Sunday, 21 September 2014

Published at First Things

Good news, everyone; First Things, a superb Christian magazine that I've been reading for years (note the blogroll on the side there), has just published a piece I wrote about folk music through the generations. It's behind a paywall, but not expensive to buy. Check it out.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Limewater eggs

No matter what else most of us have in our kitchen, most of us probably have eggs. They are a staple source of protein the world over, and a vital ingredient in dishes from almost every culture. Yet chickens slow down their egg production in the winter, and in the summer you get a surfeit of eggs, so a way to preserve them would be immensely helpful.

One way, of course, is to separate the eggs and yolks and keep them in small plastic containers in the freezer. Freezers need electricity, however, and we might not always have that in emergencies – my relatives in Missouri have experienced periodic power outages for up to two weeks at a time, and friends in Louisiana experienced a lot more than that in hurricanes. When the Irish economy tanked a few years ago and the country went bankrupt, we weren’t sure whether the power would stay on, and in other countries they haven’t. In short, everyone should be prepared to cope without electricity for a while, just in case. We need some other way to preserve eggs, and thankfully there is a nearly forgotten method that we could revive.

The answer is to preserve eggs in limewater, a simple mix of tap water and lime powder; I’ve done this with our eggs, and they lasted for months and came out perfectly fresh. “Lime” here means neither the citrus fruit nor the tree, but refers to a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years humans burned limestone in kilns to create quicklime, and hydrated that to create lime powder. For hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, lime supported a vast and vital network of village industry -- quarries to mine the limestone, carts and barges to transport it, and specialists to monitor the burning. In the late 1700s, according to one survey, County Cork alone was said to contain an amazing 23,000 kilns, or one every 80 acres.

The Irish used lime to spread over fields, its alkalinity “sweetening” the acidic soil and increasing crop production – as much as fourfold, according to some accounts. Lime was used as a cement as far back as the ancient Sumerians, and Romans used it to create a waterproof better, in some ways, than what we use today. Lime also forms the basis of whitewash, used for centuries to protect and brighten structures, fences, vehicles and even trees, without the alarming and unpronounceable stew of toxic ingredients in many modern paints. Farmers rubbed it on their livestock’s feet as an antiseptic, or painted it onto fruit trees to prevent fungal diseases. Some mixed a bit of lime into well-water to disinfect it, or to preserve eggs for months without spoiling. Tanners used it to remove hair from hides, gardeners to repel slugs and snails, printers to bleach paper. It was, in short, pretty useful stuff, and still is.

To keep eggs in limewater, I simply mixed equal parts of lime and water in a mayonnaise jar, shook it, and delicately added eggs – they kept fresh for several months. A more traditional recipe, however, was to mix one pound of lime per one gallon of boiling water – that works out for us to be about 84 grams of lime for a 700-ml jar. Then let the mixture cool and pour it over the eggs. Still other recipes mixed the lime with saltpeter and even borax, but I would not try those until I had confirmed their safety.

Finally, one more approach to preserving eggs without electricity, which I have not tried myself, involved using sodium silicate or glass-water. One popular recipe from a century ago recommended dissolving sodium silicate in boiling water, to about the consistency of a syrup (or about 1 part of the silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs -- as fresh as possible, and thoroughly clean -- should be immersed in the solution in such manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid, then removed and let dry. If the solution is kept near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect was said to be much more certain and to last longer.

The eggs that were preserved in this way were said to have a slight odour to them, but nothing particularly foul, and I never noticed much of a difference. Both approaches keep the nutrition of the eggs, and keep out any of the germs that would cause illness, allowing people to have a store of protein ready for any emergency.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Our neighbour and his cows

This is one of our neighbours, who always has to fetch the calves when they go AWOL; I waved to him today as I rode my bicycle home from the village.

I talked to another neighbour today, 75 years old and bringing his potatoes in for the winter.

I saw still another, a teenaged girl hiding around the hedgerows, seeming to sneak a cigarette, and still another driving the tractor home from the bog loaded with peat-turf to burn for warmth on winter nights.

We all live in a row along the canal, in a thin strip of arable land between the water and the bog. I don't know any of them well; we've only been here a decade, and some of their families have been here for centuries. Nonetheless, I know them well enough.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Age of Heroes

Every night before bed, The Girl and I go over lessons that I prepare, trying to teach her some of the things she won’t learn in regular school. And as I’m at work most of the day, we have to squeeze in a lot in a little time. Sometimes we sing old folk songs, and then I start the lesson for the night.

I try to organise them by days of the week – Monday for history, Tuesday for biology and so on. I also try to organise them by week so the different types of lessons fit together; in other words, the history for that week ties in with the biology ties in with the theology and so on. Thus we have been studying the rise and fall of the Sumerian empires, one of which fell when the climate changed, another of which fell when they over-irrigated the land and accidentally salted the earth. At the same time, for biology we’ve been studying how plants need certain compounds and are poisoned by others, so she knows what salt does to plants. At the same time we’ve been reading mythology and the legend of Gilgamesh. At the same time we’ve been studying Genesis, and how Abraham fled Sumeria around that time, and so on.

That’s all in theory. Then we start talking, and the conversations and lessons take us where they will, and lessons that I planned to take a week stretch out into a month or more. That’s all right, though, as long as we get there and learn a lot of other things along the way.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned, we covered what happens when empires rise and fall – they discover some new resource and grow as they use it up. Eventually, all empires fall, and all fat years are replaced by lean years. I asked her to draw the Sumerian empires’ rises and falls on a timeline, and she did so – a gradual rise followed by a fall, and then a second rise followed by a fall, and finally the Babylonians and others. What do you think happened when the empires were falling? I asked.

“Well, a lot of people died,” she said. Yes, I said, and that’s where a lot of legends come from – when times were tough, people told stories about the good old days. The story of Gilgamesh seems to come from that first decline and fall – at least, that’s the earliest we know it was told. The second fall saw all kinds of warlords taking over, and making war on each other – do you remember the worst one?

“Oh, yeah …. The Iron Vulture?” she asked. You’re getting it a bit muddled, love, I said. It was Lagash the Terrible, and his legend was carved into the Stele of Vultures.

“That’s right,” she said – we had play-acted being Lagash vs. Sumerian peasants, like a re-enactment of the Magnificent Seven. When empires are rising and falling, I asked her, when do you think most of their works of art are created?

 “When they’re rising,” she said. Very good, I told her – why do you think so? “Well, because people can see that the good times aren’t going to last forever,” she said, “so they create music that will take them through the bad times.”

That’s a brilliant idea, I said – I’m sorry to say, though, that most people don’t have that foresight. Remember, this all happens so slowly in human time. No, it’s because when times are good, some people have the spare time and wealth to make music, or sculpt, or perform plays. When things are bad, some of that gets lost. All the great works of art, the great buildings, the roads - - they’re all built during the height of empires, not their fall.

 “Does anybody do anything during a fall?” she asked. “I mean, besides just trying to survive.”

Well, I said, when times get rough, it’s good to have a few people left who remember the secret knowledge from the old days. During many empires some people – usually aristocrats in the imperial cities – write down whatever science or proverbs they know, and students learn it in classes. When empires fall, the people who remember that sort of things seem to have special powers. Any idea who they would be?

“Librarians?” she asked. I was going to go with wizards, I laughed, but you can call them librarians.

Finally, I said, do you notice where a lot of our legends came from on this timeline? Gilgamesh came out of the first fall, Lagash out of the second. Abraham let his people out of Sumeria during that first fall, and Moses led the people out of Egypt around the time of the second. What do times like that create? “Leaders?” she asked. Right, I said, some who become vicious warlords, and some who become heroes. When things fall apart, the Age of Heroes returns.

“I’d love to see that,” she said. I hope you don’t see too much, I said, but I’m sure you’ll have a chance to be a hero in your life.

And with that, she curled up with me and we went back to reading Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Soft woods

Where we hunted mushrooms in County Clare.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Days of the forges

My first memory is of the forge; I don’t know what age. It’s a memory filled with sounds and smells, the sounds of men’s voices and the clatter of hooves coming down the street, another horse on its way, people warning me to stay out of the way and to watch the hind legs, of course. It was like a painting all crowded with people.

I remember as a child I turned the light on for my father -- I had to use a stick to reach the switch, I was so small. I must have been holding this iron for my father in the yard, and he struck before I removed my hand from the place, and he hit my thumb with the sledgehammer, and all that was troubling me was that I might curse – I remember the trouble he went to stop me cursing at the time.

You can imagine there were a lot of carts at the time, and those wheels had metal bands, so blacksmiths were kept in business until a few decades ago.

Every anvil must have its own musical tone when struck, and you could tell at a distance whose it was. I remember this anvil, and it was different than any before or since.

--  Remembrances of a blacksmithing apprentice on Radio Telefis Eireann, June 2013.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Kale crisps

If there’s one ubiquitous food for children these days, it’s potato crisps – grownups give them to kids at parties, as a treat, as a snack or sometimes just because. If you don’t want your children to eat the fat and other unhealthy ingredients of processed food, you can make try something straight from the garden, something light, crispy, salty, but packed with vitamins. Take, for example, kale crisps.

Kale remains one of our hardiest crops, perhaps closest to the original seaside crop that gave rise to the whole cabbage family, from which gardeners bred cruciferous vegetables for their bus (Brussels sprouts), their heads (cabbage and bok choi), their roots (kohlrabi) and their flowers (broccoli, cauliflower).

One of the most nutritious of vegetables overall, 100 grams carries 50 calories but has 308 per cent of the day’s needed Vitamin A, 200 per cent of the needed Vitamin C and 1021 per cent of one’s daily needs of Vitamin K. It has high levels of calcium, iron, manganese and potassium.

Kale is also useful for when it appears; it can be grown and eaten year-round in our climate, but is especially productive when greens are needed, in the fall and winter. It’s even good fodder for the animals;  the Irish Farmers’ Journal reported a couple of years ago that more growers turned to kale as a feed crop, one that could be grazed from October until March and yields eight to 12 tonnes of dry matter per acre.

Kale can be sown from April to June – we put ours in small seed trays and keep them inside, and put them in the ground four to six weeks after they germinate. They need well-fertilised soil with a great deal of manure or compost added, but also need it to drain well. They are less prone to disease than the more heavily inbred cabbage varieties, but still shouldn’t be put in a bed where you have had cruciferous vegetables in the previous few years.

To make kale into crisps, first snap some of the leaves off kale and bring it inside, remove the centre ribs and chop each leaf into several pieces. Wash them and let them dry – this will be the longest part, as they have to be completely dry to crisp up properly. I find it best to spin them and let them sit a few hours on a rack.

Pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it in a layer one kale-piece deep.

The real trick is to let them bake for just the right amount of time – a minute too little and they come out limp and soggy, a minute too long and they blacken and burn. I put mine in for 15 minutes, but that will depend on your oven and the type of kale you use. Start checking at 10 minutes, and wing it from there.

When you take them out of the oven, sprinkle them with salt or – if you want to cut down on salt, as I did, with a spice mix of powdered vegetable stock, lemon zest, cayenne and pepper.

You can cook kale in many other ways. We often put it in bean soup – first we take dried beans and leave them in water for a day or two, and then boil them in water for an hour until the liquid is thick and reduced and the beans soft all the way through. While that’s boiling I dice and sautee a few onions in a pot, stir in other vegetables in season like celery, carrots, turnips, swedes, potatoes – all diced and then sautéed until slightly soft – and then add heaping quantities of washed and chopped kale. Finally, I add the beans and let them all cook together, until they are soft without being overcooked

My favourite is probably the sweet-and-sour kale we make in our house. First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar, and a tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter. These are general recipe outlines, of course -- see what formula you like best.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mushroom season

 We live surrounded by the Bog of Allen, and bogland is never more than a short walk in any direction. It's an interesting environment, bog -- when dry the ground is hard and maroon, sometimes barely covered by wildflowers or broken by patches of trees, yet when it rains it swells like dough and bounces under the feet like a mattress.

Most importantly for us, though, you get some mushrooms there, and on Sunday The Girl and I went hunting. I've written before about our love of mushrooms, and we found some great birch boletuses, which went into lunch for the next day.

Under our own soil we have a colony of ink-cap mycellium, and sometimes their mushrooms grow between our plants like a second crop. These were gathered the same day, squeezing between the kale.

Sunday, 7 September 2014