the resilient pantry

Panic-buying on the one hand and rationing on the other only multiply a crisis. Yet there’s a practical solution that meets a primal need in one classic, simple pattern. Yes. The pantry.

The ills of a pandemic are exacerbated by overbuying and by repeatedly returning for trickles of supplies, causing multiple exposures. Like takeout deliveries half-eaten, tossed, more packaging than nourishment, at once too much and too little, our goods circulate in wasteful, clotted bursts. Yet we have traditional models that could stabilise this crisis and mitigate the next as climate emergency redoubles every hazard.

looking through the open pantry door at the shelves of preserves, dried fruit and nuts and sacks of grains.

Just as kitchen skills liberate us from costly reliance on the prepackaged, just as gardening skills open a world of flavour, nourishment, resilience, the skills of food storage are deceptively simple, revolutionary in their potential. Tried-and-true and transformative.

looking through the glass door into the pantry.

Not everyone has a built-in pantry, yet a cool, dry closet or cupboard can host a store of dried goods. A sack of dried beans, whole grains bought in good times can keep for years, sustaining us.

shelves of dried goods in the pantry.

Not everyone has a root cellar, yet a bin buried in the garden up to its lip and covered can be filled with root veg in season. No refrigerated trucks, no last-minute car-trips, efficiency at its best.

through the open door of the root cellar, down the steps, sit crates of apples.

Not everyone has a deep freeze but many could revive basic skills of preserving fruit in jars, fermenting veg in brines, dehydrating, curing, immersing in oil or alcohol. Transforming the fresh into the stable, a reliable store of deep nutrition to draw on when times are tough.

A few folk still practice this basic, liberating knowledge. Most of us can access, even in isolation, books, sites, videos teaching these traditions.

apples in baskets and cider in carboys and demijohns, keeping cool in the root cellar.

It’s a fine time to sow seeds, forage, support local farmers. We can stock up in at once a noble yet humble fashion. Generosity springs from self-reliance, met needs and community hardiness. A virtuous cycle of sufficiency. With foresight, drawing on the local, we’re reviving a long heritage of adaptability. The circulation of what’s needed smooths into a steadying, nourishing flow.

Then we can stay home, because home is a source of strength and resilience.

life with chickens

Picture, if you will, the things we hold dear in this world, only on a slightly different trajectory. Picture them well-supported by a principle of following natural patterns, of meeting needs the way nature does. Take, for example, keeping chickens.

We like to keep a flock in our garden. Now, they require shelter, safe from predators between dusk and dawn. Rather than killing off predators that perform critical ecological functions, we built a good safe house.

hens preening in the shelter of bamboo.

Their shelter protects from wind and weather with plenty of roosting space, airy but not exposed. We chose heritage breeds, hardy to extremes of heat, cold.
The henhouse floor mimics natural systems, densely layered with deep litter which we scatter dry leaves or sawdust over every day or so. Hot nitrogen-rich droppings compost in place, microbially active, generating warmth. Once a year when we compost the fertile bedding, it’s already partially broken down. The birds like to dig in it. A soft landing from roosts is nice too.

The chicken run is similarly forest-floorish. Hens turn the food scraps, leaves, old hay ‘til a rich compost is generated. They’re safe in the run but spend their days in the garden.

To be safe in the garden they need some measure of protection. Fences keep out the domestic dog, for one. We let them out once human activities send raccoons to bed. Plenty of trees, shrubs persuade the eagles to keep to the open fields next door. Hawks are trouble, so our roosters are on alert, but there are many places to hide. We hope our trio of geese will make any otters think twice, too.

So it’s a protected space, yet not a prison. hens dust-bathe, sunbathe, forage. We try to design the gardens so scratching, turning is productive. Their relationships relax for the space. A hen gives a rooster a run for his money, another strolls in company finding treats in the food forest.

So the chickens are contented, well fed, needing just a handful each of fermented organic grains before they head up to roost. Their eggs reflect this, rich and vivid, and we thrive as they do.

We thrive as they do. May we revive old designs, to regenerate life with a vision of mutual contentment and support.

life with geese

We were surprised by the young geese urgently knocking at the front door. They had a great deal to tell us. A moment later, a delivery van pulled up to the farmhouse. A rare event.

They’d raced to the front door to tell us the news! What kind creatures.

the three geese honking for a companionable chat on the stoop, followed by a curious hen.

If we listen well, all of the flocks announce guests, alert for predators. Once attuned, we can heed the wild birds too. It turns out that the geese are particularly skilled at it, with their powerful voices. Being corona babies, they’ve not had many visitors to announce. So this was a great event.
Their voices are otherwise singsong, except to greet us. This greeting must be returned in kind, perhaps with a bow or a bright ‘hi!’ and, neglecting that, the greeting grows clamorous. Geese know how to connect. George’s orange-lined blue eyes hold yours. If we’ve not already spent the day in the garden, we’ll receive porch visits or a knock at the french doors. It’s a neighbourly way to live. The ducks are shy and bolt if the door is opened. The chickens are bold and stroll into the house looking for treats. If a gate is neglected or a tether comes loose, the goats beeline to the back door. Naturally the cat expects prompt door service, he reigns. But the geese just want a companionable chat on the stoop.

Had they merely padded about the lawn, mowing as neatly as a flock of sheep, we’d be impressed. For their work of butler, host, protector, keeping an eye on the sky though the threat is but a flight of swallows, we appreciate them. Their contentedness on endless rainy days is compelling. Their penchant for wheedling out blades of grass from between flowering plants is persuasive. But it’s their passion for a bamboo shoot that makes them the ideal creature for this smallholding.

You may notice bamboo of all descriptions thriving here. Someone keen planted all variety of the stuff. Its carbon sequestering skill alone is stellar, yet the annual spring rush of shoots, while delicious, is overwhelming. Just locating all the sprouting tips is a challenge. The geese on their rounds make a thorough inspection.
I tell you, the sight of them holding bamboo shoots like elegant cigarettes is an uncommon delight.

Watch our film goosehouse to see more.

green walnut nocino

If there is art in an agrarian practice, it’s in humble solutions that close the loop. Allow the freshly clasped jar of nocino to illustrate.

Nocino is the infusion of young, green walnuts in alcohol, hull and all, plucked, sliced and submerged before any evidence of a shell forms within. The young walnut is more fruit than nut. Picking at this moment gives an impression of scrumping in one’s own orchard. Intoxicating floral-citrus scents linger on the fingers. Just as pickling green plums transforms excess fruit into vegetable delicacy, nocino solves a problem.

a canning jar with halved green walnuts submerged in vodka

You see, two of our three walnut trees suffer from a pest. A permaculture gardener with an encyclopedic knowledge of useful plants told us about this little larvae. Orchardists know this tale. A curse. Tiny eggs, once laid, hatch grubs that burrow into the hull, making a right mess of inky stickiness before falling with the nut to the ground, where it creeps back up the tree to perpetuate the cycle. Codling moth grubs that feast in the core of apples practically wave to say hello.

Seeing as the nut itself is spared, we shrug and pull on raggedy boots and gloves to roll mushy black husks in the grasses, sometimes pleased to find a scrubbed nut ready to be cured and squirrelled away for winter cracking. Mostly, we end with an unpleasant basket of sticky coals set by and let’s be honest, neglected in favour of easier food.

The third walnut is free of pestilence. Pure joy to harvest, cure in the solar drier, crack open by the fire on a winter’s eve. We caught the other trees early, scrambling up to fill our pockets, somewhere between chasing kid goats and shepherding chicks, as tradition prescribes, round about the 24th of June. The nocino infuses on a pantry shelf from one solstice to the next. We’ll sweeten the tipple and partake of it come winter.

Brining likewise captures the green youth and ferments it into an ancient treat. We fancy pickled walnuts and a sip of nocino are the walnut’s answer to cider and an apple tart. Worthy of a wassail.

For now this is our practice in the nuttery, to break the curse. Without a host, may the grubs be foraged by chickens, ducks, and trouble us no longer.

making biochar

As carbon sequestration goes, charcoal-making has extraordinary potential. Last year we had the good fortune to spend a day learning to make charcoal with a local historian and tried out the basics of this ancient practice. From Terra-preta in the Amazonian rainforests, stone kilns in Japan (and all over these islands, which our friend has written a book about), to colliers making clamps in the woods of Britain, it is the foundation of rich culture and the rich soil that supports it.

wood burning to charcoal in a biochar kiln

To store carbon in the soil and support the microbiome, while absorbing water events and releasing it slowly, well. It solves a host of our current problems.

wood burning in a biochar kiln

We inoculated our little pail of charcoal into biochar by layering it in the deep litter of our chicken run to absorb nitrogen and earthworm castings, then feeding the enriched soil to the trees and gardens. We could make charcoal on a micro scale in our chiminea or wood stove, and we’re looking at the piles of prunings that we intended to have chipped and considering whether to direct some of it to this simple kiln that the historian makes. Amazing.

charcoal soaking in a biochar kiln

Yesterday as I broad-forked a bed in the new potager, I turned up some of the biochar, which must’ve been harvested with compost out of the chicken run when I sheet-mulched the bed a few months ago. It’s a pleasure to see it and know it has begun its restorative work, and may well continue to benefit this soil for centuries.