Saturday, 30 January 2010

The 2009 Ocademy Awards

I've been thinking about rescuing what remains of my root crops from the ground - if the frost don't get 'em the molluscs will. Up and out they must come or I will be consumed by anxiety and guilt. And as it was a beautiful sunny afternoon today, I decided to liberate at least some of my literally-lost crops of the Incas, starting of course with more of the oca seedlings.

The losses I had discovered previously, when I lifted the first tubers last week, continued through all the pots. I would estimate that between half and two thirds of the tubers were either partially or completely frosted. This will make valid yield comparisons a bit of a nightmare. But is an oca pot half empty or half full? It still leaves tubers for replanting this spring.

It's also possible to draw a few conclusions about the performance of the different seedlings which ranged from unimpressive (no tubers - R.I.P.) to impressive (goodly numbers of usefully sized tubers).

The most obvious characteristic of the tubers, their colour, showed limited variation, with the majority being either pale ("white") or yellowish. There were only three varieties with red skins out of a total of twenty two that made it to harvest.

I decided to take a a desultory glance at the mashuas, half hoping, I suppose, that the frost would have either killed them or rendered them palatable. Or maybe both. Three varieties seemed to have survived and yielded well: "Colombian White", "Red" and "Purple". None of my speckled types pulled through. Bearing in mind that 2010 is IYB (International Year of Biodiversity), I felt a twinge of sadness at this loss and a rising determination to find some way of turning this culinary ugly duckling into a swan, or at least disguising its less appealing traits. Like the fact that it tastes unpleasant. We've got to help this plant mastermind a borstal breakout into the horticultural mainstream somehow. Digressing egregiously once again - how's about we make 2011 International Year of Agrobiodiversity? Cos that's what life - as we know it - depends on.

Peering into the ulluco pots next, I feared the worst - and those fears turned out to be justified. My ulluco collection has been slaughtered, decimated, annihilated. Pot after pot yielded nothing. Now I was a little upset. Stiff upper lip be damned - really upset. Even though ulluco has been one of the least successful of the Incan crops in terms of yield, I really like its colourful tubers. Just before throwing myself bodily into the grave with the victim, I discovered - miraculously - two tiny tubers of the green ulluco variety given to me by Frank van Keirsbilck last year and then, to cap it all, a couple of small yellow tubers of "Cusco market", the variety grown by Ben Gabel at Real Seeds. All is not yet lost on the ulluco front then - not quite. Here's hoping that Frank and others will have managed to hold onto their stocks more successfully than me; maybe with their assistance my collection, like the Bionic Man, can be rebuilt.

They say that oca is the second most important tuber crop in the Andes after the potato. I now know that its frosted tubers are quite the equal of its more popular counterpart when it comes to filling one's nostrils with the nauseating stench of decay. I could have sworn I was sorting through a bag of blighted potatoes. Yes, I've retreated indoors to cull yet more oca tubers. And I've got over 20 bags to sort through. Luckily (I suppose) the bags are small and the tubers relatively few - I left the obviously rotten ones outside. It's now clear that I optimistically allowed a few double agents through security only to have them self-destruct and contaminate the others in the comfort of my own home.

So - who are the glitzy standout performers of 2009? Rather than bore you with all the details, I'll bore you with a few of the details. At least I can guarantee no gushing and tearful acceptance speeches from the recipients. The winners of the 2009 Ocademy Awards in no particular order are:

0908 - 225g, "white" with red eyes. Good sized tubers.

0923 - 170g, "white" , no eye colour. Unfortunately many of the very nice large tubers this variety produced perished in the cold.

0916 - 240g, yellowish, no eye colour and coincidentally the first to flower and set seed. Pot was distorted by the large number of tightly packed tubers. Many of them didn't make it, which was a shame.

What I ought to do, perhaps, is follow the "Oca Productivity Index" protocol described here in IAP's Growing Oca blog. As the tubers continue to surprise me by decaying on the sly, I'll probably wait until next year before trying this.

By a strange coincidence (or is it?) all the varieties with the highest yields seem to be the ones with the short styled flowers. They'll need crossing with some of the other varieties next year. As for the class of 2009, a process of selection needs a process of rejection; I'll have to harden my heart and send some of my progeny off to that great compost heap in the sky. I might just find that a bit tricky.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Radix and the One Candled Cake

This blog is one year old today. Here's hoping I have enough puff to blow out the single candle on the birthday cake tonight. Yesterday, in anticipation of this historic event, I finally got out and started scratching around in the beds for the remnants of my plants. Nice, I thought, to have something to celebrate rather than getting all weepy and elegaic about what might have been were it not for the coldest winter ever. Or at least the coldest winter since a few years ago.

Initial appearances were not good, recalling the Max Ernst painting Europe After The Rain. Appearances can be deceptive, of course. It's not what's above ground that matters with dormant root crops, after all. Dig deeper.

So that's what I started to do. My miserable-as-sin farmer's persona dropped from me as I spaded the soil near the first mauka's last known location. Witnesses tell me that the corner of my mouth twitched with something vaguely reminiscent of pleasure. Here's why:

The maukas have managed to survive a cold winter - and they've done it in style. The peculiarly fattened stems more closely resemble the pictures of Andean mauka than the large roots my plants produced last year. I'm guessing that the overall yield is higher, although I haven't got round to weighing them yet.

Although not exactly the forearm-sized monsters described in Lost Crops of the Incas, I'm quite pleased with the stems, both in terms of their size and overall yield. They bear more than a passing resemblance resemblance to cassava roots, a fact noted previously in Lost Crops. Mauka seems to be similarly tough and might fulfil the same kind of role as a back-up food supply when other crops fail. If the stems taste as good as the roots we tried last year, this won't be much of a hardship.

But what of my pride and joy, my oca seedlings? Pride comes before a fall, they say. Thus it was with some trepidation that I proceeded to the oca patch. Trapped high up in their elevated pots, I feared the fierce clutch of the frost on those delicate tubers. The remains of the stems were soggy, bleached and formless, hanging limply from the rim of each pot. Their decay seemed to extend deep into the compost within. Hesitating for a moment, I pulled the pot of RX0917 from the ground. Among the pallid, squishy, frosted tubers (damn), there were several survivors (hooray!):

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, these ocas were not born in the USA, nor in any other part of the Americas. They're as Cornish as pasties, tin mines and summer holiday washouts. RX0917 resembles the "Amarillo/Khusioka" type, with pale yellow skin and pinkish eyes. I must confess myself pleased with the yield, bearing in mind that about half the tubers were lost to the effects of frost. I was intending to lift and photograph several more varieties, but my camera batteries began to fail at this point and I only managed to secure one more image before they finally gave up the ghost:

RX0919 looks a lot like the standard reddish oca. Still, it shows that there is diversity in the seedlings; others, not yet photographed were white; some resembled RX0917, except slightly flushed with pink. There were some impressively large tubers among them. When time and camera batteries allow, I will return and photograph them all. In any case, I have proved, to my own satisfaction at least, that oca breeding in the UK is perfectly feasible.

So whither Radix in 2010? Well, buoyed up by success on the oca front, I intend to carry on exploring the potential of this excellent plant. I'd also like to do a decent comparison of the three mauka varieties now in my possession and crack the mystery of flowering and seed production. I expect I'll grow yacon again and a few of the other Inca lost crops.

Futurology is a notoriously imprecise science; it seems likely, however, that oil prices and thus fertiliser costs will continue to rise. Come the hour, comes the crop: nitrogen fixing tubers would surely be beneficial in a biologically diverse and productive garden like yours. I'm talking about hopniss of course and maybe even talet, the hog peanut - two legume species I'd like to investigate further.

While my minders aren't looking, I'll continue to scour the planet for likely candidates for Radix to grow and study. I may even sneak some under the radar and onto the plot in secluded places. You'll be the first to know how I (and they) get on.

Oh - and here's said cake with single candle:

Monday, 11 January 2010

I Snack on Yacon

On a recent trip to Bangors Organic, Neil dug up some of his yacon roots for us to take home. Although he had professed himself terrified by the voluminous yield the previous season, he had obviously overcome this irrational response to yacon's generous nature and planted plenty in 2009.

Our own yacon plants are missing, presumed dead, in the frozen wasteland where our vegetable garden used to be. With great prescience (or luck), Neil grew his plants in a polytunnel this year and was able to lift the tubers with ease. It would have been churlish to refuse his kind offer. So, into the back of the car they went and thence to our kitchen.

Seeing as my gut flora has been ravaged by antibiotic blitzkrieg, I thought I'd try and get the good guys back in there. Might the prebiotic punch of yacon combine with the probiotics found in lactofermented foods? Would those fructo-oligosaccharides for which yacon is prized be a suitable substrate for Lactobacillus colonisation?

I julienned some of the peeled roots then put it them a jar with a bit of added salt. Copious quantities of a brownish liquor were quickly produced and like a submarine, the yacon disappeared slowly beneath the waters. I also inoculated the liquid with some live whey I had in the fridge. I plonked a bottle on top to keep the yacon squashed, submerged and anaerobic. I then left it to ferment for about five days.

After a few days, bubbles began to emerge from the underwater mass and the characteristic whiff of lacto fermentation became obvious - you'll know it when you smell it. A couple of days of active fermentation later, I decided to taste my Yakraut.

I lifted out the bottle and extracted a few of the pickled pieces. They were slightly flaccid, but still crunchy. Next - the taste test. They were, predictably, tangy like sauerkraut with the sweet taste of yacon - nice. Nurse, fetch me my cheese and biscuits.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

OCAsional Update 5) My Lovin' Spoonful

Here's something to make the medicine go down - a spoonful of oca seeds. They probably taste better than the cocktail of antibiotics and assorted other drugs I have recently been swallowing, not that I'll be consuming them. Not until they've grown up, that is. Modesty insists that I point out that the spoon is a teaspoon and it's not actually a spoonful; all I know is that I'm pleased to see so many of them.

I collected the unripe pods containing these seeds just before I started going down slow in November. They were the products of uncontrolled crosses between whichever plants were flowering at the time, including my RX09 series seedlings and their putative parents. Recognising the imminence of frost, if not my own illness, I hurriedly picked them in bunches and stored them in glass jars as described in my OCASional Update 3.

This method seems to hold promise as a way of securing the maximum number of seeds, assuming that premature harvest doesn't have negative effects on their viability and subsequent germination. There's only one way to find out. Nurse, fetch me my propagator.
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