The Knowledge

Spring veg

I read something this morning that really made me think. It was lamenting the fact that our food is globally, intensively, mass-produced. There’s almost no sense of place to it anymore. If you landed from outer space in any country in the world, could you tell where you were by the food? You more than likely could in Italy, parts of Spain, France, South America but here?

In all the countries mentioned, food is inextricably linked to their very being, their culture, their life. But the more global our food supply has become, the more we’ve lost that sense of place.

And I’ve read all the articles saying we could, as a nation, feed ourselves sufficiently with dairy and beef, lamb etc. in the event of a global catastrophy but we’d be at a serious disadvantage for fruit and veg. Go into any supermarket now (even the high end ones) and all you will find is generic imported mainly from glass jungles in Almeria, Spain and mostly distributed through Holland.

It’s all very well to tell people to grow their own. But growing your own apart from a bit during the summer, takes a skillset and space. Most urban dwellers if they’re lucky enough to have a house spent most of their time working to pay the mortgage or the rent and tend to be time poor.

Markets are popping up in urban areas but in rural areas if there are any, there tends to be a dearth of growers. I’ve seen market stalls, farm shops etc. selling organic veg but it’s invariably imported.

Wouldn’t it be great to see farmers being encouraged to diversify into fruit and veg and given all the supports, incentives and financial aid to do so. And along with this build a local market where this produce could be sold. Instead we see government, farming bodies, farming advisory boards encouraging farmers to intensify, get bigger, spend more and lose control of their product the minute it goes out the gate.

I’ve been meaning to take four photos in my local SuperValu, one for every season to see the variation on the shelves but I’m fairly certain you could barely tell Christmas from Summer.

In a local market you would have apples in autumn, strawberries in summer, tomatoes in summer, root veg in winter, cabbage in spring/winter, asparagus in summer, beans/peas in summer. You could literally tell what month it was by what was in season. You’d have kohl rabi, celeriac, purple sprouting broccoli, kalettes, chard, multiple varied salad leaves (summer and winter), rocket, leaf celery, mizuna, artichokes, 5 varieties of kale, cabbage, parsnips, turnip, aubergine, courgettes. I don’t know about you but I have never seen chard in a supermarket. I asked for it once in a posh one and was told by the person in charge of the section they’d never heard of it.

Most people think stuff is in season all year round. In fact I don’t think they understand seasonality at all anymore. I see asparagus, green beans, strawberries from Nigeria or Nicaragua or wherever they’re imported from. They’re totally tasteless particularly the strawberries and for some reason tough but that doesn’t seem to bother most.

The joy of biting into a juicy, sweet Wexford strawberry in June is worth waiting for. Likewise the first Irish tomatoes that bring back memories of sandy, soggy sandwiches huddled in a windbreak after spending too long playing in the sea. You were starving and freezing and they tasted so good with a luke warm cup of sweet tea from a flask. Tomatoes I grew last year brought back this memory as I sat at the kitchen table eating them with Spanish olive oil and salt and I felt nostalgic. I hadn’t tasted tomatoes like that for such a long time. Back then presumably supermarket tomatoes tasted of tomatoes?

The purple sprouting broccoli in the photo above was the first I’ve picked this year. I was hoping to have it long before now having smugly planted some in the tunnel which grew huge, luxuriously green leaves but nothing else. I used the leaves as cabbage so not all was lost. The irony being that what I picked the other day came from plants that were decimated by caterpillars and I mean totally decimated.

I had chard all winter. In the veg garden it struggled a bit during the really heavy wind and rain as the stuff in the tunnel thrived. It really is the most versatile vegetable because it has the crunchy colourful stalks and the leafy green leaves. I have leaf celery in the tunnel and some that seeded itself outside. It has so much more flavour than the traditional celery only available to buy.

Pork belly with veg from garden and wild garlic mash

The plate above was mostly produced here. Pork belly from last year’s Oxford Sandy Blacks, veg from the garden picked minutes before cooking and wild garlic mash (the wild garlic from Tintern). I didn’t grow enough potatoes sadly but hopefully I’ll have more this year.

I would really love to see more markets in rural areas selling local, seasonal veg from local growers who are able to make a living wage. It’s fine and dandy if you’re living in Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway but in rural areas it’s a different story.

Wouldn’t be great if an alien landed in a local market in rural Ireland in May and they could not only tell it was May from what was available but they could tell they were in Ireland? It’s not impossible and it is increasingly likely that that’s the route we need to be heading not expanding/intensifying/exporting because at the end of the day none of us can eat money!

The Virus

At the time of writing a strange new virus (Corona/Covid19) has gripped the world and been declared a pandemic. There is pandemonium, panic buying and empty shelves in shops. It’s at times like this I am glad I produce so much of my own food. Today there were no eggs in one supermarket, but when I got home I collected 10.

Madeley kale

In another, the vegetable shelves were bare. Up to this veg here has been fairly scarce but I discovered that the kale I’d planted last summer, which had all but disappeared thanks to caterpillars and then sharp-beaked hens had begun to make a comeback. The leaves are lovely and tender and cook down on a pan with olive oil and butter, like spinach. The purple sprouting broccoli is also just beginning to shoot.

Chicken and wild garlic pesto pie

The wild garlic season is just coming in and already you can pick young leaves in the woods in Tintern. It makes a great pesto until basil season. We also picked sea kale on Duncannon beach. This is also lovely sautéed on a pan in butter and olive oil.

So I think with my freezer full of lamb and the rest of my pork, a duck, a turkey and a cockerel all produced here, I won’t starve for a while!

My first Workaway left today after a month here. She was a terrific success and got loads of jobs finished (mostly inside because the weather’s been so crap). It helped that she had a great way with all the animals, although she was a bit wary of the pigs in the beginning and the goats played merry hell the one night I went away. Honestly they’re like a pair of kids (no pun intended).

Gaëlle and Nelly

In return for her help, I taught her to make sourdough bread and she’s now become proficient enough that I was able to leave her to make bread for Cake Dames. She really wanted to learn and rolled her sleeves up every evening and helped cook. I had been told that Workaways were generally older and more interested than Woofers and certainly with her, this was the case.

She loved Ireland and couldn’t get over how people who don’t know each other stop to have a chat on the beach; sometimes for ages. She found it hilarious that my neighbours asked her in for a cup of tea and she went. She told me afterwards that she felt she would learn more English by speaking to people with stronger accents than me. She jumped at the chance to ride another neighbour’s horses. Finally, before she left she decided she wanted to bake a cake for all my neighbours who she’d had contact with and then trotted off yesterday to give them to them. She insisted on buying the ingredients herself and getting recipes from home.

It really is true when you are open, friendly and interested in people that you get accepted and welcomed by a community. She got so many invites to come back and visit if she returns to Ireland in future.

I began to cure the sheepskins although I’m wondering is cure a big word for the process. They’re probably twice the size of a normal sheepskin and consequently twice as heavy when wet. It takes me all my strength to lift them. I mixed the oxalic acid in warm water as advised and then put them to soak in my water butt barrel. The idea is to stir them around in the salty oxalic acid solution every day for 3 days and I gamely tried with a tree stake. I’m convinced I heard a puncturing sound and panicked and then didn’t try again.

This morning I drained the water out to rinse them and soak them in washing soda but I’m convinced they need another go in more oxalic acid, so I’m going to order more and soak them individually this time. Sure lookit, it will either work or it won’t and nothing ventured; nothing gained.

Draining the water off

A painter here last year recommended someone to paint my hayshed and he (a very strange individual with a funny manner) arrived to have a look at it and give me a quote. So hopefully the weather will begin to improve so he can get started. It’s currently sticking up like a big red rusty sore thumb. To get it painted will really be the icing on the cake. I’m thinking of a nice dark green colour. If only the wind and rain would bugger off though now because the area around where the tunnel was erected is a sticky, slithery quagmire and I’m going to come a cropper there, sooner rather than later. I need to block the hens out and get grass seed down.

Speaking of hens, I cut an opening in the wire on the field gate so they could get out there rather than decimating everything green in my garden. It took them weeks to discover it and only after the dopey ducks did first. But then a couple of them got shocked by the fence and now absolutely refuse to go out. Sigh. They pecked all my newly planted bulbs emerging after Christmas so I have the grand total of one daffodil and a few bedraggled looking tulips.

I’m really worried that with this virus scare, there will be no applications from Woofers or Workaways. I always have maintenance work here in summer, mainly painting. I am also really tied to the place if I can’t get anyone reliable to mind all the animals. This was brought home to me when the young lad I use went to Australia for a month over Christmas and then when I was going to a family funeral in the UK, his grandmother died and I was left high and dry. Only for a massive favour from a friend, I’d have had to cancel.

So fingers crossed they get it under control and we can all get back to normal again. If not I’ll just have to roll my sleeves up.

The Dawning

Yesterday I drove back to Camolin to collect my pork and bacon. I had got a phone call unexpectedly the previous evening to say it was ready. They had said it would be the week following the bank holiday. I get my bacon dry cured which delays the process.

I frantically started to defrost the smaller freezer, firing all the stuff in it into the huge one and switching it on. That and clearing out some stuff that was “past it” made a bit of extra space as luck would have it.

The dawn in every sense of the word

I couldn’t believe the amount. Last year I had filled the boot. This year I had to put the seats down to get at least two extra huge sacks in. I wasn’t sure I would even have enough freezer space for it all and panicked. I contacted a few people who said they’d like to buy some and thankfully have sold a good bit already.

120kg of pork

I charge €10/kg (€12/kg for sausages) and it is a lot when pork is so cheap in the shop. But, let me give you an idea of what it costs me to get to this stage.

Two weaners €65 each plus diesel to collect them.

Straw for the first week when they’re kept in and afterwards €2/bale x 10 plus diesel for collection.

Feed – rolled barley and peas for 6 months. A 25kg bag of barley costs €6-7. A 40kg bag of peas €12.

In the beginning they get a scoop of barley (450g) and a scoop of peas (600g) twice a day between them. So approximately a kg of barley and 1.2kg peas a day.

In a few short weeks they get this each. So 2kg barley and 1.2kg peas each per day.

Then as they begin a rapid growth spurt this doubles again so 2 scoops barley each or 4kg a day and 2.4kg peas.

If I calculate the full amount over 4 months and half approximately for 2 months this is

Barley 24 cent/kg x 2kg = 48c x 30 days = €14.40/month x 4 = €57.60 plus €28.80 for 2 months.

Peas 30 cent/kg x 12kg = 36c x 30 = €10.80/month x 4 = €43. 20 for 4 months and €21.60 for 2 months.

So per pig feed = €151.20 plus diesel to drive and collect it all.

Abattoir plus butchery in total €300 plus 4 trips of 52km pulling a trailer for 2. Lots of diesel!

And my time – over an hour a day every day for 6 months. Incalculable!

So what I can actually calculate amounts to €376.20/pig or €752.40 for 2 pigs.

And each pig butchered is about 60-65kg. So at €10/kg you can see I’m only barely covering my costs.

I’m not in this to make money thankfully and if I cover most of my costs by selling the excess, my wages are paid to me in pork. So next time you think a small producer is ripping you off go back through these figures. Because a small farmer/smallholder is not even paying themselves a living wage never mind the minimum wage for dragging out in every type of weather twice a day for 6 months.

But, the pigs have a lovely natural but short life, living as pigs should – grazing, rooting, mud bathing, sleeping and socialising. And the poor tortured pigs on intensive farms don’t have a life in comparison. I know which meat I’d prefer to eat.

And this pork is produced from locally grown barley and peas (no imported GM rain forest, orangutan slaying grain). It supports local co ops and their employees as well as the farmers growing the grain. It keeps a local abattoir and their butchers in jobs.

By buying local you are supporting so many people.