species diversity and food

2013/06/06 deej 0

This morning as I was cutting up a persimmon, one of my workmates came over and, apologising for asking a stupid sounding question, asked what it was that I was cutting up. I don’t think it’s a stupid question at all – if you don’t know what something is, trying to find out is admirable. But it made me think about why someone wouldn’t recognise a persimmon (not just not know what it was called or where it came from, but have literally never seen one before).

I know about persimmons because I spent a year in South Korea teaching English when I finished university, and they’re often included on fruit platters there as well as being widely available in supermarkets and local grocery stores. They’re a well-known fruit in east Asia, which is where the persimmon tree is from. For those who might be curious, a persimmon (a non-astringent Fuyu type persimmon – the astringent ones are slightly different) is crunchy like a firm nectarine, with a flavour somewhere between a sweet apple, a peach, and rock melon (cantaloupe), with a hint of a cinnamon. They’re delicious. There’s no core, and generally no seeds, and you can eat the skin or peel them.

There are so many domesticated plant and animal species which we use for food, and yet the average diet of the average person in an industrialised country is very limited. I’m unusual in the variety of foods I eat, and I don’t have access to even a quarter of the edible things I’ve read about.

I really feel that we need to start branching out in our eating habits. I know that a lot of people have the Crocodile Dundee opinion (said of roast goanna: “tastes like shit, but you can live on it”) of unusual foods or foods that have been popular with native peoples and are not (yet) mainstream – but many if not most of those foods are valuable sources of nutrients, and tasty. Look at quinoa; eaten for centuries by the people of South and Central America, relegated to “poverty food” because of its association with the native culture after European colonisation, and now it’s a high value health food and increasingly looks like one of the best staple foods we have available to us, with more protein and minerals than rice or wheat.

How much would the world change if we made better use of our domesticated species? We domesticated them for a reason, after all.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

lucky tomatoes

2013/05/21 deej 0

There are a multitude of tomato varieties, ranging from black and purple through every shade of red, pink, orange and yellow to the ones which are green when ripe. Most of them taste better than the standard supermarket tomato varieties available in Australia. Diggers Seeds holds annual taste tests of a selection of varieties, and the supermarket variety they scored for comparison got only 42.46% approval, while the heritage varieties ranged from 60% to 77%.

Not all good tomato varieties are heirloom or heritage varieties, though. There are still plant breeders out there working on annual vegetables like the tomato, creating new varieties that breed true (as opposed to the F1 hybrids, which do not). The Modern Farmer magazine has an article on a new tomato variety called Lucky Tiger, bred by Fred Hempel of Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, California. It looks beautiful, although since it’s in the US and I’m in Australia I haven’t had a chance to try it. As with TV and movies, we have to wait a long time to get seeds to new plant varieties, when we get them at all.

Mr Hempel hasn’t said what the full parentage is of his Lucky Tiger, but he said that one of the direct parents is Blush. Blush, released in 2011 (and available from Seeds of Change and from Artisan Seeds), is an open pollinated tomato variety, selected by Mr Hempel from an original cross between Maglia Rosa (selected by Mt Hempel, released in 2007) and an un-released variety called Zucchero. I have none of these varieties available to replicate the process that created Lucky Tiger, unfortunately.

However, there are many heirloom varieties that I do have access to. Jaune Flamme (aka Jaune Flammee) was declared the equal first winner of the 2013 tomato taste tests held at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. It’s an indeterminate, heavy yielding old French variety with beautiful persimmon orange skin, a blushed yellow/red interior, and (apparently) a full-bodied, citrus-like flavour. Ananas Noir and Green Zebra also scored highly, and Green Zebra has those beautiful stripes.

I know I get overly excited about plant and animal breeding projects, but tomatoes wouldn’t be too tricky. Perth has almost the ideal climate for them – lots of sun, hot summers and mild winters, little chance of mildew. So, amongst my many (many, many, possibly too many) projects, I think I might try some tomato breeding. Jaune Flamme x Green Zebra to begin with, and then perhaps one of the elongated types – maybe Speckled Roman, or Cherry Roma. And in the mean while, I might see if I can get a few different varieties from the farmers market this weekend, and try growing the seeds from the tastiest ones.

I might also look up tomato genetics and see what I’m dealing with.

All images from Diggers Seeds, except the Lucky Tiger image which is from Modern Farmer.

flopsy, mopsy & cottontail

2013/04/29 deej 0

I’ve spent the last few weeks researching rabbits. I have my reasons.

First reason is that K indicated an interest in spinning, and I thought I’d look into how viable it would be to have a little cottage industry setup selling yarn, and possibly raw fleece. (Answer: limited to zero for making any actual money/profit)

Your basic wool animal is a sheep, but I dislike sheep. I’ve never met a bright one, or one that didn’t stink, although I’ve been assured by people who like sheep that they don’t inherently stink. After sheep, there are goats (cashmere goats, which produce cashmere, and angora goats, which produce mohair), alpacas, and angora rabbits (which produce angora).

At the same time, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Russian domestication experiment with silver foxes. Short version: the researchers took mostly-wild foxes from a fur farm and bred them for domestication, using a lowered fear response to humans as demonstrated by least avoidance behaviours and lowered agression as the main selection criterion. Within 8 generations they had adult foxes which wagged their tails like dogs, whined and fawned for attention from their keepers, and showed a diverse range of colouring and coat patterns. After 50-some years of the breeding program, the domesticated foxes are adorable, completely domesticated housepets.

I’m absolutely fascinated with genetics, and I really want to replicate the experiment. But not with foxes. Keeping foxes is illegal in Australia (even assuming we could live-trap enough for a starting gene pool), and there are hefty fines for doing it. I considered ferrets, but they’re tricky to breed (female ferrets which go into season and aren’t bred will often die!) and there probably isn’t much call for super-domesticated ferrets. Ferret fanciers don’t mind the slightly bitey nature of ferrets, and non-ferret-fanciers won’t have a ferret anyway. Rats are an option, but again – what do you do with your super-domesticated rats? Rat fanciers will keep rats anyway, and other people will still dislike them. Rabbits, though – rabbits are a possibility.

Rabbits are only semi-domesticated, in that they still display fear responses and avoidance behaviours towards humans (unlike labrador dogs, for example, or even domestic cats), so there’s the potential for the experiment to show obvious results. They reproduce fast, which is desirable to get results in a resaonable timeframe. They’re easy to get, legal to keep, and thay’re also useful. Angora rabbits are a possible wool animal, and I was considering keeping rabbits as meat animals anyway.

However, before getting too heavily invested in the idea of keeping rabbits for meat, I thought it might be wise to try it. I’d never (knowingly) eaten rabbit. So I made rabbit stew the other day. I got a farmed rabbit form the butcher, and followed instruction on youtube to debone it (I was fine with the tiny little carcass, but K had to leave the room, and my mother made slightly horrified noises about eating Flopsy, Mopsy, or Cottontail when I told her about it). One slow cooker later, rabbit stew.

Nom nom nom. Turns out that I like rabbit. Especially with a bit of red wine, tomatoes & garlic.


As an aside, I have no idea how fibre farmers make enough money to keep going. Not only is it a negative sum, financially, to keep Angora rabbits, this is also the case for angora goats, cashmere goats, and alpacas.

The goats become (just) financially viable if you include the savings from milking them (and using that milk instead of buying milk) and eating the unwanted baby goats produced to keep the does in milk (instead of buying meat). Alpacas, similarly, become (just) viable if you breed them once a year and include the savings from eating the young alpacas instead of buying meat. Rabbits are only viable to keep for wool if you can reduce the time spent checking their health, handling them, and making sure they have food & water down to 1 minute per rabbit per day or less. How do farmers survive???




2012/12/19 deej 3

Just over a week ago, I went to a workshop on fermented foods at Perth City Farm, run by the awesome Bonnie Wykman (of PeaceTree Permaculture). The workshop was a great overview of fermented and cultured foods, from yoghurt and kefir through to sourdough, ginger beer, and mead, as well as the history and some of the health benefits of eating active (probiotic, i.e. containing live microorganisms) cultured foods.

Bonnie also gave us all samples of her sourdough starter, kefir culture, and water kefir culture. And then a friend of mine gave me some of her kefir grains as well, so I have two different strains which I’ve merged. For science!

I’ve been thinking about trying some lactofermentation for ages, but getting the starter cultures meant trying it now – and led to a massive bout of making and eating fermented probiotic foods. Since the workshop, I’ve made all the things. Kai & I have even (as of last night) started experimenting with lactofermented pickled vegetables. So in about 3 weeks we’ll be able to try them and see if it worked, and if adding a few olive leaves has the same keeping things crunchy effect as grape leaves apparently have. Watch this space.

My sourdough starter is doing amazingly well. I started off feeding it organic spelt flour, because that’s the only organic flour I could find at short notice, and it seemed to like that. I now have some organic rye flour (rye is recommended, because apparently it ferments more easily than wheat or spelt), and that’s even better. It’s like having a pet, except instead of playing with it or petting it I use it to make bread. So far I’ve made Bonnie’s quick & easy ‘crumpet loaf ‘, and a basic sourdough fruit loaf from the Bourke St Bakery recipe book (which was amazing), and now – as in it’s in the oven right now, and smells delicious – a straight sourdough loaf from the same book.

My first attempt at kefir smelled a bit funny when I strained the kefir grains out. Not bad, just not the way I thought it should smell.. so I dutifully put the grains in fresh milk, and then left the kefir to continue to burble to itself for a few days. And as a result I ended up with over-fermented super sour kefir which is inedible (for me) but seems to make excellent hair conditioner. (Thank you, Natalia, for that idea)

Batch number 2 worked much better. I left it in the fridge during the day, but on the counter at night when “room temperature” was cooler. I now have some very drinkable kefir (functionally equivalent to drinking yoghurt) in the fridge; half of it has some apple syrup and cinnamon added, and the other half has some cooked up strawberries & nectarines added, and both are delicious. I’ve also got some kefir grains in some cream to make cultured sour cream, most of which will then become cultured butter to take with to the family meal events at Xmas.

I also tried eating a kefir grain. Weird. Chewy, like a gummy sweet, but not sweet at all. Quite nice, in that I’m not sure what just happened kind of way. The water kefir grains are much less odd to eat, just mildly sweet and bland with the texture of a strong jelly. Not chewy or sticky, just .. there.

Water kefir appears to be the easiest thing in the world to make. Dissolve some sugar in some water, add a little piece of clean egg shell or a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, and stir in the water kefir grains. Then leave it for 1 – 3 days, strain out the water kefir grains, and add something tasty and seal it for another 2 days or more for a second fermentation. Adding ginger to the first fermentation seems to make the water kefir grains very happy; they multiplied almost twice as much as the grains in an identical bottle without the ginger.

I’m hooked. This is awesome. And since I can’t have a dog or a cat or chickens yet (we’re still renting until our house is built, and rental agents are pretty much universally anti-pet), these microbes (and the worm farm and the houseplants) are the next best thing.

(water kefir image source: Wikipedia, author Simon A. Eugster; all other images are my own)

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