Sunday, 7 February 2016

Frank Meyer and the Meyer Lemon

A seasonal treat, but not local for us in Toronto, is the Meyer Lemon. They hailed from China originally and are thought to be a cross between Mandarin oranges and lemons. Meyer lemons are smaller and more round than regular lemons. Their flesh often has a "peachy" tint and is less acidic than the common Lisbon or Eureka lemon with a skin that is thinner.
Meyer Lemons
Discovered in 1908 by Frank Meyer, an agricultural explorer, they bear his name. Like John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, he preferred work in the field to life at a desk. But unlike John Muir his name is virtually unknown today. Yet examples of his legacy are found in virtually every garden in North America today.

Frank Meyer was the first agricultural explorer charged with searching for economically useful, rather than ornamental, plants. He was employed by the Foreign Plant Introduction program of the USDA and sent to China initially. Later travels took him to Korea and Siberia. Over four expeditions to Asia he discovered and sent back cuttings, seeds and clippings of hundred of plants that have changed the botanical landscape of North America. His discoveries include grasses that are now used for lawns, scions and rootstock for fruit tree breeding, soybean and alfalfa and innumerable other ornamental and agricultural plants.

He was an indefatigable explorer walking through mountain ranges, across deserts and wading through icy streams in climatic extremes ranging from snowstorms to tropical heat and humidity. He was assaulted by robbers and thieves, bedbugs and scorpions, and often walked 25 to 40 miles a day. On his third expedition on one single day, November 9, 1914, he and his party crossed four mountain passes at elevations above 11.000 feet. On another expedition from Korea to Siberia he and his group lived on nothing but boiled oats for the last two weeks. He camped in tents when it was so cold the tea froze in the cup before it could be drunk. His return to the US from England was on the Mauretania in March 1912, following one day behind the ill-fated Titanic. His death is a mystery. On June 1, 1918 he boarded a steamer bound for Shanghai. Later that evening he could not be found. His body was eventually recovered from the Yangtze River. It was never determined whether his death was a suicide or the result of foul play.
Frank Meyer and his collecting party at 4.000 feet near Yin Tau Ko, China

A biography of Frank Meyer was written by Isabel Shipley Cunningham, Plant Hunter in Asia. There is an excellent article by her with photographs at

One of the best uses for Meyer lemons is Meyer Lemon Marmalade. There are many ways to make marmalade; preparation can take two days or just a couple of hours, texture can be thick cut or fine. I prefer the method which involves pre-soaking cut rind overnight and results in a somewhat robust texture.

The first step is to halve the lemons and remove and save the seeds which are a big source of pectin, necessarily for gelling but allowing the marmalade to be made without the use of commercial gelatine.

Halved lemon reveals seeds  to be removed
The seeds, high in pectin, are set aside

After the seeds are removed each half is cut into quarters and then those quarters are sliced thinly.
Meyer lemons waiting to be cut, the lemons sliced and put into a non-reactive pot
The sliced lemons, any juice accumulated, water and the seeds, gathered into a cheesecloth bag, are put into a non-reactive bowl, covered and left to stand overnight.
The seeds are gathered into a cheesecloth bag

Sliced, lemons, seeds and water rest overnight on the counter

The next day the mixture is brought to a boil over medium heat. I add the sugar at that point and then it is kept on a medium boil/simmer until the gelling point is reached. Once the gelling point is reached the bubbles become small and cover the entire surface. I also test by putting half a spoonful on a plate in the freezer for a couple minutes. When it is removed from the freezer the marmalade has gelled if the cold sample wrinkles when pushed with a finger. When sure the gelling point has been reached the bag of seeds is removed and the marmalade can be ladled into sterilized mason jars.

I like to process the marmalade in a hot water bath. This is not necessary because of the high sugar content but I like to take this step because I can find out in five minutes, rather than five hours, whether the jars have sealed.
Canned and processed Meyer Lemon Marmalade 
Once cooled the marmalade can be stored for a year for a little taste of sunshine all year long.

I have a somewhat pathetic Meyer Lemon plant which is fun but only bears one or two little fruits a year.
The finished product in front of the raw material!

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Year of the Pulse

There has been a lot of talk about this being the UN's Year of Pulses. I first learned that in November when I heard Vandana Shiva speak in Toronto. It is fantastic that there has been so much buzz about pulses. And it is only February. It seems a bit of a shame that last year's honouree, Year of Soils, seemed to pass without much discussion. Soil, like air and water, is necessary for all life on earth. And our soils are under great pressure agriculturally.

But back to the celebration of pulses. They are members of the legume family and, as such, fix nitrogen in the soil. This is their great contribution to the health of soil in a sustainable agriculture model making them an essential component of crop rotation.

Pulses are the dried seed of a pod and include dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas. Canada has a big role to play as one of the world's biggest producers of pulses and the largest exporter of lentils.  The largest market for our lentils and peas is India, also one of the biggest producers of pulses. Other heavy hitting producers are Pakistan, the US, Australia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Various lentils including the French delicacy, De Puy lentils
Heirloom beans I grow including Blue Jay, Orca, Jacob's Cattle, Carmina  and  Vermont Cranberry
And more heirloom beans; Black Valentine, Cannellini and another I've lost track of which I call Brown Mottled.

In addition to their important role as nitrogen fixers in the soil, pulses are a powerhouse of nutrients. At a time when feeding the world's exploding population is an ongoing concern, they have an important contribution to make. Pulses are high in protein and fibre, low in fat and also contain zinc, iron and phosphorus with traces of folate and B vitamins. As food from plants they also contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are not essential for sustaining human life but the same properties that help protect the plant are thought to also protect us against some diseases. Pulses are also complex carbohydrates which are beneficial for slow absorption of nutrients and therefore good for slow release energy and low on the glycemic index.

Being such a food powerhouse, it is not surprising that pulses have been cultivated for millennia and that virtually every cuisine has at least a couple signature dishes made from pulses. When cooking pulses they all come dried and in some cases, also canned. If you have the time, dried versions are preferable to canned which will have added sodium. When reconstituting dried beans it is important not to add salt until the beans have completely absorbed the water and plumped up.

Some of these dishes include, from the Middle East and made using chickpeas
Baked beans are a classic from North America. The process of reconstituting dried beans includes low and slow cooking with water and often dried or dijon mustard and often maple syrup - a real pioneer dish.
Slow baked beans
From the British Isles comes split pea soup or pease porridge. Dried peas need less time to absorb the liquid and naturally become mushy. You can puree the soup or not according to the consistency you prefer.
Split pea soup
Italian minestrone soup contains beans and is never pureed.
Minestrone soup
India's many versions of Daal is made from lentils. Each region has its own characteristic spices.  Like split peas lentils tend to absorb liquid and reconstitute quickly, also breaking up on their own.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Off piste with Scylla

It is always an adventure cross country skiing from the back door of the farmhouse. With the first snow of the season there is just enough of the white stuff to cover most of the grass but not deep enough to make me sink to my knees with each step (no gliding in that much snow...) as I break through virgin snow.

I love skiing from the house. It is such a treat not to have to get in the car and so nice to have the companionship of Scylla, our Australian shepherd. But it is probably not everyone's cup of tea.

For bona fide skiers conditions are probably less than ideal. First of all there is the need to break a trail. And then there are the fences to be crossed between the fields which lie between our house and the entrance to the woods.
The split cedar rail fence at the end of our field.
The next fence has the added challenge of two heights of barbed wire in addition to the spit cedar rails which have mostly collapsed
Entering the woods is easy for Scylla but I have to do the limbo to get underneath the wire fence.

Once in the woods there are further obstacles, all of which need to be circumvented; branches and other trash on the path, the occasional fallen tree, pools which have not yet frozen in low-lying spots and barely exposed stones which would be quite unfortunate to hit on a nice downward slope when one was enjoying a bit of well-earned speed (having herringboned up the hill to get to the top).
A fallen tree lying across the trail
Protruding branches and barely covered rocks
Here we need to make a big detour to avoid the open water in the lowest part of the trail
A rock not quite covered by snow

In the woods it is clear that the snow may be new for us but many have gone before - there are tracks of deer, rabbits, small rodents to name a few.
I love the way the animals, especially the larger ones like deer often prefer the trail to forging a path through the woods
Deer footprint
Here our paths diverge - I to the left, the deer to the right
I will never be a skilled and elegant skier, skimming along the snow with style and grace. The challenges of this trail with its daunting steep hills are much more suited to my rough and ready "never say die" enthusiasm.
It is difficult to capture but this hill is short and steep followed by an equally daunting ascent . At least there's no open water at the bottom...

All those tracks make a ski much more stimulating for Scylla than a walk along the road or through the park in the city. But she is also all about playing the angles. As we head out she will never go first - no breaking trail for her. Whenever I stop to turn around and see if she is following she freezes and stalwartly also looks behind - another scout on the lookout for any danger sneaking up from behind.
Having decided to go back Scylla is happy to lead the way

Once we are ready to turn around and head back she is very happy to take the lead. The snow is easier for her to navigate now that it is nicely packed under my ski trail.

The fences provide a challenge for Scylla too. But of a different nature. Instead of scrambling over them she needs to find an opening to squeeze her considerable girth through.
Scylla squeezes through a gap in the fence

Now that we're back in the warmth of the house, having eaten lunch, it is time for a well-deserved lie-down on the red couch.
At home at last

Friday, 18 December 2015

Seeing Red

 When I woke last Sunday morning and saw the brilliant sunshine I knew I wanted to go for a walk in the woods. Although there was a noticeable absence of predawn gunshots I didn't know for sure that hunting season had ended. But desire trumped reason – I just wanted to go “forest bathing” or Shinrin-yoku" as the Japanese call it. But, feeling I should make at least a nod to caution, I decided to don an orange jacket and scarf.

Late fall seems at first to be monochromatic, especially compared to the brilliance of fall foliage and the spring to autumn parade of kaleidoscopic annual and perennial bloom. Once you accept the limited palette you begin to notice the many subtle variations of green, brown and beige. 
Milkweed seed head

Walking through the fields there was a gorgeous “big sky” - perhaps nothing to compare with Montana's, but beautiful for Ontario; a glowing blue with dark ominous clouds above the northern horizon and a combination of cumulus and cirrus clouds to the east. 
Scylla "home on the range"

It may have been donning my orange jacket, but I first noticed a florescent orange fungus on a fallen tree trunk in the hedgerow. Commonly known as Orange Witch's Butter and scientifically as Dacrymyces palmatus, it is described, accurately I'd say, as looking brain like. 
Dacrymyces palmatus or Orange Witch's Butter

After that I  became aware of the flashes of complementary red – rare but more delightful for their economy in the landscape.

A bright purple bramble stem
 Red osier dogwood growing on the bank of Railway Creek
Once I entered the woods, having been alerted by the Orange Witch's Butter, I started to notice other colourful macrofungi. I did my best to identify them, but offer no guarantees. The site I found most useful was the University of Wisconsin's.
Another orange mushroom, Omphalotus illuden
Omphalotus illuden, known as Jack O' Lantern mushroom

I came across something I couldn't identify on a fallen tree trunk. I'm not even sure if it's a lichen or a fungus….

In the part of the woods dominated by hemlock and yellow birch I came across Ganoderma tsugae, Hemlock polypore which is relatively rare simply because it only grows on hemlocks.
Hemlock polypore Ganoderma tsugae
Another example a few feet along

There was another magnificent fungus, Fomitopsis pinacola, quite gaudy with its distinctive striping. Commonly know as Red-banded Conk, it is characterized by a gray center, outlined by a black band with an outermost red band. 
Fomitopsis pinacola or Red Banded Conk

 Having gotten used to picking out flashes of red I saw a stand of red osier dogwood in the distance. 

Walking further there was an exposed tree root on the path, worn smooth and a warm red colour.

Once I got back home I noticed the brilliant red of the high bush cranberry. There are very few berries this year and I think it must be related to the hard frost we had in May which also reduced the number of wild grapes and apples.
High bush cranberry berries

And there was the brilliant red of the modest, ground-hugging wild strawberries bravely growing in the sharp drainage of the gravel in front of the garage.
Wild Strawberry leaves

The meadow rose that Alex gave us rewarded with both red stems and red hips.
Red rose hips and stems

While there may be some who are seeing red at the lack of snow this Christmas, Nature hasn't forgotten the season. She's just reminding us that the red and green of Christmas are all around us.