28/01/2016

Skirret Pasties

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I was proud of these skirret pasties I cooked last night as they were my own invention and were both unique and delicious!

Ingredients: Skirret roots (maybe about 200g), 3 young Babington leeks, handful of chives, handful of everlasting onion, 1 elephant garlic clove, large handful sea beet leaves, bunch of fresh thyme sprigs, olive oil, salt and pepper. For the pastry: 150g wholemeal flour, 150g white flour, 60ml olive oil, 120ml water, 1 tsp salt.

Ingredients for skirret pasties

I experimented with olive oil pastry for these pasties using the recipe on this blog which I was pleased to discover for its good Mediterranean recipes too. (I'd like to have a go at growing oil seeds and pressing my own oil so I like to learn about baking with oil rather than margarine. Also I can't buy margarine without buying plastic.) I put the pastry in the fridge whilst I made the pasty filling.

Bowl of olive oil pastry

I roasted the skirret roots with olive oil and salt and pepper. They took only about 10 minutes in a hot oven.

Roasted skirret roots

The chives, onion, garlic and leeks were sautéed in olive oil and the slightly shredded sea beet leaves were wilted on top before adding the fresh thyme leaves and the roasted skirret.

Sautéed alliums, with wilted sea beet leaves, thyme and skirret roots

A side plate (18cm diameter) made a good template for cutting out the pastry circles. A smear of water around the edge.....

Filling the pasties

makes the sides of the circle easy to squeeze together for crimping into the classic pasty shape.

Completed skirret pasty

At this point I realized I'd forgotten to put any salt in the pastry so I glazed them with salt water and sprinkled a little extra salt on top! They were baked in a hot oven for about 25 minutes until golden brown.

Skirret pasties ready for baking

They were very good. Skirret is so sweet and it tasted great with the very slightly bitter sea beet. The pastry turned out a little hard though, acceptable but not luscious!

Dish of skirret pasties

Stew and I ate three between the two of us and the fourth one has gone to work with him today!

24/01/2016

Winter in the Perennial Vegetable Garden 2016

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I've posted the winter photos below for the third set of perennial vegetable photos on this blog. The quamash, golden garlic and wild hyacinth are still below ground. The identity of the plant in the second photo (possibly Oenanthe pimpinelloides but originally thought to be the earth chestnut, Bunium bulbocastanum) will have to wait for further inspection at flowering time later this year for confirmation (and I'm looking forward to buying a Bunium bulbocastanum from Edulis rare plant nursery in May!).

(Spring, summer and autumn photos. Photos from 2013/4 here and 2014/5 here - different plants).

Oyster plant
?

Giant chives
Pearl onion

Variegated Daubenton
Ewiger kohl

Horseradish
Bladder campion
Three-cornered leek
Grassnut

Oyster plant - Mertensia maritima
? - Oenanthe pimpinelloides?
Giant chives - Allium ledebourianum
Pearl onion - Allium ampeloprasum ssp. ampeloprasum
Variegated Daubenton - Brassica oleracea var.'Daubenton Panache'
Ewiger kohl - Brassica oleracea (translation 'ever-lasting cabbage')
Horseradish - Armoracia rusticana
Bladder campion - Silene vulgaris - known as 'carletti' in Italy
Three-cornered leek - Allium triquetrum
Grass nut - Triteleia laxa

19/12/2015

Sweet Eryngoes

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In Self-Sufficiency by John and Sally Seymour, John writes,
Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum). Eat the flowering shoots like asparagus, and roast the roots. (I've never tried it.)
Neither have I. It's something I want to try next year if possible. Sea holly has been cultivated in gardens in the past for use as a vegetable. I'd like to find out more about this but it's going to take some doing simply because most writers have been more taken with its famed Elizabethan use as an aphrodisiac in the form of candied eryngoes (crystallized sea holly roots) and its mention by Falstaff in the same context in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

Sea holly Eryngium maritimum
Sea Holly  by Peter G W Jones cbd

This was a use I'd heard about too, and as I've long been curious about just what 'eryngoes' were and what they might look like, I decided to first have a go at making some. I found a handful of recipes on the net, both ancient and modern, including a copy of a magazine article by Fergus Drennan Candid about Candy where you can find instructions for candying lots of wild foods including alexanders, blackberries, chestnuts and rosehips.

I noticed Eryngium planum was mentioned in Fergus' text, which is the Eryngium species I had growing, so, pleased that this species could be used, I went ahead and dug up a plant and candied the roots. Only later did I realise that this was probably a mislabelling of Eryngium maritimum which is pictured in the article. I believe it's safe to eat Eryngium planum but its usual use is just as a medicinal. It doesn't really matter anyway as it was curiosity, not a sweet tooth, that was motivating me and I'm unlikely to try more than one! (The one I did try tasted of sugar and the rose water I added as flavouring, alongside a slight bitterness. I suspect the roots of E. maritimum when I get to eat them may be sweeter.)

The candies were easy to make; it was just a matter of boiling the roots to cook them until tender, peeling them, and then boiling them again in a thick sugar syrup (flavoured if you wish with rose water). Some instructions would have you do this multiple times. I did it twice which seemed enough. And some instructions refer to the roots, or strips of root, being braided or twisted, before being sugared. This seemed to me to be impossible to do at this stage but quite easy when they had already been boiled in syrup for a while.

Eryngo sweets on a sea holly print
Eryngoes

Here are my 'not quite authentic' Eryngoes. Happy Christmas/Yuletide!

07/12/2015

"Around the World in 80 Plants" by Stephen Barstow

Comments very welcome!

Writing about Hablitzia tamnoides in April I mentioned Stephen Barstow, the prime mover in the introduction of this special plant into our vegetable gardens, and author of Around the World in 80 Plants. This was my present from Stew last Christmas and here is my promised review of it. Stephen is happy to be contacted about his work so I also wrote to him with some questions and you can read his answers below.

Around the World in 80 Plants is a gardening/foraging/travel/ethnobotanical work all in one. Stephen takes the reader around six different temperate regions of the world, giving detailed introductions in each region, to those of his eighty favourite perennial edible plants which either hail from that region or are most closely associated with it. He has all these plants growing in his garden and dines on many of them frequently.
Photo of book " Around the World in Eighty Plants"

But be prepared if you embark on this journey for more than just an armchair plant tour. I love this book chiefly because it widened my vision, of both plants and people. And this it did in three main ways....

Firstly, the journey starts in Europe and taught me far more details about wild plants I already knew as edible. I learnt, to give just one example, about a wealth of special selections of dandelions, how to cook 'dandinoodles' and how I might go about making dandelions palatable if they are too bitter.

Secondly, I visited parts of the world with foraging traditions involving plants I'm familiar with but which I had never considered as sources of food. The shoots of old man's beard, for instance, and of butcher's broom (the latter is a curious spiky plant which grows nearby my parents' cottage in Wiltshire), are both used cooked in the western Mediterranean. It is one thing to read a rare and brief reference to a local plant being edible (or at least not poisonous!) but it is quite another to discover that there is a living tradition of their use in another country. There is now some butcher's broom in a pot in our backyard. It is a long time since I have travelled abroad and experienced other cultures directly, but if it grows and I gather and cook the shoots I will feel closer to those communities who do the same. (Likewise with mallows, eaten by Palestinians on the West Bank and in parts of rural China.)

Thirdly, I began to move my focus from seeing perennial vegetables as a limited list of individual plants, such as Babington leek, or scorzonera, to viewing those same plants within the context of their genus or family, members of which are often to be found across the globe. Did you know for instance that there are at least four different Scorzonera species used for food? And Stephen mentions forty plus species and varieties of edible Alliums! One that he rates highly and tells fascinating stories about (including the possibility of it being cultivated by the Vikings) is the victory onion. His book gives tips about where you might source many of the plants he mentions and I have found seed for this one listed in Thomas Etty's catalogue.

This is a very tiny dip into a book which is really packed with information and stories about the plants (actually far more than eighty are mentioned), the people who grow them (and how they use them) and the people who introduced them to others. There is cultivation and cooking advice too and some recipes both for traditional dishes and some of Stephen's invention.

My only complaint about the book is that I could have done with a slightly bolder type for easier reading. But if, as I hope, Stephen is planning to continue his research and his travels, then that's just a little detail for the publishers of his second edible perennial adventure book!

Welcome Stephen!      You write in your book, "It amazes me again and again how many wonderful veggies we have right in front of our noses but just don't see."  I especially like this sentence because despite reading Richard Mabey's "Food for Free" as a child it's only in recent years that the scale of this abundance has begun to dawn on me. Not only plant blindness, but food blindness. Why do you think it has come about that some plants which are both extremely common and highly nutritious are more likely to be hated as weeds than valued as food? I'm thinking of things like nettles, ground elder and dandelions.

I'm sure there are several reasons for this. Here are a few:

Cultural bias: For unknown reasons, certain excellent vegetables of any kind are just not used; e.g., why are broad beans traditionally almost totally ignored in Norway, whereas just across the North Sea in the UK they are one of the most important vegetables grown; many but not all cultures seem to have understood that harvesting your weeds (cryptocropping) increases the total yield and adds diversity and interest to the diet.

Memories of hard times: During the last world war foraging became a necessity in many countries; people younger than 90 have little memory of those hard times and people from my generation (young in the 70s/80s) started to harvest these "famine foods" again and began to understand that many actually tasted good!

Easy access to herbicides and lobbying of the agrochemical industry:  a generation of people have been brainwashed to believe that a garden should look manicured and lawns should be a monoculture.

Lack of knowledge: It's only within the last 20 years or so that it's been shown scientifically that wild plants including many weeds are more nutritious than the main crop.

Botanical conservatism: The attitude that we must at all costs conserve the native flora as it is….EU and national plant black lists (invasive "weed" species) pay no attention to the usefulness of those plants….we should in many cases embrace invasives as actually improving  our edible flora for future generations…


I imagine that your ethnobotanical discoveries were incidental at first. But as you have become more involved in the search have you developed a method for getting information about edible plants around the world and the traditional ways in which they are used?

That we have a national useful plants society and that a local group should be formed where I live in the same year as I moved here really made me realise what a wide range of edible plants we were surrounded by, and then finding a book Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World in Seattle on one of my work trips around the world to teach South Pacific islanders about ocean wave energy. Having some knowledge of ornamentals that I also grew in the early days helped me recognise some of them in that book. 

Later Ken Fern's amazing ahead of his time work on the Plants for a Future database and his open source attitude helped enormously as did Stephen Facciola's Cornucopia II. When the World Wide Web arrived, both seeds of unusual plants and information became much more accessible. With the first on-line web translators and later Babel Fish and Google Translate, information became even more accessible. 

Living in a foreign country (Norway) and speaking a foreign language had certainly also made me realise how much information was just not known because of the language barriers and just how anglocentric much of the literature was! Within ethnobotanical research, the UK was, for example, years behind the Scandinavian countries in documenting the traditions of plant-people interactions and much information is lost!

How do you tell all those Alliums apart (or perennial kales come to that)?! It seems that naming and distinguishing edible cultivated plants is an even harder job than identifying wild plant species, what with different local names, mis-identifications in the nursery trade and seed/plant swaps, and complex hybrids, landraces and selections too.

The Allium family is complex but for me really encapsulates the incredible diversity there is in the plant kingdom! With maybe 900 species of Allium, evolution has resulted  in almost all the variations one could imagine (flower colour, flowering time etc.). They are difficult to tell apart and it is estimated that even some 60% of Allium species in botanical gardens are wrong! Luckily, we have experts/oracles like Mark McDonough in the US and Wietse Mellema in the Netherlands, who I met first on gardening fora such as the Scottish Rock Garden club (SRGC) and North American Rock Garden club (NARGS), now on the Alliorum group on FB. 

Luckily, there are no poisonous Alliums and as long as they smell like Alliums, you won't end up poisoning folk! The fact that Alliums easily hybridise  is probably the biggest problem, but nurserymen and gardeners aren't that aware of it, so errors get easily perpetuated. However, it does throw up some interesting plants now and again, like Norrlands onion (see the book). On-line flora are also useful here, such as Flora of China. I would recommend folk to source edible perennials in specialist nurseries. There are many like Edulis (UK) and Naturplanteskolen (Denmark) that are becoming more common!

Perennial kales are mostly the same species, so here it's a case of separating the different cultivars. At the start there weren't that many and they are quite distinct with a bit of experience. However, there are many new forms, bred by amateurs (see the Plant Breeding for Permaculture forum on FB), so things could get more complicated, but ultimately I can see the more simple heirloom varieties alongside a new more distinct range with coloured, frilly leaves etc.

Many of my own favourite edible plants seem to come from the seaside; sea kale, sea beet, wild cabbage, Babington leek, sea pea and oyster plant (there are many more - and now I have learnt from you that sea aster is edible too). Do you think there is any reason why that might be?

The sea shore is where one finds the greatest plant diversity due to all the narrow econiches due to the zonation from the deep to shallow water seaweeds, land plants that have adapted to having their feet in water regularly (halophytes like Aster tripolium), then you have the nitrogen rich band where seaweed piles up after winter storms and then on to coastal meadows and woods. Our local spring foraging forays are generally along the shoreline as we can collect a lot of food relatively quickly and learn a wide range of species in a small area.  It also seems that a larger percentage of the higher plants in such areas are edible, probably due to the lower grazing and insect pressure in such areas, so that plants do not need to produce deterrent chemicals. 

It was very interesting to read that the Sámi people living in very northerly areas still manage to include vegetables in their diet. Could you say which edible plant that you have researched grows in the most extreme conditions?

Probably Polygonum viviparum as I can find it on top of local mountains. The sizeable tubers are loaded with carbohydrates and knowledge of this plant's edibility could help people in mountain areas over its extensive range survive shorter and longer periods. Here's its range: 

Might there be a second book in time?

I have a few ideas, but there's no way I could write Around the World in 80 Plants today as there's just so much happening as a result of the book. I would need to retire from my job first…

Thanks Stephen for some great answers. I've been wondering about those seaside edibles for a long time! Now I'm off to thumb my copy again and reread the entry on Polygonum viviparum.

21/11/2015

Early Days for Dahlias

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My mother grew dahlias in the garden of a house we lived in when I was a teenager; a glowing, island bed of them in a big, green sea of lawn. I admired them (and have a memory of dancing by them at night, alone, by the light from the house windows, suddenly joyful about being alive). They were nearly all of deep, vivid shades but the variety in their shapes brought up another memory of the wallpaper on our bedroom wall when my sisters and I were small. It looked something like this and I would lie in bed studying the different flower patterns very carefully. (Easy to guess in which decade we were born!)

Flowery sixties wall paper

All the same I never thought of growing dahlias myself until recent years when the tubers have been in the news as an edible crop. James Wong promoted them in his book, "Homegrown Revolution" and explains,
"Before you dismiss the idea of eating dahlia yams as some kind of weird, hippy idea, consider this: dahlias were originally brought to our shores as a prized edible crop, while runner beans were ironically first introduced as an ornamental plant. It seems like we just got our horticultural wires crossed. Cultivated for hundreds of years by the Aztecs, and still popular in Mexico today, dahlia’s sweet, starchy tubers are delicious as crisps, chips and roasties – and even in ice cream!"
So this year I bought three, red and yellow, cactus dahlia tubers from the hardware store in the high street and planted them. One failed (presumably a red one), but two yellow ones came up.

Dahlia flower

I dug up some tubers to eat yesterday. (I replanted three straight away figuring that if dahlias are going to be a food item in our perennial vegetable plot they will have to survive the winter in the ground. I'm willing to give them a thick straw mulch but that's all the fuss they're getting.)

Dug dahlia tubers
Easy to dig
Peeled dahlia tubers
Easy to peel

Boiled dahlia tubers
Took 20 minutes to boil
Fried dahlia tubers
Quicker to fry 

Boiled they were quite horrible! They were much nicer fried (like a juicy chip) which is why there were only a few left by the time I remembered to take a photograph.

But as Fionnuala Fallon reports in The Irish Times the flavour varies hugely between varieties and species. We have to find the good-tasting ones and/or breed new ones. James Wong recommends yellow-flowered cactus types such as 'Yellow Chiffon', 'Amherst Regina' and 'Inland Dynasty' and notes that enthusiasts rate a pom-pom type 'Yellow Gem'. I would like to see if the hardy dahlia, Dahlia merckii, tastes any good. The Swiss nursery Lubera is selling a variety of dahlias they have selected for flavour. (I believe we'll be able to visit Emma Cooper's blog soon once she has harvested her Lubera dahlia tubers and find out what she thinks of them). And William Whitson of Cultivariable in America has started an Edible Dahlias Facebook group where members are trying different types and pooling their findings.

There are 42 species of dahlia and 57000 registered cultivars. It is definitely early days for dahlias.

18/11/2015

Daylily Delvings

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I went to harvest some vegetables at my annual allotment today. Just as the light was fading, I visited a weedy corner where I knew some daylilies were still hanging out (after I'd moved most of the clump to the perennial plot).

If they had looked like this today I might have harvested some of their fat, crisp buds.

Daylily flower and buds

But they didn't. They looked like this:

Dried daylily flower stalks

But that was all right for what I had in mind. As a sudden downpour got underway I hurriedly dug a couple of clumps and did my best to wash a lot of claggy mud off their roots in the water butt (mostly to make them weigh less so that I could carry them home!)

Daylily tubers and roots

I was after their tubers (the small stubby roots in the photo above).

Harvested daylily tubers

There didn't seem to be many at first but there were actually quite a few hidden in that muddy mass. It took a while to extricate them.

Washed daylily tubers

Cleaning them up was a bit of a fiddle too.

Roasted daylily tubers

For the sake of speed I roasted them along with some parsnips we were having for tea. They reminded me of the tasty but slightly overdone crispy chips you get at the bottom of the packet.

Was it worth the effort? To satisfy my curiosity, yes. As a food gathering mission, no. But I think choosing a day when both the weather and the soil were drier would have helped a lot. And then perhaps making Amy Feiereisel's delicious looking Spring Vegetable Soup with Daylily Tubers. Worth a delve for that I think!

30/10/2015

Autumn in the Perennial Vegetable Garden 2015

Comments very welcome!

Here are the autumn photographs for the plants in the spring and summer posts. (Photos here from 2013/4 and 2014/5).

Again no sign of the quamash and golden garlic above ground and the wild hyacinth seedhead has gone now too. There is a question mark beneath the plant I labelled as pignut last time because a sharp-sighted relative of mine, who has a plant from the same source, noticed that we may actually be growing corky-fruited water-dropwort (Oenanthe pimpinelloides). We're not 100% sure of the identification yet but the seeds in particular aren't quite right for Bunium bulbocastanum.

Oyster plant
?

Giant chives
Pearl onion

Variegated Daubenton
Ewiger kohl

Horseradish (and nettles!)
Bladder campion
Three-cornered leek
Grassnut

Oyster plant - Mertensia maritima
? - Oenanthe pimpinelloides?
Giant chives - Allium ledebourianum
Pearl onion - Allium ampeloprasum ssp. ampeloprasum
Variegated Daubenton - Brassica oleracea var.'Daubenton Panache'
Ewiger kohl - Brassica oleracea (translation 'ever-lasting cabbage')
Horseradish - Armoracia rusticana
Bladder campion - Silene vulgaris - known as 'carletti' in Italy
Three-cornered leek - Allium triquetrum
Grass nut - Triteleia laxa