Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

rweissmugshotThis website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Missing My Mix

I planted my first vegetable seeds this weekend. I had planned on planting them last weekend, but when I looked at my garden notebook from previous years, I decided it was a few days too early. So I was doubly eager to get my hands dirty this weekend.

But when I opened one of the bags of growing mix I bought this week, I discovered it was thick with fungal hyphae. They’re saprophytic fungi, to be sure—not technically interested in eating live plants—but in that kind of quantity, they could easily overwhelm my seeds and seedlings. When I opened the second bag of mix, I found it was the same.

I looked at the mountain of seeds I intended to plant, then at the small quantity of growing mix I had left from last year. There was no way I had enough to plant everything. It was already past 1 PM on Saturday—the nearby stores would be closed for the weekend. To get more soil would require a 45 minute drive to the city. Yuck.

So I did triage. Some of the plants I start in August are summer crops that need a long time indoors to get growing (eggplants, peppers, cape gooseberries). These I planted today. Others are spring crops that can go out to the garden as soon as they’re big enough to survive the slugs, birds, and drying winds. Every year I’m in a race with those early crops. They’re always ready before I’ve prepared the garden beds for them. I left many of these for next week.

In the end, the lack of planting mix will probably mean a more pleasant, less stressful spring planting season for me. And if it goes well, I might look back at my garden notebook next August and learn a thing or two about pacing my planting.

A Look at Larvae

They’re just midges. If anyone pays attention to them at all, it’s to note how irritating they are when they swarm by the millions, here near Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. They are annoying at times, swarms so thick you can’t breathe without sucking in a few.

But there are few adults flying at this time of year. Most are still waiting out the winter as larvae underwater. Midge larvae are fun to look at under the microscope, as their exoskeletons are clear, allowing a great view of the inner workings of their bodies.

Seeing the inside of an insect larva helps one appreciate the job a young larva is tasked with—eat. Eat as much as you can and grow as fast as you can. A larva is little more than a mobile digestive system. The brownish streak you can see running the length of this midge larva is the animal’s gut, filled with the algae and other debris it has eaten. At the tail end, you can see, this little larva is having a poo.

Also at the tail end is a wee snorkel of sorts. These midge larvae can survive in low-oxygen water by sucking air from the surface using their snorkel. The silver lines meandering the length of the body are trachea that carry oxygen to all the insect’s cells.

This midge larva was tiny—about two millimetres long—it still has a while to grow before it’s ready to become an adult. But there are lots of other larvae out there getting ready to emerge with the upcoming warm days of spring.

Food, Sleep, and a Good Scratch

I know it’s been a good day of writing when I suddenly realise it’s four o’clock, and I haven’t written a blog post for the day or prepared for tomorrow’s school programme or fed the animals, collected the eggs, filled the firewood box, gotten the mail…

Thankfully, I have an effective alarm to let me know when I’ve gotten too wrapped up in writing and need to stop.

“Maa…”

“Maa…”

“Maaaa…”

The goats are polite, but insistent. They like their afternoon feed, and let me know when it’s late. Animals are good for that. They don’t get caught up in things going on inside their heads. Life is clear and uncomplicated—food, sleep, a good scratch now and again.

Sometimes it’s important to be reminded of that.

Tastes Like Christmas

I know, I know, you’re wondering why I’m posting about Christmas in mid-August. Bear with me here…

I made lemon coconut bars yesterday–a super easy recipe that I chose out of sheer laziness (and the fact I’d written ‘excellent’ beside it in the cookbook).

As I bit into one of them today, I was struck that they taste like Christmas.

Now, if you had asked me what Christmas tastes like, I would have said cinnamon, cloves and black walnuts.

My Christmassy lemon coconut bars contain none of these ingredients. As you would imagine, lemon and coconut are the primary flavours.

But these bars are loaded with brown sugar, and the more I considered it, the more I thought that must be the true flavour of Christmas. It shows up in most Christmas cookies, and even makes an appearance in some of the traditional savoury dishes, like mashed sweet potatoes.

I use brown sugar in many of the baked goods I make, so theoretically, they should taste like Christmas, too. So, why don’t they?

I think it has to do with the concentration of brown sugar. We tend to prefer baked goods that aren’t pure sugar bombs. For my everyday baking, I usually stick to less sweet items. Not so at Christmastime. Then, I throw all caution to the wind and make the most decadent sweets possible.

The lemon coconut bars fall into that decadent category, containing more sugar than flour. They taste like the decadence of Christmas.

And, perhaps that is the true taste of Christmas–the taste of decadence.

 

Hedge Fortifications

Our usual route to town has been closed for the past couple of weeks, with the flooding of the Selwyn River. Instead of crossing at Coes Ford, we have to drive upstream and cross at the bridge on Leeston Road. It adds about five minutes to the daily commute, but it gives me an excuse to drive past one of my favourite hedges.

Hedges are important out here on the Canterbury Plains. Winds regularly hit 100 kph (62 mph). If the wind isn’t howling from the northwest bringing hot dry weather, it’s probably gusting from the south, carrying rain.

When we first moved into our house, I wasn’t happy about the tall hedge, no more than five metres from the south western wall, that blocks the view and the evening sun. Luckily, we moved in during winter, or we might have cut down the hedge before we fully understood why it was there. After the first screaming southerly storm, I knew that the only reason the house was habitable in winter was because of the hedge.

Hedges protect buildings, crops, and livestock, and most of them are meticulously maintained. The larger hedges are like fortifications, a dozen metres tall and two metres thick. They’re trimmed with strange-looking machines with huge, terrifying spinning blades.

One of my favourite hedges (the one I get to drive past when Coes Ford is closed) is the one in this picture. It is enormous, both in height and length, but I have never seen this hedge looking shaggy, as mine does when it’s in need of a trim. It is always trimmed like chiselled stone. And the marks of the great rotary trimmer blade leave a swirling pattern in the hedge that I find mesmerising. It is almost a work of art.

There are certainly more artistically trimmed hedges–I’ve seen a few clipped into undulating waves, or including graceful archways–but there’s something about this hedge that evokes stone castles. It is artistic in its clean lines and sheer bulk. It’s a hedge to aspire to.