Tuesday 17 February 2009

Of canals and herons

A heron perched on roof tiles of a school building at the bottom of our garden last Saturday morning as we were eating breakfast. It was still very frosty and he fluffed up his feathers so they resembled a ragged blue skirt over his lower white plumage. This was the second time I’d seen him perch there recently. I suspect he uses it as a vantage point between the two patches of water in Robin Hood Golf Course and Olton Mere.

The Mere was built in the late eighteenth century as a holding tank for water from Hazel Brook to feed the local section of the Warwick to Birmingham canal. Now it’s owned by a private sailing club with no access for the public unless they are willing to pay annually for the privilege. You catch tantalising glimpses of open water from the train as it rushes past on its way from Olton to Solihull station.

Canals often provide me with a means of escape from city or suburban life. When the sun shines I disappear from the office towards the Convention Centre situated at the heart of the restored Birmingham Canal system. If I walk towards Wolverhampton I can check on shepherds purse, plantain, horseradish, nettles, blackberries, rosehips and, my favourite, elder trees.

Occasionally I turn left rather than right and walk towards the university. It was along this path I discovered wild rue and mugwort while a guardian heron slept on one leg on top of a brick wall next to a new block of flats.

It always makes me curious when a new animal or bird crosses my path more than once. I wonder what their presence might teach me. If you search the internet, herons are mainly described while they are standing in deep water, yet my encounters with them have mainly been perching on high places either on tall trees or walls/roofs.

Herons are often associated with balance and harmony, knowing when to connect and when to stand on your own. They teach active patience, learning to wait until what you need comes to you and then spearing it, grabbing opportunities when they arise.

Their slate blue feathers can be associated with the “third-eye”, the energy centre situated in the middle of the brow/forehead. This centre helps with intuitive perception, the “gut feeling” you learn to rely on or, in my case, the sudden understanding about why a person is acting a certain way without any prior knowledge or information. I call it “reading the silence”. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the insight is profound.

The really good thing about finding a heron near a canal means there must be fish living in the water. Herons are the curse of every fishpond owner as they can clear a garden pond within a few minutes. I remember one eating all the trout in the Sanctuary pond before I left school in the mid-70s and we’ve never had fish there since.

I don’t know a great deal about fish, but someone I met by the Olton canal last October said there was a wide variety of fish living there including a large pike!

What did surprise me during my canal walk was the variety of herbs and trees. As well as elder, hawthorn and horse chestnut trees, there were hazel, holly and sycamore - all mature trees with lots of undisturbed saplings growing up in any available space.

On the banks were dog rose and blackberry briars with plantain, garlic mustard (jack by the hedge), false alkenet, coltsfoot and nettles on the lower slopes. What surprised me was the large bed of alpine strawberries. I wondered if they were wild or escaped from a nearby garden.

Despite the traffic travelling over intermittent bridges, the towpath itself was blissfully quiet; the only noise a gentle splash from moorhens and mallards swimming on the surface of the water.

It was not long after the Autumn Equinox when I walked along the canal basking in the peace and sunshine and thinking about the Irish navvies who created both the canal and the railway which runs alongside. There is still another month before the Spring Equinox. Although days are definitely longer now, I am curbing any impatience to be up and doing. The heron brings a timely lesson - it is enough to be resting, watching and waiting for a few weeks more.

Thursday 5 February 2009

New writing blog launched!

Ever wanted to steep yourself in English countryside or be wooed by a powerful warlord of the Middle East?

Interested in stories of the past which have lessons for the present and future?

Take a look at the new writing blog, Mercian Muse by Midlands writer, Sarah J Head. Here you’ll find extracts and links to romance, poetry and short stories, both published and free reads.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Keeping warm in the snow.

Whenever I’m worried about something I make soup. It seems to be a helpful way to stop my world coming to an end. It seems to work and my family and visitors appear to appreciate whatever version I put in front of them.

Many of us are experiencing a “real” winter this year with temperatures at or below freezing for days at a time and this week, substantial amounts of snow. I always enjoy watching flakes begin to fall and a white carpet slowly covering the garden and surroundings. As long as I know all my loved ones are safe, with access to shelter, food and warmth, I can relax and snuggle down to enjoy some restful time inside the house.

At this dark time of the year, we need to think about nourishing our bodies and nettle is the perfect ally. Outside in both gardens and fields, nettles have been growing for a month or more. I still have several jars of dark green dried leaves from last year’s harvest, so this seems a good time to indulge in Spiced Nettle Latte – an idea I got from Darcey Blue, the Sonoran herbalist.

Spiced Nettle Latte
To a handful of dried or fresh nettle leaves, add one cinnamon stick, 1 clove and a grated half of a nutmeg in a teapot or cafatiere. Fill with just boiled water and leave to infuse for ten minutes. Heat up milk and whisk to make it frothy. Add equal amounts of tea and milk to a mug, then sprinkle powdered cinnamon or nutmeg on the top of the drink. Sip while warm.

When I made this for last November’s workshop there was a very interesting reaction – those who normally didn’t like milk liked the nettle latte and those who normally didn’t like nettle tea, enjoyed the latte. Seems like a popular drink for many people! When I made it at another workshop, some people asked for a milk-free tea and also enjoyed it.

I make several different versions of Nettle and Potato Soup depending on what vegetables I have to hand. Here are two popular ones.

Nettle and Potato Soup
Ingredients (1) Nettles, 1 lb potatoes, 1 onion, 1oz butter, water, salt, pepper, a few sprigs of parsley and thyme
(2) A colander full of fresh, washed nettle tops, 2 large sweet potatoes, 1 onion, 2 leeks, 8 cardomon seeds, 6 carrots (scraped), 4 garlic cloves
Method: (1)Wash nettles under the tap to remove any insects, cobwebs, dust or other debris and shake to remove excess moisture. Peel and chop the onion and sauté in butter or oil in a hot saucepan for five minutes until soft. Peel and quarter the potatoes and add to the pan. Cover with water and add nettles, herbs and seasoning. Cook for about 20 minutes until potatoes are soft. Liquidise. Serve with bread and butter.
(2)Peel and chop garlic gloves and onion. Wash and slice leeks. Sauté these in hot butter for 5 minutes until soft. Add peeled and chopped sweet potatoes, carrots, nettles, cardomon pods to saucepan and season to taste. Cover with boiling water and cook until everything is soft. (about 20minutes) Liquidise.

Nettles can be added to any vegetable soup. They go well with tomatoes and red and yellow peppers and any other vegetables you happen to have lying around. Dried nettles can also be added to main meals as a crumbled topping over pizzas or bolognais or used to make a sauce with pasta.

Nettle and Tuna Pasta
This is a quick and easy recipe for one person and can be easily expanded to feed a family.
Ingredients: 285g tin of tuna in brine, dried or fresh basil, two handfuls of dried nettles, two tomatoes, 1 onion, cooking oil or butter, 3oz of pasta. (any other vegetables e.g. one sweet potato, small tin of sweet corn depending on how hungry you are.)
Method: Peel and chop onion finely and sauté in hot butter or sunflower/ vegetable/olive oil in a saucepan until soft. Drain tuna. Wash and slice tomatoes. Add both to onion and cook gently. Add dried nettles and dried or fresh basil. Cover and simmer until pasta is ready. Check regularly and add extra liquid if necessary. Cook pasta in separate saucepan in boiling salted water for 15 minutes. If you are cooking other vegetables these can be cooked with the pasta. Drain pasta and serve with tuna/nettle sauce.

Winter is very much the time to indulge in “comfort vegetables”. This is the recipe for the soup I made last Friday for Saturday’s tincture workshop. It fed nineteen people on Saturday and three on Sunday with a little left over for Chris’ lunch yesterday. Chris said his friend was very grateful for its warmth and heartiness when they were kite flying on Sunday. The soup is vegan and celiac - friendly. I might use butter another time to give a richer flavour and substitute parsley for coriander if I were using ordinary potatoes and parsnips instead of the sweet potatoes and squash.

Orange Soup
1 large head of celery, washed and chopped.
1 large butternut squash peeled, de-seeded and sliced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced ½ an hour before cooking.
4 large sweet potatoes peeled and sliced
8 large carrots, washed and scraped.
½ bunch of coriander leaves.
10 pints cold water
Pepper and salt to taste.
Sweat the garlic and onion in a little vegetable oil until soft in the bottom of a large cooking pot with the lid on. (About 5 minutes). Add the celery and chopped coriander leaves, stir, then add the water. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Add squash, carrots and sweet potatoes together with a little salt and pepper. Cook for a further 30 minutes or until everything is tender. Liquidise, season to taste and serve with homemade granary bread.

Last, but not least, if you are looking to increase your omega-3 oils you could try this version of Rebecca Hartman’s flax seed tea

Warming winter tea
Place 1-2tsp flax seed together with a broken up cinnamon stick and maybe a couple of cardamom pods and some sliced orange peel, a handful of fresh or half a handful of dried rosehips and the juice of half an orange. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and fill the saucepan with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer uncovered until the amount of water has halved from evaporation. Strain, add honey to taste and sip while hot.

One word of warning. I made a large quantity of this tea on Saturday with 4 tablespoons of flaxseed in 5 pints of water with 2 sliced tangerines, but no spices. Several people were unable to drink the tea on its own until a cinnamon tincture was added which then made it palatable. I shan’t be making it without cinnamon again!