Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Wild Food Foraging - Faffing about for a few Calories?

One man's meat is another man's poison.  For the purpose of this post, I'm excluding animal products, so let's rephrase that: one man's wild harvested porridge is another man's slimy, nauseating equivalent of wallpaper paste.   (For man, read person). 

Humans are remarkably ingenious at turning inedible foods into tasty provender.  We pound, leach, heat and ferment basic foodstuffs.  We gobble clay to bind toxins, add wood ash to maize, and chew on charcoal biscuits to gain relief from indigestion.  

So if we turn to Nature's larder, armed with our trusty trugful of food technologies, we should soon be banqueting in a veritable Garden of Eden.  At first glance things look hopeful.  There are many, many edible plants, even in Britain's glacially depauperated flora. Salads and pot herbs abound - consult either Food for Free by Richard Mabey or Wild Food by Roger Phillips.  It amazes me that some people have never eaten nettles, which must be one of the most versatile wild plants in terms of uses as well as being truly delicious.   

The problem is getting the calories from wild plant foods. Interested as I am in new crop domestication, even I can see that some plants are going to present a few difficulties. 

The noble oak, for example,  produces, in the right season, masses of acorns that make a delicious nutty bread with an unlikely chocolaty colour. I know, I've tried it.  Yes, but to actually produce said bread, those acorns require from the harvesters a level of enthusiasm, or desperation, that most of us don't possess.  Delayed gratification must surely have been  a selected-for-trait amongst the native peoples of California, where acorn eating was prevalent.   According to the sources I have read, the acorns were first shelled, then ground into a fine powder and leached in water for several hours.  This dough was then mixed with red clay and allowed to bake in an earth oven overnight. Slow Food eat your heart out.   

Presumably that's why pannage (vegetarians look away now), the practice of allowing pigs to scoff all the acorns prior to slaughter, was so popular in Europe in the Middle Ages; it  is still carried out in the cork oak forests of Portugal and the New Forest in Hampshire.  For those people with alternatives, eating acorns was just too much like hard work.  It was easier to eat the animals that ate the acorns. Acorns are edible, yes, but not exactly practical. 

Other plants may be tasty, but the yields are so paltry as to render them plantae non gratae.    Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) roots are most certainly edible: they have a pleasant aniseed flavour (yes, I have tried them).   Unfortunately it takes a few years to get reasonable sized roots and if you leave them too long, they get big and tough and fibrous.   Other than decimating wild stands (not recommended),  you'd need to grow a large patch, sown in succession over several years.  Exit spontaneity when it comes to feeling peckish.  Maybe this is where Dunkin Donuts spotted a gap in the market. 

Before leaving things porcine, let's look at the pignut (Conopodium majus). Pignuts  are the tubers of a British  native umbellifer that grows in woodland clearings and meadows.  The small round roots are edible raw, although to me they have a bit of an astringent aftertaste.   Cooked, they are very pleasant, with a sweet and nutty flavour. Getting the damned things out of the ground  can prove a little more challenging.   They seem to have the knack of growing in rocky, compacted soils.  You can forget those nail extensions when harvesting pignuts.  The leaves originate from a slender stalk, which wends its way through crevices, round tree roots and  down worm tunnels. You need to follow it all the way to the root with patience: this is archaeology, not eating.  Careless tugs cost leaves - those stems break very easily and howls of frustration echo through the woods as another tuber retreats into stony anonymity.   

Perhaps, as suggested in Ken Fern's magnum opus Plants for a Future, pignut tubers under cultivation grow larger and benefit from better worked soil.  Given time, money and sufficient space, I'd be happy to explore this. But maybe the very name 'pignut' should ring alarm bells.  It seems to me, I'm afraid,  that  any plant with the prefix 'pig',  or 'horse' can be relied on to require a pig's snout or crowbar to extract and several horsepower to render it edible.   I'm with Carol Deppe, whose excellent book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties should be on your bookshelf.  To wit: "I want vegetables with new delicious flavors, not ones that are merely palatable.  And I am not willing to do a lot of work to get a small edible part.  Or to spend hours preparing anything.  Or boil anything in two changes of water and throw away most of the vitamins and minerals. Or to dry something, pound  it into flour and mix a small amount of that flour with wheat flour to make bread that would have tasted just as good without the addition".  I think we can assume that judged by the above criteria,  pignuts and acorns get "nil point".   But, if you're time rich and calorie poor, then these sorts of famine foods might well have their appeal.   If, through diligent breeding and selection, low tannin acorns can be created, or pignuts can be converted into bignuts, then I salute the authors of such innovations and please can I have some seeds? 

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Crap Crops of the Incas: My on-off-on affair with high altitude Andean root crops 1) Oca

Some people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, when Lady Di and Prince Charles got married, or when Nelson Mandela was released. More vivid in my mind is the day I first held an oca tuber in my hand. It was an object of startling beauty - a bright red blob of sealing wax with embryonic buds pushing out from its furrowed brow. I don't remember the date exactly - early in 1987 or 88 seems likely.

I knew of the plant of course. I had a well-thumbed copy of the Oxford Book of Food Plants, which contained an illustration of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) along with concisely informative text. The clover-like leaves and ivory coloured tubers certainly looked interesting. So I was delighted when the HDRA members' experiments for that year included an oca trial. Like a First World War volunteer, I signed on the dotted line and awaited my fate. Opening the package and placing the tubers in my hand engendered in me a strange sense of excitement, a connection with the past and the distant Andes, certainly, but something else: the intoxication of possibility. Might it be possible to create mixed or intercropped oca/potato crops as has been done since time immemorial in the Andes? Might this novelty crop actually become incorporated into the mainstream as had started to happen in New Zealand a few decades earlier?

So anyway, in terms of its visual appeal, this oca exceeded my expectations. It was certainly a brighter shade than pale, a bobby dazzler, a stunner. I was in love. Truly. Madly. Stupidly.

The tubers were meticulously tended in pots and then planted out after the last frosts. The resultant plants grew well in our garden, producing masses of lush trifoliate foliage and a scattering of eggy yellow flowers that looked a bit like brassier versions of the native wood sorrel that grew nearby and is in the same genus.

As we all know, love is a kind of madness which leaves the victim deafened and blinded to reality. The painful shortcomings of my new love were ignored even when the frosts came and we lifted the crop. "But the tubers are beautiful", I told myself and anyone else who hung around long enough to listen as I cradled the equivalent of a mouse's breakfast in a vastly optimistic basket. Oca was simply all mouth and trousers.

Eventually things cooled off between us. I came to see, finally, that oca was another one of those faithless crops which, although quite well adapted to our moderate summer temperatures, just refused to tuberise until around the autumn equinox. Cue the first hard frosts and another season of empty, unfulfilled promises.

Besides, by this time Lost Crops of The Incas had been released. An eminently readable guide to the incredible treasure trove of Andean crop plants, this provided me with many more plants to pursue, possess and cultivate. I remember reading the majority of it at one sitting, from bedtime until breakfast, so fascinating did I find it. If oca was a busted flush, there was always maca, ulluco, ahipa, achira, arracacha, mashua, yacon or mauka - an astonishing array of subterranean homesick crops to try out in the soil of dear old Blighty.

Oca, unlike her erstwhile bedfellow the potato, has pretty much languished outside south America, apart from New Zealand where autumnal frosts come late enough for decent tubers to form. Yet the first potatoes to arrive from south America were similarly temperamental, low yielding, day-length sensitive prima donnas. By a process of selection, the original andigena potatoes were converted into day-neutral spuds - sow some seeds, keep the highest yielding varieties, allow them to cross pollinate and keep selecting. In a hundred years or two you've got yourself some decent varieties.

Hold on. Not even Coenzyme Q10 and goji berries are going to keep me around that long. Besides, who's ever seen their oca plants produce seeds? Flowers maybe, but no seed pods. No seed pods, no shuffling of the genetic playing cards and no chance of any random mutations popping up that might reset the alarm clock. Things seem to be looking up, however........

Despite oca's manifest limitations, we have undergone a rapprochement and I have been growing it steadily for more than a decade, picking up different varieties as and when they
become available. By 2007 I had maybe half a dozen varieties collected from fellow enthusiasts. A number of these flowered at the same time. Pursuing the wholly unscientific method of poking the flower of one variety into another, I managed to get some seed pods to form. This was a surprise. Ben Gabel of The Real Seed Catalogue who offers several oca varieties also managed to get some pods to develop on his plants. Unfortunately I was away while most of the pods on my plants were ripening. I did manage to collect some seeds when I got back, however. Ben was also successful.

It turns out that oca is tristylous, that is there are three different flower types which vary in the height of the stigma, the female bit, relative to the position of the stamens (the male bits). Something similar occurs in primroses, where two types occur: pin eye (stigma sticks out above stamens) and thrum eye (stigma below stamens). It's a mechanism designed to ensure cross pollination and prevent inbreeding.

But what if all your varieties of oca have the same type of flower? No seeds are produced. Somehow or other, the combination of compatible varieties and favourable weather in 2007 led to the formation of seeds for what may have been the first time in Britain.

Both Ben and an intrepid plant collector and grower from Belgium, Frank Van Keirsbilck managed to get a few of the seeds to germinate. By autumn 2008 there were two new varieties of oca in existence, Ben's one and Frank's one; the latter has decided to call his one "Pink Dragon", in deference to its conception in Wales and the colour of its tubers. OK, Barack Obama's inauguration is undoubtedly an epochal moment. But don't forget 2008, Year of the Potato and the advent of the first European ocas. Andean crop anoraks make a note in your diaries!

T.S. Eliot claimed that "April is the cruellest month". Early December's not much better. In a moment of grey-day induced ennui, I suddenly remembered those oca seeds, stashed away in a Petri dish, forgotten and possibly dead. I felt an overwhelming desire to plant them or be rid of them. I had read a paper which described sterilising oca seeds in 10% bleach and soaking them in KNO3 overnight to improve germination, so that's what I did.

To my surprise, some of them actually germinated. Here's what they look like now:

Among this mongrel brood there are definite differences in leaf and stem colour, probably reflecting different anthocyanin levels. Some are certainly more vigorous than others. As the plants develop, I will post additional mugshots.

What we need to do now is find out how to get the plants to flower consistently, identify which plants have which flower types and cross pollinate like mad to get as many seeds as possible. That will give us the best chance of developing day-neutral varieties. We're also hoping to obtain some more varieties. It's a numbers game when all is said and done.

Monday, 19 January 2009

To whet your appetite

Here's a picture of some of the Andean root crops I've been growing. Species present are oca (Oxalis tuberosa), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) and yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius).

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Rooting around

There's something about roots and root crops. You plunge your hands into the soil and there, behold, a little subterranean nest, twinkling in the earthy firmament. Those pristine tubers or roots see the light of day for the first time. It's like witnessing a birth. Somehow this satisfies within me some deep and primeval instinct to forage, to dig exultantly into the flesh of Mother Earth to obtain sustenance.

I have a particular interest in exploring the potential lurking in some of the lesser known, or not currently cultivated plants with edible roots, rhizomes, bulbs and tubers. Seeing as all crops started off as wild plants and all crops were minor before they became major, why not acquire, cultivate and breed new, different, crop species? It's a way of experiencing and celebrating crop biodiversity. It's fun.

Fellow gardeners, it's both the best of times and the worst of times (apologies to Charles Dickens). I'm personally gutted that the Yangtze river dolphin is in all probability extinct; that the magnificent eucalypt forests of East Gippsland are still being felled. Yes, I'm sorry to report that crop diversity continues to plummet. Yet we as gardeners have access to an unprecedented range of plants (take a look in the RHS Plant Finder or Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook to see what I mean). Carpe diem.

Most plant breeding over the last 10,000 years has been done by enthusiastic amateurs (a.k.a. farmers and gardeners). Their enthusiasm may have stemmed from the hunger pangs that most of us fat cats in the developed world have thankfully avoided for a few generations. We're lucky. For now.

So, while the opportunity is allowed us, let's scoop our hands through the sweetie jar and sample what's on offer. There's more than potatoes and parsnips out there. Not that I have anything against either of those esteemed vegetables. Root crops are often among the easiest vegetables to grow, the highest yielding and can be converted into delicious nosh with minimal fuss. Climate change? Peak Oil? The answer lies at your feet. Root crops for resilience.

As a fully paid-up phytonerd, I'm interested in exploring alternative root crops for our cool temperate climate in the UK. In fact I've been interested in these plants for years and have grown many in my time. I'm intending to share some of my experiences with you on this blog.

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