Friday, 27 June 2008

Spring Onions

The other day I had a sudden yearning for risotto for dinner. Having little veg in the house, I put my ciabatta on to bake and went across the road to our local butchers to get some vegetables. (This may sound a little perverse, but this particular butchers has by far the best fruit and vegetables in Cambridge. We probably spend more money in a butchers than any other vegetarian household in Britain). Feeling slightly guilty about the high percentage of my food marked 'product of Italy', I set myself a 'local risotto challenge', meaning that I had to find ingredients from whatever they had that was locally produced. It transpired that the only local vegetables that weren't potatoes were mushrooms, so mushroom risotto it was. All well and good, except that I usually like to add leek to this dish to give it a bit of tang, otherwise I tends to find it a bit starchy. The butcher's leeks purported to be from France, so they were a no-go, but then I had the bright idea of adding some of the spring onions from my patio garden instead. This I can recommend to anyone. Chopped into one inch pieces and stirred in right before the Parmesan at the end, they were delicious, the red spring onions in particular added a nice flash of colour.

Spring onions have turned out to be a pretty good choice for a patio garden, and I would recommend them to anyone who was trying to grow vegetables in containers. Unlike onions and leeks, they are small enough to be quite easy to grow in standard flower pots. I made the best use of this limited space by planting them in a circle about one inch from the edge of the pot rather than the straight line that would normally be found in a vegetable plot. This has worked well - admittedly the limited space has meant quite slow growth and much need for thinning, but then baby spring onions are not only a delicious addition to green salad, but have also been available since May. The only real other problem is that the roots can get a bit tangled, but this simply means that a bit more careful wriggling is need to extract an any individual. The other advantage of spring onions is that the seeds seem to be virtually indestructible. I planted them back in March (as instructed on the packet), where they lay dormant for about a month under a continual battering of downpours, cold, unseasonable hailstorms and even a thick layer of snow, before veritably bursting into life the second the sun came out at the end of April. I should probably confess that these are hardy F1 varieties from the organic section of Homebase, but I hear tell that they are in general a resilient vegetable.
Here's a photo. I don't think you can really see the circular planting, but it gives an idea. You should also be able to make out the giant towering wall of mange tout looming up behind them.

Blog duly updated, I'm going to go and get ready for the Nelson Mandela concert in Hyde Park. Very exciting! K tells me that I have been made an honorary South African for the evening!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008


My very first sewing patterns arrived in the post yesterday. Rather unbelievably they came all the way from California. Now I do not normally encourage this king of thing, but I was driven to take such a drastic step by the utter lack of sensible dressmaking patterns in British shops. The companies in question seem utterly convinced that people will only buy their patterns if they have either a) frills, b) ruffles, c) rouches, d) flounces, e) sparkly bits. Who knows, they may be right, just as there seems to be a great market for the kind of yarn that comes out in many different colours, or is bright pink. My grandmother springs immediately to mind.

But all I want is a skirt. A long skirt with no trimmings, no flounces, and certainly no sodding ruffles. By far the best purveyor of patterns for such skirts appears to be Brown Paper Patterns, and they are indeed based in California, so California it was (I will try and come up with some more ways to reduce my carbon footprint ASAP).

I'm extremely excited about the prospect of dressmaking. Admittedly, I was quite disappointed to discover how much fabric cost. I had (of course) fallen in love with the most expensive cotton in John Lewis (there is a strong argument to say that this serves me right for going to John Lewis in the first place), but I think it would be quite hard to make a skirt more cheaply than it costs to buy one. Plus, I don't have the time, and I'll probably make an epic mess of the whole thing the first time I try. But when I do finally succeed, it will be entirely mine, and I won't have had to rely on the good inhabitants of South Asia to make it for me. I feel that this is an important step on my way to full earth-motherhood.

So, if anyone has any tips on how not to totally mess up a first skirt, please do let me know.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

On the Joys of Old-Fashioned Vegetables

Purple podded peas had a fascinating and extremely thought-provoking post on the recent growth of in interest heritage vegetables, the possibility that we are all being vegetable luddite sand the advantages (or not) of the prevalent modern hybrid, that glossy and proportionally perfect varieties generally found in seed catalogues and supermarkets alike. It has prompted me to put some of my thoughts about diversity, growing ‘old-fashioned’ vegetables and agri-business into some kind of order, so apologies in advance for topic-theft.

A number of criticisms can (and have) been levelled at the love the average modern organic-goddess displays for heritage varieties of vegetables and organic gardening and her literal and metaphorical distaste for anything with F1 on the packet. A quick flick through the posts that have accumulated on this blog in the last month and a half illustrates the point nicely, I feel. These arguments against a preference for all things diverse and organic boil down (just like my father cooking cauliflower) to one basic point; F1 varieties, pesticides and homogeneity have evolved because they are better than that which earlier existed. In other words, Darwin lives! Traditional varieties simply couldn’t cut the mustard (again, not unlike my father’s cauliflower). More importantly, pesticides and chemical fertilisers are essentially for feeding the growing world population.

I think this argument against heritage veg misses some major points. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I believe unequivocally that diversity is to be valued, not only in a relative sense, for the advantages it can give, but for its own sake as well. There is a practical aspect to this – I find it hard to believe that diversity doesn’t give some kind of protection against diseases, climatic variation and sheer bad luck. Some varieties are also unquestionably better suited to some local conditions than other. But I was also struck by the aesthetic dimension to diversity. Quite simply, a more diverse world seems structurally more appealing. Who wants vegetables that all taste and look the same? Modern palates are dulled enough as it is. Every autumn I search in vain for apples in local shops that aren’t granny smiths, coxes, great red waxy things or golden delicious, when I know somewhere in Britain can be found hundreds of varieties, each with their own taste, texture and smell. For followers of Darwin (and no, in case you were wondering, I don't deny evolution), it should not be forgotten that according to evolutionary theory more species should evolve as others die out, thus maintaining diversity, unless of course some great deus ex machina comes along and screws the whole system up as successfully as humans have done.

Beyond these questions of diversity and evolution lurk the spectres of profit and choice. Promoters of modern hybrids write as if consumers have had a free choice in selecting the restricted range of varieties currently on offer. They haven’t. They have been presented with a limited selection, often sweetened by reduced prices, and have had little choice but to take it. This choice has not been based on the needs of the allotment gardener, but on ease of mass production by a decreasing number of seed companies operating on an ever-greater scale. Cooks have been told that they should prioritise appearance over taste, the perfectly round tomato with a thick-skin that travels well in lorries over the local, bumpy, fragile fruit with the amazing taste. No-one has ever asked me which I prefer. Nor should it be forgotten that seed companies have a huge amount to gain from producing hybrid varieties where the seeds can’t be harvested by grower to produce the same type, because then gardeners require new packets of seed every year. I am astounded by the moral integrity and commercial bravery of companies like Real Seeds which appear to be trying to put themselves out of business by encouraging gardeners to collect their own seeds.

On the need for modern farming methods in order to feed the world, all I can say is that a couple of years ago I lived with an Ethiopian student of agriculture who was writing a masters thesis on how organic production was ultimately a more sustainable way of feeding central Africa. I read his thesis and talked to both him and his friend from Uganda. His conclusions weren’t quite ready to change the world, but what has vividly stayed in my mind is their anger over the companies who had their countries dependent on buying seeds, buying fertiliser and pesticide every single year, when huge percentages of the population were living on less than one dollar a day. Their frustration about how the need for cash to buy new seed every year has tied even small-scale producers into producing cash-crops for export was truly memorable. Their point? Does the West really think that Africa has never come up with its own ways of dealing with the pests, diseases and weather patterns that it has had to live with for millennia? Sure, they may not be doing a great job right now, but that is precisely because diversity and sufficiency on a community level were key ingredients in traditional methods of agricultural risk management.

In some ways talk of feeding the world is irrelevant. I’m not trying to feed the world. I’m trying to feed myself. And if everyone was given the space to do that, maybe feeding the world wouldn’t be such a problem.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Nature as art, art as nature

My 'golden sweet' mange tout peas are flowering and starting to develop their first pods, and yesterday in the sunshine I found myself quite enraptured by them. They are far too tall and extremely beautiful.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Radish Top Soup

From time to time, K accuses me of being obsessed with radishes, and I'm not saying that she doesn't have a point. I do like the taste very much, but it's really more that they have a particular knack for drawing out my maternal instincts. This is entirely the result of my gardening endeavours last year, when I was trying to establish a vegetable patch in a garden so neglected that little was ever going to grow without the application of some serious compost and much pruning of the many, many shade-giving trees. With no car, I had to transport compost in a bike basket, so go figure. I planted some radish seeds and was utterly convinced that I must be a terrible gardener if I couldn't even grow radishes, so I rather got into the habit of going to check on them to make sure they were doing OK. Sometimes I would check them three or four times a day. It became a bit of a standing joke in the house. Where's Sal? Oh, she's just gone to check her radishes again.

The point of telling the world this and thereby making myself look a tad odd is to excuse the fact that I googled 'radishes' during a particularly dull moment of my current PhD chapter. On reflection, perhaps I don't need an excuse for googling random vegetables instead of working on my PhD. Either way, I am glad I did, for I discovered that it is possible to make soup out of the tops. No part of my radishes will be wasted, and in this way they shall be reassured that I love them. So, without further ado, here is my version of Radish Top Soup.

To make about 3-4 bowls-worth, you need:

- The tops of a small bed of radishes, assiduously collected over two weeks, minus those that had turned to green slime in the fridge. This is probably about equivalent to 150g.

- The last two radishes from the above-mentioned radish bed.

- 2-3 potatoes, thinly sliced

- A fairly small onion, finely chopped

- A good knob of butter

- 600ml of veg stock

- double cream (no, I didn't measure it)

- salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan and saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the potatoes and radish tops, mix it all up and pour in the stock. Season well. This should be allowed to boil and then left to simmer for thirty minutes. Cool until it the rather unappealing looking mixture can be put in a blender, then blend well. Add enough cream to make it creamy soup, garnish with sliced radishes and serve with freshly made wholemeal bread. It tastes a bit like spinach soup would taste if spinach tasted more like radishes and less like spinach.

Monday, 9 June 2008

How Not To Grow French Beans

Whatever you do, plant the seeds in situ, don't propagate them in a greenhouse/in a seed tray/on a sunny windowsill.

According to the received wisdom (i.e. wisdom received through books and the Internet), pretty much all beans grow better if planted in the final growing site, rather than started off elsewhere and transplanted. This means that in theory I should have known better than to start mine off inside, but I was seduced into some early planting by the fact that runner beans will actually cope perfectly well with transplantation. Last year I had great success with a tray-load that had been propagated somewhere in Yorkshire and brought down as a present by my parents (we do exciting gifts in my family). I have now learnt that this cannot be applied to French beans. Plant 'em out where you want them to grow, and they will repay you with health, vigour and shiny green leaves. Move them around too much and they will shrivel up and die at the first sign of temperatures above 20 and below 5 degrees Celsius. Trust the French to be more awkward.

On a different note, this morning we discovered that even the most passionate eco-warrior might be tempted to drive a short distance if the alternative is to risk getting a lovely and little-worn white linen skirt covered with bike grease.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

101 Ways To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Date a South African

After nearly three years of being in a relationship with a girl from the third-world (no, really, ask your nearest consulate), I have gained new and unlooked-for insights into the extent of restrictions on international travel for those not in possession of a Western passport. As a result, I think I have come up with an excellent system to reduce the collective carbon footprint of Europe by targeting that most modern of carbon-evils: The Budget Airline. I'd like to share it with you.

Cheap flights are, in many ways, good. Travel abroad is good, interesting and fun, and I challenge even the most obsessive eco-worrier to claim otherwise. Increased contacts between neighbouring countries are good, culturally, economically and politically. For those of us living in lovely England, sunshine is good. But the carbon output, less good. What I propose is that we try and stop people taking short flights for no particularly good reason, trips that would have never existed if the flight hadn’t existed for 1p (plus tax). After all, these people aren’t really missing out if, ten years ago, it would never have occurred to them to take this trip.

To regulate this, I suggest that everyone prove that they really, really want to take the flight in question, that they have a genuinely good reason (like, for example, not having seen the sun for six months) and are not just acting on a passing whim. Perhaps this means that travellers in future will have to plan a bit more in advance, fill in a few forms explaining why they want to travel, even pay a small surcharge to show they really, genuinely, actually do mean it. In extreme cases, they might have to travel to a nearby metropolis to speak with representatives of the country they want to visit. Of course, to prove that they’ve been through this process, I anticipate that a small stamp or sticker would have to be placed in the applicant’s passport. We could call it a visum, from the Latin for ‘a thing that has been seen’, reflecting the fact that it would need to be checked before the visitor would be allowed in the country in question. In this way, more people would be encouraged to holiday without using air travel or at least reduce the number of short flights they take to one a year, and the money paid for such visa* could go towards other ways of reducing carbon outputs, yet no-one with a valid reason for travel would be penalised.

Brilliant, eh?

*Yes, I do get a thrill from a correctly conjugated Latin plural.