an illustrated guide to comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility and the health of the homestead is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix. Once you’ve got comfrey, you can just make more, for so many purposes.

dividing-comfrey

The dynamic accumulator

Comfrey’s deep taproot makes it a dynamic accumulator, so we plant it around our fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Best to bury those leaves under some other mulch to retain all the nutrients. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you, and pollinators love the flowers.

The super-nutrient feed

We feed comfrey to our chickens, ducks and goats too. I cage smaller plants to keep them from getting browsed to death!

The fertiliser

We make a comfrey fertiliser to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

The healer

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice. As a salve I swear by comfrey for aches and pains, it works extraordinarily well to reduce inflammation. A homesteader’s salve most definitely.

Make more comfrey

Now, we like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring (unless you have goats to control it!) and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered til they are established. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

making traditional rhubarb soup

Kiiseli is a fruit soup from Finland that generations of my family grew up making. This family recipe is drawn from my mother’s best advice, her 1966 Finnish cookbook, a peek through my grandmother’s 1948 cookbook and a family friend’s 1933 cookbook. It’s a recipe you can easily grow in your own garden, too. With all that research, your kiisseli should make a fine old fashioned (yet gluten and dairy-free!) dessert.

kiisselli

The ingredients

We’re going to need:
1 litre water
750 grams chopped rhubarb
200 grams sugar or alternative, to taste
4 tbsp fine potato, tapioca or arrowroot flour

The method

Cook the rhubarb in the water for a short while til softened. Add sugar to taste. (I like to pop up the sweetness with a few drops of stevia, and drop the sugar.) My mother usually adds the strawberries when finished cooking to retain their freshly picked flavour. Dissolve potato flour in a small amount of cool water and then stir the solution very well into the rhubarb mix, heating til it just begins to boil. Take the soup off the heat, and sprinkle a little sugar on top to prevent a skin forming. Serve it cool.

Eating rhubarb soup with ice

Double cream or ice cream is gorgeous with kiiseli. In spring we love combining rhubarb & strawberries, or in the summer, blueberries & raspberries. I love to think of all my relatives, a long time ago, maybe on the farm in Finland, making kiiseli, eating it together round the table. We have pictures of our children as toddlers, painted with rhubarb soup.

FinnCookbkKiiselit.2.jpg

Fruit potager

Rhubarb and strawberries are both easy, early perennials to grow in a corner or pot somewhere, we have ours as a pretty understory to a fruit tree, white wisteria, marshmallow plants and hollyhocks. I look forward to the moment our rhubarb is tall enough to twist off stalks for rhubarb soup!

a short guide to foraging and preserving nettles

The old-timers would take bitters in early spring, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens. Nettle is good for all of us here on the farm, and can be used in many ways. In early spring we head out foraging.

sun-dried-nettles

Harvest the nettles

The moment to forage stinging nettles for fresh eating and preserving is a dry day in early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves, long trousers and sleeves and great respect for the plants are required. I keep a bit of calendula or comfrey salve to hand for stings. We like to use a pair of snips and a burlap sack, and we just cut the top few leaves, plenty of them as they dry down to very little! Then we take them home to preserve.

Preserve the nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. They should crush to a powder. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good warm, dry day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp. Fresh or dry, or a combination of both, you can make them into a nettle tincture.

Store the nettles

I love to have a store of dried nettle and tinctures put away for the year. As a tincture they store indefinitely. Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring.

Use the nettles

A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to provide me with mineral-rich tisanes as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength and are particularly good to help counter my iron-deficiency. You can make fresh nettle soup, pestos, ravioli too.

Nettles for flora and fauna

When the nettles are older they’re no longer safe for teas and soups, but they are excellent for making a liquid fertiliser for the garden – simply cover with water, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Goats love to eat nettles fresh, and our ducks and chickens like them if we crush them first to remove the sting. How great to create fertilisers and fodder from the wild larder! Closing the loop on fertility and feed is a huge step toward greater community-reliance.

dried-nettles

Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions, medicinal tisanes, fertilisers and fresh eating is a very old, trusted practice. It feels good to continue it.

a short guide to fermenting sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and to enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

The ingredients

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too.

The method

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 2.5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 25 grams.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, slice the cabbage as finely as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky to have one!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl. I like to be sure to hone my blade, now there’s a useful skill, before slicing and during, too.

Now, bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or similar object you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage. Sometimes we leave somewhat muddled kraut under a towel and plate overnight to get the juices flowing, depending on what the day is like.

When you pack the cut, bashed cabbage firmly into a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more brine later if necessary, depending on the type and the age of the cabbage. To make brine, mix water to salt at 2.5% or so – or follow the simple traditional rule our friends the Bairds over at Ecosense use – salt it to taste like the ocean!

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark, cool cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

The ferment

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. Tuck it back in and leave it be if it isn’t ready. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it up. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up within six weeks. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out! Ben Hewitt of the wonderful book Nourishing Homestead makes a ton of it in jars and stores it cool all year.

The taste-test

We are very much impressed with the flavour. The texture of this batch was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage, and experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz and Pascal Baudar for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own kraut-cabbage.

gingerbread village

Having spotted a charming image of flat gingerbread houses carved in low relief and filled with powdered sugar, we just had to try it for ourselves.

A whole wintry afternoon was spent in great joyful making. We altered our gingerbread recipe with 1/2 light rye and 1/2 whole spelt, maple syrup and birch sugar. Not a problem. Before we baked the cookies, we used any implement we could find – metal straws, toothpicks, ornate silverware, fine knives – to carve and draw into the house-shapes.

We thoroughly enjoyed researching old buildings and borrowing their architectural details. When we lived in Europe we were particularly fond of shops at the street level and apartments above, along Dutch canals, along Parisian streets. My youngest made her own patisserie, complete with striped gabled awnings, and baked goods in the windows!

We set a cup of birch sugar zinging in the blender for a few minutes til it was thoroughly powdered. When rubbed into the grooves in the baked, cooled cookies it had a better result than bought icing sugar (and a little less sweetness for our holiday diet, too).

This way of decorating feels like printmaking, like rubbing ink into an etched plate. Such fun.

‘Tis a lovely thing to do with family and friends on a chilly winter’s day.