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Archive for August, 2012

Sprouting asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Two years ago, I forked out some good money on some good 2 year crowns of asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). With their first year going by unharvested while they built up strength, it is now finally payday, as beautiful crisp spears push up through their mulch of stable straw and kelp (Ecklonia radiata) . Two weeks ago I ordered some bulbs of ginger (Zingiber officinale), Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) and yacon (or ‘Peruvian ground apple’, Smallanthus sonchifolius). Today it is planting day. A few months ago, I put in a globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus), just a single plant in among the winter broad beans to see how it would go – and the answer is well enough I think to put in a few more. That gets planted as seed today as well.

Young globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus)

Planting ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) – neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem, but above ground like girasol (Spanish for sunflower), whence comes part of the name.when mispronounced

My allotment is going perennial. During summer at least, illogical as being seasonally perennial may sound. When many of these plants die off or are cut back in winter I will probably crop some broad beans (Vicia faba), Tuscan kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala ‘Cavolo nero’) and maybe another brassica or two. Around the edges, I have been encouraging some self-sown comfrey (Symphytum × uplandicum) and managing the mint (Mentha sp.) down to useful (kitchen herb and pest-deterring companion) rather than weed proportions. The rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is going well, thriving on this wet winter, having previously struggled in our sandy coastal soil in drier times.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

Young comfrey (Symphytum × uplandicum)

A big motivating factor for the change to perennials is accepting that in the peak summer-autumn growing months from December through to April I tend to lose control of the garden. Failures to water or weed can lead, depending on the year and what I have planted, to jungles or deserts of less than ideal productivity. And this is the time of year when I am most likely to be away or be busier with other things (like the sea at its best). But with the deeper rooted perennials having less regular watering needs, and growing well over a metre high and able to push and shove with the best of the weeds, the strategy is to partly let it go wild. And I can hopefully do this knowing that a solid half day’s work in autumn will be a harvest, a return to order and a preparation for the winter cropping all in one.

This partial wildness is where it gets conceptually particularly interesting for me. I have written before how the transition from foraging to farming in most of our cultural histories was not an agricultural revolution but a gradual coevolution, with people initially making some quite simple steps to influence the abundance and distribution (or in a word, ‘ecology’) of food plants and animals. It was still probably best described as foraging when the wild progenitor of yacon in South America had its rhizomes replanted after it was dug up for its roots – northern Australian Aboriginal people who did the same with some wild yams have never been called farmers for it. Similarly for ginger in South Asia and asparagus in Europe and western Asia. So when I do this next autumn in my allotment? The difference is mainly just in how we think about it rather than what we are actually doing.

Permaculturalists speak about zonation in their ‘gardens’, from carefully tended herbs and salad greens by the back door, through vegetable gardens and food forests to the woodlot in the farthest reaches that could actually be a barely touched native forest. Again, it is a continuum, and essentially the same one as between farming and foraging. For me, my zonation is very disjointed. From my herbs out the front of the apartment building, to the community garden allotment over the hill, the office salad garden across town, the scattered efforts on the bush block 3 hours away, and a whole lot of wild food places on land and sea in between. In the conceptualisation of all of this, my allotment has just moved; it has become wilder, closer to foraging, and I have to say that I like it more this way.

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A Sydney turban (Turbo torquatus) grazing algae

They have been on the menus around here for a very long time; being commonly excavated by archaeologists at Aboriginal midden sites along with stone artefacts and other shell and bone. They were a favoured raw material for making fishhooks; technology that seems to have taken off in southern coastal NSW within the last 1,000 years, maybe brought by wayward Polynesians.

A military turban (Turbo militaris)

Although you most likely didn’t know it, turban snails (Turbo spp.) have some pedigree and are still well worth eating. If the French, Catalonians (and a few other culture-bucking foragers) can make much of a thing over common garden snails (Helix aspersa), then surely there is cause for enthusiasm for a more generous version from the sea. What’s more, while in general there is an aversion to eating invertebrates from the land we seem far happier to eat them from the sea (would you eat a locust as readily as a prawn?).

A modest haul of turbans (one military turban at top, the rest Sydney turbans with a sea urchin thrown in)

The issue common to all snail eating (except for abalone, the king of them all) is the problem of getting them out of the shell. The business of boiling them so that the meat will most easily come out toughens it enough to preclude the abalone approach of fast minimal cooking for tenderness. It is not an insurmountable problem, but it does mean that turbans are one of those harvests with some preparation time attached. Boiled for 5 minutes or so, they can be tapped out of the shell; the operculum (the spiraled shell ‘door’ often made into jewellery), guts, some of the black bits and large spiral of gonads removed. Whatever you do next, thin slicing or mincing is a good idea unless you are a particular fan of chewy. The gonads can be sometimes sweet in their own right (albeit rich and not necessarily to the liking of all) but occasionally somehow bitter (seemingly more often when they are green).

For some people it is unlikely that there will be any stages of the preparation that will look or smell great. One slightly confronting tendency is for the rather tough and rubbery flesh to actually smell a bit rubbery (car tyre rather than latex) when you are mincing it. With a bit of imagination though, there are undoubtedly innumerable good ways to enjoy turban shells. Perhaps with a bit more slow cooking than other commonly eaten molluscs but still borrowing from things like Italian Zuppa di Cozze or Vongole al Pomodoro or French or Belgian moules provencale or something. Having recently and successfully followed up a tip for tenderising abalone whereby you soak it in milk for a day, this should also work. At this end of this post by the Gourmet Forager there is recipe for congee with abalone that would also work with a turban substitution. Turban meat as one of the random entries in a bouillabaisse seems possible too. I have also had success with the mince in garlic and spice patties enjoyed with sour cream, sweet chilli sauce and a dusting of salted fish roe. My latest way has been to simmer finely minced meat in a little stock and white wine until it is nearly evaporated, then I freeze it for later use. There is also a good pattie recipe specifically for turbans here.

Probably the best thing that turbans have going for them is simply that they are an underutilised resource, abundant, free, local and easily gathered. There are some better tasting sea snails out there – like Spengler’s triton (Cabestana spengleri) and cartrut shell (Dicathais orbita) – both with a crab-like hint to them that probably comes from being carnivorous rather than algae-eaters (check out a nice recent Spemgler’s triton post here) . And of course there is the unmatched delicacy of abalone (Haliotis spp.). But these are all nowhere near as abundant (and the latter subject to some tight restrictions). The green turban (Turbo undulatus) is smaller than the Sydney turban (T. torquatus) (and occasional military turban (T. militaris)) that I gather, can be gathered in the intertidal zone (where this is legal), and may be more palatable – but I have never done the taste test. The even smaller black nerite (Nerita atramentosa) occasionally gathered by Mediterranean and Asian Sydneysiders from the intertidal (and a big component of most rocky shore Aboriginal middens) also finds favour with some, often thrown in the shell in with soups or stews to add their whole flavor and some little winkle-picked morsels.

With all the seafood molluscs, the same foraging responsibility applies; they can’t run, they can barely hide, and even though few of us are out after them it requires that we follow basic sense and leave plenty behind, keep to the legal size limit (7.5 cm as longest dimension for the large turbans), and bag limit (20 per person). Although Fisheries have some cursory rules, sea snails are essentially an unmanaged fishery and therefore need to be a user-managed one – because if it ever required Fisheries to step in, in the absence of commercial lobbying their most likely response would simply be to close it. There is a plenty that should easily be maintained, and retained for those few adventurous foragers who might care about it.

Turban meat extracted after brief boiling. The meat once minced is a great seafood protein; the curled gonad can be delectable, and may even have potential for something exceptional – I’ll keep you posted.

This is turban meat most of the way cleaned – you may like to shave off a few more of the black bits

Finely diced turban meat (from before I had a mincer). This provides for the sort of cooking that can get you to tender turban, and also gets you away from so obviously eating a huge snail if that is a problem for you or your guests.

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Holm oak (Quercus ilex) acorns

It has been called the ‘forager’s dilemma’, the problem of procuring, even in a world seemingly bursting with wild food, the energy-rich foundation of a carbohydrate source that almost all human diets rely on. In most traditional foraging economies, most Australian Aboriginal ones included, this quest for the daily bread was the biggest labour demand in the community, reliant on often labour-intensive gathering and processing of plant seeds and roots. It was the process of finding ways to influence the abundance and distribution of these plants that gave rise, not through any ‘agricultural revolution’ but by a gradual human-plant coevolution, to farming and the type of cultures from which most of us descend. Among those plants that could be farmed, a relatively small suite now provide the vast majority of human food energy. Among those not so easily farmed, many once-treasured species have become largely forgotten. Like oaks, and their acorns.

Harvested acorns

Across much of the northern hemisphere, acorns, the fruit of oak trees (Quercus spp.), are believed by many to have been so fundamental to the human diet that people speak of ‘balanocultures’ (see here), being those of people for whom the oak forest and its products was the home, the hearth and the daily bread. In a few places, remnants of balanoculture survive. In a few parts of Italy, acorn cakes remain (notably using holm oaks), some Native Americans still treasure their balanophagy (acorn-eating) as a tradition (see here and here), and it is alive and well in Korea. In Spain, while acorn eating by people is largely gone, a landscape called dehesa is still treasured in places; being open oak woodlands with holm oak (Quercus ilex) and cork oak (Q. suber) as the dominant trees over meadows grazed by cattle. The trees directly provide firewood and cork and the acorn crops are hoovered up by pigs, whose consumption of them gives their meat a special quality, revered and central to the finest Iberian hams (jamon). Dehesa was traditionally often communal land, both a grazing commons and a public oak woodland in which wild greens and fungi were also foraged and small game hunted. I like the idea of dehesa.

Holm oak (Quercus ilex) tree

My nearest big park has more than 300 holm oaks (Quercus ilex), a peculiarly large number for a tree not otherwise at all commonly planted around here. It is about as close to dehesa as probably exists in Australia. Picnickers, joggers, cricketers and dogwalkers replace the grazing animals – but there is nothing really there to treasure the acorns. A few rats may be doing ok out of them, and then for a first time, last autumn, there was me. From a fairly random collection of ideas from books and the net I came up with a fairly random experimental approach (mainly from here and pages on the same blog, here and here and (surprisingly from a fellow-Australian) here). The big challenge, and probably the big obstacle to modern balanoculture catching on, is that acorns almost invariably come with tannin levels that make them inedible without some long and quite complex processing – more than enough to make most people quit and head down to the shops for some flour and/or almond meal.

But should you decide to give acorns a go yourself, and it will probably need to be more for the adventure of it than any realistic need to solve your own ‘forager’s dilemma’, you will get most of the way to learning how from the weblinks above. But truth be told they will also include some advice that doesn’t work, or at least won’t work when you try it. I don’t know if it is differences in oak species, preferences, or simply that these are all partly experimental rediscoveries of balanoculture rather than the refined detail of an established culinary tradition, but no advice that I have found to date is fool-proof or complete. Anything offering a shortcut is the most likely to be wrong. I have altogether removed from this post almost any and all advice that I had previously written, thinking perhaps that by next autumn’s harvest I might have something more than another journeyman’s reckonings to offer. Still, the photos below give some indication of the direction I ended up with.

With as many as a half of all the acorns gathered spoiled in one way or another after 4 months storage: 1) I won’t store them that long again; and 2) Those that were picked straight from the tree rather than gathered off the ground had a better success rate.

I started out with acorns from different trees separated and regret not keeping it that way, having repeatedly read that part of the challenge is to find those rare trees with the sweetest acorns needing the least leaching

Although I think I lost a few too many by trying to store the acorns too long, they can become easier to shell with a bit of drying.

I have read of hammers, knives and nutcrackers all being put to the task of shelling acorns, but found that for mine, a mortar and pestle with the mortar overturned worked very well.

After a few months, the acorn meat becomes oxidised, brown, often peppered with mould and occasionally crumbled by grubs (probably a weevil), but I pressed on with all but the worst looking.

Some may shy at the idea, but leaching acorns in a bag soaking in a toilet cistern is pure simple genius – after all, you want clean, cool water changed a few times daily including first and last thing of the day.

It will undoubtedly vary from tree to tree, let alone species to species, but it took 6 days for the water to run clear when leaching my holm oak acorns

Once leached, drying the acorn meat (both oven and dehydrator worked for me) allows the papery, bitter skin to be removed. I then gave them another soak overnight to soften them before grinding in a food processor into a gritty flour.

I tried roasting a few acorns for a few hours to get them very hard and dark, aiming at an acorn coffee – I had limited success but have confidence that it can be done.

While the acorn coffee was not superb, mixing acorn meal in equal parts with self-raising flour plus honey, butter and egg yolk, the egg whites then beaten and folded in, made a lovely, nutty acorn honeycake.

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