Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Day three below the line September 25, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 6:53 am

Breakfast: chapati and budget instant coffee

Morning tea: another chapati and more instant coffee

Lunch: dal and rice. Went for a walk at lunchtime and managed to stop myself buying books about food. Just.

Afternoon tea: lemon balm “tea”, then late in the day, a small amount of rice cooked in tomato

Dinner: first I attended a birthday party, where one of the hosts had spent three days cooking in preparation. I sat in the corner drinking a glass of water and attempted not to notice the abundant food and wine loading up the table. When I left, I took a small bag with some of the baking that will keep until Saturday. Every time I open the fridge it is staring at me.

One of the children had brought a pair of comedy glasses, so I entertained myself (and them) by having my eyes popping out looking at the food.

goggle eyes

Later I went home and started cooking dal, rice and chapati. I had a hard time waiting for the food to be cooked. I had a small amount of leftover cooked rice, so I cooked it up with some water, a tiny bit of milk, a little sugar and some crushed cardamom seeds. It was a bit odd, but it was warm, sweet and contained calories. After that, I had a couple of the chapati I made, then I felt full. Of possibly just bloated from eating little other than white rice and flatbread.

rice pudding




Day two below the line September 24, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 7:01 am

A much more successful day.

Breakfast: budget instant coffee and chapati. I decided to take my time and left a bit later for work. This gave me time to drink the coffee rather than trying to gulp it down. Pleasure is relative.

Morning tea: another chapati, with a smear of dal to make it a bit more substantial. Plus another cup of the budget instant coffee. I couldn’t take my eyes off the tim-tams that were on the table all through my team meeting.

Lunch: dal and rice. The dal is more satisfying than the rice with tomato, so I decided to have that at lunchtime. Plus I’m really pleased with the dal. It’s made with yellow split peas and tinned tomatoes. I scored an 800g tin of tomatoes for 88 cents, so I have plenty of tomato this year. I have enough for another batch of dal tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to it. My boss tells me that I’m obsessed with food.

Afternoon tea: fire drill. Normally when there is a fire drill everyone goes to buy a coffee. I didn’t. Later I made a cup of herbal teal with lemon balm from my garden. Given that this grows like a weed (I have about eight plants when I originally planted one), I count that within my vegetable budget. Once again, pleasure is relative.

Dinner: fried rava upma and rice with tomatoes.  Yay for frying! Dinner is satisfying. I spend the evening thinking about making another batch of delicious dal on Wednesday night, and the semolina pudding I’m planning to cook on Friday night.

Dal recipe:
Fry crushed (but not ground) coriander seed and mustard seed in oil. When they start to sizzle, add half an onion, garlic flakes and grated fresh ginger. When the onion is soft, add 1/2 cup of tinned tomatoes (mostly juice) a teaspoon of ground coriander/cumin/ tumeric, salt and a pinch of chili powder. Cook about 5 minutes to make a spice paste. Add yellow split peas (about 3/4 cup I think) that have been soaked at least 8 hours and water. Simmer until the split peas are cooked. As it is cooking, add water as required and also check salt and add as needed.


Live below the line take two September 22, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 11:03 pm

After surviving the Live Below the Line challenge last year, for some reason it seemed like a good idea to do it again.

The problem is, the best bit of doing the challenge last year – being part of an awesome team – wasn’t going to happen this year. With my team unavailable, I’m doing the challenge solo. At least I had all my budget details from last year, so it wasn’t so hard to put together a budget and do the shopping. I had a few ideas on things I did or didn’t need from last year, so there are a few differences, but it is mainly the same.

Live below the line 2013

below the line pantry

The big difference is that I didn’t have anyone to split my oil and butter purchases with, so I ended up buying a whole bottle of oil. To save money and to try something different, I decided to do without porridge for breakfast this year. Instead, I decided to try some traditional Indian breakfasts. That made sense when I thought of the idea, since my strategy for surviving this challenge is to look beyond New Zealand, and copy what people eat in countries like India. Unfortunately, that didn’t work quite so well…

Breakfast: carrot rava upma, effectively a semolina porridge with grated carrot. While the flavour was good and I love semolina, somehow I couldn’t handle the combination. Nor could I quickly swallow a cup of budget instant coffee before leaving home at 6.40am. Not a great start.carrot rava upma edited

Morning tea: carrot rava upma and budget instant coffee. It tasted much better around 10am, when I was awake and hungry.

Lunch: rice cooked with onions and tomato. I ate this last year, and very tasty it was too.

Dinner: I had a brainwave about the breakfast I didn’t particularly like. I thickened it with flour and fried it in oil on the tava. Anything’s better fried! I also made chapati and a couple of paratha. I ate the paratha and have saved the chapati for breakfast and morning tea tomorrow. I also cooked some plain rice and what turned out to be a rather nice dal made with tinned tomatoes and yellow split peas.

fried rava upmadal and paratha


Japan May 24, 2013

Filed under: Travel — belladonnabess @ 3:41 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I can’t see much out of the window from where I am sitting, but as my plane flies in to Osaka, I can see that the skies have that haze of industry and activity common to large cities worldwide. I’ve given so little thought to my one-night stopover in Osaka that I haven’t really considered what Japan would be like. I don’t have any concept of just how populous Japan is. I know it’s huge, but it’s more than my brain can comprehend.

Still Kansai International Airport is considerably less chaotic than many other large airports I’ve visited. I make my way to the airport help desk to ask how to get to my hotel. I know precisely two Japanese words, but it’s a safe assumption that someone will speak English. I’m told it’s one stop on the train, so decide to give it a go.

Once I’ve found the ATM, I head for the station. I find a route map and the name of my station written in English lettering. But then I’m stuck. Some signage is in English, but not enough to do things like buy railway tickets, where I’m confronted by an array of machines covered with Japanese characters. I can say the name of the station I want, so I’d be ok with a person, but the machines are indifferent. I try a strategy that works in Wellington, but wouldn’t be recommended most places in the world – hovering around the machines looking confused. Someone comes and rescues me. Once again, I wish New Zealanders extended same the courtesy to Asian people struggling with English we receive when we travel.

Given that my hotel is a 5 minute train journey from the airport, I’ve accepted I’m unlikely to see much of Japan in the 20 hours I’m here. The wisdom of the internet has informed me that the closest thing to my hotel, apart from the railway station, is “Rinku Pleasure Town Seacle”, which appears to be a shopping mall with a food court and ferris wheel near the waterfront. My other choice is some sort of outlet mall specialising in American brands. I decide to take my chances with the pleasure town.

The shopping mall lives up to the stereotype of Japan as filled with images of cutesy (and to my mind profoundly disturbing) neotonous cartoon characters. I bought a few random items – some brightly coloured clips for closing plastic bags, sparkly stickers for the daughter of a friend, orange socks. People use that distinctively Japanese half nod/ half bow a lot, hand me receipts with two hands and seem happy with my efforts to say “hello” and “thank you” in Japanese. Most spoke enough English to help me, those that didn’t were patient and followed my sign language without trouble.

I decided to try the ferris wheel – a chance to sit down and look at the view. I loved the construction of it, all the interlocking metal silhouetted against the blue sky. The gondolas were brightly coloured, I hoped to get one of the oraange ones but timed it wrong and got purple. I’m sharing my gondola with a giant and rather disturing soft toy. Its face is huge and the eyes are almost as large as a human head.

Despite the haze, the view from the ferris wheel is spectacular. Kansai Airport is an artificial island in the bay, connected by a large bridge. Impressive engineers structures are everywhere. I’m staying in a 55 storeyed hotel (on the 50th floor). The entire suburb where I’m staying – Rinku-town – is reclaimed land. High motorways circle around the shoreline. A beautiful cable-stayed bridge crosses an inlet – although the adjective is probably redundant, has there ever been an ugly cable-stayed bridge?

Then I notice something familiar among the foreign. Behind the sprawl of the city, there is green. The hills are steep and furrowed, looking exactly like the hills I see every morning when I look across Wellington harbour. As in Wellington, it appears that these hills have confounded the engineers, and so they are left to the plants.

I realise that this is the second thing I’ve noticed in common with New Zealand. The first is that strange impression we give visitors of being a land of innocents, almost child-like. With Japan, it’s the ubiquitous cartoons and politeness. With New Zealand, it’s the casual friendliness and movies about hobbits. It’s largely untrue of course, both countries have their dark sides but they tend to be hidden. While I know I have no chance of finding out, it makes me wonder what people are thinking.


Primum non nocere May 18, 2013

Filed under: Environment — belladonnabess @ 2:30 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A combination of bad weather and a cold is keeping me indoors, so I thought I’d finish and article I’ve been working on recently.


It is six months after Cyclone Heta, which in January 2004 smashed through the tiny island nation of Niue, destroying homes, hotels and the hospital, and killing nurse Cathy Alec. The scars are visible everywhere – around the island, I see houses damaged and abandoned, while coastal forests are stripped bare. But more notable is the neatness. I’m driven along the main road where I’m told the Hotel Niue, along with many houses, was completely destroyed. I’d never have known, as nothing but bare, bulldozed ground remains. New houses, safely back from the coast, are being built. The hospital too is fully functioning, if basic, something my group was grateful for when one member became ill. None of this surprises our group leader, who has been to Niue before and notes that “they get things done here”.

Between the Niueans and an international aid effort, Niue is getting back on its feet. And among these aid efforts is a rather unusual mission: I’m there conducting an invasive weed survey and helping with weed control programmes. It isn’t the sort of thing that is usually done following a natural disaster or, for that matter, a disaster of our own making. But unfortunately, it is something that should be. We have a history of acting without thinking in the face of catastrophe, and forget to consider the long-term implications. Frequently those implications involve the introduction of invasive species, and resulting irreparable damage. Depending on the circumstances, these introductions can damage crops and livelihoods, destroy natural environments, damage waterways and even cost many thousands of lives.

I’m thinking of Niue right now because I have been following the story of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. This disastrous epidemic, which has so far killed more than 8,000 people, is surely the flagship case of well-intentioned international aid introducing invasive species and causing another disaster. But most biological invasions are slow-motion disasters, observable only over decades, while this one has unfolded in a little over two years, and soon enough after the earthquake that wealthy countries can remember where Haiti actually is.

It’s natural to make a connection between the earthquake and the United Nations activities in Haiti, but the UN first became involved in Haiti in 2000. Following escalating violence in 2004, a major peacekeeping mission was launched, and it is this peacekeeping mission that is the source of the cholera epidemic. It started in a rural area of the central plateau, an area barely touched by the earthquake, where Nepalese soldiers were camped at a UN base with a questionable sewage treatment system. The soldiers left home while Nepal was in the grip of a cholera outbreak, and the inevitable happened.

The Haitian government claimed compensation from the UN, but lost the case on grounds of technicality rather than fact. The UN just isn’t liable in these kinds of cases. A group of Kenyan farmers got the same result when they took on their own government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation over the introduction of “mathenge” – a plant introduced to control soil erosion that has become a serious pest for livestock farmers. Mostly, those paying the price don’t bother with legal action, and the tragedies unfold largely unnoticed by the rest of the world – and often even by those that have caused them.

Invasive species problems resulting from aid efforts fall into two groups. Some, like cholera in Haiti, were inadvertent introductions, while others, like mathenge, were intentionally introduced, but didn’t have quite the desired result. It’s the latter category that I first encountered, more than a decade ago on another remote island – Rodrigues.

East of Madagascar and a long way from anywhere, Rodrigues is a small island surrounded by a large reef, and populated by nearly 40,000 people. With much of the population surviving by subsistence farming and fishing, the natural resources of the island have struggled to cope. Much of the forest was cut down and burned for fuel, resulting in severe soil erosion. So the islad was replanted in fast-growing exotic trees. On the positive side, this stemmed the erosion and provided habitat which sheltered endangered birds and bats. But many of the exotic plants became invasive, and they blanketed the island in a thirsty, deep-rooted forest that sucked the water from the soil and dried up the rivers.

I thought I knew something about weeds when I arrived in Rodrigues, but the idea that they could suck an island dry had never crossed my mind.

Despite such lessons, the world of international aid still seems to see large-scale exotic tree planting as a universal panacea. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, some scientists and conservationists drew connections between coastal forest destruction, erosion and the level of impact of the tsunami in certain areas. But the answer was ready and waiting – plant trees.

That is how the World Bank came to fund the planting of casuarina trees along a third of the coastline of Tamil Nadu. Aimed at protecting the coast and inhabitants from future disasters, the plan had a few small flaws. Firstly, even if the connection between coastal forest destruction and tsunami damage was clear (it wasn’t), there’s a difference between not destroying natural coastal forests, and planting non-native trees in coastal areas like sand dunes that may not have been forested in the first place. Secondly, it threatened the native species of the coastline, such as the olive ridley sea turtle. And finally, in a piece of unfortunate irony, the inhabitants of coastal villages and resorts didn’t want their access to the sea blocked by casuarina forests, so in the end, these areas were left unplanted. The casuarinas ended up “protecting” only uninhabited areas of coastline.

It took a patient and persistent response by conservationists and some officials exhibiting the rare trait of common sense to reverse the threat to the turtles by removing some areas of casuarina trees. But that doesn’t reverse the fact that the World Bank, while preaching fiscal responsibility and austerity to struggling countries, spent millions of dollars on tree plantings that had to be ripped out a couple of years later.

So Niue was clearly lucky. They were not immediately inundated with inappropriate tree planting as a response to the cyclone. More unusually, someone was concerned enough about inadvertent invasive species arrivals to send a survey team, including me, to check whether the post-cyclone relief efforts had brought anything unwelcome with them. Of most concern was the donation of building materials for new houses from Tahiti. French Polynesia has one of the worst weed invasions in the Pacific, and we were especially concerned that the tiny seeds of miconia could have hitched a ride in a patch of mud.

We searched the island, especially in the area where building materials were being stored and new houses built, but found no miconia, and no other weeds that looked like they were associated with the relief efforts. Niue had escaped that time, but it turned out that they hadn’t always been so lucky. On an old experimental farm, where cows had been grazed in one of a series of failed attempts to establish viable industries, we found a weed that had not been reported in Niue before. It was well-established and unlikely to have arrived as a part of the cyclone relief – almost certainly it had been introduced during efforts to set up the experimental farm.

Part of the philosophy behind aid is a world without borders – where the people of an impoverished island halfway around the world are our brothers and sisters, and so we unite to help them. Unfortunately, like Victorian missionaries, we often “help” by sending people who believe they are experts, armed with generic, short-term, ideological solutions with apparently little idea of the consequences.

Living in this connected, global world, it’s easy to forget that the Earth’s ecosystems – the life support systems that keep us alive – did not develop in a united world. Each region has unique species and combinations of species, and predicting the results of moving them around is an inexact science. But sometimes it’s not that difficult. It’s not a difficult job to work out the consequences of taking soliders from an area with a cholera outbreak and putting them in an impoverished country without adequate sewage treatment.

Whatever international law says, the facts say that the UN has visited an awful fate on many Haitians, and that this was totally preventable. We have made variations on the same mistake often enough to know why it happens and how to stop it. The reality of disaster and conflict means that we won’t get it right every time. But applying some relatively simple risk assessment and risk management would at least break us out of the insane loop of endlessly repeating the same mistakes.

It’s time that international aid started applying the principle of primum non nocerefirst do no harm.

This article was inspired by Johnathan Katz’s article “In the time of cholera”.



Mulch! April 27, 2013

Filed under: Garden — belladonnabess @ 3:48 pm

11 bales of barley straw arrived yesterday. It may take me a while to use them all, but I’m planning on burying most of my garden knee deep in mulch for a bit.

Planting: more spring bulbs – crocus (Jean d’Arc, Snow Bunting, in the side garden, and Fiesta mix in a pot), Freesia (double mix, Golden Wave, Red Diamond in pots so I can have the scent inside when they are flowering), tulip (Kees Nellis, my favourite tulip because it’s so bright and cheerful, also in a pot).

Weeding: the first of my main vege beds.

Also planting: seedlings of pak choi, tat soi and celery in the bed mentioned above. Cordyline ‘Midnight Star”, along the side of the house in one of the messy areas. I’m hoping it will raise the tone a bit, the rest of that area is mostly weeds, with a couple of renga renga lilies.

Transplanting: various lettuce, NZ spinach and brassica seedlings into the same bed.

Search-and-destroying: convolvulus. I did battle with the gooseberry in order to get at the convolvulus roots. I got a good quantity dug up.

Inoculating: I planted sweet peas in the side garden (white and dark maroon, like most of the rest of that garden). They are looking rather pathetic and spindly. I realised that this may be because they are planted in compost, which will never have grown sweet peas, or any legume, before. This means no rhizobia, and no root nodules. So I grabbed a little soil from a garden where sweet peas had thrived, and sprinkled it around them. I hope that will do the trick.

Mulching: newly planted seedlings, bed with carrots and parnsips in it, under the hazelnut trees and random other bits of garden. One bale down, ten to go.

Eating: chard, kale, carrots, pears, the last of the apples and raspberries.


Drought’s broken April 20, 2013

Filed under: Garden — belladonnabess @ 1:26 pm

Ok, the drought’s broken, we get the message. Now how about it stops raining for a bit and I can get the garden in order.

Planting: last weekend I got into one of my beds, weeded it out and planted broccoli, pak choi, spring onions, rocket and spinach. There were already a few feral broccoli seedlings in there so I left them as well. The rocket seedlings were overgrown leftovers being sold cheap, all I need them to do is bolt and reseed my garden. For some reason the rocket’s disappeared from my feral collection.

Germinating: I’ve got a nice range of new lettuce varieties from the lettuces I allowed to bolt over the summer. It also looks like I have a bit of miner’s lettuce. Give it another week of warm, wet conditions and there should be all sorts sprouting up. Although possibly mostly fungi.

Sprouting: signs of life from all the lovely bulbs I planted a few weeks back. I know it’s only April, but I can’t wait for spring!

Eating: pears. Yum, yum, yum. Doyenne du comice is truly one of the most delicious fruits ever. My espalier is looking pretty good, with about 8 fruit this year. Also carrots, a few remaining zucchini, a few apples, raspberries and strawberries, a bit of chard and plenty of herbs.

Also eating: sprouts. I found the great sprout making kits I used at the Mars Desert Research Station on sale for half price (still not cheap). So I bought some and now I’m enjoying sprouts. Great to harvest some of my fresh vegetables on a day like this or a cold, dark evening without leaving the kitchen.

Gloating: I bought a half-dead Phalaenopsis orchid for $10 last spring. I haven’t always been successful with these, but I figured it was worth a try since they are normally $40 plus. Not only has it revived, it has resprouted off the old flower spike, and has a completely new flower spike as well.