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This post is part of the UK Herbarium blog party Gems from the Herbal Library.
When I was young, like many of that age I loved dyeing clothing. There was a magic in the transformation of an old favourite or a new opshop find simply by immersing it in coloured water. As a teen I used Dylon dyes, bought in wee metal containers from the supermarket or chemist. They were easy to use, affordable and perfect for teenage experiments. I remember the excitement when we discovered Dygon, the chemical that stripped existing colour from most cloth so it could be redyed in the colour of our choice. In my early twenties I moved on to procion dyes and screen printing, both giving me a much wider range of things to experiment and play with.
Somewhere in all that I remember collecting dandelions from the lawn of one memorable flat – the lawn was completely covered in brilliant yellow blossoms and I was sure there must be a way to get that brilliance into cloth. I don’t remember the technique I used, but the results were disappointing. The reading I did at the the time and the people I consulted all seemed to be saying that wool was relatively easy to dye, but cotton wasn’t, and either still needed chemicals of varying degrees of toxicity to make the dye take. I was already finding the procion dyes and screen printing chemicals came with impacts on human health and then when it dawned on me that those dyebaths and cleanup chemicals we were pouring down the drain at the end of the day had to actually go somewhere… well it was easiest to just stop. Occasionally I would read up some more on using plants to dye with, but it still seemed that overly toxic chemicals were needed and I could never reconcile that with the idea that people have made beautiful clothing for eons before we had those chemicals.
So it’s been my utter delight to discover the work of India Flint and other natural dye artists. Flint is an Australasian* fibre artist who has been working with plant dyes for twenty years, building up an impressive body of knowledge on what works and what we can experiment and play with successfully. What makes her work so exciting is the low level of toxicity of the substances she uses (many can be found in the kitchen), and her ecological sensibility – we can have beautiful fabric and clothing without damaging the land.
*Born and living in Australia but has connections into NZ and a deep understanding of the land here.
Flint has pioneered ‘eco-printing‘ on fabrics (using plants), and has specialised in the dye properties of many of Australia’s eucalypts (animal fibres will take eucalypt dyes without the need for any mordant).
The book Eco Colour is both a showcase of natural dyeing and an instructive on how to. A large format book, it’s is beautifully presented, with copious colour photos. These include examples of Flint’s work, the plants and the processes.
Flint has a clear communication of the problems with chemical dying – from the effect of what goes down the drain, to the impact on the dyer, and the impact on the wearer of having chemicals next to our skins (I can still sometimes pick the smell of dygon-like chemicals on commercial clothing that has obviously been through a predying process, especially wool).
I also love her ecological sensibility. On the issue of colourfastness, where commercial dyes are meant to last years and so strong, very toxic chemicals are used to achieve this, she advises that if naturally dyed cloth fades, you can simply re-dye it. For those of us that love simplicity and the magic of the dying process this is perfect.
Perhaps closest to my heart is the concept of bioregionalism. I’m a bioregional herbalist (I believe that most of our medicine can come from where we live) and Flint focusses on dying with the plants that grow around her. It’s hard to describe the importance of this sometimes, but on an obvious, practical, post-peak oil level the skill to create beauty from our landbase is invaluable.
More than that though, bioregionalism takes us into such a direct relationship with the land that it becomes impossible to not see the connections between the land, ourselves and how we treat the world. Flint’s work demonstrates and reflects that relationship, for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s not just the ability to craft fabric without excessive chemical use, it’s that the craft, the art and the play are taken back to their natural source in the land, and so are we.
In more practical terms Flint outlines many techniques: how to prepare dyes, the various mordants and what they can be used on, how time affects the process, the plants themselves and the colours they yield, health and safety (natural dyes and mordants need careful handling too), how the metal of the dyepot or resist can change colour etc. This is probably not the best book for an absolute beginner – it helps to know what a mordant is for instance, and basic dyeing techniques. Flint does explain each concept and technique as she goes, but she doesn’t give actual recipes. Natural dyes can be used by beginners more easily than harsh chemical dyes, so Eco Colour would sit well alongside a basic dyeing primer for those not used to the techniques (try the internet or library).
Many of the substances used in natural dyeing can be found at home or in the supermarket – soda, vinegar, milk – and Flint explains how these can be disposed of at the end of the dye-ing process. She also introduces the basic chemistries involved.
Although she has done extensive work with the native eucalypts, most of the plants in the book are common in many parts of the world. Further, the techniques are imminently transferable to any plant. I’m already eye-ing up plants in my neighbourhood wondering what dye would result.
There is an abundance of techniques to try out, ranging from the simple and known ordinary dye baths to the intriguing (ice dyeing) and the even more intriguing (compost dyeing). Flint intersperses the book with historical accounts, both from her own life and family traditions, her natural dyeing antecedents, and general plant dyeing background.
There are many things here to delight the herbalist. Flint talks about how plants high in alkaloids can be used as mordants and notes that many medicinal herbs will be useful in dyeing because of this. Tannin rich plants is the other obvious one.
I should point out that I’m not an artist. I have some craft skills but my experiments with plant dyes are mostly for practical purposes – how to transform the colour and look of fibre and cloth in ecologically sensitive ways, so that I can use them in my own life. While Flint is an artist and the book is for the artist’s eye, the techniques in the book are adaptable for more mundane projects too.
India Flint has a blog, and there are links there to other natural dyers the world over. Eco Colour is available from many online booksellers, and in NZ it’s also available in libraries (by interloan if your local doesn’t have it). Amazon in the UK has a Look Inside! preview that doesn’t do justice to the visual splendour of the book but does show the contents, index and introduction. Flint also travels extensively giving workshops.
I was a bit worried because I’d heard varying reports on eating eel – from it being bland and rubbery to it being so strong you needed to cook it in certain ways to tone it down. I’m pleased to find it is both easy to cook and delicious!
One of the ethics for me in eating meat is a commitment to use as much as possible of the animal that has died to feed me. This is about valuing that animal’s life (and death) but it’s also about sustainable practice. If I can get three times more nutrients from this eel by eating all of it rather than just the ‘meat’, then I can take only one eel instead of three. Traditional cultures have always used the whole animal in some way, and many of the parts we throw out now are in fact the most nutritious.
I’d read and heard various techniques for skinning eels and the necessity of removing the slime from the outside of the skin. A couple of friends said they eat the skin, and one said she doesn’t deslime at all because she feels it’s part of the nutrition, so that’s what I went with. Fish skin is always so tasty, and it seemed like there was a good amount of oil in and just under the eel skin that I didn’t want to lose. I found the eel a bit slimey when handling it – don’t bother trying to wash your hands in water while cutting it up, use a towel to wipe your hands instead – but it wasn’t obvious in the cooking. I don’t know why people try and remove it, but then one of the attractions of eel for me is the large amount of fish oil – maybe some people don’t want that.
Cutting up the eel was a bit tricky – the skin still being tough, and the spine too. I’m sure technique is alot to do with it. I ended up cutting most of it into ‘steaks’ i.e. cutting across the body in cross section. I hadn’t bled the eel so there was a good chunk of blood along the spine still which I left in to cook:
I’d looked up some recipes for jellied eel and thought I’d try that because it seemed a good way of accessing the best nutrients in the eel. The long slow cooking in water would make it very digestible and ‘hold’ in all the goodies. First I melted some butter in the bottom of a casserole dish. Then I put in the steaks and sprinkled them with salt and a large handful of chopped fennel leaf. I just covered all this with water and added 3 tablespoons of chickweed vinegar (any good quality vinegar will do).
The oven was preheated to 170C. With the lid on I let it cook for about an hour.
The long slow cooking and the vinegar extract all the ‘jelly’ from the eel and once cooled it’s meant to be very jelly like. Mine wasn’t but I think it was because I used so much water. However it was very yummy, both the meat and the broth. The skin did indeed taste great, possibly an acquired texture for some but very edible. The meat was a bit chewy (cooking temperature could be a bit lower) although not rubbery, and the flesh fell apart easily making it very soupy. The spine as easy to pull out but there were some random wee bones which made for careful eating. I found it hard to see what was happening with the bones when cutting it up before cooking, so I need to learn how to fillet eel. It reheated well and I’ve frozen some to see how that goes.
I also froze some steaks raw, and all of the fat (need to figure out what to do with that and if it needs rendering). The liver I sautéed with onion. It was incredibly tender and very mild tasting – much easier to eat than the liver from land animals.
I’m also having a go at drying some strips of eel, but it’s an experiment as I’ve never dried meat before. I’d tried taking out the bones, not very well I’m afraid. But the spine and head and gill section of the body all went into a big pot to make stock. I added a large roughly chopped onion (skin on) and a couple of chopped carrots, covered it well with water and set it on a slow element for a couple of hours. It simmered, didn’t reduce down much but produced a tasty broth that I’ve been eating with grains and beans for the last few days. I also used some to cook rice. The rest of the broth has gone into the freezer in ice cube trays for later use.
It was such a large fish and I had more than enough to go on with so I gave the bottom third of the eel to a friend. The left overs from the cooking (the cooked spine bits, gills and head) went into a hole in the ground next to a recently planted fruit tree. The only bit of the eel that got ‘thrown out’ was the intestine and stomach which I had thrown in the lake because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to do or not. I know trout feed at that spot, probably eels too…
I got given an eel the other day. Here’s another post on what I did with it.
This is a bit of a geeky post. I love anatomy. I didn’t eat meat for a long time, and now when I do each death and meal becomes a biology lesson. Dissecting the eel teaches me about its life and things like what it’s been feeding on. I thought I would find gutting an eel interesting but I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Not for the first time, but I majorly wished I had a decent camera when I did this.
One of the things that’s become obvious while learning about eel is the importance of the right tools. A well sharpened knife would have made this alot easier (I used a curved butcher’s knife which seemed a good shape). Eel skin is quite tough (apparently it can cured to make pouches and handbags).
I had left the eel in a bucket overnight. The next morning I set to gutting and cleaning it. I decided to take it to the lake to do this, and I’m really glad I did. It was so much easier than if I had been at home. I actually did the gutting and cleaning in a small creek a few metres up from the lake, partly because I spent some time last night on the Fish n Hunt forum reading stories about how monster eels rear up out of ponds and rivers when they smell food and snatch catch from people’s hands.
Using the creek meant that the clean up afterwards was pretty straightforward too, down to the nice silty sand for cleaning the buckets. All I had was a bucket, knife, towel and phonecamera.
Firstly I laid the eel on its back in the creek and washed off any grit and sand. I tried cutting the skin directly, unsuccessfully, so I then used the knife to cut up from the vent. This was easiest with the point in the vent, the blade facing forward and upward. I kept my hands behind in case the knife slipped, and once the cut was started it was relatively easy to keep cutting in this way (essentially from underneath the skin):
As I went I peeled back the skin to exposed the innards, taking care to not cut or nick the intestines. This wasn’t hard to do either as there was quite a lot of room inside. Here’s the lower intestine (the pinky, windy tube). The creamy coloured bit between my thumb and the intestine is fat:
Near the top end of the fish is the liver (the large red bit). It was larger than I expected. The intestines were covered in a beautiful layer of blood vessels. The bluey coloured bit just under the left of the liver is the bladder. If you enlarge this photo you can see better how the intestine is on the left (it coils a bit as it nears the vent), and on the right, underneath that other set of blood vessels is the stomach:
Right near the top is what I think is the heart. It was really small. You can see the bladder better too (just under my thumb):
Here’s a better shot of the fat. At this stage I thought it was going to be hard to remove (especially without cutting into organs), but later it was actually easy to cut away with some scissors:
With the whole cavity exposed I was able to get under the organs and cut them out without doing too much overall damage. Here’s the liver…
and the tiny heart, with lots of fat around it…
Now that I’d taken the top organs out, I was able to remove the intestines. I’m not sure but I think the dark red bit is the pancreas:
I managed to nick the bladder, which was blue but leaked out this intensely yellow urine. See the shiny rounded bit in the middle at the bottom? That’s an air bladder. It’s big and very central within the eel. I popped that too:
Somewhere in all that I must have cut into the esophagous, because here is a couple of little fishes, partially digested that popped back out from the stomach. All through this the stomach has been tucked away underneath everything else (or above everything else if the eel was up the right way):
Here’s the same end, where I’m sticking my finger into the top of the stomach tube. All the insides of the eel were really smooth:
And finally it’s all out. This is the first decent look at the stomach. I’ve lost track a bit, I think the stomach is on the left in my hand. It doesn’t look like it’s separate from the rest of the intestine:
Here’s the last photo. This is looking down the throat of the eel. See where my thumb is, in the middle of that depression that looks like stripes is the esophagus. Directly under the thumbs and on the four ‘corners’ of the depression are darker pink pads that are very coarse and grabby. I’m guessing these help the eel hold onto it’s food that is still alive while it swallows it:
By beginner’s guide I don’t mean only for beginners I mean by a beginner. Seriously. These posts are about how to do something when you don’t know what you are doing. But I’m a great believer in us being able to relearn the old ways, and even if we don’t have someone to teach us directly there is alot we can figure out ourselves by paying attention, talking to people, and giving it a go. So here goes…
I’m going to be talking about killing an eel, and then I’ll do a post on gutting and stuff (with photos). Just letting you know in case that’s too much for some.
I remember catching eels once as a kid but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t eat them and I have no idea how we killed them. I’ve tickled a big old eel that was under a log in the river once, and I’ve seen them when I’ve been swimming or walking in rivers and lakes. An old friend, who’s a rascal, has told me what I hope are apocryphal stories about people getting bitten by eels while swimming, and how the eel latches on and you have to kill it to get it to let go (he tells me these stories because he knows I go swimming in eely places and because he’s an old bastard). Consequently, I’ve been wanting to learn how to kill an eel for some time. To be fair to the eels though, they’ve always been more than generous sharing their territory with me. I’ve had a few people tell me about being bitten by eels (not latched on) and it seems that it’s a defensive action (you step on them under a bank, that kind of thing).
I’ve also been wanting to learn to eat eel because it makes more sense to me to eat oily fish from my neighbourhood rather than take fish oil supplements from Scandinavia or wherever and because eels strike me as being very nutritious. For the past few years I have been picking people’s brains about eels. The biggest obstacle for me is that so many people say eels are really hard to kill. And then I get variations on what you are supposed to do: cut their tails off, hit them on the head, cut the head off etc. Some people also are a bit scathing about eel, like it’s not a nice or worthy food. Similar to how rabbit is seen I guess. But the more I learn about eels the more I understand how awesome they are and I’m all for taking some of that awesomeness into me.
A friend and I were at the beach last night, having a cup of tea and a conversation when some campers walked past. These are people that come here every year, and when I asked them what they were doing they said they were going to catch an eel. One guy said did I want it? He was joking, but of course I said yes!! So they put out a line, which was just a line and a large hook with a bit of trout on it. We stood around and talked for 10 minutes, and then there was an eel on the line. They pulled it in, and it was a reasonably big one – I later measured it at 1180mm. A friend told me today that an eel grows 1 foot every 10 years. That makes this eel nearly 40 years old. Just a few years younger than me, which is giving me some things to think about.
It didn’t struggle very much, which surprised me, just wriggled a bit and lay there and watched. I suspect they’re not always like that. I’m not very good about killing things, it’s too easy for me to imagine the experience of the animal (or what I think the experience is). I seem to be able to see my own death in the death of animals and that’s not always easy.
So I asked them if they would kill it straight away (we were standing round talking about how big it was). I had a tomahawk in the back of the car, so the man hit the eel on the head (just behind the eyes) three times with the back of the axe. The eel was obviously very stunned. The man said they take a long time to die, but he thought that hitting it more wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve heard this before, something to do with the way the eel’s nervous system works. He though the eel was now dead, even though it still moved a bit. He was very cool about it, asking me if I was ok with this. Essentially I had to put the still moving a bit eel in my car and take it home like that. I asked him to cut the head off for me, which he did. It was really dead then. I think it’s easier to process eels if the head is on, but I still have things to learn about their deaths and what to do afterwards, so I figure this first time having it really dead was best all round.
All this seemed manageable to me, and I think I could do this myself now. I gave my silent thanks to Eel, and the lake, and my out loud thanks to the man who was willing to kill something for me. This is a very cool and relatively untraumatic way to get my first eel and I am grateful to the eel for giving up its life so graciously. I’m also grateful for the generosity of strangers and that I live in a place where it’s normal to give an eel to someone you just met. Then we put the eel in the back of the car and drove home.
I’ll write about the gutting, cleaning, cooking and eating in some other posts.
This is a short fin eel (Anguillis australis). You can’t see this in the photo but you can tell because the fin doesn’t go all the way to the head. Long fin eels the fin goes up to the head (I had been thinking the short and long where how far the fin went out from the body). Long fin eels (Anguillis dieffenbachii) are endemic (they don’t live anywhere else in the world) and endangered in NZ. People say you should put them back. I’m not sure how you get a big long hook out of a live eel’s throat, but I agree it’s a good idea if you can release it. I’m relieved we didn’t get one last night.
Longfins have been swimming up NZ rivers for 65 million years. They go upstream as young fish, and then several decades later they swim 5,000 km out into the Pacific to breed, and then they die. Females only breed once and lay millions of eggs. The eggs become larvae then drift back to NZ on ocean currents where they turn into baby eels and swim up the rivers to live. Eels seem to do alot of things in a grand way. They exude strength and in my opinion demand respect.
Short fin eels seem to have a similar life. Te Papa has a page on them.
From what I’ve read, really big eels are most likely females that haven’t bred yet. Some people say not to take the big ones, but I don’t really understand this (maybe the big ones have better survival genes?) unless people mean that smaller ones are more likely to be male (which is a better take from an ecology and sustainability perspective).
I think alot of what I’ve read about eels is about up North, because in the big rivers in the South the eels can’t do what they’ve been doing for 65 million years. Some eels are locked in (including the one I’m about to eat) by the big dams on the Clutha, Waitaki and Waiau rivers. That’s a huge catchment. I don’t know yet what how those eels breed, or what happens to the ones that try and swim up those rivers to the lakes. I find it incredibly sad that so many eels are now locked in and can’t fulfil their ancient genetic drives. Some dams apparently have special channels for the eels to run through. I’ll have to find out what happens with the big dams.
I also need to find out how to tell the sex of an eel before and after you kill it. It’s possible the big dam-locked eels are also males as they can’t go out to sea to breed either and so just keep growing.
The general Maori word for eel is tuna (in my limited understanding that’s pronounced too-nah, not tune-ah like the sea fish). Southern Maori have many names for different kinds of eels (Herries Beattie lists over 20). Kai tahu tradition suggests the eel harvest starts once the popohue starts to flower. That’s the native clematis and it’s usually flowering here in October. I don’t know why that’s the eel harvest time – maybe because the eels breed in autumn? There is alot for me to learn here – I’m thinking already about how healthy the dam-locked populations are, and what are good eeling practices to ensure eels get to survive and live well.
Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori by Herries Beattie
He Kete Taoka – Southern Cultural Materials Resource Kit collated by Rua Mccallum
More of my eeling adventure:
I heard a comment on National Radio the other day, where someone was asking what wildcrafting is. The term seems self explanatory to me but maybe it’s not such a common word so it creates some puzzlement? A NZ search of google for ‘wildcraft’ brings up only 40 hits! It is a common word in other parts of the world though, especially the US.
I’ve used it predominantly for the harvesting of medicinal plants from the wild for making herbal medicines but it can be used more broadly than that, eg for harvesting food or materials for crafts from the wild. I guess it’s specific to plants (and fungi). Harvesting animals is called hunting.
Many of us have experiences of wildcrafting even if we don’t call it that. Picking field mushrooms is common to many kiwis. As is blackberry harvesting. Many Maori have unbroken traditions of harvesting food, medicine and other resources from the wild.
Discussions about wildcrafting often go hand in hand with ethics. Unfortunately it’s been common in many places in the world for herbs growing in the wild to be over-harvested once the herb becomes popular and is commercialised as a medicine. Examples of this are golden seal, echinacea and slippery elm in the US. If you are buying herbal medicine that has been imported please check that the plant isn’t endangered and is being harvested ethically. See United Plant Savers as a starting point.
In NZ the situation is interesting because we have two systems (at least) of land-based herbal medicine here. One is native, the rongoa of Maori that is based around native plants that have evolved in these islands in relative isolation for millennia. The ethics are more involved than I want to go into in this post, but suffice to say that we are still losing native species so particular care is needed when approaching native ecosystems for medicine.
Alongside that are the common weeds and garden herbs brought here by Europeans in the past few hundred years but used elsewhere in the world for millennia as healing plants. Many of these introduced plants have naturalised, some locally, some in a very widespread way. Some are considered invasive pests – st john’s wort, perennial nettle – others are largely ignored until they bother someone eg dandelion*.
There are some general guidelines for ethical wildcrafting – take only from established colonies of plants, take amounts that won’t be detrimental to those colonies, don’t harvest rare or endangered plants. Be mindful of those plants needs to reproduce. Be respectful of the plants and the land you are harvesting from. Be respectful to the owners and kaitiaki of the land you are harvesting from.
*there is a native dandelion but I think most dandelions we see in NZ are the introduced species