Straw Berries

I was probably in my teens, visiting relatives in the Lake Contance region, the fruit basket of Germany, close to the Swiss border. We were going for a walk, and came by a large strawberry field. All along the ground beneath the plants was spread a thick layer of straw.

And all of a sudden the penny dropped: strawberries!

I was already familiar with the English word, which I had learned in school. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “[t]here is no corresponding compound in other Germanic languages”; the German word is Erdbeere, earth (or ground) berry – presumably because they grow so low to the ground. But seeing that straw spread under the berries suddenly made sense of the English word.

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“What’s the straw for?” I wondered. Somebody explained (or maybe I figured it out myself, I don’t remember): it’s to keep the ripening berries from sitting and rotting directly on the damp soil.

It makes sense that in rainy England, it would have been common practise to protect the precious crop that way, and so have given rise to the name. Strawberries are extremely susceptible to wet: they can rot in a matter of hours on a rainy day, right on the vine, and even after they’ve been picked. (So if you’re picking strawberries, do it when the sun is shining; and if you’ve brought home a flat of strawberries from the farmer’s market on a soggy, dreary day, better get them into those jam jars or freezer bags ASAP, or you’ll lose half your purchase. Yes, I know that from experience.)

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I have no idea if “strawing” the berries is common practise anywhere, or is even done anymore back in the Lake Constance region. However, in my own garden, I actually got some strawberries for the first time this year (I don’t have much of a green thumb, so this is a triumph). And, well, I didn’t “straw” them, but I had a cardboard box of wood shavings around (I think they were left from somebody’s project). So I “sawdusted” the beds between the berries. Or one of them, anyway – I didn’t get around to the other one in time. And sure enough, the berries in the bed with the wood shavings were nice and clean; the other ones had dirt stuck to them and weren’t as happy-looking. I’m going to have to see about doing this again next year – I think grass clippings would work as well, or maybe even bark mulch.

And meanwhile, we’re going to enjoy this year’s strawberry harvest, the whole pound of it.

Life, the Universe, and the Straw in Strawberries. The best fruit ever.

PS: Old-fashioned strawberry jam: 1 kg of strawberries, 800 g of sugar. Mash the berries, mix with the sugar, bring to a rolling boil, boil for 10 minutes. Put in clean jars and cap to keep from drying out (doesn’t need to be sterilized or refrigerated; the sugar is preservative enough). Very sweet, very tasty, keeps in the cupboard for a long time (except it doesn’t because it gets eaten so fast).

Keeping Food for Winter

A reblog from William Savage, whose blog I discovered recently.
This post is quite fascinating. I’ve never eaten purslane, just pulled it out of my garden as a weed; it’s supposed to be quite good. Pickled asparagus, however, you can even buy in the grocery store here. Storing lettuce in sand for winter – never heard of that, but again, sometimes you can get “gourmet” lettuces here – little butterhead ones – with the roots still attached, which I guess is the same principle.
As for the word “walm” (check the footnote), I bet that that’s where we get “overwhelmed” from!
I want a copy of that “Compleat Housewife” book he talks about. Wonder where you could get it.

Pen and Pension

pickled-purslaneIn the days before refrigeration and canning, different means for keeping foodstuffs edible over the winter were an essential part of every household’s routine. If you didn’t pay attention to this, much of your harvest would go to waste. Besides, if your own stores failed or were inadequate, you couldn’t easily make up the deficit through purchases.

Some fruits, like apples and pears, could be stored for several months by setting them on racks in a cool place. Others had to be cooked with sugar and preserved in jars, sealed with butter or fat — no rubber seals yet. Pickling could work for others, or even drying. Quite a few fruits were dried, many we would not think of drying today, like gooseberries.

Unusual Choices

You quite often find unusual or surprising recipes in cookbooks from the eighteenth century. All the ones in this post come from “The Compleat Housewife”

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Marmalade

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A Paddington Bear notebook my daughter got for me at Paddington Station

So I promised you a post on marmalade, didn’t I? Well, now’s the time. We went and saw the Paddington movie last night, and when can you write about marmalade if not fresh from a viewing of a film starring The Bear With a Worrying Marmalade Habit? (The latter bit is a quote from Mr Brown, the movie version. The one in the book doesn’t seem to be worried about it at all.)

(In case you’re wondering, Steve didn’t come to the movie; they don’t have bears as a category at the ticket counter. Seniors, Children, and Generals, but no Privates, Corporals, or Bears. Also, even though I would have smuggled him in in my purse, he’s a little leery of watching things on a big screen. If you’re six inches high, even a large-screen television can be a little overwhelming.)

marmalade (1)So. Marmalade. Oh, the movie was quite good. However, I have to inform you that it presents a quite serious factual inaccuracy: they’re using the wrong kind of oranges for their marmalade. Yup. The movie shows Paddington and his Aunt Lucy making marmalade out of ordinary sweet oranges, the ones you get year-round in the grocery store – you know, navel oranges. How do I know that’s the ones? Because they chop them open, and they’re way too juicy on the inside. No, no, no. Just wrong. Marmalade is made from Seville or bitter oranges, which are a different thing; their flesh is quite dry.

Now, the funny thing is that nobody in my family actually eats marmalade except for me; and I only have it occasionally with a bacon-and-egg breakfast (the bitter taste offsets the grease something wonderful). It’s one of those acquired tastes, and I’ve acquired it in order to be able to feel more British. Well, yeah. It allows me to say “Pass the squish!” like Lord Peter Wimsey, and reminds me of the line in Gosford Park where Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper, asks Mary if her employer couldn’t have strawberry jam for her breakfast: “Only, we’ve run out of marmalade. Dorothy [the stillroom maid] didn’t make enough last January.” And then Lady Trentham (played by Maggie Smith at her most snobbish), the next morning on lifting the cover off her breakfast tray: “Boughten marmalade! I call that feeble.”

marmalade (2)Marmalade oranges are only available for a couple of weeks in January – hence the fictional Dorothy’s failings in producing enough for the household; if you don’t make it in January, you’ve missed the boat for the year. And I think that might be one of the reasons I like making marmalade: it’s the one preserve that you make in the dead of winter. The canning jars and rings and lids, the funnel and tongs, all the paraphernalia of canning season, which live in the kitchen all summer long, are put away in the storage room in the basement from October to June. But this one short stint of once again stirring the fragrant amber bubbling away in the big pot, of whirling around the kitchen to get the steaming hot jars out of the dishwasher and ladling the sticky-soft sweetness into the glass, clapping on the lids and then listening for that satisfying little snap when they seal – it’s an unmistakable reminder that even though the snow flies outside, summer’s warmth and harvest will be back.

I don’t have a worrying marmalade habit myself – although I might have a marmalade-cooking habit. And I have friends who are quite happy to support me in that habit by taking the product of my hands – or they say they are, anyway. Maybe they’re just being polite, being English and all? Paddington is a very polite bear – it’s the English way.

Life, the Universe, and Marmalade. Pass the squish.marmalade (3)

PS: Here’s the recipe, the short version: 2 lbs marmalade oranges, 8 cups water, 4 lbs sugar. Cut up oranges, take out pips. Chop whole oranges in food processor, boil with water for 1 1/2 hrs together with the pips tied in a little bag. When the orange peels are soft, take out the bag of pips, add the sugar, and boil for about 15 minutes, proceeding like for any other jam. Makes about 8 half-pints of marmalade. (Pardon the imperial measurements – I got the recipe from an older pre-metric English cookbook. Seems kind of suitable.)

Bear Tales and Business

Steve at computerSteve’s been giving me a hard time for neglecting my blog. I tried to tell him that I’ve had a lot of business lately, so he said he’d write a post himself. “Fine,” I says, “be my guest!” So here he is, trying his hand at blogging. But he kept fussing around with it, and couldn’t figure out the interface on WordPress, so I finally got fed up and said I’d take over again. He looked rather relieved at that, and has gone back to discussing poetry with Horatio.

grape juice (2)So, yes, there’s been a lot of business lately. That’s business as in busy-ness, not biz-ness, you know, with dollars and cents. Figuring out this blog interface thing wasn’t the only issue, although that took a fair amount of time on its own. There’s also been the ongoing harvest – still food to process, dontcha know. I made 18 litres of grape juice from the Coronation grape vine climbing our balcony (32 kg grapes!), and if you’ve never made grape juice, you have no idea of the mess it generates. In fact, I’d never made it in these quantities before, either, and was quite astonished at the resulting blood bath (grape blood, that is). See? grape juice (3)And then, of course, afterwards I had to clean it up, too. Grape juice is incredibly staining – one drop on my light beige kitchen counter, and I’d have a bluish spot forever. I did, in fact, have stains all over that counter for years – not just grape juice and other food substances, but rust rings from where someone left a damp cast iron pan sitting on it for far too long. But then sometime this spring I discovered the secret to rejuvenating kitchen counters: BS.

grape juice (4)No, not that kind of BS. I’m talking about baking soda. Now, that stuff has been my go-to scouring powder for years, but scrubbing the stains on the counter with it had never seemed to do much. Until I discovered the magic trick: time. You make a paste of baking soda and water, smear it all over the stain, and let it sit for an hour or more. Then you can take a sponge or rag, and with the application of a bit of elbow grease the stains quite simply vanish. Voilà, kitchen counters good as new! Which had me quite excited, back there in spring, because the stains were so bad I had already priced out what it would cost to replace the counters. Several thousand dollars, actually. Yes, ouch. Not really in the budget. But then, with a buck or two (if even) of BS, lovely clean counters.grape juice (1)

So there  you have it. Grape juice. Blogging interfaces. Apple butter (thereby hangs another tale – I’d never made that before, it’s yummy!). Dried plums, apples and pears. Grape jelly without commercial pectin. Lots of BS to clean up after it. And that’s just the half of it. So, yes, Steve, I’ve been busy. Hope you’re enjoying your poetry discussions; you’ll have to share them with me sometime.

Life, the Universe, and Business. Nothing a little BS won’t take care of.