When you step off the beaten garden path and into the realms of unusual edibles, you come across a lot that come from China, because parts of it have a temperate climate and the plants that grow well there can grow well here. And so it’s not surprising that I have a ‘professional’ interest in the plants and food of China. But in fact I have been a Sinophile from a young age – I love the art and embroidery, the lacquers and the calligraphy, the architecture and the food. However, I am not an expert, unlike Thomas Höllman, the author of The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, soon to be published by Columbia University Press.
This book is a very detailed and scholarly work. It begins, in chapter one (Rice Doesn’t Rain From Heaven) by looking at the historical and archaeological record, to show what we know of Chinese eating habits from ancient times onwards. There’s a careful sifting of the mix of myth, hyperbole, propaganda and truth, to examine the diets of everyone from peasants to royalty and the ethnic minorities.
It’s in chapter two (A Taste of Harmony) that we come to understand the title of the book: “Five basic flavors have been distinguished in China since ancient times: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty”. It talks about agricultural crops, beginning, of course with rice. Although I knew that there are long grain and short grain types of rice, I didn’t know that there are ‘sticky’ (glutinous) varieties of both; the stickiness is due to higher levels of dextrin and amylopectin.
Hemp seeds were classed as a cereal crop in the traditional Chinese system, and as carrots arrived relatively late there, they are known as “barbarian radishes”. Which shows how well radishes became integrated, since they only arrived in China a few centuries earlier.
Chapter three (Fire, Ice and Flavor) mainly covers methods of food storage and preservation. Chapter four (A Culinary Cosmos) shows us the diversity of China. The temperate regions are only one of a number of different climate zones – the coastal zones are different from the continental interior, and China is home to the Gobi desert. it has tropical, subtropical and temperate zones, with a third of the country classified as hill ranges and another third as highlands.
Despite the diversity in the landscape, and the peoples, of China, there are some striking similarities with modern Western life. A book published in the 14th century detailed 414 edible plants that destitute people in the city of Kaifeng could eat – an urban foraging manual, complete with instructions on which parts of the part to consume. Chapter five (Heavenly Dew) begins with a discussion of drinking water, with a note that “people generally regarded a remote place of origin as proof of superior quality”. (Fiji water, anyone?) It then moves on, through tea to alcoholic beverages (and the dangers of drunkenness).
Chapter six (Regulations and Conventions) offers a glimpse of the nitty gritty of Chinese life, covering everything from the laws controlling (or not) the slaughter of animals, through the ideals of healthy eating to the social etiquette of relieving oneself. (The book doesn’t pull any punches on the less savory aspects of life in China; by the time you’ve got this far you will already have read about eating dogs and people.)
Chapter seven (The Tavern of Eternal Happiness) is all about social eating, from family meals and picnics right up to banquets, and table manners. Chapter eight is the Epilogue, discussing the Westernization of food in China, but also the rise of Chinese cuisine in other countries. Then there’s an appendix with tables of plants mentioned in the text, and an extensive bibliography of references and further reading.
There’s a lot of information in this book, and it will only really appeal to those with a keen interest in China, or in food (I haven’t, as yet, read every word). However, it’s not dry. It is illustrated throughout with images and quotes from historical volumes. It also includes some more modern propaganda posters. And, although it is not a cookbook, there are recipes that will appeal to Western tastes – I picked out glazed apples, lemon chicken, lamb skewers and sesame balls (amongst others). I also love the evocative names mentioned in the text. ‘Heavenly Dew’ is a variety (possibly a brand) of tea. If you enjoy reading a book with a good cup of tea, then I suggest brewing up a pot of Liquid Jade, Water Nymph, Fragrant Flake, Dragon Well, Lion’s Peak, Jewel Cloud, or Heavenly Pillar when you open this one :)
The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine
by Thomas O. Höllman
Hardback, 304 pages, RRP
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Disclosure: I was provided with a digital preview copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Nov 22, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 17, 2013
Tags: books & food.
I watched the first Hunger Games film this summer – simply because someone had it and I hadn’t seen it. I really enjoyed it, and after I handed in my dissertation I decided to read the books. I inhaled the trilogy in less than a week. And then read them again, and thoroughly enjoyed every word.
The Hunger Games are all about survival, and in the first film we saw Katniss wandering around the arena and shooting animals for food with her bow. But in the books plants play a starring role as well.
In the harsh environment of District 12, Katniss and her family are on the verge of starvation after the death of her father. Peeta takes pity on her and throws her a loaf, but Katniss doesn’t know how to thank him. When she sees him at school the next day, she looks away – and sees the first dandelion of the season. And that’s when she remembers all the things her father taught her about living off the land. Hunting, yes, but also foraging for plants. A dandelion salad that night is just the first of many foraged meals.
Katniss herself is named after a plant – arrowhead (there are thirty Sagittaria species). Once she’s brave enough to head beyond the fence by herself, she brings home the edible tubers (and some fish) from the pond.
She doesn’t remember everything her father told her, but her mother has a book with details of medicinal plants, and Katniss’ father had added the edible ones to it, so she can look them up. Her foraging skills save the family from starvation, are how she meets Gale, and help her to survive in the arena.
It will be interesting to see whether any of the plants from Catching Fire make it into the film :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 21, 2013 · ∞
On Saturday we took a trip to the Eden Project, and met up with Radix and Choclette. This is the view from the new aerial walkway in the tropical biome. They have only completed phase 1 of the walkway, so there’s plenty more to come. The treetop lookout was closed, it was too humid to go up that high.
Oh, and I can thoroughly recommend the paella served in the Mediterranean biome, if you’re there for lunch.
Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 20, 2013
I have been away for a long weekend. On our way down to the West Country we did something I’ve wanted to do for years – we stopped at Stonehenge :) I loved it – I now have natty Stonehenge earrings! It’s a beautiful place, and peaceful.
They’re currently building a new visitor centre, which should be open at the end of the year. It’s 1.5 miles from the stones, and after buying your ticket you’ll be taken the rest of the way in a kind of land train. In the meantime, there’s a man who gives you a special permit so that you can drive along the remains of the old A344, which has been closed. You have to give it him back on the way out.
Posted in Blog on Nov 18, 2013 · ∞
Back at the end of May, I picked up two bags of Sárpo Mira seed potatoes, discounted at the garden centre as it was past prime spud-planting time. When I went to GIY UK two months later, I still hadn’t found time to plant them.
It was there that I met Dr David Shaw, from the Savari Research Trust – the place where Sárpo potato varieties are grown and developed in the UK. He gave a talk called ‘Growing Potatoes Sustainably’.
He began by reminding us that potatoes are very nutritious, with just about everything you need for a healthy diet (the Irish survived on just potatoes and buttermilk). They can also be very productive, with yields of 2.8kg per plant commercially.
The price we pay for these virtues is the number of pest and disease problems that potatoes are susceptible to (which are location-dependent), and problems with weed competition. There’s also the problem that potatoes start to sprout in storage – they can’t be stored indefinitely in the same way that grains can.
According to Dr Shaw (and he collects samples, so he would know), potato blight is worse now than it used to be, and it has adapted (and keeps adapting) to our growing conditions and potato varieties. A resistant plant today is likely to become susceptible to blight in the future.
This is where Sárpo varieties come in, as they are bred to be blight- and aphid-resistant, and they are easier to store as they have strong dormancy. They’re great for breaking in an overgrown allotment, especially when using sheet mulching.
Sárpo varieties are indeterminate, meaning that they don’t reach a certain size and stop, but keep growing. Once the plant is well developed, it’s time to have a little bit of a dig and see how big the spuds are – if you leave them, they will become enormous, but there’s also a risk that they will develop hollow hearts. It’s best to harvest them once they have reached a size you’re happy with.
The high dormancy of Sárpo potatoes means that they can be kept and planted late – right into August – and then harvested as new potatoes into the autumn. My ears pricked up when I heard that, and when I got home I finally got around to planting mine. The plants thrived:
Even when all around them on the allotment site, other people’s spuds were succumbing to blight:
If you don’t have blight-resistant varieties, then the best way of protecting them it to use a plastic tunnel – something big enough to allow air flow, that keeps the rain off the foliage. Copper-based fungicides are sometimes recommended, but Dr Shaw believes they are the worst choice, as copper becomes a heavy metal toxin in the environment.
It would be far more environmentally-friendly if we all grew blight-resistant varieties instead, but developing them is expensive – it costs around £6000 per variety for a national listing application, which takes two years of DEFRA testing (and not all applications are successful).
The Savari Trust are therefore trying to raise £250,000 to fund the commercial development of Sárpo varieties. They have a crowd-funding appeal, which allows you to donate a small amount to the cause, or lend them a larger amount – with part of the return on your investment being paid in seed potatoes :)
It’s hard to imagine life without potatoes, and a homegrown spud is a real joy. I dug up my Sárpo Miras at the beginning of November, and we’re now enjoying eating them. And yes, one or two of the tubers were very large! I will definitely be growing Sárpo varieties on the allotment next year, and from now on. If we want to keep one step ahead of potato blight, then breeding new varieties is where it’s at, and I think the Savari Trust is a venture worth supporting, and so I have made a contribution to their efforts. If you feel you can do the same, then head over to their Buzzbnk page for more details.
Let’s get this project funded!
Posted in Blog on Nov 15, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 13, 2013
Tags: veg & pests.
When I went to the launch of James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution seed range last year, I was given a small sample of popcorn ‘Fiesta’ – a multicoloured popcorn to try. It’s taken a while, but we got round to popping it last night :)
Ryan is a popcorn veteran, and has a sure-fire technique for perfect popping. He puts a thin layer of vegetable oil in the bottom of a heavy pan (for which there is a well-fitting lid). He puts the pan over a high heat, with one or two popcorn kernels in the bottom. And the lid on. When the kernels pop, he takes it off the heat for 30 seconds – to allow the oil temperature to even out (he says). Then he throws in the rest of the kernels, puts the lid back on and whacks it back on the heat.
Popping commences. The pan is shaken, at intervals, to move all the unpopped kernels to the bottom. After several shakes, if there haven’t been any pops for a few seconds then it’s time to take it off the heat (not all of the kernels will pop) and let it cool down a bit before you take the lid off. It’s not that flying popcorn kernels will do much damage (although the unpopped ones can get very hot), but they do make a big mess.
You end up with this:
ready for eating au naturel, or slathering with some kind of unhealthy topping. What do you put on yours?
The verdict is that Fiesta makes very nice popcorn, so I will be trying to grow my own on the allotment next year. If you fancy a bit of multicoloured popping too, you can buy seeds online from Suttons, or look out for one of their Homegrown Revolution seed stands at your local garden centre. I’ve also always fancied trying Strawberry popcorn, so that’s still on the cards for the future. Victoriana Nursery Gardens have advice on their website on harvesting, drying and popping sweetcorn.
You may also enjoy:
Photos from James Wong’s garden
Book review: Homegrown Revolution
, on the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.
Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 14, 2013
Tags: food & veg.
I love trees. I have been known to hug them. I say hello to them. So I was quite excited to visit Westonbirt Arboretum, the National Arboretum at the weekend. We went on Sunday, when the sun was shining, and as autumn is late this year it seemed as though we might have timed it perfectly, to see the autumn colours.
We had. So had everyone else – the world and his wife was at Westonbirt, complete with children of various sizes (many screaming) and a lot of over-excited dogs. We sloshed through the mud in the old arboretum, queueing to take photos of the acers in their autumn colours.
I hated it. It didn’t smell like a forest, it didn’t sound like a forest. I felt as though the trees had been reduced to meaningless monuments, there merely to be ticked off the tourist list, something to see before you die. It was boring. And whilst I normally love gift shops the one at Westonbirt is now the worst bit of a modern garden centre – all Christmas decorations and scented candles.
So… that’s quite an admission for an ethnobotanist to make. I hated Westonbirt. We may choose to give it a second chance, taking a day off and aiming for a time when it should be quieter.
Feel free to express your horror – leave a comment and tell me what I missed :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 13, 2013 · ∞
When I agreed to review Grow Harvest Cook (by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair), I got more than I bargained for. I’m not sure it’s obvious from the photo above, so here’s a different perspective:
Yes, it’s as tall as a Lego Minifigure. And it’s not so much a hardback as a hardboardback. The cover is half a centimetre thick. It’s not the easiest book to hold up, let alone to hold open, so is it worth the weight?
Subtitled “280 recipes from the ground up”, Grow Harvest Cook calls itself “the essential companion for anyone wanting to grow, harvest, and cook their own produce – whether you have a tiny urban garden or a sprawling yard.” It works its way through an A to Z of homegrown produce, with instructions on how to grow it, how to harvest it and how to cook or preserve it.
So far… so familiar. But there’s a twist here – Grow Harvest Cook was written for the Australian market, so although it does cover the usual suspects (onions, carrots, potatoes, beans) there’s a lot more here than you’d find on a traditional allotment. It covers plants that we would have to grow indoors (including tea and coffee), and some we won’t be able to grow at all (sadly including avocados and macadamia nuts). Australia is a big place with a range of climates, and some are considerably more tropical than old Blighty’s.
In each case the growing instructions are brief. They’re not going to tell you everything you need to know to grow a plant, especially in the UK climate. The harvesting notes are perfectly adequate, combined with both storage advice and recipes for preserves. Some sections are longer than others, and there’s the odd double-page spread to illustrate particular favourites:
Sue Stubbs’ photography is good throughout, doing justice to both the plants and the dishes. And it’s in the recipes that the book comes into its own. You may have noticed, in the photos above, that I’ve marked one or two pages to come back to later. Shall we have a look at what caught my eye?
The A section starts in seductive fashion, with almonds, apples and apricots. You just know there are going to be desserts in there, and there are. But my first bookmark is in the avocado section. There’s no chance of me being able to grow my own (unless I win the lottery and buy a giant, heated greenhouse), but that’s no reason why I can’t enjoy creamy chocolate mousse. With no cream, and no eggs; nothing at all to make me feel poorly.
There are two little bay trees waiting for me in Malvern, which I grew from seed (Esther’s baycorns), and their new mission in life is to grow big and strong so that I can make bay-infused vodka. Broccoli hummus might come first, as I have PSB planted on the allotment.
Chilli salt. Choc-coated roasted coffee beans (although I think it will be a while before the little coffee plants on my desk at work produce any). Dill and parmesan-crusted fish fingers. Kiwi choc pops. And this is where they really had me – mango ice cream.
Those were just the ones that instantly gripped me, there are plenty more that look and sound delicious. Even so, the book isn’t perfect. The section on grapes and vine leaves offers instructions on harvesting vine leaves, and preserving vine leaves, but no recipes for eating vines leaves. It seems like an odd omission, but even in a book this size there’s never enough space to include everything.
It doesn’t matter that there are plants in here I’ll never be able to grow, because I can buy them and Grow Harvest Cook works perfectly well as a cook book. The recipes reflect the multicultural nature of Australia, and there are interesting snippets about what (and how) people grow on the other side of the world. There are even sections on keeping chickens and bees.
And the A to Z layout means you can easily find a recipe for what you have to hand, which is always useful in the midst of a glut. It also leads to a serendipitous juxtaposition: tea is next to thyme :)
Grow Harvest Cook
by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair
Hardback, 400 pages, RRP
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books
Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2013 · ∞
Tags: books & food.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we honour our war dead. It is held on the Sunday closest to 11th November, the anniversary of the end of hostilities in World War 1 in 1918.
The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas, the field poppy) has become the symbol of remembrance, as great swathes flowered in the disturbed earth of battlefields across Belgium, France and Gallipoli in the spring of 1915 and every spring throughout the war.
Every year in the UK, the poppy appeal raises money for the Royal British Legion, helping them to support those who have served, or are serving, in the armed forces, and their dependents. You can donate to the poppy appeal online.
2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, and there will be various events next year to mark it. Some are being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but the Royal British Legion’s 2014 Real Poppy project, which aims to plant millions of commemorative poppies, was not. It has been rescued by B&Q, who will be selling Flanders poppy seeds, with a donation made to the Royal British Legion for each packet sold.
If you wanted to get involved in the project and sow your own Flanders poppies to bloom next spring, you could also buy them elsewhere and make your own donation to the Real Poppy project. Other seed suppliers include:
The field poppy’s ephemeral flowers are completely at odds with its survival nature – as evidenced by the churning of the battlefields, it can lie dormant under the soil for many years before germinating once it is brought back up to the light. A single sowing may well be enough to give you a lifetime of poppies! Should you not wish them to self-seed you will either have to be brutal with the dead-heading, or collect the seed for culinary use – it can be added to breads and cakes. PFAF lists other uses for the plant, but does not that it contains some potentially toxic alkaloids, so some caution is advised (the seeds are safe).
Posted in Blog on Nov 10, 2013 · ∞
Tags: events & flowers.
Doesn’t time fly? It seems like just yesterday that my lemon tree was just a pip, salvaged from one of those nasty bags of salad you sometimes get with Indian takeaways. But that was back in 2007, and my lemon tree has just celebrated its 6th birthday.
It hasn’t had the easiest life. At least twice it was forced to overwinter in the Grow Dome. The cold killed it right back to the ground, and both times I was surprised it resprouted in the spring, but it did. This year it is luckier – it is sitting on my desk at work.
It is thorny. (And yes, I’ve checked, and they are thorns.) It has yet to flower. It may be too much to hope that it will ever fruit. But it’s my lemon and I’m keeping it.
I realised last week that it had very sticky leaves. There were no obvious signs of aphids, but a close examination of the underside of the leaves showed what looked like scale insects. I got my hand lens out (yes, I had one handy) and checked. Scale insect. Apparently what happens is that the tiny adults mate, then the females lay eggs under a flat shelter they construct, and then die. The youngsters hatch under the shelter, suck the plant’s sap, and excrete (I was going to say poo out, but that’s not very grown up) sticky honeydew. Which can cause sooty mould to grow on the leaves.
There is a biological control for scale insect, but it is only applied between March and October. I went over the plant and scraped off the scales I could find. There weren’t that many, actually, so it doesn’t look like too bad an infestation. And then I washed the sticky honeydew off the leaves. It was a very fragrant process, only slightly hampered by the thorns (some of them are an inch long, they’re very impressive).
I pruned out some of the leaves from the centre of the plant, where it was very congested and where the stickiness was at its worst. I will keep an eye on it, but hopefully my lemon will respond to being properly fed and watered and warm for the first time in years :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 8, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 3, 2013