Commonplace, Vol. 1, Issue 11

In which there is backyard food and foraging.

Hello! It’s been some time since I’ve written an issue of Commonplace, and a combination of pandemic, job-hunting, medical procedures and stuff are to blame. Also, obviously, me; I am a real human with agency, not an algorithmic output of circumstances. I think.

This issue seems to be mostly about foraged and backyard food. I had this idea when I first started writing this that there would be regular, planned issues about specific topics, like the chapters of a book. Shows what I know.

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As soon as the first lockdown ended, we got chickens. They are called Too-Ticky and Mymble, and they have in the last few weeks started to lay properly. Despite being, by all appearances, the same breed of chicken, one of them produces large eggs with a distinct light-green hue, and the other produces smaller eggs of a more conventional egg-brown colour. The light green ones are often double-yolked.

We’ve taken to writing the date of laying on them so that we can use the older ones first; we do not have numerate chickens.

There is also a hedgehog hanging out somewhere in the area; the dog was going berserk here one night and trying to dig under it, as if that would provide a less spiky route to picking it up and bringing it in, or whatever he wanted to do with it. This creates holes in what can now only euphemistically be called a lawn. The chickens then treat these as dust baths, and nestle down into them, wriggling around blissfully. And when everyone else is tired of them, the youngest cat curls up and sleeps in them. It’s a whole ecosystem of odd animals.

The foraging has been a little odd. I’d located a number of things to pick over the previous few months rambling with the dog - apples from a tree in a corner of one estate (see Issue 6), hazelnuts in one particular field, a fruit that’s somewhere on the sourer end of the plum-sloe spectrum in the next couple of fields over, European cranberries, and for tree planting purposes, acorns in many places. Also one actual definite blackthorn with sloes on. There are not nearly as many mushrooms this year as last year - at least not yet - and I’ve yet to find any field mushrooms or puffballs yet, which are the two I’d be fully confident about eating.

The blackberries, though, which looked like they’d be a huge crop this year, have been miserable. Small berries, not much taste, and not actually very many of them ripening. This is mostly due to the late summer having been damp and cloudy; blackberries do best with a rainy spring/early summer and then actual sunshine in the later season.

Nina and I went out to get some of the goods the weekend just gone, and found that someone had gotten to the hazelnuts ahead of us. Whoever they were, they did an excellent job clearing the trees; after careful attention, we retrieved about a dozen they missed. They did not, however, nab the sloes in the same field, or the plum-sloe-spectrum fruit in the neighbouring fields, of which there were more than we could reasonably pick.

I think the spectrum fruits are bullaces, but I’m not sure, and I’m uncertain as to whether anyone is. In my mind, the spectrum runs: plum; wild plum; damson; bullace; sloe. The blackthorns, on which the sloes grow, have vicious thorns, plum trees have none. The others have varying degrees, depending on how far toward the sloe side they are. Greengages and white damsons are sort of side branches, as it were. But some people appear to think bullaces sit between plums and damsons, which would make these fruit far too sour to qualify.

In any case, I’ve made an attempt at a stuff called bullace cheese, which is basically a hedgerow version of a quince paste. It has the advantage of not needing to stone the fruits, because that would be a complete pain.

As you can see from the picture above, they’re not big fruit, and there’s a good bit of stone in them. The “cheese”, which seems in this context to be a term for “soft-ish stuff that holds its shape”, contains the fruit, and some sugar, and a little bit of butter.

The first stage involved boiling the fruit down, and then sieving it to remove the stones and whatever other bits of stalk and leaf had made it through the washing. There’re always some. The pulp, or puree, or whatever you might call it, turns a spectacular dusky pink along the way, and then gets a bit darker. It’s sour, though; I tried some off a spoon, and then couldn’t open my mouth for a few seconds because of the vacuum created. Once the stones are out, you add sugar - I could only find demerara sugar, but that seemed fine - and a bit of butter. The instructions I had, which I found wild on the internet, were very precise about the measurements, but given the variability of wild fruit, I can’t imagine that they’re all that important. I had 750g of sugar to one litre of puree, for what it’s worth.

The resulting slabs of jellyish stuff are supposed to be stored for 6-8 weeks before eating. I’m going to try keeping some of it for that long, but most will be eaten well before. We cut up some into smaller pieces and rolled them in sugar, and they were a good match for the very best commercial jelly sweets. I am pretty sure you could do something similar with any stone fruit, and starting to wonder if you couldn’t just do it with any fruit full stop.

Cee got us a cider press a few weeks ago, and it saw its first use with some apples she brought up (from a feral tree in Offaly), some apples from the tree I’d located in Maynooth, and some from our own tree. That got us about 7.5l of juice, which is currently - hopefully - turning itself into cider. There are also two demijohns of elderberry wine, made the same day, doing their thing. I’m somewhat fascinated by the fact that all of these things are easier to make than beer - which involves malting and other complicated things - and yet beer was the fundamental alcohol of the Middle Ages. It probably scales better than things that need to be foraged, but I’m pretty sure orchards were a thing, and cider is genuinely easy to make, yet you find very little mention of it in documentation or accounts. I did look into the idea that “beer” could have been a generic term for “alcohol that isn’t wine”, but there’s no support at all for that; it’s pretty clear everywhere that beer is, well, beer.

In other backyard news, I don’t think I wrote up the outcomes of the stuff we planted earlier in the year. There was a mixture of success and failure, as ever. The potatoes grew well for the first couple of months, and then basically stopped, with the plants gradually falling over; not blight, but not terribly healthy plants, either. At the stage where the dog and the chickens started to dig up the potatoes for snacking purposes, I gave up and harvested them. There was a decent basket and a half of spuds out of it, but they had all grown in the gaps between the overlapping layers of turned grass sod, and were strange shapes and sizes because of that, which probably also explains the less than healthy plants. They’re floury to the point of mealiness, which is not something I much like in potatoes. They’re currently stored in a dark spot, to see if they improve any, but if they don’t, I suspect they’ll go to the chickens. It’s good to have food recycling on hand.

The carrots simply did not come up. Or rather, one did (out of probably a couple of hundred seeds), about five months after it was sowed, and after I had put the bed to a different use accommodating two rue plants that Eva gave me. Rue is a herb, more or less, to which many people are allergic, so it’s not much used in modern cookery. Medieval Arabic cookery, though, uses it like a vegetable, so I want to have it there to experiment with. I’m mostly leaving the plants alone this year so they can settle in (and ideally do a bit of self-seeding), and then next year I can pick it as needed. The carrots were cheap seeds from the local branch of The Range, so if I’m planting them again, I’ll go for better seeds.

The pumpkins, also from cheap seeds, came up in quantity. The plants exploded out of their bed, as they’re wont to do, and invaded the raspberry patch and trailed out over the harvested potato bed. I trialed hand pollination, but also observed honey bees and bumblebees going from flower to flower, so I’m pretty sure they got plenty of pollen spread around.

Despite dozens of flowers - see the upper background of the bee picture above - there are only two pumpkins formed, and I’m not 100% certain that they’re not from the gourd plants that came up later. One is currently cantaloupe melon sized, the second a bit bigger, and they’re starting to go from green to something more pumpkin coloured. This is way better success than I’ve had with pumpkins before, though, because I’ve not managed to produce any fruit in previous attempts. For next year, assuming I bother, I’ll start them off inside as early as is feasible, and then plant them out. I strongly suspect that the shorter growing season here than in their native country is one of the main issues.

The peas came up, and then straight up disappeared. I’m pretty sure something ate them, but the fact that every cat in the neighbourhood homed in on that bed as a litter tray didn’t help. Chicken-wire fencing next year.

There were some strawberries, but the chickens got most of them. The plants are a bit elderly at this stage, and even the new runner-generated ones are not great. They’re in a planter which probably needs a good dose of fertiliser over the winter. The gooseberries were good, but not terribly numerous, the blackcurrants similar. The apples were good, and thinning them early in the year worked very well. They’re now about one-third of the cider, as above. The raspberries had an absolutely stellar crop, and kept producing for about three weeks at a rate of a good-sized bowl or so every day. For the first time, some of them made it into the house.

Eva also gave us some tomato plants, which are in a soft-plastic mini-greenhouse thing in a sheltered corner, where the wind has got at it a few times anyway. They’re doing pretty well, I think - Nina has mostly been taking care of them, so I haven’t done the breadth of reading I’ve done for other crops.

I now have a set of potatoes coming up as a winter crop - left over Rooster potatoes from Tesco which sprouted, and which I’ve planted in big flowerpots. This stops the the chickens and dog from having quite such easy access to them, and will make harvesting them easier - just tip out the pots and comb through. It also means they’ve got good loose soil to grow in, rather than the compacted layers of the grass sod. They could still do with some sort of chicken-prevention cover, but they seem to be doing good for now. And I know I like Roosters.

We’re thinking about other over-winter crops; assuming that we don’t have heavy frosts, which doesn’t seem terribly likely, a lot of hardy plants would do well. I do think we’re going to have to go for raised beds, though; the ground-level beds here run into the dense clay soil, and are harder to weed and tend.

I’m also gathering acorns, chestnuts and hazelnuts (from a few locations my mysterious rival hasn’t located, but which aren’t as good for picking for food) in order to plant trees, although that’ll be covered more in Gentle Decline. Nina will be glad to have the shed cleared of the milk cartons I’ve been saving for the purpose, though.

In terms of actual cooking, I’m moving over toward autumnal stuff. This week - since Anna is away - I’ve been hitting fish and tomatoes pretty hard in the menu, and I made up a chowder at the weekend, which lasted us until lunchtime today. Chowder is both simple and rewarding, but given the expense of fish, it’s not cheap. At some point I’m going to have to see if I can get fish at better prices somewhere; I feel like Tesco charge a lot for what you can get.

My chowder method is an approximation, like my stews, more than a recipe. Fry some diced onions in butter in the bottom of a pot. Add some chopped streaky bacon. Pour in fish stock to about two-thirds of your pot, and then put in the potatoes - you want firm, non-floury ones that will hold their shape, and you want plenty of them, chopped into bite-size pieces. Simmer, and when the potatoes are cooked through (which you can tell by sticking them with a fork; if it goes through, the spud is cooked; this is about 12-15 minutes for the bite-size bits), you add some milk, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and whatever other seasonings you want. This one got smoked paprika, because I couldn’t find the mace which I know is there somewhere. Then put in whatever fish you have - the pre-packed fish pie mix stuff is excellent here, but really any fish will do, and cook for about 4-5 minutes at a very gentle simmer. And then if you have shellfish - I had some prawns - add them and simmer for a minutes or two more. Then stir in a good dollop of cream (single cream for those people whose dairy shelves attempt to get complicated) and you’re done. It’ll keep in the fridge for a few days, and can be reheated in the microwave.

Alright. That’s a lot of rambling, so I should wind up. This issue has been brought to you by field and hedgerow foraging, D&D rulebooks, Path of Exile, and the mild haze of medications. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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