Double vision blog: Ukrainian seeds of inspiration
The first Spring planting expedition I made to my friend’s village near Lubny was at the end of April 2012. Although I have my own English version of a ‘dacha’ in the country, most of my interior design work leads originate in London so I never feel I can completely live a country life as within a few days I need to be smartly dressed at meetings in London again.
Life out of a permanent suitcase is not the easiest way to grow fruit and vegetables successfully either.
As I stood ankle deep in loamy brown earth in Ukraine helping to plant potatoes and corn on a bright spring day, the sense of well-being in the sunshine and warm air made me wish I could find a way of life that enabled what I consider to be the height of personal luxury: to make a living sustainably from a rural environment back in England.
But how?! Many villages in Ukraine, have come dangerously close to losing most of their young inhabitants and families to the cities and the UK has plenty of midweek ghost villages too with post offices, schools and pubs closing - a knock on effect of not enough gainful local employment.
In the midst of four generations of a Ukrainian family digging and planting, arguing and teasing each other about crooked lines of seeds, the sense of achievement that we celebrated when we sat down for a break in the shade with a glass of cool birch sap felt well earned and pleasurable.
That’s when the birch tree’s pollen must have been floating on the wind and planted seeds of inspiration in my brain. I returned home with a family recipe for birch sap and my learning journey began.
Three and a half years of research, hard work, recipes and government regulations later, Priestlands Birch has launched to sell the first and only British birch products of unpasteurised sap, birch oil and tar soaps and birch leaf tea and is receiving an enthusiastic welcome.
The good food revolution that started here in the 1960’s and 70’s has always been about natural and unprocessed ingredients. As allergies and cancer incidence have increased in recent years the world’s scientists and food ‘ologists’ search for reasons why.
One of the theories is that we have minimized the amount of live and fermented food we consume and if the old adage of “You are what you eat” is correct then the condition of our guts is vital.
Raw milk sales from small dairy herds have increased from a few pints to the odd health crank to a good business proposition to cater for consumers who want the real thing and are prepared to pay extra for it.
The multicultural revolution that has evolved in UK has contributed hugely to the food and health discussions and introduced some wonderful tastes and exotic super foods. Ancient ‘scoby’ cultures like Kombucha and milk and water kefir are popular. Sour dough, live yoghurt, sauerkraut, live cheeses and old fashioned cider are all sought after. There are hundreds of small producers making high quality products to sell at farmers markets that are appearing all over the UK.
I contacted a London group who visited and inspected the birch trees, my produce and processing methods before giving me the go ahead to trade.
The count down to my first two markets was frenetic as there were so many component parts that had to dovetail in the last few days and hours.
Labels to be stuck to products, ice cooler transport boxes to be packed, printed advertising banners and a new market stall that arrived in multiple steel parts and looked logical and simple to erect were just a few items on my ‘to do’ list.
I had about three hours sleep by the time I had finished bottling, labeling and packing the car with a long drive to London before I was due at Notting Hill market to assemble my stall at 7.30 am.
There comes a point when one has spent so much energy working towards a goal with time visibly diminishing like sand in hour glass that nearly all one’s resources are used up and we can barely manage the finale of the actual event: I was running on adrenalin.
Assembling the stall and setting out my wares ready to sell with a bright smile and a friendly attitude was fading fast as I looked with dismay at the pile of incomprehensible metal bars with slots and protrusions and a drawing that was no better than a vague sketch on closer inspection.
As the other stall holders were set up and ready to trade I was stomping about furiously waving a hammer whilst my friend, who had made a huge effort to come and help me set up, stood at a safe distance making sensible suggestions and we still weren’t able to construct the stall.
I could feel my sense of frustration about to boil over; after months of hard work and planning I was not about to be foiled from making Priestlands Birch debut by a pile of metal and a seriously fatigued brain.
Shoppers had started to arrive and I was struggling to make sense of anything. Hot and bothered I furiously threw together enough metal bars to create a structure that gave us a table to lay out produce and stand behind and something to hang the advertising banner across.
My beautiful and patient dog obediently sat under the newly constructed table on her rug keeping a very low profile.
At the last minute of setting up I remembered my handmade Ukrainian linen cloth that comes from my friend’s village and laid it across the table as a good luck mascot and the finishing touch to a new adventure.
We had a brilliant first day; everyone was keen to try a glass of pure birch sap from the Exmoor hills. We sold many bottles and masses of packets of tea and soap.
Birch sap awareness has only just begun to take root (pardon the pun) here and I am thrilled to be at the forefront of supplying it. It looks as though that heart-felt wish I made standing in a Ukrainian field might be coming true. It may take a while yet but eventually I’ll get there.