Friday, July 24, 2015

Sine metu

So, if you're a whiskey drinker, you might recognize this phrase from your bottle of Jameson. (If you're me, you learned it during a tour of the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin a few weeks ago, and have adopted it as your mantra of the trip.) "Sine Metu," you see, is Gaelic for "Without Fear"... and to be on the roads in the Emerald Isle -- and, let's be honest here, on the Black Isle as well -- this must be your motto.

Even as a passenger on a bus or in a car I probably gasped during near collisions at least 3 or 4 times daily as vehicles careened at top speed around blind curves on one-lane, shoulderless roads during my first two weeks kicking around Ireland. And yet, for my third week around Ireland, I was on a bicycle. (Shhh, don't tell Ollie!) Luckily, I had a fabulous guide and great company on my first ever group/supported bike tour, so I wasn't riding with my heart in my mouth the whole time. It was actually really nice to have someone else map out the routes and book places to stay and schlep my bags. In fact, I found myself offering thanks rather than pleas to the heavens as 16 of us chatted and cycled through the beautiful Connemara hills and later along the Inishmore waterfront, stopping frequently to snap photos and scarf twix bars. (Shh, don't tell my students!) I hardly minded most of the time that my gears didn't work properly, so good was the company and the scenery. (Many thanks to my friend, Ronn, for suggesting Cycling Safaris!)

Admittedly, ours was a slower, more scenic route, which meant less vehicles than on the bigger roads, but there were still periodic cars, occasional tour buses, and (the bane of my biking existence since my ride down the Pacific Coast Highway five years ago) camper vans. I was only almost hit once, thankfully, and have since continued my travels safely on through Scotland. But my new motto has stuck with me beyond the biking.

I've been thinking about it a lot this trip. So many of the kind folks I've encountered along the way, especially the women, have marveled at "the courage it must take to travel alone." I don't find traveling alone scary most of the time. In fact, except for the awkwardness of dinner dining solo, it's quite exciting and liberating, and I said as much. What's much, much harder is sharing your life adventure with another person. Opening your heart up to someone else, allowing yourself to love and possibly lose them. Maybe things fall apart. Maybe you find each other again, maybe you don't. Maybe everything's changed, but maybe it hasn't. There's only one way to find out....

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

For the birds

Ultan Walsh took one look at my floral print rolling suitcase when picking me up at the bus stop in Belgooley last Saturday and shook his head. "This country is not made for bags like that, you know. Did you not have a backpack? Oh, you have one of those, too." Thus began the good natured teasing that would characterize the next few days.

(You'd think I'd be a better packer after the original, self-supported bikeable feast, but no.)

During my first afternoon at Gort Na Nain farm, I hand weeded asparagus beds with a local carpenter doing a weekly work share, spent the next rainy morning with a digging fork ripping up grass and prickly weeds in one of the tomato high tunnels, then chatted away the afternoon with a Romanian cook visiting from nearby Cork City as we meticulously cleared everything but the Tuscan kale and onions in another of the eight high tunnels. No pesticides or even black plastic here, which means the real deal organic farm constantly has lots to weed. Fortunately, weeding is one of my specialties.

Though he swears he doesn't have time for inexperienced help in the form of traditional WWOOFers -- I managed to talk my way into being working on the farm through connections with mutual friends -- Ultan and his partner Lucy have loads to teach. And not just about farming. During my non-weeding time, as we shared beers and meals in the gorgeous vegetarian guesthouse, I got a primer on creative cooking, the subtleties of potato varieties, local sports and politics, music, history, the troubled economy....

Most especially, I learned about birds, on the farm itself and during a stunning hike to Barry's Head before dinner on my final night there. Who knew that city pigeons actually descended from cliff-dwelling doves? Both Ultan and Lucy are avid birders. So much so that their farm's name translates to something like "Field of the Birds." (Please pardon any mistranslation there: the only thing worse than my packing skills may be my mastery of Gaelic.)

Like Eoin, Ultan hadn't planned to be a farmer. He, too, had been in a PhD program, in his case finishing a doctorate in microbiology and then deciding after a few years of being pigeonholed into grant writing that it wasn't his bag. He'd met Lucy, lured her from England to Cork, and somewhere along the line they came upon the big field that now houses a beautiful B&B and burgeoning organic farm that the two built and manage mostly on their own, complete with bird-friendly hedgerows and trees that act as both habitat and windbreaks amid the blustery landscape.

I hope to make it back to this amazing place some day...partly to see if my take on (vegetarian) chestnut sausages turns out half as good as Lucy's. Because I'm kind of obsessed with them now, and discovered her recipe is now available in one of Denis Cotter's cookbooks.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Eco-farming in Cork

I continue to be inspired by small farmers, including ones I worked with during my travels through County Cork. (Yes, I am technically on vacation, but that's hardly going to keep me from seeking out cool food producers in Ireland.) When he collected me from the bus stop in the small town of Carrigaline last Thursday, I had no idea yet what an amazingly kind person and thoughtful farmer Eoin was -- all I knew then was that he farmed about an acre of organic vegetables and had some great pics on Instagram.

Over the course of a couple of days, I worked alongside this young farmer to harvest and deliver produce for his box scheme operation -- kind of a variation on a CSA, where clients get a list of what will be available for the week and opt for whichever items strike their fancy, which that week ranged from freshly dug potatoes and carrots to all kinds of greens and alliums. Plus a few special requests from long-time customers or family friends for beets and the season's very first cherry tomatoes. (Well, the pint of sungolds I managed not to eat while digging up the nearby garlic, that is.) Next season, they may be treated to some new varieties, including an Ark of Taste lettuce that I am growing myself back home. I'm sure the heads growing here will be larger and more lush, as everything seems to be in these parts. Is it the soil? The rainfall? The gentle souls of the land stewards? My garlic and carrots pale in comparison....

As we worked and cooked up meals together -- including beet burgers, inspired by one of his customers who'd made them three times with Eoin's beets the previous week (recipe to come later) -- Eoin shared a bit of his story. Here was yet another example of someone who never expected to become a farmer, but is damn good at it. Part way through a PhD program in ecology, Eoin had become disillusioned with the research process. While finishing up a Master's degree and publishing a paper on the discovery of a rare water beetle, he stumbled upon a certification program in permaculture. He and his then girlfriend happened upon Moloney's Cottage not long afterwards, and now, less than 3 years later, he raises laying hens and vegetables enough on the 1-acre leased plot to support himself and a couple dozen customers. Like many farmers, he supplements his income, in this case with teaching at the nearby college in Kinsale. If his formal classes are as thoughtful and practical as his conversations were with me, those are some lucky students. Though I'd think local restaurants would be just as lucky if Eoin devoted himself fully to farming so he could supply a few of them. I'll be interested to see where things go...perhaps when I return for a visit in coming years.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thanking my lucky stars

Sometimes in these busy, busy times it's important to pause and give thanks. I am grateful for the chance -- and the freedom -- to be able to take a month to explore what I may in Ireland and Scotland. I am thankful for the enthusiasm of friends and friends-of-friends who have helped me get ready (and get really excited) about my upcoming trip, from the loan of an international cell phone to recommendations of towns, hikes, pubs, and more.

Thank you, Zach, for linking me up with some awesome local farmers in southern Ireland. Thank you, Vanessa and Kathryn, for helping me connect with friendly folk across the pond. Thank you to Bernie for giving me the gorgeous Irish cookbook that has my mouth watering for much more than potatoes and Guinness (though I am excited for those, too). Thank you, Ronn, for recommending an awesome bike touring company with whom I'll be exploring western Ireland. (Shhh, don't tell Ollie! Though she might have suspected something when I packed my bike lights.) Thank you to my awesome intern, Jordan, for tending the school garden while I'm away.

Thank you, Katie and Joey, for cooking up a delicious, traditional American farewell dinner for me tonight -- I have a funny feeling I might not be eating stewed greens or hamsteak or corn on the cob for the next month, so it was good to have a giant plateful, with good red wine and homemade ice cream to round things out. Thank you to Mike, the friendly stranger who surprised me by treating me to a really nice whiskey when I stopped into Southern Efficiency for a little pre-packing farewell drink and last-minute single malt education  on my way home from dinner. And thank you to mom and dad for taking me to the airport tomorrow...even though it's totally metro-accessible and I just have a little rolling suitcase. Gotta love parents.

Dad, I know you're petrified that I'll fall in love with the Emerald Isle (land of vibrant greens, good storytellers, and deep history) -- and/or an Irishman -- but there are worse fates. If my travels around Ireland are nearly as wonderful as the excitement and joy leading up to them, well....

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Minding our peas and queues

So I've been a teacher in some official capacity on and off since the early 2000s, initially working with high schoolers, then middle schoolers, and finally a handful of years ago I began to focus on elementary school aged kiddos. The past year has been my first foray into working with preK students and let me tell you that while I was initially a little nervous about my ability to create and teach meaningful lessons to kiddos who still can't tie their shoelaces, I've found that 3 and 4-year-olds are a LOT of fun. I find that there is a lot more singing and dancing and hand holding (literally) when I work with my youngest garden stewards and cooks at Tyler Elementary. They are definitely the best students in the school at making a straight line to go outside to the garden, but that's not all....

We've had lessons where we imagined we were seeds sprouting in the soil, soaking up the sun through our leafy hands and water through our rooted feet. We've pretended we were tender lettuce and hardy kale growing out in the garden beds -- which one do you think enjoyed our long, cold winter? We've shaken up our own homemade ranch dressing and devoured it drizzled over salads the size of our respective heads. We've made seed balls with native flower seeds. We've dug up a bed of potatoes....

I must say, more than any other group I've worked with, they are the best at patiently looking for camouflaged snap peas, helping to schlep plant bits to the compost bin, and being willing to taste just about anything in the garden. I can't wait to see how they (and our garden) continue to thrive in coming years!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How does our garden grow?

Well, it's looking like another one of those bipolar DC summers: 93 and sunny one day, 62 and rainy the next. (I am not such a huge fan of the torrential downpours like the one Ollie and I biked home in yesterday afternoon, but I suppose it's good training for Ireland and Scotland, where I'll be kicking around in about a month.)

The plants are LOVING it. The snap peas and broccoli are exploding in the garden beds, potatoes are blooming, the herbs are going bonkers, and the spinach is experiencing some kind of miracle extended season now that I've won the battle with the leaf miners (and maybe the coverage from the volunteer sunflowers is helping the shade-loving greens), and even the kale is thriving.

How does our garden grow? Like a weed. (Not many of those, thankfully, since I've also managed to train an avid bunch of recess-time weeders. Nice.)

Every time I am in the school garden, there are about a dozen kids who stop to pick and eat mint, and I've been showing every kid who walks by how to harvest and eat lettuce and peas. Even with kids "accidentally" pulling up radishes and eating underripe strawberries, there is almost too much produce for us to utilize in FoodPrints classes. I'm going to have to start sending home kids with bags of vegetables again....

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Luck be a ladybug

Yesterday I got a phone call from a fellow FoodPrints teacher that went something like this:

"One of the teachers accidentally ordered too many ladybugs for our garden. Want some?"

"Sure. It'd be great to knock down the aphid population over here."

"Great. There's about 5,000 of them. One of the parents will drop off the box in the main office. Put them in the fridge for a week if you aren't ready to release them yet."

"Oh. Okay." (Who orders five thousand too many? And is it normal to keep live beetles in the fridge on purpose? I wondered. But I am not one to look a giftbug in the mouth.)

I've ordered worms in the mail before -- three times, actually (and, no, not because I killed the first two batches, thank you very much) -- so I consider myself pretty experienced when it comes to the creepy crawly package opening. I could not have prepared myself for the tickly joy that was the release of thousands of ladybugs in the garden that afternoon. And since I had opted not to refrigerate them back into hibernation, they were ready to go as soon as I opened the two little baggies they were packed into. I was fortunate to have many dedicated garden assistants to help gently spread them around the 15 raised garden beds at Tyler.

Go get 'em, ladybugs!!

They are the coolest, cutest aphid devouring machines EVER.