Inheritance recipe: wild garlic pesto

An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.

garlicky stream

Wherever you go and whatever becomes of you three, I hope that you will always be within foraging distance of a patch of wild garlic. Then I will know that you must be near to trees, possibly in ancient woodland, and with luck some running water too.

bend

with anenomes

The wild garlic in ‘our’ woods has been up for about ten days now. It’s one of the heralds of spring round here, part of an overture to the growing season that begins with lesser celandine in March, continues with the garlic and wood anemones. and segues into inky splashes of bluebells all across the banks of the stream.

greens

You can track the progress of spring just by the garlicky smell. This morning I caught a faint tang just before I turned onto the path; soon the entire valley will reek of it. The trees are mostly bare still, but the valley floor is thick with the garlic, along with celandine and wood anemone. While I was picking the leaves I could hear wrens, robins and a nuthatch. A great spotted woodpecker was drumming in the distance.

bud1

I’ve always called the plant wild garlic, but ‘ramsons’ is at least as common a name. It’s also known as stinking nanny and Londoner’s lilies. According to Richard Mabey’s extraordinary book Flora Britannica (you need a copy of this), the Old English root of ‘ramsons’ is hrmsa, a word that crops up in a slew of place names: Ramsey Island, Ramsbottom, Ramsholt, Ramshorn and more.

In a few weeks the woods will be brimming with its starry white flowers. By then, though, it will be too late to forage as once the flowers are out, the leaves become tough and bitter. See if you can get out and find some now, and then try this wild garlic pesto recipe which your dad and I are having on wild (but not foraged) salmon tonight.

Walnut and wild garlic pesto
Traditionally, you make pesto with pine nuts but they are expensive so I decided to use walnuts instead. What follows is adapted from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe here. I’ve probably already told you: if I could only have one cookbook it would be Hugh’s River Cottage Veg Every Day.

ingredients

You will need:

  • About three large handfuls of wild garlic – around 75g
  • 50g walnuts (without shells, obviously)
  • 35g hard, mature cheese. Parmesan is the obvious choice; I used a hard goat cheese; a salty, grainy Pecorino would also be good, or you could use a vegan substitute
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • About 120ml extra virgin olive oil

Put the walnuts in a baking tin and roast at 180 degrees for about eight minutes. Use a timer: they will go from toasty brown to blackened cinder in seconds. Leave to cool.

Wash and dry the wild garlic thoroughly (chances are you’ve picked it somewhere muddy), chop it roughly and throw it in a food processor. A liquidiser would probably work too.  Add the cooled nuts, the finely grated cheese and the lemon zest. Blitz to a paste.

processor

Leave the processor running, add the lemon juice and then the oil in a steady stream. The pesto will be quite sloppy but it firms up a bit in the fridge.

finished pesto

The end result is DayGlo bright with a big, gutsy flavour that explodes in your mouth. It can be a bit throat-catching when you first taste it, but it calms down once it’s incorporated with other ingredients in a meal. You could always add a handful of (preferably flat-leaf) parsley to take the edge off.

Tree of memories

plane from below

This week I stood under a tree my grandfather knew and loved when he was a medical student, just after the First World War. Later, in the 1950s, my uncle also came to love it; apparently his tutor once conducted an undergraduate seminar while sitting on one of its lower branches.

The tree is an oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) and it stands in the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. On Monday my son, a current undergraduate, took me there and we must have spent almost half an hour just wandering around it, trying to take in its extraordinary size and age.

plane view

plane trunk

It’s thought the tree is about 200 years old. Nobody knows exactly when it was planted; that figure’s an estimate arrived at by measuring the trunk. There’s a similar tree at Jesus College, which grew from seeds a Cambridge fellow brought back from the ancient battlefield at Thermophylae in Greece in 1802. It’s a romantic connection and unsurprisingly some people like to claim that the Emmanuel tree came from the same source but that’s impossible to prove

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

With 6ft undergraduate, for scale!

Even though three generations of my family have studied at Emmanuel, I didn’t know about the tree until I read Roger Deakin’s wonderful book Wildwood. Deakin also describes two oriental planes with hollow trunks which nevertheless continue to throw out living boughs. The naïve painter Theophilus lived inside one of them, on the island of Lesbos.

According to Deakin, the trunk of the Emmanuel plane will also eventually become hollow. But the tree can continue to live because whenever one of its branches makes contact with the ground, it puts down new roots. Deakin describes it as an ‘old mother tree with an apronful of children … forever growing down to the lawns and propagating young’.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

Where the branches touch the ground, the tree will put down new roots.

It seems to me the tree is the mother of many memories too, the memories of thousands of staff and students who have come to love it over the two centuries it has been here.

When I looked at it, the word that kept coming to mind was kingdom, a word that evokes its sheer scale and is also a reminder of the myriad life forms that it supports, from lichens and fungi to insects, birds and small mammals.

with chinodoxia

I was glad to see the plane so early in the year, when its branches were still bone-bare and the grass beneath awash with what I think were Chinodoxia, or glory-of-the-snow. And I’m looking forward to returning to see how it changes through the seasons.

It’s strange to think it will outlive my son, who is just 21. I wonder if any of his descendants will come to love it too, long after all the rest of us have died.

The Gathering Tide

Gathering Tide cover

It was a freezing night in February and 24 undocumented Chinese workers had been sent by their gangmaster to pick cockles from the sands of Morecambe Bay. By morning all of them were dead, swept away by a fast-moving tide.

For Karen Lloyd, the disaster in 2004 was the moment that Morecambe Bay and its treacherous sands were put ‘firmly on the global map’. It was also the point at which she realised that even as a local she tended to ignore the coastline and head instead for the more celebrated fells and valleys of the Lake District.

The Gathering Tide is the story of a year spent walking the edgelands of the bay in an attempt to build a different picture of the area, something to counter what she experienced as ‘the collective feelings of despondency and responsibility that many local people felt following the disaster’.

To say that the cockling tragedy haunts The Gathering Tide is to make it sound like a melancholy book. It is not. To walk round the bay with Karen is to learn about art, history, wildlife, geology and more. You meet Cedric, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, and the redoubtable Peggy Braithwaite, Britain’s only principle female lighthouse keeper, who moved to Walney Island as a child, crammed into a boat with her grandmother and the family piano. You visit a Neolithic axe factory, the grave of Sambo the slave boy and an island that some people say doesn’t exist.

At the same time, the elements that produced the tragedy pervade the narrative. This is a book about living on the edge, about blurred margins and the unreliability of memory. It’s about not trusting surfaces and being prepared for sudden shifts of perspective. Everything is unpredictable: the ebbing tide rushes back in; channels change course without warning; sands sink. There are huge skies with shape-shifting clouds; the reflections come and go: you never see the same thing twice.

It’s also a book of exquisite nature writing. The birds in particular stand out. Two crows fly ahead of Karen ‘like Gothic tour guides’. A flock of chaffinches take flight from a hedge ‘like a handful of pink and grey leaves snatched away by the wind’.

Karen Lloyd can write lyrical prose with arresting images but she’s also full of common sense and dry humour. Like her acknowledged mentor Kathleen Jamie, she refuses to over-wild her landscapes: her boys are there with Molly the collie and she never lets us forget she’s a real person out for a walk, eyes watering with the cold, checking her watch to make sure she gets back in time to cook.

By the end you want to go there to see for yourself. You realise the shifting landscape will yield different perspectives for each person who visits. You sense that despite Karen’s acute and detailed observations, there is much, much more to uncover. You realise, as Karen did, that the bay might spark surprising memories, a new perspective on yourself.

The Gathering Tide: a journey around the edgelands of Morecambe Bay by Karen Lloyd. Published by Saraband in January 2016.

Wild Walk

Once, on the way to the allotment, I saw a heron stalking, spearing and then swallowing a fish. Its snakey neck bulged in and out: you could almost think the fish was still swimming as it travelled down the heron’s gullet. I think I held my breath the whole time.

These close encounters with wild creatures have an almost transcendent quality. When I was a child my family spent several summer holidays visiting RSPB nature reserves. I will never forget the thrill of a marsh harrier gliding above our heads; it was one of only two in the entire country at that time. I was eleven years old and felt as though something inside me had changed for ever.

It would be easy to live for these moments, to think they were the goal and end point of all our experience of wildlife. I know they can keep me going for days, and that’s as it should be … except. Except that we are missing something if we only think about the rare and spectacular in nature.

I’ve been reading Mark Cocker’s book Claxton, a collection of short pieces mostly about his walks near the small Norfolk village of the same name. There are charismatic encounters aplenty: otters, peregrines and on one occasion no fewer than twelve owls in a single field. Yet he repeatedly warns of the danger of privileging the showy and the spectacular.

‘What truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates,’ he writes. ‘A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

In the same way, those parts of the natural world that we tend to overlook – ‘the leafless trees, the dank grasses and flowerless plants, the expiring fungi and voiceless birds’ – are all essential to what he calls ‘the great gift of a walk in wild space’.

I like this calling of attention to what appears to be common. As Cocker says elsewhere, if we knew how to notice and value the everyday, we wouldn’t have got to the position where the house sparrow is one of our most threatened birds.

To help me learn more about my ‘living neighbours’, the plants and animals that live in our valley, I’ve signed up to do a ‘Wild Walk’. Wild Walks are a new project from the Willdlife Trusts and the British Trust for Ornithology in which ordinary members of the public commit to doing a walk regularly, recording what they see and then uploading their findings for the trusts to use to inform their conservation work.

My walk is easy. It starts just near our home, runs along the valley and ends at the allotment. In good weather I do it several times a week.

The starting point for my 'Wild Walk'

The starting point for my ‘Wild Walk’

What is much, much harder for me is identification. Every time I step into the wood I’m aware of being surrounded by millions of different living organisms and yet I can only identify a handful of them, mostly birds. Fungi, lichen, insects, moths and mosses: my ignorance of all these and more is shameful. Which is a bit of a problem for a wannabe citizen scientist.

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border the paths

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border my Wild Walk

Not knowing also seems like a kind of ingratitude. Imagine somebody fabulously wealthy living in a stately home full of stunning antiques and paintings. Then imagine that person saying they don’t know anything about them and they never bother to look at them anyway.

Stepping stones mark the halfway point of my Wild Walk

Stepping stones mark the halfway point

We would rightly scorn a person like that, and yet so many of us tolerate a similar lack of appreciation of the extraordinary things that are all around us as soon as we walk out of our front doors. At the back of Claxton Cocker lists the species he has seen in the parish. It runs to more than thirty pages.

Making a dent in my ignorance seems daunting but on the basis that you just have to start somewhere, I’ve made a resolution to learn one new identification fact every week. This week it was the coal tit song. It caught my attention because it really sounds like ‘tweet, tweet’, like a parent teaching their child what birds say. The RSPB has a recording here.

It’s a common enough bird with an ordinary-sounding song but it’s beautiful and it matters and my life is the richer for knowing more about it.

coal tit

Coal tit picture credit

What you might not see in winter

It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.

I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.

cover

It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.

Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice.  Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.

The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.

lake cropped

You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.

barn cropped

On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.

My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.

Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.

Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.

But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.

Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.

In 1959, children could learn, from one page of a pocket-money priced book, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In 1959, children could learn, from one double-page spread in a small, affordable hardback, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.

I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.

When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.

Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.

Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.

When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read. 

We need to talk about Cathleen

cathleen

It’s an odd thing to do, deciding to call a tree ‘Cathleen’ and then pinning a name tag to its trunk. But we live in odd times, so out of joint with our surroundings that sometimes it takes strange tactics to get our attention.

‘Cathleen’ is a magnificent elm tree in my home city of Sheffield. Like all trees, Cathleen is a bearer of stories, not just her own but also those of the myriad tiny creatures who depend on her for life, and of the much larger human creatures living in the quiet suburb where Cathleen has stood for at least 150 years.

elm silhouette

elm up.JPG

Now, however, humans may be about to bring Cathleen’s story to a sudden end, felling her along with thousands of others in what has been called Sheffield’s ‘chainsaw massacre’, part of a massive, city-wide scheme to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements.

condemned

There’s no denying that many of the improvements to our streets are both welcome and overdue, but it’s only now that some of us are waking up to the fact that the work is scheduled to involve destroying up to 18,000 trees, many of which are completely healthy. More than 3,500 have already gone.

It’s horribly appropriate that elm trees like Cathleen are traditionally associated with death and the underworld. Elms were often planted in churchyards and their strong, durable wood has been a popular choice for coffins.

There’s also a darker and more recent link between elm trees and death: Dutch elm disease, which since the 1960s has destroyed more than 25 million elms in the UK alone.

Roger Deakin, in his glorious paean to trees, Wildwood, describes Suffolk in the 1970s as ‘a landscape of many elms … cumulus clouds of their canopies on every horizon, elms in the hedges and at the corners of fields, pollard elms like milestones in the green lanes’. But now only a few hundred remain in the entire country and any that live for more than about twenty years are likely to succumb to the disease.

the hay wain from national gallery

Elm trees in John Constable’s quintessentially English painting of 1821, The Hay Wain, which hangs in the National Gallery.

So ‘Cathleen’, reckoned to be between 150 and 200 years old, is a rare tree indeed. It’s still unclear why she and a few dozen more survived the outbreak when others didn’t and it’s possible that her DNA may help scientists develop disease-resistant elms in the future.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such an extraordinary specimen would be a source of pride anywhere, and particularly in a place that is renowned for having more trees per inhabitant than any other in Europe and was recently rebranded as ‘the outdoor city’.

Yet, unbelievably, Cathleen is at risk of being felled as part of the ‘Streets Ahead’ project run jointly by Sheffield City Council and Amey plc, a company described on Wikipedia as an ‘infrastructure support provider’.

I won’t rehearse here the reasons why felling healthy trees is incredibly stupid, or highlight the appalling lack of transparency there is over the plans, or the council’s inexcusable failure to get the trees assessed by independent arboriculturists. It’s all powerfully summed up by Professor Ian Rotherham on his blog here.

I want to focus on two things that strike me as especially sad about this debacle. The first is that it underscores the extent to which we as humans have become divorced from the natural world, what has rightly been called ‘our common home’.

We are so numbed by our culture of mass production and easy consumption, for example, that Amey has been willing to gamble that it can quash protest by promising to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

It’s as if trees were washing machines or car tyres, easily replaced and with only minor variations between different models.

They are not. Under the plans, a magnificent mature lime, for example, could be replaced by a different species just seven years old. It’s like knocking down someone’s family home and promising them a new-build in a different area – they both have four walls and a roof so what’s the problem?

As Cathleen’s story demonstrates, even trees of the same species have their own, distinctive stories. This, presumably, is why campaigners are choosing to name threatened trees – as a winsome and clearly necessary way of drawing attention to their individuality.

Each tree also represents a unique habitat. Cathleen, for example, is home to a colony of rare White-letter hairstreak butterflies which almost became extinct when Dutch elm disease destroyed most of their preferred food sources.

white letter hairstreak.jpg

The White-letter hairstreak, named for the scribble on its wings. Picture credit

The story of Cathleen demonstrates how ecologically illiterate most of us are, how blind to the wonders that surround us in the nonhuman world. It beggars belief that we can even contemplate destroying a tree of this stature, rather than doing all we can to protect it.

The second thing, which makes me more angry than sad, is that this is not a ‘Sheffield’ kind of thing to do. My adopted city is a wonderful place with a long and proud history of radical thought, full of poets and artists, and cyclists and runners, with two brilliant universities, and acres and acres of green space, much of it donated to us by our philanthropic forbears. Thoughtless, selfish, stupid actions like unnecessarily destroying trees do not belong here.

A number of local groups in Sheffield are campaigning hard to change the Streets Ahead policy on tree felling. If you would like to find out more, or express your support, visit their joint website here. Even if you don’t live in Sheffield, you could sign the petitions and add your voice: trees are a national treasure, not just a local one.

Remarkable Things: Billy Bob Buttons

‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?’
Jon McGregor

An occasional series, in which I shine a spotlight on outstanding people, projects and places that deserve more attention

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I’m kicking off this new series with a big cheer for a man called Billy Bob Buttons.

That’s not his real name, of course. He’s actually Edward Trayer, a successful children’s author, and he’s remarkable because every year he undertakes a ridiculous amount of hard work simply to help fellow writers.

Edward organises the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards, a rare opportunity for self-published writers like myself to enter a competition (most don’t accept self-published books) and get honest feedback from real readers. And by ‘real readers’, I mean people who read for pleasure rather than people who get paid for it. Children’s books are judged by schoolchildren and adult books are judged by reading groups in London and Stockholm.

The awards are affordable and EVERY SINGLE ENTRANT, finalist or not, gets honest feedback from people who have read their books thoroughly, plus a catchy quote and the option of a review on Amazon and GoodReads.

At this point I have to get out my own trumpet and give it a little toot because I was thrilled that Incredible! won a bronze medal in this year’s awards!

Our Incredible Award! Read on for news of a special offer

Our Incredible Award! Read on for news of a special offer

But now let me sound a much bigger blast of the trumpet for Edward. I’ve never met a writer who said they had SPARE TIME; in fact I’ve only met writers who wish they had MORE TIME TO WRITE. So for me Edward is truly remarkable because he is prepared to give so much time and energy to promoting other authors, particularly ones who might be overlooked by the mainstream.

It means a great deal to get recognition and honest feedback in an area that can, frankly, be pretty lonely

So thank you, Edward and may your own books continue to garner the kind of success you so richly deserve!

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Sharing bed in Todmorden

Sharing bed in Todmorden

Some comments from the judges

‘What a sweet book. I loved every page. Fab cover and blurb too. Made me want to go out and plant carrots.’

‘This book offers a solution in a world of economic decline and climate change. Set in Todmorden, Yorkshire, the community there begins to plant vegetables in public spots. As a result, not only is the community spirit revived but it begins a world-wide, vegetable-growing REVOLUTION! I liked this book very much. It is well-written with a fun, witty undertone. There is help at the end of the book if you wish to get involved.’

‘A very inspiring read presented in an eye-catching cover. The tone is perfect for a book of this nature and the strong, environmental image is relevant to many of today’s problems.’

In celebration of our Bronze Award, we’re offering 25% off the cover price of Incredible! between now and Christmas Eve. Click here for the online shop. £1 from every book sold will go to Incredible Edible Todmorden Unlimited, which is run entirely by volunteers.