I’ve been ‘doing’ garlic for a few days now, and I’ll get back to it in a moment, but before I do I’d like to tell a cautionary tale about Chamomile and the trouble it can cause. I was sitting at my desk reading Eric Block’s book on garlic – the one I mentioned yesterday – and I was drinking a cup of chamomile tea, and because my mind tends to hop about a bit I started to read the label on the tea packet and saw that it simply said “Chamomile Flowers”. Given that I was already in full-on sceptical mode because I was trying to get my head around some truly challenging material (a.k.a my own scientific shortcomings) the thought floated into my mind that there was no latin name and therefore no way of knowing what I was drinking. I know this is a departure from my love for English plant names, but in this instance Chamomile could be Matricaria recutita – German chamomile, or Chamaemelum nobile – Roman chamomile; related and similar but with slightly different properties. Nearly all the authorities treat the two plants as being virtually identical but one (Andrew Chevalier) says the Roman Chamomile is more bitter, and the tea is more often made from German chamomile. That squares with our experience in the summer when we made tea from our own (Roman) plants and the resulting brew was unpalatably bitter.
So there is a difference between the two plants, but whether it could be discovered from a used teabag was another matter altogether. But fortunately I discovered that the flowers differ in that the centre of the Roman chamomile flower is solid whereas the German chamomile has a hollow centre to the flower. Time for scalpel and magnifier and – hey presto – as the photo shows, the tea bags contain German chamomile.
Back then to garlic – and some attempt to figure out whether it works or not. Block’s monograph cites a pile of papers and it would be fair to say that the scientific verdict came back as a definite maybe but can’t be sure. I guess some of the wilder reaches of the advertising hype will not stand proper scrutiny, but some more research I came across suggests that at least one problem may be the lack of standardisation of garlic products used for research. The link leads to the whole paper and it’s worth a read even if you’re not (like me) used to the language.
Tonight we’re off to a Bath Natural History Society meeting on the Purple Emperor butterfly given by Matthew Oates who will probably talk about the rewilding of the Knebb estate. Should be good.
Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself. I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out. But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up. The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either, I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.
But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.
We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before. The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.
So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book. Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem. After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.
If you love cooking you’ll love this book. It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.
The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but – there was far more there and I’d forgotten it. You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.
So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture. The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.
In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple. Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.
We have lost the very skills that could sustain us
Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it. The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!
No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.