Monday, 29 September 2014


As we approach autumn it is the perfect time to start gathering and preserving root crops, or to think about which ones you want to order for over the winter or next year, beyond the usual potatoes or turnips.

When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

We grew scorzonera last year, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. We also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

We have been enjoying kohlrabi, a cabbage relative bred for its root, which we peel and eat like an apple, or dice, boil and serve in a white roux. Yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Of course beetroots are just coming in – more on those in subsequent weeks.

To preserve your roots, you might be able to keep them in damp sand – we do that with beetroots, and they stay good through the winter. You can also pickle them using the pickling recipe from a few weeks ago, or look up your own. You could also create a root cellar, a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated. Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on -- often come from late-season plantings.

Root cellars can take many forms; you can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can dig an elaborate hobbit-hole into the side of a hill, like a bomb shelter. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food.

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes are covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Whatever your technique, many of the garden’s blessings lie unseen, and if properly cared for, will keep until they are need come the lean times of spring.

Photo: Borscht with dill, fennel and sour cream.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Couldn't have wished for better

I was born in a one-room hut in 1935. What kind of upbringing did I have? Brilliant -- couldn't have wished for better. No electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet.

Under any circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, so we always had to be on our best behaviour. Yet we had total freedom to run around.

We used to play hurling, as Irish children still do -- but what we used to call hurling was a kind of guerilla warfare; when two teams met there were terrible rows.

I didn't think I'd reach this age, I've reached my sell-by date. I wouldn't want it to be too long; modern medicine keeps you alive far longer than life has meaning.

-- memories of miner Tom Shaw, recorded in 2010.  Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Local pub

Not far from us, in Newtownmoneenalunagh. That's not a typo.

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.