Sunday 6 May 2012

The Omnivore's Delight

Omnivores, whether bears, ravens, dogs or humans, have a dilemma at this time of the year. We have such a glut of fresh food that we don’t quite know what to do with it all.

[Part of the great lettuce glut of 2012] 

We could simply wait: the glut will fade away as quickly as our Tasmanian daylight. While today we have 10 hours of daylight, by the winter solstice in a few weeks time, we will be down to 9 hours. And even then the sun, busy powering the plants of the northern hemisphere, will be giving our food plants scant attention.

Presented with a surplus of food, and a shortening of days, most omnivores have an irresistible urge to do something with their bounty. Some deal with the boom or bust situation by gorging themselves when food is plentiful, and going into torpor or hibernation when it’s scarce. It works well enough for Alaska’s brown bears. Along the Pacific coast of Alaska, the summer glut of salmon is hard to believe. Millions of large, plump salmonids swim into a finite number of streams to spawn. Bears – and humans – literally have to walk over fish to cross a creek or move along a shore.

[Expired Alaskan salmon: just a few of the millions]  

You might expect that bears would gobble down fish indiscriminately. In fact they become quite fussy. When we were in Sitka in south-east Alaska, we came across fish that had small holes in their heads and slits along their bellies, but were otherwise intact. The lumbering bears, perhaps 3 metres tall and with paws the size of dinner plates, had used their claws as delicately as scalpals to remove just the brains and roe, the parts with the highest fat content.

The same fussy eaters would then supplement their fish diet with other plant matter, especially berries. We did likewise when we discovered blueberries growing wild in Sitka’s wet forests. Oh to have that kind of scroggin in our bush!

After their extended feast, brown bears head to their dens for around six months. It’s generally called hibernation, although the bears don’t stay fully asleep. In many cases the females even give birth during the winter, not something any mammal would sleep through. Australia’s eastern pygmy possums, fattened on nectar and insects, favour torpor rather than hibernation, as described in this earlier post.

Another response to surplus is to put food aside in some form so it can be accessed and consumed during the lean times. Butcher birds, woodpeckers and squirrels are among those to “squirrel away” their food. Dogs bury bones as part of the same instinct.

Humans, with their mastery of fire, glass, metals and refrigeration, have a substantial advantage over most omnivores. We can, in truth, store summer in a jar. Or less romantically, in the fridge or freezer. In Alaska many of our friends smoke salmon to preserve it over the winter months. Cured, smoked and salted meats were staples for many centuries prior to refrigeration. They continue to be hugely popular.

[Summer in a jar: chutneys by Lynne]

Our own glut includes tomatoes, lettuce, basil, and parsley. And even though much of our fruit is finished, we’ve also been able to find a few late raspberries and apples. We have no shortage of recipes for tomatoes and apples, especially sauces and chutneys. A few hours work help us to store the ghost of summer in the pantry. While both basil and parsley can be dried for later use, we turn our excess, blended with oil, pine nuts and parmesan, into delightfully tangy pesto.

Lettuce is more problematic. Lettuce pesto doesn’t have a convincing ring to it. Neither will it freeze or dry. Despite our best eating efforts, much of last summer’s crop is either shooting or becoming rabbit food. One friend believes that’s all it’s good for, although I can’t agree with him on that. I will miss the wet crunchy freshness of homegrown lettuce over the next few months.

One bitter-sweet seasonal marker for us is the autumn colouring of Tasmania’s endemic fagus (Nothofagus gunnii). We make our annual pilgrimage to Mt Field’s Tarn Shelf to see its beautiful autumn display. Although the colouring and dropping of leaves tell us that colder, darker times are on their way, I never tire of seeing that flame lick across the high slopes. The colouring seems an act of both retreat and triumph.

[Fagus lights up the Tarn Shelf in Mt Field National Park] 
On our way home we happen across the last of the season’s fresh raspberries for sale in Westerway. At home a handful of late berries struggles to redden, but at the berry farm they have just enough to sell by the punnet. Back in our kitchen I combine fresh and frozen raspberries and sylvan berries, and cook up a large pan of hybrid red berry jam.

I know that in the depths of winter a spoonful of that jam will bring a summer smile to my soul. Although it’s highly doubtful I need delay sampling it until winter.

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