Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Craftsman’s Dinner

This is a beautiful series of five short films based on the crafts surrounding food.

Don’t know which is my favourite, they are all so good.

The farm with the free range animals and what the owners are trying to achieve is admirable. The knife maker is just amazing. The potter makes us want to go to London to find that shop. The salmon smoker had us going to his site to  place an order. The winery gave us another choice for an accompaniment for dinner.

Hope you enjoy.

The Mito Principle

In my early years I was a car guy. I subscribed to Road and Track and every month I will get the magazine with the news and views of the latest cars. That publication had terrific writers and besides the cars to ogle at, the reading was always a delight.IMG_7688
At that time, like most, I dreamt of owning the latest cars and my dreams will be updated each and every month. My favourites back then were the Cizeta Moroder, Ferrari Testarossa and the Porsche 959. All stratospherically priced vehicles. If wishes were horses, I would have ridden.
As the years passed, my philosophy on owning things started to change. It became less of idealising objects and more of a sense of enjoying the beauty and utility of them. I expect if I can easily afford something, I am happy to own it, if possible. Still now I check the number of things I acquire because I am losing patience with being surrounded by stuff.
A couple years ago, at my first job away from home, I was prompted to get a second car to avoid having the family running up and down the motorway to drop me off on weekends. A buddy at work wanted to trade in a Saab Aero for a Land Rover so I ended up with a two litre turbo that ran like a thief. I enjoyed the long commute home on the big roads, swiping through the long bends and feeling the taught suspension balancing the car through the curves.
I changed jobs and then worked on the other side of London, the busy side, close to Heathrow Airport. There the quick acceleration worked against me on one particular evening when I got two speeding tickets from the Variable Speed cameras. I was nothing short of furious.
Those cameras have been hell in driving along that road, you have to keep your eye on the speed notices all the time toIMG_7693 avoid a loud PAX! That evening I lapsed and while under no danger, I was ticketed, twice
The Saab was already ten years old and starting to demand expensive repairs so I decided to get rid of it and set a new criteria for a replacement.
The new car must be under the tax band, slow to accelerate and cheap to run. With my parameters set, I started my search. I got a good price for the Saab and that served as a downpayment for the next car.
I found an Alfa Romeo Mito for sale that matched all that I wanted in a car. It was less than a litre in engine size and had many modern comforts that the Saab lacked. I got it for a song because the owner was pressed to migrate and to my surprise the car drove beautifully. It is a joy in the lanes! I took it through the Chilterns one weekend soon after I got it and it was one of the best country drives I ever had. The car is nimble and enjoys being thrown into corners where it just sticks to the line you carve from the steering wheel. Fun, fun, fun!
There is no doubt it is slow. You do get a quick take off from a standing start and that is exciting at traffic lights but by the time you hit 30mph, you are chugging along. It is very hard to break a speed limit in this car. Just what I wanted.IMG_7694
Recently the notice came for me to renew the road tax. I immediately got online and the process was one of clicking three buttons in quick succession without any exchange of money. Super!
Then there was the renewal of the insurance; which at £300 for the year makes me feel like the cat that got the cream.
I am somewhat smug about this entire episode but in standing aside, I will like to take from it some principles that might help me in other areas.
First was, I made a list of what attributes I was looking for. At that point it did not matter what make or model, just what qualities were important to me.
I then looked for a vehicle that was the closest match to that list. When the ad for the car came up, I already knew it was the one I wanted. I was able to move swiftly, without much hesitation and acquire it.
Those two points seem to form an approach I can expend in other circumstances. First decide on the qualities you want to work with and secondly when you find them, move promptly and confidently.

Nettle’s Long Story

“If they would eat nettles in March, and drink Mugwort in May, 
So many fine maidens would not go to the clay.” – Funeral Song of a Scottish Mermaid. 

IMG_20160422_123345Using nettle for clothing is not anything new, as humans discovered it is a excellent source of fibre  millennia ago. And it is not long distant history as it may seem, because we still use nettle fibres to make fabric. It is beautiful that this prickly plant is coming out from the shadows of history again and being considered as one of sustainable sources of fibres.

Ancient Egyptians wrapped mummies in ramie cloth, made of plant fibres from the nettle family. European nettle (Uriotica Dioica) was used by Vikings and Slavic tribes in the Central Europe alike. In the Bronze Age burial of an important man in Denmark, archaeologist discovered that the nearly 3000 years old cloth that bones were wrapped in before placing in bronze urn, was made of nettle. The nettle does not grow in Denmark and in further analysis, it turned out this nettle was from Austria region of Europe. It is evident that nettle cloth was considered a special, expensive material, traded in Europe and something of a status symbol.

It is unusual to find ancient cloth, unless it got luckily preserved in favourable conditions like being water logged or carbonised for example. Therefore, such a rare find like this from Denmark, confirms that despite already growing flax for cloth production, people still were using wild nettles, because it gives fibres as fine as raw silk and has that luxury touch.

Regardless of its luxurious properties as a fabric, it was not the only reason for nettle being so venerated. It was considered to be a magical plant by the Slavic and Vikings alike. At the Summer Solstice, Slavic tribes used to hang bunches of it in doorways to protect agains demons or protect crops on their fields. Nettle was also believed to keep away thunderstorms, so it was often burnt as the smoke was meant to scare away stormy clouds. Hence, cloth made of nettle must have been considered a protective, revered material to adorn oneself.

To top it up, nettle was known for medicinal uses as well; used to treat bleeding or infected wounds to cite a few, as mentioned in Hippocrates texts. There were plenty of benefits for a plant growing spontaneously in ditches or woods and our ancestors were no fools in exploiting the plant.

Nettle fibres were long used to produce ropes or nets as it has a very good strength and is water resistant and does not rot easily. In Kamchatka, fishermen were using it for netting, because it was so light and water resistant, truly being the only fibrous plant available for them to feed such needs. In Central Europe, people used nettle fibres to make sieves for flour sifting.

The newly rediscovered nettle yarns available on the market now are sourced in Nepal, from a giant nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), growing to the impressive height of 3 metres at least. Though European nettle was widely used for a very long time until cheaper cotton and silk took over. In Poland, nettle textiles were very popular until the 17th century. Actually since the 12th century, the nettle was used there in large quantities to make fabrics. It was due to its delicacy to skin that nettle was beating flax or hemp as a cloth of choice for next to skin clothing. Also nettle was much cheaper than silk which was only affordable for people of means.

Nettle was also used in Scandinavia. It was found in a Viking ship, so possibly nettle was used for nets. In 18th century Scandinavia, nettle fabric returned and local nettle fibres along with imported ramie were used to produce finely woven dresses. I came across a record from 1813 of a woman form Feyn in Denmark, who had woven 21 ells (24 metres) of linen and ticking from nettle. The following year, she had turned 2 stones of nettle fibres into 12 pocket handkerchieves, 20 metres of checked linen and 14 metres of bed ticking. That is an impressive, real account of what used to be made of European nettle.camira nettle

In Britain, there is a term “Scotch cloth” that refers to a fabric made of nettle. Nettle was popular in Scotland for many centuries. Thomas Campbell, 19th century poet, wrote: “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept on nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought the nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen”. It is a beautiful tribute to that prickly plant.

There is more evidence of nettle being considered to have magical qualities. You must remember Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a girl who wove nettle shirts to bring back her 11 brothers who were turned into swans. Obviously, turning the prickly plant into silky smooth cloth was like a magic for people.

Coming back to the real world and more recent history, nettle made a comeback again during WWI in Germany. There the cotton supplies dried up as the British Empire ruled the seas and sourcing cotton from overseas was nearly impossible. Germans had to find another sustainable source of cloth suitable to sew uniforms for soldiers. It is said that nettle was used for that purpose as well as to make sandbags. It is mentioned that Germans used dye made of nettle as well.

IMG_20160102_124400Nowadays, you can find ready to weave nettle fibre easily online but all of them are made of the aforementioned Himalayan giant nettle. This fibre is also known as Allo. Fibre and cloth are produced in a traditional way in Nepal locally boosted by fair trade initiatives. There is ongoing research into growing European nettle for fabric production, but for now I have no knowledge of any producer of European nettle fibre. One challenge being the set up of large scale farms to grow and harvest the crop. With growing interest into sustainable and local alternatives to cotton, which is heavy on the environment, I believe it is just a matter of time for European nettle to come back.