Monday, August 09, 2004

Failed Crops

One thing I always try to do each year is grow some things I can use in cooking. Given the amount of space I have -- two windowsills and a back yard that I've got to share with my landlord's mother's occasional flower garden -- it's not too easy. I'd love to grow jalapeño peppers, for instance, but they require more soil than I have, and more heat than this climate can muster.

But in the past it's always seemed like both cilantro and basil did real well. Every year, Berlin holds something called Green Week, a ten-day-long food convention that's actually a place for producers to show vendors what they have -- the real action is the restaurant wholesalers and the grocers meeting with the representatives of various companies, especially foreign ones -- but which has been a long-time favorite of the public, which goes to eat and drink (especially drink) and dream of spring, because Green Week happens in mid-January. It's this last aspect that concerns me here: there's a huge gardening show which has attached itself to Green Week (also a pet show and, usually, some other peripherally-related event), and this is the only place I've found where I can pick up seeds for basil and cilantro. I know where there's a specialty seed shop in Leipzig, but not in Berlin, weirdly enough, and the racks in the supermarkets and drugstores rarely have basil, let alone cilantro.

Last year, a remarkable cook named Eric Gower, whom I was aware of from the Well, published a great cookbook, The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, which mixed common Japanese ingredients with North American and European ones to produce some completely new tastes. I made one recipe from it and was hooked. Trouble was, that was about the only recipe in the book I could make without tracking down some Japanese specialty grocery stores. In particular, I was in search of an herb called shiso, also known as perilla.

At first, I went to the "Asia" supermarkets here, Asia Mekong and Vinh Loi. A friendly guy at a Japanese store halfway across town where I'd gone on a fruitless search had told me that Vinh Loi had connections in Holland with specialty growers, and got their fresh vegetables and herbs in on Thursdays, so I schlepped up to their closest store one rainy, cold afternoon, and saw dozens of things I couldn't recognize, but nothing that looked even remotely like shiso. I asked a young woman working in their wholesale division if they ever had it, and she'd never heard of it. I walked over to the small cookbook section in the store, and there was a Japanese cookbook with a picture. She shook her head. Nope, never seen it.

"If Vinh Loi doesn't have it," the Japanese guy had told me, "you won't find it in Berlin. Hamburg probably, Düsseldorf, with all the Japanese there, definitely. But there's no demand for it here because all people want in Japanese restaurants is sushi." And Vinh Loi didn't have it.

But when I got to Texas in March, Eric very kindly went to a Japanese hardware store in the Bay Area, bought a packet of shiso seeds, opened it up to steal some for his own use, and mailed the rest to me. I, in turn, smuggled it back to Berlin, and, at the first sign that it was warming up, went out and bought a plastic flower pot, a rather large one, for four Euros. Very carefully, so as not to overcrowd the plants, I stuck some of the tiny seeds in the soil.

The warm weather lasted about a week, and then it started to rain. Lots. Every day. I'd also planted basil and cilantro, and was hoping for the best. But, as you know if you've been reading right along here, it stayed cold pretty far into the summer. The cilantro was incredibly anemic, sending up a couple of feeble leaves before shooting up the feathery ones which portend flowering, seeding, and death. I harvested the entire batch for garnish for a single dish and re-planted. The basil was hugging the ground, sending down roots, in case it ever warmed up, so it could shoot straight up and make with the leaves. And, in the flower pot in the back yard, the soaked soil revealed little dots of green, right where the shiso seeds had gone.

A couple of weeks ago, it warmed up again, this time for a while: the current weather report says it'll last at least a week longer, and my guess is we're probably okay for the next month. This'll give the basil lots of time to turn into a luxuriant jungle and me to get sick enough of pesto that I'll start freezing it. As for the cilantro, the second planting's even more anemic than the first. Unless it beefs up considerably, this is going to have to be declared an out-and-out failure. Of course, these seeds were a year old, since I didn't make it to Green Week this year due to an onset of poverty, but I thought the reason the last planting failed was that the plants were too crowded. These aren't, and they're keeling over from sickness or something.

But the shiso, well, it went to town. Huge bunches of leaves started appearing, but...they didn't look anything like shiso! Instead of the maple-like shape, the notches in the leaves, these things are ovoid, smooth around the edges. A gardener on the Well finally identified them as sorrel, which I seem to remember from French cookbooks. The explanation? Somewhere during the packing process, the two bags of seeds, which were alphabetically sorted, were next to each other, and, thus, got mixed up.

Not at all what I wanted to hear, of course, but I must say, these things are doing very, very well out there. Of course, I have to lower myself out the window to get to them, which is another story about my construction-obsessed landlord's putting in a back door with no steps, which didn't stop a thief from breaking in early last year and helping himself to my laptop and a bunch of foreign -- mostly obsolete, pre-Euro -- currency and my good luggage.

Anyway, I guess I'd better look for those sorrel recipes and hope I like the stuff. I'm sure going to have enough of it. And fortunately the Vietnamese guy next door to the supermarket always has cilantro.


Daniel Rubin said...

Apple butter. Almond butter. Reeces Peanut Butter cups. These were some of our favorite things. And we spent months looking in vain for them in Berlin. Skim milk was another rare ambrosia. Two places we knew of had it, the Butter Lindner in Zehlendorf and some place I can't remember near the stadium. However, I still have dreams of the meats, cases of them, arranged by someone who spent 18 years studying how to arrange meats like June Taylor - dancing, prancing wursts. And there was this lady at the Karstadt near our apartment whose job was to pour wine for shoppers to taste. Good stuff: obscure French merlot, Italian prosecco, Hungarian bull's blood, Germany riesling. She loved practicing English as she poured and I tried to help her by hanging around, and once she told Mimi and me how she jumped out of window in 1945 to avoid the marauding Russian soldiers.

magdalen said...

howdy, ed. so here's what happened when i tried to grow shiso in Portland, Oregon last year:

i didn't really know what shiso *was*. it just sounded tasty. so i planted some little seeds, and eventually these weird, waxy red stems popped out of the ground. they splayed *across* the ground. they grew small, roundish leaves. it was all rather succulent-like, and it tasted terrible. but i wanted to try using shiso, so try i did.

imagine my delight when i realised i'd been munching upon some completely random garden weed (albeit one i'd never had show up in my garden before)...