Monday, 23 May 2011

Market, imperfect

We've been fleeced

No-one has died. It is just the fleece from Phoenix the ram. 3kg of the grubbiest wool you ever saw.

Quim the shepherd sheared Phoenix and Thistle on Friday. I asked what he does with his wool – he has 20 sheep, a retirement flock after spending his life walking the hills around here with 150. He buries it, as compost.

Years ago the shepherds here made good money from their fleeces, sold to dozens of weavers here and in the area around Terrassa. Now there is only one purchaser of wool for weaving and he only buys the best wool, by the lorry load. No demand for my 3kg of wool, nor for Quim’s 60kg, and the same is true of the Spanish state, where exports of wool have fallen year by year in the last three years, from US$30m in 2007 to US$11m in 2009 (source I will probably do the same as Quim and bury my fleece for compost.

The fleece is part of the spring glut. At the Croft we have trees full of cherries, a garden full of lettuce (there are only so many lettuces that one can eat) and we will soon have too many figs, hazelnuts and walnuts. Meanwhile, my friends at Oxfam and at MSF struggle to feed millions of people in the global South.

The market is imperfect. No wonder that people are Indignant.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cherry Jam

 There are two ways of getting cherry jam onto your toast in the morning.

Either grab a jar of cherry jam as you race around the supermarket this evening, or…

…or, do as I did, and spend around an hour picking 3kg of cherries from our first-fruiting cherry tree. It is on a steep slope so the process involves hanging onto the tree with one hand while picking with the other. 

Then spend an hour (and that is quick, thanks to my new cherry-pipper) taking the pips out of the cherries. Then boil with lemon juice and cracked pips for about an hour. Then add the sugar and boil until it looks like it might set. Add a knob of butter to dissolve the scum.

Then remember that you have not yet found enough jars (3kg of cherries makes a fair amount of jam) so climb the ladder at the back of the store-room and find the dusty jars. Spend a load more time scrubbing them, washing them out in boiled water, sterilising them for 20 mins at 100ºC in the oven. Now ladle the jam into the jars and, as you do so, spill it over most of the kitchen surfaces too. Seal and label. Clean up pans, cooker, kitchen, my shirt… And you have done it. Cherry Jam, in around four hours. 

Easy, isn’t it?

Why do I do this? What primeval urge makes me want to spend four hours, as opposed to about four seconds, making jam for my toast? A hibernating instinct – fill up the store-room for winter? A defensive instinct – cherry jam, in case we are besieged by the Mongol hordes? Hunger and a secret passion for jam? It’s none of these for me. For me, it is having something made with love to give to other people (I know, it is a tragedy to have to write such gushing prose, but it’s true) and it is having home-made things – to make a home. Worth the four hours. I think…

Monday, 9 May 2011

Scent by night

It is the world’s most romantic flower and it has just opened in the croft garden. Pure, pure white, so white that it glows in the waxing moon light. That would be lovely enough, but the romance comes from its scent. The scent is night time only, strong, oranges, vanilla and magic, so that every time I walk into the garden and brush past I get a head full of romance.

Love, flowers
Its names (Philadelphus, “Mock Orange,” “English Dogwood”) belie its beautiful nature. For me, it’s Romeo and Juliet in flower form.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Nature of Knowledge

Dolors, our lovely 70 year old neighbour told me last week that she had a problem with low blood pressure. “So I made up a tea with some herbs from round here, including ivy.”

“Ivy,” I said, “but that’s poisonous!”

“Yes of course it’s poisonous. But that means it has properties that can help you too – if you take it in small amounts. Think of digitalis!”

She’s right, of course. Digitalis purpurea, foxglove, contains digitoxin, used to treat heart failure.

Dolors has a lifetime of knowledge about the plants that grow in our area (like many older people here she has rarely travelled further than the county town, 25km away.) She has both types of knowledge – explicit knowledge, in part from her extensive library of books on herbal medicines, and tacit knowledge, the secret knowledge that it is hard to explain to others. Why she makes a specific mixture, why she picks plants from one area rather than another… there is knowledge behind these choices, but it’s hard to explain.

Dolors strolls around the countryside in her housecoat collecting plants and talking about this and that. It takes time and patience to learn from her.

And she is the antithesis of what we think of knowledge. We have come to believe that (a) it’s all in the internet and (b) that the man in the white laboratory coat is a reliable source.

Dolors is a reminder of the true nature of knowledge – a secret substance that it takes time, patience and empathy to find. 

The nature of knowledge. Like the knowledge of nature.