Elderflower Profusion.

It’s a bank holiday here, it’s raining in a fairly gentle manner, the teenagers are (they say) swotting for their exams which begin on Wednesday, and the small girls are sitting behind me watching Horrible Histories on a loop (it’s very funny).

I have nicked somebody’s headphones, for the sake of insulation from Terry Deary’s distracting puns, and am listening to Coldplay. Did you watch the Manchester concert last night? I was fiercely impressed by the spirit of it. It was respectful and uplifting, I thought, and appropriate. Not to even mention that thing Chris Martin does to a piano stool…

Ireland peaks in June. There’s enough sun, enough rain and enough hope of a glorious summer still to come. It’s a feeling so good you (or at least, I) want to bottle it. Which perhaps explains the frantic rush to preserve the scent of elderflowers.

But first, sad news. We had a death in the family. Kombucha with pink elder flowers. Second fermentation.

Alas, poor Scoby died. Or turned mouldy anyway and I, with a massive sigh of relief, held up a DNR notice. So, this bottle which was only marginally enhanced by the addition of pink elderflowers, was officially the last bottle of Kombucha to be fermented in this house.

Ever.

Phew.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First, a quick note on Elderflowers (Sambuca nigra). I have a young plant in the garden of a pink variety called Black Lace which has a lovely cut leaf and pink flower. I have been advised, however, that another variety called Black Beauty has a darker pink flower and makes and even darker cordial so that’s one to look out for at the garden centre. I was willing to sacrifice only a half dozen or so heads from our little plant so most of these recipes were made with bog standard wild Elderflower foraged from the river bank where we walk the dog. The rule of thumb is to take only what you can reach from the ground and leave the remainder for the bees and birds. The scent of Elderflower is potent; you don’t need much. And, it’s nice to go back for elderberries to make Autumn Pudding.

Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is the book of the moment. It is a goldmine of recipes for anything you might forage, find or foster in your garden. If you want to sample some of the recipes, many have been included in Darina’s column in The Examiner (known locally as de paper) over the years. I’ve linked to those posts where I could find the relevant recipes.

I was pleased to discover that Elderflower Fizz (or Elderflower Champagne, same thing) counts as a fermented drink. Wahoo!

Drink up, it’s positively good for you.

It’s also dead easy to make although I have been warned that it is notoriously prone to spontaneous nocturnal explosion.

Elderflower fizz, or champagne.

The recipe says to wait two weeks but I suspect we will be popping a bottle before then. Can you see the fizz already ?! The recipe is here.Elderflower fizz.

The Fizz needs fairly rapid consumption so, for longer keeping, we made Elderflower Cordial. This was made with wild elderflowers and just one pink head added for a hint of colour.

Elderflower cordial.

With an abundance of elderflowers to hand we also made some Elderflower Medicinal Vinegar according to the recipe in Rebecca Sullivan’s Natural Home Book (reviewed, here). It’s really just apple cider vinegar with flowers in it. I have no idea what this might be good for, other the just admiring the prettiness of it. On that account I insisted on adding a few rose petals.Elderflower medicinal vinegar.

It does make me feel better, just to look at it.

Aaah, just came to Fix You. I loved that last night. Great choice.

So. Gooseberries.

I wasn’t really keeping an eye on them, it’s been wet and I wasn’t in the garden for a few days and then, wham, all of a sudden, the bushes were hanging to the ground with the weight of the berries. A proper bumper crop. I donned a protective long-sleeved denim shirt (don’t approach a gooseberry bush without one, says the voice of experience), brought a chair over, and a cup of coffee and picked and topped and tailed for ages and ages.

Picking gooseberries.

Those bushes sure don’t part easily with their fruit. I was impaled by several award-worthy thorns for my efforts.IMG_7436

Worth it though. Someone asked me recently how I know when the gooseberries are ready. According to the oracle that is Darina Allen, they are ready to cook with when you see the elderflowers blooming. I think they are ready when you can see the seeds though the skin or, in this case, when the bush can’t hold them up any longer. Or, they are probably ready when they are big enough to block out the sun.

Gooseberry big enough to block out the sun.

I only picked from the first to crop of our three bushes but had something in the region of 8 lbs of fruit and more to come. Eeek.

Darina Allen. Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

My first 4lb of gooseberries went to make Elderflower Gooseberry Compote. I love faffing about with a bit of muslin. Makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the kitchen at Longbourn. The recipe is here.

Gooseberry compote.

A word of caution here: I doubled the recipe but later realised that I need not have doubled the quantity of water. The result was a compote that was definitely too watery. I strained off some of the excess syrup and put it to good use. Here’s my very complex recipe:

Just add gin.

Elderflower and gooseberry gin cocktail.

SO good.

Onwards and jamwards. The recipe for Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam is here. I think it is my favourite jam ever but I tend to have exactly that thought every time I make jam. I actually don’t eat much jam. When I treat myself to toast, I like to savour the salty butter, but this jam is incredible in place of raspberry jam in this coconut pudding.

Elderflower and gooseberry jam.

With a boost of confidence (doubtless from the cocktail), I embarked on Elderflower Fritters. Something that Darina Allen does consistently in her books is tell you that you CAN do things and make things and, since the woman simply brooks no argument, you do.

These look wildly impressive. Well, I think they do. Elderflower Fritters.

Other than having to heat a pan of oil which always makes me nervous (I don’t have, or want, a deep fat fryer), they are easy peasy to make.

The recipe is here.

One flower head per person would be an appropriate serving.

Elderflower Fritters with Gooseberry Compote and whipped cream.

I’m not going to tell you how many I ate.

We’re not far from London or Manchester. As it happens, my in-laws flew into London on Friday night. What happens there could happen here. Geographical and cultural proximity makes it all the more horrifying. The layers of immunity are, one by one, being stripped away. It gets scarier. And then you think, to be scared is to let them win. To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it.

Whatever happens, life goes on. Gooseberries ripen. Elderflowers wilt. All we can do, I think, is keep our chins up and keep living.

If you want your spine tingled, try this:

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I’m delighted to join in the celebration of all things glorious in the garden Old House in the Shires.

Oldhouseintheshires

Cooking the Books: Fish For Friday by Frank O’Connor.

Cooking the Books: this month it’s Revolutionary Cod with Cork man Frank O’Connor.

Frank O’Connor, born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, is a writer who resides close to the hearts of Irish people simply because, for very many of us, his short story ‘First Confession’ was our first brush with great literature.

A boy of seven, searching for his bearings in the pitch dark of a confessional, locates the shelf where penitent adults might rest their elbows. He imagines the shelf is for kneeling on and clambers up, telling us he was always a competent climber, from which height he must hang upside down in order to address the bemused priest behind the grille.

As a child of ten or so, I pitched off my school chair in hysterical relief that I wasn’t alone in my fear of mortal sin, or mortal embarrassment, within the shady confines of the confession box. Click to read on, please.

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Frank O’Connor. Fish For Friday and A Revolutionary Cod.

 

Adventures in Fermenting.

Fermented Food has a bad name. Literally, I mean it’s just not the most appetising of concepts. Sun dried food, for instance, sounds fabulous. Caramelized, similarly, has a good ring to it. Deep fried is fine, salted should be okay, confit is superb and even pickle is good but fermented, nope, it’s just not that appealing.

I studied microbiology in a University at the forefront of research into probiotics but, to my shame, most of what I learned went into a box in the attic and it is only recently that I have become seriously interested in fermented foods.

We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of realising the health benefits of consuming good quality fermented foods. It’s not just our gut flora that stands to benefit but even our mental health. I’ve just started researching this so you can expect to find me waffling at length. I’m putting a shout out here to anybody with fermenting experience or wisdom to share. Help me; I want to learn!

My kitchen now has more microbial experimentation going on than my laboratory desk ever had.

The sourdough adventure began after last year’s trip to Litfest when I came home with a starter from Riot Rye. Approximately fifty loaves of bread later, I am getting close to something truly good. I’m still not getting the really big air pockets that I’m after but the crust is fantastic. IMG_7138

The banneton proofing basket I bought in Ballymaloe gives those glorious concentric circles. I get a real kick out of using traditional tools that make a good job of something. I have a pair of wooden paddles for rolling butter into balls that make me grin from ear to ear. Simple pleasures.

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Also in the above picture is a fresh starter from Arbutus breads which seemed to give my culture a boost.

I made my first sauerkraut when I was reviewing Rebecca Sullivan’s book (The Art of The Natural Home, review here). Can you see all the bubbles rising? It was very exciting to hear the pop when I opened the jar every morning to ‘burp’ it. I did NOT expect to like sauerkraut. I’d never eaten it before but this didn’t taste sour or cabbage-watery as I feared it might. It was more of a nice, crunchy salad with a bit of tang. Also, I thought this huge jar would last for months but no, we ate it all in a couple of days.IMG_6795Rebecca Sullivan. The Art of the Natural Home.

Rebecca’s book also had a recipe for making Kombucha so I had my eye out for a starter at Litfest and, yes, I found one. Here it is in the company of some fine cocktails.IMG_7103 (2)

Now, I have hit what may be an insurmountable problem. I don’t like it. I don’t like the taste of tea and I don’t like the taste of beer and this stuff, to me, smells like  the cart of empty beer bottles that I used to have to sort into crates on Saturday mornings. Eeugh. Any advice? I’m willing to knock it back medicinally but I’d rather find a way to make a pleasant version.IMG_7174

I’m in the process of reviewing a brand new book from Kristin and Christopher Shockey.IMG_7347

Unlike most cookbooks I review, nothing in this one is familiar. It’s all a journey into the unknown which I LOVE! I love learning, I really do.

The first thing I made was a basic chilli mash. This stuff is fantastic; I can’t get enough of it. We’ve probably added it to every second dinner for the past fortnight and I’m on the hunt for chillis on special offer. Again, can you see the bubbles? I’m not sure why I find that SO exciting.IMG_6865

Fermented ginger, fermented carrots and, wait for this, rhubarb kimchi. The kimchi has been a huge hit. Husband made up a second batch yesterday as we have run out. IMG_6861 (2)

Figuring out exactly how to eat these foods has been another learning curve. This dinner of pork meatballs with kimchi, fermented carrots and fermented ginger was incredibly tasty and satisfying.IMG_7170

I’ve been having the carrots with my lunch most days. This picture also shows the fermented mustard from Fiery Ferments. It’s made with lots of white peppercorns for extra heat and is, honestly, the most delicious mustard I can remember tasting. The book is good too (review coming soon).IMG_7134

I’ve had a slow growing theory of happiness growing in my head for the last few years which is based on the word satisfaction. I think that our lives, in many large and small ways, have changed beyond how we have biologically evolved to live. Our evolution, in other words, has been outstripped by the developments of modern life.

For this reason, I think, we are never satisfied. We spend hours trawling shoe shops that we once would have spent foraging (that’s my theory anyway). We buy ready-washed, ready-chopped vegetables in plastic bags where once we would have had the satisfaction of watching them grow and ripen. We accept the convenience of high sugar, high fat processed foods but they don’t quell our cravings; they don’t satisfy us. So we eat more.

We’ve done ourselves out of the labour, the learning, the patient waiting, the process of making food, all of which are ingredients in the satisfaction of it. We’ve made it almost impossible to reach that point where we feel yes, I have had sufficient, my appetite has been sated.

There is lots of science now behind the benefits of fermented foods but I think there’s more to it than even that. Taking two days to make a loaf of bread, or two weeks to make a filling for the sandwich, is hardly what could be considered practical. But, it’s flipping satisfying. And there’s a taste, I can’t pin it down but I’m certain of it, there’s a taste that hits a spot in my brain and the only word I can find for it is satisfaction.

I did warn you about impending waffling, didn’t I? Tell me what you think.

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Talking About Food.

I think I said too much.

There was a long, very long, time in my life when I said basically nothing. I held it all inside. I was the very epitome of ‘bottled up’. And then I started writing and it was like all sorts of fizzy stuff rose to the top and spluttered out from under the cap. Mainly here.

It feels good, a release valve and all that, but this weekend I found myself in a writing workshop and that bottle got properly shaken up and I may have made a complete fool of myself.

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The event was labelled as a FOOD writing workshop and I, in my innocence, thought we might be asked to brainstorm effective adjectives to describe cheesecake, or instructed on international standards of measurement. Remember, I studied SCIENCE! Our lab write-ups were not expected to stir the emotions. We weren’t required to read them aloud to an expectant circle of fellow scientists who might comment on our choice of the word incubate over cook, dispense over pour or centrifuge over stir vigorously. 

Nope. No lists at all of handy adjectives, nor tables nor graphs, nor even rules about Oxford commas, and the minute I saw those chairs arranged in a CIRCLE I knew I was in Trouble.

Our first task was to write a poem.

Dear God, I thought, are they serious? We had five minutes to choose from some vaguely culinary objects placed on a table, and then another ten minutes, or so, to compose a poem.

This was immediately followed by the sheer terror of realisation that I would have to read it aloud.

People are lovely. The kindness of strangers is such a reassuring thing. There were eleven of us: 5 Irish, 1 English, 3 American and, bizarrely, 2 unrelated Mexicans. What was striking, I suppose, was that despite disparate backgrounds and various motivations, everyone immersed themselves in the experience and went with it. There was no place to hide. Everyone, every single person, was kind and generous.  The teachers/ facilitators/ counselors, Regina Sexton and Jools Gilson, were patient and insightful and, thankfully, funny. It felt more like therapy than school. Seriously, not like science, not even a little bit. I can’t even tell whether or not I learned anything.

The reward for reading a poem aloud came in the form of a break, with tall pots of coffee and buttery shortbread hearts served by ladies in navy uniforms and white broderie anglaise trimmed aprons. Nice.

But, the respite was short-lived and the second task did the shaking. We were asked to write a recipe, but not really a recipe, more a memoir piece with food, or a recipe, at its core. You see the danger here, don’t you?

I was already brimming with endorphins and charged with caffeine. I sat facing the wall in the same corner where I had written the poem and I was crying before I reached the first full stop.

Spill, spill, spill. A memory on a page. Tears and snot all over the place.

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In my defence, I wasn’t the only one. It’s fascinating to me how much emotion is bound up in our memories of food. Or, on the other hand, how much food we even remember.

Dorcas Barry gave a talk on Saturday about the idea of emotional nourishment. Apparently, when we experience a happy, joyful, meal with family or friends, we experience a rush of oxytocin which not only aids digestion but has incredible health benefits. Oxytocin drastically reduces our risk of heart disease, even in the face of a toxic diet. There’s even science to prove it.

Now, here’s the thing, when we REMEMBER that lovely, happy meal with loved ones, we get exactly the same PHYSICAL rush of oxytocin and the same protective effect, even at a distance of years or decades from the actual plate of food. So, when the kids share a good laugh over passing all their sprouts to my plate, or a potato that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, they are creating memories that will, literally, protect their hearts, over and over again, for the rest of their lives. And when we sit down on Christmas Eve and remember all the other Christmases, we are laying down a barrier against all the goose fat we are about to consume. Isn’t that amazing?

It seems to me, and I would love to know if anyone out there knows more about this, that we have evolved so that people who reminisce, recall, read, talk and write (even terrible poetry) about food actually have a better chance of survival. Hah! I feel I have found the ultimate justification for all my waffling.

I’d like to mention two fellow (and FAR superior) bloggers from the workshop.

Kathy writes Gluts and Gluttony, a beautifully written blog about growing and cooking food in the Cotswolds.

Lily writes A Mexican Cook, in her friendly, cheerful, authentic voice, about Mexican food and how to cook it in Ireland.

Litfest17 was a blast. I was still spilling words all days Saturday, asking stupid questions of bemused celebrity chefs and gushing idiotically in my excitement at meeting some of my heroes.

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Brian McGinn, producer of Chef’s Table, talks about how to tell food stories. ‘Once you’ve had a scone in Ballymaloe House in the morning,  with the jam and the butter and everything, you’re like, shit, when can I have more scones and, hey, what other scones are out there?’
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Rebecca Sullivan who, in real life, is just as warm and passionate as her book made me believe. She hardly mentioned The Art of the Natural Home and spoke, instead, about the preservation of native Australian foods. A beautiful person.
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RTE’s John Bowman hosts a foodie special of Questions and Answers, with Rory O’Connell, Michael Kelly and Joanne Blytheman.

 

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A very proud Granny watches Willow Xena singing on stage.

And the food, oh God, we could be here for hours but my oxytocin levels might reach dangerous heights.

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Fingal Ferguson, charcutier and knife-maker, struggles to balance cooking with the demands of celebrity.
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#flaggy shore oysters
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Gaelic Escargots anyone? I’m afraid I was NOT brave enough. Maybe next year.
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Source of a mouth-watering Lamington square for ‘second breakfast’.

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‘Roll up, roll up, cme get your oxytocin here!’
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The maker of the best Cacciocavallo Toastie in the land (first lunch). Be still my heart.
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Happy as clams (second lunch).
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The spoils. A Kombucha starter, a sourdough starter from Arbutus, an unbelievable syrup for gin cocktails and a thingymabob for holding dough.

Yes, yes, I know, I can’t NOT put it in. It’s nothing much. You’ll wonder now, what all the fuss was about.

How To Cook Eggs.

It was the way she made eggs for me, in the morning or maybe for lunch.

Always the same ancient saucepan, the enamel worn off it and a handle that would brand you if you didn’t know how to position it just right on the orange-glowing electric coil.

She would count in the eggs, two for me and two for her, and pour water from the tap, just enough to cover them, and cook them then, at a gently knocking simmer, until they were exactly right.

No timers or gadgets, just somehow knowing when they were done, with the white white, not snotty, and the yolk still having a bit of run to it.

What I remember best are the sounds. The crack of the spoon against the eggshell, the scooping out of the egg into a cup, then a quick clinking stir with a knob of butter and a pinch of salt until it was amalgamated together into golden, endlessly comforting, googy eggs.IMG_7034

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Crystallised Flowers.

crystallized flowers.

And breathe.

Last week was a bit nuts. I interviewed Darina Allen (Genie Mac, I can still hardly believe that really happened), published what is without doubt my favourite of my Cooking The Books projects so far ( I truly adore that book) and, AND saw my name in print, for the first time, in a magazine.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017.

 

Actually, I have been published before. My last publication was in 1997, in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiolgy, and looked like this:

A Mutant of Listeria monocytogenes LO28 Unable To Induce an Acid Tolerance Response Displays Diminished Virulence in a Murine Model
LYNDA MARRON,1 NATHAN EMERSON,1 CORMAC G. M. GAHAN,1,2 AND COLIN HILL1,2* Microbiology Department1 and The National Food Biotechnology Centre,2 University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
Received 27 June 1997/Accepted 25 August 1997
Exposing Listeria monocytogenes LO28 to sublethal pH induces protection against normally lethal pH conditions, a phenomenon known as the acid tolerance response. We identified a mutant, L. monocytogenes ATR1, which is incapable of inducing such tolerance, either against low pH or against any other stress tested. The virulence of this mutant was considerably decreased, suggesting that the acid tolerance response contributes to in vivo survival of L. monocytogenes.

Feel free to indulge in the full article here. Are we still awake?

I’ll put it on the record here that L. monocytogenes LO28 nearly killed me. I so desperately wanted to be scientist and I really thought I could be. I was really good at learning stuff but it turned out that I wasn’t very good at the nitty gritty of discovering stuff and that flipping bug refused, stubbornly, for three stinking years, to do what it was supposed to do. Anyway, I think we can agree that my more recent publications are a good deal prettier and probably more useful too.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017. Sultanabun.

That’s Mark Diacono, by the way, of River Cottage and Otter Farm fame, who’s sharing my page! My only grip is that they never used that bio pic that Middle Daughter and I went to such great lengths to produce.

Sticking with a theme of prettiness, I want to share the method I used to make those crystallised flowers on top of my ultimate chocolate cake (for recipe see Cooking The Books, here).

The ultimate chocolate cake.

Fittingly, the method is from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course book but she shares it in this Easter Baking post from the Irish Examiner. (Honest to God, the good people at Ballymaloe are not paying me to advertise for them!)

crystallized flowers

Crystallising  flowers is not difficult, only a little fiddly. You simply paint the flowers gently with egg white and then sprinkle them with very dry caster sugar (dried in a low oven to make sure). The flowers should then be allowed to dry in a warm place.

You can learn from my mistakes: I grew impatient (a perennial flaw of mine) and stuck my flowers into my oven at the very lowest setting. It worked well enough but the colour was dulled and they lost their vibrancy.

Teenage Daughter made a much better job of hers. The Small Girl made some too but ate them before she could be asked to pose for a photograph.

crystallized flowers.

Teenage Daughter has the practical part of her Junior Cert Home Economics exam today. Her task (it’s a lottery) is to make a main course and a dessert from fresh fruit or vegetables. Her dessert will be her own variation of Lilli Higgins carrot cake , this time making one layer carrot and one of courgette cake – it really works! We’ve been eating it on a regular basis for the last few weeks while she practised. My expanding waistline is evidence of my daughter’s diligence. It’s a delicious cake and she will decorate it with this icing and her gorgeous flowers.

I’ll collect her later on with all her bowls and paraphernalia and, fingers crossed, a successful cake with just one neat sliver eaten by the examiner!

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The Ultimate Chocolate Cake and an Extraordinary Book.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

My small girl was born half-strangled, the umbilical cord wrapped four times around her neck. Unlike the birth days of my other children, it’s not a memory I like to revisit. What-ifs crowded so closely against reality that I can’t think about what happened without also re-living the nightmare of what nearly happened. My small girl was born on…

Click here to read more.

In Conversation with Darina Allen.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.

How nervous do you think I was about speaking with Darina Allen?

Double that. Husband spent last weekend re-assuring me that we know Darina is a lovely woman. I mostly ignored him and studied every scrap of information I could find, cramming like I haven’t done since, oh let’s see, 1994 or thereabouts. I don’t know why I imagined Darina Allen would be inclined to quiz me but I was determined that I should not be found wanting.

I may apply for Mastermind now, specialist subject, ‘Ballymaloe 1964-present.’

Interviewing Darina Allen.

Well, yes, he was right. He usually is.

Darina Allen couldn’t have been nicer. She was generous with her time, informative and, to be honest, downright inspiring. She reminds me of all the best teachers I ever had. The ones who truly scared the living daylights out of me, not because of any threats of punishment but because their expectations were so high.

Darina Allen’s gift is that, like all great teachers, she will make you believe you can do better.

Read the full interview by clicking here.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.
Darina Allen at home in her 100 acre organic farm. Credit for photo: Kristin Perers.

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