storage crops

In the daily reckoning of what it takes just to feed ourselves well without creating destruction in packaging, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, questionable additives, social injustice, unethical treatment of animals and the climate-destroying one-two punch of tillage and transporting food long distances, it can be exhausting just to get food on the table. On the other hand, when we prepare food that eludes all of that, it’s a victory for the world we want to see, and a three-times daily victory feels pretty gratifying. Frankly revolutionary.

Given how precious the food we grow or buy is when it is produced in alignment with our values, we don’t want to waste it.

Storage Crops

One of the ways we’ve been shifting our thinking in an effort to reduce food waste is to learn about traditional storage crops. While it takes some time to put up the jams, jellies, chutneys, butters, vinegars, booze that fill our pantry, it takes little time, effort, space to put away storage crops. Autumn is the moment for this. Whether you have a garden or not, whether your potato and sweet potato crop failed (yes, they did) or your squash production can meet your needs (not yet), whether your land or your neighbourhood has nut trees bearing (yes!), whether you grow enough carrots, beets, parsnips to sustain your family all winter (not quite), you can still connect with farmers and put away food. These are foods that thrive when stored properly. This is not like buying too much food and seeing it molder at the back of the fridge.

Farm-to-Table

About now, middle November, a local farmer (who uses no-till, beyond organic practices) will bring us sacks of squash and root veg to store away. Squash sits on the staircase. Beets, carrots, parsnips go under damp sand in a box somewhere cool, potatoes in a sack go into a cool dark corner. Garlic is already hanging in a dry spot. We’ve cleaned and cured the walnut crop and it could last all year in the shell if they weren’t too good to resist.

Whole grains and the Winter Potager

Our grain mill further extends our storage since whole, unmilled grains last, stored dry and away from creatures, for years. We can leave cool, hardy greens like cabbage, kale, tatsoi, winter lettuce and our root veg standing in the garden til we need it, and in colder climates those could live under a low tunnel, or two, so there’s nothing wasted there.

There’s simplicity in creating meals this way. It’s a great relief.

dyeing eggs

Gathering for the vernal equinox, a rite in celebration of spring, of the growing light and all the beautiful food that comes with it – this is what Gather Victoria set about to do. I laid a table in the midst of this extraordinary event, covered in foods that we used to dye our eggs. Oh, I adore the history of colour, of pigment, the natural sources and the culture that came along with them. Would you like to dye eggs with plant-life? Let me show you our experiments.

Dotted about on the table are bowls of sea salt and bottles of vinegar. We used a pinch and a splash of these as our mordants, to fix a colour, deepen it.

beet-table

In fabric dyeing these were often malodorous, and dyeworks would be found in their own district or well away from town.

beet-dye

Beetroot, for a gentle pink. Chop more beets than you think into as little water as you can – just enough to cover your eggs. With only a brief time at the event, we could get a pale pink on white eggs, but fill a jar with the strained dye, leave an egg immersed overnight, and you might deepen its colour.

cabbage-dye

Blue, blue from the outer leaves of cabbage! In England we dyed eggs cabbage blue, but our cabbage was grown on the biodynamic farm near our cottage. It was certainly not driven in a truck for thousands of miles, nor stripped of its colour-rich outer leaves by middlemen all the way to the supermarket, as I fear the cabbages I could lay my hands on had been. Suffice to say, our blues were of the sad, pale kind. Never mind – you will have more time, and can leave the eggs submerged. Brown eggs and white have a different effect, try both if you can. In fact, the cabbage is related to woad! So perhaps it is apt that we got our richest blue in the south of England, in keeping with the history of naked Celts painted with woad blue to frighten Romans back to the mainland. The Romans called indigo indicum, from the Greek, indikon; India was the source of indigo dyeing from Greco-Roman times.

eggs-table

Carrot tops give a pale chartreuse to the cheesecloth sachets I use to contain the vegetation, but the eggs themselves take a long, long time. I prefer to overdye cabbage blue with a touch of turmeric, for a fine green. Historically the woad of England or India’s indigo blues were overdyed with dyer’s broom for Kendal green, Lincoln green – think Robin Hood.

turmeric-dye

If green is the most difficult colour to achieve from plant-dyes, yellow is the easiest. Try oregon grape, or any number of wild greens. Here we used, no, not dyer’s broom, but turmeric. This cloth turned rich gold, but do not trust turmeric to fix in wool or cloth. You will wear the colour with the cloth. I captured the spice in a cloth, but in my own experiments the colour was more effective when the dusty spice stuck to the eggs and was gently rubbed off.

paprika-dye

Then, for a bright orange, paprika. We call the colour orange now, these last two hundred years, yet orange the fruit coined orange the colour, not the reverse. Previously we had only red as a descriptive, and so we have robin red breast and red heads.

dyed-eggs

For a deep red, you’ll want brown eggs, plenty of time, and surprisingly, plenty of papery yellow onion skins. Leave them to boil on and on and you may achieve quite an orthodox blood red, in keeping with the fertility rites of the season. Until 1869 and the age of synthetics, Madder red dyed the militia’s coats in France and Holland and the hunting pinks in Britain. Try your hand at growing madder for its colourful root, if you like! Murex snails along the Mediterranean yielded a drop each of an intense dye, some of which became Phoenician Red. You may know of the purple dyes from these snails, precious royal or Tyrian purple, vastly expensive, never to fade, likely developed by the Minoans of East Crete. Italian red silk was dyed with kermes, from the unlaid eggs of an insect, and across eastern Europe, the cochineal gave red. It was the brilliant, nothing-that-is-not-useful-or-beautiful William Morris who reviled synthetics and aniline dyes, and with the Arts and Crafts movement turned back to the traditions of using indigo and madder for dyeing excellent woven and printed fabrics. I believe we are continuing the tradition on a grassroots scale.

onion-spice-table

Red onion gave us yellow in its first moments, deepening to a rich chestnut over time. Beautiful. I liked the currants that gave a pale brown, and blueberry’s warm blue, but these are precious foods and mostly I prefer to eat them myself. What do you think? Will you experiment with colour this Easter?

I must tell you, this spring, eggs are of particular fascination to me, for in April we’ll receive a dozen heritage hatching eggs, and in May we plan to build a coop and run that I’ve designed for them! Watch for more about keeping chickens very soon – get the postcards to stay in the loop.

Thank you to Gather, Nourish Café and all the wonderful people I met at the event, I loved it.

netting

We’re moving out of the cottage for the summer, leaving in just a couple of weeks. It is hard to leave, especially just as the garden is becoming so beautiful. I’ve got some plants growing which should give us autumn and winter crops. A few have been feeding us this spring, amongst them, the snap peas. Those peas needed a place to climb, so I made them one.

netting © elisa rathje 2011

Like many objects I use, I was thrilled to discover how to make netting myself. I made this one last year, and brought it with me from London. Useful stuff, netting. I need to make a few nets to keep the rabbits and deer out of the vegetables while we’re away, just simple little ones strung over low supports, is my plan, so that the kale and the purple sprouting broccoli can grow without being browsed to death. I usually use nets for climbing plants like squash, beans, cucumbers, peas. Sweet peas were very pretty on this net last year.

netting © elisa rathje 2011

As you might expect, making netting is very simple, though slow at first, like knitting. Get out some snips and string. I used jute twine. Tie a length of string to a couple of supportive things, as wide as you’d like your net, either just where you’ll use it, or somewhere you have space to work.

© elisa rathje 2011

Cut several lengths of string triple the length you’d like the net, and fold once. I experiment with how wide apart I’d like the holes of the net. To keep out little rabbits I’ll have to go quite small.

netting © elisa rathje 2011

You’re going to slip the loop of the fold you’ve made over that string you’ve tied up, then pull the double strings through the loop, to make a loose knot. Slide the knotted string over a little if you need to rearrange. Continue tying on more doubled lengths of string until you have as many as you want, hanging in a row.

netting © elisa rathje 2011

Here’s the part I love. The first string, and the last, will form the outside border of the net. Everything else will form full diamonds, in the following way. Take a piece of string from one pair, and another from the pair beside it, and tie them together, adjusting the size of the gap you’d like to maintain across the net. Try to keep the length of each side the same. Move along the row, tying them together. Go back to the beginning, and tie along the row again so that you form a diamond shape (excepting the first and the last, which will form a half-diamond.) That’s it! Keep going. More. You’ll be done soon. Stop for a cup of tea, good idea!

Happy netting!