For me too, this morning is a morning like any other. I wake early, at my usual hour of 5am and enjoy the moments between dawn and daybreak when there is only the morning chorus for company. As it is a Sunday, there is little to do to fill the time between my awakening and the hour when civilisation cranks into gear. And so, I pull on my time-battered boots, slip the crust from yesterday’s loaf into my pocket and set out into the dew-soaked grass. It is a perfect morning and my feet follow their own route as my eyes become accustomed to the lingering gloom. Down the lane, right at the church, over the stile and into the still dark wooded path. It is a route I have taken countless times and the map is ingrained as deeply into my palms as the ley lines that cross the land.
This is the Ashdown Forest, the land of my childhood, of endless games of hide and seek, of Winnie the Pooh. An ancient area of woodland and open heath used since Norman times as a hunting forest with evidence of human settlement since the Neolithic period, its heritage does not weigh down on you like some places. With the continual rejuvenation of the land through practices including introducing cattle and Exmoor ponies for conservation grazing, the area looks towards the future. The stories of the Ashdown’s past meanwhile are carried as golden dust, whispered on the wind. This wind – still with ice in its touch – accompanies my walk along paths that crisscross a heathland still barren from winter.
Almost without thinking, I find myself at the entrance to Plaw Hatch Farm. It is closed but no gate bars my entry. I cross the deserted yard and pass down the narrow walkway that divides the farm buildings from the animal shelters. The cows glance disinterestedly at the stranger disturbing them from their reverie, as it is still too early in the year for them to be let out to pasture. I pass more livestock in the barns to my left, with around 80 sheep out on the Plaw Hatch fields; the lambing season will commence in a couple of weeks. The new-born lambs will graze freely with their mothers until the time comes for them to be sent to slaughter and sold in the on-site shop together with select cows from the herd and chicken from the flock. This is an inherently sustainable farm and there is no wastage: the lamb’s fleeces will be tanned and, come summer, wool from the mothers spun into yarn. A closed loop agricultural entity entirely in keeping with the biodynamic principles followed by the farm.
Biodynamic. A word that has gained traction in recent years, thanks to the natural wine movement that started as a ripple in France and developed into a global tidal wave. But like a ship lost in a tempest, it has become adrift from its original moorings. Many of those who drink biodynamic wines are unaware that they are indebted to the philosophy and agricultural methods inspired by the beliefs of Rudolf Steiner. Fundamental to the Austrian philosopher’s school of thought known as ‘Anthroposophy’ is a spiritual energy field that encompasses human beings, animals, Earth and the cosmos. In over 5,000 lectures presented throughout his career, including the groundbreaking Agriculture Course given at Koberwitz in Poland, in 1924, Steiner emphasised a holistic approach driven by a deep respect for the environment that could be applied to disciplines including education, medicine, art and agriculture. In following decades, these biodynamic farming principles were further developed: the German horticulturist, Maria Thun developed the planting calendar dictated by cosmological cycles still followed today, while the Australian Alex Podolinsky increased the suitability of biodynamic methods for large-scale farming. Biodynamic agriculture now has a global following and an international governing body represented with the ‘Demeter’ certification.
Yet as much as this is a 20th century phenomenon, the roots though of this method are older still. The principle of biodynamic agriculture is founded on an autonomous approach in which every aspect has a mutually dependent position within the farming cycle. This is no different to the agricultural approach deployed by Indigenous and small scale farmers for millennia. Since the transition to sedentism over 12,000 years ago, care for livestock remained integral to a self-sustaining process in which animal manure served to fertilise the crop, and food waste was used as feed to mitigate the need to move on to new pastures. People became dissociated from this holistic approach with the advent of conventional industrialised farming that only rears one breed of animal, or grows a single crop. In reducing the farming system to monocultures, the impact has been to cause dependence on supply chains and to increase the risk of economic failure, or even famine, when a single cog within the wheel falls out. Though our ancestors may have been at the mercy of nature, they were simultaneously in harmony with the whole environment. Biodynamic methods are therefore a reversion to practices that were more successful in keeping the entire ecosystem in balance; in respecting the land and only claiming resources from it as dictated by genuine necessity.
Though commonplace across Europe, Britain was slow to adopt biodynamic agriculture. Across France weekly markets have been long peppered with biodynamic farmers selling their wares, and in German supermarkets the ‘Demeter’ branding is a matter of course in both the dairy and grocery aisles. In England, biodynamic is treated more as a curiosity; a mysterious realm of ‘beyond organic’ that few know where to find. In fact, it is rare to find biodynamic farms in the country, with the main nucleus clustered around Forest Row in Sussex where I am fortunate to live. The reason for the flourishing of biodynamics in this corner of East Sussex can be explained by the convergence of ley lines in this area which allegedly radiates a powerful positive charge. Along these ley lines, a number of anthroposophical initiatives have set their compass needle, including the first Steiner School in Britain, and a number of certified or practising biodynamic farms. My local farm, Plaw Hatch, where I stand this morning on the equinox, together with its sister farm of Tablehurst, are two key points within this local constellation.
The lands owned by the Plaw Hatch co-operative equates to 200 acres and span several plots across Sussex that are used for growing staple crops including wheat and barley. The nucleus of the farm is also the site of the garden used to nurture an array of fruit and vegetables throughout the seasons. In line with an inclusive approach, this arable land is open access and this morning I continue my walk across the fields. The orientation is towards the west meaning that the sun continues rising behind me, casting long shadows through the rising mist. Open access is actively encouraged at Plaw Hatch and is in line with the active learning approach that underscores biodynamics. Following the Plaw Hatch lands over gentle undulations of the Sussex countryside take me past the animal barns and alongside the polytunnels. It is still too early for many crops to have emerged, but the seeds have been sown. By June, a walk through these polytunnels will lead through a forest of fragrant tomatoes, bean spirals and a flower garden of lettuce. There is an invaluable education to be had in seeing foodstuff develop before it reaches its optimum ripeness; a connection with the process from earth to plate.
Open access is actively encouraged at Plaw Hatch and is in line with the active learning approach that underscores biodynamics.
What the biodynamic farming system demands is an awareness, and an acceptance, of the bounty of the seasons. Modern agriculture has led us to expect that strawberries are available in December and bananas all year round, when only half a century ago such things were unfathomable. For the bounty that fills the supermarket shelves, the price has been paid by communities in other parts of the world in the form of exploitation and loss of land rights. Ever smaller profit margins and ever greater demands means a reduction in local biodiversity which will take generations to restore, if ever. To redress the damage caused by globalised trade, we need to accept seasonal availability and live with what is at hand. This means red peppers in August; plums in September; potatoes in January; tender garlic in March; tomatoes in July. By focussing on seasonal diversity within a holistic agricultural organism, biodynamics encourages a restoration of local ecosystems. The right food for the right time of year is sometimes found on our doorstep.
Nothing exemplifies this philosophy better than Plaw Hatch tomatoes. At the height of summer, the farmers return from fields with a harvest that has the visual intensity of a furnace and the heady aroma of a perfumier, with the varieties reading like fragrances: Matina, Sakura, and Berner Rose… . When there is a glut, prices are slashed and we buy them en masse, brown paper bags fit to burst on the shop scales, planning to cook them, preserve them, or simply inhale their scent. I have spent many evenings in the part of the Ashdown Forest known as Hind’s Leap with a Plaw Hatch picnic as the sunset over the Downs changes the land from its sunburnt straw yellow to umber, with the memory made sweeter by these tomatoes.
Anyone who has ever eaten food metres from where it was grown knows that it gives with another flavour, another sensation, another meaning. One June evening in 2020 when sky was exceptionally clear and Covid lockdown enforced solitude, I relished in the simplicity of a dinner of tomatoes, Plaw Hatch cheese and locally made bread. Drunk on nothing other than air, I fell asleep in the heath and woke to the gentle breeze, the last birdsong and a night sky blacker than ebony, a new moon starting to wax. The connection between the food, the land from which it came and the cosmos was tangible; a method in motion.
Biodynamics encourages a realisation of the effect the moon’s cycles have on the pull of water not just on the tide but also crops and our own bodies
Our ancestors lived by the solar system. Light pollution, the invasion of technology and a scepticism towards the reliability of astrology led to a disconnect between innate patterns of living in harmony with the natural oscillations of the cosmos. Biodynamics encourages a reconnection with this perception, a realisation of the effect the moon’s cycles have on the pull of water not just on the tide but also crops and our own bodies. Old farmer’s tales recount how it is best to plant leafy vegetables during a waxing moon as more water is absorbed, to sow root crops as it wanes, and to work on the soil and weeds in the moon’s darkest phase. Re-aligning ourselves with the movements of the moon, the sun and the stars can increase our awareness of the effect they have on the changing seasons and the world around us. It is a way to work with nature rather than against it.
Yet much as biodynamics is about finding the path in the cosmos, it is equally about the connection to the Earth, both in the realm of the land we stand on and the soil beneath our feet. It is only possible to continue withdrawing from the earth by replenishing it, just as a barren land can only produce a barren yield. Every year near the autumn equinox, the farmers at Plaw Hatch take part in the ritual of soil regeneration, and as the spring equinox passes, so too does the next phase in this cycle. The cow pats collected from the Plaw Hatch herd half a year ago and filled into cow horns buried on site are to be exhumed, their contents having metamorphosed in to fertiliser, an inversion of decay. The next step in the BD500 preparation is like dissolving sugar in coffee, the precious manure treated as gold dust, the stirring process creating an interminable vortex as if in a cauldron. Spraying this suspension back onto the earth, focussing on the roots of the crop will assist in the levels of soil bacteria and encourage growth of a healthy earthworm population.
There is a science within this ritual: pH level balance and microbial increase. As with science, the laws of nature depend on theories of opposition: north and south, midsummer and midwinter, night and day, above and below. In this respect, the counterpart to BD500 known as BD501 aligns with the above-ground energies and works with principles of light as the BD500 does with dark. Similarly produced by burying cow horns, these being filled with quartz crystal buried in the spring and exhumed in the autumn, it too is sprayed onto the plants, but this time on the leaves in order to augment photosynthesis. This tapping into oppositional pulls and harnessing of the by-products of the farm’s herd underscores the sustainable approach to biodynamic farming as a complete organism.
One afternoon a week or so ago, my visit to Plaw Hatch to pick up some eggs and vegetables coincided with the second daily milking of the herd. A solemn ceremony marks their passage from barn to parlour, as ritualistic as the journey to vespers; the sounds of the lowing cows and the whirr of the milking machines a choir of its own. It is a comforting melody, not least because it reminds me of childhood visits to the farm when introductions to the animals were mandatory. The reassurance it provides is also in the knowledge that the raw milk will travel just mere metres to The Dairy where it will be filtered, cooled and syphoned into glass bottles topped with green foil caps.
My earliest encounters with raw milk came when, despairing at the severity of my sister’s eczema, my mother turned to alternative remedies. Raw milk was the medicine and we were fortunate to live mere minutes away from the surgery. Salvation down the road. Time passed, the eczema faded, the tonic remained. Gently warmed raw milk was our bedtime snack; biodynamic yoghurt flavoured with fruit from the local hedgerows our breakfasts. As my palate matured, it became accustomed to Plaw Hatch’s raw milk cheddar aged for 24 months or smoked over apple wood. It is rather difficult to describe the taste of cheese cultivated by the phases of the moon and matured in a glass-fronted cellar like actors in a silent cinema. The words do not come easily, and I have often resorted to carrying slices cut from full moon wheels wrapped in wax-paper to share with friends so the cheese can speak instead.
Daybreak has truly started, the sun on my back is no longer that of winter but of spring. My reverie curtailed by the end of the fields, I follow a curve in the track at the bottom of the slope and cross over the lane into the forest. If I follow a straight course, I will cross the mediaeval Pale and be in Forest Row by an hour. The sun is high enough in the sky to break through the trees and, on coming upon a clearing bathed in dappled light, I pause to eat the hunk of bread I had almost forgotten. The dawn chorus reverberates through these trees in the way it has done for millennia and will, if we do not destroy this habitat, for many more. To my right I notice early shoots of nettle; a bounty of this relatively mild winter. In a few weeks, bundles of nettle will be gathered by biodynamic farmers, and in coming months so too will dandelion, oak bark, chamomile and valerian, in order to produce a chemical-free compost that uses herbal wisdom to enliven the soil. Biodynamics can teach us once again that everything in nature is not only useful but interconnected. Our place between the Earth and the cosmos depends on it.
Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup
In spring and early summer, a verdant green carpet covers the undergrowth of woodland not just in Sussex but across the northern hemisphere. Wild garlic and nettle grow freely and have long been foraged in order to benefit from their nutritional and medicinal properties. One simple way to pay homage to the season’s bounty is through Nettle & Wild Garlic Soup. Harvesting the nettle should always be done with gloves and the optimum plants are the young, tender shoots that have not yet flowered.
1 large bunch of nettle leaves rinsed in water and checked for insects, discarding tough stalks
1 large bunch of wild garlic leaves, rinsed in water
1 handful of sorrel
1 large potato
1 piece celery
1 pint of vegetable stock or chicken stock from bones according to taste
1 tbsp vegetable oil, rapeseed being most local to Britain
Fresh Greek or plant yoghurt or blue cheese according to taste
Lightly fry finely diced cubes of leek and celery with the vegetable oil in a large frying pan until softened. Add cubes of peeled potatoes and fry for a further 5 minutes prior to adding the stock. Reduce heat and simmer until tender. Add the nettle in gradual increments, followed by the wild garlic and then a small handful of sorrel. Allow the soup to cook for a further 15 minutes adding salt and pepper to taste, then reduce heat and simmer for another 15 minutes. Pour into a blender and blend until smooth. Serve either warm or chilled, garnishing with a dollop of greek yoghurt or crumbled blue cheese and flowers of wild garlic. Enjoy with a hearty slice of fresh sourdough bread.
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling