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Kumara (Ipomoea batatas), also known as sweet potato

Kumara (Ipomoea batatas), also known as sweet potato

If you really want to grow kumara (sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas) productively, you need to give it some decent sun and plant in an orderly fashion in rich rows or round mounds. It will grow well enough in poor soil in the shade and form a decent ground cover (in summer), but it won’t put anything like the same amount of saved energy into nice edible tubers. It all makes sense when you think about it; and it’s almost as if the plant were doing some thinking about it too. In the shade, the plant ‘thinks to itself’ that it is best off if it musters whatever energy it can and invest it in long searching vegetative vines and send them off to find a sunnier place; tangled up in itself and others, up trees, up the fence, over the fence, wherever. Kind of like most of my twenties – off on an adventure seeking some good times over the horizon and setting next to nothing aside for later. If placed in full sun on the other hand, it ‘realises’ that it is on a pretty good wicket right where it is and sets about putting away some savings in the form of solid starchy investment.

As a grower, I should theoretically be like a conservative bore with no time for the frippery of the shady gallavanters and turn my back on them in favour of hard-working kumara families in the sun. I’m not sure why, but I somehow feel that the analogy is drifting a little political, by the way. I should then harvest (tax) those in the shade as much as they will bear, believing that if they fail as a result then they just weren’t cut out for it; but ensure that my harvest of those in the sun might seem deceptively as if it was their welfare more than my own that was my aim.

Well, I don’t vote that way, and I’m not gardening that way as it turns out, at least not with kumara. I foster it less as a crop than as a groundcover ornamental in the long shady garden down the side of the house where some subtropical fruit trees and passion vines are also plying a not (yet) particularly fruitful trade. It is not just shady along there, but poor, because I broke the cardinal rule of planting before I properly improved the soil (sand actually, I am on an actual sand dune) and there is also a steady sneaky pilfering of nutrients by the neighbour’s established trees. But still, the kumara hangs out, a little scrappy and certainly straggly, especially in winter, amid a ragtag bunch of Vietnamese mint, lemon balm, parsley (which grows quite delicately, looking like chervil, in the shade), sorrel and some creeping thyme. In winter, some baby bok choy seeds cast around do a small and slow job of filling in some gaps in place of the withering kumara as a surprisingly nice ornamental, right through to some lovely spring flowers if left uneaten.

Although very scrappy now in very early spring, by mid-summer kumara can form a great rambling groundcover

Although very scrappy now in very early spring, by mid-summer kumara can form a great rambling groundcover

And I don’t really harvest the kumara properly speaking. I just bandicoot a little. The verb ‘to bandicoot’ is pretty much self-explanatory, assuming that you know what bandicoots do (long-nosed ones, Perameles nasuta, around here). They sniff about, scratch a bit of a divot and stick their snout in, making a distinctive conical hole with it, and pull out a little food from here and there. Admittedly, for real bandicoots, it is mostly invertebrates, but it also includes the occasional tuber. In addition to kumara, bandicooting is particularly well suited to getting in early at some new potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), and it also works with a lot of other tubers as well (Queensland arrowroot, Canna edulis, being the main one of mine)

Unlike bandicoots, I then also re-enact the birth of farming with my kumara. With a tuber pulled out, foraged more than farmed, I dig down a little further into the sand (which goes off to the ‘soil factory’ that is the chook run, to be enriched with chook-turned compost and poo), replace it with compost and some kumara stem dipped in rooting powder, and the whole process can just keep rolling on; pretty unproductively because of the location, but with a lovely sustainable aesthetic to it. With a bit of welfare that includes short-term feeds (a disproportionate share of worm farm juice so that those in the sandiest spots almost grow hydroponically) and long-term investment (the sand-compost replacements), conditions have improved markedly over the first year out there in the Bohemian bandicooting quarter of the garden. This summer, I am expecting quite a show.

Freshly bandicooted kumara

Freshly bandicooted kumara

Kumara stems, with a couple of de-leafed nodes in the water and no more than a few leaves up top, in a jar with water and a little rooting powder, quickly make new roots. These are then planted with some compost where you’ve done some bandicooting and the cycle rolls on. I started with 6 of these a year ago and have multiplied my stock tenfold. A few bandicooted kilos of kumara have simply been a little bonus along the way.

Kumara stems, with a couple of de-leafed nodes in the water and no more than a few leaves up top, in a jar with water and a little rooting powder, quickly make new roots. These are then planted with some compost where you’ve done some bandicooting and the cycle rolls on. I started with 6 of these a year ago and have multiplied my stock tenfold. A few bandicooted kilos of kumara have simply been a little bonus along the way.

I forage for sea snails (see previous posts on paua, cartrut snailsabalone and turban snails). It is a bit fiddly and they aren’t all to everyone’s taste, but I love it. For one thing I love snorkelling and so the gathering is no effort; and for another, as an archaeologist, shell middens (the remains of pre-1788 Aboriginal seaside foraging) are my specialist thing. For years, this midden-love has driven me to keep my foraged shells; piles of them in the garden and at the bush block and bags of them on the shelf in my office. But now I am using them up.

From foraged sea snails I get meat and shells

From foraged sea snails I get meat and shells

I have recently acquired chickens, six of them, and I want them to knock out an egg most days, each one obviously with a shell. So they need calcium, and I have a whole lot that turned out to be ready and waiting for them in the form of the seashells. I crush them between bricks and they eat any piece small enough to get down their gullet. My dad grew up on a chook farm and the common standard of using oyster grit that he knew 60 years ago as a lad is still in practice today; I just have a foraged version.

Shells go into chickens and shells come out of chickens

Shells go into chickens and shells come out of chickens

Then I get eggshells. Unfortunately they don’t come with the pearly nacre of a turban snail or the rainbow reflections of an abalone shell, but they are nonetheless nice and strong. While some folk will feed these back to the chooks, I have the seashells for that. So I boil, dry and crush the eggshells to feed them to the puppy instead. You see, she still just has her baby teeth and can’t really make much of a dent in a bone and meanwhile has fast growing bones of her own. So she needs calcium too. For most pups these days, this comes in the processed food, but with me feeding her on real meat and vegetables as much as I can, I need to add calcium; and some of it comes in the form of powdered egg shells.

It is a pretty good system if you ask me, and I still get the choice bits: Sea snail meat, fresh eggs and a healthy dog.

As chook owners do, we eat a lot of eggs and accumulate a lot of shells; these are boiled, oven dried (avoiding salmonella risks) and crushed

As chook owners do, we eat a lot of eggs and accumulate a lot of shells; these are boiled, oven dried (avoiding salmonella risks) and crushed

The crushed shells go with meat (plus kumara, carrots, legumes, vegetable oil, etc) into home-made dog food

The crushed shells go with meat (plus kumara, carrots, legumes, vegetable oil, etc) into home-made dog food

I’m liking the idea of sea snail mince cooked for a long time sous vide these days and put in pies with a mornay sauce; but for the sake of this post, a sea snail omelette with sour cream and hot sauce also works

I’m liking the idea of sea snail mince cooked for a long time sous vide these days and put in pies with a mornay sauce; but for the sake of this post, a sea snail omelette with sour cream and hot sauce also works

Beets in trug

I love beets (Beta vulgaris). They are easy to grow, they are hardy, they are delicious. They yield lovely greens from the early thinnings, then baby beets which also have the lovely greens, then big beets from the remainder (still with good greens in winter). The offcut leaves go to the chooks, where I believe they give me more orange yolks and I love orange yolks, even if it just a psychological reminder that my eggs are the real deal. I love them roasted, particularly when cooled and served with pithless orange segments in a salad with goats cheese; and I love beetroot chutney and relish. You can leave them be and harvest them as you need, as long as you don’t let them warm up into flowering; but sometimes you want to harvest an entire row so that you can plant the next thing. That’s when it is relish time. Last weekend, because it was time to open up space from winter crops for the new spring plantings, was just such a relish time. This one concentrated on allspice (Pimenta dioica) for flavour, because it doesn’t really taste like ‘all spices’ at all, but rather a few that all suit relish really rather well, like clove, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Row of Beets

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp Olive oil
  • 4 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp ground pimento / all spice (don’t over-spice; start modestly and you can add some to taste during the long cook, but you can never get it out if you use too much at the start)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 – 2 cups brown sugar (honey substitution is a future plan)
  • 6 beetroots (~1kg) (grated) (skin on if it is in good nick, but shave off any rough or warty bits)
  • 1 or 2 onions, depending on size, finely sliced (red, brown or white, in order of preference)
  • 4 cloves garlic (optional, it might not even make it better; but I just can’t say no to the stuff)
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 5 cups vinegar (balsamic, cider and/or red wine; weigh your beets because vinegar needs to be at least 1/3 the weight of beetroot to preserve well)
  • Top with orange juice, water or cider vinegar, depending on preference, if it gets short on moisture during the cook.

Harvested beets

Instructions

Add everything in the order above, stirring as you go; slow cook for an hour or two; put in sterilised jars and then sterilise again in a hot water bath. Have some patience, then serve on bread with cheese and salad.

Cleaned beets

Beetroot relish and cheese

Fairly early on in the dive, I looked out into the blackness above the surface to see where the other three lights were shining below and thought to myself, ‘these guys are f’ing crazy’. But then I thought ‘what the hell’ and followed. Later on, looking out for them again, I realised that I was bobbing in the ocean off a place named after sharks in the middle of the night and only then did it dawn on me: Given that they had a lot more idea of what they doing than I did, if anyone was f’ing crazy, it was me. I talked myself down from the start of freaking out and pissed in my wetsuit. Again. Mostly, but not entirely, because when it’s your wetsuit and you’re cold, you’re allowed to.

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

A picture actually taken on a safe and simple cave dive in Mexico, but you get the idea, it can be a little freaky down there in the dark

With just a relatively few sheltered-water night snorkels and night scubas behind me, this was pushing outside of my comfort zone. These other fellas, on the other hand, were serious spearfishermen; it wasn’t their first rodeo as they say, and in their 5mm diving wetsuits and long diving fins they were rugged up and warm and cruising along. Meanwhile, in a cheap old poorly fitting 3mm suit and bodysurfing fins, I was freezing and flapping by comparison.

Night snorkelling (pic from another post)

Night snorkeling from above (pic from another post)

We were there to hunt crays (eastern rock lobster, Jasus verreauxi), and that means ferreting down among the cracks and overhangs after them. Diving gloves on and experience at their disposal for the others, gardening gloves and what turned out to be some nice beginner’s luck for me. Seeing three crays lurking in a crack, I notice that one is a little small; the next part is a bit of a blur insofar as all I recall is lunging in to grab something other than the small one. And then I surfaced with one of the bigger crayfish in my hand. There are specific bags that one carries for putting these things in. I don’t have one. One of the others kindly carries my catch, and we head off for more. Even more kindly, when I had become so cold as to start having trouble getting about properly, he heads in with me. He had his bag limit of two and I had exceeded the expectations that I started with by having anything at all and getting back in one piece. By the time the other lads were in, I was well on my way into warming up in long underwear, three jumpers and a bottle of wine.

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

The hard-won prize, eastern rock lobster (or crayfish), Jasus verreauxi

Once comfortable, I was able to slowly start putting the pieces of the memory of all it all back together. How I hadn’t lost my weight belt after all, but had simply left it off while nervously messing with my gear at the start, as if somehow it might become something other than shoddy and old if I toyed with it enough. How much more sinuous and slinky the most spectacular of the night fish are; the wonderful emerald and caramel coloured green moray eels (Gymnothorax prasinus), the beardies (Lotella rhacina), the blindsharks (Brachaelurus waddi) and Port Jackson sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni). Then how the inky black alien sensory overload of it all was such that other nastier sharks hadn’t gotten around to really being a concern of mine. And how a big yellow gibbous moon rose up out of the sea and I told myself to marvel at a mental picture of it later because my mind didn’t have the time to enjoy it right then.

Cray_gear

The cray is in the fridge, I’m going over for mum’s birthday tonight and I’ll get dad to turn the barbie on. I’m not sure which story I’ll tell, because both of them are true in their way; whether I went bravely into the night sea to hunt a crayfish by hand, or nervously followed three crazy men out there and got lucky.

Barbecued crayfish, with noting more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Barbecued crayfish, with nothing more than a lot of butter (top recipe here)

Caveat: Of all the foraging I have written about, this is the last thing that I would recommend having a go at. The truth is that it is not entirely safe. Leaving aside the issue of sharks, if something goes wrong out there, there is a real chance that you could end up being flotsam and a news story.

Crab apples (Malus domestica), the ornamental kind

Crab apples (Malus domestica), the ornamental kind

A crab apple (Malus domestica, which includes all apples) is one of two things. To many, it is thought of as a wilding apple (like the roadside trees that are a forager’s delight, grown from pips of cores tossed out car windows, one likes to think). They are crabs because in the random dice throw of apples from seed, they are typically too tart to be thought of as much of an eating apple (though the random exceptions are one of the reasons that there are so many hundreds of different named apple varieties). The other interpretation is that they are the small-fruited ornamental varieties which, selected for appearance rather than taste, also almost invariably revert back to the native apple tartness.

Crabapples

The glory of the ornamental small fruited crabs is that their main purpose in life is to be bedecked in countless spring flowers; and then be bedecked in just as many fruit (which stay for a long time on the tree showing off (like Seville oranges)) through late summer and autumn. Being viewed as a looker rather than a cooker, and a great looker at that, people often don’t realise that they are perfectly edible. They put out a lot of fruit, so much so that all but the stingiest gardeners would probably let you pick your fill, and they actually have some great virtues as cooking apples. The rich ruby skins make for rich ruby pulp and juice and the tartness comes with a high pectin, high acid zing. It makes them kind of like quinces, but with the ruby colour that quinces somehow alchemically create being there even before cooking.

For our crab apple jelly, from the garden of my family’s place in New Zealand, the recipe is simple:

Pick

Pick

Juice

Juice

Reduce. Add sugar and pectin

Reduce. Add sugar and pectin

Jar and leave it for a few months to fully gel. Serve like a jam, or like quince paste, or something in between – which in any case means great with cheese.

Jar and leave it for a few months to fully gel. Serve like a jam, or like quince paste, or something in between – which in any case means great with cheese.

The scene of my domestication

The scene of my domestication

You may notice from the timing of the archives for this blog that things slowed down a little on the foraging front, at least with regard to writing about it. I’m still very much at it, but at the same time I’ve been domesticated. I came to own a home and it came with a modest piece of sand dune out the back, which a year and several tonnes of compost later is the start of a food garden. There are fruit trees, thriving beds of vegetables, chickens, a dog and a beehive ready to populate this spring. Some of my foraging has even turned a little domestic – like valuing foraged molluscs for the shell grit I can crush for the chooks as well as the meat for me, using kelp stems off the beach for dog chew toys, and scavenging free mulch and cow manure for the garden beds. The last time I foraged native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), it was to replant it in my garden – and that is entirely definitive of domestication.

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

Working away in my changed circumstances, I have come to a recent realisation of how much more foraging and agriculture have in common than either of them have in common with the lifestyle of simply buying all your food. The ‘us and them’ of the standard view is of ‘us’ as modern western society arm-in-arm with agriculture as distinct from a foraging ‘them’ of either the past or the primitive. My ‘domestication’ really has been revolutionary in one sense, but in some ways it has also changed things very little. I no longer really forage greens, but grow them instead; even the edible garden weeds get a miss, although partly because right now in winter/spring it is mostly chickweed (Stellaria media) and it is such a big hit with the chooks. I’m just as inclined towards fishing and hunting; and foraged fruit retains the same appeal or maybe more – partly because my trees are all just one year or less in the ground and give me very little. The autumn harvest of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) will hopefully always be a firm fixture. When I think about, it’s really just more like old-fashioned country foodways. The growing and the foraging are part of the same package. Regardless of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, the two parties in the modern western world can be divided into those who very much want to get their hands dirty while bringing in their food and those who only really trust it wrapped in plastic in exchange for money.

I’ve previously discussed (e.g. here and here) how there is the concept of a continuum of foraging to farming along which people have shifted through history, incrementally between individuals and between generations, and not always in the same direction. Perhaps this foraging-to-farming transition thing doesn’t mean so much to you; and perhaps I make too much of it because as an archaeologist it is viewed as the process that pretty much defines the transformation to human modernity. But for someone like me for whom it is kind of a big deal, it is then also a very big deal to realise that to just end up standing there at the end of the day in your work clothes in a queue at Woolies or Coles (Walmart, Aldi, Sainsburys, depending on where you are) is to exist in a world that (as far as your personal engagement goes) has left the continuum altogether. Sure, the production of the food is still obviously on it, perhaps often at the perverse end of heavily industrialised agriculture (with battery chickens as the ultimate perversity), but the individual consumer is not. I think that I embraced foraging so as to have as much of an actual engagement with the reality of food as I could, and now grow for precisely the same reason.

Opportunism is central to the success of humanity. I now have the opportunity to grow more than I ever did before, but still I will not readily pass up the opportunity for a good forage. Nonetheless, the same intrinsically human opportunism is what puts people in the supermarket queue, finding that they are able with just a small part of the cash from their labour to bring home far more food than they could possibly eat. In that context, we foragers and growers are wasting our time – what sort of fool spends ten days to save a couple of bucks on mustard? But ‘agency’, the ability and freedom to make choices, is also central to humanity.

For me, the ideal of paid working life is not to be able to buy the things that I might otherwise forage or grow, but to buy the time and the ability to be in a place to do that foraging and growing. That is my choice, and I am sure that I spend more money on it than the equivalent cost of the food. I can’t make enough mustard to get me to New Zealand to fish for all too occasional trout, but I do paid work for that (and, importantly, I enjoy it). There is also a mortgage now; and it hurts, so one thing that I need to get out of that is a garden full of veg; not to help pay the mortgage, but to justify it. And that leads to a really key thing that I have realised about domestication and the shift from foraging to farming – whether on the scale of human history or my own small personal experience: it is not just about where the food comes from, but also what people chain themselves to in order to get it. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once described foragers as ‘the original affluent society’, referring to the fact that they might easily meet all their wants and needs, partly because those needs may be relatively few; whereas someone with infinite modern wants never can, and can therefore never be truly affluent at all. I admit that it is an unresolved logic, but still not without merit, that the desire to forage and grow your own food can somehow break the loop while living in a modern world with seemingly easy supermarket options. Taking ten days to make half a cup of mustard really may be the secret to affluence after all. I may have been domesticated, I may even have hooked up to one more chain, but I’m still not quite caged yet.

Vegie garden panorama

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

Spring flowers, broccoli among them

Spring flowers, broccoli among them

Watching a head of broccoli (Brassica oleracea) on a grocer’s shelf isn’t much of a spectator event, but watching one come slowly to fruition in your own garden is fine entertainment, the intrigue and expectation rising with each daily episode. You want it to become as big as it will get, but not to burst into actual flower. And you want to do it justice because it has been the star of a show before it even got to the kitchen.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Marigold (Tagetes sp.) and calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Marigold (Tagetes sp.) and calendula (Calendula officinalis)

And then the thinking starts about how broccoli is a flower bud, and how you have been enjoying flowers in salads of late from the calendula (Calendula officinalis), marigold (Tagetes sp.) and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) you planted as companions and the rocket (Eruca sativa) that has rocketed on all winter out the front. Capers (Capparis spinosa; more flower buds) and honey (bee-processed flower juice) could go in a fresh mayonnaise, mixed over the steamed broccoli and the whole thing strewn with petals. Deep-fried onion flowers (actual flowers, not where you cut an onion so that it looks like a bloom) come out a bit bitter and are dusted on top only very lightly. It is the last day of winter, but spring is well and truly here.

Spring flower salad starring broccoli, nasturtium, calendula, marigold, capers and nectar (honey)

Spring flower salad starring broccoli, nasturtium, calendula, marigold, capers and nectar (honey)

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