A day out at Chagford Show

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Yesterday I went to our village's agricultural show, now in its 119th year, celebrating the skills, crafts, and lore of the local farming community, and its central place in life on the moor. Reflecting on the nature of community, I was reminded of this passage from "The Common Life" by essayist Scott Russell Sanders:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents.

"After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

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"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious; and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us.

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"The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

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Prize-winning sheep

In an interview in 2004, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams also spoke of the value of putting down roots in an increasingly peripatetic world:

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away.

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"It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

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"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

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Words: The passage above is from "The Common Life" by Scott Russell Sanders,  published in his essay collection Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Chagford Show, 2019. I've blurred the faces of the children displaying their sheep for privacy's sake.


The folklore of nettles

Spring is the time to harvest nettles...

Nettle path at the bottom of Nattadon Hill.

As we've been discussing the folklore of wild flowers and herbs, I thought I'd add two relevant posts from the archives to finish off the week. Here's the first...

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Nettles

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

Nettle patch

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles, ragged robin, and piskie flowers

Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettle hunter at work

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

Foraging basket

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Fresh nettle tips

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Evening sunlight through the kitchen window.

Here's our family recipe for Bumblehill Nettle Soup, which is easy to make and delicious:

First, pick your nettles by pinching off the fresh leaves at the tip of the plant, leaving the plant itself intact. It's best to do this in the spring when the plants are young and the vitamin content at its highest, before the flowers appear. Rinse your nettle tips in cold water, and cut off any woody bits or thick stems. You need to wear gloves while you handle them, but once the nettles are cooked you can safely eat them without any stinging.

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle leaves, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.) Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey.

Nettle soup and tea

You can also throw young nettle leaves into pancake, crepe, scone, biscuit, and bread recipes -- just rinse them, chop them, and blanch them in boiling water (to get the sting out) first.  Below, for example: savoury squares of nettle-and-herb flatbread with sea salt, and sweet nettle pancakes.

Nettle-and-herb flatbread

Nettles, herb Robert  and piskie flowers

Nettle pakecakes on the breakfast table

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.

And pretty tasty too.

Fresh nettles

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane

Pictures: The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" fairy tale are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, and Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Words: The quoted passages are from Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: Wildflower season, More folklore of the wild flowers, The folklore of food, and, for more on the Wild Swan fairy tale, Swan's wing. I've written about my personal connection to the fairy tale in "Transformations," but I must give you fair warning that this essay is a dark one.


Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on our trip north in June: polytunnels, turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee.


The Chagford Show

A prize-winning cabbage at the Chagford Show

Prize-winning onions

On Thursday, Howard, Jenny (my lovely mother-in-law), Tilly and I went to the 115th Chagford Agricultural and Horticultural Show, one of our favorite events in the local calendar, where we watched dog, pony, and horse trials, admired tractors and vegetables, listened to local music, ate locally-grown food, caught up with village neighbors and friends...and where I was able to thoroughly indulge my inexplicable passion for sheep.

Here are some of my pictures from the day. You can find many more by other folks in the Gallery of the Chagford Show website.

Prize-winning vegetables

Prize-winning peas

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again -- something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.” 

- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)

Prize-winning herbs

Home-made local wine

Prize-winning children's drawings

Prize-winning flowers in the children's section

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don't need a lot of money to be happy -- in fact, the opposite.”

- Jean Vanier (Community And Growth)

Friends serving tea at Chagford Show

Husband, hound, and a vintage tractor

Steam-driven tractor

Dog competition at Chagford Show

Carriage-driving competition

The passing traffic at Chagford Show

“If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors' prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities -- and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared."

- Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)

Prize-winning young cow

Prize-winning calf

I'll be out of the studio over the next week due to family commitments, and back to Myth & Moor again on Tuesday, September 1st. Wherever you may be, I hope the end of your summer (or winter, for those of you Down Under) is a good one.

A lamb at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Ram and sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford ShowPicture descriptions are in the captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Literary food

Once Upon a Time apple pie crust from the Food in Literature blog

A friend has ribbed me gently for writing about the magic of cooking when she knows I have a deep adversion to cooking myself (with a very few exceptions), and have been known to live on popcorn and coffee when left to my own devices. Mea culpa.

I love fine dining, I'm an adventurous eater, and I care about the ethical and ecological dimensions of the food that's on my plate...but I truly hate to cook, and do it as seldom as I can possibly get away with. (This is, er, not entirely unconnected with having nearly burned my grandmother's kitchen down when I was a kid.)

Fortunately I am married to very good cook, and our daughter is a professional chef & pastry chef in London, trained in a Michelin Star kitchen and deeply interested in food politics. Food is, as a result, a constant topic in our house -- and my love of fine cooking is not diminished by not being a practitioner of the art myself, just as my love of music is not lessened by the fact that I don't play an instrument. Some of us are musicians and some of us are the appreciative audience; some of us are wizards of the kitchen and some of us are happy eaters (and dish-washers).

Regency dish-washerThe dishwasher at work (after a Jane Austen themed dinner party).

Now, with that Full Disclosure aside, here's one last post on food to end the week: a look at blogs and websites combining literature and food in interesting ways. Here are a few of my favorites...and suggestions of others are very welcome.

* The Paper and Salt blog, by Nicole in New York City,  is "part historical discussion, part food and recipe blog, part literary fangirl attempts to recreate and reinterpret the dishes that iconic authors discuss in their letters, diaries, essays, and fiction." The Jane Austen Brown Pudding Tarts and L. Frank Baum Ginger Cake with Butterscotch Sauce below are two of the recipes on Paper and Salt, which has run for almost three years now, covering writers from the 18th to 21st centuries.

Jane Austen post on the Paper and Salt blog

L Frank Baum on the Paper and Salt blog

* In the "Fictitious Dishes" series, Brooklyn designer Dinah Fried has recreated food scenes from books ranging from Moby Dick and The Chronicles of Narnia to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Follow the link to see examples of her work, or seek out her book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, containing fifty such photographs.

Below, Fried composes place settings for Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Oliver Twist's meal by Dinah Fried

Alice in Wonderland by Dinah Fried

* Cara Nicoletti's Yummy Books started as a Brooklyn book club in 2008, turned into a supper club in 2009 and then a  "literary food" blog in 2010. Nicoletti (a butcher, former pastry-chef, and writer) explains her combined focus on food and books like this:

"There is nothing as engrossing as the eating of a truly great meal and nothing that nourishes my spirit quite like the reading of a good book. Hemingway himself once said 'I have discovered that there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else.' Perhaps it is because of this symbiosis that, for me at least, some of the most romantic, most poignant scenes in literature are scenes of cooking and eating." 

Pictured below, Nicolleti's food-and-book pairing for Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

Haruki Murakami food-and-book paiting on the Yummy Books blog

* Eat This Poem, by Nicole Gulatta in Los Angeles, is written in a similar vein but focuses more on poetry, and on literary city guides "for bookworms who love to eat."

Gulatta says that she launched her blog in 2012 "as a way to fuse two of my passions, food and writing. I hope you'll stay a while (preferably with a hot mug of tea or coffee in hand) as we explore how poetry moves from page to plate, and inspires our palates along the way."

Pictured below, an onion tart in homage to Pablo Neruda's poem "Ode to the Onion."

An Onion Tart inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem from the Eat This Poem blog

* The Black Letters, a lovely literary blog  by the "ravening bibliophiles" Emera and Kakaner, occassionally strays into "The Bibliophile's Kitchen," where you can sample Honey Oatmeal Scones inspired by Roald Dahl's Matilda, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Black Forest Raven Cake and other delights. I was fortunate enough to meet this blog's talented young authors in London this summer, and can't wait to see what they "cook up" next.

Matilda Honey Oatmeal Scones from The Black Letters blog

Black Forest Raven Cake on the Black Letters blog

* On her Food in Literature blog, Bryton Taylor notes food reference in adult and children's fiction, gives advice for book-themed parties, and offers literary recipes -- including the Snow White Apple Pie pictured in process at the top of this post, Ogden’s Olde FireWhiskey from the Harry Potter series, and Twice Baked Honey Cake that might have been served in Tolkien's Hobbiton.

Twice Baked Honey Cake from the Food in Literature blog

* For a more scholarly approach to the subject, try the Literary Food Studies blog by Vivian N. Halloran, an associate professor at Indiana University. The blog is devoted, she explains, to "discussing food in multiple genres -- from blogs, to culinary memoirs (with and without recipes), chefographies, fiction, poetry, investigative journalism and cook books -- and from a variety of perspectives. My approach to food studies is interdisciplinary, but this blog focuses on literary criticism; I consider how the texts under discussion embody, challenge, or expand our assumptions about what makes for beautiful, thought-provoking, compelling, and/or moving writing about food."

Also, if you love good food blogs with dazzling photographs, try A Fantatical Foodie -- which isn't a literary blog per se, but the author is a friend of the family (formerly of Chagford, now living in Bristol) and her food is just incredibly good.

Bon appetit!

Howard's Vanilla Bean & Honey Panne Cotta with Bitter Chocolate GanacheHappily eating a scrumptious dessert of Howard's concoction: Vanilla Bean & Honey Panne Cotta with Bitter Chocolate Ganache