Corn Salad!

Corn Salad – Valerianella locusta

The monks’ gardens or herbularii contained beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. [ ……. ] What is significant is the survival of this ‘knowledge’ in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The ‘knowledge’ is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.) The question now is – without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce,and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips’ Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject – edible weeds – has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.

But there is another problem: in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are ‘protected’, and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.

So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required – the Law and the application of pesticides.

It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.

Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman’s Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.

Patience Gray – “Honey From a Weed

This long section from “Honey From a Weed” is taken from the chapter on edible weeds. Just by way of explanation, Patience Gray was a contemporary of Elizabeth David (I don’t think they cared for one another very much) but each followed very different lives, as did Jane Grigson whose husband Geoffrey is referenced at the end of the quoted section. Very different though they are, for me they are the Holy Trinity of mid 20th century food writers. Between them they did so much more than give me some favourite recipes, because they articulated the foundational truth that cooking is a cultural activity. It’s rooted in the everyday lives of human beings who live in vastly different settings. When I open Patience Gray I can smell the wild oregano and hear Puglian olive trees as their leaves rustle in the hot sun. Patience Gray gave me one of our favourite courgette recipes – Zucchini al forno – but also taught us about human lives, lived out of difficult unforgiving soil and embracing both fasting and feasting. Lives full of seasonal rhythms and texture which led to a book stuffed with insight. I’d urge you to get a copy and embrace it, because I know that if we carry on in the crazy way we’re going and when the climate suddenly switches into something far less temperate – then we’re going to have to live very different lives.

Anyway, this merry thought came to mind as we were watering the allotment early in the morning, trying to beat the suffocating heat. Just recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at little white numbers, rather like the picture at the top. Many of them are known as Crucifers because they have four petals, symmetrically arranged in a cross shape. Easy peasy. However if you count the petals on the flowers in the photo at the top they all have five petals, which means they’re something else. I had a little chew – don’t try this if you’re not familiar with a plant, but it was pretty sweet and salad-like. It’s Corn Salad, also known as Lamb’s Lettuce probably self seeded from a neighbour’s allotment. But regardless of whether it came via a seed packet or a stray wild seed, it brought Patience Gray immediately to mind. She was a great one for the spring purgative of wild weeds to clear the blood.

To return to a theme that’s been occupying my mind recently, it seems completely random to divide plants into binary groups; edible/inedible, food plant/ medicinal herb. We are both fed and healed by the food we eat, if we choose wisely; and as Gray points out, that leaves the onus on us to choose wisely.

In the kingdom of the blind

So with these thoughts in mind, I set off on a Bath Nats field trip yesterday and found myself being the only person with a modicum of botanical knowledge. Normally I coast along at the back, content to leave the ID’s to a real expert; but in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and so it fell to me to rummage around in my disorderly memory to try to assist the other members with even less experience than me. I think I blagged my way through it pretty well simply because nearly all the plants that came my way were ones I’d recently struggled with and identified; and I have to say it was terrific fun – I really enjoyed it.

The walk took us in a long four and a bit miles loop around the village of Newton St Loe, which is pretty much owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and shared between several farms, a stunningly beautiful village and one of the Bath Spa University campuses that contains a couple of fishing lakes. The wildlife was, as you might imagine, very rich and varied – lots of birds, insects, dragonflies and the kind of plants you expect to find in mixed woodland and open grassland. The species list will emerge in due course, I’m sure, but I wanted to focus on just two fields which we passed through as we climbed towards the Wilmington Ridge with spectacular views across some archetypal countryside. The first field had a mixed crop of field peas and barley that really threw me, because when I first looked at it I thought it was a complete mess. However a bit of research when I got home, suggests that we’re going to see more and more of this kind of crop as landowners turn to regenerative farming. The peas are grown to augment the protein content of the conventional grain and as a substitute for imported soybeans. Being legumes, the peas also fix nitrogen in the soil and store carbon – so it’s a win win. Obviously there’s a question to be addressed about growing these mixtures to fatten cattle but this is a relatively small mixed organic farm doing its best to adapt to climate change. I’m sure George Monobiome wouldn’t approve but I’m not clear he approves of anything these days (except forests and nuclear power stations ????)

The other field showed a long term result of increasingly intensive cereal farming. A crop of wheat was completely infested with Black Grass – Slender Foxtail, Alopecurus myosuroides. This is a weed of arable crops that has become a massive problem for farmers because it’s easily infected by ergot fungus which it passes on to the host crop – possibly even making it unsaleable. The refined extract of Ergot, Ergotamine, is used by midwives to induce labour. In historical times when it infected rye, it caused a disease known as St Anthony’s Fire which killed around a million people at the end of the first millennium and caused immense suffering through boils and hallucinations. This is not a road you want to go down! This didn’t used to be a problem when crops were mostly spring sown, but these days cereals are sown earlier and earlier in the autumn; germinating at exactly the same time as Black Grass. This challenge converged with another one – the overuse of chemical herbicides – and the Black Grass began to develop immunity to almost all the herbicides that had been used to keep it under control. A small problem suddenly became a really big one. The good news (if there’s any good news in this sorry tale of industrialisation) is that farmers are now having to cope with astronomical rises in the costs of diesel fuel, nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and so, suddenly the organic, regenerative and – dare I say – traditional mixed farming skills are getting a lot of attention.

So to go back to Patience Gray, we’ve fallen for the great lie that we can have feasting, feasting and more feasting if we follow the path of industrialisation. There’s nothing preventing us from moving towards a far more sustainable future so long as we can accept that every day can’t be Christmas Day without destroying the earth. There can be no more feasting unless we accept that a full and sustainable life has to embrace fasting as well.

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – even carrots know that.

I intended to write a piece today about the pleasures of browsing the little treats on the allotment. Strawberries are the most obvious one; the moment they ripen we eat them straight off the plants so they never make it home. But there are others too. The picture on the left is of the impressively large seeds of Sweet Cicely which taste marvellous straight off the plant. It’s one of those plants that contain natural sweeteners, and we usually put some flowers, leaves or seeds into the rhubarb while it’s cooking. It adds a useful amount of sweetness and a delicious aniseed flavour. Foraging on the allotment is a great way of putting some of the plants we normally call weeds to good use. Nettles, dandelions, Good King Henry are all good to eat when young and the pot marigolds make good skin cream as well as the flowers being edible. Nasturtiums to can be pressed into service to brighten up a salad.

But that’s on the allotment where we’re sure what it is we’re eating. Beyond the safety of the allotment there are a multitude of temptations, some of which can even kill us if we’re not entirely sure of the species. I was reminded of this yesterday on our riverside walk when I spotted this beauty growing out of the steel piles that were driven into the river bed to contain the regular floods. It took a moment to realize that it was hemlock water dropwort, the seeds of which must have insinuated themselves into a crack in the wall during one of those floods. Normally it grows in swathes on the banks of streams and rivers – mainly in the West Country. I think it’s beautiful when in flower; like a starburst of white; but it’s a killer if you should eat any part of it.

Compared with the flowers of sweet Cicely on the right, they can look quite similar to a beginner.

The carrot family, as it’s now known, used to be called the umbellifers because of the distinctive flower heads, but the family name was changed because there are lots of unrelated species that also have umbels – think of elderflower which is almost ready to pick now for cordials. The carrot family has some of our most useful food plants as well as some very nasty country cousins and, as a family they need to be treated with respect by foragers. They’re not always easy to identify, but usually leaves, height, season, local plant lists which you can download for every area of the UK from the BSBI, and habitat give us a good start. Just as not all dandelions are really dandelions at all, so there are wild edible carrot family members like Alexanders or Herb Gerard (which I’ve still never eaten because I’m still wary). Like fungus hunting, learning from a skilled guide – i.e. not me – is a useful investment.

Meanwhile back on the allotment things are quite literally hotting up with the weather closer to June averages and the polytunnel full. We’ve seen the tomatoes starting to set fruit, and there are peppers and chillies all fattening up already. Today we treated most of the beds with slug killing nematodes and there’s barely a square foot of empty ground. We try to avoid the worst of the heat by skipping breakfast and watering as early as possible – good for the plants and the waistline too. Plants are afoot for another field trip to catch up with some old (plant) friends on the West Coast so it’s all hands to the pumps at the Potwell Inn.

Figs

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If ever you needed a demonstration of the extravagant dynamism of nature this is it. This cluster of figs didn’t exist a fortnight ago but yesterday we noticed them in all their come and get me  beauty; pristine, glossy and crowned by leaves so new that if they were lambs they’d be jumping for joy. I quickly run out of superlatives for these young fruits, not least because if they make it to full ripeness they’ll be the stars of any table.  I didn’t really like figs until we went to Corsica where they grow wild and ripen properly in the fierce summer sun, and there I discovered how good they can be. I brought the taste for them back with me and, although I wouldn’t go quite so far with a metaphor as D H Lawrence, there’s enough about a well ripened home grown fig  to make them a fleeting treat in the autumn – so long as you can pick the precise moment to pick them, which is about thirty minutes before the flies get there.

But there’s another reason for stopping to look, because these figs are squatters; vagrants escaped from the mother tree about twenty yards away and completely self-sufficient. Where we have to grow most of our crops, these we can forage because they’ve set up home in the demilitarized zone between our allotment and our neighbour’s so they don’t really belong to either of us. Neither, incidentally, are they fed, mulched or primped in any way. The only principle adopted for pruning them is to keep the path between us clear; so there is no counting of buds or consideration of shape.  We just hack them back to the point where a wheelbarrow can pass. As they approach ripeness we feign even-handedness about picking them, but we still mutter darkly when more distant neighbours are spotted giving them a squeeze as they pass. I once spotted the most brazen grazer of all slipping away with two carrier bags full of ripe figs from the mother tree – an act of larceny he excused because the tree was planted thirty years ago by a long deceased friend. There’s a PhD to be written on the ethics of the allotment site.  Occam could sharpen his razor on the distinction between a single bay leaf, picked for some stock or the complete removal of all the fixtures and fittings on an abandoned plot. We’d all agree that there is a distinction to be made but we’d probably place it just a little way beyond our own secret removals.

But how can we be so pleased with our little horticultural triumphs which involve hours of work and no little expense, when this fig demonstrates its independence so beautifully. I’m not a permaculturalist, mainly because the cost of making it universal would be depopulation on a huge, even monstrous scale; but that doesn’t mean that I’m not deeply interested in those resources that the earth provides and which we neglect as we stuff ourselves with rich processed food to the detriment of our health and the entire ecosystem. I read last night that the leaves of red valerian – Centranthus ruber – are delicious in salads.  Aside from the fact that one of our sons is horribly allergic to it, I’d never thought of eating it because however botanically sophisticated I may have become as I grow older, I still instinctively divide plants into ‘food’ and ‘weeds’ and I suspect my mother placed border guards in my head to warn me off inviting strangers into the kitchen. Recently I laughed heartily at a seed catalogue offering couch grass for money, in spite of the fat that I readily rub an ointment containing its roots into my skin when I get small patches of eczema. That said, maybe I should start a rumour that the figs are escaped from a deadly plant breeding experiment aimed at quietly exterminating Italian waiters.

Today it’s been raining again so I redeemed the shining hour by making bread and baking another Dundee cake. Life at the Potwell Inn is ever challenging and so today we turned the mattress on the bed and put some clean sheets on; such is the nature of the ordinary – you have to wrestle a blessing out of it

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