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Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 6
In which there is talk of harvest, of festivals, of foraging, and such
Hello! The weather is turning, it’s getting cooler, and my brain is coming online. My heat tolerance wasn’t bad this year - even in 25C, 2-3 degrees above the recommended operating temperature for my particular model of sentient biped, I was still able to move and do things - but my brain just works better when it’s cool. I’m pretty sure I have the same reaction to the sunset happening later as many people do in spring to the “longer evenings”. In keeping with that season, I want to talk about harvests.
[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, on which the rewards, such as they are, have recently been reconfigured. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]
(Blackberries, in this year’s peculiar crop.)
When I was a child, there was a great deal of focus in school - which was the only social setting I had, being a rural child - on the Harvest Festival. Yes, I am aware that I wrote about this last year, too. Consider it a seasonal observation. This was a religious event, small-p-protestant, which is to say that it operated across the several versions of Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian sects to which kids at my school and some of the schools in neighbouring parishes supposedly adhered. There was a couple of weeks of preparation in September into October, requests for things with which to decorate the church, and it was linked up quite thoroughly in my head with the school’s Nature Table, a display of stuff-from-the-countryside which included various fruit and nuts, autumn leaves, the odd mushroom, and so on. I’m not saying I stocked that table single-handed, but I don’t recall anyone else contributing a lot.
The Harvest Festival itself was a longer-than-average church service, sometimes in the local church, and sometimes in the bigger one in Gorey. The church would be decorated with produce - often quite a lot of it - in the form of sheaves of grain crops, baskets of fruit and vegetables, hop vines, and artistically arranged piles of all this stuff, arranged around the various church furniture, and on the windowsills. There were appropriate hymns sung, and there would be a sermon on a harvest-related theme. Afterwards, in a nearby parish hall, sandwiches and cakes, tea for the adults and probably orange squash for the kids, since I can’t imagine them giving out Coke; I don’t really remember which, though.
There are a few things that stand out to me as an adult about this. First, this kind of Harvest Festival was very much done through schools. I did not hear a thing about it again after I left the primary school and went on to a Catholic secondary. My church attendance was spotty at best thereafter, but I did read parish newsletters and other communications, because I read everything in print that crossed the theshold of the house. Second, even in the time when I was experiencing these in the 1980s, they were already fairly consciously old-fashioned. The sheaves of grain were the giveaway here; the entire country, pretty nearly, used bales by then, not sheaves. The knowledge of how to make the sheaves was there, alright, but they weren’t in use; they had to be made specially. The stuff on display was as much animal feed as for humans, or stuff that would be shipped off to factories for some form of processing. None of the food eaten in the gathering afterwards was local, even if it was home cooked.
Harvest festivals do still exist, but they still seem to be very local, almost private things, with the one linked there being somewhat exceptional in its opening the doors to anyone who wants a look. And having had important-enough-to-write-about thoughts about harvest festivals two years in a row now, I should probably look to organise something for next year. A harvest-themed SCA event shouldn’t be a difficult thing to get started, I think.
The garden here did alright this year. Almost everything that made it outside (from being planted in small pots) survived, although much of it did not thrive. I had definite issues with the small pots; I was using cardboard-y ones that theoretically can be put straight into the ground with roots growing out through them. In practice, they seem to suck up water and keep it away from the seedlings, so that even though almost everything germinated, a good few plants didn’t make it to a suitable-for-planting-out stage. Next year I’ll go back to plastic or terracotta pots.
The peas did well - they were planted in pots hung on the wall, with stuff for them to climb up behind them, in good sun. They were a dwarf variety, and produced good pods early on, before stopping and then going yellow once the heat increased. Next year I’ll go for a non-dwarf variety, so they can be trained further across the wall, and maybe do some successional planting.
The potatoes did alright. It’s pretty clear that containers work well for them, but they need to be in good rich soil, in full sun, and not pecked to death by chickens. This is harder to arrange than might be thought. Also, next year I’m going to buy actual seed potatoes from a reputable Irish stockist; I’m concluding that having someone else do the optimising of the seedstock is worth while. But there were potatoes, and they were pretty good, if not numerous.
Leaf vegetables did not do well. Lettuce and rocket essentially did not make it out of the cardboard pots, for the most part, and when I did plant them out, slugs completely murdered them. I bought part-grown pak choi and planted them out too, and they bolted immediately. A shadier spot next time. Maybe they can go where the potatoes didn’t thrive this year. I’ve been collecting eggshells too, which will be crushed up and applied around the seedlings - they seem to be the only thing that works on the local slugs. Apart from slug pellets, which I’m not going to use because we have chickens. You’d think the chickens would eat the slugs, but apparently ours are picky eaters.
The raspberries did fantastically well. I think we got about two supermarket punnets a day from them for about two weeks, and one a day for a week before and after that. Since a punnet of berries costs between €4 and €5, that’s an excellent return on very little effort. Cee and I went and picked some more on the last day of picking in Lambert’s fruit farm again - no other day having worked out - and got about 2kg. I made jam again, and while I feel it’s not quite as good as last year’s, it’s still homemade raspberry jam, and therefore among the finest foods in existence.
The apples also look good; I thinned them much earlier in the year, and they’ve thrived. I’ll be picking them and turning them into proto-cider this coming weekend, all going to plan. Herbs, both established and new, seem to have had a good year, except for the mint, which is sulking because it’s confined. I’m going to transfer some of it to open beds at the front of the house and see how it does there. Alpine strawberries, in containers, seem to be very happy, although there were only a handful of actual berries. And the nasturtiums did very well; I’ll be planting more of them next year.
In wild food, it’s being a weird year. Although they’re all weird years now. Blackberries had lots and lots of tiny unripe berries until last week, when they suddenly exploded into full life - pretty clearly driven by the first real rain in months. Some of them went directly to over-ripe. Others were full size and colour but nearly tasteless. I picked enough to make an experimental blackberry-and-apple pie, and while I ate it all, it really did need sugar. The ones that are there this week look more normal - I think - so more collection will be in order. I am torn between more pie, because I want to experiment a bit more with my hot-water crust, or jam.
The hazelnuts look good. I’ve already collected a few windfalls from a suburban tree I know of (and got two out of three good nuts in the first three I cracked), and I’ll be visiting the field ones at the same time as I’m picking blackberries out there. Sloes and bullaces I have yet to see, but my few indicator bushes are showing very few, so I’m not so hopeful for them - drought doesn’t seem to suit them at all.
I have seen very, very few mushrooms this year. There are a very few puffballs on one of the greens I occasionally pass by when walking the dog, and that’s about it. I haven’t laid eyes on a field mushroom in years now, and I do miss them. Rumour has it that where there are some, there are lots right now, but it appears that the parts of Kildare I have access to are ones where they are not.
I am very much looking forward to proper autumn weather; frost and fog. We didn’t have frost in 2021 until the 22nd of November, which is kind of ridiculous. I’m hoping for some earlier than that. On the other hand, we still had some pretty solid frosts up to May, earlier in the same year. Ireland’s weather has never been predictable, but I am not keen on the new randomness. Anyway.
This issue has been brought to you by the mrrrping of Gomez-the-new-cat, a very quiet weekend, blackberry and apple pie, and the blessedly cooler weather. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.