A newly-married couple from Los Angeles quit their jobs to work on farms and wineries across Europe. Read it from the beginning...

How well do you know your veggies?

Posted: June 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Growing Food, Wales | 13 Comments »

For the last month and a half Devon and I have been working on organic farms (certified and non-certified) in Europe. While here, we’ve actually learned quite a lot about the fresh produce we find on our plates for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What’s surprised us both is how little we know about the actual plants from which our produce grows.

Here are a number of pictures of produce growing from the vegetable and fruit farm we worked on in Wales. I could identify but a few without help when we first got there. Can you guess what’s what? I’ve put the answers in the comments section. How many did you get right?

In addition to learning what my veggies and fruit look like in the ground, I learned a few things about how the plants grow which surprised me. To a farmer, this is basic knowledge, but to a city girl, it was quite the revelation. The most surprising thing to me was that when we eat broccoli, we’re actually eating the immature flower. If farmers  didn’t cut the broccoli head from the plant, it would blossom with little yellow flowers.

The second thing that surprised me was the potato plant. I hadn’t really thought about what a potato plant looked like just that the potato was a “root vegetable.” The potato is really a modified leaf. It isn’t a root at all! Potatoes grow underground inside ridged mounds. The higher the dirt covers the plant, the more potatoes it grows. If a potato breaks the surface it turns green, like a leaf, and becomes poisonous.

Lastly, when I was in Devon I learned about the bay leaf. Whenever I’m making soup, it usually calls for a bay leaf or two. But where does one get a bay leaf? Usually, we go to the herbs section of the grocery store and it’s conveniently in a little container for us. But, we have no idea it comes from a tree and what we use in our soup are the dried leaves.

There is tons more I can share, but I fear I’m inching into geek territory. The point though, is that we eat broccoli, bay leaves and other fruits and veggies every day. We don’t even consider what they look like in the ground. It’s all so conveniently located in the store or the farmers market that we don’t have to worry about it. I think though, that in order to truly appreciate what’s on your plate we need to understand where it comes from. And, well, now you know what eight more veggies and fruits look like when they’re growing on the farm. Don’t forget to click in the comments section to see how many of the veggies/fruit plants you got right!

The American Tourist and the Sea

Posted: May 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Wales | 2 Comments »

Me over the Bristol Channel and sporting a very fashionable camera bag. This hillside of grass grows increasingly steep, gives way to rocks, then plunges into the channel. From there I couldn’t see anything of this, but instead a clean line where land and water seemed to meet. A slip would certainly have been painful, if not fatal. But at this moment, my feet firmly planted, the view was calming and peaceful.

Today was our last full day in Wales. Tomorrow we travel to Dublin and begin our time in Ireland.

It’s called “back-breaking” work for a reason

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Schedule, Wales | 9 Comments »

When Devon and I decided to learn about farming we knew it would be hard work. In fact, we were counting on it. And we got what we expected. Farming is, as the saying goes, “back-breaking” work.

Even though we try and avoid bending over too much, it inevitably happens. When we’re weeding we’re bent over, when we’re planting we’re bent over, when we’re shoveling, and hoeing…well, you get the idea. So, we unsurprisingly have sore backs and muscles, almost all the time. Since starting our journey we’ve done a lot of work in gardens and vegetable fields, which is where most of our back-breaking work takes place. Right now, we’re at a vegetable and fruit farm which does everything by hand instead of using chemicals, as it’s an organic farm. They use rather primitive machinery for some things, but all of their farm equipment was probably top of the line in 1950.

The difficult to move irrigation rig

Today is a good example of a typical day on the veg farm. First, we moved their irrigation system (read, very large sprinkler) from one veg bed to a neighboring veg bed. The irrigation system is comprised of 12 hollow metal poles, each about 13 feet long lined with little holes for the water to come spurting out. We walk 4 poles at a time with 2 people coordinating our steps so that we are moving at the same pace. This sounds like an easy task, and it is logistically. But, manually, carrying these poles 3 times across a football sized field can be tiring.

After we moved the irrigation system we went into one of their polytunnels (2,000 square feet of protected soil) and hand-weeded zucchinis. To do this, we’re squatting or on our knees picking out the weeds and placing them in a bucket. Then, after we were done with that (which took us about 40 minutes) we had to weed the walking paths between the zucchini. It sounds silly, but they also need to be free of weeds because eventually the zucchini grows so large it’s hard to get in there and weed. We get it all out while we still can. The walking path is much more packed earth, as we walk on it, and therefore harder to pull the weeds out. So, we use a hand fork or trowel — crouching, bending and kneeling all the while.

When we were done with that, it was tea time so we went inside for some toast and tea. A 20 minute break is welcome at this point as we’re tired of being on our hands and knees. But, we’re right back on them when tea is over because then we planted about 600 brussel sprout plants. The way we did this today was one person takes the plant out of the tray and tosses it onto the earth where the sprout will be planted. Then, following that person is a “planter” on each side of the bed (there are two rows) planting them as they’re tossed down. I’m still fairly slow at planting as my knees get bruised being dragged over the rocks sliding from hole to hole. I’m getting better, but to give you perspective, the paid farm worker here planted two sprouts for my every one.

After planting the sprouts, we headed over the to the lettuce beds where we hoed weeds. Then, we walked over to the broccoli beds where we hoed some more. Although we use an oscillating hoe (i.e. it sits on a hinge and moves back and forth with our forward motion) it’s still hard on the back.

So, basically, farming is a lot of bending over and crouching, especially if a lot of the work is done by hand (which is it here). It’s work like this that makes us see why farmers use pesticides and herbacides. If they didn’t, they’d never be able to create as much crop as they do and a lot of it would be eaten by critters like slugs, birds and flies.

How does one advocate for organic when it’s so much work, more expensive, and at times seems unrealistic? I don’t have an answer, and I’m hoping by the end of our 5-month trip I’ll be a little closer. I see why farmers would choose not to be organic. Where do we meet in the middle? Do we decrease farms in size? They used to be smaller. Do we have people grow their own veg? I really don’t have an answer. Instead, I have more questions. But, if anything, our adventure is bringing the issues to life for me which is a good place to start.

Thirteen-hundred sweet corn, all in a row…

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Wales | 2 Comments »

You’re on your hands and knees, a tray of seedlings by your side. You scoop a hole with one hand, and pop a seedling out with the other, push it into the soil, and press it down into place. Reach forward, balanced over your knees, do it again with the middle row. Push the tray forward, then crawl forward one pace. Repeat. In several months, each plant will produce one, sometimes two, corn cobs.

Faggots, peas, and gravy

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Meals, Wales | 1 Comment »

It’s lunchtime at the Big Pit coal museum. I’m a curious guy, so I ordered the faggots, peas, and gravy.

Faggots (I feel bad just using the word) does not mean the same thing in the UK as it does in the US. Here it means a meatball that includes liver (it also means a cigarette, or a bundle of kindling). How’d it taste? Mmm… like ground up liver. Not great to me, but I could see how if you grew up with it, it may be a comfort food. I was told it’s a pretty traditional item on the British menu.

Look-it that gravy glisten!

Roadtrip through Wales

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Wales | 3 Comments »

We rented a coffee can-sized car (a Chevrolet “Matiz”) and drove around Wales this past weekend. We’re actually heading out again this morning to visit the Big Pit, a coal mine museum. So, in lieu of a full post, here are some observations:

Driving on the left side of the road isn’t as jarring a change as we expected. Shifting with the left hand, however, took some getting used to. I kept slapping the door with my right hand, reaching for the shifter.

We strongly endorse McVitie’s Digestives biscuits as an excellent energy source for hill-walking. We climbed to the second highest peak in Wales — it takes about an hour. It takes another twenty minutes to get to the highest peak, but we needed to get going.

Hay-on-Wye, the tiny town packed with books, is the most charming place we’ve been so far. Bookshelves are tucked all over the city: in alleys, on the decaying castle, from cafes.

This “bookstore” had no one around. It was a whole wall of books, with a box for people to put their money.

Ice cream made from sheep milk: not too bad! Very creamy, a bit grassy. We didn’t know it was non-cow milk until we were done. I had “cinder toffee.” It tasted like the top off a creme brulee.

We had Indian for dinner. Everything was heavy on the coconut milk, and too sweet as a result. In general, we’re finding meals in Britain to be heavy on the sweetness.

A “road” as indicated on a map could mean anything from a nice, two-lane paved and painted thing, down to a rutted dirt path squeezed between ten-foot hedges that may or may not be someone’s driveway. You just don’t know until you get there.

Also, the dashed white line separating lanes is more of a suggestion than enforced law, it seems.

Roundabouts make a lot of sense. Much faster than traffic lights. On the other hand, plopping a roundabout in the middle of a freeway — not as intuitive.

Tintern Abbey is picturesque and grand in a way I’ve never seen before: vaulted stone arches with nothing by sky and birds behind them; the knowledge that men walked these same stone paths 800 years ago. Birds flew in and out like the place was a new kind of forest. It was raining, which gave the whole place a weighty atmosphere — and emphasized the lack of, and importance of, a roof.

Now we’re off for the Big Pit: National Coal Museum! And later, of course, a little bit of work. We’re working. We promise.

The fake castle in Wales

Posted: May 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Wales | 4 Comments »

I come all the way to Wales, and end up right back in Hollywood.

For context, take a look at this trailer for the upcoming, $26 million feature IRONCLAD:

Not too bad, right? I mean, it has Brian Cox and he’s pretty good. Paul Giamatti, too (but he’s not in the trailer).

But, did you notice the walls? I’ve touched those walls. Y’see, in a land full of castles, the production company decided to make their own. Shooting wrapped back in October of 2009, but the set still stands today, now a sort of local legend — the fake castle of Pencoed. Halbe and I set out yesterday to find it.

Hark! In the distance! What squat residence is this!

We drew closer to find the castle protected by a six-foot security fence. The irony of this did not hit me until just now.

At a break in the fence was a car and a small caravan housing a security guard. It looks like he may have lived there.  We approached, said hello, then he invited us to take a look around. “Be careful, though” he said. “She’s starting to show her age.”

We breached the fortress! The walls were made of thin plastic in the form of stone bricks and painted as such. Everything iron (nails, hinges) looked authentically rusted, but that solid oak door behind me was hollow.

Here I am, puzzling over the existence of electrical cables in 12th century England. You can see neon green painted set pieces in the thatched cottage behind me.

The castle keep. You can see the scaffolding support structure through the window. The actual “stone” walls are that plastic stone stuff stapled to plywood. The weathering effect was pretty impressive. Everything looked authentic until you were about arms-length away from it. Or, if you went around the back…

The support scaffolding. You can also see the trailer of the security guard in the lower-right. The whole thing was pretty tall — maybe four stories high. Walking around inside was neat. If I squinted, and ignored the sound of the motorway over the hill, it did feel a bit like I was in an old castle.

The security guard came in to see what we were doing, and told us bit about the movie. IRON CLAD is about a group of mercenaries King John sent to reclaim Rochester Castle in 1215. When the time came to give the castle to the king, the mercenaries decided to instead keep it for themselves. The king’s forces lay siege, and 800 years later it’s all made into a movie. GRAPHIC SPOILER ALERT: King John wins. Here’s how: After being unable to penetrate the fortress for months, he  forces a bunch of fat hogs to crawl up the sewage pipe that runs beneath one of the walls, locks them in, then sets them on fire. The intense heat created by the burning fat of the pigs brings down the wall, letting the army inside.

I know. Gross.

Courgette = Zucchini

Posted: May 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Wales | 1 Comment »

Generally, Britain is not unlike the U.S. but there are a couple of things that I’m noticing that are different. First, some of the names of vegetables are different here: they use the French name while we use the Italian. For example, they don’t say zucchini, but courgette and they call eggplants aubergines. The other difference we’re noticing in the homes we’ve stayed in is that they don’t use napkins nearly as much as we do in the states. We’ve eaten three meals with our new family in Wales and we haven’t seen a napkin in sight. I end up using my jeans instead. Good thing they’re already dirty and I don’t mind a bit more grit. They also put cream (whether clotted or double) on everything. Can’t complain too much about that though, cream makes everything better.

We’re at our new farm in Wales in a small town called Pencoed, pronounced “Pen-coid,” 15 miles from Cardiff. Today was our first day assisting them on their farm and we’ve already learned a bit about growing plants. Our schedule is not too different than our last farm except we’re done after lunch here and then have all day to putz around. We plan to take a few day trips and many walks in the area using their public footpaths, one of our favorite things about Britain so far.

Our day has us eating breakfast (porridge) with our hosts by 7:30 in the morning and out in the fields by 8:00 a.m. Today, we planted leeks into their fields (they have 23 acres and all plants are hand planted, weeded and maintained etc.). Then, we moved a number of french beans and squash into a cooler polytunnel (kind of like a greenhouse) to get them used to cooler weather. We’ll be planting those next week. As our host Yvonne says, “plants are like people, they don’t like to be too warm or too cold so you have to get them used to different temperatures gradually.”

By 1:30 we are eating lunch. Today we had homemade pizza, cous cous and amazing salad. The salad is the best part of the meals here since it’s literally cut from the garden and put into our bowls. Fresh salad greens make a huge difference. Devon and I plan to walk to the windmills tomorrow. You have to get creative with activities when you’re in a small town, that’s for sure. Windmills here we come!

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