Monday, 1 September 2008

Spring is sprung

Spring is sprung,
De grass is riz,
I wonder where de flowers is?
De boid is on de wing,
-- absoid!
De wing is on de boid!

Don't tell me my version is wrong, there are so many variants out there I don't think any one can be definitive.

Anyway, Spring is indeed sprung, and I've been noticing it springing up for several week. Wattles are always first, but now the daffodils are up, and the violets and the plum blossoms. Where's the catch? It's not just the amount of fur that the cats are shedding.

Spring is traditionally such a happy time, it's odd to consider that agriculturally it's also quite a lean time.

"I have no penny," quoth Piers, "Pullets for to buy
No neither geese nor piglets, but two green cheeses,
A few curds and cream and an oaten cake
And two loaves of beans and bran to bake for my little ones.
And besides I say by my soul I have no salt bacon,
Nor no little eggs, by Christ, collops for to make.
But I have parsley and leeks and many cabbages,
And besides a cow and a calf and a cart mare
To draw afield my dung the while the drought lasteth.
And by this livelihood we must live till lammas time.
And by that I hope to have harvest in my croft.

Lammas was late summer. Green cheeses are "green" in the sense of fresh and new, not because they're blue.

Everything is springing up, which is heartening. But there won't be food until that growth has actually happened. March was a time for restraint and fasting in Europe, where Lent, Easter and Christmas reflect the state of the seasons.

If you are a peasant farmer in the middle ages or earlier, it's the time for hard work. The plowing must be done. You might get to eat some quick growing leafy vegetables like lettuces and spinach, perhaps some carrots and radishes, maybe some leftover cabbages from winter, and asparagus shoots. The fruit trees are in blossom, which means no fruit. A few early strawberries might be just on the way. You should have some grain and dried beans left over from last growing season - legume crops were used to enrich the soil after the grain harvest. Well, you should, assuming the nobles hadn't taxed the hell out of you. I'm talking food, not political history.

It's too early to kill the calf or the lambs, if they've even been born yet. And if so, they are consuming most of the scanty milk supply. Since the grazing pastures are yet to spring up, the cows are still eating their rations of stored hay. Eggs would be good if you had chooks - poor old Piers was too broke for that. Anyway, they would only just be starting to lay, after the cold winter season where they were all cost and no profit. You might prefer to let them hatch a brood, and sell the young chickens, rather than just eat the eggs. Piers was also too poor to have kept enough of the salted meats preserved from the pig killing in late autumn and winter. No more bacon until next autumn. Fresh meat would be a great luxury. That Easter feast of roast lamb was really something to look forward to!

Barbara Kingsolver, in her wonderful chronicle of seasonal eating from a small farm, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, calls this time the Hungry Month. Not that the Kingsolver family actually went hungry, since they had started off after harvest with a very well-stocked freezer and a pantry of preserves. And they always had the option of giving up the experiment and buying non-local from the shops. But their supplies were visibly low, and nothing new was coming in.

We are so lucky in 21st century Australia. Being a big country, we have climates from tropical to cold temperate - which vastly increases our range. Bananas are never out of season, and the leafy spring greens can be grown much earlier up north. And in modern days, we can get all sorts of food all year round, whether from the freezer or shipped in from overseas. But even so, it's nearly always better and cheaper to eat what's in season. I enjoyed my first asparagus last week - yes, it's been in the shops all winter, but I'm not paying $6 a bunch thank you! I also bought a rockmelon, which turned out to be the mistake that I should have known it would be. Melons are summer fruit. This precocious specimen, grown under glass no doubt, lacked sweetness and flavour.


infoaddict said...

We're also lucky in that we don't have any truly savage winters here. In frost-prone ACT and region (eg south of Goulburn), there are green leafy things that grow throughout winter and simply improve with frost.

Warrigal greens are my latest discovery of non-frost-sensitive natives. They're succulent, which is often an indicator of frost-hardiness; and yes, to my delight, they didn't snuff it in the frosts at ALL. They just went crisp and tastier.

Also they're unkillable. I like that in a plant :)

Cath said...

I'm so going to have to get some cuttings off you. Or however you propagate them. I am not the greenest of thumbs by a long way. Now go post on my Aussie Omnivore list!

See you in a month or so.