gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

natural dyes

colorsoftheforestThe more natural dyeing I do, the more I fall in love with the colors I can achieve — or “discover,” I think, is a better word for it — this way. They’re subtle and soft, never harsh. It’s as if they have a story to tell. Those are the kinds of colors I’ve always gravitated towards anyway in my wardrobe and in my home… or, goodness, even in the design of this blog.

And now, when I look at the color palette from the last few days’ dye work at a Finnish lakeside cottage, I realize it’s a very familiar range. Where else have I seen the mossy greens, the purple browns, the soft yellows and greys? All around me, in fact. These yarns have captured the colors of the Nordic forests. The pine bark that goes from grey to a rich warm brown the higher up the trunk you go. The big ice-age rocks covered by grey moss and lichen. The soft, subdued pinks of heather blossoms. The rich range of greens on the forest floor. Fallen pine needles and cones in a range of browns and silvers. The vibrant yellows of chanterelles hidden underneath the grass, waiting to be discovered.

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As I hinted at in my blueberry post, I also tried dyeing with blueberries (yes, the actual berries this time). The end result was surprising. I had been expecting pink or purple, or maybe even blueish tones. But the yarn emerged from the vat smokey purple — a complex, shimmering grey or brown or purple, depending on the light and how you look at it. As it happens, this is one of my favorite colors and one I always get compliments for when I wear it. How appropriate that this is the color that my favorite berry makes on wool in the dyer’s magic pot!  IMG_2166

From left to right: tansy on alum mordant; tansy on rhubarb leaf mordant; juniper with iron afterbath; birch with iron afterbath; heather with iron afterbath; blueberry on alum mordant; blueberry on iron mordant.

This is the best part about the Scandinavian summer, if you ask me. Nothing beats eating the summer’s first handful of ripe wild blueberries fresh from the woods. When the sun is shining and the forest floor is blue with tiny blue berries, a self-confessed berry addict like me will easily spend an hour or two in the woods, just picking and eating, picking and eating, till my fingers are blue and purple.

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There’s been a lot of debate in the media about the so-called superfoods lately. In the Finnish media, nutritional experts have pointed out — and I agree — that it’s quite silly to spend a lot of money on imported goji berries when our domestic wild blueberry is just as packed with amazing nutrients, and is locally and freely available. In addition to vitamins, fiber, and minerals, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any fruit, including anthocyanins, which give the berries their characteristic shades of blue and purple. Blueberries may improve memory, lower blood pressure, protect eye health, and reduce the risk of heart disease. A couple of handfuls of these per day — that’s a health recommendation that I will happily follow!

When I return to the cottage with my little bucket heavy with the goods, I store some of the berries to be enjoyed with yogurt and granola for breakfast the next day. Blueberries can also be used for dyeing — more about that later! Today’s harvest, though, went into a berry pie that I make every single summer. The recipe is one that my mother found in a magazine, maybe in the 80s, and I want to share it with you today because it’s the perfect summery berry pie.

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You can use any mix of fresh berries you like. I always use at least some blueberries. The special ingredient in the filling is kermaviili, a Finnish low-fat 12% fermented sour cream, but since that’s not available in most places, it can be substituted with regular sour cream.

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The ultimate summer berry pie

Crust:

  • 150 g butter, softened
  • 1 dl (0.4 cups) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) flour
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Filling:

  • 2 dl (1.2 cups) kermaviili or regular sour cream
  • 1/2 dl (3.5 tbsp) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla sugar
  • half a liter (1 pint) fresh berries of your choice (blueberries, currants, raspberries, strawberries)

For serving:

  • vanilla sauce (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 C (390 F). Whisk the butter and sugar together in a bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg and the flours and baking powder. Mix until the consistency is even, then spread onto the bottom and sides of a buttered, 10- or 12-inch pie dish.

Pour the berries of your choice onto the crust (sprinkle with some sugar if they are a little tart).

Mix the filling ingredients together and pour on top of the berries. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Serve with vanilla sauce and enjoy!

This summer, I’m working on a permaculture design for the small farm that’s been in our family for almost 100 years and that now belongs to my aunt. This is where I spent all my childhood summers, so it’s quite a wonderful process working with and re-acquainting myself with this land. And, as you’ll see, it is here that one might find the seed of all that I document on Gather and Grow. My father’s generation, even us as kids, grew up taking many of the practices of self-sufficiency for granted: growing and gathering and preserving much of their food, repairing and reusing and making do, knowing how to make things by hand.

IMG_2049During my visits, my aunt and I have coffee and talk about the history of the farm and our family. She’s done a great job preserving many of the traditions of the farm — stories and customs, but also old keepsakes and artifacts from past generations. Kitchen utensils, butter churn, sleds, farming tools. Family photos. Or — what especially captures the interest of a fiber buff like me — old spinning and weaving tools that my grandmother and great-grandmother used, back when these fields grew flax for linen and sheep for wool and my great-grandmother was known as a prize-winning spinner. We even found an old hackling board from 1906, for processing flax, and balls of fine, hand-spun linen thread.

But the treasure I want to share with you today is something else: my grandmother’s notebook from when she went to a “farm wife school” in 1947! Watch out, Mother Earth News and Encyclopedia of Country Living — for this is the true compendium of what a self-sufficient smallholder would need to know, from starting a garden and propagating plants to building fences and making soap and caring for clothes and shoes. All meticulously noted down in elegant hand-writing and precise drawings and charts.

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It’s priceless, really. And all the more bittersweet because my grandmother, though still living, is steadily losing her memory. Keepsakes such as this notebook may be one of the few ways in which we can tap into what she once learned and what kept the family fed and clothed and sheltered for decades, even when times were hard.

I suppose Gather and Grow is my own, cyber-age version of a notebook like this?

Though I’ve been working with natural dyes for several years now, ironically I’ve never done it in the place whose native plants I know better than any other — in my Nordic country of origins, Finland. I learned this art in my adopted homeland, the States, and am more familiar with how the plants that grow there — or exotic dyes like indigo and brazilwood — behave in a dye pot than with the plants that lined my childhood paths through meadows and forests.

But now that I’m in Finland for an extended visit of several weeks, I’ve been able to heat up a big enamel pot borrowed from my aunt and fill it with the plants I’d recognize in my sleep. I’ve also been able to work in the most gorgeous outdoor dyeing studio you could imagine: my dad’s grilling shed, with a view of the lake.

I collected all the plants from our land, in some cases literally steps from where I put them into the pot. Blueberry (just the twigs for now, I’m going to try the berries themselves once they ripen in the woods)…nordicnaturals

White birch (Betula pendula) branches are most commonly gathered in the summer to make vihta, a bouquet of tender birch branches for the sauna. And although I collected mine for the dye bath, it turns out that boiling birch leaves gives off the exact same incredible fragrance as vihta in the sauna! Just breathing in the steam gets me so relaxed. The leaves make yellow to bright green dye; birch bark yields reddish shades.

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Heather (Calluna vulgaris) grows everywhere in these sandy-soiled pine forests. If you collect them just as the tiny pink buds are about to open, you’ll get a range of yellows on alum-mordanted yarn. The results may be different during a different season, or using just the branches.

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Juniper (Juniperus communis) has really sharp needles! You can collect the branches for dyeing, or later also the berries. I used the branches, but the color was a very light beige, not that remarkable.

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Lingonberry and lichen were also two new plants to try that grow plentifully around here. There are hundreds of varieties of lichen, of course. The ones I tried yielded an orange-brown color; same also for the lingonberry.

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Six skeins in about three days (all alum-mordanted wool — really lovely Finnsheep wool from Riihivilla). From left to right: lichen, juniper, heather, birch leaves, blueberry twigs, lingonberry twigs.

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Mild colors. It makes me wonder if these are the lukewarm Finnish temperament equivalents of the dramatic, strong hues of warmer places — South American cochineal or Indian indigo? Just kidding.. most plants around the world yield yellows and beiges. I’m going to keep experimenting. As I do so, I’m learning tons from some really impressive Finnish natural dyeing resources online (with English translations, much of the time, so worth checking out for non-Finns too):

From the sea to the mountains to the lake. I’ve made it to our family cottage by a small lake in Central Finland, and will be spending the next few weeks here. This is our family’s sanctuary, the place where we gather every summer, very close to the farm where my father was born and where my ancestors cultivated this land for hundreds of years. The roots go deep here.IMG_1856 It’s Finnish language immersion for my one-year-old daughter (who is having the time of her life, by the way). For me, it’s immersion in all the sensations and experiences that evoke memories of childhood summers spent in the Finnish countryside: the smell of birch leaves and freshly chopped wood and smoke coming from the sauna chimney; the flavors of new potatoes — just dug out of the ground — with butter and dill, and tiny wild strawberries warmed by the sun; the slow swaying of the tall trunks of pine trees, the nighttime birdsong (for it never really gets dark here this time of the year), the feeling of wet sand beneath my toes at the lake’s edge.IMG_1893 It is here that I get to embrace a more natural way of living — as in, literally close to nature — that’s not possible in my urban rental home in the US. Vast expanses of wild, uninhabited forest spread out from our doorstep. I spend most of the day walking barefoot on duff and rocks and grass. We practice nutrient cycling through composting and humanure. We drink water from the spring that’s on the property.lahde Often, we eat fish caught from the lake the same day, potatoes and salad harvested from the garden, and berries and mushrooms picked in the woods. (Full disclosure: my Dad’s new specialty, “salmon on the plank” below is not such fish. But it sure looked gorgeous in the evening sun and melted in the mouth.)IMG_1887

I have some projects in the works here that I’m really stoked to share with you soon. Stay tuned!

Things were buzzing at the Plattner Bee Museum.

Bees are amazing. The signs swinging in the pine trees at the museum conveyed that the ancient peoples knew this too. Though this may be a disastrous case of lost in translation — since I’m translating them from Italian, without really knowing Italian, and who knows who translated them into Italian in the first place — I can’t resist sharing a couple of them: “The tears of the god Ra are transformed into bees” (an Egyptian saying). “The bee is the spirit which becomes intoxicated with the pollen of knowledge” (an Indian sage — but which one?).

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Most of us know that bees have an astonishingly accurate inner GPS system that helps them to orient themselves as they fly. But did you know that they can also feel the Earth’s magnetic field, and that that helps them to keep track of time, as if they were carrying an inner watch as well? They can also “hear” sound — not with ears, but rather they feel the sound on their whole body, especially with their antennae and body hair. Add to that their ability to make honey, and wax for the best candles in the world, and the work they do in pollinating the plants that become our food… We human beings think of ourselves as beekeepers, but the bees are the real keepers. Which is why the news on the ever-worsening colony collapse disorder (CCD) is so disconcerting (one third of the honeybee population in the US along gone!).

Although the reasons behind the collapse are complex, I’ve heard more than one beekeeping teacher say that the modern ways of beekeeping, including factory-made honeycombs and sugar water feed, are interfering with the bees’ natural way of living and keeping themselves well.

This is partially why I think it’s valuable to learn about ancient beekeeping methods and implements. Among the museum’s display of all the different kinds of beehives that have been used over the centuries, I was most impressed by the ones below that have been woven like baskets — some with little windows even! With their organic shapes, they’re much more successful in mimicking the bees’ natural habitat — hollow trees — than the box-like hives that most beekeepers use today.

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The ancient beekeepers pulled out the honey out of them along with the honeycomb, and had to squeeze out the honey, destroying the honeycomb in the process. (The wax from the comb was used for making candles and canvas.) The invention of the honey extractor in the 1860s allowed the separation of liquid honey while leaving the wax comb intact. And that’s the method that’s still in use, although the modern extractors look a bit different than these antiquarian ones… The honeycombs are placed in the frame basket, and when the handle is rapidly turned, the centrifugal force makes the honey flow outwards and down the spout.

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The museum tour had a sweet ending, as you might expect: you can sample 17 different flavors of honey! Rosemary, coriander, acacia — or my favorite (hands down): the lavender honey. You can then go on to smell all the different kinds of honey and beeswax and bee pollen soaps. I could choose only one bar because I’m living out of one suitcase this summer, and we’re on to our next destination, but it’s a lovely purple-brown propolis soap. I’ll be carrying some of the work of this mountain’s bees with me even as I leave.

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One of my themes for this summer is to learn about the traditional ways of living in these rural places where I’m fortunate to spend my time. For when Dan and I get to build our little self-designed cob or strawbale house (and I say “when” rather than “if” because anything is possible if you believe in it enough, right?), we want to incorporate as many time-tested features for down-to-earth, resilient living as possible. So I’m on a mission to see how our ancestors did it.

No better place to start than the country houses on this mountain, where people survived demanding conditions: cold snowy winters and physical isolation on the mountain, which required a hefty dose of self-sufficiency and can-do attitude.

The oldest house still standing on the mountain — at least 500 years old — is the traditional farmhouse that now houses the Plattner Bee Museum. I’d been there once before, and remembered the beautiful thatched roof proudly peaking on a hill above the village of Wolfsgruben. But I remembered little about the house itself — apparently, I was too focused on sampling the different-flavored honeys and smelling the honey and beeswax soaps. Now it was time for another visit. plattner-17Until 1975, the last remaining members of the family — two strong, wiry elderly sisters — lived here, with no electricity or running water. They grew barley, rye and buckwheat and once a week made the trip barefoot to the nearest city to sell vegetables. The house is preserved as it was then, so it’s an excellent showcase of simple subsistence living on a mountain.

The house still has a traditional thatched roof made of rye straw, complemented with larch shingles. It doesn’t get much more local than that: the rye straw was from the house’s own fields, and the larch shingles from the larches that line the path up the hill. I imagine the stones for the stone walls were also dug up from the surrounding fields. I guess that would be the No. 1 house design tip if you built a house on a mountainside in the year 1500: keep your materials local.

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How did the inhabitants keep warm in the winter? First of all, here, as in traditional houses in many cultures, animals were kept on the bottom floor (where beekeeping implements are now on display). People lived on the second floor, benefiting from the warmth generated by the bodies of the animals, which rose upwards. Also, notice the small windows to minimize loss of heat.

plattner-6A second tip for keeping warm is spending most of the indoor time in the winters in the one room which could be heated, the Stube. It has a masonry oven, a beehive-shaped mound of bricks, which stores heat incredibly well and releases it slowly through the night. A wide shelf was built above the masonry oven — surely the coziest spot in the house on cold winter days and nights!plattner-2The fire was fed from outside in the hallway, so there would be no smoke coming into the Stube. The hallway, on the other hand, was so smoky that the walls are still pitch black — but this was on purpose, as that’s where meat was smoked and cured.

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In the warmth of the Stube, the evenings were spent working on crafts, such as spinning wool and twisting rope (below).plattner-5The kitchen, across the hallway, was wood-heated, of course. It has one of the most ingenious waste management systems I’ve seen: a chute underneath a window, which allows discarding compost waste directly onto the compost pile underneath — or possibly for the pigs which were kept directly below this window. Cooking water went the same way, down a little dent in the chute. No need for trash bins or compost hauling trips!

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What’s remarkable about these mountains of South Tirol is that much of the farming is still done using traditional methods and manual labor, because many of the mountainside fields are simply too steep for large machinery. Over these weeks of June, we’ve seen so many farmers, wearing their traditional blue aprons, cutting and bundling hay for their animals with scythes and rakes.

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Oh yes, and the house is now a bee museum. There were bees. And honey. And lots of learning about traditional beekeeping methods. More about that next time!

In honor of midsummer, I have for you a recipe for the perfect summer drink, should you be so lucky as to find elderberry bushes where you live.

The elderflower (Holunderblüten) cordial is something I always associate with these mountains of Central Europe. I first tasted it when I was on a solo train tour of Europe in my early twenties, and arrived at the house of my Austrian friends living outside of Salzburg just when they were in the process of bottling enormous quantities of elderflower syrup. We mixed it with bubbly water. I’d never tasted anything quite like it — so sweet and delicate and aromatic. Dan and his brother remember their grandmother serving them the same beverage when they first visited this mountain house at age twelve, and it made a similarly lasting impression on them.

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The elder trees grow abundantly here along the paths in hedgerows and woodlands. Right now, at midsummer, they are filled with the delicate, lace-like, fragrant flowers. To make this cordial, simply gather about 25-30 flower heads on a dry warm day, just when the tiny buds have opened. Be sure to leave some flowers on the trees for elderberry picking later on.elderflower-2

In fact, what an amazing plant! I’ve written before about other uses for the elderberry tree: elderflower pancakes and elderberry syrup for colds. Many people swear by the medicinal properties of elderberry; it’s also long been used for making country wine. The berries also make a really beautiful dye, with hues ranging from pink to lavender and purple. The flowers can be used in jam, sherbet… Or how about this elderflower lemon cake? (Hmm. I may just have to give it a try this weekend.)

I happened to find an old book on trees on a bookshelf here. It may have belonged to Dan’s grandmother. And what do I find in it but a section on elder trees?IMG_1667

Here’s the recipe for the cordial. Gather for free from nature, follow a few simple steps, and enjoy!

Elderflower cordial

  • About 30 large elder flowerheads
  • zest of 3 lemons and 1 orange (unwaxed), plus their juice
  • 1.5 liters/6.5 cups of water
  • 1 kg/2.2 lbs sugar
  • 1 headed tsp of citric acid

Place the flower heads in a large bowl or pot along with the citrus zest. Bring water to boil and pour it over the flowers, leave to infuse for a few hours or overnight.elderflower-3

The next day, strain the liquid by pouring it through cheese cloth or the equivalent into a saucepan. Pour in the sugar and the citric acid, then stir while heating until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil for a couple of minutes, then cool. Funnel into glass bottles (sterilized if you will be storing the syrup for a long time).

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Happy midsummer!

We’ve made our way from the sea to the mountains. The Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy, to be precise. We’re in South Tirol, Italy’s northernmost province — a meeting point between the Alpine Germanic and the Mediterranean cultures, which is what gives the region its unique character. It’s fully bilingual, with Italian being more commonly spoken in the warmer valley towns and German up on the mountains. The cuisine, too, is a fortunate mix of the best of each — hearty dishes that the Austrians and Germans do well, such as Knödel and Kaiserschmarren and Apfelstrudel , and then the amazing Italian flavors of mozzarella, tomato, olive oil, basil, good bread, gelato…

I probably don’t need to tell you that much of our day revolves around planning our next meal. Especially since mountain air, and hiking up and down these slopes all day, apparently builds up a very healthy appetite.

This is the view that I wake up to in the mornings:IMG_1563IMG_1548

The house we’re staying at belonged to Dan’s great-grandfather, and it’s where his grandmother and her sisters grew up. We’re fortunate that the family has been able to keep the house, as that allows us to come and stay for an extended period — and, this time around, host some good friends up here on the mountain. Our days are spent hiking in the postcard landscapes, always with a coffee break at one of the many Hofs along the way. In the evenings, we cook a meal together and make a fire and play board games or watch a movie.

This is the kind of landscape where you can half expect that, from behind some picturesque rustic fence or old stone wall, the von Trapp children will soon emerge, holding hands and singing songs in matching dirndls. The cows look fat and healthy and happy. The brook runs pristine down the mountain… as it trips and falls over stones on its way… (I’m sorry. Enough with the von Trapps now.) The farmers are out making hay, with traditional blue work aprons, many of them doing the work manually with scythes. The church bells are ringing. The cherry tomatoes are sweet as candy. Everything feels so wholesome, almost to a point where it’s a bit too much.IMG_1569IMG_1572IMG_1532IMG_1618IMG_1588IMG_1625

Until the next day dawns and I get up to go to the bakery for freshly baked muesli buns and I find myself ready, quite ready, for more.

My father-in-law’s cabin by the Black Sea is simple and rustic, but so comfortable. The indoor space is just one big space of about fifty-five square meters, with running water but no electricity. IMG_1321

Water is heated in a coil on the outside wall. It’s just enough water for a nice warm shower (as long as you time your showers for the late afternoon).IMG_1325

Lighting is provided by the sun. The batteries for nifty little solar lamps, like these ones, lie out in the sun charging all day long, providing night-time light.IMG_1319

There’s a fire pit and small gas stove for cooking in the outdoor kitchen. There’s no refrigerator, but one is not needed, really – we eat food bought fresh from the village the same day: goat cheese, honey, yogurt, turkey eggs, bread and fruit and vegetables. IMG_1329

In fact, everybody has a big vegetable garden here — and you’re likely to also find some chickens and a goat in the backyard as well. Not because it’s eco-chic, but out of necessity: economically, many people are struggling (especially in a sleepy country village like this) and practice self-sufficiency simply because it makes sense. I have to say that this is what has been most impressive to me here. All available land is put to use to grow food. And all the gardens look so damn good too! People use organic growing methods — again, not because of some label, but because it’s a commonsense thing to do. It reminds me of what many people say about permaculture: it’s just another word for common sense.

The simplicity of this place feels as refreshing as the sea air. We spend the entire day outside — walking on the bluffs, going to the beach, cooking in the outdoor kitchen, playing the guitar, sitting and drinking Turkish-style coffee while watching Aava play in the little washing tub with sun-heated water. There’s minimal internet, or other media, or distractions, or ready-made foods. Just the wonder and magic of this place. We sleep deeply every night and wake up refreshed for another day by the sea.

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