Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 4

In which the writer defends backyard farming, and muses more on Arabic cookery

Hello! Writing this newsletter in alternation with Gentle Decline is being a slightly odd experience; ricocheting back and forth between researched doom and preparation on the one hand, and comfortable musings about what people ate and how they ate it and what’s for dinner on the other. There are a surprising number of bits of research which could go into either of the two, mind, and I’m going to link out to a few of those below as stuff-what-I’ve-been-thinking-about.

There was a huge response to the ko-fi link in the last issue - thank you enormously to everyone who bought me one, or many, coffees. Some of that will even turn into actual coffee, for which my most excellent supplier, Proper Order in Smithfield, will no doubt thank you as well. They’re providing free deliveries at least for the duration of the lockdown, and thereby improving my mornings.

There are a number of people making a living by tracking down obscure, possibly extinct, definitely lost varieties of apple in the United States. It’s a small number, but it’s non-zero. This last year was apparently really good for that, as one effort found no less than ten varieties (and five more before that) which were thought lost, and by “thought lost” we might mean “completely forgotten”. And there are such strange varieties out there. One of the bizarre things about the ways in which we grow apples is that every Cox’s Orange Pippin tree out there - including the one in the back yard here - is literally the same tree. They are grafted from one tree onto rootstock of a different kind of apple, and are in that sense sort of chimera-ed clones of each other. If you were to plant the seeds of an Orange Pippin, the resulting tree would absolutely be an apple tree, but the chances of it producing the same apples are astronomically small. Most likely, you’d get a reversion towards the “natural” apple, a small, sour fruit, but you might get something new and interesting. Commercial apple development uses isolation and hand-pollination with brushes to prevent random cross-breeding, as far as I know, but outside that, anything might happen.

It’s plain that in the past, people were very willing to experiment with different forms of apple (as with almost anything else in the world of produce, really), and I suspect that some combination of colour TV and supermarket chains was responsible for the end of this. It also does call the American legend of Johnny Appleseed into question a bit, but I’m still fond of the archetype; an original guerilla gardener. As it happens though, the real Appleseed, John Chapman, established apple tree nurseries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, rather than planting random apple seeds.

This ties into a movement of sorts that surfaces in odd places, to plant fruit trees in public spaces.

There’s no hashtag or name for this, as far as I can see, but it’s an idea that keeps re-appearing. Someone in this area has taken it up, and there are fruit trees planted alongside some birches and willows in a green a few blocks from here. I had some apples from it last autumn - picked in passing while walking the dog - and they were great. I’ve recently seen an elderly chap out making sure the trees are in good condition, clearing the ground around them, and he didn’t seem to be a council worker or anything, so it may be an actual case of guerilla arboriculture.

I’m not sure why this isn’t already a thing everywhere, to be honest, but Cee pointed me at places where it’s cropped up here, and here, and here… so it’s clearly out in the wild, as it were.

In our own back yard, I’ve already planted potatoes, and I’ve dug a bed for carrots and planted them. I mention the bed separately for the carrots, because carrots need a good bit of clear soil to grow down into, so that was about 6 hours of work digging down 30cm, and then filling it back in minus the rocks and roots and assorted other detritus. I’m perfectly physically capable, and not completely unfit, but digging is hard work, and I rediscover this every time I do so. We already have the aforementioned apple tree, and also raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants, a planter of strawberries (recently moved to a sunnier spot, but now the cats keep lying in it), and another planter of herbs (mint, sage, parsley and oregano). Also in the plan are peas and pumpkins. I’ve never successfully grown pumpkins, but this time I’m intending to hand pollinate them, having realised that there probably aren’t many natural pollinators in this part of the world.

I’m far from being the only person doing this, mind. Being stuck at home has given a lot of people time to get out and do stuff in the garden, and seed supplies from retailers are therefore now running low (I note in passing that that article refers to chard as a ‘staple’, and am now puzzled; I think I’ve eaten chard once ever, and that was because it was a substitution in a medieval recipe someone else was cooking). Who, among the non guinea-pig population, eats chard as a staple, and what do they do with it?

We’re also looking into acquiring chickens - the coop has arrived and been assembled, and the chickens will follow in due time. Pictures when they arrive, and it’ll be interesting to see what the resident beasts make of them. I suspect the cats, in particular, are not prepared.

The coop is a clever sort of device, with various doors and panels and latches. It came flat-packed and was reasonably easy to assemble. The only hard part to grok was the key-like bit you can see sticking out in the middle, which is a grip for the sliding door that lets from the main roosting box onto the ramp; that took me a lot of puzzled staring until I worked it out for myself from the parts, and then the diagram made sense.

One of the perennial questions asked about having back garden food supplies goes: why? Is it even cheaper to grow stuff than to buy it? Is chicken feed cheaper than eggs? And all that effort? To which my usual answer is: I get a great deal of enjoyment out of growing stuff, which I don’t get from buying it, and it’s pretty demonstrable that food that fresh tastes a great deal better. There’s the backup point that most soft fruits are in fact cheaper to grow yourself, too, and fresh peas are mostly not available unless you grow them yourself (frozen peas are an adequate substitute for cookery purposes, but they’re just not suitable for eating raw). Fresh eggs are a glorious thing. And gardening is excellent exercise (ask my back, shoulders, thighs…).

However: it is possible (not certain, just possible) that there will be some wobbles in food supplies later this year, and having stuff growing in the garden makes me a little more comfortable with that. It’s not like we could ever grow enough here to feed the house - by most sensible estimates, we’d need a bit more than a hectare for that, and I would need to dedicate all my time to it - but having a bit there to take the edge off is sufficient for now.

Food delivery services are taking off to an unbelievable degree - and I don’t mean takeaway, although I suspect that’s thriving in many places too. What I’m looking at are CSA-style veggie boxes, or meat, or fish, or the like. My very favourite pub, L. Mulligan Grocer, is providing a cocktail delivery (very local only to begin, intending to expand further soon). In the last few weeks, just in foodstuffs, we’ve had flour, three boxes of cider and beer, and several packages of coffee delivered to the door, and we’ve just succeeded in getting milk too, although the milkman apparently couldn’t find the house the first time he tried this week. Living in Maynooth, we’re on an odd edge of delivery areas - some businesses think we’re within the Greater Dublin area, and some disagree. But the ones who do get our business, and the others don’t.

The demand for the delivery services is clearly huge, though. Many are sold out almost as soon as they put a new batch of available boxes or delivery slots online, and being small businesses working under unusual conditions, they’re not able to scale up to match. They’re a bit caught here, too; if they do scale up, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to have the business when the lockdown ends - in fact, it’s virtually certain that they won’t.

I shall be very interested to see how and if people stick with the cooking-and-baking thing that has been going on in the last few weeks. I know that some folk are existing on takeaway and microwave meals, and while microwave meals have improved enormously in the last ten years, I still reckon those people are missing out. But there are a few people I know who really don’t think of themselves as cooks - or who don’t much like cooking on a day-to-day basis - who’ve been doing so in the last while, and are developing a sort of grudging liking for it. And admittedly some more who can’t wait to not do it.

I’ve been investigating the recipes in Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan: A Vegetable Lover's Tour of the Middle East. The title makes me cringe, and the writing, described in reviews as “upbeat” is closing on “inane” in my terms, but the actual cookery looks good. In particular, it looks like it’ll fill in a gap that The Arab Table doesn’t; dishes with sauce. The very few dishes in that book that have sauce also have integral rice, and I’m looking for a dish to go with the flatbread and hashweh that I already know how to make. Of course, Middle Eastern vegetable dishes may involve making friends with aubergines and okra rather more than I have to date. Okra I’m broadly alright with, but I have yet to find an aubergine dish that I actually like. Of course, current conditions "(“these strange times”) may make it hard to find aubergine and impossible to find okra, so the point may yet be moot.

Speaking of shops, Bsisu mentions a bread called markouk, which is apparently a handkerchief-thin flatbread. She doesn’t give any instructions on making it, and just says to buy it from Middle Eastern shops. It remains to be seen whether it’s available in such shops here, or whether it’s an American thing - but al-Warraq, in Nasrallah’s translation, references something called ruqāq, a “thin sheet of bread”, for the making of some of his sandwiches, and I bet that would work better than the wheat-tortilla style wraps I used last time. I was utterly charmed to find recipes for sandwiches in a thousand-year-old cookbook, and the ones I have tried - even in the absence of the proper bread - are excellent.

Because al-Warraq is also a collection of poetry and history, let me quote you a poem (translated fairly directly, so ignore the lack of poetic structure), attributed to one Ibn al-Rūmī, on ruqāq.

I remember once a baker by whom I passed, as fast as lightning ruqāq breads was flattening.
Between seeing it turning from a ball in his hands to a large full circle like the moon,
Took only as much time as an ever-growing circle in water takes when a stone into it is thrown.

I was about to say I’d be hard put to find poetry about bread-making now, but on reflection, I’m probably wrong.

In other hard to find components, I’ve been on a hunt for andouille sausage, and while I’ve found a supplier in Ireland, I’ve yet to put in the order. It’s an ingredient for N. K. Jemisin’s rice and beans:

(method in the rest of the thread)

I’ve used kielbasa, and it’s ok, but I want to get the real thing. The “red beans” she references are a bit of a mystery, too. They’re sold in the US as, literally, “small red beans”. They’re not kidney beans, although those are apparently an acceptable substitute, but I don’t know what they might be called here, if indeed they’re available at all. Although, and this is probably heresy of the highest order, I used cannellini beans in one trial of this recipe, and they were better than the kidney beans. Also, not coincidentally, I have now cooked every can of beans we had in the house, of any kind, which is saying something.

The recipe starts off - as many Louisiana-style recipes do - with a roux. I was stirring that for the last batch (some small but indeterminate number of days ago, because days right now are of arbitrary length and don’t go in particular order) and musing on how little I’ve used roux in cookery to date. In thinking about it, though, I realised I’ve actually had a roux-like cheat step in one dish: good old Irish Stew.

The stew-making method I learned from my father has the beef (or lamb, if you’re one of those people) chunks rolled in a mixture of flour, salt and pepper (heavy on the flour) before they’re fried in butter as the very first step, and what’s that but a sneaky method of making a roux? It’s what gives Irish Stew its proper gravy-like consistency, exactly the same way as rice and beans or gumbo or any of the other New Orleans cuisine. I suspect, too, that my stew-like treatment of vegetables - largish chunks - is not quite right for the rice and beans, though, where maybe smaller pieces would work better. Not having ever eaten or even seen dishes you’re attempting to cook is an issue, but at least I’m used to it from medieval cookery.

Anyway. I see I’m running a bit long on this issue, so I should finish up. One newsletter writer of my acquaintance has the permanent final line of “Fuck it. Send.”, which I admire, but am not quite ready for yet.

This issue has been brought to you by curled-up cats with their tails on their noses, backyard vegetables, semi-feral fruit trees, and Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, if indeed he ever existed as one person. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

Contribute to the Commonplace larder at: