Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wolfberry myths and truths

Now that it's wolfberry season and I have more of the things than I know what to do with, I've been poking about online for ideas. I remember reading that they mustn't be touched, so I checked that out.

If you Google wolfberry oxidize black, you get a whole bunch of sites that say,
"Wolfberries grow in protected valleys of Inner Mongolia and Tibet. The berries are never touched by hand; they will oxidize and turn black if touched while fresh. Harvesters shake the large bushes so that the ripe berries fall onto mats, where they are then dried in the shade."
This contains 4 utter falsehoods. If you have a site that repeats this nonsense, shame on you.

If any wolfberries actually grow in Mongolia or Tibet, they don't grow in sufficient quantities to ship in significant volumes to anywhere else. (Just imagine how expensive they would be, carried from their secluded valleys.) Wolfberries have to be picked by hand since they don't fall off the bushes, which isn't a problem since they don't oxidize when touched, let alone turn black. They have a robust outer skin like that of a tomato. Wolfberries are dried either in the sun, or in enclosed dryers. There's plenty of evidence available online. I've touched my berries extensively, with clean hands and with dirty hands, and they don't turn black, ever. Wolfberries are also not fertilized with unicorn manure in a midnight ceremony involving the sacrifice of a phoenix.

The fresh berry in my hand has been touched repeatedly.
The dried berries from the packet must have been bigger when fresh.

The ones I dried weren't any more pleasant in their dessicated state than their fresh state. Their marginal sweetness and strong bitterness were both enhanced, with the bitterness winning out completely. So I decided to try some from China. All I could find was a small packet of S&B dried 'kuko no mi' for 130 yen. Eaten directly from the packet, they're very chewy, slightly sweet, and slightly bitter. Not wonderful at all. After soaking, they're reasonably palatable and might plausibly make a positive addition to food. So the next thing to do is to try following some recipes that feature them.

Washed and touched berries. Still bright red.
Dried berries from China soaking in water.

And also, since they seem so popular in China where they grow, I assume they must have some better varieties so I'm going to try potting the seeds from the dried wolfberries. The soaked berries are larger than my biggest ones, so I hope to grow a plant that produces bigger fruit, assuming it's happy with the conditions in my garden.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Late summer veg and wolfberries

Even after a couple of savage cold snaps, the garden is giving up huge quantities of green peppers. Broccoli has started flowering, and the tomatoes are still hanging on. The wolfberries are now producing abundantly. One thing I hadn't appreciated about wolfberries is how difficult they would be to collect. They're small, soft, and grow on chaotic, prickly vines. Gathering this lot took an astonishingly long time, forcing me to rethink some of my more extravagant plans concerning wolfberries. I'm going to try drying these.

The Black Seaman Tomatoes I got from an American friend were ravaged by slugs and a very large species of caterpillar, so we only got to eat a few tomatoes early in the season. However, after the caterpillars died off, there were a lot of green tomatoes left. Placed on a south-facing window-sill, they've begun to ripen and with their rather salty taste, they make a good addition to a lunch-time salad.

Bamboo dome - "Romanchiku"

This weekend, the weather was superb - warm and sunny. On Saturday and Sunday, I went to Mugen Mura to help build a bamboo dome. There's already a bamboo dome at Mugen Mura that we built last year. It's the yurt-like thing pictured below. Wrapped in several layers of blue tarp and greenhouse plastic, it's warm in winter and provides good shade in summer.

First we cut several large bamboo poles in the forest above the compound. It's always impressive the way that living bamboo can turned into a building material in a matter of a few minutes.

This time, the dome is being built according to a simplified design. On Sunday, Boy Scouts, most of whom were actually Girl Guides to my way of thinking, were to construct the actual dome, using struts prepared in advance on Saturday. Nishizaki-san explains how the thing is to be built, based on blueprints and a pretty model.

Splitting the bamboo is the hardest part, requiring cooperation, coordination, and a high degree of trust in the hammer man. It all went very smoothly.

The joints inside the strips of bamboo have to be knocked off with a bill-hook, and the edges shaved off if possible for safe handling (we couldn't be bothered, and wore gloves instead).

On Sunday, the Scouts/Guides arrived and we started putting the dome together. This always involves a lot of headscratching and bewilderment, and general tying and untying of string. Those who tend to maintain opinions as a matter of course often like to voice them at this point.

When we reckon everything is in place, there's a concerted heave-ho, and the dome is raised into place. A lot of adjustment is then required to get a smooth and nicely rounded frame.

This time, it was a bit of a fiasco really. The new design, while perfectly good in itself, hadn't quite crystallized fully in Nishizaki-san's mind, and so there was uncertainty about how many struts should meet in one place. In making adjustments, the dome became increasingly wonky, and several of the ties in the struts came loose. Eventually we gave up. Since the dome would have been taken down immediately anyway, this didn't seem like a great shame.

With quiet determination, Nishizaki-san held his own 'hansei' (review) session, splitting some of the struts in half and making a 1:10 scale version to test the design. It worked.

On Saturday, as we sat in last year's dome eating delicious ton-jiru and zenzai, one of our number happened to mention that buying a greenhouse of similar size would cost a small fortune. This is surely something to reflect on, and not only for agricultural purposes. For emergency shelter, the full size thing or a 1:10 version would be easy to make, durable, and cheap.

On the way home, I spotted a howaito kyatto on a shurain. I thought it would make a neat photo, but it's just a skinny cat lying about on an undistinguished religious shed.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


No, it doesn't all go smoothly. Not at all.

There are pests, that involve themselves at all stages, from growth to storage and consumption.

As I was cycling past my emergent fig orchard, I suddenly perceived that one portion of the leaves on the biggest tree had been reduced to skeletons by some pest. The perception occurred almost as in slow motion - "By Christ! What the...?! My biggest fig...!"

It was some kind of horrible hairy caterpillar that was all over the leaves in a most promiscuous fashion. I cut them all in half with garden scissors. Fortunately the smaller, more vulnerable plants were untouched, although surely vigilance is required.

Then in the arvo when I went into my garlic stock, I found some very significant dust all around, and on closer inspection, blatant round holes in the stalks. I knew there had been little beetles visiting when the garlic was drying, and clearly their offspring had been at work since. Some of the individual cloves had brown bite marks on the flesh inside the skin, and where I was prepared to sacrifice a clove to scientific investigation, I found a nasty little maggot at the heart of the clove.

My onions, carelessly thrown into an orange 'kyari', have also been rotting somewhat at the bottom of the basket. Next year, I'll be more careful.

Momigara madness

I've posted elsewhere on making charcoal from rice husks, and this year, I made my own.

I took an old petrol can, and using a steel punch and small sledgehammer, cut out a chimney hole and some side-holes. Making round holes with a punch is a satisfying and enjoyable pastime, although inevitably the jagged edges rip bloody holes in one's fingers...

At the height of the harvest season, I went to the local rice mill and asked permission to take some of the husks. "Any time, feel free", they said, and you can see why. In Japanese we say 'yama'.

I was too busy tending the process to take photos this time. You need to be careful making rice husk charcoal. You can leave it unattended for the first couple of hours, but thereafter it needs watching for safety and best results. If you don't put it out carefully when it's done, it'll burn up leaving very little residue. You need to dump rather more water on it than you might think to put it out inside. I thought maybe I could use a chimney of green bamboo, but my friend reckoned it would catch fire, so I sprung for a proper metal chimney. Glad I did, because the bamboo would definitely have burned merrily. 'Hi no youjin' as they say - be careful when you play with fire.

A lot of people don't bother toasting their husks and just apply them straight on their rows. It seems to work OK, but in my experience, the husks take several years to rot down. (When I stopped my bike to take this picture, I put my left foot down 'all wrong' and twisted my ankle so that I suddenly fell, bike and all, off the path and about a metre into a dry rice field. I landed painlessly on my back. If there had been a stone, or a piece of fencing, or some old machinery where I fell, that would probably have been it. All of a sudden, like.)

Hey pesto!

I was toying with calling the post, "This pesto is the besto", but unfortunately I don't believe it would reflect reality. This pesto was very experimental and ad hoc in nature.

I grow basil every year in the vain hope that it will appear in all sorts of Italian-style cooking, but it never does, and most years it goes straight on the compost heap in November. It always thrives brilliantly, and grows into a big woody bush. So this year I rather belligerently brought the whole bush into the house, and made "Let's make pesto" noises. My friend Yagi-san recently gave us a frozen pot of his home-made pesto, and it was very good indeed, so that acted as a kind of endorsement of the whole idea.

During the process of stripping off all the leaves, an entire ecosystem of insects made it's way onto the kitchen table, including a large, brown and gold praying mantis who resisted fiercely when I put her out, and a stink bug who stank, but not as much as a bush of basil. There were many spiders, as well as a number of mites and something that looks like chaff, many of whom no doubt made it into the final product.

The pesto involved basil leaves, walnuts, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. If it needs Parmesan, it'll have to make do with a shake after serving. The missus put it in a Ziploc for freezing. It looks rather darker than pesto we've had to date.

Fierce debate rages on in our household about the accepted pronunciation of 'pesto'. Obviously I know how to say it, but others insist that 'pesto' is the name of a disease, and I should say 'paste'. This ongoing and general wrongness grieves me considerably.

Wolfberry aperitif

I picked my first wolfberries (getting the excrement of leaf beetles all over my fingers - yuck), washed them and put them in a jam jar with 35 degree proof alcohol. Since I eat yoghurt daily and it comes with sugar sachets that I don't need and save, I put 3 sachets of sugar in with it. I let it stand for about 2 weeks, and tried it tonight.

It's very drinkable! It tastes like something you might even buy! I'm enormously pleased about this because the fresh berries are frankly horrible.

I'm interested to see how the wolfberries fare over the winter. Their leaves are now almost entirely coated in a kind of white powder which I suppose is probably mould, although there are a lot of red berries too.

The sea buckthorn is also looking different. A lot of the leaves have dropped off, but there are buds all over the stems. I figure these are new leaves and not flowers, but I have no idea when they'll do anything. I was hoping to try the berries this year, but that doesn't look likely.