Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Wasps squatting the kitchen garden

August 23, 2006

Wasp nest in the red currants
A wasp nest hiding in one of the red currant bushes preventing harvest

Last summer we were the best of buds, sharing berry bushes, this year my mere presence sends the wasps into such a frenzy that we barely fit in the same garden. I’ve already been stung five times, including one multiple sting on the inauguration of weeding season, when I put my hand straight into a nest. Fortunately I’m not allergic to wasp sting, and a big dab of wet mud seems to stop the spread of both poison and pain.

All over the garden I find the wasps’ summer homes and ceramic larvae nurseries. They’re especially attracted to the retaining wall between Kristine’s and my garden where there isn’t much growing except mint, sorrel, basil and shiso. I’d like to prepare this bit for next year by migrating my strawberry plants on over and filling the rest of the space with tallish perrenial flowers. But the wasps won’t hear of it, threatening me with aggressive gestures of, ‘I’m going to give you such a sting, you!’ anytime my hands go near their bank. Maybe it’s my very presence that has them up in arms, but they seem to be expanding their territory, squatting the rosemary bush on the opposite side with one of their papery nests. I can’t even get close enough to take a photograph, let alone get a proper marinade going for the mutton chops!

Wasp larvae housing occupying my garden hat
Two wasp larva nests attached to the chin-tie of my gardening hat

Yesterday I went to the garden at midday to observe what the wasps are up to when everyone else is taking siesta. Because it finally warmed up again, I decided to wear my gardening hat, which I’d left hanging unused in the shed for the past 3 weeks. When I reached to grab it, a rather large lizard plopped out, falling first upon my arm before landing with a thud on the floor. I shrieked, ‘BuhGAWWWGCK’ and did a rather silly backwards dance out of the shed. But much more unnerving was what I found in the rim of the hat; two adobe wasp nurseries. Armed with my elevated lizard heartbeat and a long stick, I detached them from the yarn and when they fell to the ground, I smashed them to bits with my sandal.


And then I felt like the most stupid beginning organic gardener in the history of the world. I hope that this one misguided action isn’t the first step on the road to neo-conservatism. You can imagine what would have happened if handguns were legal down here.

An old-fashioned and wholly ineffective wasp trap
This old fashioned wasp trap looks great and the calendula syrup I put in it tastes good too, but the wasps will have none of it

My judgement clouded by the the pulverisation of the ceramic homes, I resolutely declared war upon the wasps and set out an old-fashioned nectar trap. The wasps ignored it completely. ‘What, you don’t like my cooking?’ This morning I searched online for biological pest control only to discover that wasps are biological pest control, used as pest predators to kill much more harmfull bugs. Apparently I’m supposed to be jumping for joy that I even have them in my garden.

beneficial insect poster
This is the reason I should be happy about my wasps. I do grow a lot of brassicas and cabbages.

But I don’t relish the notion of repeatedly being stung, and because the wasps seem to be too smart for their calendula nectar trap, today I’m going to try a method I read about this morning. It seems that one can make fake nests out of crumpled brown paper and place them in proximity to real nests. Wasps are supposedly non-confrontational (!) and in their fear of an all-out wasp war, avoid the place with the nests alltogether. Fingers crossed this psychological approach to eviction really works, and not in a half-assed, hippy-dippy, organic gardening sort of way.

The nice thing about living in the Languedoc is that this is my biggest problem. Worse comes to worse, I’ll have to learn to live with wasps and save the thorough wasp cleaning for the dark of winter. There will probably be wasps enough all around the allotments next year, and my wasps will just have to do a little commuting, which can be consdiered a form of exercise. If anyone knows of a truly effective NON-CHEMICAL method to discourage wasps from nesting, please let me know. The underside of the retaining wall and it’s proximity to the waterway mud is a perfect wasp building zone, but I would prefer they experiment with new forms of architecture elsewhere. Neo-con, NIMBY politics…

debra at 12:50 | Comments (5) | post to

Inside the secret gardens of our culinary elite

August 19, 2006

Photographs of a photograph of Terrance Conran and his cabbages by Peter Dench © Telegraph Magazine
Photograph of photographs of Terrance Conran and his cabbages by Peter Dench at Telegraph Magazine

Last Saturday’s Telegraph Magazine reported on the kitchen gardens of twenty-three of England’s most ‘reknowned’ ‘cooks’. From several versions of elaborate kitchen gardens, to modest collections of herb-filled terracotta pots, to berry bushes and stonefruit orchards, a goodly array of food growing is displayed in the most fashionable possible way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Debra Solomon's Occitanian kitchen garden
Debra Solomon’s Occitanian kitchen garden

It was refreshing that the English culinary elite display a diversity of approaches to food growing and of gardening personality in general. Not that I need any reassuring about whether my garden is too wild or unproductive I mean organic, but because food-growing is so often portrayed as something that requires a great deal of expertise. Plants do tend to grow themselves and if you, your family or your restaurant don’t need to survive off the fat of your land, it’s delicious to indulge in a few years of pissing about, I mean finding your own style, I mean conducting some thorough active research and experimentation. Condoning this much diversity is an unusual and positive message from such a popular media source!

Photograph of a photograph of Sarah Raven and her funky archway that curiously resembles mine by Tara Darby © Telegraph Magazine
Photograph of photographs of Sarah Raven and her funky archway (that curiously resembles the culiblog vertical garden arch) by Tara Darby © Telegraph Magazine

But because I seem to be obsessed with growing my own and eating locally grown food (and using less petrol to grow and move food around), I couldn’t help but read ‘Inside the secret gardens..’ from an energy descent point of view. Is the fear of Peak Oil creating such a positive trend towards food gardening that more and more fashionable people are being shown to do it? Or is it a chicken and egg thang; more and more people are affected by the imminent energy descent meme and therefore grow their food? Either way, bon courage.

Culiblog kitchen garden trend: the vertical garden
Culiblog kitchen garden trend, the vertical garden: efficient land-use and architectural sculptability

View from vertical garden into the upper kitchen garden just seconds before cloudbreak
View from vertical garden into the upper kitchen garden just seconds before cloudbreak

Sadly and stupidly the Telegraph Magazine doesn’t have a worthy web-presence. The following authors contributed to the Telegraph Magazine issue, Inside the secret gardens of our culinary elite; Carolyn Hart (food editor and writer) with writers Isabel Albiston, Simon Beckett, Drusilla Beyfus, Daisy Bridgewater, Caroline Donald, Emma Hagestadt, Summer Nocon, Rose Prince, Francesca Ryan and Sally Willams.

debra at 12:22 | Comments (0) | post to

Ziggizagna, pasta folds of summer harvest

August 16, 2006

Julie smells the basil
Julie Upmeyer puts her face in a bunch of freshly picked purple basil and miraculously sheds 16 years!

Normally mid-August is time of change in the Occitanian weather; no more highs in the 40’s and we can start expecting violent thunderstorms. But this year Mama Nature has heralded an abrupt and unusual end to summer, summoning the mind back indoors for another season of Zitsfleisch procurement. Suddenly we’re layering the bikini with socks and sweaters and going to bed sporting PJs! Hopefully the kitchen garden can handle this weather blip and still come up with a second crop of tomatoes.

Folded pasta recipe, Ziggizagna
Ziggizagna, individually folded, ad hoc et à la minute

Ziggizagna, short for zigzag lasagna, is a collaborative recipe for an ad hoc lasagna prepared right on the plate, each fold presenting a new filling or course, an everlasting gobstopper of a summer pasta dish. Now that the Meat Master has temporarily returned to the Polar Circle, us girly-gals (and lone manly man Floris) have taken to preparing a lighter menu with garden fresh ingredients that fit in our baskets and can be transported on back and/or bike. This Ziggizagna has fresh tomatoes, purple basil and chard from the garden, apricots, olives, garlic and almonds fresh from the market. The brebis (sheep milk cheese) is also local, sold to me each week by an exceedingly tall and handsome man from le Fermier des Garrigues. We home-aged it with the help of some early onset Oldtimers, to give it an even sharper flavour. We’s lovin’ the Ziggizagna! (Please read more… )

debra at 11:50 | Comments (3) | post to

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