Quick, what’s a SCOBY?
If you answered, “Matt, surely it’s an international criminal ring dedicated to evil and fought against by MI5 and James Bond”, well done, you’re almost correct. Go and do a Google Image search for “SCOBY”, and then, if you’re not convinced that the evil criminal masterminds have already won, read on.
I’m writing this while sitting at our dining-room table. At one end are two jars, filled with a light brown liquid, with slices of mold at the top and bottom: that’s kombucha. At the other, another jar filled with string beans, dill and garlic – “dilly beans”. All the jars are covered with pieces of old dishcloth tied with string. I can smell them both quite distinctly. The beans have an earthy, herby smell, faintly sweet. The kombucha is more yeasty, like fresh, live dough or home-made wine.
Last month we stepped into the world of cheese making for the second time.
The first time was a few years ago, back in Brooklyn. The aim was “fromage blanc” which is a very lightly developed, soft cheese, like ricotta. All cheese needs some kind of culture to start the process of acidification, and you can certainly buy them from specialist sellers, but for this recipe we used buttermilk. (We ordered rennet from Ricky Carroll’s rather goofy but comprehensive New England Cheesemaking site.) We had so much difficulty (in Brooklyn!) finding good butttermilk that we ended up, for the first batch, using the dried variety, which is supposed to still contain live cultures. So essentially you warm the milk, add the culture and rennet, wait for the curds to develop, and drain them in cloth (we hung it from the showerhead, like the gonzo rapscallions we are). Anyway, this first batch didn’t so much curd, as curdle. The instructions mentioned a consistency like greek yogurt, and that didn’t happen. It looked more like cottage cheese. Still, we dutifully hung it up and drained it for a day, and carefully tasted it, and decided that we were probably going to do ourselves some harm if we ate it in any quantity, so we tried again. The next batch used fresh buttermilk, and was the correct consistency on curding, and we flavored it with salt, pepper and olive oil and declared that it was good.
This is our first year in the country with a yard. It’s great to have all that space, and Arya loves having the freedom of running around the house and barking at cars and passers-by, but right now that’s really all it is – space. Almost from the first time I saw it, I have been wanting to dedicate some of it to planting vegetables. Emily’s lovely parents gave us a gift certificate to White Flower Farms, which sell seeds, flowers and other accoutrements. So why not give it a go?
There are quite a few challenges to the practical use of our garden. Most of it has a slope of some degree – quite severe around the back of the house, and less so elsewhere, but there are very few completely level areas. Where there IS level ground, tree roots tend to limit how much digging can be done. I planted crocuses alongside the porch in early December (JUST beginning to see them emerge…) and most of the trowel work involved battling the root system of nearby trees.
When I was a teenager living in Wateringbury, Kent, we kept chickens. We had a moderate garden behind the house, which I was proud to have helped to plan and build (I designed the curved patio area – to this date probably my only piece of landscaping), and my mum and stepdad set up a chicken house alongside it. At any one time, we had up to six chickens – I’m fairly sure we lost several along the way to foxes and dropsy, but I remember we had them for a good few years. They had free run of the garden and, if the bottom part of the kitchen door was left open, they’d wander in and investigate the house. I don’t remember having any real responsibility for them, other than a bit of cleaning and feeding; the clearest memory I have is of chasing them down as they ran, single-file, out of the garden gate and down Pizien Well Road. I don’t know where they thought they were going.