Thursday, 29 July 2010

how green does your school garden grow?

It's Summer vacation for the kindergarten right now and I've taken the opportunity to get in there and do a bit of creative re-evaluation. It's been a lot of fun. The garden is small, about 12 meters by 6 with a 5 by 3 shaded area between the buildings. When we started in February we wanted as much free running and playing space as possible, and we thought we might only have the site through July, so we just cleaned it up, planted a couple of small beds and started a loofah vine up the front of the building.

The loofah took over and though it was pretty against the bright yellow wooden building it started looking really raggy by the windows and covered one bed entirely. I like the shambling cottage look, but it was too much crazy wildness for the children and so it has been cut back to a trim central column climbing to the ridge of the roof then out across the yard on a narrow trellis and onto the front fence. Only now is it beginning to flower, we thought we would have loofahs by October but it looks like it'll be later if the flowers are only now starting. I was hoping we'd get enough to eat (loofahs are very edible when young), but I think we'll get just enough to make Christmas gifts for parents.

We had a couple of pineapples and they fruited, producing several suckers: we now have a fairly respectable pineapple patch with maybe 16 pineapples plus others in beds and lining the path to the bathroom. 

Our sand box surrounds a dear old grapefruit tree. I've fenced the box off on one side with Nadera Negra which are leguminous short trees which give a pretty pink flower, edible when cooked. Madera Negra is grown from a stick, I planted 10 a foot apart and strung twine between them. I've planted Sorosi on the trellis, Sorosi is a very feathery, sweet delicate little vine with cheery yellow flowers and a knubbly yellow orange fruit. It's very bitter and a strong medicinal, all the children here know it and know that their neighbors and grandparents take it to "strengthen the blood".

Beside the door to the kindergarten I've planted Aloe Vera under the eaves where the rain won't reach, it's a tricky plant to grow in this humid climate, but worth it. On the other side I've put a Bandera de Espana, a pretty vine with olive leaves and creamy white flowers with a dark pink center.

Our tomatoes are doing well trellised up a wall with plenty of mid morning sun and protection from the rain. I've put another three papayas in bringing our count to 5 - necessary because one never can tell who'll be a boy! Our largest papaya has just come out as a boy, which we really don't mind as the flowers smell wonderful! But I'd like all the rest to be big strong fertile girls.

Our tea corner now contains Lemongrass, Ginger, a local Licorice and Orozuz (a local relative of Stevia), I'll add some Carpenter's Bush which gives a really nice subtle calming tea  and makes a pretty groundcover.

Our coconut palm is coming along. It was a volunteer when we took over the school site and we kept it, it'll be 5 years before it fruits, who knows what will happen in that time?

In all I've added four more beds with mixes of edibles and ornamentals. I've tried to keep the colors in the purples, pinks and blues to tone down the brilliant yellow of the building and the sheer green of the garden. The beds sculpt the layout of the garden and give it a bit more definition and direction. The next thing I'd like to do is put in a very small, very shallow pond (about the size of our dishwashing bowl) purely to add some water hyacinth, tadpoles, duckweed and dragonflies. The newest ornamental additions all attract butterflies. How lucky these children are!

Let's see, so we have coconut, papaya, pineapple, grapefruit, tomato. I've still to put in a banana. For teas we have ginger, lemongrass and hibiscus sweetened with orozuz. For fresh greens I've planted katuk, camote, two types of wandering jew and culantro which can be prettied up with petals from the hibiscus and impatiens. I've still to add the carpenter's bush (tilo) and some purslane I found growing in a meadow neighboring the school. And there are two types of edible mushroom; oyster and wood ears, which we use in our Thursday soup.

That sounds like a pretty well rounded garden! More edibles than ornamentals and a good handful of medicinals. Plenty of scents, colors, textures and layers to stimulate the children's senses and imagination. And of course foster their love of plants and gardening!

Successful compost delivery!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

snake day

The farmer and I both dreamed of snakes last night, there was nothing snakey about yesterday, but today there certainly was.

On the way back from the farmers' market we paused on the driveway to let a boa cross our path. He was in no hurry and ambled slowly across the road, not so very big, maybe 5 foot, and beautiful. I have a 12 minute video of a boa eating a squirrel, or rather the second half of the squirrel, filmed one morning on the path below the house. The squirrel had been in a cacao tree and both had fallen onto the logs below. All I could do was wait, there was no way around. When she finished she scowled, raised herself up and flicked her tongue at me. I know it was rude to record her, but what else could I do there with a camera? (I was late for a meeting and hence had to show my reason.) We like and encourage boas in this area, great rodent control! And as soon as I work out how to upload the video I'll do it!

Back on the farm we heard that the workers had killed a terciopelo (Bothrops asper), or fer-de-lance in English. One of them had seen it yesterday near the public road that runs through the farm and all three had returned this morning to look for it. The fer-de-lance has a terrible reputation - the "ultimate pit viper", and is responsible for most of the venomous snake bites in Costa Rica. It's large and nervous / aggressive, and is almost always killed on site by the locals. Normally we do not like snakes being killed on the farm, but with this one we allow it. Having the Botanical Garden with its many visitors we can't take the risk. So it had been killed as quickly and as simply as the men could do it: they caught her with a forked stick and broke her skull.

We went over as soon as we could. She was a good size, beautiful and sleek. Her skin was the most scaly skin I've ever seen on a snake, not small close fitting mosaic style scales, but large diamond shaped ones which all seemed to move independently. Her belly looked almost like a shrimps the way the large rectangular scales overlapped each other. They were as smooth as glass and a wonderful creamy white. Terciopelo means velvet in Spanish, and her back did feel somewhat velvety with each scale having what seemed like a soft nap to it, but it was a hard sort of velvet. The skin was loose on her, probably to allow for its elastic nature. Her vertebrae were hard and raised in a ridge that ran the whole length of her body. I have never been so close to a fer de lance before and was surprised by how blunt and snubbed her nose was. The skull was broken so we couldn't save it for cleaning and we didn't open the mouth to look for her fangs - there are too many stories of venom leaving those fangs even after the snake is dead.

The farmer wanted to try the meat and so Evenor and I cleaned and dressed her. We slit the length of her back and removed the skin which came off easily. Very simple to dress, the ribs and meat wrap around the alimentary canal and organs which come away from the flesh easily just with pulling. It is a two person job, but not messy or difficult. It was in cleaning her we confirmed she was female (I had thought so due to her size and aggression): terciopelos give birth to live young and she had about 80 embryonic sacks with 3 inch, still transparent, snakes inside. Sad, always sad to see such beautiful creatures killed, but also lucky for us in that by killing one snake we had avoided the possibility of killing 80 others.

We buried the head and viscera and took the meat and skin home. The dogs sniffed cautiously at the skin and then retreated giving a wide berth - this I was very happy to see! I stretched and tacked the skin to a board, scraped it several times until it was soft and clean and then rubbed ash all over the inside and have left it propped up below the house where the breeze will reach it. The farmer oven roasted about 9 inches with black pepper. It was very tasty, a lot like chicken breast but more tender. The only issue is the bones which are fairly soft but not soft enough to eat. We'll use the rest for soup, I think the meat will come right off the bones. Eating her for me was the best way to respect and value and give gratitude for her life. Her beautiful skin will be used in the botanical garden to show visitors and to educate a little more about the types of snakes and creatures which make this area their home.

I did have a third snake experience today. I was going to the kindergarten to water our newest garden additions and a group of local kids and two youngish men were standing staring at something in the pasture. There was a lot of brandishing with sticks so I asked and they said it was a terciopleo. Having come freshly from the dressing, still with spots of blood on my leg, I wanted to see. Plus it was close to where we had spotted the boa earlier. Sure enough it was a boa, probably the same one. I had a hard time convincing the others it was not venomous, dangerous or anything to be feared. Most people kill all snakes on sight here and many crazy stories are wildly believed such as boas give birth to terciopelos once they reach a certain age, or that they have a venomous bite at night. Total baloney of course, but it's really hard to shake fear out of people. The kids wanted to start throwing stones at it and I had to use my sternest teacher voice to tell them absolutely not. Luckily for the snake and me (I was thinking I'd have to climb through the fence and pick him up to move him somewhere safe, and demonstrate he was in fact harmless), a local amphibian and reptile advocate walked by. He went in, picked up the boa - to the hysterical excitement of the kids - and took it away. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

markets in Mexico

We are back from our trip to Mexico and the States. It was thoroughly enjoyable. It was my first time in Mexico and I loved it! The food, the places, the arts and crafts, the food, the music, the culture, the food, the people, the history, the food, the energy and the atmosphere. The food was great: fresh, simple, tasty and quick, we drove to Veracruz from Mexico City and it seemed that every roadside shack was either a cafe or a mechanics, and sometimes both.

We were in Veracruz visiting vanilla growers around Papantla, a nice little town perched on several hills with lots of trees, a wonderful local historical site, El Tajin, and a local indigenous tradition of dropping off the top of a very high pole suspended on a long rope while a musician dances atop the pole playing beautifully haunting simple pipe and drum tunes. Wonderful.

The markets were busy and bustling with great fresh produce and tons of character. Here are some pictures to whet the whistle:

Thursday, 17 June 2010

cacao kills cockroaches

I believe that every creature has a place and a role in the world. However there are certain creatures which I just don't want to share space with. I have various agreements with several species: scorpions, larger ants, spiders, biting flies, that if we share space we are purely courteous and harm no-one. It works: and on those rare instances when it doesn't then usually that creature is removed from our common space. Cockroaches too have a place and I can be fond of them, cleaning and clearing away our detritus, but somehow reviled more than all the flies, ants and wasps which share the same momentous task: they are the vultures of the insect world. They're actually quite cute up close.

However there is a point beyond tolerance and I reached it this week. They got into my chickpea flour.

I live in the jungle and I am fully aware that I am here as a guest and part of the honour is that I share the space with all the other inhabitants. Everything in my kitchen is double bagged and in tupperware boxes. I am oh so well aware of all the ants, flies, mites, weevils, grasshoppers, stink bugs, and endless strange looking 6 leggededs, as well as the myriad spores of yeasts, molds, fungi, plus all the bacteria, protozoa and multi formed parasites that live here too. I've played host to a number of the best of them. Oh yes. But when the roaches finally break through into my chickpea flour, take up residence in my traveling coffee mug and eat the onions in my veggie basket, I'm over it.

Cacao kills cockroaches. I imagine it's the same mixture of chemicals which pep us up, which causes a heartattack or overloads the cockroach to death, but the result is quick and final. But cacao is also rather an expensive - if all organic - way to go. So yesterday I made some special killer candy. Roaches love onion and orange juice, and chickpea flour, I blended chopped onion with just enough orange juice to wet it, added some chickpea flour and powdered boric acid. The mix I formed into patties and placed around the kitchen and bathroom on top of squares of old plastic bags (easy to move and a lot cleaner). The boric acid takes up to 10 days to work. It's a slow and nasty death of starvation and dehydration, and I'm sorry for that. Cacao would be better. When I get the population down I might switch to smaller amounts of cacao powder, or might mix cacao in with the borax.

It's a nasty business.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

homemade coconut oil

Anyone with access to a coconut, a grater, and a stove can make coconut oil. And I recommend anyone try it, it's time consuming but really educational in that it proves once and for all why coconut oil is such a luxury and so expensive.

Ideally you'll want fully mature coconuts, the heavy ones that don't sound full of liquid. Open, save the liquid, remove and grate the flesh. The easiest way to do this is by using a juicer like a Champion (we have a Jack LaLarres). If you don't have a juicer then a blender or food processor works too. We use a coconut grater from the south pacific which looks like a rising sun.
Grate the coconut. If you use a juicer it will separate the coconut cream from the meat. If you use anything else you will get a nice moist pile of shavings mixed with liquid. Mix this pile with a small amount of water, mix thoroughly and then squeeze the liquid from the flesh. I use an old pillowcase. You want to use the minimum amount of water as it will be cooked out later and will just lengthen the cooking time. Squeeze as hard as you can to get as much of that lovely milk out. Save the flesh for baking, or for curries, or for the dogs. It's important to have helpers clean the coconut shells:

Whichever method you use, let the milk sit for several hours, preferably overnight (in the fridge is fine too). This allows the milk to separate, skim the cream from the surface and put in a pot. If you get some of the milk too it's not a problem, you'll just make coconut cheese. I always skip this step as I am impatient and I love coconut cheese.

Bring the cream / milk to a slow boil stirring ALL the time. Reduce to a simmer and stir. Now you will wonder why you used so much water. Stir, stir, stir.

Gradually the water will evaporate, the cream will thicken to a slushy paste like consistency and you will be bathed in coconut steam. Keep stirring. Slowly the cream will begin to separate and you will see the beginnings of the oil, it will puddle around the edges at first. Keep stirring.

More and more of the coconut cream will become oil. Curds of coconut cheese will begin to form, these will be small separate chunks, almost the same shape as cottage cheese curds but less than half the size. At some point you will notice that there's no more oil forming and the cheese is beginning to change colour. Remove from heat, allow to cool and pour through a sieve to filter out the cheese. Store the coconut oil in a wide mouthed jar in the fridge, eat the cheese! The cheese is an excellent addition to baked potatoes, salads, actually anything savoury. It's the closest a vegetarian could get to crispy bacon. It's very good, the only place I've heard it being sold is Hawaii, but it must be available elsewhere. I do hope you make this and I do hope you enjoy it. If you do, please leave me a comment!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

where are all the flowers?

It's June already but something's missing. Where are all the flowers and all the developing fruit? There are no flowers on the mangosteen; the branches are bare of buds on the durian; there are no fallen petals below the champedak; no bees are buzzing round the rambutan; there's no early morning pollination of vanilla. There are no flowers. Which means there will be no fruit. Unless somehow it's all just late this year, but even if the farm is about to explode in blossom then that puts the fruit season back to November / December with the rains. Possible I guess.

It's very quiet. What about all those nectar loving insects, bats, birds and mammals? And what about those who rely on taking part of our harvest every year? All those oropendulas or iguanas for example, will there be enough fruit to share?
I hope so . . . I hope so.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

volunteer opportunity

We have a volunteer position available this Fall, to help with the harvest and processing of durian, mangosteen, rambutan, langsat, duku, keppel, kumquat, cacao and various other fruits, spices and herbs. The volunteer would be helping with the actual harvesting and then with the drying and preserving of the fruit. Ideally we would like someone for the duration of the season, which this year looks like early October through mid December. If anyone is interested please reply by comment!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

pineapple scones

The kitchen smelled wonderful yesterday, not only were the dehydrators full of papaya, pineapple, banana and jackfruit, but I was baking scones and an oat bar we've been enjoying for breakfast. A friend with an organic farm has a surplus of pineapples at the moment (he did something like we just did: plant 300 same age suckers at once!), and no electricity so he's selling a lot to us. This is great news. Not only have we been eating copious quantities of sweet and sour everything, and drying every day, I've also had enough to experiment with such frivolities as pineapple scones and pineapple jam.

Hating to waste any of the fruit, I've been simmering the skin and cores (they are organic) in water for about 40 minutes, or until the water reduces by a third and then storing it in the fridge, or adding sugar and cooking it down into a syrup. In Nicaragua they make a delicious rice pudding with cooking pineapple peel along with the rice, and in Belize they make a great iced drink with this pineapple 'tea'. The tops have been going to the kindergarten: we've got quite the pineapple patch over there now!

The pineapple scones are the best so far of all the scone flavours I've tried, the farmer says they're up there with the durian scones, but in my mind they're better. Here's the recipe, it's the basic scone mix with extras:

2 cups wholewheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
about 1/4 cup sugar
about 3 tablespoons oil
1/3 cup dried pineapple chunks
about 1/4 cup crystallized ginger
about 2/3rds - 1 cup pineapple 'tea'

Mix dry ingredients, add oil and pour in about 2/3rds of the 'tea'. Mix lightly. For scones you want a soft dough, not much handled. Add remaining liquid until the dough comes together in a ball, you probably won't need it all. If it gets overwet add some flour. Turn out on a floured board and pat or gently roll to a thickness of 3/4 inch. Cut into rounds and bake on a cookie sheet in a 350F oven for about 30 minutes. Allow to rest for 5 minutes then enjoy warm.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

rain stops play

This is the month of thunderstorms and heavy rain showers. This morning I had planned on transplanting tomatoes and basil from here on the farm over to the kindergarten. But the rain is lashing down and would gladly smoosh any new transplants so I'm waiting it out cooking up dog food and browsing the web. The following is an extract from the Roots of Change site, from a report from the Kellogg Foundation Food and Community Conference:

  "(T)he need for deeper research on the biological realities underlying health is clear and exciting. The research findings related to secondary plant metabolites (plant properties beyond the carbohydrates typically discussed for their impact on nutrition) provide a pathway for humans to understand the synergistic or relational nature of ecosystems, plants and human health. We need more variety in our diets from a diverse set of plants that emerge from deeply healthy ecosystems. Diets rich in plant diversity will ensure that our cells receive the full spectrum of nutrition that evolution has made available to us."

I feel especially inspired by the phrases "relational nature of ecosystems, plants and human health", and, "plants that emerge from deeply healthy ecosystems": it sounds like change is coming!

Thank you to all those who responded to the last post. The holes are slowly closing up, hurrah!

Friday, 14 May 2010

holey schmoley

I'm sitting here with a pack of ice on my knee, the cold numbing my leg while drops of condensation run across my skin. A moment ago a hot pack was sitting in the exact same spot. I've got leishmaniasis, or papilamoya as it's known locally. I've had it for over a year now, one spot on my arm that we treated with injections which we thought had worked, but it came back in almost the same spot and two more places beside. I was using a silver cream which was keeping them more or less steady, but not making any improvement. Then I tried gavilana, known in Panama as tres puntas, and known in local English as jackass bitters. It seemed to work brilliantly and within two days the holes in my arms had gone. And the three on my knee, or so I thought. We went off to Panama and returned without putting anything on my knee. It began to look infected, the dogs and flies were showing interest, so I thought I had staph and we went to the clinic. The doctor seemed to delight in telling me that it was leishmaniasis and went on to explain how painful the injections were, how I would forget things, how I would taste metal as long as the injections lasted. I left the office horrified.
Leishmaniasis comes in various forms, the form here in Costa Rica is subcutaneous, which is a lot better than the other kinds. It's a protozoa which is introduced to the body via the bite of a sandflea or mosquito. I spend very little time on the beach, but I do live in the forest: sloths are carriers. No doubt some mosquito fed on a sloth before biting me. Now while I would normally find that a cute idea - sloths have thick fur, the only place a mosquito can bite is directly on the nose - in this case I'm not so enthralled.
The protozoa multiplies and gradually eats away a hole in the skin and then the flesh. It makes an ugly crater like wound with the surrounding skin raised and hard and red, falling away into a smooth or jagged edged hole with a thick whitish fluid at the center. Looks like a volcano. It isn't painful unless the area is touched directly, but it can itch. It seems that everybody who lives here gets it at some point. And there are as many cures are they are sufferers.
Hot banana peel, roasted lime juice, gavilana, hombre grande, silver, coralillo, tiger's paw, milk thistle, green clay, hot and cold - are a few of the recommendations I've heard. Each person has something that works well for them and will work repeatedly, it seems to be a case of finding the right thing. The other 'medical' option is to have a series of injections. If the papilamoya is small the injections can be given directly into the surrounding area. However if it is more serious the injections are given daily into the glutes. We have friends who have received up to 90 such injections day after day until the hole closes. The main active ingredient is antimony, a heavy metal. The treatment really thumps one's liver, as well as one's glutes. I REALLY don't want to go there.
The hot - cold seems to be working. I've been at it for 8 days now and the sides of the holes are lower and less angry. I was using tiger's paw too which is a beautifully shaggy philodendron, but the sap stung like crazy and hasn't made so much of a difference except to make my knee extremely sensitive to touch. Plus I wasn't keen on keeping the wound so wet all the time. I've been letting it air and dry out for the last two days and it seems so much better. 
The thing about leishmaniasis is that it will eventually go away by itself, but the hole will be much bigger which brings greater risk of secondary infections, and larger scars. The scars I'm not so worried about, but the secondary infections I am. In this hot humid climate, living on the farm there's potential for all sorts of nastiness creeping in. Ah the rainforest. Alright, time to change to the hot pack.

Monday, 3 May 2010

browsing: food carbon

It's my custom of a morning to spend a little time after breakfast browsing online. Oftentimes it's research into what we're doing on the farm, or in the kitchen, but I also read Mother Jones, Grist, Culinate and the Climate Desk. An article on Mother Jones led me this morning to a Carbon Calculator for food. Really for the US market (for example our coffee and sugar is local, our wheat is imported, but in the main this is reversed for the States), it can only serve as a very general guide, but it is interesting.

Seemingly 30 plus percent of all greenhouse gases generated in the States comes from food production, the premise of this calculator (and a number of other sites and articles I've seen recently), is to help reduce this percentage by reducing food waste, making conscious choices and cooking efficiently. There's a danger of becoming puritanical, or of stressing oneself out so much that one can no longer do anything, but taken as a starting point for a more conscious approach to how one takes one's food it seems like a good thing.

What's more this particular calculator has come from a company which manages many college and university on campus cafeterias: this in itself is heartening news.

According to their data, our breakfast of wholewheat oatmeal pancakes with orange syrup and coffee produced 700 grams of carbon. Now I need to find out what that means! How do I sequester that? Yesterday we planted two clove, 3 gnetum, a moringa and a jackfruit tree. We started some purslane cuttings, transplanted basil, sowed some papaya and sapote seeds. I weeded a couple of beds and thinned out tomato starts - what does that do to my carbon footprint?

To me, no matter how I cut it, it comes down to living simply and deriving a lot of pleasure from simple living. I'm truly blessed by being able to grow some of my own food and by having a good variety of local foods to buy. If I was living in the city I would be more frantic about growing as much as I could, or refusing to eat any other green but the sprouts I could grow on my windowledge.

Living lightly, living simply, practicing moderation has to become the way forward, or I have to stop reading the news completely.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

visit to Bocas del Toro

Just returned from a brief trip across the border to Panama and the lovely Bocas islands. We stayed with a friend who has a 100 acre farm there growing cacao, coconuts, bamboo, platanos, pineapples, greens and all sorts of new and wonderful things. What a project! Very inspiring.
The terribly sad part is that her partner just died suddenly and now the future of the farm is at this point uncertain. We would love to help out and bring this dream of Jim's to full fruition. Hopefully we can.

The produce from the farm is sold at the very young Farmers' market in Bocas Island. Very small as yet, and not well supported by the local population. The trouble is that Panama isn't a very agricultural nation. While there are miles and miles of cattle ranches, the people growing vegetables are few and far between: it's shocking to see how poor the selection and quality of fresh fruits and veggies is on the mainland, never mind the islands. Much of the 'fresh' stuff is imported. We have two great farming friends there: Up In The Hill Organic Farm and High Hopes South, they take their produce to market, but what they produce can never pull in the crowds like the onions - carrots - broccoli - garlic crowd can, and that stuff just doesn't grow on lowland tropical areas. For the market to survive change needs to happen - firstly the market must go from twice a month to weekly, and secondly a cold crops veggie vendor must appear, only then will the locals take the market seriously. There are talks afoot with an organic farmer in Boquete, but that's 4 hours away. We are about 4 hours away too, it seems unlikely any of our farmers would sell there.

So what to do? It seems to me a mammoth task of educating the populace to eat locally and healthily - very hard to do in a tourist town where most restaurants serve up hamburgers and fries with an iceberg lettuce side salad.

What does sell at the market is cacao in all forms: raw beans, roasted nibs, ground, sweetened, even turned into jam! Chocolate truffles and brownies are winners too, along with dried fruit and candied ginger. Almost all of these goodies go to tourists. Great, but a passing trade and not one that sustains in the long term. Platanos, pipa water, chaya and katuk are sold beside the fruits our friends have in season - but to make it work these have to become local staples.

It's a lot of work and requires commitment and strength from the growers, but it's a worthy path to tread. I hope somehow we can help.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

the water costs hidden in everyday things

Found an interesting article, very interesting article, on the bbc today: a report detailing how much water is used to produce various everyday items. Putting the link to the article here, but as a teaser;
  • 70 liters of water needed to produce 1 apple
  • 30 liters needed to produce enough tealeaves for a cup of tea
  • a staggering 140 liters to produce one cup of coffee
  • 440 liters to produce one loaf of bread!
  • 3,875 liters of water go into making a beef steak.
The quantities given are for "embedded" water - all the water needed to grow, harvest, prepare, ship and sell the product. The article comes from a report warning about western nations buying water 'rich' items from developing countries, such as Kenya which uses precious water resources to grow flowers for the European market.

Very interesting article, well worth reading, then pondering, then acting upon.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

visit to the hen lady's farm

 Noity is the hen lady at the Farmers' Market. As plump and as lively as any mother hen she is a fixture of the market, selling out of her wonderful free range organic eggs an hour into market. She sells chickens too, and pork in the winter months. We are stall neighbours and it's a joy to talk with her and see her interact with her clients, her husband Timo and her other stall neighbour, the cheese man Miguel. I wouldn't miss the feria just for a chance to see Noity.

She's had a typical and yet not so typical life for a Talamancan campesino. Her father came from Panama and somehow secured some land which he still, well into his nineties, farms. Noity met Timo when he came to cut trees for her father, she had her first child with him when she was 15, he was 35. They moved to Timo's family land and slowly she has built up her own poulty business. Timo still cuts trees, specializing in difficult terrain, he has a team of two magnificent oxen he uses to haul lumber. They grow plantains and keep a small herd of beef cattle. Noity runs the chicken business herself, telling me it's "women's work".

They live in a small, basic, typical campesino house. Spotlessly clean, efficient and bare. There's no electricity and her cell phone won't work at the house. They bathe in a well carved out by a year round spring and cook staples over an open fire. Noity has a propane stovetop too for quick things. She has a milkcow which provides enough milk for the family each day and she makes a little cheese. She boils the milk to pasteurize it so it won't spoil so quickly in a house without refrigeration. They eat around 4pm and talk until dark - here never later than 6:30, then go to bed. Noity doesn't use lamps or candles, she says there's too much of a breeze at the house. Life takes place on the covered deck which extends to the kitchen, there are two old chairs with cushions, the children make do with wooden seats and sleep with their mattresses on the floor. Noity and Timo's room is tiny, just enough room for a bed, a plastic set of drawers and cartons and cartons of eggs.
In the kitchen, and the outside pila (a concrete sink with side areas for washing clothes or children), water is always running. It's a widely held belief that taps should not be turned off and that water is inexhaustible. A friend of ours installed a water system for a local indigenous village, he returned after two weeks to find that all the faucets had been removed so the water could constantly run. While this might be shocking to those of us who grew up or live in an increasingly water conscious world, it remains here almost a status symbol to have running water constantly. When Noity saw my raised eyebrows and asked she laughed at my reply and answered, but love, it rains here, there's plenty of water. She's right of course. There is here, right now.

She was so happy to show me her chickens. There are two areas kept far apart on the farm. The broilers are in a large open shed, 250 of them in each of two enclosures. She buys the chicks at 2 days old, they are ready for the table at 6 weeks, indeed if they get any older they can't walk: bred to have large breasts they get too heavy if they get too big. The broilers are also bred to have few feathers - they're not pretty birds, but Noity's seem happy enough for the few weeks of their lives with plenty of air, natural light, clean space, food and water. She feeds them corn and herbs with weekly meals of garlic and onion for parasite control. The killing shed is close by. Noity kills 80 chickens a week, her method is to hold the bird in a cut off 2 liter soda bottle, the neck of which has been removed. The chicken's head pokes through the opening and is quickly removed with a pair of shears. This method is taught in the local high school's animal program. It's highly efficient and quick. The feathers and heads are cooked up and fed to the pigs. The rest is sold with the bird. Noity charges 2,400 colones per kilo, that's about $5.40 at today's exchange rate. We're not sure if the corn she feeds is organic (she gets it from various sources), but it's certainly the best tasting chicken around here.

The layers live in a pretty hen house atop a hill close to her home. There's about 200 of them, all look like rhode island reds, but I'm not sure. Noity buys these as chicks too. They start laying at 17 weeks and she'll keep them as layers for 2 years then fatten them up and sell them live to locals for the soup pot. The chickens are free range, but are kept in the hen house until mid morning to ensure all eggs are laid where they can be found. Wandering around the farm with her clucking as softly and contentedly as any hen I fell in love with this way of life all over again. So beautiful, so peaceful. So simple.

And yet it's not really. Noity has weight issues and complains of symptoms that sound like early onset diabetes. She has had a recurring problem with ulcers on one leg and complains of stomach pains often. Sometimes she spends nights in the clinic with stomach issues. When I ask her how she's been in the week she explains it through food: lovely, I could eat everything, fried egg, fried plantain, pork, coffee. . . Salad isn't a regular feature of her diet. When she invited us to sit for a snack she handed us large glasses of dark liquid. I thought it was tamarind juice, it wasn't till my first sip I realized it was coke. I haven't had coke in years. We unwrapped plastic packets of cookies. Seems so incongruous, and yet it's only that way because of my ideals and my expectations. She was giving us what we as foreigners had brought her culture.

Noity drives a big black pick-up truck. Timo can't drive, nor can he read or work with numbers, Noity does all that. Both use their hands to speak, the many stories they tell are full of noises and gestures taking the listener right into the situation, they are great storytellers and funny with it. The plantains they grow are organic, some they bring to market, but most they sell to a local co-operative. We were surprised to see the fruits covered with the blue plastic bags the plantations use. Normally those bags are impregnated with pesticides. Seemingly however they are also sold 'clean' and are used to cover the fruit to keep the black bees away. The bees eat the immature fruit leaving marks on the surface of the peel. We have been talking to her about stopping the use of the bags - the gringos she sells to have bad associations with the bags, and the locals don't care about the peel. Noity has always looked surprised by our suggestion - she doesn't understand. We tell her the bags are very bad, they end up in the waterways and ocean and are responsible for the deaths of many turtles and sea birds. She says her bags never get into the ocean, she always burns them.

Noity stands spanning the chasm between two worlds. Whether she can bridge the gap might be the most important question of the decade.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

salad bowl, the sequel

A long time ago -or at least 18 months ago - I had the idea to grow salad greens for the market. The fresh, beautiful, flower scented salad greens I would buy in Calafornian Farmers' Markets would sustain me all the week, and I was sure we could provide the same pretty bowls of colour and taste down here.

It has been a slow process. With no lettuce and few local options it has been a treasure hunt finding suitable greens. In this last year of trial and error we have found that here in a year round growing cycle, some of our greens are annuals: the cranberry hibiscus dies after flowering in December, the wandering jew goes dormant through December and January, the Malabar spinach gives up in February and March. Our salad mixes change weekly as we watch for flowers on the hibiscus and fret over the gingers. It has been more a year of research and development than one of production.

However it has worked and now we are slowly but steadily increasing our options and our knowledge. We found winged bean seeds in Panama and moringa growing at Punta Mona, a dark purple wandering jew is thriving on the deck off the kitchen and a news article in the national paper turned us on to two local, near forgotten edibles: the zorillo and chinquispil. Slowly it's coming together. the new plants and varieties we've gathered are not at full production yet. It's not like buying a seed packet and sowing them, instead we are given or find one plant or a couple of seeds and have to grow it out ourselves in the nursery until it is ready to produce: all our salad greens are second generation plants each with their own history and path to us. If I count what we have, including those in the nursery the list is impressive:
cranberry hibiscus
malabar spinach
okinawa spinach
red spinach
winged bean
gotu kola
bolivian culantro
vietnamese cilantro
wandering jew
purple wandering jew
orchid tree
gnetum gnetum
garlic vine

In another year we should have a really beautiful salad bowl, full of superfoods, brimming with flowers (pansy, ginger, hibiscus, orchid tree, morninga. . .) and just delicious.

pineapples planted!

After what seems a year of thinking about it, we've finally planted pineapples. Not that it's very difficult, it's just that it took time going back and forth and round and round discussing which to plant, where to plant and finally how to plant. In the end it took someone calling the farm and saying they had 300 suckers for sale. And so 3 days later we have a pineapple patch.

Pineapples reproduce in one of two ways - through seeds (rare these days, but possible through cross-pollination of different varieties), or through suckers. The suckers come three ways - the crown of the pineapple, from the base of the fruit and from the base of the plant itself. The basal suckers are the fastest producers, and can fruit in as little as 9 months, the suckers which grow from under the fruit take about a year to produce, and the crown takes around two years to give fruit. I always plant the crowns, usually as a hedge line or an unobtrusive part of a landscape, but the farmer is only interested in growing the basal suckers - sure, it's quicker.

We have planted the 300 on 'sun dog hill', a south-ish facing slope by the house. 300 plants don't take up much room: pineapples are planted closely together to provide support for each other. Their roots provide anchoring and stability, so there's no real competition for soil nutrients among the plants. The pineapple feeds like other bromeliads: obtaining its nutrients through the pools which form at the base of the leaves.

Now that we've started, the idea is to plant another 300 in 2 or 3 months time so that we can stagger the harvest somewhat (300 pineapples is a lot for one breakfast!).

Sunday, 4 April 2010

self efficiency

Does that make sense? I've been pondering this morning whether my ideal is self sufficiency or independent efficiency. Self sufficiency is to have enough, to have enough in oneself, or by oneself. This is of course the truth, the big picture, we are all of us enough in ourselves, without the need for outer confirmation or reward or justification. At least that's what I feel in my calmest, brightest, shiniest moments. Applying the big picture to my lifestyle 'choices' I find I am deficient, I cannot be totally self sufficient. We have a truck, we use electricity, we buy vegetables that don't grow here, we don't raise our own meat or dairy. I can make as much of our basics as possible: yoghurt, cheese, oil, bread - but none of the ingredients come from our farm.

So instead I'm thinking this morning of second generation homesteading.

Efficiency is another thing - it is more efficient for me to go to the store and buy oil, but that just isn't the same is it? I find myself equating efficiency with simplicity: the simpler I can make my kitchen and my plantings, pickings and workings, the more efficient and streamlined I feel, the smoother my days run. Efficiency only seems to come with experience, simplicity too. The more time and attention I spend in a task the more I see how to simplify it in the future. It's a question of maturity I guess, I'm slowly drifting from the ideal of pure self sufficiency into a more community based thinking: happy to buy from other local farmers that which I can't make or grow myself, it seems more sustainable.

Sustainable - now there's another word.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

chocolate! or, lifestyle choices

The farmer and I are making slow gradual changes in a way I like. The changes are to do with our eating habits, over the last year we have become somewhat complacent and indulgent with our food. The farmer is an excellent cook and appreciates encouragement and so meals have been getting more lavish. Recently we have become aware of changes associated with a year plus of rich food and plenty of it. It's time to cut back.

We've switched to cooking with coconut oil. There's plenty of information on the web about the benefits of using coconut oil, suffice to say here that it improves metabolic rate, strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure. Plus it's delicious. I have been making the oil myself - a time consuming process, but rewarding as the oil we use is completely organic, fresh and unbelievably rich and wonderful. There are two ways to make oil from coconuts in the kitchen (at least for food grade oil): cold pressed and stove-top. For cold pressed oil you need an oil expeller. We have the loan of a PITEBA oil mill. I like it, but it could do with some improvements, it's not the cleanest or easiest way to work. The other way is by grating the coconut, squeezing the milk out (easier with the addition of a little water), and then simmering the milk until it magically becomes oil. I prefer using the PITEBA, but it's easier using the stove.

I'm also making my own yoghurt and cream cheese. We had been buying 1/2 fat cream cheese, but I don't like the sound of the emulsifiers and gums and enhancers on the ingredients list, making one's own is very simple. (I will write up methods for yoghurt and cream cheese in another post.) It doesn't really take any time at all, and I know exactly what I'm eating. And of course it makes me so much happier to be making our food from scratch. If only we had a goat.

The sourdough starter is back on track and I've been making wholewheat sourdough biscuits daily for our lunch sandwiches. Served with cream cheese and greens from the garden.

And the chocolate? We've been researching cacao again and have read that cacao has a positive effect on lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, plus it balances moods and emotions, creates a sense of well being and suppresses appetite! We've been enjoying lightly toasted cacao beans with meals for the past few days. I really like it: anything that brings me closer to the land, the seasons and home scale food production fills me with such contentment and feelings of ease, yes, life is good.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Sourdough biscuits

So the book I picked up is 'Lonesome Dove' by Larry McMurtry, seemingly a classic and definitely a good read. One of the main characters, Gus, takes much pleasure in making his sourdough biscuits before sunrise each morning. I was inspired to try myself, plus I needed to revive my sourdough starter. I'm really pleased with the biscuit; soft, light, tasty and very simple.

Sourdough is fabulous. Living in the Bay Area I was never impressed with it, that sour white bread in the hard brown crust just didn't do it for me. I began to work with it myself not because of the taste but out of a desire to play with wild yeasts. Just as people are different culturally, so are bacterias: Lactobacillis talamancais is very different from the Lactobacillus sanfranciscois! and I prefer the softer talamanca bacteria. I love the process, I love that these yeasts and bacterias are in the air, filling us as we breath, moving with us as we walk. Louis Pastuer said in the end that "microbes will win out". Thank goodness, who wants to live in a sterile environment?

Sourdough is easy. To begin a sourdough starter add a cup of flour to a cup of water (white flour works better than brown for this first stage). Stir thoroughly and leave in a glass jar in a warm place (75-85F) with a tea towel on top (to allow air in and air out). Stir twice or thrice a day for the next two to five days until you see bubbles form. This means the yeast is active. If you don't see bubbles you can cheat a little by putting in a pinch or two of store-bought yeast to get it started. Once you have bubbles you can begin to feed your starter, simply add two tablespoons of flour each day and enough water to keep your starter from becoming too thick / solid. At this point you can use your starter, or you can put her in the fridge to slow her down. Feed her whenever you use her, or every other day, or twice a week if she's in the fridge.

To make the biscuits, begin by making a sponge. Take 1/2 cup of the starter and add 1 cup flour and 1 cup milk (I also use soy milk, soy yogurt or regular buttermilk or yogurt). I throw a pinch of sugar in there to help the yeast. Mix and leave in a warm place overnight. Next day add 1 tablespoon of honey, beat, then add 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, a good pinch of salt and about a cup to cup and a half of flour. Add the first cup all all once and the rest little by little until you get a dough you can work with. Turn out on flour board, knead lightly for 5 minutes adding flour to stop stickiness. Roll out about a half inch thick, cut into 6cm rounds and dip in olive oil mixed with sunflower oil and black pepper (or other herbs) and place on a cooking tray. Cover with towel and allow to rise in warm place for 30 minutes. Cook at 375F for 18-20 minutes. Allow to rest for a few minutes before enjoying slathered with unsalted butter, Gus enjoyed his with honey.

tip: when cutting out the biscuits, don't twist the press, it seals the edges and creates an uneven rise!


I felt back at home on Thursday and Friday, which is great as I've been feeling oddly unmotivated and out of sorts recently. Plus our internet has been having issues, which has kept me away from the computer and looking for books to read. But I think I'm coming back to myself.

Could be something to do with having fruit again. And getting my sourdough back together. The kitchen seems a little busier: instead of making one or two things a day I can keep busy with four or five.

On a recent trip to San Jose we stopped in at the Ark Herb Farm and picked up two more edible leaf plants: the zorillo and the divided leaf chaya. Both looked a little worse for wear in the nursey, and both were the only specimens for sale, but back on the farm under shade cloth and damp they have perked up and are looking good. We'll keep them in our nursery for a while, long enough at least to propagate more specimens and then we'll start planting out. Our edible leaf collection is growing - slowly - but it is growing. I feel a strange blend of nostalgia and wishing when I read northern gardening blogs and their morning coffee breaks pouring over seed catalogs, or pictures of gardens full of great heads of romaine or arugula. Sigh.

Yet I feel here a sense of pioneer pride in the slow acquisition of edibles: enforced self-sufficiency, trial and error, seed saving and worry mixed with the thrill of the hunt. It's not unusual for me to be chewing on things walking around the farm trying to find a new leaf for the salad mixes. I really must take a picture of the salad: full of green and purple leaves, pink, red and yellow flowers, shiny sprouts, succulent malabar spinach and tangy herbs, it's a beautiful thing.

I've left mung bean sprouts for a while, I like them but the weather is very hot just now and they seem to bolt and rot quickly. I'm sprouting lentils instead. I like sprouted lentils, they are much calmer and more docile than the mung, not as crisp or crunchy, but subtle and slightly chalky. And they fare better with the heat.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


We held the second of the farmer's permaculture workshops today. Well they'd better be called permaculture / natural farming in the tropics workshops: while we follow permaculture principles we don't adhere to many of the design elements; our climate, soil and conditions don't fit the classic model. Rather we follow a blend of Fukuoka's natural farming, permaculture and traditional (ie pre-chemical) local methods.

The first workshop held earlier this month, focused on tropical soils and how the rainforest creates its own environment. We looked at the natural components of soil, dug around under enormous forest trees, kicked at fallen logs, looked at fungi and the role of mycellium and worked on compost. We looked at mulching, forest floor technology, micro ecosystems and generally had a fun morning in the dirt.

Today's workshop focused on propagation techniques: collecting, cleaning, planting seeds; root, rhizome, stem and tip cuttings; root, rhizome and plant division; ground and air layering, and grafting. We worked with edibles, fruit trees and various ornamentals. It rained buckets and we were happy for the coffee and cookie break. It was great.

The farmer says he doesn't like giving workshops and now it's my turn, so next month we'll do a fermentation and a fruit processing workshop. Hopefully we'll have fruit! Yes, we'll have mangoes and guayabilla. Love it.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

almendro pressing!


Almendro almond almendro

The Almendro de la Montana, (Dipteryx panamensis), is a beautiful emergent canopy tree, a mammoth thing, with lovely purple flowers and a yellowish bark. It is one of the giants and can reach 150 feet in height: we know several people who have bought their homes because of the view of an almendro. Two of these people (in different areas) were later devastated when the tree fell, but pleased by the milling of the wood, they both purchased as much as they could and it holds a special place in their homes as floors, banisters, furniture and facing. In this area it is illegal to cut down a large almendro, but the wood is very highly prized and so 'accidents' can happen.

The tree is food and home to the Great Green Macaw, unfortunately this stunning creature has basically disappeared from this part of Costa Rica, though there are efforts being made to return it to the wild, part of those efforts are the planting of almendros.

This post however is really about the fruit of the almendro. This is the season and as you may imagine we are busy harvesting - a 150 foot tall tree drops a lot of nuts. The almendro makes an almond like nut in a hard shell. This shell is wrapped with a soft fruit much beloved by various animals and birds. The tree is a great provider of food for several species of birds, night monkeys, pizotes, racoons, squirrels and forest floor dwelling agoutis, pacas and small wild pigs. Quite the party! We are visiting every other day to gather the fallen nuts whose fruit has been eaten: no point in taking the whole thing - we would rob the animals of their food and the fruit is of no use to us. The biggest almendro is in a far part of the farm, these are primarily forest and not fruit trees, so the hike prohibits too large a harvest in one go.

Back in the kitchen the first job is to boil the nuts for about 10 minutes or until the shell opens just a crack. A huge pot of boiling nuts reminds me a lot of my childhood and boiling mussels: the shells are covered in short green hairs that bear an uncanny resemblance to algae covered mussel or limpet shells. The water they boil in quickly becomes an olive green viscous soup not too dissimilar to the salty, sandy first boilings of crustaceans. When the water is poured off and one sits down with a small knife to open the shells it really feels like opening a mussel shell. Inside, the almendro nut is pale brown and about an inch and a half long, a tapered cylinder, slippy and held to the shell by something that looks just like that muscle (?) on a mussel. There's even some black fuzz along the edges of the shell. Strangely familiar. Shelling the nuts takes a while. Good time to chat with friends, we were lucky to have some friends staying with us last week who were happy to help, about 5 of us sat around shelling and talking while 3 others prepared the next step.

Actually there are several potential next steps. The easiest one is drying the nuts, we dry them for about 20 hours at 110F. Another method is to roast them as one would cacao, slowly over a low flame. I think I like the dried ones better though. The third option is by far the most work, and the one we seem to have chosen this past week: making oil.

Almendros almost drip oil. If they are stored in the fridge after boiling, one can find a small pool of yellow fat inside each nut. It seemed too good an opportunity, so we borrowed a friend's hand cranked oil expeller and set to work.

The oil expeller in question is a PITEBA, a small, relatively inexpensive, low tech, rather cute tool. The website talks about the tropics and different nuts and seeds, including cacao and coconut. It recommends drying the seeds first, so we did it twice, the first time with the fresh nuts (no patience), and the following day with the dried.

The first pressing with the fresh nuts was pretty much a no go. We thought we might get almendro butter, but no, what we made was meal. Dry meal (where did all the oil go?). I made cookies using the meal to replace just over 1/2 of the normal flour content. They were very tasty, strongly flavoured, reminded me of a very fresh marzipan cookie, with a little amaretto thrown in for good measure. Good, but no oil.

The second pressing was better. Harmony and I became terribly technical and measured everything so I can now say with some authority that one cup of dried whole almendros yields one packed cup of almendro meal and 5ml of almendro oil. One teaspoon. That's yer lot (as my mother would say). It's not much. It brought me to the realization of how much I take oil for granted. We processed about 1/2 cup of very pure, cold-pressed, organic virgin almendro oil before running out of nuts. It took us about 2 hours. We have yet to try the oil. It's sitting on a window ledge to be admired by everyone who passes. The meal on the other hand is being used with abandon, more cookies, a cake and a very interesting wild almond (almond in Spanish is almendro) pate. Mix ground almonds with chopped onion, garlic, parsley and sour cream, shape into a 'log' and chill. Tastes remarkably like liver pate (???).

Saturday, 20 February 2010

back to work

It's been a good long while since I last put digit to keyboard (yes I still hunt 'n' peck), mainly due to being overwhelmed by our recently opened kindergarten, but also because this is by far the quietest time on the farm.

There have however been events I could have written about; the vanilla processing; black pepper harvest; my continuing and grueling Spanish classes, to name just three, but school has taken over all my mental capacities plus my waking time. I think we might have settled down somewhat, enough at least for me to get back to my other passion: the farm.

January is without doubt the slowest month of the year. Bananas were the only fruit we harvested and our salads were looking a little weak too: our Cranberry Hibiscus died off after flowering in December and our Malabar Spinach lost most of its leaves. Everything slowed down in the garden. A time for pruning and mulching, repairing signs and propagating bromeliads in the nursery.

This is an el nino year which typically means it's dry here. January certainly was dry and almost all of the rain was dropped in a three day storm that delivered 12 inches in one go. This was also the three days we went to a hot springs resort - the only time we were warm those three days was when we were up to our necks in the hottest pool: we were never dry.

February has been a little different. The nutmeg harvest takes place in the early part of the month, though this year the harvest has been quite small, I haven't made more than 40 jars of nutmeg butter yet. Now we are in the Almendro time.

Monday, 11 January 2010