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Food Matters…

Karen-Nolan_Food-Producer-farmerHave you ever stared at a plastic-wrapped chicken in your local supermarket wondering what exactly “farm-fresh” means? Two words, selected to conjure up images of a healthy, outdoor environment. They may even be accompanied by a charming illustration of rural idyll. Together they imply traditional farming methods and salt-of-the-earth values of a farmer concerned for the welfare of his livestock and the quality of his produce. That may very well be the case, but placing “farm fresh” on the label does not guarantee that its contents ever had access to the great outdoors or even a particularly pleasant existence.

The chicken did originate from some class of a farm and there is no denying its freshness, but that is not telling us the whole story. Was it free to roam outdoors and scratch the earth as is its natural disposition? Not likely if the label does’t read “free-range”. Was the bird raised in the stated country of origin or was it just just packed there? Is it possible that it was fed hormones, antibiotics or GMO grain? Without organic certification who can tell. While consumers are not openly lied to, larger brands tend to gloss over the cold, hard facts of how our food has been treated before it hits the supermarket shelves. The unbridled truth may not make for easy digestion and many people prefer not to ask too many questions.

There is, however, a portion of the population who like to buy food from producers that they know and trust. They are happier in the knowledge that the food they eat that has been reared or grown as close to home as possible. Food that is in season and without chemicals. Some folk want less packaging going to landfill, fewer air-miles to feel guilty about and to be assured that everyone involved is treated fairly.

Farmers’ markets are a great way to connect with food producers in your area. You get to chat with them face-to-face and find out how they farm. If you don’t have a market nearby, your local authority might be persuaded to provide support in setting one up. A good way to dip your toes into a communal enterprise is to start a food buying group with your friends and neighbours. Placing a large order allows the group access to quality produce at a fair price, direct from source, which as individuals would be impossible. According to Suma, UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler/distributor: “Buying Groups vary from individuals to groups of friends, neighbours, relatives, or large-scale community-based projects, ……Buying in bulk can help to reduce your carbon footprint, minimise the amount of packaging you use, and save you money on your shopping.”
Community supported agriculture is where like-minded people come together to employ farmers and growers to produce enough food for the collective. It may be in the form of a club with a subscription, which in turn entitles its members to a weekly/monthly supply of vegetables, cereals, dairy or meat products. It provides a secure market for the farmer and direct access to local, fresh, seasonal food for the community.

The Food Assembly is a technology-assisted method of managing a food club. It is rapidly gaining popularity in the UK but can be applied to any geographic area. The website gives information on how to form a club with the added benefit of an online shop where members can order their weekly shop and pay upfront. The Food Assembly system requires each club to have a “host”. The host deals with the processing of the orders and the organising of a local delivery/ pick-up point. Both the host and the Food Assembly take a small percentage allowing food producers to earn over 80% of the price they set. Far more lucrative than dealing with supermarkets. Food Assembly Producers also know how much to harvest each week for orders, which means there’s no food waste.

So let’s get to know our local producers. Help them earn a fair living for their hard work and we get to eat healthier food, boost local employment and circulate money around our communities. Definitely food for thought….

A Review of 2015

Whoooosh…..And there goes another year. Three weeks ago, 2016 sauntered right in and made itself at home while my head is still entertaining 2015. Time is a strange thing. It has absolutely no regard for my preferred pace of life. Marching along steadily, refusing to wait for me as I ramble off-course. If Time were not so regimented and I not so easily distracted, we might make better friends. Meanwhile, we put up with each other’s shortcomings and carry on regardless. As with any fractious relationship, a little venting eases the irritation. And what better bugbear to start with, than this very blog.

At the beginning, Time left lots of room for blogging. But the novelty lost it’s sheen somewhat when everyday stuff demanded attention. Other activities got priority and Time refused to wait for me to catch up. Time does not tolerate excuses. He is well known for forging ahead regardless. I have noticed that the more activities I plan to cram into each day the more indifferent Time becomes. So perhaps I need to narrow my focus to only include the activities that mean the most to me and allocate a realistic amount of energy to them.

Blogging is most definitely among my favourite activities. I’ve selected a few favourite images from 2015. A look back through the year helps me mend my relationship with Time and be more forgiving. After all it has been a great year! It also helps me reflect on what activities are closest to my heart.

Foraging-making-exploring

I love the treasures that foraging brings, the act of gathering food from the hedgerows is such a delight. Thinking up new ways to use my bounty is so much fun! Home remedies, food, cosmetics…the list is endless. I’ll never tire of learning and exploring more about the natural world and as for making things by hand- it’s the perfect antidote for someone who spends too much time pushing pixels around a screen for a living.
Gardening

 

Our new veggie patch of raised beds was a great success this year and for a few months we just ate what came out of the garden. That gave us a great sense of satisfaction with the added bonus of great-tasting, chemical-free, fresh ingredients.

If there are any fitting subjects that you would like me to cover here on Green Jam Jar please let me know. I like to think there are folk getting something out of my monthly musings – other than the other end of therapeutic venting! (But therapeutic venting alone is good enough!)  So, with your help, and that of my old pal time, Time, let’s take Green Jam Jar into 2016!

Happy New Year to you all! Make it the year to follow your heart.

Irish_book_pile“Just… six…. weeks” Sinead whispered. Her horrified expression told of santa letters requesting all sorts of elusive items, festivity mania and the pressure to conform to the popular ideal of Christmas time. I nodded sympathetically. My hairdresser told me two days ago that she had secured her little boy’s Christmas present in June, such was the demand for the particular item. We have no santa believers in our immediate household. I’m grateful to be excused from the mad rush to hunt down the latest new-fangled, must-have, super-sonic gadget, for which the marketing industry has worked offspring into a frenzy. Our extended family has gone so far as to impose a no-present policy for the last few festive seasons. We do however break the rules a little for smaller family members that still hold faith in the industrious elves that churn out toys in the north pole.

I’m not going to go all humbug and push for pressie abstinence. I’m all for the spirit of giving but choosing items that are locally-sourced, sustainably produced and send little or no waste to landfill seems like the most sensible way to approach it. Difficult I know when little Tommy has his heart set on that plastic ride-on tractor economically produced in Asia. I always think there’s nothing like receiving or giving a good book. Even if not produced locally, a book has a long lifespan (sometimes generations) and can be passed on until it becomes tatty to the point of illegibility. At that stage it should decompose nicely. Some folk disagree with the felling of trees for the production of paper but I would argue that the paper industry has long since pulled up its socks. Forests grown for paper production are now sustainable managed. In fact the whole industry relies on continual planting and growing of trees, offsetting considerable amounts of carbon.

I love reference books. Any that cover nature, cooking, gardening, herbal remedies, foraging, design and illustration will always capture my attention. There are that many great books in my collection I would be waxing lyrical ’til the cows come home to cover all my favourites. So I have narrowed my selection here to themes covered in the blog and to books whose authors I have personally met in recent times. Here we go:

ZoeDevlin_TrevorSargent_books

The Wildflowers of Ireland is a conveniently sized field guide to wild flowers of the Irish countryside. Written and photographed by the lovely Zoe Devlin, it’s a terrific accessory for an outdoor stroll. It’s my go-to reference for identifying unfamiliar species or confirming the lineage of those that I’m unsure about. I met Zoe on one of her amazing and informative wildflower walks.

Trevor’s Kitchen Garden is the work of multi-talented, friend and neighbour, Trevor Sargent. This detailed growing guide draws on his 30 years of organic gardening. As well as practical growing instruction Trevor shares fascinating facts and words of wisdom making it an invaluable companion for anyone who grows, or aspires to grow, their own food.

While on the subject of growing your own, I have to include Grow, Cook, Eat to my list of recommended reading. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the dynamic and inspiring Michael Kelly. Michael, founder of GIY  (Grow it yourself) has compiled oodles of seasonal recipes and interspersed them with useful tips on how to grow your own ingredients. A very attractive volume and a useful reference for tending your veg patch through out the year.

GIY_SusanJaneWhite_books

And last but not least, I’d like to give my recently acquired The Extra Virgin Kitchen a mention. Written by the effervescent Susan Jane White this book is for anyone keen to avoid wheat, dairy or refined sugar. It’s packed with super-healthy recipes that are easy to prepare and taste great. I met Susan at my local healthfood store where a delicious high-octane banana flapjack and her infectious enthusiasm for all things wholesome, won me over. Behind her entertaining, up-beat writing style are nuggets of well-researched, nutritional wisdom- invaluable for anyone who has ever struggled with food intolerances.

If you are already on the hunt for great gifts this festive season you’ll find all of the above and thousands more excellent reads at your local bookstore. It’s as good place as any to start!

 

 

 

Watering the polytunnel one evening I was taken aback to spot a large insect flexing his feelers on a courgette plant. His slender body spanned almost two inches with long gangly antennae that comically kinked out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature like him before and decided to keep my distance. After gingerly taking a picture on my phone I darted indoors to see if Google could enlighten me. I found no images to match my bug so I sent off an email to the Viney household hoping for some insight. Ethna Viney, writer and wife to Irish Times nature columnist Michael, very kindly advised me to contact the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

Parasitic_Wasp_Ireland

Funded by the Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the National Biodiversity Data Centre is based in Waterford. They collect data from civilian naturalists from all around the country. That information is then managed and analysed to inform us of any changes to our natural surroundings. It means that the state of Ireland’s wildlife is documented for future reference and monitored so that any potential threats or challenges can be detected and dealt with. As the natural environment directly impacts our daily lives, it is a valuable and worthy activity.

The public are encouraged to visit the website, log in and record their sighting- whether it be insect, wild animal, bird or plant. There are even useful step-by-step instructions to help you through the process. When I opened the website I read that earlier in the day a Pine Marten had been spotted in Sligo, someone had spied a Green Shield bug in Kerry while the day before in Dublin a Rock Pigeon was recorded and Sea Aster was found growing in Waterford. Just a few of the many, many recorded sightings that are logged each day. It doesn’t seem to matter if the particular species is unusual or considered rare, even encounters with common flora and fauna are welcome.

But how could I record my exotic visitor without first identifying him? With that in mind I sent my photo in an email to the experts at the National Biodiversity Data Centre asking for assistance. A speedy response confirmed that my insect wasn’t terribly exotic but, in fact, a parasitic wasp. Dr Tomás Murray assured me that the wasp was harmless, unless you happen to be a caterpillar. The unfortunate caterpillar is host to the wasp larvae. I was a little disappointed not to have discovered a rarity or even a brand new species but at least he will help deter ravenous caterpillars from chomping through my leafy greens.

Elephant_hawkmoth_caterpillar_sm

A week later while walking in the locality I spotted another gargantuan insect on my path. A fat, brown caterpillar with eye-like markings lolloped over the gravel. Aha, I thought, another specimen to record. Google was able to help me out on this one which turned out to be an Elephant Hawk Moth grub. So I dutifully logged on to the National Biodiversity Data Centre website and recorded each insect individually, citing exact location, date and habitat I found them in. Lots of prompts and drop-down menus make the process as easy as possible.

Next time you are outdoors take a closer look at that grass verge, the hedge nearby, the stone wall, the flower bed.  It’s amazing what you see when you really look. Get spotting and recording. You’ll develop a more intimate relationship with your surroundings, you’ll be doing your bit for the preservation of our biodiversity and, last but not least, it’s fun for all the family!

FPW_illustrationWe are all well aware of the potential challenges that lay ahead. The media bombards us with forecasts of melting ice caps, rising ocean levels and calamitous weather patterns. The unpredictability of climate change threatens our food sovereignty and presents us with various tragic eventualities. While it all sounds a bit apocalyptic and melodramatic, because that’s how the media likes to express itself, there is a slice of reality in there. Our destructive behaviour hasn’t done us any favours. Man’s lack of empathy for the natural order of things combined with our misguided sense of superiority may one day lead to our eventual extinction. As George Carlin put it

The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

But it’s not terribly helpful to dwell on omens of doom and gloom. It’s more constructive (and much cheerier) to seek out inspirational, enlightened folk to guide us in the right direction. International Resilience Manager Davie Philip is one such person. A few days ago in Wexford town a group of like-minded people came together to explore how we might build better communities in our locality and plan for a brighter future together. The highlight of the “Future-Proof Wexford” public meeting was an impassioned and uplifting talk by Davie. He spoke about the need for resilience- a more realistic goal than the ultimate ideal of sustainability. A resilient society will adapt to immediate challenges  and find solutions that will accommodate growth. Instead of  worrying about future catastrophic events in the wider world, more can be achieved by collectively overcoming everyday problems within our own working and living environments.

FPW-Photo_Davie-Philip

Building social capital is key to the process. For this to happen it takes a period of interaction and observation to suss out the dynamics of the group. To help forge connections, promote inclusivity and move toward common goals it is helpful to first map out the assets and collective skills within the community.

Davie cited the eco-village of Cloughjordan in Co. Tipperary as a relevant case study. A founding member of the community and a resident of the eco-village he gave numerous examples of how people rally together to overcome societal challenges. Whether it be economic issues, security or health and wellbeing, it is clear that sharing the load lessens the burden. Community-supported agriculture (CSA), communal gardening, an egg, milk & bread club, a microgeneration collective and a community workspace for eco-entrepreneurs are a few of the Cloughjordan initiatives where individuals have successfully pooled resources. Not only do these work for the betterment of the eco-villagers, many knock-on benefits radiate out to positively impact the wider neighbourhood.

Touching on the ideas of “less ego and more eco” and making sustainability more mainstream, Davie suggested that the toughest part of the future-proofing process may be changing how we think. We need to lose the “everyman for himself” mindset and re-establish connections. We shouldn’t be consumed by what we want to own as individuals but maybe explore what we it is we actually need to flourish as a community. What exactly constitutes a happy community? Can we come together to achieve a common goal for the benefit of all? Well that remains to be seen. I, for one, am hopeful. If we can fill a room on a Tuesday evening with enthusiastic people all open to change, it can only be a good sign.

Movements such as Transition Town and Incredible Edible Tomorden are just two examples of many great collective collaborations in action. If you’ve got an inspiring story to share about how your community has worked together for social and environmental improvement I’d love to hear about it.

Ragwort_FlowersYou will find swathes of bright yellow swaying in fallow meadows and roadsides despite attempts to eradicate it completely from the land. As a child I remember scouring fields for *buachaláns. Its strong, acrid odour would fill the air as you grabbed the stalk to tug it out. A smell so potent you could almost taste the unpleasantness in your mouth. The reason for its unpopularity lies in its toxicity. In the unlikely event of cattle or horses eating the plant, given its unpalatable smell, the presence of alkaloid poisons have the potential to cause severe or fatal liver damage. It poses more of a problem when the plant is cut and dried as it still retains its toxins. Hence our annual family ragwort purge. The plant is considered such a threat to the agricultural community that it is cited as an offender in the Irish Noxious Weeds Act of 1936.

Ragwort tastes so woeful that it would never be considered as food for humans so it is not a real danger to us. Some alkaloids may be absorbed through skin contact but these are eliminated from the body without causing harm. Ragwort may however cause dermatitis or an allergic reaction to sensitive individuals.

Cinnabar_Moth_ragwort

Is it fair to portray the ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) as a demonic scourge? It is, after all, host to over 70 insect species about 30 of which feed exclusively from it. The most well-known is the Cinnabar Moth, whose larvae can safely chomp away on the leaves, unbothered by predators. The plant’s alkaloids are absorbed by the caterpillars, giving the grubs, I imagine, a particularly nasty taste. The clusters of yellow flowers that emerge in late July and August are a great source of nectar and pollen for insects while its downy seeds provide food for birds in the autumn.

The Manx people refer to ragwort as cushag and liked it enough to appoint it as the Isle of Man’s national flower. This may be down to it’s extensive medicinal use in former times. There is early documentation reporting of the use of ragwort leaves as a poultice for rheumatism, sciatica and gout and the plant has even been cited as a cure for “staggers” in horses.

It goes without saying that livestock should always be kept safe and the practice of pulling the plant from grazing pastures is sensible. A prolific seeder and hardy perennial, it is unlikely that ragwort will ever become an endangered species but consider the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) and other insect life that the plant supports. Next time you come across a **bauld buachalán enjoy the beautiful display of radiant yellow, have a scan for any stripy passengers on board and wonder at the marvel of everything having its place in this magical ecosystem we inhabit.

*buachalán buí: Irish for ragwort (probably derived from Irish word buachaill- meaning boy, while buí means yellow) **bauld: Irish slang for bold or naughty

Note: I would not recommend self-medicating with ragwort, despite the wonder-cure claims.

Beech Leaf Noyeau

BeechLeafNoyeau_SMI’m not one-hundred percent sure what Noyeau actually means but from mooching around blogville I’m picking up that it is a tipple with a vague association with brandy. Interestingly, the addition of a single French word always transforms the mundane into instant sophistication. So I’m sticking with it.

It’s too late in the year to make this drink as the beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves have now lost their fresh, bright green lustre. When they first emerge in spring they are beautifully soft and downy with a translucency that plays with the early May sunlight. And that is what we are looking for. I picked my leaves at the end of May and already they were beginning to take on a more robust, viridian hue. Sensing the urgency, I filled a large bag. Although it looked like a big harvest, when I packed them tightly into a Kilner jar they only half filled it. But that was fine – it seemed a bit mean to strip the tree bare. I washed the leaves before making sure to press them down into the jar with some force. Apparently that’s important. I then poured in enough gin to cover the leaves and left them to stew for four weeks.

Four weeks later I strained the gin from the leaves, squishing them to extract as much liquid as possible. The boozy leaves went on my compost heap – your  compost heap is allowed to get a little tipsy once in a while. As with us- moderation is key. The gin had taken on a greeny-brown hue. I then made a syrup by boiling sugar and water. When it was cool, I added it to the gin along with the obligatory splosh of brandy and decanted the lot into a suitable bottle. And….oo la laa…. we have noyeau! Drink neat or enjoy with a mixer of choice. I’m going to sip mine, very lady-like, with tonic water… and a certain air of decadence…

As a guideline should you want to make this next spring: for every 100ml of beech leaf-infused gin you will need about 43ml water and 32g of sugar to make the syrup. I added a modest 15ml brandy per 100ml but you may prefer more.

 

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