Eating the Enemy: The European Brown Snail

Throughout last spring and early summer I murdered a hundred, sometimes two hundred, every day. Some were smaller than a pea, others were as big as a walnut. I would pluck them off leaves until both my hands were full, pile them on a stone or board, stamp once, hard, with my right foot in its rubber clog, and give a sideways shove to land all the sticky, slimy mess in a garden bed, where before the day was done their live cousins would turn them back to soil.

The European Brown Snail

 My husband was appalled at the waste. We could eat them, he would quietly remind me. But I couldn’t get up an appetite for creatures that reminded me of carnage and gore. I couldn’t even look at the sole of my shoe. I knew only that unless I kept up with the killing we’d have no vegetables, no melons—nothing appetizing to eat at all.

My enemy is the European brown snail, Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa and Cryptomphalus aspersus. In the Mediterranean region, people have been eating these snails for ten thousand years. They came to the West Coast of this country soon after the Gold Rush, when a Frenchman introduced them to his San Jose vineyard “with an eye to the pot.” The snails were especially adaptable, and predators were lacking. By 1900 the snails had been found in Oakland and Pacific Grove (near Monterey), and they were common in Los Angeles.* Today they are so ubiquitous in California that they are sometimes called the California brown snail. Here in Oregon they are rare in the country but abundant in the cities. They are said to live happily in forests and deserts, so perhaps they slid all the way to the Willamette Valley on their own slime. But I suspect they came on nursery pots.

One rainy day Robert and I returned from a drive to find a whole convention of big ones at the edge of the driveway and all over the artichoke plants beside it. I hadn’t been snail hunting in the artichoke bed, because snails don’t eat artichoke buds; they just like hanging out in the shade of the plants. Left alone through a wet early summer, these mollusks had grown big—almost gros gris size, as the French say, as opposed to petit gris. Robert smiled as if he’d stumbled on a morel in the forest or a well-marbled steak in a supermarket. I told him I’d collect some if he wanted to prepare them. He did.

In five minutes I’d bagged 60. Robert put them in a bucket in the basement with some cornmeal and covered the bucket with half an old T-shirt, held tight with string. One time the snails got loose, through a little armpit hole, and I had to gather them up as they were escaping in all directions across the pool table that serves as our all-purpose worktable. But otherwise their last days were uneventful. Their poop turned from black to white. Each day for six days, Robert cleaned the bucket of poop and slime. Twice a day we misted the T-shirt with water.

Europeans, we read, often kill their snails by salting them; this is supposed to thoroughly purge them of slime. But even I couldn’t be so cruel.

So Robert followed a different method. He rinsed the snails in several changes of tepid water, and then boiled them for 15 minutes in 2 gallons of water. He lifted out the snails with a basket ladle and dropped them into a bowl of water with ½ cup vinegar. He rinsed them, drained them, rinsed them again in vinegar-water, and then drained them again. He picked out the meat with a small paring knife, poking the point into the center of the whorl and unwinding the body with a twist of the wrist. And then he rinsed the meats a final time in the vinegar-water.

The 60 snails were now reduced to a collection of pretty shells and 6.5 ounces of snail meat. In the classic escargot preparation, you stuff the snails back into their shells along with butter, parsley, garlic, and the like, cook the snails, and then pull the meats out again to eat them. Robert chose a simpler way. He melted ½ cup butter, and in it he sautéed a minced celery stalk, a sliced lion’s mane mushroom, and three large garlic cloves, minced. He added the snails, 1/3 cup pinot grigio, and 2 tablespoons minced sage (unconventional, but Robert loves sage). He simmered the sauce down a bit while boiling 8 ounces of linguine. Then he added a handful of chopped parsley to the sauce and poured the sauce over the hot, drained pasta.

shelled snails

Sixty snails are a lot for two people, especially when one of them is feeling a little queasy. I would suggest increasing the quantities of pasta and sauce ingredients, inviting another couple to dinner, and serving plenty of wine. But Robert enjoyed his leftover snails for lunch. They taste fine when you stop thinking of them as war victims.

empty snail shells

I was so thorough in my slaughter in spring and early summer that now I’m killing only a dozen or two snails a day. But I have no doubt that when the rains start the snails will be back in force, if not from eggs in my garden then from the neighbors’ yards on both sides. When the creatures get really big again, I’ll ask Robert if he’s ready for another adventure with
escargot.

*Robert E. C. Stearns, “Exotic Mollusca in California.” Science 11:278 (April 27, 1900), pp. 655-59.

Shopping in the Garden for Spring Salad Makings

spring salad

While we are all avoiding trips to the grocery store, it’s good to remember that the garden may offer much more interesting things to eat, anyway. Here I’ve combined the last of the arugula with shaved fennel and johnny jump-ups, which have jumped up everywhere in the gravel between my raised vegetable beds. These flowers are not only edible but truly tasty. Since their aroma is easily overwhelmed by vinaigrette, they are best eaten straight from the plant, but how they prettify a salad! I’ve added handfuls of tart, juicy haskaps, the first fruit of the year, always beating out strawberries by at least a week. And finally I’ve sprinkled over big green seeds of sweet cicely, a ferny plant of the carrot family whose roots, leaves, and seeds all taste sweetly of anise and are said to be helpful to the digestion. Safeway may have some fennel bulbs in stock, but otherwise none of these plants can be found there. Together they taste of springtime.

Naked Barley: Lovely and Local

The food shortages that accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus and continue to this day have made local food—food produced for the local population rather than for shipping across the country and overseas—a suddenly more urgent cause. I have struggled to understand why supermarkets have been able to stock all-purpose flour but not bread flour or whole-wheat flour. But I have asked myself a more important question, too: Why are we all reliant on grain and flour from Midwestern mega-mills? One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone in this valley ate wheat both grown and ground within ten miles or so from home. If we still did that, we would have some security against crises that upset the national and international food distribution networks.

As I thought about all this last week, my heart swelled for the one pair of local farmers I know who grow wheat, barley, and meal corn, bag it themselves, and spend much of the summer at farmers’ markets selling their goods to the public. And I took a bag of the Harcombes’ naked barley out of the freezer.

Naked barley gets naked by dropping its inedible hulls during harvest, just as modern wheat varieties do. This means the barley doesn’t need “pearling”—the abrasive process that removes the bran as well as the hull of each kernel. Naked barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley, but it has a pleasant, chewier texture, nutty flavor, and more nutrients. And its habit of shedding its own hull means that small commercial farmers and even homesteaders can easily process it to a ready-to-cook stage. You can use naked barley in brewing and for animal feed as well.

Naked barleyPaul and Nonie Harcombe’s naked barley is a variety called ‘Streakers,’ the first release of the Oregon State University Barley Project. Naked barley was nothing new when the OSU researchers started their project, but they aimed to breed something new indeed: a naked barley that would resist the rust disease endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The grain has grown well for Paul and Nonie. Now they just need to get people used to eating barley.

And why not eat barley, especially when it’s hulled but not pearled? The whole grain is full of minerals and fiber. It can help to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol. It is excellent as a breakfast cereal and in grain salads and pilafs. And it makes an interesting substitute in some traditional pearl-barley dishes, such as this soup.

mushroom-barley soup

Mushroom-Barley Soup

I have used here a mix of chanterelles and winter chanterelles (funnel chanterelles, yellowfoot chanterelles) from the freezer. Both are easy to find in the lower Cascades, not far from my home, and easy to identify, too. Before freezing the mushrooms last fall, I cleaned them and cooked them in a dry skillet until they stopped releasing water.

¾ cup naked barley
2 ¼ cups water
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 quart beef or chicken stock
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
4 ounces onion, chopped
2 ounces carrot, chopped
2 ounces celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces frozen cooked chanterelles or other mushrooms, thawed
½ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or savory leaves
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Put the barley into a bowl with 1½ cups of the water. Cover the bowl, and let it stand overnight or for at least several hours.

Toward the end of this period, put the shiitakes into a bowl with the remaining ¾ cup water. Weight the shiitakes with another bowl set inside the first, and let them soak for an hour.

In a pot, combine the barley, the stock, the shiitake soaking water (reserve the shiitakes), and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pan, and let the barley simmer for an hour or until it is tender.

In a small skillet, heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is tender. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes more. Put the vegetables into the pot along with the frozen and thawed mushrooms, the parsley, and the thyme or savory. Slice the shiitakes, and add the tops to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Return the contents of the pan to a simmer, and simmer them for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Serve the soup at once, or cool it for later reheating. The naked barley won’t swell as much as pearl barley, so your soup won’t turn into porridge. If you’d like it thinner, though, just add some stock or water.

Serves 3 as a main dish

Playing with Pokeweed

bag of poke, small“That weed we had last night gave me whacky dreams,” complained Robert. His dreams may have been whacky, but he was wrong to blame the weed: Pokeweed has no reputation for causing wild or vivid dreams. Poke just makes you throw up or get the runs. Or it kills you. And these things happen only if the cook is careless, which I’m not.

Pokeweed is new to our table, though it grows untended in our garden. I used to think poke grew only in the Deep South, in the kind of place where the movie Deliverance took place. Or in Louisiana, where the gators are so mean that they eat grannies, says Tony Joe White’s song “Polk Sallet Annie.” Actually, according to the USDA, Phytolacca americana is native to all but ten states and to eastern Canada besides. I think it must be new in my town, because most people here don’t recognize it. But today it’s growing rampant in our parks and gardens.

bunch of poke, smallI don’t call it by its Southern name, poke sallet, because poke is a potherb, not a salad herb. That is, you must boil the stuff before eating it. As an early-summer seedling, unfortunately, poke looks like a salad herb, with tender, deep-green leaves that remind me of flat-leafed spinach. Like spinach, poke leaves are rich in vitamins A and C. As I gather the leaves, I have to restrain myself from biting into one.

Unlike spinach, poke is an herbaceous perennial. Mature plants look like medium-large shrubs, with thick, 8- to 10-foot stems that turn from light green to crimson over the summer. Bunches of berries hang from the branches, gradually turning from green to shiny black. For a while the plant is gorgeous, and then comes the pleasure of watching birds gorge themselves on the fruit. Afterward you either cut the plant down or let freezing weather do it in.

The poison in poke, people say, is in the red parts. For this reason you’re not supposed to eat poke shoots that are more than 6 to 8 inches high. But shoots that grow in the shade grow taller before they redden. I’ve harvested foot-tall, all-green seedlings from a shady area while rejecting pink-tinged 2-inch seedlings growing in gravel in full sun.

The most poisonous part of the plant, people say, is the root. The last time I harvested pokeweed I pulled the seedlings from the ground, but next time I’ll remember to clip them at the soil line instead.

To remove any trace of poison, poke leaves should be boiled in two or three changes of water. Southerners typically recommend long boiling—20 or 30 minutes or more. I suspect this is because they gather leaves from older plants. The master forager Green Deane advises harvesting shoots no taller than 6 inches and boiling them once for a minute and again, in fresh water, for 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, however, young leaves turn into something resembling pond scum. Is this what Southerners mean by “a mess of greens”? In any case, the next time I gather poke I’ll consider the advice of North Carolina State Extension: “Peel and parboil tender young shoots (less than eight inches) in two changes of water several minutes each.” That’s pretty vague, but if I aim for two 5-minute boilings I’ll take 6 minutes off Green Deane’s total cooking time, and perhaps my poke leaves will retain some integrity.

Besides the leaves, other parts of the poke plant are useful. Although I’ve thrown out even the tiny stems of my poke seedlings, some people cook and eat both young and old stems, although they carefully peel away the red skins first. Some fanciers compare poke stems to asparagus.

Poke berries not only make a fine ink, but they are sometimes taken a few at a time as a remedy for arthritis or gout, and when they are crushed and strained of their seeds they are said to make a delicious and nutritious juice. Although many people warn against eating poke seeds, North Carolina State Extension says that “cooked berries are safe for making pies.”

I must admit that I find pokeweed bland. It has none of the strong and interesting taste of spinach, chard, cabbage, mustard, or even lettuce. For children, this is probably a virtue. And perhaps if I cook my poke for a shorter period next time I’ll be able to appreciate its subtle flavor.

I do like poke in the traditional recipe below. Here bacon fat and eggs lend plenty of flavor, while pokeweed provides a beautiful contrasting color along with a texture like well-cooked spinach.

poke-egg scramble, smallScrambled Eggs with Pokeweed

1 tablespoon bacon fat
3 ounces twice-boiled young poke leaves (change the water between boilings)
5 eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and black pepper to taste

In a skillet, melt the bacon fat over medium heat. Add the greens, spread them in the pan, and heat them through. Add the eggs and the salt and pepper. Turn the eggs and greens together, gently, until the eggs are just set. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

A Taste of Austria

IMG_3190Last month I had the luck to spend two weeks in Austria, a little country of cheerful, modest people and outsized natural and cultural wealth, from the ancient salt mines to the soaring Alps, from Baroque palaces filled with with art to the operas of Mozart, from the gold and jewels of the royal treasury to the lushest cow pastures I’ve ever seen.

As the pastures might suggest, the Austrian food world is rich as well. The butter tastes like butter, the egg yolks are as orange as oranges, restaurants pride themselves on their local and bio ingredients, and farmers all over the country produce their own excellent cured meats and schnaps (brandies from assorted fruits). Here are a few gastronomic highlights of the trip.

Found in the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s double row of permanent produce and restaurant stalls, stretching from one metro stop to the next:

Pickle barrel

 

a barrel full of fermented cucumbers;

pickles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

more pickles;

 

 

 

 

 

fruit vinegars

 

 

 

fruit vinegars;

 

 

 

 

 

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flavored hummuses (among the merchants are numerous Turks and other immigrants from the Near East);

 

 

Kletzen and Weingartenpfirsich

 

 

 

Kletzen, whole dried pears, upper left; and Weingartenpfirsich, vineyard peaches, lower right. The peaches grow from seed in the vineyards of western Austria, where they ripen at about the same time as the grapes and so provide a handy snack for the harvesters (in case the workers have tired of eating grapes). Although these peaches are small and rather dry, they are preferred over big, juicy peaches for cooking, especially for jam. The dried pears are traditionally used at Christmastime to make Kletzenbrot, a yeast bread containing nuts, spices, and rye flour as well as dried fruit.

 

Pears are a particularly important food in mountainous areas where grapes don’t grow. The favorite seems to be Williams, or, as we call it in the United States, Bartlett.

standard pear in the Zillertal

 

In the Zillertal, a valley in the Tyrol, we saw many standard pear trees, like this one.

 

 

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In the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg, we saw several pear trees espaliered against the walls of buildings.

 

 

 

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Austrians love all kinds of fruits. At the Nashmarkt in Vienna, these women were selling an assortment of fruit juices.

 

 

 

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High on a mountain over the Zillertal, a man stopped his car, pulled out a ladder, and propped it against a mountain-ash (or rowan) tree heavy with fruit. Can you see him in the tree? He is probably gathering the berries—Vogelbeeren—for schnaps. The birds must share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were fortunate to be in Austria when the Preiselbeeren—lingonberries—were ripe. A mound of lingonberry sauce, served alongside meat-and-potato or meat-and-noodle dishes, tastes like cranberry sauce but a bit less sour and bitter. Lingonberries are smaller than cranberries, though, so they look more like red currants without the hairy bits.

Preiselbeeren

 

Here are lingonberries in a market.

 

 

 

 

 

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We found lingonberry plants covering the floor of spruce forests above the Zillertal. Often lingonberries and huckleberries—Heidelbeeren–grow together, so it’s difficult to harvest one without harvesting the other. A handful of the two together makes a fine snack for a hungry hiker, and a basketful makes a nice batch of mixed-wild-berry jam, which we tasted in our hotels.

 

 

 

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In the Zillertal Regional Museum, we found an old berry basket and berry comb. We’d seen a woman using a comb like this as she foraged in the woods over the Zillertal, while her husband dozed in the car by the side of the road.

 

 

 

 

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While in Vienna I felt I must visit one of the city’s venerable coffeehouses. I chose Café Landtmann. The outdoor tables looked tempting in the sunshine, but the traffic noise drove me into the staid interior.

 

 

 

 

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Unable to work up an appetite for the fancy cakes, I ordered humble apple strudel in a pool of custard.

 

 

 

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The strudel made a fine, though expensive, lunch, but when I afterward explored the nearby Kunsthistoriches Museum I wish I’d gone straight there, because smack in the middle of the museum is what must be one of the most beautiful cafés in the world.

 

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Most Austrian breads are dark and dense, as you might guess from the dimensions of this bread-cutting tray at the Zillertal Regional Museum. I particularly liked the Dinkelbrot, which, I found out only after coming home, is made from spelt.

 

 

 

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But Austrian bakers make white breads, too, like these in the shape of soccer balls.

 

 

 

 

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My favorite snack in Austria was Mohnzelten, which are like fig Newtons but big and round and filled with poppyseeds instead of figs. This one, bought in Dürnstein and baked nearby, was made with a potato dough.

 

 

 

 

 

Sausage man

 

 

The cured meats of Austria are amazingly diverse and good. This man, in the Naschmarkt, gave us so many samples that we couldn’t eat lunch afterward (note that his Lederhosen straps don’t hold up his Hosen but are printed on his T-shirt).

 

 

 

 

 

hot-dogs

 

Scattered throughout Vienna are Würstelstände, sausage stands. Long, thin sausages served in a bun are called by their English name, hot dog. The vendor cuts off one end of the bun, jams the bun cut-end down on a spike, inserts the sausage in the hollow thus formed, and squirts in some mustard. We enjoyed the Käsekrainer, a cheese-studded smoked pork sausage. Oh, to find such a hot dog at home!

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We found this sausage vending machine along the street in the town of Aschau, in the Zillertal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

breakfast

 

Meats, cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, and often fish are included in the lavish breakfast spreads at Austrian hotels—and when you reserve a room in Austria, you’re usually reserving a seat at a breakfast table as well. These two photos show just part of the spread at the Hotel Unter den Linden, in Krems. breakfast 2

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This breakfast room, at the Hotel Hubertushof in Bad Ischl, is typical in its comfort and beautiful woodwork.

 

 

 

 

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This was one of my breakfasts at the Hubertushof.

 

 

 

 

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Austrian hotels have amazingly sophisticated coffee machines, like expert baristas in a box. Enzianhof, in the Zillertal, even has a machine for poaching your own eggs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s too bad for us that so little Austrian wine is exported to the United States (though the amount is growing), because Wien ist Wein, as they say. Both the red and white wines made around Vienna are excellent. We were happy to be there during the harvest season, so we could taste Sturm, grape juice that has fermented no more than a few days or weeks.

Heuriger Kierlinger

 

The best place to taste Sturm is at a Heuriger, a wine garden on the outskirts of the city. The wine growers are allowed to sell their own wines along with an assortment of meats, salads, and so on, which you usually order by weight at a counter. This is Heuriger Kierlinger, in Nussdorf.

 

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And here is Sturm for sale in the Naschmarkt.

 

 

 

 

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In the Zillertal Regional Museum we found the biggest kraut board I’ve ever seen. It must be four feet long. We saw old kraut boards, big and small, displayed elsewhere, too, but I don’t remember seeing sauerkraut on a menu. Perhaps it was too early in the fall . . . or perhaps kraut has fallen out of style.

 

 

 

 

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Finally, just for fun, here’s dessert.

 

 

Sweet Violets for Jelly

IMG_0024As everybody knows, violets are blue—except when they are pink, or white, or mauve, or white tinged with lavender. This is what I learned after tilling the seven-foot-wide planting strip stretching the width of our city lot between the sidewalk and the curb.

I don’t know how many decades the seeds of Viola odorata had lain dormant under the grass and moss that covered this strip, but after brief exposure to the sun the seeds sprouted through several inches of bark mulch, and soon mounds of dark green, heart-shaped leaves formed a ground cover around the shrubs and larger perennials that I had planted.

IMG_0027That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago the violets began blooming, and now I have only to open the front door to fill my head with their unique sweet scent.

But few of my violet plants produce blue flowers. Shades of pink predominate in the parking strip, and where I’ve torn up parts of the shaded, mossy back lawn I’m finding white and blue-white violets.

In Europe and Asia, the homeland of the sweet violet, odd colors apparently arose spontaneously. Beginning in the nineteenth century, breeders named and propagated selections they particularly liked. The seeds must have sold widely. I imagine a long-ago resident of my house tearing open a packet of mixed-color violet seeds, sprinkling them up and down the planting strip, and tossing the leftovers into the backyard. The plants would have spread by seed and by rhizome until someone tore them up and planted lawn in their place. In recent decades, broad-leaf herbicides probably kept the violets from returning.

Seeds of ordinary blue violets are still available from many sources, but only a few suppliers sell seeds of old cultivars—Reine de Neiges (white, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds), Queen Charlotte (blue and white, from Hazzard’s Seeds), and the Czar (blue, from both Swallowtail and Hazzard’s). At least one nursery, Valleybrook Gardens of British Columbia, is still breeding violets; Valleybrook sells its Classy Pink, Intense Blue, and Bridewhite violets as potted plants to garden centers in Canada and along both U.S. coasts.

Maybe you wonder who would pay for a potted weed. Violets, after all, can be invasive. But even today some people take their violets so seriously that they join organizations to study, celebrate, and promote the little plants. The U.S. has its American Violet Society, and France Les Amis de la Violette. There is even an International Violet Conference.

I suspect that these violet aficionados fuss mainly over the appearance of the blossoms. I focus instead on the plant’s uses. Not only are violets among the earliest garden flowers to bloom, and not only are they fragrant. Since they don’t much object to mowing, they are an attractive addition to a shady lawn. The fresh blossoms are lovely in a salad, and they can be crystallized for decorating desserts. The dried blossoms and leaves, in a tisane, are said to soothe headaches and relieve insomnia. Violet liqueur is essential for cocktails such as the Aviator, and violet syrup can be a pleasant coloring and flavoring for white or sparkling wine, meringues, and ices.

A modern use for violets—because it requires added pectin—is violet jelly. High-methoxyl pectin, the regular kind, requires acid for gelling, and the acid I add comes from lemon juice.* Lemon juice also enhances the flavor of the jelly, and it has another effect, one that might impress your children: A little lemon transforms violet “juice” from the deep blue of blue violets to a pinker shade, nearly as pink as some of my pink violets.

IMG_0033Last week I decided to make violet jelly using only blue violets and to leave all the pink blooms alone. I don’t know what color jelly pink violets would make.I will try that experiment one of these days.

Much of the violet aroma is sadly lost in cooking, but if you start out with plenty of blossoms you will produce a jelly that is intensely flavorful as well as gorgeous.

violet flowersViolet Jelly

When you pick your violets, you needn’t remove the green calyx at the base of each flower. Even a bit of stem here and there won’t hurt your jelly.

In this recipe I’ve used Ball’s “Classic” pectin because I had some on hand, not because I favor it. You can substitute another brand, but you may need to adjust the method according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Note that when you strain your violet “juice” you can safely squeeze the jelly bag without making the juice cloudy.

4 cups blue violets
2 cups water, boiled and then left to cool for about 2 minutes
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
3 tablespoons Ball “Classic” pectin
1½ cups sugar

Put the violets into a bowl (I use a quart glass measure), and pour the water over them. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature overnight.

In the morning, strain the liquid through a jelly bag. Squeeze the bag to extract the last of the blue liquid. Add a little water, if needed, to equal 2 cups.

Stir the lemon juice into the violet liquid. The liquid will turn a pinker shade. Pour the liquid into a preserving pan. Gradually sprinkle the pectin over, and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a full boil, and immediately add the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Boil it for 1 minute.

Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the syrup into sterilized ½- or ¼-pint mason jars. Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1¼ pints

 

*Low-methoxyl pectin requires no acid for gelling, but in my experience this pectin produces cloudy jelly. Also, low-methoxyl pectin is usually used to produce low-sugar products (you can identify it in stores by phrases like “for low- or no-sugar jam”). Keep in mind that if your jelly is low in both sugar and acid it is not safe to eat.

Hunting for Oregon Truffles

Last Sunday I joined a local truffle hunter and a few other Slow Food members on an expedition to a farm near Sweet Home. The farm includes groves of Douglas fir trees, planted close in tidy rows. This was just the sort of place to find Oregon white truffles, said Marcie, the truffle hunter. The truffles favor 20- to 50-year-old stands of “Doug fir,” now our dominant conifer, the favorite of timber companies because it grows well and fast on clear-cut land.

img_9932Luna the truffle dog had to be harnessed and leashed; she couldn’t wait to get hunting. Regardless of breed, dogs may or may not thrill to the smell of truffles. But Marcie had trained Luna with truffle-scented dog toys since early puppyhood, and the smell never failed to turn the little dog wild. She needed no treats to drive her on.

People are like dogs; some love truffles, and others are indifferent. To me the smell of truffles is chemical, like a strong cleaning product, and animal, like sweat. In fact, a major component of the truffle aroma, the steroidal pheromone androstenone, is also a component of male human sweat and female human urine. A scientific study found that some people learn to perceive androstenone only with repeated, intense exposure, and that others never sense it. The rest of us smell it strongly. We may like it or not, but at least subconsciously we may find it sexy. In another study people who sniffed androstenone rated photos of women as more sexually attractive than did people not exposed to the scent.

I don’t get to sniff truffles often, but the scent is growing on me. I loved my husband’s truffle-scented toasted hazelnut oil, which for months we sprinkled on salads, gnocchi, rice, and cooked vegetables. And the time I most enjoyed truffle-scented food was just a few weeks ago, when Marcie brought a truffle-scented triple crème cheese to a Slow Food meeting.

img_9936-2Luna pulled Marcie into the woods and began running to and fro as the rest of us scrambled behind. Almost immediately Luna stopped and began digging. She paused, snout buried in the soil, and inhaled deeply before frantically digging again. Marcie pulled her back, holding tight to Luna’s leash, while sifting the dirt for truffles with her free hand. They were hard to find, since they were less than an inch across and well coated with soil. Often Marcie is briefly fooled by a hazelnut or a cherry pit dropped by a bird. But she found a truffle at Luna’s first stop, and another and another as Luna ran a few yards and stopped to dig again. Apparently, truffles were everywhere.

IMG_0632.JPGOregon has two species of white truffles, one produced in winter and one in spring. Marcie never knows in advance exactly how the seasons are playing out in a particular woodland. Many of the truffles Luna found were falling apart or still intact but full of tiny worms. It seemed the winter truffle season was ending and the spring season hadn’t quite begun. Still, Marcie was finding a truffle or even two nearly everywhere Luna dug.

In the first, younger stand of trees that we explored, the truffles seemed to be only about four inches below the surface. In the second stand they were mostly deeper. Truffles can develop as deep as eighteen inches below ground, Marcie said. But she wouldn’t let Luna dig that deep; that would amount nearly to self-interment for such a small dog. Besides, the deeper Luna dug the more she disturbed the forest floor. And while she dug her teeth tore furiously at every root in her path.

Using a truffle dog isn’t nearly as destructive as searching for truffles with a rake can be. The craze for truffles in recent years has driven many prospectors armed with rakes into Oregon’s public and private forests. Some arrive with permission; others do not. Some rake away so much soil that roots are exposed in large circles around the trees. Understandably, more and more forest owners and managers are taking measures to keep out truffle hunters of all kinds.

Be assured: We had permission to hunt in these woods. And Marcie and her son carefully pushed the soil and duff back into every hole Luna dug.

After two hours of hunting and digging, Luna hadn’t tired, but we had. And Marcie had gathered more than a half-pint of usable truffles or truffle pieces. Many were wormy but still suitable for flavoring. Marcie washed the truffles and divided them among small plastic containers. One she left for the farmers, in payment. Luna would get a few wormy scraps.

img_9943At home, I let my truffles dry a bit and then put them into a large Tupperware container with two half-sticks of butter and a piece of cheese, an American imitation of young Asiago. Too bad I had no triple crème on hand. But I expect I’ll thoroughly enjoy this cheese and butter when, a day or two from now, I take the lid off the Tupperware and flood the kitchen with the scent of Oregon truffles.

Fennel Pollen—Really?

fennel head 2Examining a Florence fennel plant I’d let go to seed, my daughter came to the same conclusion I had—that the fad food fennel “pollen” was actually fennel flowers.

You’re supposed to rub fennel pollen over chicken or pork before roasting the meat, dust the pollen over salad or cooked pasta, or use it as a flavoring in bread, cake, or cookies. The chef my daughter works with has brewed fennel-pollen tea. To me the flowers seem best sprinkled over simply cooked seafood—white fish, shrimp, or squid—or even over eggs or buttered toast. You can most appreciate the bright yellow color and honey-sweet, anise-like flavor when the stuff is atop rather than mixed into other food.

I harvest fennel flowers by placing a plastic vegetable bag over a blooming fennel head, closing the bag around the stalk, turning the head downward, and shaking. After bagging and shaking each flowering head on a plant, I might have a teaspoonful of yellow bits. I spill them into a dish and let any spiders or other critters crawl away. Looking closely at what remains, I see little stamens and curled petals. The bees and other flying insects around my fennel plant are surely gathering pollen, but any pollen on my dish is invisible to my eye.

fennel flowersAnother way to gather fennel flowers is to cut blooming flower heads and hang them upside-down in a paper bag. The stamens and petals—and, I suppose, pollen—will fall off in time. The color and flavor of the dry mix will be just a bit less bright than the color and flavor of the fresh flowers.

Some of the fennel pollen pictured on the Internet looks more green than yellow. I suspect these products are actually crushed fennel buds. The buds are easier to harvest in quantity than open flowers; you just pull the buds off their little stems, and crush them between your fingers. The bits will look yellow-green, not bright yellow, but they will still have a delightful flavor. Judging from the pictures on the Internet, dried buds are less pretty than fresh ones.

Florence fennel is a somewhat difficult plant to grow as a vegetable; getting good bulbous stems depends on mild weather and plentiful water. But harvesting the flowers reminds me of all the good things fennel brings us. Bronze fennel is a lovely, if often invasive, garden ornamental. The caracois served on heaping platters in Lisbon bars are Theba pisana snails, harvested from the fennel stalks where the snails congregate and estivate (I once walked through Roman ruins in a field filled with snail-laden fennel, each plant barren of leaves but decorated with a dozen or more colorful shells). Mukhwas, the Indian after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener, is usually made up mostly of fennel seeds, some of them candied. And how many Californians have childhood memories of scraping the “Indian bubblegum” out of dried fennel stalks and inhaling the heavenly scent of roasted fennel after a field fire?

Enjoy your fennel flowers, like the seeds, from your garden or the wild; you probably don’t need to buy them through the Internet. If you do, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve invested in a tinful of pollen.

 

Long Red Radishes from Italy, Angelica for the Bugs, and Roses for Preserves

long red radishI should have photographed these before they started to bolt, but they’re still lovely, aren’t they? The variety is Ravanello Candela di Fuoco, and the seeds were a gift from Charlene Murdock and Richard White of Nana Cardoon. Before the radishes get old and woody, they are mild, tender, and delicious. Charlene said she cooks with their pods, which I will try pickling.

If you want to attract beneficial insects to your garden, consider planting some angelica. As I’ve written before, this big, umbellliferous herb is good for candying, making into liqueurs and preserves, and even as eating as a vegetable. Besides all that, insects love the flower heads. Stopping for a minute beside my angelica plants today, I saw bees and flies—several species of each—and wasps, beetles, and more. I wish I had an entomologist on hand to tell me exactly what all these creatures are doing.

angelica with beetle

angelica with flyangelica with honeybee

moss roseOn a visit to an “heirloom” rose nursery yesterday I was disappointed to find more modern roses—such as miniatures and deep purple monstrosities—than old-fashioned varieties. I left with two David Austin cultivars, but just a mile down the road I had to stop to inhale the scent from a big patch of native nootkas, and back at home I admired my lovely moss rose, which came back after years of continuous mowing by the man from whom we bought this farm. I’ll probably use a few of the moss roses along with rugosas and nootkas when I make rose preserves this evening.

Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

anise hyssop 1My new darling of the herb garden, anise hyssop, is neither anise nor hyssop but a member of the mint family. You can tell this from the square stems and opposite leaves, but the scent might fool you. It’s a bit minty but even more licorice-like, with other, elusive characteristics. One nurseryman compared the aroma to that of root beer. My younger son is reminded of basil, but unlike basil anise hyssop tastes sweet, and to me it’s more refreshing than basil, in the way of wintergreen. The botanical name, Agastache foeniculum, tells you the plant is fennel-scented; it’s the fennel-scented member of a genus with a lot (agan) of wheat-like flower stalks (stachys).

Having decided to plant anise hyssop as a late nectar source for bees, I bought seeds from Nichols and easily sprouted them in the greenhouse last spring. Once I had set out the plants and they had grown a bit, I disregarded the bees and started picking the leaves and little lavender-blue flowers for my own use. Dried, they make a tasty and soothing herbal infusion. You can sprinkle the fresh flowers over a fruit salad, and the leaves are tender enough to add to a salad as well. Some people, I’ve read, use anise hyssop to flavor jelly, and others add the seeds to cookies and muffins.

Native to the upper Midwest and Great Plains, anise hyssop had medicinal uses for the tribes. Some found an infusion of the leaves good for colds and coughs. Others used the herb for bringing on sweat, as a wash for itchy skin rashes, or as a poultice for burns. Anise hyssop was also known as a cheering herb, a remedy for depression and anxiety.

Strangely, this plant gets scant recognition from cooks and herbalists in the Euro-American tradition. In fact, several of my herb books fail even to mention it. This may be because of its confusing popular name, but more likely because neither this species nor any other in its genus is native to Europe. One species, A. rugosa, comes from eastern Asia. It is added to Korean pancakes and stews and is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine; modern science has proven its antibacterial and antifungal properties. But all of the many other Agastache species are American. Together, the Agastache clan ranges from Mexico to Arctic Canada and from the West Coast to the East.

Ornamental gardeners have long loved these three- to six-foot herbaceous perennials, for their varied fragrances and bloom colors; for their eagerness to thrive, given sun and adequate drainage; and for their favor among bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When I bought a pretty plant with tubular yellow flowers at a garden sale last fall, I looked at the label and thought, Agastache—the name sounds familiar. I’d acquired ‘Summer Glow,’ a sterile patented cultivar that sadly won’t self-seed. More recently I bought ‘Sangria,’ an A. mexicana cultivar with pink flowers and lemon-scented leaves. Another cultivar, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ is supposed to have bubble-gum-scented foliage! They are all cousins, I now know, of my sweet anise hyssop. Maybe I’ll plant my three Agastaches side by side, so I can easily compare their looks and aromas.

Flower gardeners and breeders have long admired the Agastache species. Perhaps it’s time for more food gardeners to take note?