Really reaping what I sowed
‘‘Faith,’’ said the American writer John Irving Bloom, aka Texas redneck Joe Bob Briggs, ‘‘is like a kernel of wheat.’’ Sown in fertile soil, it takes root and spreads as quickly as a rumour. Hardly surprising, then, that wheat crops up at least 38 times in the Bible, for long before the clean-eating craze crucified gluten as the devil incarnate, it was considered the most godliest of grains.
This week I’ve been literally sorting the wheat from the chaff. On this day a year ago, I changed our clocks and replaced our smoke alarm batteries, as per the Fire Service’s public service announcements then, in a pagan celebration of the lengthening days of light, sowed a very small field of wheat.
Sprouting thick as unmown grass in spring and gradually fading to straw-gold by the end of summer, wheat’s such an aesthetically pleasing crop to grow. It’s agriculture as art: in 1982, the American conceptual artist Agnes Denes installed her seminal work Wheatfield ,a confrontation in a Manhattan landfill overlooked by the World Trade Centre. As a symbol of world hunger, Denes said that sowing wheat at the feet of New York City’s financial district aimed to call ‘‘attention to our misplaced priorities’’.
I have to admit that my intentions for growing wheat are rather less noble: my husband’s keen to have a crack at distilling his own whisky. (On our honeymoon, we went to the Hokonui Moonshine Museum in Gore, and he’s been eyeing up our hot water cylinder ever since).
According to southern legend, the McRae family’s original moonshine recipe required eight bushels of grain – about 216 kilograms or eight million kernels – to make 20 gallons of whisky. Last year, I harvested just shy of 1kg, enough to yield a couple of nips at best.
Undeterred, I heaved my golden sheaves to the shed and stacked them in an attractive shook on top of my preserving cupboard, figuring that I’d harvest the individual kernels when it came time to resow the seed in spring. Except our free-range chooks, who have no issues with coeliac disease, had other ideas. They snuck in when I left the shed door open and massacred the ears as effectively as Vincent van Gogh, creating a hell of a mess and requiring a call to the friendly chaps at our local Farmlands store to source more seed this week.
Never mind. We’re not exactly short on homebrewed hooch. In autumn, my husband put several wheelbarrow loads of homegrown pears and apples through a wood chipper then crushed the pulp with his late grandfather’s wooden cider press before fermenting the juice in flatulent plastic barrels in our shed. I had my doubts, but after six months of cellaring, his cider is clear and gently effervescent. It even tastes just like the bought stuff, or at least like the bought stuff would were it not frothing with artificial flavours, sweeteners and preservatives.
My husband’s cider’s infinitely better than my first attempt at a wet-hopped beer, made the oldfashioned way from fresh green hops plucked straight off the bine (rather than dried in a kiln). The kindest thing I could say of it was that it was authentic and aromatic, smelling like boiled grass clippings and tasting like cooled, boiled grass clippings.
If you want to experiment with your own tasty tipples, may I suggest you start with fruitinfused liqueurs? The top shelf of my pantry boasts raspberries bottled in Bacardi, honeyed quinces grated into vodka and several Agee jars of bachelor’s jam, a no-cook preserve of strawberries, currants, blackberries and boysenberries embalmed in sugar and kirsch. As the Damson plums in my orchard come into blossom, it reminds me it’s time to drain the fruit from the 12 jars of Damson gin I put away six months ago. Their wrinkly cadavers, floating in litres of marzipan-infused liqueur, won’t go to waste: I drain them and dry them in a low oven, then freeze them in trays to drizzle with melted chocolate for homemade truffles.
If it’s true, as research by Ohio State University and Cornell University suggests, that you’re five times more likely to eat something you’ve grown yourself, then none of this bodes well for my liver.
On this day a year ago, I changed our clocks and replaced our smoke alarm batteries, then, in a pagan celebration of the lengthening days of light, sowed a very small field of wheat.
Wheat crops up at least 38 times in the Bible.