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George Monbiot and the Great Rewilding
On 29 May 2013, the day before he officially launched his book Feral, and thus before anyone except book reviewers had read it, George Monbiot gave a talk on his ideas in his former home-town of Oxford; he used to live just round the corner from me and we were on chat-in-the-street terms.
His talk was both different in tone and approach from the book (which I have only skimmed to avoid 'contaminating' my impression of the talk), more objective, less personal.
He began by listing the megafauna that roamed Britain in interglacial times before humans arrived – elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, hyenas, claiming that to this day our trees show signs of having evolved with elephants – they are able to coppice/pollard from very damaged stems (though I can think of other explanations, such as storms). He didn't say so, but dwarf elephants survived into much more recent (post-glacial) times on some Mediterranean islands, only to succumb rapidly to the first human hunters.
Having set the Serengeti-style scene (he kept coming back to 'Serengeti in the UK'), he discussed the very real problem of 'shifting baseline syndrome', whereby conservationists in whatever paradigm tend to want to return to the past that is within living memory, or at least that of their grandparents, rather than taking it right back (in the case of nature) to what it was before humans arrived. I remember over 40 years ago witnessing a discussion between two ecologists, an American and a Korean, over whether Korea's bare hillsides should be preserved their barren beauty or (the view from outside) restored to the forests they once were. The same issues apply to 'natural' heather moorland here in the UK.
Angels in the garden
More Adventures in Extreme Cooking with the Magic Gardener
They are shooting skywards now. Rabbits have picked up on the presence of some newly planted ones in the forest garden and begun excavating their tasty roots. The two year old specimen (protected from the lusty young lapines) smells incredible just from touching the succulent stems and swelling leaf bracts. Time to harvest!
Angelica archangelica is a member of the parsley family. It has a wild cousin in the ancient flower-rich meadows that surround us, but the garden variety, used for medicinal and culinary purposes for centuries, is bigger (can grow up to 2 metres) and rather more spectacular. In high summer the older plants may flower (but only if they feel like it!) and put out huge spherical umbels of yellowy green florets, producing seed which sprouts quickly in surrounding soil, ensuring the continuation of the colony.
The energy in these plants is palpable. I remember doing tai chi in the garden one summer, and being totally unable to concentrate in the face of the etheric 'chorus' floating sunward from a great clump of these blooms. The Sami people made musical instruments with an amazing clarinet sound from the fluted stems: standing next to these joyful plants was like being up close and personal with a whole heavenly orchestra. In the end I stopped trying to do tai chi and just let the experience wash over me.
I was thinking about this yesterday when I cut some big branching stems from the two year old angelica plant (the optimum age for culinary use), and the captivating scent rose up instantly and enveloped me. In the kitchen I separated the leaves, put some in with the rhubarb to simmer gently, and prepared the stems for candying. The bigger leaves went into a plastic bag in the fridge to try making dolmades without the benefit of a grapevine. The leaves in the rhubarb were there to sweeten and reduce the need for sugar. I had thought to remove them after cooking, but left them in the serving bowls because they looked so green and pretty against the pink rhubarb. As it turned out, they too were delicious and sweet, so we ate them as part of the dessert.
Most people only know angelica from the vivid green sugary confection used to decorate cakes. This is the only part of angelica you will find in the supermarket (not counting such liqueurs as green Chartreuse which contain extracts of it), so the adventurous cook will need to grow this plant at home. To make your own candied angelica involves boiling the stems for a little while till softened, then cooling and peeling them. Equal quantities of sugar and water make the syrup. I simmered the peeled stems in this, and left them to cool in it overnight. I will repeat this the next day when the stems should have become glossy and translucent, and ready to dry out on silicone paper, dusted with icing sugar. When they are dry I will be able to store them in an airtight container for up to 2 years, although I can't imagine not using this delicacy up fast, not only on cakes but in fruit salads and trifles. The left over syrup, now thick and infused with angelica's irresistible flavour, will go well with fruit salads and can be drizzled over ice cream (providing you haven't boiled it to death and reached the hard ball stage – only desirable as a cheap alternative to dental extraction :-)
Some years the hedgerows around us are groaning with clusters of tempting green hazelnuts. Last time we left it too late - in our part of Wales it is the nuthatches who get them first. They peck out round holes to get at the immature nuts, and then drop the shells their favourite places to wedge the nut and drill out the hole: here it is an old oak tree that provides lots of small crevices for them to use. The first year we were here I was mystified by finding hundreds of hazel shells beneath it, and by the sound of lofs of tiny beaks tap-tapping all day high in the tree – we thought at first we had rather a lot of gentle woodpeckers or very loud death watch beetle!
So I have been scanning the internet for ideas about how to enjoy some of the harvest before it disappears – using them green.
How well do kiwis grow in the UK?
John Langford from Cornwall noticed kiwis apparently doing well at Stourhead Gardens in the west country. He asked the National Trust head gardener there for some information. Advice on the climbing layer for a forest garden often includes kiwis, but how realistic is this in the UK? There were several comments from FG forum members about successful growing of fruiting kiwis in South Devon and Brighton, but some definitive information has now been supplied from Stourhead. Here is the original query from John and the helpful reply from National Trust Head Gardener Alan Power.