Saturday, July 24, 2010

In the meadow - what in the meadow?
Bluebells, buttercups, meadowsweet,
And fairy rings for the children's feet …

Christina Georgia Rossetti 1893.

After the earthmoving for the grey water treatment system had been completed, we were left with a patch of disturbed land to plant up. It’s a relatively uninteresting place that has never lent itself to be planted with vegetables, nor fenced for pasture.

During the site survey part of our original permaculture design process we obtained some old photos from the previous owner and you can see that the level of the land was a lot lower; it was an area over which heavy farm machinery had been driven and parked. Over time, and before we moved in, this had been filled in with what seems to be exclusively subsoil; the recent works haven’t improved that.

This presents us with two options: either we spend a lot of effort and energy in improving the soil or we find something that can cope with poor soil. Permaculture eyes might look on a soggy bit of field as an opportunity for growing willow rather than a drainage problem but these sorts of “solutions” aren’t always convenient. Rather than being slaves to dogma, we vote for permacultural pragmatism.

That said, the permacultural solution did suit us in this instance. Wild flowers love poor soil! I found this counterintuitive at first but I’ve since learnt that if the soil is rich, the grasses get going and swamp the wildflowers. Poor conditions inhibit the grasses and allow the wildflowers an opportunity to make hay.

I got into the rubbish soil with my broad fork then used a borrowed rotovator to smash up the hard clay into something resembling a tilth to sow the tiny seeds in. Neighbour Alan suggested his more powerful rotovator, an offer I accepted on the condition that he came too! Using broad fork, rotovator-with-helpful-neighbour and garden rake made me dream of owning a mini-digger along with a small tractor with several attachments. We sowed seed bought from Emorsgate Seeds using a plastic hand-wound seeder/spreader.

The result is delightful. Insect life has increased enormously and we hope that that might have a knock-on effect for our polytunnel and potager: by increasing the population of “good” insects that will eat more of the “bad’ insects that attack Gabrielle’s un-chemically-protected veggies. A splash of bright colours, no need to mow, we’re convinced and will expand the flower meadow this winter.

If you’re interested, this is the mix of flowers we’ve sown:
Wild Flowers:
Achillea millefolium - Yarrow
Agrostemma githago - Corn Cockle
Anthemis arvensis - Corn Chamomile
Centaurea cyanus - Cornflower
Centaurea nigra - Common Knapweed
Chrysanthemum segetum (Glebionis segetum) - Corn Marigold
Galium verum - Lady's Bedstraw
Geranium pratense - Meadow Cranesbill
Knautia arvensis - Field Scabious
Leontodon hispidus - Rough Hawkbit
Leucanthemum vulgare - Oxeye Daisy
Lotus corniculatus - Birdsfoot Trefoil
Lychnis flos-cuculi (Silene flos-cuculi) - Ragged Robin
Malva moschata - Musk Mallow
Papaver rhoeas - Common Poppy
Plantago lanceolata - Ribwort Plantain
Plantago media - Hoary Plantain
Primula veris - Cowslip
Prunella vulgaris - Selfheal
Ranunculus acris - Meadow Buttercup
Rhinanthus minor - Yellow Rattle
Rumex acetosa - Common Sorrel
Silaum silaus - Pepper Saxifrage
Silene vulgaris - Bladder Campion
Stachys officinalis (Betonica officinalis) - Betony
Trifolium pratense - Wild Red Clover
Agrostis capillaris - Common Bent
Alopecurus pratensis - Meadow Foxtail (w)
Anthoxanthum odoratum - Sweet Vernal-grass (w)
Briza media - Quaking Grass (w)
Cynosurus cristatus - Crested Dogstail
Festuca ovina - Sheep's Fescue
Festuca rubra ssp. juncea - Slender-creeping Red-fescue
Phleum bertolonii - Smaller Cat's-tail
Trisetum flavescens - Yellow Oat-grass (w)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to make “hork” or “pam” from your pigs.

One learns from one’s mistakes, a process that is illuminating yet uncomfortable. In France, on apprend en faisant des erreurs, which is precisely the same thing but is often shortened simply to on apprend en faisant, which I feel is all together more sympathetic to the poor pioneer, simply saying that “one learns in the doing”. All manor of important people have something to say on the matter : James Joyce says eloquently and charitably that, “mistakes are the portals of discovery”; for Oscar Wilde, “experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes” and Sophia Loren suggests that, “mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” So we are in good company.

So what did I do wrong ? Our three hams have not cured and air-dried as we’d hoped into Parma-style ham. Having been suspended undercover but out in the open air for nearly six months, I shaved off some slithers from the end to see what it was like. It wasn’t Parma ham. The meat was certainly dry but rather sweet and almost completely lacking in salt. I delved deep into the leg with my butcher’s knife to find that the meat hadn’t got the hard texture of dried ham. It was raw meat. It certainly smelt OK, which as a modern chap brought up with fridges, freezers and consume-by dates seems astonishing for a lump of pork that’s been hanging up outside for so long. Whatever has happened?

I posted a query on the River Cottage Community pages and thanks to some helpful replies, I think I know what went wrong. In short, we had frozen the legs before unfreezing them and putting them in brine for a month. The cells in the meat are changed during the freezing and thawing process and that has prevented the meat taking up the salt cure. It had, however, cured round the edges enough so as to seal in the meat and keep it fresh.

The story so far: four years ago, we cured our first dry ham by packing the leg in dry salt for several weeks (time according to the weight) that worked a treat. The following year, we did the same but were bitterly disappointed when we opened the wooden box after a month to find the leg had gone rotten (we think that the salt wasn’t dry enough). The solution (deliberate pun!) was to put the next leg in brine. We figured that the brine would eliminate all air and get into all the nooks and crannies; that worked a treat too. But why freeze the meat? It was more convenient for us: we had vegetarian house-sitters during a Christmas trip to see ageing parents. And we habitually take small pieces of loin or belly out of the freezer to cure to make bacon and that has always worked, which kind of suggested that freezing wouldn’t be a problem.

Now that I’d investigated our un-cooked ham pretty extensively with a butcher’s knife, what should we do with the meat. We boiled a portion to see if we had ham, which is the precise moment we discovered a new meat product. The meat, boiled, was not ham but sufficient salt had got in, having a partial curing effect, so it wasn’t pork, neither! perhaps “hork” or even “pam”.

We’ve since used some of the meat in our World-beating Spaghetti Bolognaise sauce. We added no salt but the cure already there made the dish a touch too salty: not inedible, just enough to give one a thirst for some more Chianti. And the rest, we turned into chorizo (which we’ve had a lot of success with) and a garlic salami, for the very first time.

To come back to how one learns from one’s mistakes … allegedly. Our powerful, industrial catering mincer has a neck too deep for your fingers to get into trouble. But the plastic plunger falls annoying just short, leaving a bit of meat begging to be pushed in with the end of a wooden spoon … oops! And this is the second time I’ve done this. And if you want any advice on how to take a good photo, checkout my best effort at the top.