A kale tale

At this time of year I start to be rather unenthusiastic about one particular crop, namely kale. It’s a great thing to grow – it provides fresh greens all through the winter from just a few plants and, when freshly picked, it is tender and delicious. But, it goes on for months and so eventually the novelty does wear off.

Yesterday, however, I was inspired. I had made bread rolls and had defrosted some of the delicious pulled pork that I cooked for the winter solstice; I picked winter salad leaves from the garden, made mayonnaise using eggs from the hens and opened a jar of sweet chilli sauce made from our home-grown chillies. However, I really wanted a bit of crunch. And then it dawned on me: kale-slaw. I shredded some kale (including some of the thinner stalks, grated a carrot, chopped the top of a sprouting onion and with the addition of some of the freshly made mayo – a tasty slaw.

 

Milling around

Felin Ganol's wheel: power from an abundant resource

Felin Ganol’s wheel: power from an abundant resource

Last week we ran out of wholemeal flour. Rather than being a nuisance, however, it provided a welcome opportunity to visit our local mill.

Just a few miles away, in Llanrhystud, is a beautiful restored water-mill, Felin Ganol and it is from here that we buy our flour. All their flour is organic, but they have worked with Aberystwyth University so that, as well as their standard British flour, they also sell flour produced from our own county – Ceredigion. As you might know, Wales is quite hilly and land for growing wheat is limited. In the past, however, it was produced here and it’s lovely to think of this happening once more and it being processed so locally and in such an environmentally friendly way.

Beautiful restoration inside the mill

Beautiful restoration inside the mill

And, it doesn’t end there. The ‘Bake your lawn‘ project is encouraging schools to grow their own wheat, harvest and clean it, then bring it to the mill to grind into flour and, finally, bake into bread that the children get to eat. I love this idea of connecting children with the food that they eat; after all, even here in such a rural area, I’m guessing that most kids think bread comes from a plastic bag. If you’re interested in being involved, the project isn’t confined to Felin Ganol, but is nationwide: check out the Real Bread Campaign for details.

The produce... good quality, local food

The produce… good quality, local food

Our trip to buy bread (combined with other chores to make sure we optimise car use and limit the amount of fuel we use and thus the cost both financially and environmentally) was a sociable event – including a long chat… not the quickest shopping trip, but it does mean we support a local business, cut down on food miles and are a tiny part of a really fantastic restoration project. Not everyone has a local working water-mill, but if you do – give them your business, and if not, check out your other local food producers you’ll almost certainly find great produce and friendly folks!

IMGP0613

Very small things

I’m very well read. Possibly not in the sense of great literature – I’ve never read a whole novel by Dickens, my Shakespeare is shaky and I’ve managed the first chapter of Catch 22 about four times but never got any further. However, I work as a scientific editor and this means that I get to read some fascinating pieces of research (as well as some dull ones). And they come from all over the world because, mostly, I work with authors whose first language isn’t English. Much of the work that I read is at the cutting edge of its particular subject, whether that’s ecology, genetics, forestry, biotechnology, nursing or education, so I get to know about new ideas and technologies before they have even been published and become available to the rest of the world… which is how, a couple of years ago, I came to know about research in Sweden looking at how micro-organisms that occur naturally in the soil can be used to deal with pollutants from the paper industry… and not just make them harmless, but convert them into a useful product… biomass or ethanol to use as fuel, for example.

Which brings me to the point of this post… aren’t micro-organisms brilliant?

Yes, I know some of them cause diseases, but they are in the minority. Go out into a woodland and scrape the top layer of leaves off the soil and you will find very fine white strands – fungal mycelia. These make connections with plant roots, providing the plants with improved access to water and minerals. And the only time most people are aware of them is when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. But these fungi are not really micro-organisms – we can see them with the naked eye (at least some of the time). What about organisms that are even smaller?

Bacteria and small fungi in the soil are essential components of the system – without them the soil simply would not function in the way it does. They are responsible for all sorts of activities, but especially decomposition of plant material, dead animals and faeces… without this happening the world could not function. There are also special bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and without them there would be no life as we know it since nitrogen is an essential part of the proteins that are building blocks for life and enzymes that allow all sorts of chemical reactions to take place inside living things.

We use fungi directly in our food chain – mushrooms and truffles are an obvious food, but there’s also the yeast we use in our bread, beer and wine, and to make Marmite and various cheeses. Remember too that the first antibiotic, penicillin, came from a fungus. We eat bacteria as well, although that may not be quite so obvious, but they are used to make yoghurt, cheeses, wine, vinegar, soy sauce and various pickles.

Algae are also interesting – they are microscopic (or bigger) plants. They are very simple in terms of their structure, but they photosynthesise and so they, like all green plants, make their own food from water and carbon dioxide with the help of sunshine. As humans, we don’t tend to eat much algae… although we could… but lots of organisms do. If you head over to the Aquaponic Family blog you will find out all sorts of interesting stuff about algae and what they can be used to do.

So, we really should appreciate the micro-organisms around us more. If we are gardeners, we can care for the fungi, algae and bacteria in the soils that we cultivate by ensuring good soil structure and plenty of compost for those decomposers to work on. Be thoughtful, too, about what chemicals you apply to your soil – changing the pH will change the composition of micro-organisms, applying fungicides may kill the fungi you do want as well as those you don’t. Allowing the soil to become waterlogged will deprive decomposers of oxygen and dead matter will not break down fully (that’s how peat forms). Our compost heaps also rely on the action of micro-organisms, creating a valuable resource for the garden in the form of compost, but also generating heat which, if we are careful, we can make use of by means of hot beds or siting our composter against the greenhouse or inside a polytunnel. You can even grow squashes on top of your compost heap for an early and abundant crop.

So, next time you’re sitting enjoying a beer or some wine and cheese, give a thought to the little critters that made them possible.

%d bloggers like this: