The Ethical Omnivore

2017/01/27 deej 0

Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.

 

I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.

 

This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.

 

I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)

 

But there are two problems.

 

First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.

 

Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.

 

When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.

 

I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.

 

So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.

 

I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.

self sufficiency and community

2016/11/28 deej 0

A friend of mine asked yesterday how long it would be before the farm was self sufficient. It’s not as simple a question to answer as you might think.

 

One answer is: never. We aren’t planning to grow grain, and although I do have some tubs of potatoes and a sweet potato patch, and plans to put in chestnut trees, we aren’t really focusing on growing what the biodynamic gardening people call ‘calory crops’. Those are the foods which make up the majority of your diet – the carbohydrates that give you a baseline energy hit and leave you feeling full and satisfied. For most of humanity the main calory crops are various grains (wheat, maize, teff, millet, rice, barley, etc.), mainly because they are high yielding and fast growing, although potatoes, plantains, and a few tropical starch-producing root crops such as taro are also important.

 

On the other hand, we will be growing some calory crops. Dates, Bananas, a variety of nuts, and a wide variety of fruit are all in the plan, and it is possible to survive on these sorts of foods without the addition of high density carbohydrates. Our modern (and even heirloom) fruit varieties are so high in sugar that they can easily provide us with the energy we need as well as providing vitamins and other nutritients. My not exactly back-of-a-napkin but not fully researched and verified calculations indicate that if we put all the trees in that I want, and if they all survive and produce more or less as well as the literature indicates they should, then once they’re intot heir adult production levels we will in fact produce enough food to entirely fulfil the energy and nutritional needs of somewhere between 8 and 18 people. And there are the animals as well, chickens and geese and ducks (we have muscovies, too, now), and bees producing honey. The fruit and nut trees take between 3 and 10 years to reach full production, and not all are in the ground yet, but.. call it ten years. In ten years, we could be self sufficient if we wanted to, and we were willing to give up any type of food we couldn’t grow ourselves. And we’d have it pretty good too – we’d be giving up most of our wheat & rice intake, and making that up with fruit and fresh vegetables and nuts. Instead of having a sandwich, we’d have dried figs and dates, maybe some cheese, or fresh berries.

 

The third answer is that no one is ever truly self sufficient. Self sufficiency is by its nature isolationist, and that just isn’t how the world works now (if it ever did). Community sufficiency is a much better aim, where instead of pulling back and focusing on your own needs you move forward and form relationships with your neighbours and the people around you who have similar interests. The community you form can act as a miniature village, and between that group of people it’s much easier to make sure that there’s enough to go around – enough food, enough clean water, enough social support. Enough help on the days when running a farm is hard, and an extra pair of hands to get the firebreaks done or fix the fences is the thing you need. Enough shared objectives to check out random banging and crashing in the middle of the night if your neighbour’s away – and hey, it was just kangaroos making a racket, but knowing that someone will check still makes you sleep easier if you have to be away overnight. Enough to share with friends and family, and not just your own friends and family either but the friends and family of your entire community. That’s what this is about. That’s what self sufficiency should look like, and I think it’s what we should be aiming at.

 

On that note, this summer we’re going to start slowly ramping up our workshop capacity. I’m running a trial cheese-making workshop in mid December, with plans to run more if it goes well. We’re going to break out the seed-ball machine in the new year and have a seed ball making workshop (please hit us up on Facebook if you’d be interested in that – it’s kid friendly too), and I’m going to see what I can do about a grafting workshop towards the end of summer. In between times, there’s potential for some food preparation along the lines of jam and chutney making, and fermentation, and possibly some walk-through tours with info about keeping urban livestock. So if you’re keen to get involved and join our fledgling community, watch this space (and the facebook page, which is where events are posted when the dates are finalised). Feel free to request a workshop if there’s something you’d like to see, or if there’s something you’d be keen to teach people – we have a venue, and it would be great to learn something new.

preserving summer

2016/11/16 deej 0

There’s something really deeply satisfying about picking and preparing – and preserving – your own food. Everything from jam and chutney to wine, cider, mead or beer, to vinegars, pickles, cheeses, yoghurt, jerky, .. So many delicious things. Preserving food isn’t just good fun, though; it’s an important means of extending the season of seasonal foods without adding millions of food miles by eating imported foods from who knows where. It’s a link to our cultural and gastronomic history, to foods our grandparents would have enjoyed and the cultures which those foods came from. And it’s a way of recalling the best parts of summer when the chilly, grey winter weather gets you down a bit – which is funny, given the unseasonally wet, stormy, cool weather we’re having at the moment.

 

I love every food preservation technique I’ve tried or eaten the results of. I’ve dehydrated things, and pickled things, I’ve made cheese and yoghurt from fresh milk, and I’ve preserved fruit in syrup. Today’s little google rabbit-hole has been jam-making. It’s a little too early for stone fruit still, although the early nectarines are in the shops and I can see them ripening in the orchards through the Swan Valley. It’s much too early for figs. But figs are today’s topic, mainly because I just ate a caramelised fig yoghurt and remembered how much I love that flavour. And our fig trees are just putting out their new leaves for summer, so I’m thinking wistfully of the futuer in which they are covered in delicious, jammy fruit.

 

Caramelised fig things have a slight burnt-sugar bitterness to them which balances the sticky sweetness of the fig, and brings out the deeper, fortified wine, golden afternoon sunshine notes from the fruit. One of my favourite applications of it is in Maggie Beer’s Burnt Fig, Honeycomb & Caramel Icecream, which is amazing. The key to the icecream, which is otherwise a honey and caramel flavoured custard icecream, pleasant but nothing special, is the Burnt Fig Jam (or, in fact, burnt fig syrup for the icecream). That burnt fig jam is pretty good, but it’s a little strong for me; I want the caramelised flavour without quite so much of the burnt flavour.

 

Maggie Beer’s burnt fig jam is made, according to her website, by reducing the figs with no water, then adding sugar and cooking until ‘burnt’, then adding some lemon juice to sharpen the flavour. The burnt fig syrup for the icecream contains figs, sugar, lemon juice, and a brown sugar syrup made with brown sugar, water, and verjuice. Amounts aren’t mentioned, unfortunately. Most fig jam recipes call for 1 part sugar to 2 parts figs by weight (actually anywhere from 300g – 750g sugar per kg of figs, but generally 500g to 1 kg). The method varies widely. I’ve never made fig jam myself, although I’ve made some very successful jams using citrus, berries, and guavas (not all together).

 

Nonetheless and undaunted, I am currently fascinated by the subject. So here’s my research-based thought experiment: caramelised fig jam. To be tested as soon as fig season arrives.

 

Caramelised Fig Jam

1 kg fresh, ripe figs

250g demerara or rapadura sugar (basically dark brown, mollases tasting sugar)

250g honey

juice of 1 -2 lemons (or to taste)

(optional) 1 Tbsp verjuice

(optional) 1 – 2 tsp spices or herbs – e.g. cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, star anise, black pepper, rosemary, lemon or orange rind, lemon thyme, sliced red chillis, ..

 

  • Roughly chop the figs. Stir together the chopped figs and the brown sugar, and refrigerate overnight.
  • Place the figs, sugar, and any liquid which has been released from the figs overnight into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until the figs are soft and cooked through, and the sugar is completely dissolved. Mash the figs gently to break them up further.
  • Stir in the honey, and any spices if you’re using them. Whole spices are better than ground, so half a star anise, or a small cinnamon quill is preferable to the equivalent in dried, ground spice. Either way works, though.
  • Bring to the boil, then cook over a very low heat for 45 minutes, or until thickened and sticky. Make sure to stir often.
  • Add verjuice and lemon juice; taste and adjust to your preferred level of tartness. Remove any whole spices or herbs.
  • Continue to cook until the jam is thick and sticky, and begins to stick to the bottom of the saucepan. You should be able to judge the degree of caramelisation (or burning) by smell. Be careful not to overdo it.
  • Cool slightly and seal in sterilised jars. Store in the fridge once completely cool.

 

Inspiration came from these sources:

 

And for those interested in the forest gardening side of things, the varieties of fig we currently have in the ground are:

  • White Genoa – Hardy in cooler weather; also known as Lattarula or Lemon due to the lemony flavour of ripe fruit. The fruit are large and very sweet, with yellowish green or chartreuse skin and rich amber pulp.  Good fro eating fresh, drying, or making jam.
  • Brown Turkey – Large fruit with green skin overlaid with brown, pink juicy flesh, and a sweet rich flavour. This is a great all-round fig, good for eating fresh or drying, cooking with or making into jam.
  • Esperance Heritage – A lesser known variety, this is listed in several rare fruit catalogues and it is still sold commercially by a few nurseries – but there are no descriptions of it online.

 

I also plan to put in:

  • Blue Provence – A rare fig, once grown more widely in Australia, Blue Provence fruit have a blue-violet skin and blue-purple tinged pulp with red seeds. The fruit are soft and sweet, and with than many anthocyanins (the purple-red colour found in berries and pomegranates), they’re full of antioxidants too.
  • Panache – Also called the Tiger fig, this unusual fruit is variegated (striped!) green on yellow. The flesh is strawberry pink, and delicious without being overly sweet, meaning that this is a good fig to eat fresh or use in salads.
  • Preston’s Prolific – This is a very high quality fig, with large, greenish-brownor purple fruit. The flesh is cream coloured, while the pulp is amber and sweet. 
  • White Adriatic – An Italian variety with thin yellowish-green skin and red flesh which has been likened to strawberry jam. Excellent flavour eaten fresh, and good for drying. A friend of mine has a tree, and we’ve dried fruit form it before – the dried fruit is a fantastic snack, not quite as sweet as dried figs often are.

 

And possibly some others. Probably. We’ll see.

 

mozzarella, asparagus, and pomegranates

2016/11/06 deej 0

It’s been a busy couple’ve weeks. Summer is here with a vengeance; we had our first 37 degree (Celcius) day yesterday, although it’s back to a more pleasant temperature today. I have my first sunburn of the summer, because I’m a very silly cat and failed to put sunscreen on before heading out to the Asparagus Masterclass at Edgecombe Bros in the Swan Valley on Friday.

 

Brilliant class, in spite of the sunburn. We started with a brief history of the winery and the local area, and some morning tea. Then all 16 of us tromped over to one of the asparagus patches and harvested several kg of fresh asparagus – and ate probably as much again. The gentleman facilitating the class said to eat as much as we wanted while we picked, so we snacked on freshly picked raw asparagus, which is delicious. Almost the flavour of fresh garden peas, or avocado; nutty and slightly sweet. Our harvest was lightly poached, and then BBQed with olive oil and salt while we enjoyed a wine tasting and tapas platter in the courtyard of the Edgecombe Bros cafe/winery, in the shade of flowering olive trees and grapevines. It was the perfect chilled out lazy summer afternoon. Then we gorged on BBQed asparagus with shaved parmesan, chased with muscat soaked figs in chocolate. I love the floral, fruity flavours of muscat grapes and wines, so combining that with dried fig is just.. nom. I may be in love. They sent us home full of delicious things and sunshine and wine, with a complimentary recipe pack.

 

The actual info about asparagus boils down to: asparagus is actually really easy and quick to cook. You can eat it raw, and like most vegetables where that’s the case, it should really only be lightly cooked if you’re going to cook it. If you can snap the stem easily by bending it, it’s fresh and tender, no matter what the diameter of the spear is, as younger or smaller plants produce thinner spears which are just as delicious as the thicker ones produced by bigger or more mature plants.

 

My last foodie course (I have a weakness for these things, I love learning new food things almost as much as I love learning new gardening things) was two weeks ago, at the Roleystone Family Centre. We went there to learn how to make fresh mozarella, from Megan Radaich of www.foodpreserving.org. The class was fantastic, really informative and easy to follow – and it resulted in delicious cheese. Things I didn’t realise: mozarella is a fresh cheese, like ricotta, and you can only make mozarella using non-homogenised milk. Most cheeses can be made with homogenised milk if you add calcium chloride to “fix” the proteins which are torn up by the homogenisation process, but the calcium chloride interferes with the stretching process in mozarella making, so you end up with dry, non-stretchy cheese which is a lot more like ricotta than it should be.

 

Mozarella is also the easiest cheese I’ve tried so far except ricotta. Combine milk and citric acid, heat slowly to 32 degrees C, add rennet and leave to set. Once you have fully set curds, cut the curds then heat again to 42 degrees C. Gently remove the curds from the whey with a slotted spoon, and place into a microwave proof bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds, then kinda massage lightly to get some more whey out. Repeat the microwaving and massaging step 2 – 3 times, until the cheese gets sort of shiny on the surface and stretches easily. Put it into iced salt water (10% – 20% brine) for about 15 minutes – and it’s done. Eat that day for best flavour.

 

To continue the foodie theme, I’ve been obsessed with pomegranates for the last couple’ve weeks. No food-preparation course to blame on this one; it’s mostly because of my last major assignment for my university course. The paper I wrote was about the economic feasibility of dehesa style agroforestry in WA, looking at which trees would be effective options. Turns out, pomegranates are one of the best. Highly productive, fruit within 2 – 3 years of planting from seed or cuttings, and the fruit commands a relatively high price even if sold wholesale to retailers, for the fresh fruit market or for juice. And of course you can make pomegranate mollasses from it. Pomegranate mollasses, which is actually sour-sweet rather than just sweet as you might expect from the name, is one of my more recent discoveries. I bought some on a whim, and have been adding it to things and testing it out. I highly recommend that people try it. It adds a balanced sweet-sour note to savoury dishes – a teaspoon or two in a thai curry, for example, rounds out the flavours better than anything else, almost like a fish sauce. I think what I’m saying is that it’s full of umami flavours, but it doesn’t overpower other flavours the way many umami things (garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, fish sauce, ..) can do.

 

We’re just starting to get to the point where we can put in some long term productive crops here. The apples are going in a few per season (apple trees are expensive! especially heirloom varieties which have to be shipped over from Tasmania or NSW), so in a couple’ve years we should start getting decent apple crops. I just need to get our cider-making skill sup to scratch by then, since cider and cider vinegar are two of the products we’re planning to produce. But aside from some small scale production of fresh fruit (we’ll end up with more apricots than we can possibly eat from our three trees, for example, but it’s not going to be a major product either), we haven’t 100% settled on our production niche. I’m leaning towards dates, pomegranates, pomegranate mollasses, and balsamic style gourmet vinegars. (Oh, yes, there will be grapevines. I checked yesterday, and in the space we have allocated for them, I think we can fit 60 vines. So we might try our hand at making fortified wines as well.)

 

Anyway, that’s where we are at the moment. Everything is flowering, and the geese are starting to get their grownup feathers. The baby chicks are getting bigger every day, and the adult chickens are doing their chickeny thing. I found a blutongue lizard in the chicken coop this morning, sharing their breakfast (eating his fill while the chooks watched from the other side of the coop), so I might need to keep an eye out for him. Bluetongues are gorgeous, and I’m super glad we have a couple living near the house (they decrease the incidence of snakes), but they do eat eggs so I’ll just encourage him to keep out of the chicken coop. It’s sunny, and the breeze is blowing past the roses and bringing me rose scents, and life is pretty good.

Feast like a Viking

2016/10/08 deej 1

This evening we’re off to a Viking-themed pot luck feast – the idea here is that everyone who goes takes a dish, and each dish forms one course of a massive degustation style dinner. We’ve been to a few of these dinners, each with a different theme, and they’re an enormous amount of fun. The food is always amazing, and so plentiful that we all waddle out at the end of the night swearing to be better about taking tiny portions of each dish next time.

 

The idea for this iteration is reasonably authentic Viking style food. So, being me, I went off to do some research. I came up with several ideas and recipes, including

  • poached salmon (apparently the Vikings boiled their meat rather than braising, roasting or grilling it for the most part, and also ate a lot of fish),
  • baked apples stuffed with honey and hazelnuts (all apparently authentic ingredients commonly available to and used by the Vikings),
  • Viking style root vegetables in honey and butter (a mix of carrots, turnips, swedes, parsnips, beets, and cabbage, with the root vegetables par-boiled first, then the whole lot fried in a great deal of butter with honey drizzled over – apparently an authentic recipe from an old recipe book), and
  • fresh curds with berries in honey (it seems that the Vikings didn’t view milk as something to consume fresh but rather as a raw ingredient used to make cultured milk drinks like skyr, yoghurt, curds and fresh cheeses, and aged cheeses – and all these products were eaten frequently by most people. Berries were widely available in the summer, and honey was also commonly used).

 

After much indecision, we’re taking curds and berries (aka deconstructed cheesecake), as well as some home-brewed mead. I thought I’d share the recipes, in case anyone else felt like experiencing some Viking treats.

 

curds with raspberries in honeyFresh curds, served with honey and summer berries

Topping

  • 500g berries (we used raspberries and strawberries, but you can use any combination of raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, boysenberries, currants, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup honey, warmed until it’s liquid enough to pour
  • 1/2 cup fruit liqueur (we used home-made, gin-based strawberry and apricot liqueur, but you can use any clear liqueur flavoured with berries or stone fruit, or just use vodka or gin)

 

Make the topping: Combine the berries, honey, and alcohol. Stir well, and leave to steep for at least 3 hours. If possible, allow to steep overnight.

 

Note: We used a home-made strawberry liqueur, made by infusing sliced fresh strawberries in a 50/50 combination of gin and apricot schnapps for a month. We then used the alcohol soaked strawberries in the topping, along with half a kg of frozen raspberries.

 

Curds

  • 700 ml full cream milk
  • 50 ml apple cider vinegar
  • 1 kg fresh yoghurt (we used a combination of sheeps milk and goats milk yoghurt, but any will do)
  • 1 – 3 Tbsps sugar or honey, or to taste (honey is more authentic)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

 

Make some fresh ricotta cheese: Heat the milk just to boiling point, until it starts to form bubbles. Stir in the vinegar, which will cause the milk to curdle. Line a colander or sieve with a clean tea towel or with cheesecloth, place over a bowl (or the sink if you don’t have a use for the whey), and pour the curdled milk into the lined colander. Leave to drain for 5 minutes.

 

Make the curds: Combine the yoghurt, sugar, salt, and the drained ricotta in a bowl. Pour the whole lot into the lined colander, and allow to drain for at least 3 hours, or as long as overnight, until it reaches your desired consistency. You may have to empty out the whey from the bowl under the colander a few times as the curds drain.

 

Serve the curds topped with the berry mixture. Scatter with chopped hazelnuts if desired.

 

Apple Melomel

  • Combine 2 Tbs honey with 1 cup water. Boil hard for 2 minutes, then cool to room temperature.
  • Hydrate your chosen yeast (champagne yeast, cider yeast, or a specific mead yeast are best; we used baking yeast for this experiment because it’s what we had) in the room temperature honey-water.
  • Combine: 1 L honey (about 1.5 kg), 1 L fresh apple juice, and 3 L water. Bring to a boil, and skim off the scum and foam which rise to the surface.
  • Add 1/4 cup organic raisins, and simmer gently until the raisins are hydrated and soft.
  • Mash the raisins to release the juices.
  • Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, then strain into a fermentation vessel. Add the hydrated yeast.
  • Ferment. The mead we take with us tonight will only have been fermenting for 2 days, but we’ll leave some to continue fermenting until it’s done, and then age it for a couple’ve months to see what we get.
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