Thursday, 26 April 2012

Kissing's In Season

When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out o' season. These days our hillsides are covered in gorse which, thanks to the warm spell we had in March, is in full bloom. Kissing's also in season, and so I embarked on making gorse wine. For years, the thought of pricked fingers from picking gorse flowers dissuaded me from making gorse wine. One evening at Coldhome I tasted Fi Thompson’s wine. Something absolutely heavenly hit my pallete. The wine had captured the essence of sunlight; warmed the heart. It also had magnificent and complex body. Wow! The sensation was like a long and tender kiss.

The next day I was out on the land, in a gorse patch, pulling at the flowers with my bare fingers. It was a zen sort of exercise that required total mindfulness, at all times. Inattention was punished by getting pricked, sore fingers. I picked the brightest bushes, those with large, rich flower clumps, pulled them off. The rain dribbled on me, but what the hell. After a couple of hours I had amassed at almost two gallons of flowers. No blood on the fingers either.

Fi sent me her recipe. Here it is.


 1 gallon gorse flowers
 2 oranges
 3 lb. sugar
 1 gallon water
 2 lemons
 Yeast; yeast nutrient


The best plan is to put your flowers in a calico bag, which can then be dropped into the water and simmered for a quarter of an hour, afterwards making up the water to the original quantity. When you remove the bag, squeeze it well to extract the liquor, and return this to the bulk. Then dissolve the sugar in the liquid, and add the lemon and orange juice, and the skins (no pith) of the fruit. Allow the liquor to cool to 70 degrees F.then add the yeast (a general-purpose wine yeast) or a level teaspoon of granulated yeast and yeast nutrient. Three days is sufficient a soaking period to extract colour and aroma, and for fermentation to get well under way, as long as the liquor is kept in a warm place (65-70 degrees F.), closely covered and given an occasional stir. Then strain it into a fermenting jar and fit an air lock and put it in a slightly cooler place. Siphon it off the lees when the top third has cleared (after two to three months) and again three months later. Put in a cooler place still (55 degrees F.); it will be ready to drink after another two months or so.

Apparently, with the bottle I tasted,  Fi  left her wine in the fermenting jar for five years before she noticed it there. All recipes emphasize the need to allow this wine the time to mature. My mixture is in the fermenting jar, bubbling away. When Christmas rolls around, ask me how it tastes.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Hunger Games --- The Scottish Version

In both Gaia’s Children, and the short story, The Lottery, I speculate that in 50-100 years time Scotland will revert to being the land of small crofters, with most of the food grown on homesteads, typically a small house on a couple of acres of land. I surmised that the rising price of diesel would make large farms uneconomical. Farmers would then sell of their land, perhaps at a handsome price, to homesteaders. The same might also be accomplished through land reform : absentee lairds selling off their land to the locals. So, in the coming, warmer days, small scale food production will turn out to be more economical than today’s large scale, mechanized farms.

Science fiction? Maybe not entirely. In fact Russians demonstrated the effectiveness of small scale food production. I was recently startled to learn that in 1999, 35 million small family plots produced 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of vegetables, 87% of fruits, 59% of meat, 49% of milk.

How else did the average Russian survive the transition from communism to capitalism in the 1990s: the years of crippling inflation, stagnant or non-existent salaries and sky high food prices? Most middle class people, including residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg had a country home --- the dacha, where they worked the land on weekends. In 1995 while on assignment in St. Petersburg, I visited one --- a small cabin with a woodstove for heating, no electricity, a composting toilet, and water drawn from a nearby well. It was on an acre of land planted with root vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, every vegetable that grows. I didn't see cereal crops; those still are mostly raised on large farms.

During July and August, city offices close their doors, the employees take off for their dachas where they tend their gardens, harvest their crops and preserve them for winter. Any excess is carted off to the city and hawked by little old ladies on street corners. Russians also are avid wild mushroom hunters, and have every recipe for preserving their haul.

Dachas in Omsk

Doesn’t the idea of small scale food production as a means for sustaining a large population, fly in the face of accepted economical models? What makes dacha farming work in Russia are several factors:

1. The existence of abundant cheap land. Russia has a very low population density.
2. Limited globalization. No access to farms in Africa for example, where these days most of UK vegetables are grown.
3. Low overhead. Dacha farming needs no mechanised equipment apart from a rotavator, often shared communally.
4. No reliance on oil-sourced energy.
5. Large numbers of people doing it (35 million families).

Is this the future face of Scotland? Except for access to cheap land (Point 1), and one could argue that there’s plenty of land, just that it isn’t accessible yet, the other factors could all become the new reality once global warming kicks in, and the price of oil soars out of reach. At least in Scotland which has a lower population density than England.

I believe that the Earth is not only growing warmer, but it will continue to do so, regardless of our best efforts to change the course. If that is the case (and I wish it weren't), we need to adapt to the coming, warmer environment. Securing a reliable food supply would be a priority. Kenya's vegetable farms won’t always be there to grow our food. If not, a new paradigm is called for: communities of small scale crofters, growing their food sustainably. The Russian experience demonstrates that it is much more than a pipe dream.