02 October 2014

Experimental Gardening: Quinoa

Quinoa is one of the things we like to call Ooh Aah Foods – wonder foods that some of our hippy neighbours consider a cure-all for everything. Originating from the South Americas it really is a wonderful grain, and very healthful; stuffed with essential amino acids, and high in Calcium, Phosphorus and Iron. We really like eating it. Trouble is, its damn expensive.
Back in late Autumn, while I was still largely unable to tackle any serious gardening, I looked at a packet of Quinoa, and, true to form, though to myself, “How hard can it be? I mean, millions of peasant farmers in South America have been growing this stuff for centuries... why shouldn't I Give It A Go?”

So I did. A little research told me that there are many, many strains of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, so quite closely related to the Chickweed that so prolifically sprouts all over our Winter veggie garden) adapted mainly for various altitudes ranging from coastal plains in Chile to the high Andes of Bolivia and Peru. It is a cool-weather species, so definitely something for our usually-sparse Winter garden. On the other hand, we don't get frosts, so we're ahead of the game in that regard.

The packet of Quinoa we had in the grocery cupboard was on we bought off the “health food” shelf of our local supermarket, and originated from Peru, so it looked to me like the odds were stacked against us. I guess that Quinoa from Peru is more likely to be a high-altitude variety, and we are at a decidedly low altitude. Then, too, many imported foodstuffs get irradiated – supposedly to ensure that no produce-borne diseases make it into the country. On the other hand, irradiated foods are usually labelled as such (though not always, since such labelling is not a hard legal requirement) and I would assume that the very reputable health-food packager would be somewhat sensitive to the issues of food irradiation. So my guess was that the Quinoa was not really very likely to have been irradiated, which would naturally kill the germ-plasm, and make germination impossible. There was also some question as to the suitability of our quite heavy soil for Quinoa cultivation.

Nothing daunted, I cleared a small patch in one of the veggie beds, about ½ a metre long, and sowed a handful of the Quinoa “grain” by simply scattering it on the prepared soil surface and raking the grains shallowly into the soil.

Much to my delight, it germinated within about a week or ten days (as my frequently failing memory serves.) It grew away quite happily, though numbers dwindled steadily through the Winter as every bug in the land decided to have a munch on this new, exotic foodstuff. Losses were compounded by my “neglectful” methods of growing things – I tend not to water crops except at critical times. Mainly we lack an adequate source of irrigation water and are forced to rely on rainfall. I suppose you could argue that it is a simple case of bowing to the inevitable, but I call it a “selection pressure” in evolving varieties that grow well under the conditions we have available.

Quinoa Grain HeadsNow it is Springtime, and the 5 or so remaining plants have produced lovely little heads of grain. The plants are a bit spindly and grew to about knee-high before forming flower-heads. As they show clear signs of drying and are beginning to lose of of the grains I pulled the plants out of the ground to finish drying them indoors. The next stage of the experiment will be figuring out how to process the grain further: Quinoa grains are coated in a soapy (saponin) layer that needs to be washed off before the grain is edible. I consider this saponin layer a huge advantage under our growing conditions, as we “suffer” from losing a lot of small seed-crops to birds. The Cabbage tribe are particularly favourite targets for myriad seed-eating birds, as are the (Summer growing) seed Amaranths; the birds have an uncanny knack of stripping out seed pods and heads just a few days before they're truly ripe enough to harvest. I've come to the conclusion that the only solution will be to completely cage such crops if we're determined to grow them. The Quinoa, on the other hand, suffers no such depredations due to its unpalatable soapy coating, so that's a big win!

All in all, I will definitely grow Quinoa again next Winter, and on a much more adventurous scale. This could even be a viable cash crop for us, given the very high prices it commands. I will do things a little differently, though: I believe we will obtain much better yields if we start the plants in seed-trays and transplant them to a more regular spacing in a much better prepared bed. Bug protection will probably be best achieved by interplanting the Quinoa with other trap crops (Buckwheat, perhaps.)

It's been an interesting little experiment, and one that rates as a good success with exciting prospects for our food future, so I am happy to count on it being a regular in our Winter garden.

19 June 2014

Cultivating Community

tl;dr: We're forming a local conservancy with the goals of preserving our neighbourhood's natural and historic environment, and, hopefully, as a tool to help us build a community with some resilience against climate change and post-carbon energy descent. Yay (maybe).

Self-sufficiency is not a loner's game. It would be impossible for a single family to live completely self-sufficiently; at the very least self-sufficient living is a village-scale affair, and, even then, many niceties of modern life will elude even the most dedicated and hard working bunch of souls. Stuff like MRI scanners, space telescopes, quality reference libraries and large-scale semiconductor integrated circuits. Meanwhile, we can approach a reasonable level of self-sufficiency only if we work together with like-minded neighbours. (Reality dictates, though, that many of my neighbours are unlikely to be all that like minded, especially in a neighbourhood like ours. Anybody who chooses to live outside the fringes of urban life is, by definition, likely to be a bit iconoclastic; strong-minded and opinionated. And get the hell off my pasture.)

Over the past few years we've seen a number of changes in the regulatory climate that surrounds us. Mostly we don't like those changes. Some of us fear them in some degree, and generally it just rubs us the wrong way that the authorities won't just leave us alone to get on with our slightly hermit-like lives. From being outside of any municipal boundaries, and thus "deprived" of all services like piped (but fluoridated and metered) water, garbage collection and libraries, but free of property taxes, we have, against our will, been incorporated into the local municipal boundaries. So now we get to pay rates and use the library gratis. We still don't get garbage collection, and we (thankfully!) still don't have to buy municipal water or sewerage connections.

Another big change has been the promulgation of the Garden Route National Park as an enclosing super-entity managing many of the pre-existing National Parks in the region. I believe it is considered a world-first, since the super-park encompasses towns, industrial areas, shopping districts and commercial farms agri-factories, along with traditional nature-reserves. I think that nobody is sure how this is going to work, but it's a noble experiment. The close-to-home effect was to see the management of the indigenous forest transferred to SANParks – the national nature-reserve authority. All this means that both the national provincial governments, as well as local Municipal government want to "manage" us and design Structure Plans around us in mysterious, undefined and largely unwelcome ways.

For a long time we were able to stick our heads in the sand, pretending that life carries on as it did before, but the bitter truth is that the wider world has chosen to take some notice of us. Time to respond, to organise in a common cause.

We have decided to form a local conservancy: the Bibbey's Hoek Historical and Nature Conservancy (or some such name, if and when we ever get around to agreeing on it).

Several weeks ago we organised a community meeting to gauge the appetite for forming a conservancy. We held it on a Sunday evening so that the maximum number of people would be able to attend without excuses like work obligations. The weather played foul, and we ended up with a fairly small turnout – only about eight properties represented out of the thirty in the neighbourhood. Consensus was that we lacked a broad enough representation to take any decision likely to impact the entire neighbourhood, so we decided to try again.

Now, things move at Bibbey's Hoek speed here... next year is just as good as next week. Newcomers to the area are frequently frustrated at the relaxed1 attitude we have to time and calendar, accusing us of allowing our brains to become infested with Outeniqua Rust. Consequently our plans for another meeting were a little bit overtaken when SANParks management requested a community meeting (held a couple of weeks ago). Our neighbourhood and its rich history is inextricably entangled in a relationship with the forest. Indeed, our properties were carved out of the very forest itself back in the mid-1800's; some older maps even show the forest boundary as enclosing our smallholdings. It seems reasonable that SANParks management and scientists regard the area as an important buffer zone between the natural forest they manage2 and the adjoining larger farms and urban areas.

All this culminated in (yet another!) meeting last evening where we were given an interesting talk by a chap from Cape Nature ‒ the provincial environmental department ‒ on conservancies. Rather than arrange yet another meeting, we went ahead and formed a Steering Committee, tasked with drawing up a constitution for the conservancy and generally getting the ball rolling. Actually, there's not a whole lot for us to do: I had already drawn up a draft constitution, so all we really need to do now is give everybody a chance to discuss and change it to suit some consensus view, and then we can go ahead and appoint an Executive Committee and register the conservancy with Cape Nature (which gives it the status of a legal entity). Then we can get on with trying to implement whatever nature and historical conservation projects we choose. Clearing alien vegetation from water-courses and dealing with some very aggressive and destructive Baboons seem to be the highest priorities.

I have been pushing for us to also include climate-change and energy-descent adaptation as an explicit goal for the conservancy, and, so far, there seems to be reasonably broad acceptance that this would be a good thing ‒ including vigorous nods from the SANParks and Cape Nature people. Quite a large proportion of Bibbey's Hoek's residents are permaculturally minded, and quite conscious of these issues, so it hasn't really been a hard sell.

So: an interesting (and long overdue) step along the path of self-sufficiency. Having to deal with otherwise-minded neighbours and government authorities... not so much fun. But necessary.

[1] No, "comatose" is probably closer to the truth.

[2] I have some uncertainties over the notion of "managing" wild areas and just what that might mean, but that's a discussion for another day...

14 June 2014

World Made by Nuts

So yesterday was one of those days when you just know you're going to waste a bunch of time attending to annoying, but sort-of necessary, stuff.

The car has been giving some trouble, and nobody in town was able to pin it down. Yeah, it is an almost 20 year-old Corolla, so some repair work comes with the territory. It's still a whole lot cheaper than the repayments on a new or newer car, and I greatly doubt I'd find another car with similar longevity, resale value and overall reliability. But I digress...

To get the car diagnosed and fixed I took it to Dr Quincy the Car Wizard in George (he's brilliant!) which meant hanging around his office for a few hours while he sorted things out. While waiting I hobbled down the road to buy a snack – a bag of delicious mixed nuts. On the back of the bag was printed a message that made me feel eerily like Wonko the Sane.

"This product was packed in a factory that uses tree nuts."

Well, yes. I'd think so. It is, after all, a bag of mixed tree nuts.

What sort of insane, fucked up society have we become that somebody felt compelled to print a legalistic cop-out warning that the product might contain traces of nuts, on an actual bag of nuts? I don't doubt that there are some unfortunate individuals so violently allergic to nuts that they need such warnings about products that might possibly contain traces of nuts. They have my deepest sympathy. But if such a person should go out and buy and eat an actual bag of nuts,... well, that would look suspiciously like a suicide attempt.

A couple of weeks ago the news broke that the ungrounding of ice sheets in Western Antarctica is inevitable and unstoppable. We should expect a rise of about 1.2m in global sea-levels. In the words of the original paper, “this sector of West Antarctica is undergoing a marine ice sheet instability that will significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” In NASA's slightly easier-to-read synopsis, glaciologist and lead author of the paper, Eric Rignot: “The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable”.

So. Flooding in many major cities. Goodbye to swathes of The Netherlands and Belgium, Bangladesh, south-eastern parts of the USA, and many, many more. Huge displacement of people and infrastructure. Loss of farmland. Loss of biodiversity. And that's probably just the beginning. Unstoppable.

Expect more.

Denialist nut-jobs notwithstanding, we've known for decades that this is coming. Yet we've done absolutely nothing to stop, or even slow, the process, despite the clear and incontrovertible evidence that it is the industrial-capitalist economy that is the primary driver of current global climate change.

You may note that, when we chose our farm, the altitude of the land above sea-level was an explicit selection criterion. We're above 200m. I've made plans for a jetty1.

We've known for decades that this is one inevitable result of unremittingly pouring millions of tonnes of Carbon into the atmosphere year after year. We've known and done nothing. We totally ignored the warnings printed on the packet. Well, that looks suspiciously like a suicide attempt.

My personal conclusion is that nothing can save the mass of us humans from a massive population reduction short of the total, immediate shutdown of industrial activity. And, even if we did manage to implement such a shutdown, we're still in for a solid smack from our mother Earth. Not going to happen, though, is it?

And even as we speak, Eskom, our state-owned electricity monopoly is forging ahead with their plans for three new nuclear power stations, even though the selected sites are likely to be inundated before construction is complete. What sort of insanity is this that ignores incontrovertible evidence before us, yet persists in selecting against survival in favour of this quarter's profits; in favour of stupendous, largely useless, personal "wealth"; in favour of some mythical "progress" chimerical "economic growth"?

Remember, too, that nature seldom works in a gradual, incremental manner. She works by catastrophe: One heavy rain and the Goukamma River changed course overnight, taking a section of the Buffalo Bay Road with it; one heavy rainfall and the slope beneath the George-Wilderness railway line slid into the sea taking the rails to Dave Jones' locker; one smallish earthquake and the town of Ceres was nearly wiped off the map. This is how natural forces normally work. So the statement that we can expect 1.2m of sea-level rise by the end of the century should not give too much comfort. No doubt politicians will read it as "plenty of time, and my term of office will be over long before anything has to be done," but I'll remind them that the major part of that sea-level rise could just as easily happen over mere days or weeks. It will still be "by the end of the century," just a lot more abrupt than any worldly-wise scientist would be willing to put their name to.

Is there anything we can say or do to wake people up from the collective insanity of sitting on our hands doing nothing? I sadly, dejectedly confess that I can't think of anything.

Written from Outside The Asylum.

[1] Joking.

13 January 2014

Today I Learned...

A friend visiting from Sweden brought us a few beers to sample, chiefly a few Christmas (spiced) Ales, or Julöls, which are apparently popular there. Among them a Cacao Porter from the Malmö Brewery which he praised highly. Now both of us are very fond of Porters. I have a particular Porter recipe which is one of my house beers – usually available, but, if not, I'd better get brewing. And I'm reasonably proud of it for its soft, slightly fruity, very creamy flavour that is the product of the Maredsous yeast culture that has insinuated its way into my heart (and brewery).
We started our tasting session with a Christmas Ale of my own invention, the Ale What d'If (A Molpy's Ale), originally formulated in honour of the epic and wonderful XKCD comic, “Time” and the frankly insane cast of Timewaiters who were part of turning it into a new artform. Well, it's quite a nice little Ale. A little sweet for my own tastes, with Cherry-ish notes, and frankly just a bit cloying. We are way too far past Christmas, the window when this beer was expected to be at its prime, so the warming, spicy notes we should get from the Star Anise and Black Pepper were sadly, but not unexpectedly, long gone.

We then moved on to the Malmö Cacao Porter. It poured inky black. Not a hint of light. My own Porters usually have just a hint of Ruby colouring, but from this thing, nada. Not much head retention, and what there was disappeared pretty quickly. This may or may not be true if you drink this beer in its home environment. I have found that head formation and retention frequently suffers from travel, and this poor thing had been schlepped all the way from Malmö to Bibbey's Hoek via Cape Town, under goodness knows what travel conditions.

Aroma was soft, slightly fruity and chocolatey with hints of... Coconut? Not much to comment on, as any strong hop presence would have been out of line, anyway.
The first sip was good. Definite, but not overwhelming chocolate flavours complementing the smooth, creamy Porterishness with its slight burnt, malt bitter tones that deftly balance the crystal malt sweetness. Mouthfeel is silky and soft, and the finish clean and fairly dry. In that first taste I did pick up a very sweet note that seemed out of place. My second sip confirmed: a distinct canned sweet-corn flavour. The sweet, sweet flavour of Dimethyl Sulphide – DMS, and usually considered a distinct fault in most beer styles. Subsequent quaffing became more and more unpleasant to me as the DMS flavour dominated. I was happy that there was only one glass to finish.

A slight hint of DMS is, according to my brewing books, considered OK for North-European ales. This was a lot more than s light hint, though. This was pretty much a sledge-hammer. I found it a bit hard to believe that a well regarded brewery would produce a beer with such an obvious fault, so I surmise that, being brewed strictly as a Seasonal ale, the brewery would have expected it all to have been drunk by now, so a “hint of DMS” would still be under control if consumed around Christmas. I surmise, too, that a “hint of DMS” was intentional, since eliminating it is so very easy and so well understood by brewers: just boil the wort for longer and minimise any boil condensate falling back into the kettle (but any commercial brew kettle would be designed to do that anyway).

Basically I guess that we were quaffing this one well past its scheduled “drink by” date, so I would not hold it against the brewery – at least until I've had a chance to taste more of their beers under better circumstances. I guess I'll have to find a way to go to Sweden for some beer tasting! Oh what a burden to have to bear. I might even have to stop in Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic along the way. Nice dream.

Still, it was interesting and an education to get a full and genuine sampling of what an out-of-control, raging DMS fault tastes like. I'd never experienced the results of a DMS issue before. I was still tasting canned sweet corn for hours afterwards, even after brushing my teeth. Not something I'd want to repeat.

So, Today I Learned about Dimethyl Sulphide...

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