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.

container garden

Though every day is bursting, and rarely lets up, though this marks the last of April, there is still time to start a vegetable garden. Just a few minutes one day, to choose some seeds, a few more the next, to prepare containers or, lucky you, a bed. Get some good compost in, pick a bright spot. You need only decide how many seeds to plant, how widely, how deeply, the packet will tell you all of this. Get them firmed in and watered. Keeping them damp, perhaps with a thumb-sprinkler, til they sprout is probably the hardest bit. Plant up another round of some things in a couple of weeks, and keep them rolling all summer! Finding these few minutes for vegetable gardening is something I never regret.

veg-garden-2s.jpg

If you needed something to make you feel industrious and grounded, even a row of potted herbs will accomplish it. At our house the children take care of watering the seedlings. Food becomes education. Later I’ll help them tie up a frame for the peas to grow up, and give the kale collars to keep cabbage moths from laying eggs. Not much to it yet, hardly even a weed. Our vegetable garden is small, no rambling garden with a greenhouse, just a few containers squeezed into my mother’s beautiful garden, but I am as pleased by it as if it were a many times the size. Just to grow some of our food is a great pleasure.

This year I’m just growing lettuces, kale, peas, beans, strawberries and a few herbs in the container garden. I think you remember my doorstep garden, do you? For more small, do-able, inspiring traditional projects, don’t forget to sign up to appleturnover’s quarterly.

planting garlic

When I choose what food to grow, particularly in a small space, with limited time, I like to choose something that is expensive to buy, keeps a short time, or comes from a long way away. Astonishingly, garlic is one of those foods that seems regularly to be imported to this country! Considering how effortless it is to grow here, and that it does perfectly well along the latitude that I seem to frequent, both in Canada and in England, it is a perfect crop for me. Have you grown your own garlic? It’s easy – let me show you.

garlic-beds.jpg

My mother let me devote one of her raised beds to a bit of garlic. Any pot or sunny-ish spot between plants will do.

garlic-compost.jpg

I topped the bed up with some good compost. No need to dig it in, the worms will have the amusement of that job.

garlic-clovess.jpg

Like other bulbs that you might be planting at this time of year (if the ground around you isn’t yet frozen, nor yet under snow) you’ll want to notice where the roots are, and where the neck is. We’ll separate the cloves and plant the garlic root-side down. It is a bit flat on that end, and pointier at the top, in case you’ve bought garlic specifically for planting and cannot see any roots on the bulb. Buying ‘seed garlic’ may be a good idea, but I’ve never had a problem just using whatever organic garlic I had left in the kitchen.

digging-garlics.jpg

Also like other bulbs, you’re going to be planting garlic at a depth about 2 times its length. Press the earth around it so it is well tucked in. You can mulch over the top if your plants will need that kind of protection. It tends to be far too wet here for that, and mild, at sea level on the coast.

garlic_planteds.jpg

To amend a verse from The Giant Radish: Grow garlic, grow big; Grow garlic grow strong!; Grow garlic, grow huge! I might put some more in another pot or two, as I aspire to grow enough to braid my own garlic. Such satisfaction, a ten minute task done, and in it I’ve won a tiny victory for eating local. I’ve been wondering a little about the true costs of transporting our food a very long way. They aren’t just ecological, and economical, are they? I wonder if these problems are very much about our own connection to our food, attachment to the seasons and the harvest, and a sense of one’s knowledge and self-reliance, too. There’s still time to plant your own garlic.

sprouting broccoli

Purple sprouting broccoli might take a lot of patience, only I forgot it was there, and had a gorgeous surprise in early May. It’s awfully late to bud, having missed both March and April entirely. The children are mad for it, breaking the stalks off and nibbling it raw as they play in the garden. This is a good thing, as it is a cut-and-come-again sort of plant. A whole year ago we’d planted out the seedlings from the greenhouse into the vegetable patch, hoping that a bit of netting might keep the deer off. They’ve ignored it, all the more for us.

purple sprouting broccoli

After the dull winter, those purple stalks are seriously thrilling! It’s sculptural leafiness is very pretty too, I’d plant it amongst flowers in a cottage garden.

purple sprouting broccoli © elisa rathje 2012

I love to cook sprouting broccoli simply, as I do kale, just tossing in a bit of butter, with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of sea salt when it comes out of the pan. Fresh from the garden it is tender and rich. Absolutely worth the wait. If you remember that you’re waiting. When I’m settled in Canada I’d love to plant some of this, it is my sort of vegetable.

vegetable patch

Last minute, as usual, I’ve put together my best attempt at plant care to sustain the kitchen garden for a summer away. (It’s been madness, putting all of our belongings into storage. A trial.) The major threat to our vegetable patch is deer, though I’ve no doubt that rabbits, slugs and snails will have their share.

vegpatch © elisa rathje 2011

After long deliberation with a kind and knowledgeable gardener at the little local shop, I brought home a pair of rose arches and assembled them like poles for my netting tent. This stuff is distinctly not handmade. That would be the trouble with last minute gardening!

veg patch © elisa rathje 2011

I fear it will be merely a deterrent rather than prevention, even if the wind doesn’t put it sideways, but I’ve chanced it and planted out all of the brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, artichokes, kale, cavolo nero, and dill. The earth is in excellent shape, having rested a few seasons, and very few weeds survived my partial no-dig preparations. The squash are out to fend for themselves, as are the raspberries. The garlic is entirely self sufficient, and I will plant more of it next year as protection. A few strawberries made it under the arch; I am pinning my hopes on them to send out runners under cover, so that next year we’ll have a little patch of strawberries that might escape browsing by deer with delicate tastes. If anything survives our long absence I will be so very pleased. All of this could make a gorgeous crop at the end of summer, and much of it right could be harvested through til next spring, if we are so lucky. The greenhouse holds tomatoes and a lone pepper. My self-watering plans in there have been thwarted; perhaps if I convince myself to rise at dawn I will come up with a solution.(Friends may water – best to put one or another in place. Our London garden faired beautifully with both!)

We’re off in the morning to Canada, and I will write from there about new projects, tea parties, and adventures, just as soon as I can.