Northern Advocate Column

In love with broad beans

s-l30031 October 2015

I’ve fallen in love with broad beans. It’s a late romance. As a child there was only antagonism. And after that our paths didn’t cross for many years, not until a recent interest in growing my own food.

My initial decision to plant broad beans was based on a desire to grow a vegetable that was high in protein (around 26g per 100g). And like all legumes they take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the ground, thus I’d be maintaining an essential element in the soil for other plants.

I figured that once I had grown the broad beans I would learn how to enjoy eating them. So when faced with a bountiful harvest I turned to Google to find some recipes. This led me to the Egyptian national dish called ful medames, which consists of boiled broad beans (or fava beans as they’re known) mashed with olive oil, salt and cumin. The dish is typically eaten with bread for breakfast. It was a taste revelation, especially with the addition of a little garlic. I then tried broad bean hummus, followed by frying shelled broad beans in oil and drying them to create a snack that’s popular in Latin America and China.

Part of my love affair with the broad bean is the romantic connection it offers to other cultures and countries. Because the bean is so easy to grow, even in poor quality clay soils, it’s been part of the Mediterranean diet for 6000 years. Hence its importance to many peoples across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The fact that it can survive winter and provide a vital food source in early spring, when there’s little else to harvest, has probably contributed to its importance. 

The broad bean was a staple of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. In Greece, dried beans were used as voting tokens in the democratic assemblies of city states. The bean was considered to be a food of the dead in many cultures and used in offerings to deceased ancestors. Another reason the broad bean was revered by Mediterranean cultures was that the outside of the bean was thought to look like female genitalia, while when peeled a small penis and testicles were revealed. Such an amazing phenomenon had to be special! Next time you’re peeling a broad bean look closely.

I’ve currently got copious broad bean plants growing all over my backyard. Their speed of growth in early spring is amazing, which is perhaps the origin of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Next to them in the garden are tall artichoke plants, which has given me an idea for the next broad bean recipe I want to try: a Greek dish of lightly boiled early season broad beans with artichoke hearts, onion, lemon, olive oil, parsley and dill. Eating it I’ll be able to imagine myself outside a white-washed brick taverna on a sun-soaked Greek island. That’s what food can do for you, transport you to another time and place. Knowing something of the stories, traditions and landscapes attached to a food as humble as the broad bean can make it taste that much nicer.

Northern Advocate Column

Sun worshipping,

17 October 2015

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has rejoiced at some clear sunny days recently.  A few days of sunshine and I’m instantly feeling better about the world.

At our place the timespan of winter is marked very clearly. For almost three months exactly the sun goes down behind the Hikurangi hill, casting our house in early shadow. For us, the arrival of spring and the end of winter depression is signaled by the sun descending for the first time just past the southern slope of the hill. Given that the silhouette of this old volcanic cone is so distinctive it’s a visually captivating occurrence; it’s like the sun is sliding down the hillside. This momentous event is duly celebrated with a particular ritual: sitting on the deck drinking chardonnay (sunshine in a glass).

I can’t help thinking that here are the ancient origins of our religious practices. All cultures and societies have placed importance on the sun and the changing seasons. Early people could not have failed to notice that the sun would appear at the same place every year in relation to a prominent feature of the landscape, as viewed from a particular spot or dwelling. Overtime this simple natural phenomenon became formalised into cultural ceremonies of a village or tribe, leading in some cases to the construction of places of worship like Stonehenge or the Inca temples to the sun god Inti.

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been important to many cultures; a logical time to consider rebirth and renewal, or just be thankful that the days are now going to get longer and warmer. 

The worship of the sun as the source of life is confirmed by modern science. Life in its most basic sense is the consumption of an energy gradient, the most vital being sunlight. The plant life, on land and in water, which converts the sun’s rays into energy and cell growth is the foundation of our planet’s ecosystem. Animals eat the plants and defecate; while both plants and animals decay after death to provide an energy resource for more life. Not to mention over millions of years the oil, coal and natural gas that has so far powered our technological society. In its full complexity and interdependence it’s an amazing process, one that can’t help but lead us to thinking about a holistic relationship between ourselves and all life, present, past and future. 

Understanding the ecology of our world, and the centrality of the sun to it all, would seem to be a good basis for cultural understanding between people. There are so many stories, songs and poems to share. I’m not one for ceremonies and formality, but if we were to build an architectural monument in Whangarei that marked in a dramatic way the arrival of spring, I’d be there.

To complete my holy communion with the sun would be The Beatles’ song, Here Comes the Sun; its irresistibly sweet melody like the early morning sunshine of a beautiful spring day. Sing after me: “Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)/ Here comes the sun, and I say/ It’s all right.”

Northern Advocate Column

The worlds first multiflagarious country?

12393759.jpg3 October 2015

When teaching art history I used to do a demonstration to make the point that images mean something to people. First, I held up a piece of A4 paper with the New Zealand flag printed on it. I ask if anyone would like to tear it to pieces. There was always someone happy to volunteer. I then asked the class how they felt about this. There was usually a mixed reaction, from indifference, slight anxiety, to loving this “radical” act. It was generally older students who might express some concern, the younger ones hardly ever. Next, I showed a picture of John Lennon and asked again if someone will tear it up. This time there was alway far more reluctance. But someone would, and there was a real sense of unease in the room. Being a big John Lennon fan, I myself often welled up. 

My purpose in telling this story? I think there’s something in the student reactions to my classroom demonstration that’s relevant to the current flag debate. We are all visually savvy, bombarded as we are by photos, brands and advertising. Added to this are all the images of people ― like musicians, celebrities and famous political figures ― who mean something to us because they represent our ideals and values. We pick and choose from the wealth of visual imagery available to us. And most often our identification with images transcends national boundaries. The direction of our popular culture is increasingly global. This is undermining, particularly amongst young people, any shared allegiance to a national identity and its symbols, other than perhaps on the sports field.

The four flag designs initially put forward for us to vote on were insipidly uninspiring. But it wouldn’t have mattered what they were, there would still be differences of opinion. I’m quite fond of the tino rangatiratanga flag, for instance. It’s visually strong and clearly means something to people who wave it at demonstrations or have it hanging on their front door, as someone down the road from me in Hikurangi does. That flag, however, was never going to be an option in a process driven by the prime minister.

Late on the scene is the red peak flag. This one is interesting, in that it eschews symbols that have a long history, like the silver fern or koru. It would look very striking being raised on a flag pole or at an Olympics medal ceremony. But doesn’t the colour red symbolise the left of the political spectrum? Could it represent a socialist utopia rising up in New Zealand? Certainly not the current reality, but a delicious irony. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, and it’s likely to be the status quo, perhaps New Zealand is destined to be the first multi-flag country (the word for this could be multiflagarious). Different designs have their supporters, while many people simply don’t care. In a world where we urgently need to see ourselves as global citizens first, rather than parochial nationalists, such good humoured flexibility would, I think, be very appropriate.