In my daftest musings I imagine I could get by quite well on a Scottish west coast ‘desert island’. Truth is I might survive on summer low tide beach foraging but the long cold dark wet winter and a diet of limpets, perish the thought and me.
Driving across the south of Germany and through the Alps provides a sense of the scale of the challenge of squirreling away stores for the winter. Tightly packed log piles and huge farm houses capable of housing farmer, food and stock.
These are people historically well versed in providing for the needs of family and animals through the barren and snow bound months.
I suspect most of us city and town dwellers would not survive a winter if the Tesco or Lidl crop failed and we could not get our green beans from Kenya or Peru.
My attempts to provide for myself in Germany have been weedy.
Our north facing mini-garden has provided a sprinkling of the most hardy and tolerant flavourings but not sufficient substance for a single meal. Parsley, Mint, Horseradish, Thyme, Rosemary, Chillies, Basils and Chives have survived and in some cases thrived through neglect. The only skills required for most of these is damage limitation, cutting back to prevent them from taking over the mean little garden.
Days spent foraging in Baden-Württemberg and Alsace have been great fun but less fruitful than 10 minutes in Lidl fighting with the cheerless cross-border French shoppers.
The floodplain of the Rhine is one enormous sweetcorn plantation. (I know, but I cannot think of it as Maize.)
In late summer it provides 7 foot high wind breaks for the occasional breezy cycling day. In autumn the corn is stacked into wire frames that become great corn-walls.
I have yet to determine the destination for this huge crop, fodder, bio fuel, tuna sandwiches or bait for carp anglers.
The landmark trees that break up this dull mono-culture are the walnuts. Last year’s harvest was reasonably successful and foraging along canal cycle paths in Alsace provided for Waldorf salads into the late spring.
This year the crop was a disappointment for me, and a disaster for those who livelihood depends on it. The walnut fly is being blamed, a pest first found in Germany only in 2004. The intermittent wet/dry weather is also reported to have allowed the development of fungus. Less than 5 % of the nuts I packed home in the bike panniers were edible, the commercial harvest a complete failure.
My last hope for winter supplies was the sweet chestnut. An exotic treat for a northerner. The Vosges mountains have fine chestnut forests established immediately above the last of the vines.
2011 was a good year, roast chestnuts a delight. I was less successful with my chestnut flour that I recall is, or was, a staple in Corsica. I failed to dry sufficiently the hard-won flour and it very quickly turned from white to mouldy pinks and greens.
This year, just like the walnuts, the crop, in this part of Alsace at least, appears to have failed. The many nuts, small, dry and often still white.
We are being warned of the extent to which climate change is affecting and will increasingly limit our food supplies.
The British Forestry Commission reports, “With a recent increase in findings of new pests and diseases, it is clear that Britain’s trees are facing unprecedented threats. Our science indicates that climate change will create the conditions for even more pest and disease activity.”
On 13th October 2012 The Guardian reported:
UN warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013
• Global grain reserves hit critically low level
• Extreme weather means climate ‘is no longer reliable’
• Rising food prices threaten disaster and unrest
My slender hopes of self-sufficiency lie in the return of a salmon or two to this part of the Rhine and its unfortunately named tributaries the Ill and the Fecht.
We are at present, in the western world at least, far from the hardships described by Norman Lewis in Naples ’44, where the starving but resourceful population had resorted to eating the tropical fish and the baby manatee from the aquarium. Notably they avoided eating the dogfish if they could.
The dogfish is not the only fish safe in a famine. Even an early death from starvation will be immeasurably preferable to a diet of muddy carp or chub that crowd the still largely salmonid free rivers of Alsace and Baden-Württemberg.
So here’s hoping it is a good season for being self-sufficient at Lidl.