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Village Food & Drink

The staff of life

Posted on March 19 2013 at 3:38:33 0 comments

Ripe corn

Mary Green explores the importance of arable land and its different grain crops.

It’s been a cold early spring, with many of the plants and animals late in appearing. There weren’t any daffodils for St David on his day on March 1.

That spell of cold weather in March would often be called the “blackthorn winter” – except that assumes that the weather had been mild previously and the blackthorn flowers were out. They weren’t.

However, I hope by the time you get this, everything is bursting out and we have some good weather to enjoy it.

April is the month when you get a chance to visit Peck Wood without being part of a youth group! Look out for the week in late April when you can go in to see the best bluebell wood in the area.

Peck Wood is a nature reserve, and has some quite rare plants as well as carpets of old woodland species: bluebells, archangel, wood anemones, wood sorrel, moschatel.

There are routes to it on the April page of the Village calendar, or a combination of March and April if you want to walk there from Alvechurch.

If you did that March walk, you would have passed through some of the not-so-common arable farmland (crop-growing land) in the area, hopefully with the young corn coming up

You can also find arable land on the plateau around Tardebigge, whereas most of the hillier areas are pastoral farming (grassland for animals.) This year planting has been very late due to the cold, wet winter.

Crops grown include wheat, barley and oats, as well as oilseed rape and occasional other crops such as field beans. You may even happen across a field of maize, or a strange field of elephant grass grown for biofuel.

Arable farming is an important part of the growth of our civilisation – the breeding of grasses into grain crops that could be ground into flour and eaten. It led to the cutting down of forests and creation of farmland. It encouraged the ownership of land, rather than commons.

It also created the environment for a lot of our much-loved native plants, birds and animals – there are species which thrive on earth that is cultivated. Unfortunately, it is now connected with the loss of a lot of the very habitat that supported our wildlife.

We take grain crops so much for granted that it may seem odd for me to say that we need to re-connect with the true taste and quality of local grains, just as with local meats.

Wheat, rye, barley and oats have been a crucial part of the diet of this country for centuries. Potatoes came in relatively late, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and didn’t become a staple food for a long time.

The price of grain was key to the nation’s economy – do you remember the Corn Laws from your history lessons? And of course, we still say “give us this day our daily bread”, using “bread” as a proxy for all food.

I would find it hard to do without bread. But I have enjoyed it so much more since I started making my own by hand from local flour, and buying some from local grower/miller/bakers. Look at the list of ingredients on a supermarket loaf to see what mass-produced bread is like.

A relatively good wholemeal loaf includes vinegar, soya flour, sugar, emulsifier (mono-and diacetyl tartaric acid and esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), palm oil, ascorbic acid – as well as the expected wheat flour, water, yeast and salt.

White bread often includes even more strange things – and excludes a lot of good things.

Bread has an interesting history. In pre-industrial Britain, people would take their flour to the miller and then make their own bread, which would be wholemeal and often a mixture of different grains.

The rich might have more refined white wheaten bread, less healthy for them! One old type of wheat, spelt, is especially good for you, being low in gluten and usually used wholemeal – and very tasty.

During the 19th and early 20th century, flour became highly refined and often adulterated. Grain was imported from North America during the 20th century to make the kind of mass-produced white sliced bread that became popular, and which is hard to make from British wheat, which is relatively low-gluten.

Then a process (the Chorleywood process) was discovered that could make quick mass-produced bread using British wheat, so vast areas of Britain were turned over to grain growing from the 1960s onwards.

During the Second World War, the standard bread was much less refined, and actually led to improved health along with the rest of rationing! But afterwards, it seemed we couldn’t get enough of refined white bread with all the good parts taken out during the processing.

Before the 20th century, corn fields had supported a rich variety of wild life. The flowers are still well-known – poppies, cornflowers, heartsease, corn camomile, wild radish, corncockle, corn marigold – and the birds included skylarks and lapwings. Harvest mice were common once, but rare now.

These plants positively thrive on broken ground, so are there because of the human habit of growing crops. It was the mass growing of wheat, and of other grains for animal feed, that led to arable farming’s devastating effect on our native flowers, insects, birds and animals.

Fields were cropped year after year, instead of the rotation system previously used. To keep them fertile, artificial fertilisers were used. To keep the crop “clean”, weedkillers were used, and pesticides were sprayed. Flowers, insects and birds disappeared.

Even when I was young I can remember finding heartsease flowers (wild pansies) and scarlet pimpernels among the stubble. I can also remember my father trying out all the new herbicides – and of course the sheer slog of clearing weeds by manual methods.

Round here you can occasionally find these flowers on untreated field margins, but most of our arable land is a wildlife desert.

In the vast arable fields of the east of England, they also removed a lot of the hedges to make harvesting easier, thus decimating another group of wildlife. Many corn fields would support wildlife better if they had houses and gardens built on them.

It is possible to grow arable crops without destroying wildlife. Worcestershire Wildlife Trust has a very good record on doing and promoting this. And the agricultural stewardship schemes recompense farmers for leaving wide field margins where arable plants can grow, and special patches for larks to nest.

If you want to reconnect with grains, try buying freshly ground local wholemeal flour – you can get it at farmers’ markets or from specialist mills. Use it to make a very basic bread, and you should taste the difference.

I make bread using the old-fashioned method of making a starter dough to rise overnight and then making the bread the next day. This way you use less yeast and don’t need any sugar.

Of course, the really basic way is not to use yeast at all, but to make a fermented starter of flour and water. People in previous centuries didn’t usually have access to yeast, so “sourdough” was the normal way of making bread. It’s also thought to be more digestible to people who have a mild wheat intolerance.

I use a mixture of wholegrain flours. Making bread by hand rather than machine means you can feel the right consistency – it’s a pleasure and kids love it.

The easiest thing to do is make rolls, which you can then freeze till you need them. You can also roll out a bit of the dough and make a pizza base, topping it with onions and tomatoes stewed in a little oil, and maybe a little cheese, olives or anchovies.

I don’t know why pizza is automatically seen as “bad” junk food, when the ingredients are almost exactly the same as “good” pasta and sauce. I suppose, again, it’s because mass produced pizzas are so un-nutritious.

At Easter, I take some of the dough and add to it pre-soaked dried fruit and fresh lemon and orange peel, together with spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice), to make wonderful sugar-free hot-cross buns.

Homemade bread

If you want to use spelt, it’s best not to try bread. Spelt is low-gluten so is better than modern wheat for people who have some gluten intolerance, but it doesn’t hold a rise for bread.

However, a small amount mixed with ordinary wholemeal will add the characteristic nutty spelt flavour to bread. And it’s great in cakes, pastry and pancakes.

You can also buy whole spelt, which you can cook like rice to make a gorgeous nutty risotto, spelt flakes to add to muesli or porridge, and even spelt couscous. Best of all I think is wholemeal spelt pasta, so full of flavour you almost don’t need a sauce!

Most spelt on sale is from England or neighbouring Europe, and is grown organically or at least non-intensively.

For those like me who don’t use added sugar, why not make savoury cakes? They are apparently all the rage in France. I use a mixture of spelt and wholemeal flour, with eggs, natural yogurt, rapeseed oil and a variety of flavours, such as walnuts and goat’s cheese in winter, or peppers, onions and tomatoes in summer.

Of course, there are lots of other grains, some local to us in Britain and some imported, like rice. If you are a vegetarian, they will form an important protein element in your diet. When I was younger (in the days of The Good Life!) I spent ten years as a veggie, and learnt about “complementary proteins”.

If you eat grains, pulses (peas and beans) and nuts together, the different proteins complement each other and make sure you have a good protein intake, equivalent to meat or dairy.

I’ve noticed oats grown more locally recently. They are low in gluten, and best in oatcakes or porridge, though again you can mix a small amount of oatmeal or oat flakes into bread. The best porridge is made from oatmeal, not oat flakes. There is no substitute for making it properly.

You mix medium oatmeal with milk, water or a mixture of both, and a good pinch of salt. Bring it to the boil and simmer it, stirring, for five minutes. If you are using good quality oats, it has a great taste that doesn’t need lots of things adding. For a really balanced breakfast, though, have it with low-fat plain yogurt and fruit.

Barley is also grown locally. It used to be very much for beer-making, though in earlier times it was common also as a grain for bread for poorer people. One of the good quality firms making flour does a version with barleycorn, mixed with wheat flour, and it’s very good for bread.

One of the old folk spirits of Britain is John Barleycorn, the spirit of the crops who is flailed to death each year and grows again each spring. He is celebrated by drinking ale or, in Scotland, whisky. In ancient times, the definition of an inch was three barleycorns laid end to end – everyone would know what they were.

Malted barley was very important in the days when ale was people’s ordinary drink (before tea and coffee), and was also a source of sugars for other purposes. Now barley is mostly used for animal feed.

The harvest of wheat and other grains was a crucial part of country tradition. The first loaf from the harvest was made ceremoniously and used in a festival called Lammas (from loaf mass) in August.

This is a Christianisation of ancient festivals, also involving the plaiting of straw to represent the corn spirit (still there in the rather twee corn dollies!)

Harvest Festival was a big celebration – even when I was young it was the only Sunday of the year except Easter when some farmers came to church. I can still remember the sun-scorched faces, unaccustomed suits and the smell of Brylcreem!

Earlier in the year, crops were blessed at Rogationtide, often with a procession around the parish.

And of course, Shrove Tuesday is pancakes, Good Friday is hot cross buns, All Souls’ Day used to have soul cakes – showing how flour-based products were part of ritual. And I haven’t even got on to the huge range of traditional pies, pasties, puddings, cakes and tarts!

So, over the years our relationship with grain has changed, and its impact on our environment has too. I think we lost touch with it, and with its effect of the countryside, but hope this is now changing for the better.

The poem this month is one I wrote last April, about an anniversary which marks the opening out of the countryside to walkers.

Anniversary

24 April 1932

Eighty years ago, the mass trespass on Kinder.
Thousands of factory lads and lasses
Climbing the hills from Manchester on bikes
And motor bikes, walking into the dark peak.
Facing them, gamekeepers, land keepers
Defending the owners against this rude invasion.
In the back ground, Ewan McColl sings
“I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all my pleasures the hard walking way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday”
Walking in the wild is an act of rebellion
Of revolution even, shaking off the chains
Of property, of work, of capital.
From this battle came the National Parks
The Pennine Way and the right to roam.
I can feel them walking beside me
In their flat caps and corduroys, poor and singing.
Now the ramblers are middle aged, comfortable
Wearing gore-tex and rohans, clutching their maps
Knowing the main danger is rain, or a closed pub.
I guess factory lads and lasses no longer
Dream of weekend moorland. Lucky to find one these days.
Not free on Sundays because not knowing
You are a wage slave on Monday. But for us lucky ones
The old baby-boomers, their legacy is here
In the heather and the gorse and the cuckoo calls
The ghosts of their BSAs roaring up the roads
The spirit of friendship weaving the paths together.


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