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Village Food & Drink

Full of beans!

Posted on May 21 2013 at 12:27:19 0 comments

Broad beans

Mary Green enjoys the abundance of pulses and herbs during summertime.

It’s summer at last, and the produce of the countryside is getting more abundant. The first true native fruits – wild strawberries – are about, for some reason growing abundantly around the houses where I live. They were on the bank at Alvechurch station, but it has just been mown so they may not come. You might even find wild cherries too!

In our farms and gardens we should see good food arriving, so long as the weather is seasonal. There is nothing quite like rootling down in the soil or compost and feeling the first new potatoes ready to come out.

We are of course near to major market-gardening centres like Evesham, though there is not much commercial growing of fruit and vegetables in the immediate Village area.

However, there are lots of gardens doing it, and now some new allotments. These have a beneficial effect on wildlife usually, providing flowering plants for bees and insects and cover for birds.

Of course, gardeners don’t always appreciate the wildlife, as birds and mammals don’t differentiate between weeds and your carefully nurtured buds and shoots!

One type of food I associate with this time of year is the pulses: peas and beans. The cultivated varieties are closely related to our native vetches, and wild peas like the everlasting pea.

Eating the young shoots – pea shoots – is very fashionable, and in fact you can treat the shoots of wild peas and vetches in the same way.

The peas and beans themselves are a great food, including proteins with the vitamins and minerals you expect from green vegetables. They are best eaten young and freshly picked, when the flavour and vitamin content are best, and you can eat them raw. They freeze well too.

Broad beans should be around now, and I hope they’re better than last year, when the cold wet spring meant a lack of insects to pollinate the flowers. They are often sold too old, for my taste, so if you grow your own or know someone who does, get them young!

If you do get some older ones, they make a lovely dip blitzed down with herbs and wild garlic – chick peas aren’t the only kind you can use for hummus. Local peas will be around soon too – you can get both at the Hewell Prison Shop.

Many of us will eat dried peas and beans in the off-season. There is a huge range – soy, black-eye, kidney, borlotti, flageolet, haricot, butter, cannellini, green, brown and orange lentils, marrowfats…each with a distinctive flavour. Not many of these are grown for drying in England now, but they used to be.

One of the staples of my student days was pease pudding with bacon bones (a recipe from a Brummie friend), and peas, beans and lentils were used to bulk out stews when there wasn’t much meat.

“Field beans”, a bit like a rougher broad bean, were grown for animal food, and still are in some fields round here. They are a good break crop, providing nutrients to the soil in between grain crops.

The fields I have seen round here have been cultivated without too much weedkiller, and had nice arable plants like camomile and heartsease growing in them.

Peas and beans are an important part of the crop growing system called permaculture, where a range of crops needing different nutrients and conditions are grown together for their mutual benefit. They are really good grown in gardens among flowers and other vegetables.

There used to be a much bigger range of pulses grown in England for food, and there are specialist growers doing them again. One variety is the black badger pea (also known as carlin or maple pea), which was grown from the middle ages.

Traditionally, it forms a special Easter dish in the north of England, still kept up in places. Others that grow well here include fava beans, marrowfats and lentils.

Our familiar runner bean has good red beans, which can be dried, as well as the green pods that we eat. I am trying borlotti beans this year, which can be eaten fresh or dried.

Of course, the kinds of beans that most people eat are the ubiquitous “baked beans” (which aren’t really baked any more). They contain sugar, a lot of salt, and sometimes other unnecessary additives, and taste quite bland.

Making your own is very easy! I make a simple sauce of tomatoes, onions and herbs and blitz it in a blender. Then I use this on plain cooked beans (haricot, borlotti, cannellini – whatever you fancy) either from a tin or dried ones cooked in water. Taste the difference, as they say.

The proteins in pulses complement those in grains very well, and all over the world there are examples of peasant food in this combination. Rice and peas are in both Caribbean and Italian dishes (different kinds of both peas and rice).

Corn tortillas and beans are a Central American staple, and the Indians have rice or naan and dhal. In the Middle East you will get falafel, hummus and other bean dishes with flat bread.

Vegans rely a lot on pulses for their proteins, but other vegetarians may use dairy products. We are lucky to have a local dairy farm here with delicious milk. Cheese makers are a little farther afield, but the Worcestershire farmers’ markets have a great stall with English cheeses.

One of the delights of the last couple of decades has been the resurgence of British (and Irish) cheeses. There was a false start when English producers tried to copy French cheeses and made bland versions of Camembert and Brie. Now there are true native cheeses which rival the quality of French ones.

A lot of the revived local cheeses are made from ewes’ or goats’ milk. Many people find these more digestible, and I especially like ewes’ milk cheese, which has a sweet and nutty flavour.

There is also a revival of wrapping cheeses in interesting things, including nettle and wild garlic leaves, or washing them in flavourings as they mature. The famous Stinking Bishop cheese is so called because it is washed in perry made from the Stinking Bishop pear.

Sheep and cattle contribute to the pastoral land which is the environment for so many of our wild flowers and their accompanying insects. That doesn’t apply to intensively-reared animals, but small-scale production can be very positive for the local ecology.

Another pleasure of summer is the availability of herbs for flavouring. There is no real definition of a herb, but mostly we mean green plants used to flavour other foods, or for medicinal purposes.

Most of our best-known culinary herbs aren’t native, but they have been around so long that they have adapted themselves to us and seem like wild flowers. They are also mostly in the same families as common native plants.

There are two particular families with lots of culinary herbs. One is the mint family, which includes various mints, sage, thyme, lemon balm, and rosemary.

The other is the carrot family which includes parsley, coriander and angelica. Herbs that are native to us include water mint, which grows round here, and marjoram.

Thyme is common on moors and mountains, and sand-dunes, and can perfume the air as you walk on its close-knit mats.

As with all food, herbs are best eaten seasonally. So, I use bay leaves, thyme, sage and rosemary in the winter months, when their flavour seems to go well with stews and soups.

In spring I love the first leaves of wild garlic and lemon balm, with the first salad leaves. Then mint and parsley go so well with early summer things like peas and broad beans, and lamb.

In the height of summer you may want to use the ones that don’t over-winter in our climate, basil and tarragon, with the tomato and pepper-based dishes of high summer.

Even in the dark days of bad English cooking in the mid-20th century, we never quite lost our love of herbs. We had mint sauce with lamb, sage and onion stuffing with poultry and parsley sauce with fish.

A herb garden is not only a delight to eat, but one of the best things you can do for wildlife. Herb flowers are especially nectar-rich and attract bees, butterflies and other insects. Some of them have seeds which birds eat, too. And they look and smell so lovely.

I am looking forward to sitting in the garden shelling peas, watching the bees on my herbs, then eating pea salad with local cheese, baby leaves and fresh mint and parsley. Followed, of course, with wild strawberries decorated with wild rose-petals.

Bring me sunshine!

The poem this month is one I wrote last year when we were doing Morris Side Story for the Jubilee Picnic.

Musicals

We go together, a group of sixth-form girls
To see West Side Story. The city lights
Excite me even before the film, and then
I hear the whistle that calls us to New York
Dark as a blackbird, drawing us in
To explosions of music and dance, and love.
Tearful, we leave, and in the streets we dance
And strut, arm in arm, singing here come the Jets
None of us want to be Maria, we are the Jets
Like a bat out of hell, and we are strong
Making noise, laughing and whistling and being alive.

At the end of the decade, but seeming ages away,
We go to London to see Hair. By now I am married
And have a job and cut my hair and wear a suit.
The lights go down and the stage breaks into rainbows,
Men and women, heads down, shaking their hair,
Singing of the stars and the moon and war
They are naked for us, and I want to take off my clothes
And sing good morning starshine with them.
At home, I put on beads and my hair starts to grow.
We go to a remote place, camping, and I wash
My long hair in the loch, and make porridge in the rain,
And I think I will never be that safe person again.

At the back of my mind and my heart, all these years
The strength of arm in arm on the city streets
The nakedness in the face of guns and systems
They haven’t left me, the songs of life, unsafe, of love


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