Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Tyrants Have it in for Ham

Apparently some Stalinist paperpusher has suggested that children should not be overexposed to ham sandwiches in case they become addicted and do hellish things to the nitrate content of their bodies. This I hear from Counting Cats and the Englishman, who links to this site, one I didn't know of, but which turns out to be very well informed on these matters, and puts the whole thing into perspective (fortunately, as the only thing I can remember about nitrates is that they're all soluble, which probably isn't relevant to the debate).

Now, this would just be one more case of some idiot mouthing off, and that's nothing new, except that governments have a habit of picking up on this kind of thing, and there is nothing politicians and petty bureaucrats love more than stopping us from doing things we might otherwise choose to do. The rant on freedom in a moment, first a few thoughts on ham.

There is an astounding number of things you can do with a pig, gastronomically speaking, there is almost no part of it that you can't eat, and in a number of different ways. The hams are the back legs, especially the rump, and there are, indeed, a number of favoured methods of preparing and preserving them; serrano ham, so delicious and so popular in my adopted land, is made by hanging the whole thing up in warm, dry air and waiting a few months (which is why it is common in the Spanish interior and rather less so in, say, Lancashire). Parma ham is made in a similar manner. York ham is boiled. The ham can be preserved by smoking or salting it, either whole or cut in pieces, and more than one of these methods may be combined.

You probably knew all that. My question is this- how does any of this count as processing, in the sense the word is usually given? And how does it alter the nitrate content? I would love to know why this person felt impelled to launch a crusade against ham, of all things.

Down here we eat a lot of the stuff, and we also eat a lot of the meat of the wild boar. A friend of ours spends many nights perched in a little nest that overlooks a route through his farm taken by the boar at night to drink at the lakes, and whenever he kills one it is butchered, made into steaks, other cuts, and part of it into 'tasajo'. Tasajo is also dry-cured, after being rubbed with salt, pepper and the spices of your choice, but you can't just hang up the whole ham, wild boar is too tough and the flavour too strong for that. It is cut into small strips and hung from hooks. Then, months later, you cut it with a very sharp knife and eat it if you have strong enough teeth. Mrs Hickory makes it herself from time to time, including the butchery, if required.

I may seem to be wandering from the point, but the thing is ham, and pig products in general, are natural, healthy, undergo very little 'processing', and are very cheap. We won't be fretting over our nitrate content here.

Just as we won't be worrying about smoking bans and minimum prices for alcohol. Manipulation of human behaviour is a favourite pastime of politicians of all colours, and they particularly enjoy manipulating one of the freest expressions of human behaviour, choice and interaction, the market. Placing a minimum price on alcohol in shops is grossly illiberal and, of course, will not work. The increase of private imports and the appearance of speakeasies will then provide the zealots with reasons to increase the prices and try other measures. Personally I shall construct a still in the garden shed. (It's not difficult, though it does take a bit of practice to avoid blindness and liver damage).

It's easy to say that pub landlords and customers should just have ignored the smoking ban, as hunters did the hunting ban, and it is true that they should have done, but the English habit is to obey the law, without judging it, and, of course, the nasty little types who promoted and who police this vile bit of oppression are not interested in justice, they would simply gang up, at random, on a few of the people who defy them, to try to frighten the rest. It's a very unpleasant business. I hadn't realized until now that they have even tried to apply it to private clubs, that is, groups of people associating freely on their own terms. Despicable.

I appreciate I'm a bit late to weigh in on the business of smoking in pubs, although the battle may not be lost, but change the reference to smoking at home, drinking in the presence of children, buying alcohol at a market rate (already impossible for many years, since most of what you pay goes to the government anyway), or even eating a ham sandwich, and you may have a draft of a post for next year. The best thing to do with politicians and other bossy, prodnose, self-important types is to ignore them, but we just can't seem to stop taking them seriously.

Down here on the farm we have a pump set up on a sort of bar counter, and we buy barrels from a wholesaler. Hardly any of us sees the inside of a bar in the summer. Instead we gather in the garden as the sun goes down, drink, eat and smoke as we wish, and as the nearest neighbours are three miles away and the nearest tyrannical little Hitler rather further away, in the village, all is freedom and peace.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Of Holes in the Ground and Anaesthetized Pigs

Recientemente a meteorite, universally described as being the size of the Earth, crashed into Jupiter. Cue spectacular photos and general confusion from the press, which invariably fails to grasp even the most basic points of a story about science.

There seems to have been some debate about whether it is possible to leave a crater in Jupiter, since it is almost all gas, with, at the most, a small, solid nucleus. The answer is, yes, it is possible. Although the leaving is not permanent, the Earth is a big thing, and it takes a while for an Earth-sized hole to close up. Quite long enough to call on your friends on the interlab chatlines and tell them to have a look and take the above-mentioned photographs which aren't worth as much as Peter Mandelson emerging from the back door of a brothel but a few quid is always welcome.

The real point, though, is what a crater is. It isn't a hole in the ground. When you sling a stone into mud what you get is a hole on the ground. When a meteorite hits the Earth you get a crater. The difference is the energies involved.

You could read this in Wikipedia or some such source, or just ask someone who didn't stop doing planetary geology 20 years ago, but then you wouldn't get to hear about the anaesthetized pigs. Because this is not a rant about the iniquities of the press, nor is it, other than incidentally, a serious attempt to inform. It's about memories, from the days when I studied astrophysics at UCL, and learnt about craters from someone whose name escapes me now, but who was an international expert and had taken part in the seventies in the celebrated 'anaesthetized pig' experiments.

When a meteorite hits a planetary surface it is moving at several kilometres per second, and thus has enormous kinetic energy. Energy doesn't just disappear, so the old rock doesn't just go 'thwwunk' and sit there in the mud like an aging tortoise; its kinetic energy is transformed into heat which is shared between the rock and the ground it struck. The effect of this is to melt both the meteorite and the ground, and the system flows hydrodynamically. Thus, it's not like dropping a stone into mud, it's like dropping a stone into water. The transformation of kinetic energy into thermal energy is not intantaneous, and while it is going on a broadening ring of ejecta is thrown out, centred on the point of impact, which is frozen at the point where the energy drops to a value that won't melt the rock.

What happens when you drop a stone into water? You get a circular hole, a drop comes flying out of the middle, and a series of ripples spreads across the surface until the hole is filled and it's all smooth again. But very briefly, there was a crater in the water. In rock, the filling process stops, with a spike in the middle where the drop was coming up, or even a central ring where a second ripple had time to form before it froze. The meteorite itself is gone, consumed, become part of the ejecta surrounding the outer ring of the crater.

We're getting to the pigs.

In the seventies, academics from my alma mater designed an experiment involving particles with sufficient kinetic energy to create hydrodynamic flow at the point of impact. The machine was essentially a gun, which could fire a projectile, I seem to recall a very small ceramic sphere, at a speed of some seven miles per second (that's from memory, but it was very quick indeed). They also had a high quality, very high speed camera, several thousand frames per second (because it all happens very quickly). They tested it in a vacuum chamber by firing at a number of different materials, including water (yes, and including pig's flesh) and at many different angles.

The films are fascinating (and probably on Youtube or itunes- I can't check at the moment). In all cases the process looks exactly like what happens in water, except that it stops at the point where the energy runs out; the same excavation process outward from the point of impact, with matter thrown up over the rim, the consumption of the projectile, the central spike or ring depending on the original energy, the whole Arizona/Yucatán/surface of the Moon look of the final crater and so on.

When you're testing a wide range of materials someone is going to suggest flesh, and pigs were what they could get (possibly only one, in fact). It was anaesthetized for humanitarian reasons, though since the impact would have instantly scrambled its brain, and the experiment was done in a vacuum chamber there wasn't really much point. It kept it still, in any case.

Since you ask, the answer is 'messy'. It's mainly subcutaneous fat, you see. For the rest, it looks like any other crater in a soft solid with a low melting point. (On the other hand this may be an invented memory; I'm not certain they ever showed us the pig).

So yes, it is perfectly possible to form a crater on Jupiter, although it will not be permanent. And the vast meteorite that created it is not somewhere deep in the heart of the planet; it is no more, it has gone to the great rubble yard in the sky, it has become one with the five elements, as the Brahmins say.

If anyone else remembers these experiments or took part in them, I'd love to here from you.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Quixotic Musings

In Part II of 'Don Quijote' that great if misguided gentleman enters a cave called 'La Cueva de Montesinos', let down on a rope by Sancho, and spends the night there. He emerges the next morning full of the visions he has seen there, of the phantasmal visitors he has had and of the tasks commended to him by the spirits. To a certain extent these visions dictate his subsequent movements. Sancho is a tad sceptical of what his boss says and, towards the end of the book, Don Quijote more or less admits that he may have dreamt it all, or just made it up.

La Cueva de Montesinos is a real cave, a few miles from here, in rocks above the lakes, on land that belongs to our neighbours, who are Mrs Hickory's cousins. It's an encarstic formation, and is narrow but penetrable to a considerable distance. Cervantes describes how Don Quijote is lowered some 80 metres by Sancho, though in fact you don't need a rope, you can walk, crouch, crawl and climb about that distance, maybe a little more. It reaches down to the water level of the lakes, down to the lake itself in fact, since the water that lies in the bottom gallery is a submerged part of the nearby lake, and it is possible to reach it.

It is years since I saw it, so yesterday I took my trusty rucksack and walking shoes and wandered over there. The brother of the former gamekeeper here used to make a form of living in the summer by showing it to visitors, and he and his son, as well as telling a bit of the geology of the area and its place in the book, had invented a large number of stories based on the rock formations, imagining the faces Don Quijote might have seen in them. They told these stories at enormous length, to the general delight of the visitors, not all of whom understood a word they said.

Now his son has a cap and a badge from the town council, but he still tells the same stories at the same length and with the same enthusiasm, and as he takes you through the cave he brings both it and the figure of Don Quijote to life. You quite understand how the old boy could have seen and believed all manner of things down there.

Sorry agian for the lack of photos- with the USB thing it would take all day- and I don't have a copy of the book to hand to give specific references, but if you're ever in the area, read the chapter carefully, and then let José show you the cave and give you his version of Don Quijote's vision. I can assure you it's worth it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Watching the Wildlife

When I'm down here on the farm in the summer I spend hours every morning and sometimes in the afternoon walking or cycling over many miles of the surrounding countryside. I sweat a lot, and burn off the fat, which is one reason why I do it, and I see a lot of things, which is the other.

Being moderately self-aware, I realize that the average blog reader is not interested in the size of my gut, so this post is about the things I see when out walking.

Except that I don't see very much at all. The land, yes, in all it's colours and forms, in its beauty and its occasional ugliness. I see fields, planted, harvested, ploughed and fallow, in their different colours, textures and shapes, and from all angles. This is dry country, what they call 'secano', but there are a few wells and those with enough water mark out huge circles of land which are watered by pipes up to half a mile long strung from wheeled towers that move very slowly around a central tap.

As you walk, there are always new valleys to discover, and 'cañadas', old, dried up watercourses, of which there are very many here and each has its own interest and charm. And small vineyards, the particular beauty of which is that they are the only things you can see here which are a genuine English green- everything else, holm oaks, other varieties of Quercus, rosemary, sage, olives and so on, which cover the landscape, are all a much darker, duller green, without the lively brightness the word green still instinctively brings to my mind.

Rabbits are everywhere, as are partridges, and you see plenty of pigeons and a few hares if you keep your eyes open, sometimes you see eagles and hawks and kites on the wing, but where is everything else? There are wild boar by the dozen, deer, weasels and stoats, eagle owls, birds of prey of many different kinds, squirrels both grey and red, foxes, mountain cats, bustards great and little... Over the years I have seen all of these things on at least one occasion, but so rarely that it is hard to believe the hills are filled with them, as indeed they must be.

In order to try to catch these creatures unawares I finally persuaded Mrs Hickory to go into the woods with me after dark and find a covered spot to sit in (she used to be easier to convince, but that's another story). We spent two hours lying on a covering of bark, leaves, moss, acorn cups and dry earth, being walked over by ants and beetles, and trying to keep very still and quiet, hoping not to attract the attention of snakes, millipedes, or scorpion spiders.

Before us was an open area among the trees where water used to collect. Now there is a large basin that is regularly filled but seemed to be dry. The moon was three quarters full and cast bright shadows. We could see quite clearly. Jupiter rose off to our right and climbed up the sky. An eagle owl came over our shoulder and swooped down and along the hollow in front of us. And... that was it.

There were not even many sounds. For much of the time there was silence, broken from time to time by the tumultuous squealing of dormice in the mating season. We saw nothing. Yes, if we were really serious we would have stayed all night and we would go back again and again, but I was disappointed that there should be so little to see, even in that short space of time. I expected much more. Clearly my effort meant nothing to the creatures of the hillside. Patience, they tell me, in the only way.

Back in the garden, the dormice were going crazy, scurrying up and down trees, along the walls of the flowerbeds, across the steps and the stones that form the floor, ignoring the people, the light, the voices, the food lying around, the mousetraps, and everything else in their attempts to catch the females. They are cheeky animals at any time; when the sap rises they have neither shame nor fear. We sat in the garden with a cold beer watching the show.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Mail and Organic Food

We don't expect the Daily Mail to pay the slightest attention to concepts like truth, research or intellent thought, or indeed to recognise that there is a world beyond its garden gate that is not exactly the way it thinks it should be, and to criticize some silly girl for writing nonsense there is like calling attention to the spelling mistakes in American novels, but Google News, for some reason, thought I might be interested in this, and I wrote about the same thing last week, so I thought a few more remarks were in order.

The thing to remember about organic food is that it is a luxury. A luxury many people who can afford it are willing to pay for, because they have been converted to the religion or because it does, indeed, often taste better. But a luxury nonetheless, which by definition, most people cannot afford (and, pace the Mail and its readers, the world does not stop at the end of your road, or at Dover, or at the Straits of Gibraltar).

It is a luxury because it is expensive, and it is expensive not because the supermarkets place a big markup on it (which they do, of course, since there is a large market of well-off zealots willing to pay almost any price to appease the green god), but because it is very expensive to produce.

This is not hard to understand: to produce food for a large number of people requires a lot of land, even in England where land is extremely fertile. Organic farming uses very poor quality fertilizers, dramatically reducing both the yield and the quality of the soil year by year. It doesn't use pesticides so half of what does grow is eaten by insects or birds. It doesn't use preservatives so the product has a much shorter shelf life after picking. In organic cattle farming the quality of the feed is lower for the above reasons, and each animal produces much less meat or milk because they are not treated hormonally, and so on.

Yes, the result can taste much better, but the yields are vastly lower. (And nutritionally, there is no particular reason why organically grown food should be better for you.) Quite simply, if everyone farmed organically we would starve. (Caveats apply as in previous article). And this is the point that the Mail and some, though not all, of its commenters fail to understand. Organic farming makes a highly inefficient use of a limited resource. It was only by finding ways to exploit this resource more efficiently that 60m people are able to live very comfortable, healthy and long lives in Britain. Inefficient farming can only ever be a luxury market for that reason, unless our leaders go mad or start reading the Mail.

If you like to think that your breakfast egg and bacon came from a hen that runs around contentedly eating and drinking at will, and from a pig that led a free and happy life, and you are willing to pay for it, go ahead, viva la libertad, but don't try to make the rest of us do it or the poor will not eat.