Gazpacho – a chilled Spanish tomato soup (Title Photo)
Dear Readers, we clearly have some soupmeisters and brothmistresses amongst us, because Fran and Bobby Freelove, Mal and Sara all got an unbeatable 20 out of 20 this week – well done to all of you! I would love to know what your favourite soup is. I have a longstanding fondness for goulaschesuppe (an Alpine speciality which is basically goulash in a soup, as you might have guessed from the name). This was always my first choice after striding up a mountain, but as I am vegan this month I suspect it might be rasam, an Indian tomato and tamarind soup which is great for clearing the sinuses! I know some of you have allotments too, or grow your own vegetables, so I would relish your soup-making adventures.
Dear Readers, it was my birthday on Thursday, and so I decided to take myself for a celebratory walk around the County Roads in East Finchley. I do love having a wander, with no particular agenda and no hurry, and it’s surprising what you notice when you are just walking along with your camera. The first thing is that although the Christmas trees have been collected in my road, this isn’t the case for everyone, and the residents here have clearly decided that they’ve had enough of having the pavement blocked for weeks on end. The trees will be shredded and used as compost in the municipal parks, but it’s an added task for the refuse collectors, who are already struggling with the fallout from Covid.
What surprises me, though, is the sheer range of plants that are in flower. It’s no surprise that the hellebores are in flower…
…and with the winter-flowering jasmine and winter-flowering cherry the clue is in the name…
But there were some violets and fleabane in flower in one of the treepits – this has been pretty all year. I just hope that it escapes the attention of the council weed-sprayer.
Some folk still have their Christmas decorations outside, and very nice they are too. I always admire the house with the glass ornaments peeping out of their plant containers.
There’s a magnificent hebe at the bottom of my street that seems to be in flower for ten months of the year. I had no expectation of seeing any insects today (it’s barely above freezing after all) but there was a magnificent queen buff-tailed bumblebee, almost as long as my first thumb-joint. I was so glad that there was something for her to feed on.
The more I look, and the slower I walk, the more I see. There are some crab apples the colour of apricots, and some others that are blush pink…
There is a cotoneaster just covered in berries…
There is so much colour! The mimosa on the corner of Hertford Road will soon be in flower…
The rosemary is already out..
…and I love the twisted branches on this hazel.
But it isn’t just the plants. The houses on the County Roads in East Finchley are mostly Victorian, but were built by a wide variety of different builders, and over the span of about 80 years. This means that there are a lot of different features. Some houses have tiled porches, for example, and you can often see two or three houses in a row with the same tiles, before the pattern changes. Of course, many have been lost over time, but I love to see the different designs.
Some houses would also have had tiled paths and front steps, but these were subject to a lot of wear and tear. Most have either disappeared or been replaced with more modern versions, but I did spot this one, which looks original to me.
It isn’t just the tiles either. I was struck by the two plaster heads on this pair of houses, and particularly the woman, who has had her lipstick applied. The sunflower detail between the heads is very fine too.
And then I spot this dragon finial on one of the corner houses – corner houses are usually a bit ‘posher’ than the houses in the road itself, and I suspect that they were sometimes built for the builders themselves.
And now I’m extremely chilly and in need of a cup of camomile tea, so home I head. But I need first to check on the bollard on the corner of Leicester Road, which has been knocked over so many times that I’ve lost count. And look, it’s still standing! It feels like a tiny birthday present.
Dear Readers, you might remember that last week I went to the Garden Centre and bought some crocuses in pots, meaning to pop them into my window boxes. Well, what with one thing and another I forgot to pot them up, and when I remembered, I went out into the garden to see this mess on my garden table. I am not sure who is to blame, but I have a very strong suspicion that the culprit is small, furry and has an inordinate fondness for bulbs, bird seed and the peanuts that are meant to be for the little birds.
Ah well. I’m hoping against hope that the squirrels have taken the bulbs off to bury them somewhere else. It’s my fault for not being more prompt on the potting up front, but then they’ve been known to dig the bulbs out of my window boxes too. I shall pot up whatever bulbs remain, and hope for the best.
In other news, my teasel is having babies. Lots of babies.
And I fear that most of them have planted themselves in my wooden stairs.
It just goes to show that you can’t turn your back on the garden for a second, even in January. The starlings are looking particularly splendid, though – it’s at this time of year that you can really see the ‘stars’ in their plumage.
The magpies pop in every morning and afternoon to see what’s going on…
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a sudden influx of young blackbirds in the garden. They’re especially visible at dusk and dawn, but none of them are singing yet – it’s a good time for a low profile, I think. And there are lots of these little guys too. Can anyone identify this little chap from the seriously substandard photo below? A virtual round of applause for the first person to post the correct answer in the comments 🙂
Dear Readers, when I was writing about winter feeding for the birds yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember the millet that we used to feed to our budgerigar when we were children. I’ve eaten it myself too, especially when I was first a vegetarian back in the early ’80s. I remember the health food shops with their sacks of grains and jars of dried beans, the tins of tomatoes and the overwhelming smell of herbal teabags. Back then, being a vegetarian really was a radical thing to do, and people would practically call for an ambulance if you fessed up to being a vegan. How things change! These days the trendiest people are ‘plant-based’ and Marks and Spencer is selling vegan ready meals, and very nice they are too. Maybe it’s time for me to look again at millet.
Millets are grasses, and several species labour under the name. The commonest one is pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), which has been grown since prehistoric times, and comes originally from Africa. What a tough plant it is! It can tolerate drought, high temperatures, high salinity and high acidity. Wheat and barley would both keel over under these conditions, but millet just keeps going. In India it’s made into a flatbread called baajre ki roti .
Millet flatbread (Photo One)
In Western Africa, millet is grown alongside sorghum and cowpeas, the three crops together providing an insurance policy in case one of them fails. As millet is high in energy, calcium and protein it’s no wonder that it’s been turned into a fermented drink in Nigeria, Nepal and India, a porridge in Namibia, and a sweet snack in Hanoi, where the millet is combined with dried coconut.
Bánh đa kê, a sweet snack from Hanoi (Photo Two)
Furthermore, millet has no gluten, so it’s a very useful food for people with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. I seem to remember making a kind of porridge with it, with stewed apricots and yoghurt, and very nice it was too. There might even have been some flaked almonds involved.
Anyone would think it was getting close to dinner time 🙂 However, millet can exacerbate thyroid problems, so don’t go completely mad on the millet bread. In fact, goitres and other signs of iodine inefficiencies are widespread amongst people for whom millet is a staple, so it’s definitely a food to eat in smallish quantities (if you have any choice).
Millet is also used as a fodder crop for sheep and cattle. It is what’s known as a C4 plant, which means that it can photosynthesise more efficiently at high temperatures than most plants, and lose water at a much slower rate. Only about 3% of plants photosynthesise in this way, but a C4 grass like millet loses about 277 molecules of water per CO2 molecule fixed, as opposed to 833 molecules of water in a ‘normal’ grass. No wonder this ancient grain has been such a staple right across the dry zones of the world. And no wonder that scientists have been experimenting to try to change rice, which is a ‘normal’ grass, to a C4 plant, which would be much more water-efficient..
Sprouting Millet (Photo Three)
And finally, a poem. Apparently, when Chinese Emperors wanted to know how the ‘common people’ were feeling, they would send people out from the court into the countryside to hear what people were singing. And how universal were the themes that were collected! Conscripted soldiers sang about missing their homes, and about the long, hard marches, and the fact that their clothes were full of holes. But there was also a lament about the tax collectors who would take a proportion of the food that the peasants grew, sometimes leaving the farmers themselves hungry. I think we can take it that the ‘Big rat’ in the poem below is not a rodent.
“Big Rat, Big Rat,” from the Book of Songs
Big rat, big rat, Do not gobble our millet! Three years we have slaved for you, Yet you take no notice of us. At last we are going to leave you And go to that happy land; Happy land, happy land, Where we shall have our place.
Big rat, big rat, Do not gobble our corn! Three years we have slaved for you, Yet you give us no credit. At last we are going to leave you And go to that happy kingdom …
Plum-headed parakeets on millet in India (Photo Four)
Cover of January 2022 issue, showing a picture of Tree Sparrows by Darren Woodhead
Dear Readers, I always read my copy of British Birds magazine with great pleasure, but this month I was especially taken by this illustration showing Tree Sparrows by Darren Woodhead. What a lovely depiction of these birds it is, and especially relevant as an article by Richard Broughton, Jack Shutt and Alexander Lees describes the possible impact of bird feeding on woodland species such as the Willow and Marsh Tits. There is a theory that these rarer tits are being threatened by the year-round feeding that encourages and supports more dominant tit species, such as Blue and Great Tits. In hard winters, the Marsh and Willow Tits, who cache the wild food that they find, will outcompete the commoner species, but if the Blue and Great Tits survive due to our kindness, they will oust the Marsh and Willow Tits during the breeding season by sheer force of numbers. The article is especially concerned about the feeding stations that occur on nature reserves or in woodland areas, rather than gardens, but one suggestion is that providing foods such as millet and cereals will attract more House Sparrows, farmland birds such as Linnets and Redpolls, and, yes, Tree Sparrows.
I don’t think this is a problem where I live – the bird survey that was done in Coldfall Wood didn’t show any Willow or Marsh tits, so I think I’m safe to carry on feeding the Blue and Great tits. I might have a go with some millet though, just to see if anyone else turns up. What’s your experience? I’ve always thought of it as being a low-reward food for the birds, but I know how particular some of them can be.
Marsh tit (Parus palestris) (Photo One)
Another interesting article was on the supplementary winter feeding of wild birds on farms. Three small farms in Oxfordshire planted wild bird seed plots with a mixture of cereal and other crops (including buckwheat and millet), and also scattered seed on field margins. This was done over a period of three years, and showed a remarkable increase in numbers from 2500 in 2016/17 to 3500 by the end of the experiment in 2018/19. It was found that the planted seed plots alone were not sufficient to feed the birds, and that these were usually exhausted by November, which pointed to the need for the scattered seed. Linnets in particular increased greatly in number, from 187 in 2016/17 to 1,370 in 2018/19, but there were also increases in Yellowhammers and a variety of other birds. The authors of the report are strongly in favour of farms providing supplementary feeding: from my perspective, farming has become so much more efficient at taking every last fallen seed from a harvest that it would be good to put something back.
Flock of linnets on grass from January issue of British Birds, photo by Alan Larkman
And finally, in the Notes section there is a story about House Martins in The Gambia. I remember watching these birds preparing for the great flight south when I was in Dorset, and I wondered how on earth these little creatures sustained themselves over such great distances. Well, for one thing they seem to take advantage of the invertebrates that are attracted to the flowers of Mango trees. Clive R. Barlow and Brendan Ringstead report a group of over 100 House Martins flying around just such a tree in the Gunjur Lodge. I love the thought that the birds that will soon be scooping gnats from the skies of southern England refuel en route with all manner of exotic invertebrates above a mango tree. The secret lives of birds never fail to fascinate me.
Dear Readers, I was in the mood for a brisk walk on Saturday – the fog had just cleared but it was a damp, dreary day that didn’t really encourage my usual drifting along. So it was not until I reached the ladies ‘convenience’ on the far side of the cemetery that something finally caught my eye. What was this in the corner of the building? Well, it appears to be a group of hibernating harlequin ladybirds (they are much too large to be any other species). I love the way that the ones in the middle have piled on top of one another for warmth. I am slightly surprised that they haven’t woken up yet, what with it being so mild, but maybe they know something that I don’t. There certainly aren’t many greenfly about yet, and as that’s mainly what they eat, maybe it makes sense to snooze on for a little longer.
There was lots of crow activity today – this magpie was throwing the leaves about in much the same way that a blackbird does. I think it gives an indication of how many invertebrates use the leaf litter as a place to spend the winter, and how important it is to leave at least some leaf piles in the garden.
The crows are super-curious, and are always investigating the graves to see if there’s anything edible. I sometimes see them picking up the artificial flowers and then throwing them over their shoulders as if in frustration. This one eventually flew off with what looked like a chrysanthemum flower. Maybe there are some seeds or insects inside. The magpies will also take shiny objects and fly off with them, so the old adage about magpies being ‘collectors’ still seems to hold true.
The first primroses are starting to emerge…
And there are still some rather damp-looking fungi around.
Mystery fungus! All suggestions welcome.
But what does this hogweed think it’s doing? It’s at least four months too early. It was flowering away in splendid isolation, with not a single fly to pollinate it. There were a few winter gnats around, but as far as I know they don’t act as pollinators. This is a high risk strategy, but as the winters get milder, who knows whether early-flowering plants might be the winners in the end?
And finally, we were accosted by this enormous squirrel. I am 99% sure that she is pregnant, rather than just well-cushioned – I noticed squirrel mating behaviour back in December, so although she’s a bit early, she’s not that unusual. I imagine that there’s lots to eat in the cemetery, so let’s hope that she gets enough nutrition to provide for her kits. She looks in excellent condition.
And so it’s back home, to get stuck into the chemistry module of my Open University degree. Studying the Periodic Table reminds me of why I loved chemistry at school – what an elegant and precise way of starting to understand the material world it is! No doubt I shall be waxing lyrical about it soon. For now, I’m just grateful for the way that science provides a way of asking questions about the world that is calm and rational. It feels like just the bracing intellectual exercise that I need.
Gazpacho – a chilled Spanish tomato soup (Title Photo)
Dear Readers, now that winter is here, is there anything nicer than a big bowl of soup? It’s a great way of getting more vegetables into your diet, and also for using up produce that’s getting towards the end of its shelf life. Here in the UK we apparently threw away 9.5 million tonnes of food waste last year. My grandmother would have found that unfathomable. All over the world, people eat soup as a celebration, and as an everyday way of getting nutritious food into their stomachs. Plus, it’s a well-known fact ( by me at least) that if you eat soup, you’re likely to eat less of other things because it’s very filling.
So, for this week’s quiz, I’d like you to match the soup in each of the photos to its name, and where it originated. To help you, I am going to name the main ingredients under each photograph (though I do appreciate that there are many regional variations for some of these dishes, so bear with me!)
You will have until 5 p.m. UK time next Friday (21st January) to submit your answers in the comments. When I see your answers I will ‘disappear’ them, but as usual write your answers down first if you don’t want to be influenced by those who came before. Answers will be published on Saturday 22nd January.
So, if you think Photo One is Vichyssoise, and that it’s from Scotland, your answer is 1)A) i).
1) Bread, kale, beans, tomato
2) Leeks, potatoes, cream
3) Beetroot, dill, sour cream
4) Rice, lemon, egg
5) Smoked haddock, potatoes, cream
6) Dried fruit (apples in this case but could be cloudberries, lingonberries or other fruit)
7) Many variations, but always includes tamarind
8) Tomato, lentils and other beans, rice, small amounts of meat, spices such as saffron.
9) Kale, potato, chorizo
10) Shrimp, andouille sausage, often with okra, thickened with a dark roux
Dear Readers, after my wonderful walk in Walthamstow Wetlands yesterday, it was something of a surprise to read that Friday 14th January is predicted to have the highest air pollution in London since March 2018. Londoners are being advised to avoid physical activity, and those with respiratory problems such as asthma are being advised to carry extra inhalers. The pollution is likely to hit Band 10, the highest level on the scale, in Central London.
Part of the reason for the pollution being so high is, ironically, because of the high pressure that is bringing all the lovely sunshine. This area of high pressure is sitting over Western Europe, and because there is practically no wind, the pollution doesn’t get dissipated in the way that it would normally. However, this doesn’t answer the question of why the pollution is so high in the first place.
In London, the main cause of air pollution is road vehicles. Although the Congestion Zone and the Ultra Low Emissions Zones will go some way towards reducing the amount of Nitrogen Oxides (NOX) and particulates, the Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed out earlier this week that car usage in the Capital is back to pre-pandemic levels. London’s roads simply can’t take the volume of traffic, and one estimate puts the cost of the congestion at £5.1 billion per year. Plus, cars moving slowly allow the pollutants to build up in an area. As usual, there is considerable inequality amongst the groups that are most exposed to this pollution, with the poorer inhabitants of London being the ones who suffer the most, as they tend to live closer to main roads. Young children and elderly people are often the most vulnerable, and as many schools are close to busy roads this exacerbates the problem.
Furthermore, I suspect that people who would normally be amenable to cycling or walking in the Capital are less likely to do so if it feels dangerous and polluted. In addition, Transport for London (TfL)has to go cap-in-hand to Central Government every year to get funding, and during the pandemic more and more people abandoned the tube and the buses, and jumped in their cars instead because they felt safer, reducing TfL’s income still further. It’s a tricky situation for sure, and one that requires imagination and creativity to solve.
A study by Imperial College London found that 4,000 Londoners die every year as a result of air pollution. Worldwide, the state of the air that we breathe is a health emergency, but of course the pollution also contributes to climate change. To my mind, the main things that need to change are:
People need to be encouraged to use public transport, with safe, clean, frequent, sustainable and convenient services.
Public transport needs to be accessible for those with mobility issues and those with children in prams.
There need to be more ways to walk and cycle safely in the Capital
We need to protect and enhance our green spaces as they act as a buffer against the worst effects of pollution
We need to encourage the uptake of electric cars, and make sure that there is sufficient infrastructure to charge them.
We need to look at more car-sharing schemes, both formal and informal, to reduce the number of individual journeys that people make. There are too many vehicles on the road with just one person in them.
It is true that air quality in London has improved greatly since I was young: I remember ‘pea-soupers’ in the 1960s, largely caused by the burning of wood and coal as fuel – ‘smokeless zones’ were set up in the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. What seems strangest to me, looking back, is that when ‘smog’ was expected, all the schoolchildren were sent home from school, which meant crossing busy roads in dense fog. I’m sure there was some kind of logic behind the action, but it struck me as peculiar even as a little girl. These days, the air looks clean and sparkling for most of the time, but sadly it’s still killing people. I reckon that with a bit of encouragement we can do better.
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (Photo by N.T.Stobbs)
For more scenes of foggy old London, do have a look at Spitalfields Life for some wonderful examples.
Dear Readers, today was a perfect time for a walk around Walthamstow Wetlands – it was cold but not too cold, and there was a perfect crispness about the light that made everything so cheerful. Look at those bouncy hazel catkins, which look just like the tails of the lambs that will be born soon.
The twigs of the weeping willows were a perfect mellow yellow colour, and I think that the electricity pylon actually adds something to the scene. We are so lucky to have so much green space in London – the city certainly punches above its weight in terms of biodiversity.
There was a solitary coot rooting amongst the reeds, and not a hint of wind to ruffle the surface of the reservoir.
A tufted duck glided serenely away, before diving and leaving nothing but ripples.
The gorse is in flower (so kissing must still be in fashion, as they say).
Herons glided over the path, looking positively prehistoric. In a few weeks time they will be setting up their nests on one of the islands, and the serenity will be broken by the sounds of heron chicks, but for now the main sound is the chorus of robins. This one was singing, then listening out for a rival, then singing again.
And a great-crested grebe patrolled the water. No sign of a mate today, but probably she or he is very close.
It was one of those days when I feel delighted just to be alive, and clearly I wasn’t the only one – one woman, who had been admiring the view over the water, just turned to us and remarked how beautiful it was. It was a day for pausing, and looking, and soaking it all in. They say that nature is restorative, and today it felt as if every breath was medicine. I felt so lucky and privileged just to be able to enjoy it. I wish the same for all of us.
Dear Readers, I have some history with eels. When I was growing up in Stratford in East London, they were not only considered a delicacy when you went to the pie and mash shop (stewed or jellied eels also formed part of the menu), but you could buy them at the local fish shop in Angel Lane (long since buried under the 1960s shopping centre). The eels would be slithering in a white plastic tray, and if you wanted one, the fishmonger would grab one by the tail and chop into pieces in a matter of seconds before wrapping everything up in white paper. Sometimes the bits of fish would have a mind of their own, and would still be moving about in the shopping bag by the time you got home.
Once, I was holding hands with Mum when we both noticed an eel on the verge of wriggling over the edge of the tray. The fishmonger was arguing with a customer about the cost of some shrimps and winkles and so he hadn’t noticed. I glanced at Mum and she squeezed my hand while we both held our breath. The eel made it over the edge, plopped on to the pavement and wriggled away down the drain to safety. I sometimes wonder if the animal made it to the Sargasso Sea, which is where all the eels in the world are said to breed.
And therein hangs the tale told in Patrik Svensson’s wonderful book. It tells the story of what we’ve managed to discover so far about the secret life of eels, part of which is their complex and enigmatic life story. We have, for instance, found tiny baby eels in the region of the Sargasso Sea, but have never found an adult eel. Sigmund Freud spent several months as a student in Trieste, cutting up eels and trying to find a male one, without ever finding any eel testicles. You can deduce many things about his later theories from this period, I’m sure. Rachel Carson, better known for her work on DDT in ‘Silent Spring’ started by writing about the sea and its creatures for The Atlantic magazine. Ely Cathedral in England is named for the eels found in the local fen country, and in Sweden they celebrate an eel festival – Swedish fishermen would pay for their fishing rights in actual eels.
What makes this book more than ‘just’ a natural history book, though, is the way that Svensson interweaves the story of his relationship with his father, as they try out different ways of catching eels, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. He reveals so much about his Dad, and about how he himself grows from a boy to a man. There is much in this book to savour, and much to learn, and lots to think about, not least when Svensson turns to the precarious future of the eel, and thinks about what it means not just for this species, but for all of us.
“Is it possible to imagine a world without eels? Is it possible to erase a creature that has existed for at least forty million years, that has survived ice ages and seen continents drift apart, that when humans found their place on this planet had already been waiting for us for millions of years, that has been the subject of so many traditions and celebrations and myths and stories?
No, is the instinctive answer, that’s not how the world works. What exists, exists, and what doesn’t exist is always in some ways unimaginable. Imagining a world without eels would be like imagining a world without mountains or oceans, air or soil, bats or willow trees.
Yet at the same time all life is changeable, and we will all change one day, and it was probably at one point, at least for a few people, just as difficult to imagine a world without the dodo or without Steller’s sea cow. Just as I couldn’t, once, imagine a world without Nana or Dad.
And yet they’re both gone now. And the world is still here”.
I heartily recommend this thought-provoking and beautifully-written book. You can buy it in lots of places, and here’s one of them.