I was saddened to learn of the death of the complementary medicine practitioner Jan de Vries on Tuesday – one of the loveliest gentlemen I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and to interview.
I’d known Jan since the 1990s – always smiling, he had a strong, distinctive and instantly recognisable Dutch accent and was a regular guest on my lunchtime radio show a number ofyears ago. Jan de Vries was one of the kindest, most generous people on earth, always offering his wisdom and help.
He called himself a ‘natureopath’ and strangely, I’d been thinking about him earlier this week, unaware that he’d been ill, when I caught a little bit of Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 and an interview with an expert food forager called Fiona Byrd.
She scours the country collecting food from the wild.
Jan was also passionate about nature’s bounty, particularly the beneficial and healing powers of plants.
Years ago when I was small, my dad would take me on early Sunday morning walks across fields where we would pick wild mushrooms and bring them home to mum who’d cook them for breakfast.
I’m not sure I would be confident enough now to pick wild mushrooms by myself and without my dad’s experienced eye, though I’ve always wanted to do one of those autumn foraging walks where experts teach you what’s good to eat and what to steer clear of.
And who hasn’t picked ripe blackberries on hedges in September and October? I’ve even found some wild garlic recently and added that to a salad with great results.
But my own autumnal search is usually for plump sloe berries which I use to make the winter supply of sloe gin, a warming and sweet concoction that takes about three months or more to mature but is well worth the wait and helps get through those cold winter nights when you sit by the fireside enjoying a nip or two.
Back to seaweed – which according to Woman’s Hour is very in vogue at the moment and can now be bought dried in most nationwide supermarket chains.
There are about 10,000 species of seaweed around the United Kingdom’s shores and just as the Japanese have known of its benefits for centuries, so have people on this island.
Carageen moss is one seaweed which has made its way from the traditional family kitchens of Ireland and on to the elite menus of restaurants like Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe House, where Carageen pudding is served both as a breakfast dish and as an after dinner dessert.
And we have a marmite relationship with dulse – we either love or hate the strange tasting, salty stuff. I foraged for seaweed only once, when I’d run out of well-rotted manure to plant my spuds in.
I had read in a book by Dr Alfred Vogel, Jan de Vries’ famous mentor, that seaweed is one of the most beneficial things a gardener can add to the soil – it fertilises, improves and regenerates it, particularly exhausted, sick soil.
In one of Jan’s many books he includes this quote by Alfred Vogel: “Life is like good garden soil. It brings forth nothing if we do not sow and water and care for it.”
No one understood that more than Jan. And by the way, the homegrown spuds that year were fantastic.