough by this stage that it won’t spoil, although I may store it in the fridge for good measure. That’s a funnel you can see in the above photo. The pollen flour was incredibly fine and dusty at this stage, swishing around almost like a liquid in a way which I found strangely satisfying. I ended up sifting it gently in a side-to-side motion through the sieve while holding the funnel directly under with the same hand because other methods were causing it to puff out little clouds up & out of the sieve and onto the surrounding surfaces.

Step #4 – Eat! It’s supposed to be edible raw, but otherwise I guess I’ll mix it in with other flours to make bread, scones, cookies… although I won’t want to use it all in one go.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable so far to identify the specific species of pine tree these ‘catkins’ came from, so I’m breaking an important foraging rule in eating the pollen regardless and don’t recommend you follow my example. However I feel quite secure personally, having established beyond reasonable doubt that the tree was from the Pinacea family and come across several sources saying that all species of pine produce edible pollen, with no warnings of toxicity from the family other than the pollen allergies people sometimes suffer, which I’ve never had a problem with. Anyway, I’ve managed to narrow it down to a non-native ornamental which self-pollinates towards the end of the year, as opposed to springtime which is most usual. My best guess would be a Cedar of some kind, though I don’t think it was a Cedar of Lebanon as I didn’t see any of the distinctive cones (ie: the female ones which grow big and woody and eventually bear the seeds/nuts) and the bark didn’t have the same strong smell or stickiness that I’ve experienced on park specimens. The branches did the same helpful downward-hanging thing as F.Kevin’s ‘Cedrus Deodara’ or Himalayan Cedar, and the male cones pictured on the wikipedia page look pretty similar to mine, but the overall shape of the tree doesn’t seem to match my memory. Although ‘[t]he male cones are 4–6 cm (1.6–2.4 in) long, and shed their pollen in autumn and apparently it ‘is widely grown as an ornamental tree’… Answers on a postcard!

Finally a bit more reading which may be of interest, Green Deane ‘Pining For You‘:

[Pine pollen] has over 200 identified elements from vitamins to proto male hormones… yeah, it’s a guy food.  It’s been called the natural testosterone, androstenedione, but that is a marketing exaggeration.  It has about 27 nanograms per 0.1 grams of dry weight, not suitable for the bulking up weightlifters want, but available none the less. Putting the pollen under the tongue keeps it from being destroyed by the digestive system.

Androstenedione is an adrenal hormone produced in humans.  Reduce androstenedione by one molecule and you have  testosterone, which both men and women have in different amounts. Androstenedione can raise testosterone levels. The effect lasts about a day.  And this is how the Native Americans used it, for extra energy when they needed it. So when on the run, grab a little pine pollen. Pine pollen also seems to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system as well.

And one to maybe take with a few pinches of salt (too many extravagant ‘super-food’ claims for my liking): ‘What is pine pollen and why should I consume it?

Oh, and here’s the late great Frank Cook talking about pine pollen as a potential ‘man medicine’ for helping to balance out all the oestrogen-mimicking compounds in the modern environment:

I’ll let you know if I sprout any new chest hairs :)

Loose Ends 2011

January 12, 2012

Here are some of the things I intended to write about last year, but which got heavily procrastinated and failed to make it past the event horizon. Until now…

1) – Holm Oaks. Also called Holly or Evergreen Oaks because they hold onto their tough, waxy leaves all through the year. A few weeks after writing about them in a comment on my Balanophagy post I was walking up a road I’d not been on for a while and bumped into this huge sucker:

He had lovely wrinkly-grey bark and was the largest of three, apparently of the same species, providing a hefty barrier to the road on the right and completely shading out the small houses on the left. A quick hunt around on the floor confirmed my suspicion – a thick layer of half-rotted leafmould, practically nothing growing and lots of small, pointy, shiny brown acorns:

Jackpot! I bent down and gathered a couple of pockets’ worth, earning the usual suspicious glances from people walking past. I noticed that many more of the nuts showed signs of nibbling by small mammals than I’ve found with regular acorns, perhaps confirming the lower tannin content I’d heard about. A quick taste test revealed only a slight astringency at the end, coupled with a lingering starchy sweetness which was in a different league to any other acorns I’d nibbled on. I’ve since noticed several more trees on my winter walkabouts – they’re much easier to spot when all the other trees have dropped their leaves.

Unfortunately it took longer to process a decent amount of the acorns, using the usual method of cracking, peeling, rubbing off the inner skin and roasting for around half an hour, but then I’d done Beechnuts earlier in the season, so couldn’t really complain…

Overnight soaking improved the raw flavour of the second batch (I had to do it because most of them had dried to stone-hardness by the time I got round to them), but I think I overdid the roasting in the end. The first lot came out better, approaching Ken Fern’s description of ‘a soft, floury texture and a sweet flavour that is rather like sweet chestnuts’ (Plants For A Future, p.36). I’ve put them into morning porridge, meat stews, lentil dishes and even a couple of fry-ups, and they seem to keep rather well in their glass jam jar – better than the regular acorns I kept in a paper bag which had to get washed and re-roasted to kill the mould that was growing on several of them.

2) – Linden Leaf Stew. As promised I finally got round to making a Creole-style ‘gumbo’ dish using the Lime leaves I dried and powdered previously. I loosely followed this recipe, frying ground beef and chunks of chicken with onions, carrots, garlic, spinach, misc. herbs and spices, then pouring boiling water over the top, adding the lime leaves, salt’n’pepper, some baking soda and, even though the idea seemed pretty strange to me, a dollop of peanut butter.

This then stewed away for about half an hour and eventually got served with plain rice:

Incredibly rich and flavourful, I was the only one who managed to finish their plate. Unfortunately I have to report that the meal gave me pretty terrible gas for the rest of the night 8O . Hopefully that was due to the baking soda and not the lime leaves or anything else essential to the recipe…

3) – Cattail Rhizomes. Ooh boy, this wasn’t successful! I maybe gave a false impression of abundance with my picture of two plastic bags full of rhizomes gathered from a local pond during a conservation task back in September. In reality my harvest wasn’t as substantial as it looked because the root material is very spongy with only a thin solid core going through the middle.

Well, I washed, scrubbed and cut them into manageable segments, keeping the tender young shoot separate. Then I tried boiling and roasting them like you would with potatoes, as recommended by several sources. The yellow outer skin remained tough and indigestible, but it was possible to tease out the inner fibres with my teeth and basically suck the pure starch off them – not the most satisfying culinary experience!

Then I spent a good long time peeling the outer skins off and chopping the white centers into smaller chunks. At first I tried drying these in the oven and whizzing in the food processor as a short-cut for flour, but the fibres just lumped together on the blade and didn’t show any signs of breaking up into smaller particles.

Then I decided to try and separate the starch by soaking them in tepid water, squashing by hand, boiling (after which they were vaguely edible in a chewy, fibrous kind of way), mashing and more squashing into several bowls of starch-water, which I then allowed to settle before pouring the water off the dirty white sludge at the bottom.

This then got poured into trays, dried out in the sun and the oven, then finally ground in my coffee grinder. I was NOT impressed by the amount of flour I ended up with.

So either people are talking bollocks when they say, for instance, that ‘Yields of 8 tonnes of flour per hectare have been recorded’ (Plants For a Future, p.135) or one way or another I’m not doin’ it right. Maybe I went for them at the wrong time of year, or perhaps I needed to go for the main root matter at the base of the stem rather than the creeping rhizomes. Either way I’m thoroughly sick of the plant by now, so probably won’t be revisiting it (at least for its roots) for a good long while. Sorry Cattails!

4) – Angelica & Sweet Cicely. Dug up a bunch of these on a gardening job and decided to save them. Both got washed, scrubbed and fine-sliced in the food processor (a grating attempt on the Cicely didn’t work too well). Angelica got tinctured in vodka and also dried in the oven for tea

…while Cicely got dried in the same way and simply ground to a fine powder, the idea being to use it as some kind of sweetener, as well as for a nice aniseedy tea.

Both gave the house a really strong aromatic smell (somewhat like gin!) during the various processing stages.

5) – Rosehips. Went out and made my usual harvest and my usual laborious attempts at making jam (too runny this time).

My main thought recently was about wildcrafting. Reading Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild over the summer and going on a gardening course that touched on the principles & practices of pruning for trees, shrubs, hedges and, yes, roses made me start thinking about actively managing wild plants for an increased harvest, rather than passively taking what they had to offer come fruiting season. Perhaps I should be bringing secateurs/loppers or a pruning saw with me along with the hooked stick (useful for pulling down long rambling rose stems) and plastic bag? I would like to get my eye in with cultivated roses first, but maybe next year I’ll start on the wild specimens. I’m guessing it would be the same approach as pruning for an abundance of flowers, except you would leave them on through the winter as they swelled up to form the hips. A mindful approach would do miles better than insensitive hedge-trimmers cutting them back to the same height each time.

Still need to figure out how to make flour from the seeds…

6) – Sloe Gin. My camera ran out of battery so I couldn’t take a picture of my harvesting technique. Basically I find a nice overhanging branch with bare ground or relatively short grass underneath (sometimes I bring a tarp or just lay out my jacket), then I thwack at it with a stick until most of the berries have fallen and finally just pick them up from where they’ve landed. This year I seemed to have the timing right, as the berries tasted almost sweet right off the bush, with just a hint of the normally face-shrivelling astringency after a couple of frosts had caused the tannins to retreat back into the body of the plant (I’ve heard the recommended practice of simulating frosts by putting the picked berries in the freezer doesn’t work because the tannins have nowhere to go to. Also it’s a pain handling frozen fruit, especially if you have to pick bits of iced mud, grass and wood off them.) Last year’s batch of sloe gin was too acidic for my taste, so this year I wanted to put more sugar in, as well as trying some nice warming spices – ginger, ground cloves & cinnamon. I used an old fondue fork to stab 3-4 holes into each berry and thus ease percolation of the juices and the supposedly almond-like flavour of the inner seed. One 75cl bottle of cheap gin became two 75cl bottles half full of sloes with the spices and sugar stirred into the gin and then poured over the top. I had just enough berries to plop in and raise the level of the liquid to the top of both bottles.

(It may have been a mistake to use dark brown sugar, as for the moment it looks rather like poo-water… (!) Hopefully that will change as the dark purple-redness of the berries seeps out in the coming weeks & months.)

Also, on a tip-off from R, I re-used last year’s sloes to make sloe cider with my last bottle of home-brew from 2010. Should have quite a kick to it!

7) Acorn germination! I planted nine fatties from tree d) of the Autumn harvests.

Still don’t know where I’m going to plant them…

That about covers it for plant happenings. Otherwise I’ve got posts brewing on food vs. population, cultivation & the production imperative, disturbance revisited, plus various summer reports and perhaps even the long-awaited ‘Coming Down From the Mountain #2′. Plenty of time & no rush to get into all of that :)

Enjoy the predicted cold snap in the next couple of days. It might be the only winter we get this year!

Acorns & Good Times Bread

November 17, 2011

As promised, I here present Ian’s step-by-step guide for processing acorns. If you like, watch this Ray Mears video to get yourself in the mood (starts at 3:36; continues in pt.2 from 8:34):

Step 1 – Gathering. Find a tree! Not all Oaks will crop heavily (and if it’s not a ‘mast’ year you might struggle to find a single acorn). As previously discussed your best bet will be to find a specimen with lots of space around it and a canopy open to the sun, especially on the South facing side. Stand-alone trees or those on the edge of woodland normally produce more nuts than those in the middle of the deep, dark forest. Some of the best I found this year – a) in front of H’s driveway:

b) a young fella on the common, branches still low enough for me to climb up into him and do a ‘shakedown':

c) a gaggle on a golf course:

d) street-corner guardians:

(I think these were all English/Pedunculate/Common Oaks, Quercus Robur, though I’m not sure I could differentiate this from Britain’s other native Sessile Oak, Q. petraea. Not that this would matter particularly as, while more bitter than their managed American or S. European cousins, the acorns of both species are equally edible after processing.) You should be able to find at least one tree that drops a good quantity of large, sound acorns. As you can see from the above pictures, it’s useful if the ground is reasonably clear, but also soft enough to not damage the nuts after their fall from a great height. Tarmac makes things easy, but a lot of the acorns from tree a) and other ‘street trees’ I gathered from had extensive ‘bruising’ where the nutmeat had hardened and blackened at the point of trauma and along fracture lines. This got progressively worse the longer I kept them before processing, I assume because the black colour is caused by oxidisation which is limited when the whole nut still has its thin inner skin surrounding it. I’m not sure if the hardened/blackened acorns are unusable (I spent quite a while cutting out the ‘bad’ bits just in case) but I found they were also the most likely to spoil and/or go mouldy.

Gathering was speediest throwing handfuls onto a tarp or jacket before funneling into a plastic bag, but just placing them in the bag directly worked out fine too. I did try raking directly into bags, leaf-litter, twigs & all, but this just meant I had to pick out the good nuts back at home anyway. It doesn’t matter if the acorns have been lying under the tree for quite a while – the hard outer shells are designed to last them through the winter before weathering finally wears them down enough for the sprouts to push through in the spring. They also protect against insects, moulds, bacteria etc. but not small mammals who sometimes take a nibble (or, if you’re lucky, large ones who eat them whole). A little ‘rain leaching’ might give you a head start for Step 5 too! However watch out for little holes in the acorns – these are the work of the acorn weevil which uses sharp mandibles to chomp into and lay eggs in the acorn when it’s still young & tender. A little white grub then gorges on the nutmeat for the next couple of months before chewing its way out and trying to find somewhere safe to pupate. Sometimes you’ll catch these little blighters in the act – probably giving them the fright of their lives! – inside acorns you previously thought were sound. Unfortunately they don’t leave much for you, but they make a good snack for the birds (or maybe they’d be tasty if you fried them up directly?) Otherwise I tend to only go for the dark brown glossy nuts, just because they somehow look more ‘healthy’ to me, even though they dry to the same light tan colour after a couple of weeks in storage. I also avoid cracked or damaged shells as these won’t keep so well. Here’s a load I picked up just yesterday afternoon from around tree d). It took me around twenty minutes to gather just under 8kg:

Step 2 – Storage.

Keep in a warm, dry place, preferably in open-sided containers that allow the air in to circulate. If the nuts were particularly sodden when you picked them up, maybe give them a head start against any cheeky moulds by putting them in a low oven or up against a radiator for a spell. If you want to make acorns your staple food you might have to take this part a bit more seriously:

My family and I have been known to gather tons of acorn. In the past my Great Aunt Mary had a room in her house where we would deposit all of the acorn we gathered. This was a 10’x12′ room, with a four foot board across the doorway. This room was always full of acorn. As children we used to fight for the right to jump into the acorn and stir them up. Anyone bigger than a child would crack the hulls. This had to be done twice a week so that moisture didn’t build up and that the acorn dried properly. Traditionally our people stored acorn in ‘Chukas’, acorn graineries made of cedar and California laurel. These are cylinder in shape and raised above the ground on stakes about three feet. Lacking a spare room for my acorn, I store mine in gunny sacks and hang the filled bags from the rafters in my garage. My sisters living on the rez, use the huge army surplus bins my parents bought. They keep them covered and stir them twice a week. No matter how you store your acorn it is essential that you add a generous amount of California laurel with the nuts. Laurel or bay leaf is a natural insect repellent and keeps the bugs away from the acorn. […] We let the acorn dry or season at least for a year, this assures that the nuts are well dried. (Kimberly R. Stevenot, Northern Sierra Miwok – link)

Step 3 – Shelling. This is a pain if you try to do it straight away with fresh acorns. If you let them dry for a bit the nutmeats shrink away from the outer skin, allowing you to open big cracks along the length with a quick hammer-blow to the head, which then makes it easy to prise the innards out whole with a knife. Here’s a picture of my set-up, along with my favourite anvil:

This part of the process takes up the most time. I like sitting down in the evening and listening to music, watching online documentaries or crappy comedy shows on the TV while I do this. It gets nice & hypnotic after a while… Mind your fingers!

Step 4 – Grinding. I ‘cheat’ and use a food processor for this stage. The idea is to increase the overall surface area in preparation for Step 5, which will go faster in relation to how fine you grind the acorns. I like to leave them in rough milimetre cubes, as I’ll be fine-grinding them later anyway and hopefully would like to keep some of the nutrients in there in the meantime. Of course, I’d prefer to do this part ‘aboriginally’ but on my own it feels too much like hard work. Apparently acorn-based ‘balanocultures’ used social technology to lighten the load:

At the edge of the village a group of women sit together grinding acorns. Holding the mortars between their outstretched legs, they sway back and forth, raising the pestles and letting them fall again. The women are singing together, and the pestles rise and fall in unison. As heavy as the pestles are, they are lifted easily – not so much by muscular effort, but (it seems to the women) by the powerful rhythm of the acorn-grinding songs. The singing of the women and the synchronized thumping of a dozen stone pestles create a familiar background noise – a noise that has been heard by the people of this village every day for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. (Malcolm Margolin, quoted in Suellen Ocean’s Acorns And Eat’empdf)

If you want you can keep the nuts whole, as the ancient Europeans appear to have done (ibid.), although this will leave you with a different foodstuff at the end.

Step 5 – Leaching.

Soak the acorn meal in cold-tepid water to leach out the tannins, using a thin-weave material to keep the solids separate (I used an old pillowcase). Change twice a day until the water stops turning a deep brown and/or the acorns lose their bitterness. This can take from 3 days to over a week. You can speed up the process by using boiling water which you pour off repeatedly, but cooking denatures the starches/sugars, and you’ll also lose much of the oil content, so I prefer not to. Other methods vary from dunking the meal in a stream as Ray Mears does in the above video, burying caches of whole acorns in boggy ground, cooking in a ‘lye’ made from the wood ash of deciduous trees or with iron-rich soils/clays, and even putting them in the (cleaned) cistern of a flush toilet 8O Other Native American methods include pouring water onto ground acorns in a sand ‘colander':

(source)

And this one, which I probably won’t be trying:

The aboriginal people of the Columbia River valley used urine to cure acorns. The settlers of European origin in that region gave the dish the name Chinook Olives. About a bushel of acorns were placed in a hole dug near the entrance of a house. The acorns were then covered with a thin layer of grass and then 6” of earth. Every member of the family regarded this hole as the special place of deposit for his urine, which was on no occasion to be diverted from this legitimate receptacle. In this hole the acorns are allowed to remain four or five months before they are considered fit for use… the product is regarded by them as the greatest of all delicacies. (‘Indigenous Acorn Facts‘)

If you want you can leach the acorns whole, just pouring the water off and re-filling. This will take a lot longer, though (unless you use boiling water). Mine started to bubble and smell slightly ‘fermented’ after about five days, so I finished them off with a slow roast in the oven:

They are tooth-breakingly hard by the end, but cook up to an acceptable squishy texture in porridge (and – I’m guessing – in stews, soups, etc.)

Step 6 – Drying, re-grinding. If you want to keep the acorn matter for a long time and don’t want to use it immediately as a ‘mush’ or in a soup etc. then you’ll need to dry your acorn grounds. If you get freakishly lucky with the Autumn weather you can leave this job to the sun, but mostly I have to put them in a low oven for a couple of hours to speed up the process.

They will tend to clump up during this stage, no matter how finely you ground them originally, so if you want a flour (as opposed to ‘grits’) you’ll have to grind them again. Tip: you can often find old-style manual coffee grinders in charity shops.

Leave out someplace warm & dry for another day or so to evaporate the last bits of moisture, then store in glass jars or paper bags. Some people say the fat/oil content will make the flour go off after a couple of months, but I still have some left over from my first experiments over two years ago, and it still looks and tastes just as good as it did back then. Maybe the final heating in the oven stabilises it somehow?

Step 7 – Eat! Most people say to treat it like corn/maize flour, for example mixing it 50:50 with regular flour to make breads, muffins, pancakes, tortillas…etc. It doesn’t contain gluten so will need to be mixed with something else that does, or with a different ‘sticking agent’ (e.g. egg). It’s a lot denser than wheat flour, so if you’re using it to make bread you’ll need much more yeast to make it rise – my one attempt at a 50:50 loaf two years ago, while deliciously rich & nutty, did not rise at all.

This year I’ve had some success with a recipe for ‘Hard Times Bread’ from The Wildfoods Cookbook by Joy Spoczynska, which she ‘unearthed’ from ‘an eighteenth century cookbook’ that traced the recipe back to ‘early pioneers in America’. She says they turned to it ‘when wheat flour was difficult to obtain or cost more than the pioneers could afford’. I’m guessing they adapted this from the Indians.

Naturally I want to change the name to break the association with famine and last resort measures to stay alive, and present this instead as a desirable alternative to the Staff of Death Bread made from farmed grains. Sure, it takes less effort for us affluent first-worlders to work a wage-job and buy a sack of flour from the supermarket, but this embeds us in an exploitative system whereby someone else, human or non-human (including the chemical remains of long dead non-humans) has been enslaved to do all the work in our stead. It’s easy, from our ‘privileged’ position, to forget just how hard it is to get something resembling food from the annual grains. Try to bake your lawn, or just watch this guy go about his business (sorry about the background music – mute and try this as an alternative):

Then have a look at this and ask yourself where the astronomical quantities of energy have come from to build, operate and maintain all those machines:

Suddenly, simply letting trees grow and crop in the Autumn for you to harvest and process through the above steps doesn’t seem so inefficient or energy-intensive, does it? Yes, you’ll find it hard work if you never had to take care of your own subsistence needs before, but I bet even ‘Seed to Loaf’ Steve would back me up in saying that we miss out on basic feelings of satisfaction from leaving this most fundamental biological activity for other people to sweat over. Also, as the wise people say: No security without food security. In other words if you depend on getting flour (or any other staple food) from the supermarket, that means they’ve got you by the balls/ovaries – you’ll comply to the demands of whoever controls the price of wheat because you have to eat. Unless you have another option…

So without further ado, here’s my adjusted recipe for ‘Good Times Bread’ – I’ve halved the original quantities:

Ingredients: 250g acorn flour, 50g maize flour, 2 tbsp butter, 1 egg, 1 tsp salt, 150ml buttermilk (or regular milk mixed with 1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar and allowed to sit for 5 minutes), 1/2 tsp baking soda (sodium bi-carbonate)

Step 1 – Sift the flours, salt and baking soda together, beat the egg and melt the butter in a frying pan (preferably cast iron) or griddle.

Step 2 – Gradually mix in the buttermilk, followed by the butter and lastly, the egg. Knead until ‘of a fairly soft dropping consistency, like a very stiff batter, but not sloppy’ (Spoczynska, p173).

Step 3 – Squish into balls and flatten on a level surface to desired size & thickness. Then add a bit more butter to the pan and cook on a medium-high flame, flipping to the other side after a couple of minutes when it turns slightly golden-brown.

Et voila. More than enough for a hearty breakfast to keep you going through the day:

These, unsurprisingly, had a delicious roast-nuttiness to them and the texture of a heavy scone. The salt made them a bit too savoury for jam, though – a later experiment with added brown sugar, chopped walnuts and dates went down a treat. I’m not sure how long they keep, but I was putting these in the toaster and they were still tasty after three days.

Aboriginally, I would be inclined to roast them by the fire on a flat stone like these guys:

For more inspiration and recipes, check out these sites:

Finally, submit your own acorn experiments to Butterpoweredbike’s ‘foraging recipe challenge’ on the Hunger and Thirst blog (thanks Annie!) Looks like there’s some great stuff up there already – I don’t think my ‘back to basics’ approach stands much of a chance of winning though…

So that’s about all I’ve got for now. Hopefully this didn’t come too late to fire you up in time for this year’s harvest. If you’re visiting SE England, I’ve still got plenty of acorns you can come help me process :) Email address buried in the comments on the ‘About’ page…

Winter / No Nut Blues

January 18, 2011

Well, lots of people have been talking about a New Year, making all kinds of New Plans, dreaming all kinds of New Dreams, and for the most part my (unspoken) reaction has been one of: “WTF, you guys: it’s January, it’s cold, it’s winter – shouldn’t you still be asleep along with everything else, waiting for the sun to come back and warm your marrow before you even begin to think about stirring and emerging from your dens?”… I first noticed it last year, but it really hit home this winter just how strange it is to have the snows come down and blanket everything with silence and frozen stillness – to walk about and everywhere notice animal and plant beings so quiet and withdrawn into themselves with only the barest glimmer of life-light visible to the observer – and then come back to a civilised humanity breaking its back to keep everything running in exactly the same way it was during the height of summer. People leaving their homes before dawn and getting back after dusk, others in the employ of transport and civil infrastructure working around the clock to keep roads, railways, airports, schools, hospitals, offices open and functioning as ‘normal’. And when these efforts failed, many took their frenzied activity into the outdoors. Here’s a photo from last January in the local park, presenting the typical scene after a medium-heavy snowfall:

Where have all these people come from? Where did they find so much energy at this time of year? Where were they during all the other seasons (the park is almost never this full)? I see in these gatherings a kind of revolutionary fervour: “We have decided that the Laws of Nature don’t apply to us. Now we’re going to flaunt it and dare the world to break us if it can. Together we are strong!” Any wild creatures still out and about must think we’re nuts. As Dougald Hind observed on the Dark Mountain blog (speaking about the materialist emphasis of Christmas celebrations, but the point generalises), ‘the activities prescribed are utter foolishness: biologically they make no sense and only a culture as out of sorts as ours could fail to notice this.’ He continues:

The effect of the northern winter on the mood was remarked on by the 6th century historian Jordanes, writing his history of the Goths from the kinder climate of Constantinople. Modern medicine labels the phenomenon Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is there anything out of order about a lowering of the spirits, as the life ebbs from the landscape around us?

The midwinter customs of northern cultures recognise and work with this. The weeks before the solstice are handled with care, with an awareness that the forces of life, light and warmth are at their weakest. In Shetland, the week before Yule was a time when trolls were at large and to be kept off with rituals at gates and doorways. In Latvia, the fortnight before the winter festival is called “the season of ghosts.” The Christian season of Advent, a time of quietness and waiting, itself reflects the wisdom of going gently through these ugliest weeks of the year.

I have been feeling the sap rise up in me again lately, being out & about spotting the new buds, shoots and even a few flowers opening up on my herbal task-of-the-month (more on this shortly). But the last 3 or 4 months have been particularly hard and depressing for me, so I anticipate it might take a little more than usual for me to pull out of the seasonal funk; a little longer to awake from hibernation.

Basically I got thrown out of whack when the trees apparently decided that none of them were going to produce any nuts that Autumn, and I never recovered. The previous year I had enjoyed bumper crops from beech, hazel, oak and chestnut (three of these for the first time) which gave me a feeling of confidence that I could nourish myself well on these neglected foods and that, at a push, they could serve as my caloric staples for a sizeable chunk of the year. When October and November came and went this year with only a few immature sweet chestnuts and a failed experiment trying to make an edible flour out of conkers* I felt a kind of terror with the knowledge that if I were relying heavily on these harvests I would probably die, coupled with a lingering sense of betrayal – the land had chosen not to provide for me. I learned from Feral Kevin that Valley Oaks in California only produce large quantities of nuts every 2-3 years and furthermore ‘[…] are pretty much on the same cycle. They’ll either all fruit heavily, or none of them fruit at all’ and H speculated about unusually dry summers followed by heavy rains discouraging trees across the board, all of which helped my brain not to take it too personally. But beyond the intellect the bitterness and feelings-of-rejection persisted, leading to a withdrawal from wild foods and interest in The Outdoors generally. I know it must look immature and petulant in a throw-your-toys-out-of-the-pram kind of way, and that I should have simply and without fuss moved my attention to other foodplants like nuts and berries – diversity being the great strength of foraging as a subsistence strategy†. In fact I recognised this at the time, as you can see from my comment on Kevin’s post, and I did try to re-direct my frustrated enthusiasm with:

#1 – Double-infused Elderflower oil (later mixed with grated beeswax to make a moisturising salve):

#2 – Apples (coring, grating and hand-pressing for juice to ferment into cider; drying leftover pulp for fruit leather – thanks for the windfalls Elsie!):

#3 – A leaf container (oak leaves left to rot down in wire frame bracketed onto hazel poles foraged from local coppice):

#’s 4 & 5 – Apples (chutney, more or less following this recipe) and More Apples (filtering and siphoning the now super-strong dry cider into screwtop bottles):

… plus a few other first-time experiments and many of the usual jams, jellies and syrups. Nevertheless the blues settled in to stay by November/December, bringing apathy, introspection and a grey lack-lustre to my internal landscape, closely fitting the one I saw outside. I don’t think I was much fun to be around, no matter what brave face I happened to be trying at any given time… H thought I had chosen to ‘feed the darkness'; that the landscapes only seemed bleak because I was focusing on their negative aspects and turning a blind eye to the positives. I didn’t (and don’t) feel confident enough to deny the suggestion. As ever, I just hope that I learned something from the experience; that the crap was worth wading through and taking seriously (or primarily – as ‘evidence’ valid and undeniable in its own right), and that better things lie ahead.

Please feel free (and welcome) to share your winter horror-stories in the comments section below!

———————-

* – the PFAF entry suggested a combination of roasting and leaching, as with acorns, but my results tasted worse than the raw nut.

† – Richard Borshay Lee writing in the early 1960s about the Ju/Hoansi-!Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert:

Apart from the mongongo [nut – caloric staple, providing ’50 percent of the vegetable diet by weight’], the Bushmen have available eighty-four other species of edible food plants, including twenty-nine species of fruits, berries and melons and thirty species of roots and bulbs. The existence of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in susistence strategy. During the summer months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose anmong the tastiest and most easily collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that gathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an important contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during the end of the dry season, when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that may be lacking in the more popular foods. (‘The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari’ – p.110 in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology)

…but then, they’ve got whole tribes and thousand-year cultural traditions backing them up in their subsistence efforts. I’ve got maybe 2-3 years paying attention to this stuff with the dubious assistance of authors writing in books about different times & places, AND practically all of the people in my culture are pulling in entirely the opposite direction to the one I want to take. Go figure if enthusiasm is hard to come by…

Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡

——————-

* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.

Control & Slavery

July 19, 2010

Get myself a car, I feel power as I fly
Oh now I’m really in control
[…]
Press any button and milk and honey flows
The world begins behind your neighbour’s wall

It all looks fine to the naked eye
But it don’t really happen that way at all
(The Who – ‘Naked Eye‘)

‘Don’t you just love being in control?’, the woman asked, speaking on behalf of British Gas in the early nineties before clicking her fingers to magically (or so it appeared) produce a blue gas flame, shooting from the top of an extended thumbs-up – a signal of reassurance that Everything’s Okay:

The image of this slogan came back to me from childhood memories after musing a while on the notion of ‘energy slavery’. If you never heard of the concept, Richard Heinberg illustrates it with typical, punchy succinctness in The Party’s Over:

Suppose human beings were powering a generator connected to one 150-watt lightbulb. It would take five people’s continuous work to keep the light burning. A 100-horsepower automobile cruising down the highway does the work of 2,000 people. If we were to add together the power of all of the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep is in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compare that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has the equivalent of over 150 “energy slaves” working for us 24 hours each day. In energy terms, each middle-class American is living a lifestyle so lavish as to make nearly any sultan or potentate in history swoon with envy. (pp.30-1, crediting John H. Lienhard)

The woman in the British Gas ad is demonstrating the amount of power she can command merely by clicking her fingers. As power trips go it probably only comes second to having somebody carry out a command which you haven’t even verbalised: “All the work household appliances perform for us at the touch of a button… wouldn’t it be simpler if they learned to anticipate our every whim so we never had to suffer a moment’s dissatisfaction?”

Slavery never went away. Neither did all the attending attitudes and power-relationships. The bulk of the burden simply shifted onto the backs of ‘lower’ lifeforms; upon the exploitable energy which industrial society found in the bodies of plants and animals interred millions of years ago. How do they feel about this? ‘We’ who burn their remains; who drain, extract, deplete, exhaust them as a ‘natural resource’ do not ask. ‘We’ cannot ask: to view them as people ‘just like us’ would fast undermine any continued exploitation to the point of impossibility. Questions of empathy don’t survive in entrenched master/slave relationships. Americans could start to think about what the Africans went through AFTER it became possible to obtain more energy more cheaply and from different sources.

‘Being in control’ – what does this mean? Why did British Gas hold it up to early nineties television viewers as a desirable state for them to ‘be’ in; an unquestionable Good which they must surely crave for, or aspire to? Translating the slogan into E-Prime helps it make some sense and gives it more honesty, as in ‘Don’t you just love having control – over others?’ I suppose that message could appeal to middle/lower-class Britons more used to having the power wielded against them. Perhaps they might enjoy feeling like a sultan or a potentate for a change. (Although, somehow, I think these historical characters would much prefer to be on the top of their small pyramids to being somewhere in the middle of a much larger one.) But what’s so great about that? If slaves get no rest, then neither do the slaveholders: you’ve got to feed them, clothe them, look after them when they get sick*, break their spirits, punish ‘misbehaviour’, fight wars for more of them when your appetites increase, etc, etc. No energy comes without cost, even if you ‘only’ measure this in terms of hardened, calloused personality traits and the inability to relate honestly and openly to others.

Another part of the supposed benefits of the slaveholder lifestyle lies with the idea that “It’s better to get somebody else to do something than it is to do it yourself”. Hard Work may be morally virtuous (according to popular mythology), but the ultimate goal is to manipulate or coerce another person into handing you the world on a platter while you get fatter and lazier and more stupid as each day passes. I find it curious, this idea that we were born with bodies – arms, legs, hands, feet, muscles, bones, nerves, tendons – and we’re meant to strive to use them as little as possible… The more I look at this the more I see a lose/lose scenario. Slaves lose their freedom to live their lives as they please; slaveholders lose the joy of building their lives with their own hands. ‘The best thing since sliced bread’, they say, but really it manifests as a theft & centralisation of personal autonomy – a loss of tactility, coordination and skill in a thousand arms, hands, eyes; another loss in all the energy taken up in building, maintaining and feeding the complexity of one central machine.

I feel more ‘in control’ when I slice my own damn bread! Likewise who has more command over their destiny: one harvesting local fuel for their own use or for the use of their community, with all the knowledge and experience of how to do this in a sustainable manner; or one who makes monthly payments to have North Sea gas pumped into their house by a privatised utility company – into a cooker they didn’t build and can’t repair without expert assistance? To my mind ‘Push-Button-Make-Good-Thing-Happen’ represents practically the highest form of dependency. Where’s your control if you click your fingers and nothing happens?

I get this from people watching me process various wild foods: “Why expend all this energy when you can buy something similar at the supermarket for a fraction of the cost?” To me this would just mean that, economies of scale notwithstanding, someone else had done the work instead of me and they were getting screwed by having to cater exclusively to my ‘needs’ (or rather, those of the supermarket) at the expense of their own. I’m starting to hear an underlying attitude: “This dirty physical work is beneath you. Leave it for the slaves.” Last Autumn it took me several hours of gathering and then several more over several days of processing to produce around 2 kilos of acorn flour (you have to de-husk them, coarse-grind them, leach them in around 5 changes of water to get rid of the tannins, roast them dry and finally fine-grind to finish). While I was sat in the living room, cracking each nut in turn over the head with a small stone to get at the meat inside, my mum informed me that she could get a bag of (wheat) flour for a few pounds down in town. Later we happened to be watching a program about industrial bread manufacturing, and for once I had my wits about me enough to remark that “I didn’t have to build a windmill to grind my flour” before the moment passed. I think I made my point…

I owe Urban Scout and his post, ‘Colonization Vs. Rewilding‘ for seeding a lot of these ideas. Here was a key passage for me:

During the physical enslavement of African Americans, white people who disagreed with slavery, because of their privilege, could help slaves escape slavery. While those white people disagreed with the enslavement of those people, they lived as members of the culture of enslavement. They worked to change the culture they lived as a part of. They could help the slaves escape precisely because they lived as a part of the culture of slavery.

While I don’t identify with Civilization as my culture (i.e. I don’t think of Obama as “my president”, the troops in Iraq as “my troops”, the police force as “my police force”, etc) I make up a part of this culture. I have a job, therefore I pay taxes, which go to support the military that keeps us all occupied. Even if I didn’t pay taxes, I still buy food from the grocery store, pay for movies, coffee, clothes, etc. etc. etc. All of which help the economy stay in place. While I may not feel like part of this culture (I certainly don’t!), I live inextricably as a slave to it, and therefore a member of it. It doesn’t matter what people believe on a personal level, but what we do as a whole culture. The personal level provides a platform for abandoning this culture; it stands as a starting point, but not yet differentiated from it.

I commented, saying that ‘I’ve focused a lot on wringing out my submissive slave blood as part of this process of ‘de-colonising the mind’, but maybe I forget too often to deal likewise with my inherited slaveholder blood, coming as I do from a privileged position (not that it feels that way) near the top of the imperial pyramid.’ I see re-engaging with wild foods and medicines as one way to set off this win/win process of de-colonisation†: on the one hand regaining autonomy in my individual life, on the other lessening my dependency on (and, to an extent, sapping the viability of) the industrial modes of production that enslave us all. I’d love to control that process with a click of my fingers, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be so easy…

—————–

* – Less of this with wage slavery.

† – Other ways might include anything from learning how to cook, cutting your own hair to harvesting rainwater or composting your poo.


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