Sunday 18 April 2010

Nettle soup

So at the end of our second topic week on The Industrial Food System, our attention is turning towards the green world that is still in our hands. Next week we're going to do a photoblog on "What's Happening in My Garden" - about all seedlings and blossoming trees, new leaves in windowboxes, allotments coming to life, the whole Spring thing.

What's happening in amongst the flowers and veg are a lot of what gardeners call weeds and medicine plant people call herbs. One of these bold fellows is the nettle plant, famous as a tonic and cure-all, especially for the urinary tract and a terrific source of iron and other minerals. And for all forgaging cooks as a superb ingredient for soup or substitute for spinach.

Last week at our Strangers' Circle we started our get-together as always with a feast of home-cooked food: Angie's onion pakoras. William's egg salad with new lettuce from the Mangreen polytunnel, Elena's carrot and cumin soup, Mark's spelt rolls, my cherry-plum and rhubarb compotes . . . . and house nettle soup. Our low-carbon supper set us up so we could get down to draw up our first order as a Transition wholefood co-op - a real community exercise! We had all kinds of debates on the merits of poppy seeds, whether we should choose raisins or sultanas, what colour lentils. Some things we were unanimous about - extra virgin olive oil, fairtrade brown basmati rice, local bread flour . . . Tully did the figures on his laptop, Elena held sway over the catalogue, Mark made tea, Naomi and I negotiated kilos of gluten-free pasta. Oh, and we laughed a lot.

So if you want a kick-start an evening nettle soup is an energetic way to go. The plants are good until June when they start flowering. Nettles are best now however when small and young. Just pick the tops and strip leaves. Cook like spinach with almost no water. Then chop and add to whatever you like. Egg dishes are lovely with nettles, but nothing quite beats nettle soup. Here is my recipe (adapted from the classic text on wild food by the great nature writer Richard Mabey).

Several potatoes, diced
4 good handfuls nettles
1 onion. chopped
Strong veg stock (I like to add celeriac, fresh thyme, lots of leek)
Butter or olive oil
Several leaves of wild garlic
Creme fraiche (optional)
Black pepper, sea salt and nutmeg

Sweat the onion in a large saucepan. Add diced potatoes for a few minutes. Add stock and cook for twenty or so minutes. Rinse and sort nettles. Cook for a few minutes until soft, then add to soup for the last five minutes. Season and serve with creme fraiche and strips of wild garlic (from your local wild space or garden!) Richard Mabey instructs to squash the soup with the back of a spoon or puree, but I like the chunks.

The kind of soup that just keeps getting better. Bon appetit!

Photo: picking nettle from the Spring Tonic Walk 09, by Helen Simpson Slapp

Saturday 17 April 2010

The Politics of Powerdown

Last Sunday I met my first climate denier. It was at a play about climate change called Turning the Tide, that mirrored the dilemmas of a small rural community engaged in carbon reduction. Afterwards the director invited the audience to debate the issues in the play and that's when Climate Denier started to fill us in on some stats about Arctic ice and sunspots.

Even though the elections have replaced CO2 levels as the hot topic, it's clear our focus has shifted in the last four years. Planetary issues have entered our ordinary lives. The political parties may be playing their traditional game of musical chairs, pointing fingers at each other and making big promises, but we're not listening to them in the same way we used to.

Climate Denier was monopolising a conversation all of us were supposed to be having. In a time of uncertainty he sounded convinced, oblivious to everyone else in the room. Every sentence began with "I". But "We" Climate Fools did not believe him.

Civilisations are obsessed with power, the power to conquer the world like Alexander, to lay other countries waste and keep everyone else underfoot. They rule by division and conflict. As a result we become individualists seeking power at every turn: the power to go fast, to be above it all, to Have Our Say, with our power-hungry machines, our cars, our aeroplanes, our computers where we sit like the Wizard of Oz controlling everything… except the weather.

Last autumn I became part of a group of Transitioners who decided to voluntarily "powerdown" – to cut our personal carbon emissions to 50% of the national average over a year. We looked at transport, energy, food and "stuff" and began to consider our impact not only on eco-systems, but on the people who make our materially-acquisitive, fossil-fuelled lifestyles possible. And that's when equity started to kick in.

Climate change is a great leveller. The more you possess, the more carbon you emit. When you measure your life according to energy and resource use, you discover fair-share between people and nations. When you're struggling for power and material pleasures you're only thinking about Me and Them.

Something unforeseen happened as we engaged in this low-carbon life. We started to give each other things, swap seeds, buy food co-operatively and create our own culture. For some of us the economic downturn had already become a reality. So you wouldn't say we were better off, but in terms of conscience we were clearer, we were closer to the earth. And we didn't feel on our own anymore.

The reason most of us struggle for power is because no one wants to be humiliated and alone at the bottom of the heap. No matter what politicians promise, someone in our "one nation" will be required to be in the scapegoat position. The neighbour, the immigrant, the girl who wears the unfashionable shoes.

When you voluntarily powerdown the drive for success stops. The hostility stops. You might not know all the science behind climate change, but you know the world powered by that drive doesn't feel right. You have faced enough realities, crunched enough numbers, to see how to radically change your life. It's not a decision you've made in your mind, it's a heart decision, based on fair-play. And so the voices you listen to no longer belong to the loud and dominant. The issues you care about are happening everywhere on the planet, as well as the neighbourhood you live in. And that's when you find the people you've been looking for all your life.
Turning the Tide by Peppy Barlow was performed by the Open Space Theatre Co.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Unholy Cow

Ten years ago I gave up eating meat and nine years ago milk and cheese. Originally I gave them up because I no longer wanted blood on my hands every time I went shopping. Now I don’t eat these things for different reasons, planetary reasons, climate change and peak oil reasons, because of the funeral pyres of mad cows that burned as the millenium turned, because the effluence of factory farms seeps into the rivers and causes acid rain, because the livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the whole world’s transport, because the 55 billion farmed animals that were killed last year do not include all the wild creatures killed in the razed forests of the earth, in our own land so people can shoot and dine grandly on game. Because the cows whom we once considered holy, who succoured us with their galactic connection, whose noble forms adorn the caves of our archaic memory, are being used as milk machines and thrown to the dogs without a second throught. And something of ourselves, of our true humanity, goes with them as they stumble to the slaughterhouse door each year.

Last year I stood beside a cow on a small family organic farm. She was about to give birth to her 18th calf. Some conventional dairy cows don’t last more than three lactations. They are so exhausted, so depleted providing the nation with its tea and cornflake milk, with its multi-flavoured yoghurts and pizza cheese that they collapse. Their bodies like those of their just-born male calves are turned into pet food. Scientists are working on “designing” a cow that can provide so much milk it will need constant milking. There are plans, Jane tells me, for a superdairy in Linconshire where 8000 cows will be incarcerated for their short lives and never see a meadow.

Here are some stats: a piece of land that can feed 2 people on meat can feed 10 on maize, 24 on grains and 61 on soya. 70% of the grain grown in East Anglia is for animal feed. While the EU is considering putting genetically-engineered seed into the agricultural fields of Europe because of an imagined future food shortage we need to take stock of exactly what we eat and make some clear decisions. We need to watch documentaries like Food, Inc., read any number of good books that put the industrial food machine into perspective: Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label and Eat Your Heart Out, Colin Tudge’s Feeding People Is Easy, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Nation.

And then we need to engage with life in a way that demands full consciousness, with the kind of attention and perseverance that Jon and Chris have already documented this week. We have to radically change what we eat.

Like millions of people in Britain I was brought up eating sliced white loaves and all the horrors of convenience food – fishfingers, baked beans, packeted puddings, sweets, heavily pesticided vegetables and fruit. My mother was a good cook but she was a 50’s housewife and bought the whole Kenwood mixer dream. Like thousands of others I rebelled against my upbringing and went my own way in the kitchen. I spent my early working life in markets in my own city and abroad, collecting recipes, talking to fishermen and cooks and threw a lot of parties, each with a theme. One was featured on a television documentary programme called The Good Life. In between the interviews with me in an apron cutting up pigeons and trailing great swatches of ivy down a white-tableclothed table, full of silver candlesticks, are excerpts of Fellini’s film about decadent modern Rome, La Dolce Vita.

When I gave up meat a whole world dropped away. My obsession with food stopped. The parties stopped. I switched my attention. Standing in a borrowed kitchen at the end of my travelling years, I read a book by Colin Spencer, the vegetarian food writer and I “woke up” to the horrors of the slaughterhouse. That day I went out into the English countryside and stood by a herd of dairy cows:

“Hello fellows,” I say softly as I approach them, and they gaze at me with their dark liquid eyes, with their implacable flanks, and then continue their business. They do not move away.

I lean on the gate and pause in the mysterious presence of the great beasts, in a moment of their endless time. The gentle afternoon extends itself through the rolling land. A red kite swings overhead. I breathe out with the soft breeze and feel myself take flight and soar over the hills and tumuli of southern Oxfordshire, over the Chiltern Hills, over Wittenham Clumps, the vale of the White Horse, passing by its rounded forms and curves, following the shining dark river Thames like a giant snake running through the land. I feel in this moment exultant. The land and sky shimmer together, gold and blue, and at once all the constraints upon the country, the neat and tidy gardens, mown lawns, cropped and bordered fields, roadsides, clipped hedges, burst out of their constriction, like so many snapping fasteners of a dress, revealing the real beauty of the place that lies beneath - a country full of light and blue air, like a young woman walking and singing, lightness in her step, intense, intelligent, her dancing dress the colour of the glowing sun. In that moment of liberation, some forgotten part remembered itself in me; I was incarnating, taking form, as my feet found their place on the soft green turf, as I stood beside the cows, as we stood together in our mysterious creaturehoods, present on this island.*

It was the moment I landed on my own native turf.

Sometimes you give up something without expectation of return, and then life gives you something you never imagined. When I gave up eating cows I stopped writing about stuff and started to write about my encounters with the earth (The Earth Dreaming Bank, 52 Flowers That Shook My World). But no matter how well a book is written, it’s not experience. No-one can tell you what it feels like to be kin with the animals, to be light enough inside to feel the presence and vibration of plants and trees, how it is when the creatures of the ocean come to you in your dreams, to know, even when the world is crashing about your ears, that the earth holds you beloved. As you walk across the hills, down the lane, now covered in wild plum blossom.

But I can tell you it was worth giving up shopping for, all that fancy cooking and party-throwing, those fleeting pleasures of a world that when you place your attention on it is neither dolce nor vita.

(*from “Wild Plums” - 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth)

Sunday 11 April 2010

When Persephone Goes Upstairs

There's a moment when it happens. You wake up and the sun is rising, blazing through misty fields. The sky is blue and the whole world has burst out of its winter coat. There are flowers everywhere: primroses, violets, speedwell, chickweed, daffodils. The hedgerows are wearing cherry-plum dresses, the train tracks carpeted with purple henbit. It's a hive of activity.

But it's not just the flowers that are coming out. Last week at our Sustainable Bungay Green Cakes and Tea at the Three Willows Cafe, I went to speak with the two beekeepers of the Bungay Community Bees project, Elinor and Gemma, who are starting up two community owned hives this spring.

There I met a fellow plant person, Rose, who introduced me to her marvellous nature blog about the Waveney valley A Walk on the Wild Side. Later, I read my old friend Adrienne Campbell's Transition blog 100 Monkeys and was moved by her impeccable warrior spirit as she and her fellow campaigners lost the battle against Tescos but at the same time managed to start up a local produce market in their Transition town of Lewes:

I'm not sad, she wrote. Little by little, this creative, collaborative parallel public infrastructure is forming, not just through the Transition movement but in many, many different individual and collective ways, quietly, gently, persistently, beautifully.

Yesterday I went to see Christine in Norwich and we sat on her roof terrace, talking about Transition Norwich (which she began almost three years ago now) and about all the different people and phases the initiative has gone through in its initiatory phase. And the bees hummed in and out of the peach blossom in the dwarf orchard she has up there among city rooftops. And in all these meetings it felt calm, peaceful, harmonious, in a way that our lives in Transition have not always been.

When I was teaching the children about bees at Catton Grove we put our heads together and made a humming sound. Then we walked Indian-file down the corridor and out into the March sunshine. We hung our bees made of larch cones and golden wool in the schoolyard trees and danced a huge figure of eight across the asphalt, laughing.

When Persephone picked the narcissus flower she fell into Hades and was only allowed to return to Earth in the spring. This was the first myth I learned at my own primary school many years ago. I have learned however from life that this is not the whole story. The classic tales never talk about her return only her fall. But underneath this Greek myth you can find fragments of another (Minoan) one, from a time when female beings danced in honour of the bees and the sun. When the patriarchal Greeks overtook the female world they covered this dancing floor with an architectural prison and called it a labyrinth. When Rhea saw what civilisation and agriculture (Demeter) were doing to the wild earth, she sent her granddaughter down into Hades to rectify the balance.

Sometimes when I go and lie above the bones of my ancestors among the wild dancing daffodils, bees humming all around me, I remember that dance I used to do with my bee-loving sisters and I feel that another world is possible. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing, wrote the writer and activist, Arundhati Roy.

Quietly, gently, persistently, beautifully.

Above: among the wild daffodils at the tumulus; Mark crossing the alder bridge en route to the tumulus.