Tag Archives: food

Food production from the first crops to the present day

Sponsored by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group (The Field) at Birnam Arts, 23 November 2015, 7.30

A survey of crops and croplands – from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival here of settled agriculture in the late stone age; through the developments of bronze and iron to the ill years of the 1600s; through the major improvements in the 1700s that gave hope; through the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine; to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, and society choosing the latter; to the present state of soil degradation and reliance on imports for food security; and to a sustainable future, perhaps … with some tales along the way of life and farming when horse was the quickest way along the A9.


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Settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history. Domestication of crops from wild plants, as recently as 10,000 years ago, produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today. Maize and potato were domesticated in the Americas and could not cross the Atlantic at that time and rice was too far away in Asia, but wheat, barley and oat came by land and sea across Europe to the north Atlantic seaboard where around 5000 years ago, they found a welcoming soil and a mild climate.

The grain crops enabled a settled society. In good years, there was food to last the winter, giving time to think and make things. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region. A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals (except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day).

Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agriculture unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s? Starvation and famine.

Then came the age of improvement after 1700 – lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, the levelling of the rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest, the global search for guano, the coordinated management of crop and stock – benefits that allowed outputs to rise in the 1700s, but not yet to the point where famine was memory. That came later. It was not until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe.

But these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability. They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began here.

The first was that grain and other crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure. Grain could be grown more frequently, on more area and with more inputs – eventually encouraging a phase of intensification after 1950 that increased yield but in many places to the detriment of soil and the wider environment, and now with a diminishing return from inputs.

The second was that local production became separated from local consumption. The increasing wealth and global trade of the 1900s – the legacy of the industrial revolution – meant that people no longer relied for their subsistence on what was grown in local fields. This second decoupling became so great that by the 1990s, all cereal carbohydrate eaten in Scotland, except oat, was grown elsewhere and imported.

There are some big questions therefore. Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? And is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption?

So what of the future! Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems.

Geoff Squire

James Hutton Institute, Dundee UK

The speaker illustrated his talk with some ancient cereals and a bag of grain, all grown in the Living Field garden.

The quotations from Andrew Wight’s journals from his travels by horse are now available free online:

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books.

His notes on bere, oat and flax in the region of Dunkeld and Birnam will appear in a later article on this web site. Any further enquiries: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)
The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)

Bere bannocks

This recipe is an adaptation from the booklet ‘Barony Mills – Bere Meal Recipes’ from Birsay, Orkney.

Ingredients

lf_brbncks_gk1_550a100 g beremeal

60 g self-raising flour

40 g rolled oats

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

250 ml milk

What to do

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add enough milk to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a board coated with beremeal/oat. Flatten by hand until about 1 cm thick, then make rounds using a pastry cutter (7 cm). Bake in the centre of the oven at 170/180 degrees  C for about 10 minutes, then turn the bannocks and bake for 5 minutes. Alternatively, bake on a dry griddle or pan on the top of the cooker for about 5 minutes each side. This makes a batch of about 8 bannocks. Alternatively, shape into a large round, mark out 8 segments and bake for about the same time.

Notes

The original recipe was used by the Creel Restaurant, St Margaret’s Hope. In addition to the beremeal,  it  used 100 g plain flour and no rolled oats. I have substituted this with 60 g self raising flour which gives a bit more ‘lift’ to the product. The rolled oats also seems to make the bannocks lighter, almost a cross between bread and a scone!

The crucial thing in baking bannocks is to get the proportions right – proportions of the dry constituents with the right amount of raising agent, in this case baking powder.

Barony Mills is Orkney’s only remaining working mill – and a water-powered one at that. It produces traditional Orcadian beremeal, a speciality flour with a nutty brown colour and a distinctive flavour, which has been used in this recipe.

Recipe by Granny Kate

Links on this site

Seeded oatcakes with bere meal

The bere line – further links and pages on the history and uses of bere barley

Landrace 1 – bere – for information on the Orkney bere landrace

Hairy teacake

Of the photos taken at the Commonwealth Games fabulous opening night in 2014, the one icon of note missing from the collection was the Tunnock’s Teacake, the giant red and silver teacake replicas on legs, cavorting around the arena … not a single photo turned out.

That’s why we added the nearest thing – the marsh mallow. This plant was the source of marshmallow, the sticky confection used in cakes  and now mostly replaced by other sweet sticky stuff, still called marshmallow. Yet it’s the hairy relatives of the marsh mallow that are more widely cultivated.

Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)
Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)

The marsh mallow Althea officinalis is a plant that lives in marshes and is one of the mallow family – that is why it came to be known as marsh mallow –  but it also be grown in gardens and the Living Field has a few individuals in its Medicinals collection. The name officinalis indicates its use by the apothecary, in this case as a poultice, something to put on wounds. The plant has a darkness about it, the not-quite-white flowers never without a purplish tinge spreading up from the base, but  its value to people over the ages is unquestioned.

This mallow family has many other useful plants in it, notably two  that are valuable because of their fibres. Cotton and kapok are from warm countries and, unusual among the fibre plants, produce the fibrous material around their seeds, whereas most commercial fibre plants produce it in their stems. Cotton is now grown worldwide, over more area than any other fibre crop. Kapok is less familiar – the fibres used to be stuffed in pillows and furniture – but most kapok now sold is artificial, not made from the plant, but still called kapok.

The flowers of these plants are similar, the parts arranged in ‘fives’. (The specific name of kapok is Ceiba pentandra). But plants of the mallow family differ in many other aspects. Mallows in Britain are small or large perennial herbs, the marsh mallow reaching one and half to two metres; cotton can reach two to three metres; but the kapok is a big tree. An example is shown at the lower left of the images above, the red flowers colouring the outer branches of the tree, this one near Mandalay in Burma.

There is more on cotton and kapok on the living Field’s new Fibres pages, part of the 5000 years project.

 

 

Seeded oatcakes with bere meal

A recipe by for oatcakes made with wholemeal flour, rolled oats and bere meal, with a few extras.

Ingredients

90 g bere meal
50 g wholemeal flour
140 g porridge oats
1 teaspoon sugar, 8 twists of black pepper
1 large teaspoon salt
10 g butter or margarine (optional)
75 ml good oil like olive oil or Scottish rapeseed oil
Experiment with seeds like black onion seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, golden linseed – just a handful.
Boiling water (variable)

What to do

Heat the oven to 160-170 degrees C and grease a large baking tray.

Add the dry ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Add the chopped butter and mix in by hand, as if you were making pastry. Add the oil and then mix together using a spoon or by hand.

Add boiling water, a small amount at a time until the mix comes together as a round ball. Flour the surface and roll out the dough to about 1 or 2 mm. Using a plastic or metal cutter, cut rounds and place them on a baking tray.

Bake for 20 minutes then turn over and bake for a further 10 minutes.

Cool the oatcakes and then eat with cheese or humous! Delicious! The above recipe makes about 30 oat cakes.

Comment

Beremeal has a distinctive flavour – along with haggis and whiskey, one of the distinctive tastes of northern cornland. You can replace some of the bere meal if you wish with medium pinhead oatmeal and follow the same instructions.

Alternatives
Try adding a handful of chopped fresh herbs like parsley or thyme instead of seeds.

Beremeal sourced from Barony Mills, Orkney.

Recipe by Grannie Kate

For more on bere barley and crop landraces Bere line – rhymes with hairline