Re­ally reap­ing what I sowed

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE - Lynda Hal­li­nan

‘‘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.

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