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Posts Tagged ‘Tiki’

The dead tree bed

In November 2013 on November 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

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A guest post by Tiki Swain*

My dead tree bed is a tricky space, an ongoing garden experiment.

The dead tree was once a citrus, but it didn’t survive the droughts Perth endured in the last few years. The old Italian grape vine sprawling over it however managed fine.

My initial idea was to remove the dead structure and make a mini-citrus orchard. But as I studied the garden system as a whole, I realised that plan was doomed to failure. The droughts of the last few years will become the norm within a couple of decades, and as this garden is intended to last for 100 years I have to assume those conditions in all my choices.

The dead tree bed is the farthest corner on my property from water access. I can reach it with a super-long hose if I set the nozzle to “fly high” and point-and-shoot from about six metres away with perfect parabolic angle, but that’s about it.

The adjacent corrugated fence presents a few challenges too. It is a thermal sink – albeit not too large – but on any warm day it’s radiating heat all afternoon. It does give shade, but it’s hot shade when the sun strikes the other side of it. And it makes a huge rain shadow too, given that much of our better rain comes from that direction.

The soil back there is poor even compared to the rest of its surroundings, and – like all of the garden – it’s off-the-scale water resistant, or hydrophobic. (Literally off the scale – I did the test myself and I couldn’t get any concentration of reagent to penetrate).

Put all that together and it’s no surprise the soil, or rather sand, is dry. Bone dry.

The weeds grow thickly in spring, but their stems are so slender and tough compared to their species-mates just four metres away you can see that it’s only the most-dry-loving variants that are surviving, and they’ve got all their epigenetic switches for drought turned to ON. (An epigenetic switch is something that turns genes ON or OFF based on external conditions such as drought, famine, malnutrition, poverty. Which genes are activated or silenced is never the only factor in how something grows, but it has an influence).

The saving grace of this space is the grape vine. Without it, this sand would sunburn. With it, although the ground stays bare and weedless all through summer, it’s not ‘cooked’. The seedbank remains alive. So I can make this area a seasonal meadow. The trick is to use plants that don’t need to germinate in autumn. It takes ‘til midwinter for the soil profile to get enough rain through it for young plants to survive.

I tried autumn sprouters the first year: flax linseed and quinoa, but no success. This year I’ve gone for garlic. This plant sprouts at midwinter, harvested or dies back in late spring / early summer and is done by the summer solstice. So it’s thriving in the light while the grape vine has no leaves, and then sleeping underground through the hot season. The timing is much better.

Of course, the soil is still crap. I have much work to do to make it able to convince plants that they’re not about to die, and even more work to do to replace the weeds I don’t want. So it’s an ongoing project. But we’ll see how it goes this year, and reassess methods and plan next year.

*Tiki Swain is interested in everything and pays attention to as much as possible, especially if it’s food, plants or primitive skills. She is a former science communicator, now studying urban farming and writing about the interplay within agricultural systems at AgriTapestry. You can find her on twitter as @tikiwanderer

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Making maple flavour

In October 2013 on October 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

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A guest post by Tiki Swain* 

I think buying local food, and growing and making your own is important.

But not everything can be done locally. Maple syrup, for instance. We don’t have the climate for maple trees anywhere on the continent, except possibly the highlands of Tasmania and even that’s a bit touchy. To add further complexity, the process of gathering syrup is not ‘home-garden’. It’s quite labour intensive and needs lots of trees.

However, the flavour for imitation maple syrup comes from the seeds of the spice fenugreek, which is a warm-climate Mediterranean-type plant. We can grow that here. When I found this out, I said,

“Whee! I can make maple syrup!”

But, wait a second. Fenugreek. That’s the spice that gives samosas that distinctive curry flavour. How on earth do you get from there to maple? I’ve seen it used to flavour chocolate so I know it can be done, but…

Turns out it’s in the extraction profile. Fenugreek – like all spices – has a number of flavour compounds, and the way you treat it affects which compounds come out more strongly (hint: never add black pepper to soup more than seven minutes before it finishes cooking). The compounds that give the distinctive maple flavour – as opposed to curry – are less straightforward to extract. My reading suggested that water wouldn’t extract those compounds at all, and that industrial manufacturers used hexanes and similar organic (carbon-based) solvents in the process. OK, fair enough. But I don’t keep them in my kitchen. And I guessed I didn’t need to.

Fenugreek is an old, old spice. The name ‘fenugreek’ is a garbled-through-the-centuries form of the name the Romans gave it when they bought it for horse fodder. And I doubt someone in the 20th century just said,

“Hey, let’s stick this curry powder in petrol and see if it makes a nice topping for pancakes”.

There had to have been a reason someone tried it. Which means the flavours can be extracted some other low-tech normal-cooking way – most likely alcohol or oil.

After some careful reading, I devised a possible method for making imitation maple essence, as follows:

–> Warm the fenugreek seeds lightly and evenly without browning (to create the flavour compounds I wanted selectively extractable)

–> Grind the seeds (to increase surface area for extraction)

–> Place in alcohol (as the solvent to collect the wanted compounds)

–> Wait three weeks.

I’m afraid my first attempt was less than successful.

For alcohol I used a bottle of gin someone had left with us after a party. And I didn’t get the fenugreek seeds evenly warmed nor completely unbrowned, nor did I grind them sufficiently before they’d cooled too far. Despite that, it did smell wonderful while I was performing the steps, so I had no early reason to doubt it. And when I opened one of my test bottles after three weeks, a magical mapley aroma washed out of the bottle. Unfortunately, I think that’s where all the maple-like compounds went…up my nose.

When I tasted it, it was curry-flavoured gin. Yep.

So I gave the bottles to some of my foodie friends – who would think it was cool – and reconsidered my methods.

I plan to try again with a heavy, thick-based frying pan for warming, see if that gives me better heat control, and also with a form of alcohol that has a less strong flavour of its own than gin.

I’ll keep you posted.

*Tiki Swain is interested in everything and pays attention to as much as possible, especially if it’s food, plants or primitive skills. She is a former science communicator, now studying urban farming and writing about the interplay within agricultural systems at AgriTapestry. You can find her on twitter as @tikiwanderer