Sunday, 24 April 2016

Stretching the spring

We had a guest staying with us who was a massive help on the property, and her industrious hard work, plus, the fine weather of spring, has allowed us to re-do much of our garden. We now have a potato bed, have torn down much of our wooden garden, and will be putting it back in brick. We took the berry bushes and transplanted them to the back edge of our land, where we planted them in a newly built raised bed. We'll be creating a thorny hedge along the cow fence, creating our own barbed-wire hedgerow to keep out our neighbours' cows in case they get adventurous.

Our guest also planted some of the willow shoots we pollarded some weeks ago, and they will fill a gap in our hedgerow. I will put cardboard between the shoots to keep the weeds down, and lay down the now-rotted boards that made up our garden beds; as they compost down, they will feed the young trees, and we will be able to lay them down, year after year, into a hedgerow, a solid living wall of wood.

We used to have shower doors made of plexi-glass, or transparent plastic, until one of them came off the hinges. We could spend a lot of money to put it back, or we can just use a shower curtain and use the two-metre-long, one-metre wide transparent slab to make a cold-frame.

Cold-frames are ideal for people who lack the space or extra money for a greenhouse or poly-tunnel, but they allow you to do the same thing: to let you grow plants in a space that will let in sunlight but trap heat. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds.

A cold-frame is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south, and a bit taller than your waist so you don’t have to stoop to get into it. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do.

To keep seedlings going during the winter, you can insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam. You can also do what the Victorians did and pile in manure under the bed, which generates a lot of heat when it decomposes. Put soil on top for the seedlings, and you give the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Around this time of year, most of us are only just beginning to put in our plants outside – and we still have the occasional frost. Plants are at their most valuable when they are seedlings, and can perish quickly with a drop in temperature, a deluge of rain or a nibble from a passing critter. Seedlings are also expensive to buy; you can grow annual plants from seeds, but that means that you lose up to a month of growing time.

Cold-frames solve this problem, allowing you to start your seeds early under conditions that you control, while it is still cold and miserable outside. The additional month of growing time means that you can get a richer harvest than you ever thought you could in this country.

After the seedlings are out, moreover, cold-frames remain useful for growing warmer-weather plants – Victorians grew tropical crops in Britain this way. During the winter months, it allows your crops to continue growing without threat of frost.

If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed– we did both this year, and it worked so well that our corn salad survived the darkest part of winter.

Photo: Grapes growing in Ireland, thanks to greenhouses and cold-frames. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Ireland's Quiet Revolution

Originally published in the American Conservative. 

Once every four years my social media feed goes bananas; hundreds of colleagues in my native USA promise that the upcoming election will the most important moment in history, the last chance to fulfill our promise as leaders of the planet or save ourselves from sliding into totalitarian darkness. This time around I know people who have supported Trump, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Carson, Clinton, Sanders, and Stein, with every fan base seeing themselves as hobbits standing up to Sauron. Too few of my friends on the left or right pay much attention to the other 195 countries of the world, or the fact that some of their elections and voter frustrations parallel the USA in instructive ways.

Here in Ireland, for example, we saw the same 2008 crash and Potemkin recovery, similar anti-government protests and civil disobedience. And in last month’s election, just as in the American primaries, many voters abandoned the mainstream choices and flocked to political independents promising radical change—and no one knows quite what will happen next.

The two countries’ upsets filtered through different voting systems: In the U.S., independents Trump and Sanders had to declare themselves a nominal Republican and Democrat, as the system effectively shuts out third parties. Ireland, though, is parliamentary; voters select their representatives in the Dail (the parliament, pronounced something like “Doyle”). The majority party—or coalition of parties—then create the ruling administration.

The U.S. is unlikely to chuck the Constitution for a parliamentary system any time soon, but Ireland has a few other innovations that my countrymen should consider. We vote for up to several people to represent one district, usually from more than one party. Voting districts are not gerrymandered into bizarre shapes, so seats are not pre-determined. We rank our choices first to last, and if candidates don’t reach a certain quota on the first round, voters’ subsequent choices are factored in—like being able to choose Rand Paul over Sanders, Sanders over Trump, and Trump over Clinton. Such rules allow voters here to fire their public servants more easily than in my native country, where one group gains extraordinary federal power by some slim margin, and voters have only one choice more than in authoritarian states like North Korea.

The two main parties, Fianna Fail (rhymes with fall, not fail) and Fine Gael (actually does rhyme with fail) parallel American Democrats and Republicans in some ways; in theory, they were ideological opposites descended from the bitter rivalry of the Irish Civil War. In practice both were centrist, pro-business parties sustained mostly by old family loyalties, reliably getting a large chunk of the votes and taking turns holding power.

On our most recent election night in February, though, the mainstream parties were shocked to receive their worst results ever, 25 and 30 percent each, while almost half the votes went to third parties and independents—the nationalist Sinn Fein, an alphabet soup of small activist parties, and an army of locally-supported wild cards. Now the government hangs in limbo, as representatives of many parties must duct-tape a coalition together.

The U.S. and Ireland also entered the 21st century with very different pasts that shape voter expectations. Americans today grew up in a superpower, surrounded by the massive infrastructure of suburban wealth; Ireland remained an agrarian and traditional society until the last few decades, and only then, during an economic boom in the 1990s, was modernized at bewildering speed.

Millions of Irish built homes with the new wealth, commuter towns increased several hundred percent in size, and the construction was financed by an escalating debt bubble. When the banks collapsed in 2008, the Fianna Fail government made the fatal decision to guarantee all bank debt with public funds. Those promises came back to haunt them in 2010, when the country went effectively bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Ireland has chafed under its debt burden ever since, and many of my neighbors feel that they left the boom worse than they entered.

After this economic crisis, in 2011, the once-dominant Fianna Fail lost 60 percent of their support—the greatest fall of any party in Irish history. A Fine Gael-led coalition took power, but support for third parties and independents began to rise. The new government’s honeymoon quickly wore off; the terms of the bailout limited their power to make changes, and a series of new taxes and fees angered an already struggling populace. (Water charges introduced in late 2014, for example, spurred massive public protests that are still going 18 months later, and almost half of all households have simply refused to pay them.)

When the time came for a new election this year, Fine Gael’s slogan, “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going,” garnered only horse laughter from people who weren’t feeling the recovery. In the end, Ireland’s recent history of bubble, bust, and bailout effectively destroyed generations-old political loyalties, leading one wag to comment that Angela Merkel had finally ended Ireland’s civil war.

In the U.S., populist groundswells for Trump and Sanders might be strong enough to tear the two parties apart without actually leading their candidates to victory. In the same way, Ireland’s surge of independents crippled the two main parties, but are not strong enough to take power themselves; even if they could all work together, they would be just shy of a majority.

That leaves every politico and pundit in the country frantically shuffling numbers around to see what kind of government is possible, and whatever agreement party leaders reach in the coming weeks will result in the strangest in the Republic’s history. The possibilities include:
  1. The two mainstream parties go into coalition with each other. Picture Republicans Rubio and Kasich forming a government with Hillary Clinton to stop Trump and Sanders, and you see how much pride would have to be swallowed.
  2. A minority Fine Gael government cobbled together with many, many independents, who are meeting with Fine Gael leaders one by one and presenting lists of individual demands in exchange for co-operation.
  3. Everyone gives up and a new election is called, and all the candidates re-open their campaign offices.
In theory, if the next election results tip even further away from the main parties, the next government could be run by the largest third party—in this case the socialist Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army during the terrorism of the 1970s and ’80s. That’s not as frightening as it sounds: they abandoned violence two decades ago, and have been increasingly accepted as a legitimate party. But it would be unprecedented, with unknown effects on Ireland’s relations with Britain and Europe. 

For now the country feels strangely like the U.S. did in November of 2000—but with a few important differences. People here don’t demand global dominance or an endless boom, just jobs and basic infrastructure. Since the system allows for many parties to participate, voters know they can blow off frustrations without destroying the established order. 

Most importantly, voters here lack the sense of imminent apocalypse that haunts Americans. Some Irish are celebrating after the election, some are chastened, some are making deals—but no one is panicking. Whatever happens, they’ll get through this.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Published by history magazine

The very nice people at Medieval Histories have reprinted my piece on bog butter -- check it out here, and the rest of their magazine.

Photo: The bog after a rain.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

What else you can do with rhubarb

Before we casually shipped warehouses of vegetables across oceans and refrigerated them, spring was traditionally a lean time in Western temperate climates, a time when our ancestors had been living on things like salted meat or grains for months. The first edible greenery, then, gave food a much-needed injection of vitamins and flavour -- nettles, linden leaves, hawthorn leaves, sorrel, and most importantly rhubarb.

For this reason, early rhubarb – a vegetable that “thinks it’s a fruit” -- became an important crop for people who lived in far-northerly climates like ours, especially if you could “force” it to grow early and long. “Forcing” rhubarb involves moving the rhubarb into darkened sheds where they plants shoot upwards – reaching for the light, as it were – and the stalks grow long and tender. A tiny patch of Yorkshire, UK called the “rhubarb triangle” once produced 90 per cent of the world’s forced winter rhubarb.   

Country people here frequently gave rhubarb away as gifts for visitors, and newcomers described delivering party invitations door to door and walking away with armfuls of rhubarb at each house. Many people’s knowledge of cooking rhubarb, however, extends only to one recipe -- the rhubarb crumble dessert.

Many other dishes are possible, though – savoury or spicy, by itself or as a sauce for something else. To make rhubarb you simply have to deal with its two central facts – 1.) it is very tart, and must be mixed with other flavours, and 2.) it disintegrates into mush when cooked. That still leaves a lot of possibilities, though, beyond the one dish everyone makes. For example:

Savoury rhubarb spread – take one strip of rashers (bacon), one stalk of rhubarb (about 80g) and two red onions (about 100g). Dice the rasher into small pieces and fry it for about five minutes or so until they are brown but not yet crisp.  

Dice the red onions and put them in, or run them through a mandolin and break them up into slivers. Also slice the rhubarb with the mandolin, and mix the onion-and-rhubarb slivers together. After the bacon has been cooking five minutes or so, drain most of the oil out – save it for later – and toss the onions and rhubarb in the pan and mix them about. Add pinches of salt, black pepper, mustard powder and cayenne.

In about ten minutes the onions and rhubarb should cook down into a maroon paste; tart, savoury and spicy all at once. Once that is done you can spread the paste over crackers, as I did, or on toast.

Rhubarb-and-cucumber salad – The key to this is salting the rhubarb and cucumber to take the edge off the taste. Take one stalk of rhubarb (say, 80g) and one cucumber (about 150g) and peel the cucumber. Slice both thinly with a mandolin, put them in a bowl and add about 20g of salt. Let the mix sit for an hour or two, and then wash and drain the vegetables.

For the dressing, mix 200ml or so of some home-made yogurt or plain yogurt – “Greek style” works best. Chop about 100g or so of herbs – I used a mix of mint, dill, chives, parsley and Bernard – and mix them in thoroughly. Mix them with the cucumber and rhubarb, and you have an excellent salad.

Rhubarb salsa – Take half a stalk of rhubarb – say, about 50g – and slice it through the mandolin. Dice half an onion, also about 50g -- and a yellow pepper, of about 50g. Slice one jalapeno pepper in the mandolin. Keep them all separate.

Lightly oil the bottom of a cooking pot, turn the stove on low and throw in the diced onions. Cook for one minute. Throw in the sliced rhubarb and jalapeno and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in the yellow pepper and cook for one more minute.

While that is cooking, dice three tomatoes and toss them in, and turn off the heat. Chop up about 50g of coriander finely and toss that in as well, and mix everything together well. Add a teaspoon of Siracha sauce, or some comparable hot sauce, and a dash of garlic salt and black pepper. Scoop up with nachos, crisps or toast, or eat by itself.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ireland's 100th anniversary

A century ago this Easter, 1,200 Irish soldiers tried to take the city of Dublin by force; 500 would be killed, and 3,500 Dubliners taken prisoner by the British. The uprising that marked the beginning of the War for Independence.

Today Ireland saw its largest-ever parade to honour the 1916 Uprising.

Also, Happy Easter!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Published in American Conservative

They have just published my piece on the Irish election, so check it out.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Ireland in a strange time

 My American friends and family will be interested to note that their country is not the only country having a bizarre election. A few weeks ago we voted for a new government in Ireland, and the outcome was so bizarre and unprecedented that no one knows what it is yet. No party came out of the election with a majority, so they have to work together to create a coalition, and no one has made such a deal yet.

I'm writing a piece about this for a US magazine, which I hope to publish here shortly. In the meantime, however, let me run this piece on the differences between how Ireland and my native country handled the roller-coaster of the last several years.


The village of Sallins in County Kildare, Ireland, lies on a stretch of road with two stone bridges — one over a railroad built in the 1840s, the other over a canal a quarter-millennium old. The bridges, canal, and railroad are sturdy and remain in use, but now they sit in the shadow of a modern office complex, a stillborn child of the recent economic boom. It opened just in time for the crash and instantly became a graffiti-covered derelict.

Ireland seems to specialize in this smashing together of the ancient and the modern. Just a brief drive from my house in Sallins, a new Starbucks overlooks medieval ruins, and a thatch-roofed pub has a satellite dish. But many of the new features are destined for a short shelf life. The country has seen the same troubles as my native United States — layoffs, bailouts, bubbles, and cutbacks — and the vacant office buildings reinforce the picture of desperation. Talk to the people, though, and a more complex picture comes into view.

The Irish have a lot in common with Americans, and not just because our globalized culture has everybody listening to Beyoncé and talking about the next series of Game of Thrones. To a Missouri boy like me, many things seem familiar: faces and last names, crops and churches, country music stations and county fairs. This is where much of rural America comes from, the original of the species. In other ways, of course, Ireland is a European nation, with nationalized health care, coalition governments, no death penalty, and no guns.

And when it comes to attitudes toward economic hard times, the Irish could not be less American, owing to the country's unusual modern history. Ireland’s stark landscape of windswept plains and ancient monoliths draws legions of tourists, inspires New Age records, fantasy literature, and inspirational calendars. But we see those ruins out of context. When built, they were surrounded by towns, farms, and a cold rainforest like Oregon’s today. In medieval times, Ireland was a civilized and densely populated country compared to most of Europe. Even after the land was conquered and the forests felled, as many as 8 million people lived here — almost twice as many as today. Over the last 200 years, the populations of most countries increased dramatically — Britain’s by seven-fold, America's by a factor of 50. Ireland’s was cut by almost half.

The most important reason was the Famine, of course, and you can still hear the capital F when Irish people say it. But that epochal crash was just the worst chapter of a history that emptied the land and made Ireland the world’s most famous exporter of sad songs and refugees. Perhaps no other people but the Jews have been so defined by tragedy and exodus.

In the U.S. and around the world, the descendants of the Irish multiplied until they vastly outnumbered the population of Ireland itself, and many retained an (often sentimentalized) love for their ancestral homeland. It’s the reason so many cities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, why Ireland became such a popular tourist destination as the Land that Time Forgot. Even when Ireland’s cultural exports expanded beyond the Quiet Man stereotypes to U2 and The Commitments, the country retained its image of charming poverty.

Poverty looks better in memoirs or through the tour bus window. When my wife moved to County Clare in the 1970s, indoor plumbing and electricity were new and still not universal. Potatoes and cabbage really were the staple foods, and pubs and gambling houses were more common than libraries or grocery stores.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, most older people I talk to remember those days fondly. They recall a life that few modern people have experienced, spending the days working in the company of family and friends. They speak with pride of being able to provide their own food and fuel. They say that neighbors helped each other through the lean times, weaving a dense web of indebtedness. They too might be sentimentalizing a life most of us would find harsh, but they also tend to agree that in its prosperity, Ireland has lost something precious.

During the 20th century, the modern world slowly crept in, until most Irish had cars and televisions, and cracks began to appear in the old culture. Contraception was legalized in 1978, homosexuality in 1988, divorce in 1995. Then in the 1990s, a number of computer companies settled in Ireland, and the unthinkable happened.

In just a few years, Ireland went from being one of the poorest of Western nations to one of the richest, with double-digit annual growth some years. For the first time in centuries, poor immigrants flooded into Ireland, mostly Slavs who filled the service sector. Land prices in our area doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again. Villages swelled with housing developments — the population of Sallins quadrupled in a decade. Traffic jams filled the newly built highways, traditional pubs remodelled as trendy nightspots. It was as if the whole country had won the lottery.

The shake-up gave a boost to other changes that were already in the works. It dealt a final blow to the Troubles with Northern Ireland, effectively ending a thousand years of conflict. It did the same for the Catholic Church’s once-uncontested power. By European standards, Ireland remains devout: abortion remains illegal, state schools are Catholic, and the national television stations take breaks for vespers. When my bus passes a church, half the passengers still make the sign of the cross. But most remember the Church’s sometimes abusive history, and few today rue the breaking of its political power.

But even the newfound excess was frugal by American standards. The Irish use less energy per capita than most Western European nations, and half of the energy per capita as the average American. Personal savings remain much higher in Ireland than in the U.S. Personal debt has increased, but only because so many acquired new mortgages in the last decade.

More significantly, few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God. In short, the Irish did not react as many of my own countrymen did to the rising economic fortunes of the U.S.

Most Americans don’t imagine themselves to have lived through a boom of their own, but they have — just one that has lasted a human lifetime, so few people now remember frugality. The current crisis has left many Americans feeling helpless and outraged: this isn’t supposed to happen to us. The Irish make no assumptions, and now that lean times have returned, any older Irish person remembers how to live through them.

Living on an island makes Ireland more vulnerable to a depression, fuel shortage, or food crisis, and yet the Irish seem more prepared to endure it. Agrarian self-sufficiency ran too deep, too recently to be fully abandoned. Many people here grow gardens, and until recently it was common for schools and hospitals to have a garden outside to feed the students and patients. Cities and towns are compact to the point of claustrophobia, so arable land is never far away. Public transportation is widespread and carries no stigma of poverty. Perhaps most importantly, everyone seems willing to help even distant relatives — and if they live on the island, they are never far away.

Finally, much of the old infrastructure is still functional, or could be put back into service again soon, and could last for centuries after the boom’s plastic and plywood have collapsed. The railroads still run through Sallins, and could be electrified or horse-drawn if needed. The old canal barges may be lying on the banks with trees growing through them, but new ones could be made. The 250-year-old bridges are used every day with little sign of wear. They were built before the throwaway world was even imagined.

No one in Ireland would find a post-crash world pleasant or easy, but their culture might allow them to cope better than most. Traditional Ireland, the culture that older people remember and that still exists all around, was a post-crash world, its institutions and customs shaped by the Famine experience. The boom swept away the uglier aspects of the old order — the institutional abuse, the Troubles — but did not fully replace the qualities that older people here miss.

Many Irish see austerity not as the end of the world but as the hangover after the party, after which life will go back to normal. They have been here before. This is where they lived.

Originally published by Big Questions Online

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Ides of March

First of all, some good news: My piece on bog butter has been reprinted in Grit Magazine, as well as on the Medieval Histories web site. Thanks to the people at Medieval Histories for asking permission, and for creating such a great resource.

I’m also set to be published in the home-schooling magazine The Old Schoolhouse later this year, and in the American Conservative shortly.

Finally, I’m also still writing my weekly column for our local newspaper, and last week, with their permission, I wrote about something other than my usual gardening and recipes – I tried to explain US elections, and this one in particular, to an Irish audience. Since the AmCon piece will be explaining Irish elections to an American audience, I'm doing my part for international understanding.

Today we had one of the first dry and slightly warm days of the year, so that I could chop wood in a T-shirt. Our heat pump hasn’t worked all winter, so we’ve been using up wood as fast as I can cut it, and today was the first time I’ve been able to catch up and build a surplus. 

The Girl and I built two ramshackle shelters a few weeks ago to keep firewood, and they’ve done an admirable job through the dark and rainy winter weeks. They are simply willow poles and old construction boards, held together with nails and scrap wood, knobbly and humorously ugly – but when high winds raced across the bog, blowing off the door to our greenhouse and pulling a tree down into our driveway, they stood and kept our wood dry. 

At my request, The Girl stacked bricks of turf into baskets for us to burn tonight, and we have almost used up our pile of turf. As I mentioned in the bog butter article, turf is decades of sphagnum peat moss, compacted into a reddish solid, and for generations the Irish have dug it up for fuel. Three years ago The Girl and I went into the bog and footed this turf – separated it into bricks and stacked it cross-hatching-style so that it would dry in the summer months. Then, in the autumn, we piled it onto my neighbour’s tractor, and he delivered it to our door. It was a year’s worth of turf, but we’ve made it last three years. 

We also tore down our old rose trellis and put up a new one, and The Girl got a great deal of adolescent satisfaction of smashing it up with a sledge-hammer and a hatchet. I also put her to work chopping all the elder saplings growing up around the edge of our property; elders are basically weeds in tree form, and they are pernicious, smelly, ugly and choke out other plants. We value them for their elderflowers and elderberries, but we will have plenty of those. Thus, on the edge of our land by the cow pasture, I want to eliminate all the elder saplings and plant beds of willow, which I can pollard each year and make into baskets. 

I’ve also been uprooting the brambles that grow around our property, which were also getting out of control, and I’m gathering the planks of wood that are rotted or broken, and that we can no longer use With these I made a bonfire, turning all of it into ash – and I’ve been using the ash to make lye, and hopefully soap in the future.

There’s a lot more to do, and the growing season is almost upon us.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Winter recipes

We've had a cold winter here in the bog, as our heat pump has not been working and we've had to use a great deal of firewood to keep warm. We've also been running through the last of the bog turf that The Girl and I footed -- stacked to dry in the bog -- a few years ago. 

We also need to redo our entire garden, as well; the scaffolding boards we used to build our garden, six years ago, have rotted through, and we need to rebuild it in brick. Still, we have a lot of crops in there that we need to use quickly, and this is the perfect time of year for winter comfort food.

Root salad: Celeriac is an under-appreciated vegetable here; a relative of celery bred for its root rather than its stalks, it grows larger than most human heads and is quite nutritious. Like parsnips, it’s too tough to eat straight like a carrot, but it can be either cooked for a winter soup or shredded finely for a salad.

3 large carrots
100g celeriac
2 red beets
2 apples
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup of chives
¼ cup other garden herbs, like dill, burnet and sorrel.

Shred carrots, celeriac, beets and apples. Chop scallions. Finely chop garden herbs.

Combine vinegar and oil in a large bowl, whip into a vinaigrette sauce, stir in the herbs, then slowly mix all other ingredients into it. Let stand for an hour. If you want something more Oriental, you can mix soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil.

Borscht: This import from Russia is a great warmer on a winter day, very nutritious, filling and with lots of fibre. It can be almost too much fibre for some people’s systems, so don’t eat too much your first go.

700g beetroot, or one large one.
200g celery
500g onions
50ml lemon juice
10ml dark soy sauce
One large clove of garlic
Black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Centigrade. First peel and dice the beetroots, drizzle a little olive oil over the cubes and toss them around until they are lightly coated in oil. Stretch aluminium foil over an oven tray, spread the cubed beetroot over the tray and put it in the oven for an hour or until they are soft and darkened.

While that is roasting, take a large pot and drizzle the bottom with oil and butter. Dice the onions, put them in the pan and stir around, and then add the celery. If you like, at this point you could also add cabbage or carrots. Finely shred the garlic and mix it in right before the end.

Let them sautee until they are soft and lightly golden. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and add 50 ml of lemon juice, 10 ml of dark soy sauce and stir in. Finally, take the beetroots out of the oven and add them to the pot. 

I blitzed the soup with a mixer, but if you don’t have one you can just mash up the chunky bits. Then pour the borscht into bowls and put a dollop of sour cream in the middle, and sprinkle a bit of dill and chervil over the top.

Savoury squash:
On the rare occasions that people here cook squash, they usually accentuate its already sweet flesh into a dessert. Personally, I find that to be going too far, and prefer to offset the sweetness with other notes – tart, spicy and especially savoury. This baked dish combines all of these.

200g butternut squash, peeled and diced
200g onions
1 clove garlic, finely grated
30g gruyere cheese
2 eggs
10g chopped parsley
10 ml vegetable stock
10 ml lemon juice
10 ml spicy mustard
1 dash cayenne pepper

Peel the butternut squash, and scoop out the seeds in the middle. Dice the remaining flesh into squares about a centimeter across. Place a pat of butter and a teaspoon of oil in a pan and sautee the remaining squash flesh for 10 minutes. Add the onions and sautee 10 more minutes, and add some garlic a minute before the end.

In a bowl, mix the lemon juice, the vegetable stock, the mustard, the cayenne, the parsley and the eggs. Turn off the stove and transfer the squash-onion mix into a small baking dish, and mix in everything from the bowl. Shred the gruyere cheese and sprinkle it over the top. Bake it in the oven at 200 degrees Centigrade for 20 minutes, or until done.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Bog butter

Like most people these days, we have a refrigerator to keep food fresh, and it runs on electricity – and here in Ireland, we get that from burning peat, or “turf.” A short walk from our house in the Bog of Allen, the land has been strip-mined to remove, press and dry the turf, in order to burn it in furnaces to boil water to run turbines to spin magnets to generate electricity to run refrigerators to keep food fresh.

Or you could do what Irish people used to do for thousands of years, and just bury food in the bog without all the steps in between. And when I say “food,” I really mean butter. It sounds bizarre, but there were good reasons for it, and we’re experimenting with preserving food the same way ourselves.

Irish bogs are often misty and mysterious places, where local people would secretly speak their own forbidden language, teach children their faith, poach meat – and occasionally hide things. When farmers later drained areas of bog-land, they revealed the reddish ground under the water – thousands of years of compacted sphagnum peat moss, pressed into a solid mass. The farmers then scooped out the turf with special shovels, dried them at home, and burned them in the fireplace – and today, machines do the same thing on a vaster scale.

Occasionally they find more than turf. Archaeologists have found ancient necklaces, coins, tools, swords, 1,200-year-old prayer-books, the remains of Viking settlements, and apparent human sacrifices. Not much decomposes in the acidic, oxygen-free bog-water, so tough organic material simply cures in it like leather. Shops around us sell “bog-oak,” wood from ancient trees that fell in the bog long ago, cured and darkened but still solid, and some writers believe that the Irish used to bury wood there intentionally to make musical instruments with the right tone.

And sometimes turf-diggers unearth packages of butter – small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago – and many such discoveries have been eaten, and were reported to be delicious.

More than 430 such finds have been recorded, and that does not count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

All the same, why butter, you ask? Probably because decomposers are slow to take apart fats anyway, and meat or vegetables would be more readily consumed. A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China).

Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; with it you can fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion.

As with the other organic matter, butter did not go rancid in the waterlogged soil, and could be perfectly preserved after thousands of years. Archaeologist Daniel C. Fisher buried various meats in a frozen pond and a peat bog for comparison, and found that after a year, the meat buried in the bog had no more bacteria than the frozen meat – and remember, some of that fast-food meat might be more than a year in the freezer.

Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that some might have liked; recently unearthed butter, taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren, was reported to taste like well-aged cheese.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, making some butter at home and burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. In the old days this might have been done with a butter churn, but we were only doing small amounts, so we poured milk into a jar until it was half full and shook it – music is good for this part. At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you have a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid. In olden days many people would pat the butter dry of any milk-liquids, but we heated the solids off, not-quite clarifying it. Then we solidified it, wrapped it in cloth, and set off from our house.

From our house it’s a short walk to the Bog of Allen, where we dug a hole half a metre deep. We tied a rope around the cloth wrapping, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby tree, and counted the steps in each direction to the neighbouring field. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible the results are. Such experiments combine home-schooling, home-cooking, and empirical science all in one, and help us re-discover the methods our forebears used to survive for generations.

Caroline Earwood, ‘Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History’, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 8 (1997), 25-42.
James O’Laverty, ‘The True Reason Why the Irish Buried Their Butter in Bog Banks’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 2 (1892), 356-337.
'Wrapped and Stuffed: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012'.