Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anticipation Pt 2, aka No Place Like Home

Yesterday I talked about the wildflowers coming up around our property, but I love gardening too. We're still sorting out our landscaping so nothing is in the ground yet, so there are pots all around the house. Mostly roses, lavender, a couple fig trees, a few saplings (sycamore, beech, oak, maple), hibiscus, and the ones I'm most proud of...artichokes.

I come from a part of Northern California where 99% of America's globe artichokes are grown in a small rural town called Castroville. I was raised about 15 minutes south of Castroville, but the artichoke fields spread for miles and miles. Castroville is home to the famous Artichoke Festival. And a little known fact outside of the community is that Marilyn Monroe was crowned the festivals first Artichoke Queen in 1948, back when she was known as Norma Jeane Mortenson!

Castroville is also famed for having the world's largest artichoke. OK, so it's made from concrete, rebar and a little paint, but it's damn big! And it marks where the door is into the Giant Artichoke Restaurant where they sell the world's best deep fried artichoke hearts...and just about everything else made with artichokes. When I was living back home, it was not uncommon for me to drive to Castroville on my lunch hour to get some artichoke hearts then drive back to work. 15 minutes there, 15 minutes back and still have 30 minutes to spare!

I love artichokes. It's not uncommon for me to steam up as many will fit into a giant pot and live off them for a few days. I love, love, love 'em!

Needless to say, moving to Ireland was a huge shock to my culinary system. Artichokes, while a common find in French supermarkets, are virtually unheard of in Ireland. They're a rare find. I've found them occasionally at farmer's markets where the vendor imports their organic vegetables from France, but in the supermarkets? Not a hope. And again, needless to say, I buy as many as I can afford! At an average of €5 each, it's hard to justify paying €20 for four chokes. They're a treat though, and people pay up to €10 for a dessert in an average restaurant here. So... (mangia, the Italians, eat!) You only live once, right? And it's only money!

Last year when my father and his lady friend of 20+ years visited us again, we took them to a great farmer's market in Bantry, Co Cork. It's the biggest farmer's market in Ireland that I've been to. They have stalls for just about everything. One day I'll blog about it, but on this particular visit, one of the stall owners had starter plants for globe artichokes! I bought three and immediately brought them home and babied the hell out of them until I could get them into some big pots. I was really worried that the winter was going to kill them off. It's much colder and icy and occasionally snowy here than in Castroville. But they survived! And now they want to spread out in the worst way. I know they need to go into the ground so I need to get my act together and get the ground prepared.

But lo and behold. One of the three little beauties sent up a bud. Really, artichokes are just prickly flowers, but it's hard to call them a flower when we eat them before they have a change to blossom. I don't care though. They're wonderful to eat. Steamed. With a little Gilroy garlic. And masses of home made mayo!

This one here has grown to the size of a small peach, but it's still very young.

And then...then...a second plant is sending up a bud! I'm so excited. And this newfound anticipation is about to kill me.

From what I understand, these first chokes, which grow up right from the top center, are the globes. These are the biggest on the plant. Once these are harvested, the plant continues to grow and sends out several smaller chokes from around the edges. I never realized before, but artichokes have two harvests...the globe and then the rest.

So now, as we watch and baby these two little wonders, we're keeping our eyes on the third plant and hoping for three out of three.

And they'll be all mine when they're harvested, as my husband doesn't care for them! ;-)

There may be no place like home, but it's quite possible to get a taste of home occasionally.

PS...Last weekend at a local garden center I found French artichoke starter plants and picked up three of those too. This variety sends up purple chokes. Not as big, but hey, they're PURPLE!

Friday, April 24, 2009


This is the time of year when Ireland is waking from her winter slumber. She's stretching under cool foggy sheets and groping for warm spots in the folds.

Once barren trees are starting to leaf, wild fuchsia is bushing out, bramble vines are getting into everything, and the grass is growing out of control. It's also that time, given a bit more warmth and sun, just before everything explodes with blooms. The anticipation is palpable! Sure, we've had the usual early season daffodils and masses of dandelions. But the end of April generally heralds the coming of the flower boom known as May. Remember the old saying, April showers bring May flowers? How true!

I should back up to mention that our house sits on the property of an old farmstead dating back to the Great Famine. Most of the old stone buildings are gone now, but two walls remain from what was probably a buttery or the like. Beside this building are the foundation stones of what was probably a barn. Today they stones are tangled with ancient...OK very old...beech trees. And surrounding the immediate property is a stream. This would have been a really traditional farm. Thatched roofs and all.

As with any farm, the housewife would have maintained gardens. And one of those gardens included blackberries, black currents and crabapple trees.

When we first saw the new house, we were taken by the masses of blackberry vines all over the property (can we say gallons of home made preserves?), the massive black current bush we thought was a tree and the crabapples on the trees. And it's this time of year that they begin to bloom.

It seems like it's been ages in coming, but the lime colored leaves have come on really well, and the pink blossom buds make the trees look like they're strung with exotic pearls. Providing the wind behaves itself over the coming weeks, we should have hundreds of tiny green apples. We really must harvest them and try making crabapple jelly.

We've owned our property for almost eight years now. There are about seven and a half acres in all, but the house itself sits in the middle of about one acre, and the backyard is the better part of half an acre.

Over the years, it's been very interesting watching the seasons change. And noticing how no two seasons are the same. For example, last year our backyard was covered in clover. This year it first looked like it was going to be all about the danelions. Then I took a stroll around with the dogs and it's covered with about a million plantains. English Plantain to be specific, also called Ribwort Plantain and Plantago.

Apparently as far back as Neolithic times, land that could grow plantain was supposed to be an indication of fertile grazing land for cattle. And through the ages, both in Ireland and Great Britain, plantain has been used in the making of teas (tisanes) and herbal remedies to treat various ailments such as treating bowel disorders, lowering cholesterol and controlling diabetes. The plantago is one of the nine plants invoked in the Nine Herbs Charm that was recorded in the 10th century by pagan Anglo-Saxons. Knowing all this, I feel like I'm sitting in the middle of a bit of history! So much history for such a little plant.

Or if you grew up in Ireland, as my husband did, plaintains were used in the playing of a game known as soldiers. Once the flowers head had grown, kids would pull them and use them in a game where the stalks were hit against the opponant's stalks like swords. The first one to lop the head off his/her opponent's flower won. Beginning about this time of year in fields all over Ireland, kids had hours of endless entertainment. Well, as long as the plantains held out!

With so much property that changes every season I had to go out and buy a book on Irish wildflowers. It's the Collins Gem series for wild flowers around Britain and Ireland. It's pocketsize, which is ideal for wandering around the property. It's fun to identify what's growing on our property, and collecting samples to press at home.

We have a lot of trees on the property too. The house is surrounded mainly with native ash and some beech, but we also have traditional white blooming hawthorne and sycamore. Some of the trees are very old. But this will have to wait for another time.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring in Ireland

It's been a long time since I've posted anything here, but it's been a busy few months.

But spring is in the air in Ireland. Lambs and calves are common sightings in the fields, wildflowers are blooming all around, and the days are growing longer. And the weather has been a lot better, though it wouldn't be Ireland without a little rain now and again, and again, and again...

Our neighbor came over with his old tractor with a grass cutter on it to cut both the front and back, and since then the dandelions have taken off. They're everywhere! With the gorse blooming, too, the property is awash in yellow and green.

And the dogs are in heaven. They get to go outside more, and when it's nice and warm they get to paddle around in our stream.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm well-ready for summer to come around. And I hope it's a good one.