However, we are clearly not the only creatures on our land enjoying the grazing season. We are adapting to life with two resident skunks under our deck. Since I know that the skunks are as loathe to engage with me as I am with them, I just ensure that they are adequately forewarned of my arrival in the garden. However, they are not as committed as I am to minimizing waste. I have come to this conclusion based on the ripe, juicy raspberries scattered along the trail back to their lair. I guess I can understand their attitude, to a degree, since they are not the ones who have toiled in this garden in anticipation of the varied and delicious harvest. To them, this is all a freebie. It is amazing how we humans come to appreciate the value of goods and services when we understand first-hand the amount of effort that has gone it to them.
Having spent many years hanging out with farmers who use practices that embrace and collaborate with nature, as opposed to oppressing it, I have adopted those same practices in my own food garden. I must confess that my desire to work in harmony with nature is immediately extinguished as I watch yet another horde of slugs decimate my lettuce. Earlier in the season slugs were responsible for countless replanting of peas and beans as they clear-cut each young crop. One day I am hoping to arrive at a happy balance with the slugs, where we both get the nourishment that we need without unduly promoting their population growth.
And then there are the wasps… I know that they are an important part of an organic garden eco-system, since they prey on many of the nasty pests that can destroy my precious young fruit trees, not to mention many other crops. However, they decided that a crack in my front steps would be the ideal home-base from which to foray out in support of my garden. While I can certainly choose to only use the back door for my comings and goings, the same cannot be said of our letter carrier, newspaper delivery people, and the neighbourhood children who drop by.
So I had to come up with a solution that was not about killing the wasps, but rather about encouraging them to move elsewhere – nearby, but not in the midst of regular human traffic. The internet and all my bug books were not much help but, as usual, my learned farmer friends were. Thus I am in the middle of what I hope will be a persuasive campaign to move the wasps. Since they are paper wasps, they build their homes in locations that are protected from water. I am dowsing their home-site a couple of times a day with water. I have been assured that after a week or so they will give up and re-locate. I did it myself, two years ago, and I hope that their move will turn out to be as happy a one as ours.]]>
However, my partner has a passion for hiking – a passion readily met since we live in the mountainous portion of South-Eastern BC. I have managed to avoid any strenuous hiking for quite some time, but eventually decided that since this means so much that I would try to take up the activity myself and share in something that is clearly very meaningful to my partner. New hiking boots for my birthday cemented that commitment.
We have just returned from a three-day hike in the Purcell Mountains. It was indeed beautiful and I somehow managed to not fall off any mountains, sprain my ankle or even unduly stress my muscles.
I am willing to try it again, but don’t know if my passion for the activity will ever match that of my partner.
I realize this, in part, due to my feelings upon returning to my garden. After dropping our gear in the house, we both immediately started wandering around the garden, grazing on raspberries, blueberries and snow peas as we went. I then got serious about gathering food for a long-delayed meal. I can hardly describe my deep satisfaction and thrill as I selected from amongst the burgeoning plants enough for a hearty meal. In examining the progress of my bulb onions, I noticed that the carrots next to them needed thinning. Those became the first item on our dinner menu. I then carried on to the broccoli bed, sheltered from the cabbage moths and other critters competing with me for that wondrous vegetable. Safely ensconced under the remay was a large, perfect broccoli head.
Having grown up on a farm where our dietary offerings were dictated by a “meat and potatoes” father, broccoli was never considered for our dinner table, much less our garden. As a consequence, unlike carrots, potatoes, peas and a host of other vegetable and fruit staples, growing broccoli was an adventure I was not sure I was up to.
Experience with other members of the brassica family taught me the necessity of protecting the precious vegetable from flying critters. So when I decided to get serious about growing broccoli, I spent a great deal of time and mental effort devising a structure that could support remay, the floating row cover often seen on organic farms. The cool weather in June meant that my first attempt sufficed for well over a month. The stunning growth brought on by the hot weather in July necessitated a re-think and significant expansion of the remay support-structure. However, I was positive it would be worth the effort to protect my broccoli.
Well, the broccoli I harvested last night was proof positive it was all worth it. The slugs that pervade my garden certainly did damage to the leaves, but we feasted on a huge, beautiful, completely bug-free organically raised broccoli, accompanied by fresh peas, beets, cucumbers and berries. The hiking was great but nothing compares, for me, to the joy and satisfaction of feasting from my own garden.
But it is a garden and that gives me pause on a regular basis. My successes and failures in the garden mean feast but not famine. I have been fortunate that my food systems activist “habit” has been fed for over a decade by a series of contracts related to food and agriculture that have brought in a steady income not dependent on my efforts to collaborate with mother nature. I am very aware of what a privilege that is.
But more than that, I am aware of what an immense gift it is to have farmers in my life – both those I know and work with, and those I will never meet, other than in the form of the food they produce. That we still have, in North America, people willing to work so hard to produce food is truly a wondrous and humbling thing.]]>
When I wasn’t under a ponderosa pine, if it was July, I was ensconced in a cherry tree, gorging myself on cherries till my hands were black and my belly was bursting. Then came August and September and I took up residence in the apple trees, enjoying both the under-ripe fruit and the private world that the heavy leaf cover gave me.
As an adult, I came to appreciate the shelter provided by the trees from the blazing heat of the sun. When we lived in the forest, our home stayed cool, no matter how hot it was outside. Often a line from an Ogden Nash poem, heard in my youth, would come to mind: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree”. Frequently this would be followed by the words of another sage, masquerading as an author of children’s books (Dr Seuss) “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees”.
I am struck by the wonder of trees over and over again. I well remember standing at the bus stop with my first child when she started grade one. We lived in the country and stood on the side of the road, facing a wall of trees. The biodiversity of the trees was stunningly apparent in winter, when the deciduous trees had all lost their leaves. The many and diverse outlines of the trees were fascinating, to say the least. There were round ones and skinny ones, tall ones and stubby ones. And intermixed with these plants-in-waiting-for-spring, were the conifers, sometimes loaded with snow, and other times lightly frosted.
And then, of course, there is all the tree that we don’t normally see, under ground: their roots. I was told a wonderful story by a woman who runs a lovely B&B in Cranbrook. Shortly after Cranbrook was hit by a tornado, she had attended a permaculture course. During the course, people were talking about all the trees, large and small, that had been uprooted by the force of those powerful winds. Yet at the B&B, none of the old trees had been touched. The permaculture instuctor explained that because her yard has many well-established trees, they essentially hold hands (roots) under the ground and hold each other down during such extreme weather events.
With that story fresh in my mind, I was hiking through the woods on a road cut into the side of a steep hillside. Sure enough, where the road had created sharp banks, the exposed roots could clearly be seen to be intermingled, sharing the space, the soil nutrients, and holding each other up – and down.
My relationship with trees had a lot to do with why it was so hard for us to decide to leave our home in the forest and move into town. My kids were growing up and heading off to university and independent lives, my partner was commuting 100km to work 4 days a week, and our house would soon be ridiculously large for the two of us. But it was the sound of the wind in the trees, tracking their beauty and character through the changing seasons, and the haven they provided that was so hard to leave.
It took six years, but eventually we did decide to make the big move into a city of 10,000 people. Within a very short space of time, our dog had us trained to our new environment, with twice daily walks in the woods, four blocks from our new home. I missed my familiar paths and woods, but those new daily walks soon became routine in all the right ways. I noticed when different plants came into flower, the volunteer cherry trees in the woods, gifts of the bears, and the trees holding hands.
I also really noticed, for the first time, how much of a role the trees play in softening the rain’s impact on the ground below. We would walk the four blocks to the woods after a rain, and then enter the woods to an extended and gentle shower as the water from the skies was slowly released from the canopy above our heads. I could not help but think how grateful all the living creatures under those great trees must feel, as do I.
I spent a good portion of my free hours recently creating a support system for an espaliered Asian pear tree we planted last year. It is one of six fruit trees in my small, urban orchard. Other than the well-established cherry tree that was here when we bought the place, we have planted all the trees – two apple, a plum, the Asian pear, and a peach. My childhood in an orchard only prepared me so far for having full responsibility for fruit trees. I will always be able to spot a cherry tree, simply by its bark – but knowing how to protect that same tree from leaf rollers, cherry fruit fly, and all the birds who come to share in the harvest – that is a whole other kettle of fish, so to speak. But each week I learn something new about better caring for these diverse trees and I enjoy the work of tending to them – not just for the eventual harvest, but to enjoy all that a tree is, right in my own back yard.]]>
After time and the confidence that comes from repetitive tasks, I decided to take the plunge and try baking bread. I still vividly remember my first attempts at creating the magic of bread from a mix of flour, water, yeast and a few other ingredients. I remember hovering and praying over my rising dough, hoping desperately that I had inherited my mother’s touch with all things bread and turn out beautiful and scrumptious works of art for the nose, eyes and tummy.
As I recall, my early trepidation and fervent prayers were based on some pretty impressive failures. In hindsight, I am guessing that some of my brick-like creations may have been due to stale whole grain flour, since this was long before the days of my bicycle flour mill. And despite any shortcomings in the quality of the flour I was able to acquire during my university days, it seems that I did indeed inherit my mother’s instinct for knowing the right blend and consistency, when one has kneaded enough, and what a properly cooked loaf of bread or batch of buns looks and sounds like when they are ready to emerge from the heat of the oven.
When my kids left home to have their own university experiences, not only did I loose ready access to my son’s powerful flour-producing quads, my motivation to bake bread also fell by the wayside since there was no one but me left to consume it. However a happy convergence of factors has got me baking up a storm again.
One of the many advantages of living in “Upper Uphill” of Nelson, is that the regular walk up the hill to home can’t help but build up the old quadriceps. So though I will likely never rival my son’s flour-generating power, I can cycle up a goodly amount of flour in no time. Combine that with an inspiring array of local grains within easy reach of my mill, and I can’t help but play in my kitchen – once the flour has been freshly ground, of course. Today I even tackled my old nemesis, corn, and ground up some fresh cornmeal. Turns out that after a year and a half of walking up and down the Nelson hills, corn really isn’t that hard!
The recipe below is inspired by a breakfast cereal blend that came to me via my wonderful dairy friends, Wayne and Denise Harris, who received it from the hands and fields of the Gailius family – likely in exchange for some of their marvelous cheese (Kootenay Alpine Cheese website), farming in the beautiful and adjoining communities of Lister and Canyon, BC.
Mix sugar or honey into the 1/2 cup of warm water (it should feel slightly warm on your inner wrist); add the yeast and mix it in gently. Place in a draft-free area and ignore for 10 minutes or until the yeast has bubbled up. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, thoroughly blend the potato, water, breakfast cereal, milk, butter, salt and sugar. When the yeast is ready, blend into the potato mix. Gradually stir in the whole wheat and rye flours. Continue to stir in the sifted flour until you are no longer able to blend it in by hand; turn out onto floured, sturdy surface, and knead for 8 – 10 minutes, or until there aren’t any more sticky spots. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a cloth (tea towels work well) and place in a draft-free, warm location. Let rise 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size. Punch down thoroughly and turn onto floured surface; knead it a couple of times to be sure to remove any air bubbles. Divide the dough into two. Flatten each one until it is about 1/2 inch thick and then roll up to fit into a greased standard bread pan. (I use old butter papers to grease the pans – this is a good use of the remaining butter and will not leave that horrible sticky residue that baked vegetable oil does.) Cover and let rise again, out of drafts for another hour or until doubled in size. Bake in pre-heated 375 F oven for 40 – 45 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when you knock on them with your knuckle. Remove from the pans and let cool on racks.]]>
I have used the language of food sovereignty for a number of years now but the concepts underlying it for much longer. I have long believed that when we have some measure of control over our food system, then we can bring our values and priorities into that system. In that way I find the language of food sovereignty more useful and inclusive than that of “food security” which tends to be closely aligned with hunger and poverty. Food sovereignty relates to those actively engaged in their food systems, rather than mere passive subjects of it. And I, for one, believe that our food systems are so incredibly vital that we have no choice but to be actively engaged if we want to ensure that they will be around to nourish us this year and next and 50 years down the road.
While there are many who have worked on food systems and agriculture for much longer than I have, as someone who has worked in and devoted much mental effort to this realm for the better part of the past 20 years, it has been interesting to watch the shift in the general population when it comes to our relationship with food. I was actively involved in customer education in the late 1990′s and was somewhat bemused by the level of concern locally about y2k in the year or so leading up to 2000. Quite a few people spent a lot of time and money procuring a large stock of dry goods and other foodstuffs that could be stored for long periods. Clearly they perceived that the long supply chains were vulnerable and sought to protect themselves and their families against a break in that chain. The health food co-operative where I worked took a pro-active approach and we provided a range of educational materials and opportunities to the general public to help to re-skill people in the ways of food storage, making food from scratch, growing sprouts, and nutrition.
In the past decade, I have seen other groups of people re-examine their relationship with their food from a range of values and perspectives. Some started making changes in how they sourced their food based on environmental concerns, others based on health and nutritional considerations, and still others on considerations of the role and treatment of animals in our food systems. And then there was the whole move to “put a face on a farmer” – to actually consider the hands, muscles and heart that go into producing the food. The exciting thing from my perspective was a greatly increased level of awareness and prioritizing of food and the systems that bring it to us through this happy convergence of many different values and priorities. Which takes me back to food sovereignty – for me, food sovereignty allows us to imbue food systems with our values and priorities, be they about how those involved in the food system are treated – human, plant or animal, whether or not the ecosystems that support us all can continue to do so for generations going forward, whether different forms of food provisioning are respected and given space to be…
Which takes me to my next point – for me food sovereignty is inherently connected with healthy communities. I am not speaking about our physical well-being, though that should be a consequence of food sovereignty. However, I believe that diversity in humanity is as important as biodiversity in ecosystems. Which means that we will frequently have different opinions and priorities amongst us. A healthy community knows how to live with that diversity and work out the compromises.
I think that I have an ingrained instinct for community, likely based on growing up in a family of 13. I was the runt and the eighth child. I experienced first hand the necessity of the division of labour relative to each person’s ability; the mechanisms, effort and compromises necessary to ensuring that each had enough – food, clothing, space in a bed; and that one has to learn to live together no matter anyone’s mood, or personality quirks. I believe that we can and will learn to live together and support each other in our communities, come what may – and that those efforts will be best supported by having the essentials of our lives under our own control to the degree possible: sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is one important piece of what we need to do to live together peacefully and respectfully on this tiny, burdened planet.]]>
Our household diet changes with the seasons and the fresh tomatoes were a lovely but anomalous addition to our usual autumn and winter fare, consisting primarily of root crops, legumes and other hearty foods to keep the chill away, drawing on the stock of foods put away in jars, bags and in the freezer.
So it felt simply sumptuous to eat the last of our own fresh tomatoes a week before winter solstice. Underneath those lovely tomatoes, for our pre-solstice dinner, was a bed of pesto, also made from fresh basil from my garden. We brought the basil, in its terra cotta container, inside our home in October and made sure it had a place of honour in the best-lit corner of the house. Happily for us, it just kept producing lovely green and fragrant leaves. I stopped harvesting them in early December to ensure that there would be enough for a pesto feast. I am attaching a pesto recipe to this post – I have adapted the more traditional recipe to use pumpkin seeds rather than pine nuts, since the seeds grow in my foodshed, unlike the pine nuts. Any locavore purists will note that I have not yet found a substitute for good olive oil…
Basil Pesto Recipe – adapted from Noel Richardson’s Winter Pleasures: Herbs & Comfort Cooking
Toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry cast iron frying pan until they start to pop – remove and allow to cool. Then place the seeds, along with the basil, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese in a food processor. Process until the leaves are finely chopped and the whole thing is well blended.
Serve over your favourite pasta, and top with fresh tomatoes.]]>
I am not sure if it is the result of my mixed European-ish heritage or something else, but I have a life-long love affair with whole grain breads, especially home made versions. My favourite bread as a child was called “Anne Murray Bread” named after our famous Canadian musician. I have long since adapted it significantly, removing any brand-name ingredients and taking it back to the basics. This version takes it inspiration from Joanne and Drew Gailius and their family, who inspire me with their farm and family values and whose grains form the basis for many of my creations. To learn a bit about why these people inspire me so much, check out their farm stories and photos on their website: Full Circle Farm
The recipe for Mary-Lou Bread
In a large bowl combine the first seven ingredients (ending with the salt) and stir well to blend and to melt the butter. Set aside and let cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar or honey in the 1/2 cup warm water, stir in the yeast and let stand for 10 minutes or so until the yeast is frothy. Add yeast mixture to the large bowl and stir thoroughly. Add the whole grain flour and stir thoroughly. Then add the sifted flour in sufficient quantities to form a stiff dough (the amount will vary depending on the moisture content of the flour). Knead on a well-floured surface until there is no stickiness, adding more flour as necessary. Place a tablespoon oil (I like olive) in the large bowl and smear it around the bottom and part way up the sides. Add the dough, cover with a cloth and place in a warm place to rise (if you have a gas oven with pilot light that makes an ideal rising place). Let rise until doubled (1 – 2 hours). Punch the dough down, place it on a lightly floured surface and squish out all the bubbles. Divide it into four portions, shape into fat sausages and place in four well-greased loaf pans. (I save the wrappers from pounds of butter and use them to grease the pans.) Cover the loaves, place in a warm spot and let rise until doubled again (approx 1 – 1.5 hours). Bake in preheated 375F oven for 40 – 45 minutes, watching to make sure they don’t get too brown on the top. You will know they are done when the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it with your knuckle. Take the loaves out of the pans and cool on racks. Once they have cooled slightly the bread is awesome with just butter. When my son is home, he will eat a whole loaf at one sitting.
Note that you can use all whole grain flour in this recipe and it will still turn out light and wonderful. The trick to baking with whole grain flour is use it fresh off the mill.]]>
I decided to write about my grain flaker today as next to my bicycle flour mill, it seems to be my food contraption that garners the most interest. I acquired my Schnitzer grain flaker at the same time as my flour mill and it is an equally well made and simple device. My version is known as a “Stein Flocker” which conjures up images of large mugs of beer. However, I mostly use mine for fresh flaked oats to be used in granola, porridge, bread and a large variety of cookies.
As you can see from the photos, the flaker is very simple, with two rotating stones held in place beneath a mini-hopper. The stones rotate towards the opening under the hopper and roll the grain flat. The newly squished grain then falls off the stones onto a short metal chute into a shallow bowl. My hopper can hold approximately a cup of whole grains. Like the bike-powered flour mill, it is a bit of a workout, but is powered by one’s arms. The freshness of the grains will affect how easily they will be flaked.
If you have never tasted fresh flaked oats you are definitely in a for a treat. You see, like so much in nature, the germ of a grain is a wonder, keeping the precious oils of the grain in perfect condition until that germ is broken. As soon as the grain is crushed for flour or for flaking, the oil starts to denature and become rancid. A freshly flaked oat is sweet with a wonderful smell.]]>
However, it is time. So here goes.
I thought that my first post would be about the thing that most people seem to find the most intriguing about my various food activities: my bike-powered flour mill. I could, of course, go on forever (and will in the future) about infrastructure, regulatory, people power and many other issues related to food, but for fun, I am starting with my flour mill.
Having a passionate belief in the power and beauty of food at its most basic, I set about acquiring a stone mill so I could grind my own flour. I purchased a hand-cranked stone mill from my local food Co-op. It will probably come as a surprise to no one that grinding flour by hand is very, very labour intensive. So, I met up with my inventive father-in-law, Pete Beaulieu, and asked him about the possibility of attaching the mill to an exercise bike. He immediately offered to attach an electric motor instead so that I could just plug it into the wall and presto, have flour. However, that was not my vision. There was an old exercise bike in the extended family that was collecting dust at the time (and it wasn’t flour dust!). So Pete diligently collected unwanted ten speed bikes at garage sales until he felt that he had enough gears to attempt the project. Shortly thereafter, he produced the bike and we have been generating flour from the contraption for well over a decade.
As a result of this addition to our household, I am delighted to report that my children grew up being able to distinguish rye from wheat, from kamut, from spelt, barley and rice.
The mill resided for quite some time on a landing in our house, deliberately situated directly in front of the New Internationalist’s creative poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I figured that not only would my kids get their exercise, they would also benefit from some propaganda, and later, from bread, pancakes, or cookies.
The whole household took inspiration from the visionary Little Red Hen: we all learned pretty quickly that if we wanted to eat the bread, we would need to get on the bike and mill up some flour. Sadly, my motivated son, with quads of steel, is no longer living at home and so the mass production of flour does not happen as readily as it once did. However, I can mill up a couple of cups of fresh flour in 5 minutes or so.
It is hard to give up the addiction to fresh flour once one has experienced it. I used to think that whole grain flour woud necessarily produce heavy baked products. However, freshly milled flour does exactly the opposite. That precious oil in the germ does not have the opportunity to go rancid when you use it right away, and the the fineness of the flour is infinitely adjustable on my mill. As a life-time bread junkie, I am more enthusiastic than ever for my own fresh-baked bread from freshly milled flour.
For other exercise and baked goods enthusiasts, I have included some photos below so you can create your own leg-powered flour mill. I recommend not using exercise bikes of this era, as they are really poorly designed in terms of ergonomics. A road bike set on a structure would probably be a lot easier.