June 28: tastes of the Blackwood

2016/06/28 deej 0

Last night we attended a Tastes of the Blackwood evening at Taste Budds cooking studio in Highgate, showcasing some of the produce of the Blackwood Ruver region in the South-West of WA. It was brilliant. Gorgeous food, talks from the producers, and a chance to ask questions both about their farms and farming practices and about their produce. The producers represented there were:

 

The food, as expected, was amazing. We started with fresh focacia bread spread with butter and honey (from Southern Forests Honey) and cider from The Cidery & Blackwood Valley Brewing Company. That was followed by grilled lamb (grass-fed dorper lamb from Blackwood Valley Beef), then gnocchi with a pork ragu using chestnut-fed pork from Chestnut Brae, and more melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi in a chestnut cream sauce. We followed that with roast chicken (from Southampton Homestead) with polenta, leeks and kale, and finally grilled tamarillos with custard (made using eggs from The Organic Fine Food Company). There must have been around 30 people there, and everyone cleaned their plates.

 

The food being excellent was no surprise – I have a very high opinion of our local producers, and the Blackwood River region has gorgeous soils and good rainfall. What did surprise us was how casual and friendly it was, how much the farmers appreciated everyone just showing up. This wasn’t an expensive event, and they honestly seemed surprised that they had sold out. The group of producers is a newly formed collective (only about 4 weeks old) of individual producers who want to share information and skills, and help each other out to produce and market the best food they can; I’d say they’re succeeding very well. I’d also suggest that everyone check out these six producers because wow. So much deliciousness in one go.

 

We had no idea going in that the intended audience (and indeed, most of the attendees) were chefs, media, and food industry people. Previously I’ve been to similar events, but only those aimed at the general public, so it was really interesting to see the differences (and similarities) in the kinds of questions asked of the producers. Also interesting for us were some of the lessons learned that the farmers shared, like the dangers of running pigs directly under the trees of the chestnut orchard without putting rings in their noses to stop them digging up the trees, and the conversations about the potential for starting a small or even mobile abattoir for the region. The main reason we aren’t considering commercial meat production ourselves is the difficulty of getting animals to (a) any abattoir, since they’re all quite a long way away from us, and (b) the stress involved for the animals in such a long trip. A mobile abattoir would be perfect.

 

I’d love to see more events like this – I spoke to so many people who would have loved to go if they’d known about it a little sooner. I’d love even more to be able to be involved in them and start contributing – we’re a couple’ve years off having any sort of commercial product quantities, but I’m taking so many notes that even K laughs at me for it. And we’re slowly gathering some potential customers and some market data. It’s exciting, starting to see it all coming together – and last night was really inspiring for us. Soon, the Tastes of Chittering will be a thing too. Soon.

if not you..

2016/01/18 deej 0

This weekend just passed, I attended an event called GenghisCon. It’s a small science fiction / speculative fantasy & gaming convention, which runs every year in Perth. It’s run every year for the last 15 years, which is a pretty impressive run for something which gets no funding or support from any corporate or government body. Every year the committee (elected at the previous convention) does fundraising to make sure there’s enough money to pay for the venue and insurance, and organises a program of events to run at the convention, including discussion panels (on anything and everything from how to be a better fiction writer yourself, to what the state of tech is on electric cars at the moment, discussions of the various iterations of Doctor Who to conversations about the future of love and marriage in a changing world), craft and art workshops (e.g. book binding), boardgames and table-top role playing games, and live action games and events (this year we had a water fight, a beginner parkour workshop, and a live action World of Darkness game, amongst other things).

I feel a particular connection with this convention, and the community of people who attend it, because 15 years ago I was the driving force in starting it. I wanted an event like it to exist, and so I gathered some friends together, did some crazy fundraising and networking, and ran the very first GenghisCon.

I did it because I didn’t know it should be hard to do, and people who probably did know and might have told me so instead encouraged me to try. And it really wasn’t that hard; I had the good luck to already know a lot of good people who provided a huge amount of support and help along the way, and there was probably an element of being in the right place at the right time, but the one real hurdle was that first decision, to try. Which makes me think that the same is probably true in any endeavour. Not everything you try will succeed and keep going for 15 years, but the most significant challenge we face is not the possibility of failure, it is the failure to start.

This is something that entrepreneurs and business coaches have been saying for years. But I think they don’t say it in a way that is universally accessible; what they should say is, you may not know exactly where you want to end up, but if you have an idea, often that’s enough. You might not know yet how you’re going to save the world, but – try anyway! Do it, because most people never do, and that means that most of those ideas never get tested, never turn into thriving communities or successful businesses or pieces of technology which improve people’s lives. Do it, because if you can see a thing that doesn’t exist yet, a gap which you want filled, you’re already ahead. Do it, because if not you, who?

I guess it’s basically an existentialist approach to life. I believe that you can change the world, if you’re prepared to put the effort in to do so. I believe that meaning is something we create, not something that exists apart from us, and that happiness is something you do, not something that happens to you. So I create meaning by working out what’s important to me and doing that, and (hopefully) making opportunities for other like-minded people to do the same.

Sometimes that means playing games like ‘statues’ and ‘spotlight’ (‘sneaking parctice’ and ‘advanced sneaking practice’) at GenghisCon, giving other adults the opportunity to play and run around and be silly like we all did as kids. Or attending the Less is More festival and running a talk or workshop there, or going to the movie nights at Ecoburbia. Building and participating in community, because that makes me happy. Sometimes it means trying to build a working permaculture farm / orchard / forest, learning how to produce food in an ecologically sustainable manner and trying to share that knowledge with other people. And sometimes it means sitting at home and playing with my cats and reading, or writing stories. Because that, too, is part of my meaning, and makes me happy.

TL;DR: I love that I’ve helped create such a vibrant and fun community. I want to do it more. I may have to think up some plans.

international permaculture day

2013/05/06 deej 0

I created and gave a talk for International Permaculture Day (Perth Edition) on Sunday, talking about less common food plants and urban foraging. I think everyone liked it – there were questions, both during and after the talk, and the audience all looked interested. People complimented me on the presentation afterwards, which is always nice. Some people even took notes! This is very exciting to me – I haven’t really given any presentations before outside of a work context.

 

I thought I’d share the content of the talk for those who might be interested, but missed the event.

In the 1950s, a Russian geneticist by the name of Dmitry K. Belyaev started an experiment to determine the genetic factors affecting domestication in foxes. This is relevant, I promise. He started with foxes form fur farms, and bred them for acceptance of human contact, testing by hand feeding the pups and selecting for those which showed the least avoidance behaviours. What he discovered (other than how to breed adorable domesticated foxes) was that one of the most significant changes that occurs in a species with domestication is a reduction in the fear response to new stimuli in adult animals.

To a large extent, domestication means being open to new things. You could say that humans are a self-domesticating species; historically, the humans who were most open to trying new things – new places, new ways of doing things, new foods – were the most successful. That ability to adapt and try new things is very important in an environment which is changing very quickly, the way ours is through climate change, globalisation, technology, and simple population growth.

Most of the plants we are used to eating here in Perth come from Europe. Wheat, apples, pears, carrots, most of the fruit and vegetables you can buy in a supermarket really – they all come from a climate that is both wetter and colder than ours. We can’t afford to rely on just these plants for our food, because long term we don’t have enough water to grow them.

Our underground aquifers will run out if we keep pumping water out of them, and it takes thousands of year for them to refill. Our river runs low at the best of times, and our dams don’t fill up any more. We don’t get enough rain to fill them, or to irrigate the very thirsty plants we know from our European cultural heritage. We need to start eating plants that will grow happily and easily with the water we do get, that will survive the heat of our summers and reliably produce food for us.

Some of those plants you already know, others are going to be new to you.

  • Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is an annual plant from South America, which grows in climates just as hot and dry as ours. Its seeds are edible, and can be used the way you would use rice. They’re very high in protein, so they’re especially good for vegetarians.

 

 

  • Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) grow similarly well, and is actually considered a weed in some places. You might have already seen this plant growing in flower gardens, with tall spires of pink, purple, or orange flowers. Their seeds can be cooked like rice, or made into porridge, or popped like miniature popcorn and eaten as a very tasty breakfast cereal. Their leaves are also edible, and can be cooked like spinach. Amaranth seeds are high in protein, and very healthy.

 

 

  • Dates (Phoenix dactylifera) have been used as a staple food in the Middle East for centuries. Although they’re very sweet, the sugars are slow-burning and will give you long lasting energy rather than a diabetes-inducing spike in your blood sugar. Dates make an excellent breakfast or snack food, and can be used to sweeten biscuits and cakes.

 

 

  • Moringa (Moringa oleifera), also known as drumstick tree or horseradish tree, is a pretty, graceful tree which produces edible seed pods (eat them when they’re green and tender, after cooking like snow peas) and edible leaves and flowers (eat raw or cooked as a green begetable). Moringa leaves are tasty, with a slightly nutty, broccoli flavour and a hint of mustard-like spiciness.

 

There are hundreds of other plants which are well-suited to Perth’s climate. I couldn’t possibly list them all for you here, but trust me, they exist.

One of the best ways to find the sorts of plants that will grow well in your local area is urban foraging – otherwise known as take a walk around and see what edible plants are thriving and healthy, especiallyweeds, verge plantings and plants on vacant blocks, or council street plants, all of which receive little care.

Foraging simply means collecting edible things from the environment, and humans have always done it. urban foraging means foraging in your suburb or urban area. These are some of the edible plants you’ll find growing around the Perth area:

  • Mulberries (Morus spp.) thrive in Perth. Not only are their fruit edible, their leaves can be used to feed herbivorous livestock (rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, etc.) as a replacement for hay – i.e. as almost the entire diet of the animal if necessary.

 

 

  • Citrus (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, limes, mandarins, cumquats, ..) love the heat and the sun in Perth. They are fairly thirsty plants, but as long as they’re given plentiful water support in their first year or two, they’re quite tough and drought resistant.

 

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) grows brilliantly in Perth. It’s commonly planted as a hedge, and can easily be collected. Rosemary is very strongly flavoured, but it can be used in salads as well as for flavouring food, and can also be used to make a caffeine free tea (technically an infusion). Rosemary is also a fantastic bee plant, with a long flowering period.

 

 

  • Olives (Olea europaea) are ideally suited to the Perth climate. In some areas where they’re been planted as street trees you can hardly walk 5m at this time of year without running into a tree so laden with fruit that its branches are bent almost to the ground. Don’t eat olives raw – they’re horribly bitter; instead you can pickle them in brine or with plain, dry rock salt, or press them for oil. Olive leaves can be used to make a caffeine free tea replacement, and can also be fed to livestock. The mash left over after pressing olives for oil can also be fed to livestock, as up to 40% of their total diet. It’s high in fat (oils) and protein, so it’s good for them and promotes healthy coats and good milk and meat production.

 

  • Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) flower petals are edible, and good in salads. Do not eat the leaves or stems of this plant, only the flower petals.

 

 

  • Bottlebrush (Calistemon spp.) flowers produce high quantities of sweet nectar. This is why you often see their flowers being visited by honeybees. If you pour hot water (or even warm water) over the flowers and soak for a few minutes, the nectar is dissolved in the water for a sweet honey-flavoured drink.

 

  • Most people know that sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are edible, but not so many people know that the green parts of the plant are edible, and can be cooked and eaten like spinach. These greens are a common food in some North African and Central American communities. Sweet potatoes are one of the easiest of all vegetables to grow; cut the end off an edible sweet potato tuber form the supermarket, leave it for a few hours for the cut end to dry out slightly, and then plant it. The plant is thornless climber with big, heart-shaped leaves and purple trumpet shaped flowers.

 

 

  • The common fishbone fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia) is often seen growing semi-wild around Perth. It produces edible bulblets, which can be eaten raw or slow roasted for a caramelised flavour. The smaller bulblets are hard to roast, and tend to just burn up, but the larger bulblets can be roasted in a slow oven.

 

  • Rose (Rosa spp.) petals are edible, as are the fruit that some older rose varieties produce. The rose hips (fruit) are very sour, with a high vitamin C content, so they’re usually stewed, made into jam or jelly, or dried to make tea. It’s best to remove the seeds before eating the rose hip, as (a) the seeds are slightly toxic if chewed, just like apple and pear seeds, and (b) the “fluff” around the seeds inside the rose hip is irritating to the mouth and throat. Anecdotally, it’s just as irritating on the way out.

 

  • Sourgrass (Oxalis pes-caprae), also known as wood sorrel, is a childhood favourite of many Perth dwellers. It makes a good salad plant or pot herb, as do most of the other Oxalis species which we incorrectly call clover. They’re sour because of the oxalic acid in their leaves and stems; oxalic acid can leach calcium from your body, and in very high quantities can cause bladder stones, so don’t eat too much of these plants without cooking them first. Cooking destroys the oxalic acid, leaving a mild tasting green vegetable (pot herb). Don’t worry about it too much, though, as many well-known vegetables (such as spinach) contain oxalic acid.

 

 

  • Elephant food (Portulacaria afra), or dwarf jade plant, is edible – but is very, very sour. Anecdotally, it is believed to contain high levels of vitamin C, and to increase lactation in lactating women. It can also be fed to livestock. [Note – be careful with this one, as it can be unpleasantly sour, especially if it’s slightly wilted. It may be better to cook it before eating.]

 

urban foraging is a great way of finding edible plants which will grow happily in your area, and it’s fun too. There is a lot of information about it available online, although much of it is U.S.A.-centric. Information from the U.S. and Europe is still useful, though, because many of our common garden plants are the same as theirs, and many of those are edible or useful.Very few garden plants were originally kept just for their pretty flowers or foliage. For more information on urban foraging, one of the best online resources I’ve found is Green Deane’s Eat the Weeds (& Other Things Too) site.

Other than that, generally plants which grow well in places like Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Spain, Morocco, California, and most parts of the Middle East will usually do well in Perth.

Although my talk was one of the highlights of the day for me, the rest of the day went really well. Loads of people came through and browsed, and (hopefully) learned a bit about permaculture. We sold raffle tickets for a food forest starter kit, and told lots of people about the permaculture ideals and methods, sustainability, and aquaponics (thanks to Tony of Life Aquatic, who is brilliant and knows all the things). There were chickens and ducks, and a sheep that tolerated being petted by many, many small children. I had a fantastic day, and I hope everyone else did too.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Apples.jpg
File:Chenopodium_quinoa_in_Cachilaya,_Bolivia,_Lake_Titicaca.JPG
File:Amaranth_%22opopopeo%22_%28367191600%29.jpg
File:Date_palm.jpg
File:Starr_070207-4337_Moringa_oleifera.jpg
File:Mulberry_1.jpg
File:Bee_on_rosemary.jpg
File:Plumeria.jpeg
File:Ipomoea_batatas_%28Purple_Sweet_Potato_Variety%29_Flower.JPG
File:Oxalis_pes-caprae_from_Malta.JPG
File:Denaid_Eggfly_%28Hypolimnas_misippus%29_on_Portulacaria_afra_W_IMG_1473.jpg

 Other images are mine, free to use under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

the fall of advertising

2013/03/14 deej 0

I don’t know what the crossover is between permaculture and plant nerds (and gardeners, farmers, sustainability seekers, etc.) and technology nerds, but I fall into that demographic.

And, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I hate online advertising. I despise uutoplay video and audio on websites (even non-advertising video and audio, to be fair). Ads prepended to my video feeds so that in order to watch <cool new music video> I have to sit through <boring and irrelevant advert for something I don’t want or need> are obnoxious. Even the banner ads on most sites irritate me, with their blaringly loud colours and inclination to use up to 60% of the screen. So I use ad-blocker software. Lots of people do – increasing numbers of us in fact, 50% or more of the users on some sites.

A story linked on Slashdot a few days ago highlighted the problems that ad blockers cause for a lot of journalists and news sites – if they don’t get any revenue from ads, where will they get enough revenue to survive? Advertisers are becoming disillusioned with the whole web advertising thing as a way to target potential customers, because even if some people do still allow ads, at least non-invasive ads, enough people disable them completely to make the advertising not really financially viable.

It puts  journalists in the same boat as visual artists, authors of fiction, animators and musicians. How do you get paid to do what you do? The traditional ways for artists to get paid were patronage (which, these days includes distributed patronage – e.g. Kickstarter) and busking, i.e. donations.

Paywalls are a dead-end alley, in that there is so much information and entertainment available online for free that asking for payment to even visit a news site in case there’s something interesting or important there just sends a lot of users to another site. Patronage is an option, but most direct patrons these days are corporations and we all know what happens when journalists or scientists have their salaries paid by corporations. Distrubuted patronage works best for one-of things – a documentary, an album, an invention going to market, a specific novel or graphic novel. It isn’t such a good model for ongoing work like day to day journalism and reporting.

It is possible that a journalist could ask for payments for individual articles, paywalling the articles rather than the entire site on which they reside. I think that’s a good model – let us read the first paragraph or a summary, and then ask for a micropayment to read the full article. But doing that requires a reputation for high quality content, and a niche in which the free content is not as high quality as the content you provide. In other words, it’s hard, especially for news organisations which would then have to deal with how much of the micropayment went to the writer, how much to the photographer or videographer, and how much to the site itself, not to mention the less visible employees like administrators, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Which leaves you with donations. The poor cousin of income generation schemes.

Donations are hard, but they might work. A lot of sites now include ‘Donate’ or ‘Flattr‘ buttons to allow micropayments from users. But it’s tough to know how well it works – are those webcomic authors making a decent living on donations and merchandising, or are they subsidised bya  day job or a partner with a day job? Without knowing how viable it is, journalists and news sites are unlikely to try it.

Which brings us to the actual, original point of this post: someone is running an experiment with voluntary micropayments, which is linked on Slashdot. No actual money is involved, it’s just theoretical. You add an app to your bookmarks toolbar, and then when you find content you enjoy you click on one of those links (1 to 3 cents), depending on how amazing you thought the content was. Your “tip” is recorded, and that’s it. There’s a summary page that tells you how much you would have spent, and the experimenter will be releasing anonymized analyses of the data to see if this sort of system is viable in the wild. I think it’s a pretty neat experiment. If you’re game, go sign up.