Sunday, July 24, 2011

Silver-Leaf Nightshade

What’s blooming in the area: Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red yucca, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, cultivated sunflowers, Shasta daisy, purple coneflower, zinnia, squash, alfalfa, corn.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, velvetweed, whorled milkweed, bindweed, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet clover, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, western goat’s beard, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, golden hairy asters, gumweed, Santa Fe thistle; toothed spurge germinating.

In my yard, looking east: Garlic chives, winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Shirley poppies; buds on Autumn Joy sedum and cutleaf coneflower.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded morning glories, sweet alyssum from seed.

Looking west: Caryopteris, ladybells, blue flax, catmints, calamintha, flowering spurge, sea lavender, white mullein, Mönch aster; buds on David phlox.

Looking north: Blackberry lily, golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, Parker’s Gold yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, nicotiana, tomato, pepper.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, other small birds, gecko, hummingbird moth, small bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants; hear crickets.

Weather: Despite a bit of rain Tuesday night, it’s still so hot and dry I’m watering twice as much and not staying even; last slight rain 7/19/11; 15:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The origins of cheese are shrouded in Neolithic mists when people in the near east were first domesticating plants and animals.

Once they learned to milk their cattle, sheep and goats, they needed methods to preserve the harvest. Milk was churned, boiled and fermented. Historians believe cheese was discovered when they stored milk in animal pockets, specifically the fourth stomachs of young calves which contain an enzyme, chymosin, that reacts with casein in milk to precipitate solid curds and leave liquid whey.

No one knows where the discoveries were made: evidence points to central Asia. The knowledge of rennet spread west when groups moved across the Danube. There’s some possibility people living in the area of modern Switzerland were raising cattle for milk and using baskets and wooden tools to process it in middle Neolithic times. Otto Tschumi thinks it possible a form of goose grass, Galium palustre, was used as a curdling agent.

The subsequent development of copper tools created a need for ores that moved the emerging Bell Beaker cultural complex into the Iberian peninsula around 2500bc. Animal remains suggest there were more female than male animals in Beaker settlements and those animals were older when they died. That, in turn, implies dairy practices accompanied the mines. Perforated bowls have been found at many sites which archaeologists believe were used to strain cheese.

No one knows when the technology of cheese moved through the south. The first pictorial record comes more than a thousand years later from a painting in the tomb of Ipy, sculptor to Rameses II. The first written record is from The Odyssey in which Homer described Cyclops milking ewes and kids to make cheese that he strained through wicker.

The Phoenicians, then the Romans conquered Spain and the north to consolidate and centralize trade. In the decades after Christ’s death, Pliny the Elder listed cheeses coming to Rome from as far away as the Alps, Nîmes, and Bithynia.

Within the Empire, Columella, who had family in southeastern Spain, said Romans commonly used lamb and kid’s rennet, although thistle flowers, false saffron seeds and fig tree twigs could be substituted. The cardoon thistle is still used on the steppes of Estramdura with merino milk to make the semi-hard, whitish Torta de la Serena.

Centuries later, when the conquistadores left Estramadura for México, they took cheese and the idea it could be made with vegetable rennets with them. Someone, or somebodies, experimented with local plants to discover the pea-sized fruit of silver-leaved nightshade would work in place of the European Cynara cardunculus.

Trompillo is still used to make the semi-hard, white asadero cheese in Chihuahua where it’s used in any food that requires melted cheese. Javier Cabral says his mother’s foster sister in Zacatecas still makes it daily from the “extra-fatty” leche de apoyo the cow reserves for her calf. He says his Aunt Marta “adds rennet” while the milk’s still in buckets, then lets it set. When the curds have formed, “she wraps them in cloth, places them in a hollowed-out log with a drainage hole drilled in it, then sets heavy stones on top to press out some of the whey.” Later she adds salt.

The knowledge of vegetable enzymes, if not cheese making, moved north both with the Spanish and through native communications networks. When Matilda Coxe Stevenson visited the relatively isolated Zuñi in the late nineteenth century, they were using ha’watapa berries with goat’s milk. Instead of waiting for the curds to congeal, they used the first stage as “a delicious beverage.”

To the west, the Pima, who had even less contact with Europeans until the Gadsden Purchase, combined the Spanish use of Solanum elaeagnifolium with European methods by mixing powdered berries in milk with “a piece of rabbit or cow stomach” to produce a drink.

To the east, where Spanish influences were stronger, the Cochiti used ashika to curdle milk like the local Spanish speakers, who called the blue-flowered plant tomatillo del campo. The more nomadic Navajo used dried or fresh berries with goat’s milk, while the Davis Apache in Texas used berries to thicken the goat’s milk they carried with them when they traveled. The tiny tomatoes survive on dead stems into the next blooming season.

Silver-leaf nightshade has a wide range, from northern México to Colorado and Nebraska east, but hasn’t been utilized outside the southwest settled by the Spanish where it may have proliferated on lands disturbed by the settlers. Many of the areas to the east were settled by Germans who had such a strong cheese making tradition based on cattle rennet that it would have been hard for them to imagine a vegetable substitute.

Today, when cheese can be bought at the grocers, the one to two-foot high members of the nightshade family have been abandoned to bloom along the road. If the webbed flowers, with their five petals pulled back and yellow stamens pushed forward, are considered at all, it’s as a pest. Not only do the fruits produce 60 to 120 seeds that can live ten years in the soil, but the herbaceous perennial can reproduce from root fragments that crowd out crops like cotton.

However, if you go into an Española grocery, to the side of the packets of highly processed American and Swiss cheeses and bags of shredded Monterrey Jack, cheddar and mozzarella, you’ll see packages of sliced asadero from California made from pasteurize grade A and skim milk, sea salt and enzymes along with sodium citrate and soy lichen.

If you look a bit more, you’ll find some piles of octagonal white cheeses in square vacuum-sealed packages that have come from México through Anthony, Texas. They only say they’re made from pasteurized milk, salt and rennet.

Cabral, Javier. “Mexico Feeds Me: Exploring Mexico's Culinary Heritage,” Saveur website, 2 May 2011.

Castetter, Edward F. “Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest I. Uncultivated Native Plants Used as Sources of Food,” University of New Mexico Bulletin 4:1-44:1935, on uses by Cochiti and Spanish-speakers.

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. De Re Rustica, anonymously translated in 1745 as L. Junius Moderatus Columella of Husbandry.

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. By the Prophet of the Earth, 1949, on Pima.

_____. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore, on Davis Mountain Apache.

Garrido-Pena, Rafael. “Bell Beakers in the Southern Meseta of the Iberian Peninsula: Socioeconomic Context and New Data,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16:187-209:1997.

Homer. The Odyssey, eighth century bc.

Ipy. Photograph of wall painting depicting cheese making available at the Sabor Artesano website page, “A Brief History of Cheese.” Rameses II reigned 1279-1213bc.

Jacob, Mandy, Doris Jaros and Harald Rohm. “Recent Advances in Milk Clotting Enzymes,” International Journal of Dairy Technology 64:14-33:2011, on la Serena cheese.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies, including Morris Steggerda, “Navajo Foods and Their Preparation,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 17:217-25:1941.

Organisation Européenne et Méditerranéenne pour la Protection des Plantes. “Solanum elaeagnifolium,” Bulletin OEPP 37:236-245:2007.

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Naturalis Historia, book 11, section 92, translated by Harris Rackham, 1940.

Rodríguez-Torres, K., J. A. López-Díaz and N. R. Martínez-Ruiz. “Physicochemical Characteristics and Sensory Properties of Asadero Cheese Manufactured with Vegetable Rennet from Solanum elaeagnifolium,” 2008 Food Science and Food Biotechnology Congress.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians, 1915.

Tschumi, Otto. Urgeschichte der Schweiz, vol 1, 1949, cited by Sarunas Milisauskas, European Prehistory: A Survey, 2002.

Photograph: Silver-leaved nightshade growing in Virginia creeper near an alfalfa field, 17 July 2011.

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