Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Easing one's way into entomophagy

I pity those born into cultures in which highly spiced foods prevail. Once one is accustomed to such foods, the rest of the world’s foods must seem boring indeed. But to someone raised on pabulum, the world has an immense horizon of potentially new tastes. And while it’s true that American food in the early twentieth century had already progressed beyond pabulum for at least important meals, menus of the time reveal that a lot of preparations based on starches softened in various liquids were apt to appear at meals throughout the day.

As a nation we’ve come a long way from the cooking practices which prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century. With certain exceptions, any reasonably sophisticated contemporary palate stands to be utterly unimpressed by the sort of foods our grandparents esteemed. Soft, gray, bland: this is not visually exciting food. But what it lacks in visual appeal it often more than makes up in flavor. Yet those flavors tend to be gentle flavors.

It was probably Italian food, and specifically pizza, which forever changed the American palate. In early twentieth century cookbooks there are recipes for various seemingly Italian preparations, but they read as chilly, dull attempts at imitating the real thing: no sunshine, no sparkle, no wit, no attitude - and no garlic! At first glance, French cooking seems better represented, and perhaps it was. But the translations must have been poor because the results have a distinctly American middle-of-the-road quality. Some of the Indian food we encounter here now is at the same stage: tamed beyond recognition but tamed to sell.

In reading Mrs. Fox, it struck me as odd that when she discussed basil, and went on to describe its culinary uses, there is no mention of pesto. And if the word pizza appears in her work , I have not found it. In other passages it is clear that her palate is very much one of the America of her time. In the discussion of rosemary, no culinary uses are discussed. This brought to mind Elizabeth David’s comment about the unpleasant effect produced when the spiky leaves appear in food. Yet Mrs. Fox goes on later to mention culinary uses of rue of all things: people eat rue? Evidently they do (or did). She even quotes Boulestin and Hill: “chopped leaves and brown bread make good sandwiches.”

Mrs. Fox mentions crême renversée, but either the meaning of that term has changed since her time or she was simply mistaken about its meaning, for of strawberries she writes “But best of all uses is to eat the berries with sugar and the thick, clotted cream of Devonshire, called crême renversée in France.” Here’s a link to a site which discusses crême renversée and shows its similarity to caramel flan:

Here’s another example of Mrs. Fox’s solidly American palate (and of her solidly early-twentieth century grasp of grammar) : in her discussion of coriander, she wrote frankly “the leaves taste horribly, and since they look very like those of anise, one should be careful not to pick them by mistake for the salads” and in her account of chervil “ when one goes to pick the leaves of the Umbelliferae for the salad, one is apt to mistake the coriander for the leaves of the cumin, or anise, a fatal dampening of ardor for the eating of herbs.”

I wonder what she would have thought of my comparison of the smell of cilantro (coriander leaves) to the smell of brown marmorated stink bugs. Actually, what I really wonder is what she would have made of the current cilantro craze which has swept American cuisine. Are we about to become a nation of bug eaters?

Brown Marmorated Cilantro

My bedtime reading for the last few nights, Helen Morgenthau Fox’s Gardening With Herbs from 1938, was prompted by a sudden recurrence in my interest in culinary herbs. Certain herbs I grow yearly, and they are so much a part of the gardening experience that I’ve long ceased to think of them as “herbs” in a specifically culinary sense. Although I do use them in food preparation, more than that I simply like to have them around to enjoy their scents. Typically, they never even get planted into the garden but instead spend the summer in pots out on the deck. Various basils and thymes, lemon verbena, rose geranium, rosemary, chervil and chives are personal favorites. A gardening friend brought some fresh, locally grown bay cuttings to a recent meeting of our rock gardening group, and the several which came home with me give hope that one day there might be a bay tree established in the ground here.
It makes better sense to buy some herbs than give them space in the garden. Chervil and cilantro are good examples, but try to find a grocer who sells fresh chervil. Cilantro on the other hand is now readily available throughout the year.
What does cilantro taste like? Wayne calls it soap plant, and indeed it is sometimes described as having a soapy taste. But this afternoon, another – and maybe more apt – comparison occurred to me. While preparing some cilantro for a sandwich today, I noticed that cilantro smells the way the brown marmorated stink bug smells! This is not so far-fetched as it seems. Cilantro, which in American usage refers almost exclusively to the leaf, is the plant from which coriander (again, in American usage this word almost exclusively refers to the seed) is obtained. I have a hunch that some translations from European languages into English fail to make this distinction. For instance, somewhere I read that Colette is said to have said that coriander smells like bed bugs. Most accounts say that coriander (the seeds) smell like burnt orange peel. Many people who eschew the fresh leaf of cilantro use and esteem the seeds, coriander, freely. Perhaps Colette was on a first name basis with bedbugs, but the word coriander itself is derived from the classical Greek word coris which means bedbug, and surely she knew that.
Now let’s switch briefly to zoology: bed bugs and marmorated stink bugs are related: both are true bugs. Evidently they share the family body odor problem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Autumn camellias

From the beginning I've followed a self-imposed rule to show only plants grown in my own garden in these blog postings and on my web site. Over the years there have been very few exceptions. The image above is one of those exceptions. This group of camellias grows in a garden a mile or two from here. I've been watching them for years because they grow along a road I travel frequently; unfortunately for camellia watchers, that road is a much traveled commuter route, one with a history of frequent accidents. It's not the sort of road along which one might slow down and smell the roses.

As a result, my appreciation of these camellias was one based on quick sightings from a distance. The other day I stopped by to get a close look. I knocked on the door of the house but no one answered. I was already parked right beside the camellias, and I took two photos.

These are some of the Ackerman hybrids, camellias noted for their cold hardiness. The comparatively big flowers are full of petals and retain some of the fragrance of the wild forms of Camellia sasanqua and C. oleifera. When they are in full bloom, they remind me of big old plants of double flowered althea or rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus.

The plants shown here grow in full sun in a site fully exposed to wind: in other words, hardly the sort of place where one would expect a camellia to thrive. Over the years I've noticed some browning during the winter, but other than that they seem to be well adapted to these conditions.

A neighbor down the street also has one of these Ackerman camellias and it, too, is full of bloom right now. No other November-flowering shrub comes close to these for flower color effects.

Update, June 2016: all but one of these camellias was severely damaged or killed in the 2015-2016 winter. The dead/damaged plants have been removed, and only one survives at this site.

Elaeagnus season

The members of the genus Elaeagnus have had a varied history in our gardens, sometimes loved, sometimes loathed. E. umbellata is one of those shrubs which is used in the medians of interstate highways but rarely invited into gardens. E. pungens occasionally finds its way into gardnes, and just as often is eventually evicted. It's one of those plants with some very good qualities, but it is also potentially a rampant grower which, if it's to look at all cultivated, requires frequent attention with the pruning shears.
Lately I've been giving a lot of attention to the selection of an evergreen woody plant for use around the oculus of the pergola. Among the plants considered have been autumn camellias, Hedera helix, Buxus sempervirens 'Graham Blandy', Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil', yews and winter jasmine. Recently I was in another garden where Elaeagnus pungens had been effecitvely domesticated, and that got me thinking about this often overlooked plant. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed.

I headed out to one of the local nurseries the other day to see if one might be available. My timing was perfect: plenty of very handsome pot grown plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' in full bloom were there to tempt me. They were however a bit bigger (and thus more expensive) than I expected, so I kept looking. I didn't find smaller plants, but I did find something else which won me over immediately: Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge'.

As a rule I'm no friend of variegated plants. The day was overcast, and that might have affected my decision because those plants glowed with an unmistakably sunny cheer. They were in gallon pots, the price was right and two came home with me. In my mind's eye I can see each of them forming one of the wall pannels of the pergola and providing lots of warm color throughout the winter.

The plants of 'Gilt Edge' were not in bloom, so I also bought one of the plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' to have the fragrance immediately. This is a strange fragrance, intense, potent, far reaching on the air: just what I like in my garden.

I'm not sure how hardy 'Gilt Edge' will prove to be: it might come to grief in a bitterly cold winter, and if the plants are not killed outright I'll have to look at sad, browning foliage until new foliage appears on whichever branches have survived. I know something is wrong here: when I look at these newly purchased plants with their clean, lustrous leaves brilliantly splashed with strong yellow, I can't help being aware that this potentially gorgeous plant is not common in our gardens. I know I'm not the first to try it, and I have a hunch I will not be the first to fail with it eventually.
Common names for Elaeagnus are confusing. In English we call them autumn olive, but they are not members of the olive family but rather members of their own family, Elaeagnaceae. In German they are called Ölweide, which I take to mean olive willow or oil willow. Another name sometimes encountered in English language texts is oleaster. This literally means second-rate olive (compare cotoneaster, poetaster and so on). E. umbellatus is sometimes grown for its edible fruit.

In the image above, you can see Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge' in the foreground and E. pungens 'Fruitland' full of blooms in the background.

Begonia boliviensis 'Bonfire'

Last year, too late to find one for sale, I heard through the grapevine about Begonia boliviensis ‘Bonfire’. I was able to obtain one this year and the short version of the story is WOW! Those of you who garden in areas congenial to summer blooming tuberous begonias might not be too impressed with this plant, but for those of us who garden under the sort of summer conditions we experience here on the East Coast, this begonia is a welcome addition to our summer garden flora. It bloomed here all summer and into the fall without a break and grew vigorously the whole time. I’ve heard that vigorous old plants produce annual growth several feet long!

After the first light frosts the above ground parts of the plant began to fall apart.

At that point, I was unsure what to do. A bit of Googling provided the answer. This species forms a corky, tuberous corm, and it’s a big one. I had planted my plant into a tall narrow blue glazed ceramic container. This highlighted the pendulous growth habit of ‘Bonfire’ handsomely. But now I have a problem: I went to check how big the corm was the other day, and it’s so big I can not pull it through the opening of the container it grows in. The corm is easily the size of a lemon, maybe bigger. It will probably spend the winter in the same container.

I’ll bet this plant would survive the winter here outside in a very protected place.

In an earlier blog entry I mistakenly called this plant 'Fireworks'.