drying nettles

The moment to forage for stinging nettles is early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves and great respect for the plants are required. A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to help me 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. The old-timers would take bitters at this time of year, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens.

sun-dried-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. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good sunny day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp.

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. You can make fresh nettle soup and nettle tinctures too. Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions and medicinal tisanes is a very old practice. I’m ever so fond of it.

dried-nettles

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 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.

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.

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, chop the cabbage as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl.

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 whatever 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.

When you put the cut, bashed cabbage in a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more water later if necessary, though I’ve never needed to.

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.

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. 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!

We were very much impressed with the flavour. The texture 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 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.

dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility 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.

When I have plenty of comfrey, I shall plant it around my 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. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you.

I’d feed it to my chickens, and the goats too.

I’d make a comfrey tea 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.

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice.

Now, I’d 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, 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.

dividing-comfrey

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. 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.

herbal cough syrup

We like to forage for plants in early autumn that support our health through winter illnesses. A very timely medicinal harvest, like the nettles in spring. Some years I’ve made elderberry cordial, others, rosehip cordial. The following simple homemade herbal cough syrup includes both, plus hibiscus and honey for a delicious variation without refined sugar. If you can forage the ingredients fresh – brilliant! Luckily, the dried versions available at herbal shops are also great, so you can make this remedy anytime you need it.

My tall girl spotted elderberries growing just next door to our friend’s place, as we set off on a walk while our dried herbs were infusing!

We used dried elderberries. Add rosehips and hibiscus to these, about 1 part each to 2 parts elderberry.

Simmer these until very soft in just less than double the weight in water as you have in herbs. So, if you have 500g of herbs, use about 900ml of water.

Strain them through a scalded cloth. You can hang this to drain overnight if you like, to get every last bit.

Once the infusion has cooled, pour in raw honey – 1 part honey to 2 parts herbal infusion.

cough_syrup

Stir it up gently and store it in small, very clean bottles in the fridge til required! We take a spoonful when we feel a sore throat coming on.

(I reserve the stewed herbs to make an infused vinegar, too.) Stay well!

lip balm

Making our own lip balm is easier and faster than preparing dinner most nights. Even with highest quality ingredients, making it is cheaper than buying it, and one can make it just so. What’s more, melting oils and waxes and watching them set is ever so pleasing.

Sourcing your ingredients and some good tins is the trickiest bit. (Locals, we are particularly fond of places like The Soap Dispensary in Vancouver, and Self-Heal Herbs in Victoria for this stuff!)

We made this with young friends recently (with the elders in charge of melting ingredients) and it took no time at all.

There’s not much to it:

1 tablespoon shea butter 

1 tablespoon coconut oil 

2 tablespoons sweet almond, hemp oil, or olive oil  

2 tablespoons beeswax, grated, or up to 4 tablespoons if you prefer a firm, less oily balm 

optional: 1/4 tsp edible oil/extract such as peppermint, orange, vanilla 

Melt the butters, oils and wax in a double boiler, or a heatproof bowl set inside a pot, above an inch or so of water, set to very low heat.
Once melted, remove from the heat and then stir in the flavoured oil.
Pour the mixture into tins and let it set without lids until morning, or chill it in the fridge if you’re in a hurry.

Like making soap, a little effort once a year or so is all that’s required to make what we need. I like that I can refill the containers, too, when we run out. Nothing wasted.