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Archive for the ‘Seasonal foods’ Category

Rita-Wild-Illust_2017-05_WEBRita Wild stresses that she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a capitalist. Shaped by several decades working in the community sector, Rita has long been an advocate for social change. Recognising economic viability, however, as a major key to sustainability has led Rita down a more entrepreneurial path. When Rita, a former vegetarian, began eating meat again she found it difficult to source affordable, organic produce in Northern Ireland. That’s when the idea for the organic box scheme, BOXA, began to form. It wasn’t an immediate transition and a lot of soul searching went into the best format to adopt for the business. One thing Rita was certain of – she would run it as a “benevolent dictatorship”. Many years of serving her fellow citizens through committee consensus convinced Rita that her new venture would best perform with an individual at the helm.

Rita has been delivering organic and ethically-reared beef, wild venison, lamb, chicken, pork and fish directly from producer to plate now for five years. By bulk buying and eliminating the middleman it means the farmer or fisherman earns a fair price while the consumer pays competitive rates for food that is local, traceable, and of the highest standard. Flying in the face of conventional business, BOXA has minimal overheads. No fancy website (a facebook page does very nicely thank-you), no admin or marketing costs, no branding or packaging, just a simple monthly email to the 400-plus customers, outlining what’s on offer. This ensures that the organic produce is reasonable priced and more accessible than its supermarket counterparts.

The enterprise started cautiously. With a side of organic beef in hand Rita picked up the phone and found 10 people willing to share it. It is with the same personal engagement that Rita runs her business today, earning her a great deal of trust from both producers and buyers. The meat is flash frozen in large family packs, insulated with sheep’s wool and delivered to a single collection point for pick-up. “potential BOXA customers must be prepared to change their eating and buying habits. It is not like going to the butcher to buy a single lamb chop. You have to take it as it comes. We’re talking, for instance, half a lamb. There is no convenient solution.”

Her buyers travel on a given day each month to collect their BOXA goodies from Ballylagon Organic Farm, located 20 minutes outside Belfast. Up to now payment was only made on collection and Rita has rarely been let down by a non-showing customer- testimony to the success of her hands-on customer relations. The option to pre-pay online has since become available. The price of a box of meat has been sensibly calculated by totting up the precise cost of rearing, caring for and slaughtering the animal and then adding a fair mark-up for the farmer to cover their labour, time and investment. Rita then charges 10% commission to the producer and 10% handling fee to the buyer. No hidden costs.

It’s all about making organic food mainstream. It’s also about keeping food local, accessible and simple. Farmed as it was in our grandparents’ day without the intervention of chemicals. We need more inspirational food rebels like Rita Wild to fight the system, question bureaucracy and remind us what real food tastes like.

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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….

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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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MaryWhite_blackstairs-EcoToursSouth of Curracloe beach is Culleton’s Gap where a wooded walk, teaming with all sorts of interesting flora and fauna, meanders behind the sand dunes. The sun was shining, there was a cockoo calling and a red squirrel was spotted scampering through the tree tops. A magical backdrop for our forest forage led by Mary White of Blackstairs Eco Trails. The group huddled close as Mary and her partner Robert went through the ethics of foraging for wild food. We were advised not to over indulge – to leave some for the insects and animals to feed on and enough to enable the plant to reproduce. “We take no more than a third of a particular species in a given area” Mary explained “and if it is a rare specimen, such as pig nuts, then we leave it alone altogether to give it a chance to re-establish itself”. Most importantly, “if in doubt- leave it out”. Some plants are easy to identify but others require some experience. There are several plant species with white umbel flower heads that look remarkably similar and while a lot of them are safe to ingest there are a few that are poisonous- some deadly. So bring along a good wild plant guide to help you make informed choices and if you are unsure please don’t take the risk.

With the sensible advise underway we continued on our walk. Stopping frequently to point out plants of culinary interest, Mary and Robert highlighted their individual characteristics to aid identification. They shared interesting tips and facts as well as practical recipes to try out. So engaging were our two guides that the 90 minutes flew by. I was particularly taken with a recipe for fried dandelion heads so I rushed home to scour our lawn for ingredients to make an afternoon snack. Everybody knows dandelions, or Pissy-beds as they were charmingly referred to round these parts due to their strong diuretic qualities. Also embedded in our childhood memories are the floaty seed heads which we would puff at to tell the time. But if you actually go hunting for a dandelion there are a number of yeller flowers that bear a striking resemblance to it – like Lesser Hawkbit and Sow Thistle. So here are a few tell-tale signs to make sure you’ve made the correct choice.

Dandelion_ID

Apparently it’s best to harvest them at midday or when the sun is at its strongest so that the flower will have maximum sugar levels. Sun still blazing I filled my colander with the yellow heads, washed them, patted them dry and removed as much as the green calyx as I could. Then I dipped them in whisked egg and coated them in flour mixed with salt, pepper and a few herbs. I used some thyme and oregano and my flour was buckwheat but you can alter the recipe to suit what you have to hand. I fried them in olive oil and -wow! Totally delicious- we scoffed them down in the blink of an eye.

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Frosty_MorningThey say it’s best to wait til after the first frost to gather haws. The cold both softens and sweetens them. Just over a week ago we had our first frost of the winter. I woke to a white blanket of ice crystals twinkling in the morning sun. Donning hat and gloves I braved the chill to gather fruit from a hawthorn tree in our boundary hedge. There is very little wild food to be found at this time of year so, if the birds haven’t already savaged them, those little red baubles are foraging gold-dust. Haws are full of vitamins and minerals and can be used to make jelly, chutney and even a kind of fruit jerky/leather. The hawthorn fruit is also a useful heart medicine, healing on both a physical and an emotional level. It is used to regulate blood pressure and, as with other members of the rose family, to mend broken hearts. Not wanting to totally strip our garden of winter nourishment for the birds I decided to pick some more haws on my usual dog-walking route. The route that I have been frequenting for many years was home to several hawthorn bushes. As luck would have it they were also still bearing berries and flanked by some flowering gorse bushes. The bright yellow blossoms caught my attention (more foraging gold-dust) so I helped myself to a handful.

 

Hawthorn_berries

After rinsing the berries I placed them in a kilner jar with about half their weight of sugar, added the gorse flowers and covered the lot in rum. I would have used brandy but for the addition of the gorse flowers. Their lovely coconutty scent would have been completely overpowered. I placed the jar on a shelf in the kitchen to be shaken daily.

 

HawBerry&GorseBlossom_Rum_SM

A few days later, dog and me ambled down our familiar track. We rounded the corner to the spot where we had gathered our berries and blossoms only to be greeted with a bare ditch. One side of the half mile stretch had been mechanically removed of all the plant life that I had become acquainted with over the course of many years. My heart sank. I know, in time, the wild carrot, thistles, hemp-agrimony, fleabane and many, many others will return but how long will it take for the bigger shrubs and trees to become established- if they are allowed? Well, I shall certainly savour my rum, even if its flavour will be tinged with little sadness. Perhaps the hawthorn will mend that.

“Things do not change; we do” Henry David Thoreau

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plum sauce
We planted a plum tree about 8 years ago. Each summer he delivers a meagre handful of fruit which usually becomes wasp fodder. I don’t think we had ever actually had the chance to eat one. It’s not a particularly attractive specimen and earlier in the spring I questioned the viability of keeping it. Aloud. In a tut-tut tone. Within earshot of the under-productive tree.
Well, it seems our tree has taken my criticism on board. Feeling the pressure to perform, he has gone all out this year to prove his worth. His branches, dipping to the ground, were full with fruit like we had never seen before. I gave lots away, ate even more and still had some left to make plum sauce.
We don’t eat a ton of chutney so I thought this chilli- plum combination would have more uses in the kitchen. And so it does. Sweet with a spicy kick, it’s great with cheese. It also works well in stir fries and sweet and sour dishes. The flavour matures with time so It should taste even zingier after a few weeks.

Plum chilli sauce
1k plums destoned
3 whole red chillis
1 large red onion
2 garlic cloves
Small nub of fresh ginger – approx 5g
250ml vinegar (apple cider or balsamic- I used a mixture)
1 tblsp Tamari sauce (soya sauce will do fine)
1 tblsp sherry
Half teasp cinnamon
Half teasp salt
450g sugar (150g of which was brown sugar)

Finely chop the chillis, onion, garlic and ginger. Add to a pot with the de-stoned plums and cook for about 20 minutes. Add all the other ingredients. Stir well and bring to a rolling boil for another 20 mins approx. I prefer it to be of pouring consistency and not as thick set as jam. You may prefer a thicker, more chutney vibe in which case it may need more boiling. When you feel you have reached your ideal thickness (do the cold saucer test) then pour into sterilised jars and lid them when still warm.

So, thanks plum tree for the surprise bumper harvest. From here on in I promise, no more talk of relocation!

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Pancakes_American-web

My small nieces love to play tag with the dog. The dog loves to be chased by two squealing six-year olds. It’s a happy relay that provides both parties with much entertainment. This morning, after several laps of the garden, all three arrived into the kitchen with food on their minds having run up a hefty appetite. Since their mum is steering clear of gluten, pancakes were the easiest and quickest way to whip up a snack for the whole family. Plus they would be great partnered with the berries I had picked earlier. I prefer to make American style pancakes – not the more traditional crepes that we used to eat as children. Today I used gluten-free flour but when little folk with suspicious taste buds aren’t about I use buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is an acquired taste, much in the way of Guinness or anchovies- either loved or hated. We belong in the first camp. As soon as the the girls had refueled on nutella and jam-smeared pancakes it was back to the garden. Meanwhile, the adults enjoyed theirs with freshly picked blackberries and honey. Delicious. My sister asked me for the recipe so here it is.

Gluten-Free Pancakes

  • 1 cup of gluten-free flour (or buckwheat of you are a lover)
  • 1 teasp baking powder (check to make sure it’s gluten free- most are)
  • 1 teasp cinnamon
  • 1 teasp sugar (or apple concentrate/rice syrup)
  • half cup water
  • half cup of milk (soya or almond can also be used. I used kefir milk)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp oil (olive or sunflower)
  • half teasp vanilla extract

First combine all the ingredients in the order they are listed. Mix well. You can leave to sit for half an hour but really it doesn’t appear to make much difference if you make your pancakes straight away. Pour a third of a cup of the mixture on an oiled, heated pan. Cook on a medium heat for about 3-4 minutes a side. Continue until mixture is gone and devour warm with chopped fruit, maple syrup, nutella ……. or whatever takes your fancy! They are just perfect for foraged hedgerow blackberries that are now coming into their prime.

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