Aug 01 2008

Cabbages and Summer Rain

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It’s three in the morning and the storm which woke me from a restless sleep, is easing a little. Exceptional rain, the worst since records began, has dominated most of July. A few glorious days seduced us briefly into believing summer had finally arrived. Balmy heat haze across the fields brought the farmers out in a frenzy of activity trying to get in hay and cut corn while it was dry. But, alas, the rain is back with a vengeance.
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The kittens greeted me wetly as I walked out of the back door in the middle of the night. They raced downstairs eagerly to my basement study hoping for a midnight feast. Min and Meg looked up from their baskets for a second and wearily shut their eyes tight, Welly didn’t stir. Ginger Fred is, I suppose, out hunting and picking fights.

I can’t sleep again; all wired up on pills and puffers to help me breath, I’m wide awake, mind racing. Funny thing asthma, months go by when I forget all about it, reluctantly taking routine medication while wondering if I really need it at all. Then, wham, a teeny cold and I’m rattling like an old rattle-bag. I wonder what a rattle bag is; must Google it later. It’s hard to sleep sitting up anyway and faintly reassuring to be awake and certain I am in fact still breathing, if rather badly! Of course I’ll pay the price tomorrow.
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Kittens, full now; have left for more wet nocturnal adventure. Actually they’re not kittens any more. I’ve had them a whole year. A whole year since I visited Phil’s farm and wrote about his sheep (Old Traditions New Skills: July 2007); a whole year since he and Gail pressed two tiny furry boys into my hands and said “here you are, take these home with you!” They still bounce round my study when I’m writing, climbing across the computer keys adding interesting punctuation and even weirder spelling than my very own. I am constantly amazed at the pleasure they give me, funny, happy affectionate little animals; such a contrast to the grumpy Fred, who only speaks about food, then says he wants a chat and rewards with a sharp bite. Funny old boy, in turn he growls grumpily at the newcomers and tries to pretend they don’t exist. Poor chap; I guess he feels a bit displaced.
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All the other animals are getting old. Little Min, the feisty Cairn, is incredibly fifteen in September. She still potters off and gets lost but has finally given up ratting for a quieter life. Her great love is Boris, the boy next door, who is singularly disinterested in an old girl like her having a bright new collie companion of his own. Deaf and a bit dotty she pursues him undeterred.
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Meg at eleven is getting less enthusiastic about climbing hills to bring down the sheep but then she’s always been keen on me giving her a hand!
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Even her daft daughter, Welly, is eight. Can it really be over eight years ago that the wayward Buck, (pronounced in the village as BOOK) passed by, leaving me a legacy of nine collie x lurcher puppies. I ran fast but not as fast as him and, alas, I was too late. I remember wondering how I was going to tell Paul his Beloved was in pup! And now I have the incredibly intelligent, loving, anxious Wells whose terror knows no limit at the sound of thunder, gunshots or, indeed, champagne corks.
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Dandy is thirty five now by my reckoning; a dear old donkey, gentle and safe with my grandchildren. He’s plagued once more with an abscess in his foot. A fault right through one hoof makes him so susceptible to infection in this muddy wet weather. He’s improving now and today we were able to put his little boot on his bad foot and let him out with the other donkeys which cheered him up. He climbed to the top of his field for the best grass so I think he’s feeling better.
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A new generation of chickens is appearing in the yard as hen after hen appears leading a procession of fluffy pingpong balls. We rush round gathering up each new family and finding them safe, rat free quarters to raise their young. Some of the chicks have hatched from blue eggs so the old Aracuana fellow has left his legacy.
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Lambs graze wetly on the hill, fat now on sweet summer grass. Ewes are getting into shape for autumn and the arrival of a new tup. The last of the hogs are heading for customers’ deep freezes. Round goes the season again.

Maybe it’s time to try for sleep once more and dream about what on earth I can do with a truly enormous cabbage I have just been gifted!
I had a call from a friend asking if she could bring someone over to learn about donkeys with a view to buying her own. Of course, I said, and was rewarded with the vast brassica; what on earth to do with it. It is a huge quantity for the two of us and the vegetable garden is at its most abundant now despite rain and potato blight.
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I have broad beans and runner beans, French ones on the way, pea-beans and courgette, carrots and turnips, lettuce and chicory, aubergine and tomatoes but no cabbage. My own brassica, cavalo nero, purple sprouting, and, a new one this year, pink Brussel sprouts will not be ready for ages.
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Restless and grounded by asthma and rain I turned to Jane Grigson for some enlightenment on cabbage and, true to her great self, she told me that cabbage has been eaten here since the time of the Celts and the Romans, that it has “original sin” and needs improvement and has a nasty history of being good for you! I love it! Read Pliny, she says if you don’t believe me. Her daughter Sophie, in Eat Your Greens, (Network Books 1993) exemplifies this with her scientific explanation; “as cabbage is cooked, compounds including ammonia and hydrogen sulphide – the rotten egg smell – are produced. Between the fifth and seventh minute of cooking the amount of hydrogen sulphide doubles in output. So, either cook your cabbage in less than five minutes, or keep going for long enough for all the chemical changes to take place….”.

Well that was it, I tipped out all my cookery books from their shelves and, intrigued now by this humble veg, indulged myself in hours of reading! I was on a roll! The Greeks and Romans believed cabbage would stop them getting drunk. Some think this is indeed born out by recent research at a Texan university where cabbage is said to be “hostile” to the vine. And some Mediterranean farmers never plant brassicas near vine or beehives believing bees transfer the odour to both grapes and honey, tainting both.

Horace apparently liked it with pickled pork. Diogenes is said to have lived, astonishingly, on only cabbage and water. And I did indeed find out a little of Pliny’s views on the subject too; he wrote recipes for cabbage with leeks, olives, semolina, pine kernels, raisins and pepper, while extolling the healing properties of this humble brassica. But, alas, from Roman times to Mediaeval banquets it was renowned for causing wind, inciting Lucullus to declare it had no place at a gentleman’s table. Indeed it was forbidden in C6BC in China and in India 400 years later. And year’s later still Dr Johnson mentions it in his rule of etiquette as the “ill wind behind”!

The earliest cabbage was a wild tough derivative of the mustard plant and sea cabbage, brassica oleracea, unpalatable to us now but grown as an herb and allowed to bolt by northern European peasants who stewed it with onions and the occasional belly of salt pork. It supplemented their meagre winter diet of bread and grain, porridge and ale.

In the Middle Ages cabbage plasters were used for sciatica and varicose ulcers. In the C18th Captain Cook took crates of cabbage on board ship to prevent scurvy and cabbage compresses were used to prevent gangrene.

It was not until the C16th the word legume for vegetables replaced the term herb and the Savoy cabbage arrived. It continued as the staple of northern Europe throughout the C18th appearing salted and fermented as early sauerkraut accompanying sausages, as choucroute, over the border into France, with the newly arrived potatoes, and with veal cooked in fermented milk. Here at home, William Ellis, in his “Country Housewife and Family Companion”, (Prospect Books 2000) tells us how to preserve Cabbages and Collyflowers at Allhollantide “withall rough leaves on keep under wheat straw or tie up the leaves around them with string to protect from frost, hang in the cellar roots and all”.
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My splendid 1880 Mrs Beeton tells me to boil cabbage in half a gallon of water, 1 tablespoon of salt and a small piece of soda. Cook in plenty of fast boiling water till tender….Savoy ½ – ¾ of an hour and summer cabbage 10-15 minutes; cost 2d in season. Oh dear, original sin indeed and a strong smell of sulphur to boot! Memories of 1950’s school dinners fill my head. I always wondered how they achieved the soggy, smelly yellow mess swimming around an enormous aluminium dish!

But it can be delicious! Yes, really! Red cabbage cooked long and slow with apples, smoked bacon and juniper berries is a delicious accompaniment to game birds, sausages and venison.

Spring cabbage fried quickly with a chopped shallot in butter and a little oil, to stop the butter burning, is a fresh and crunchy companion to grilled chops or bacon. Stir in some crème fraiche, pine nuts or a spoonful of pesto together with some chopped de-seeded tomatoes and you have a quick pasta sauce, not a classic, I admit, but very good nevertheless.

I stripped the outside leaves from my gargantuan gift and blanched them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Carefully dried on kitchen paper, then wrapped separately in layers, they went into the deep freeze. They will re-emerge in time to be stuffed with various spicy fillings of chicken or pork, rice or couscous. Placed in an oven proof dish and covered with a cheesy sauce they will provide comforting warming suppers as an autumn chill descends on the valley.

I’m so glad to have received my cabbage gift!

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The Four Elements: Joachim Beuckelaer worked 1560-1574

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