January so far – a quick update!

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Print edition: Interview with Dale Berning for Cook Kitchen Encounters, Guardian Cook 23.01.2016

A quick update for now, mostly to say thank you to all those of you who have got in touch following my interview in the Guardian last weekend. Being interviewed by Dale was good fun, and hearing all your kind words and stories even more so. For those of you who missed it, you can find the piece here.

So far, 2016 has got off to an auspicious start, and I have many plans in the pipeline, which you will hear more about as soon as each seed sprouts and starts to grow!  I am rigorously planning my shared allotment, and I’m really looking forward to bringing the site into its own. On that note, a little shout out to the people at Coombe Allotments, a 253 year old Asset of Community Value located in an Area of Astounding Natural Beauty currently faced with closure. The local community is fighting hard to keep the site open for future generations. Please do take the time to show them your support.

For the rest of you planning on ordering your seeds this year, why not have a read of my (dirty!) little history of the seed industry, and a piece I wrote for the Soil Association about how we can shape the industry’s future for the better? Oh, and if you’re based in the South of the country, make sure to visit Seedy Sunday this weekend!


A Pint of Plain: Betjeman, Flann O’Brien, and how stout shaped the history of Ireland

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 13 January 2016

A pint of ‘plain’: London may be the birthplace of porter, but Ireland became the home of stout.

After five weeks of waiting, the moment has come. Under the cover of darkness, we lift out the barrel from its cavernous location. The deep-brown liquid lurches behind the air-locked, frosted pane of the vessel. How will it be? There is a mild nervousness to this moment. Did we get it right? Please say we got it right. None of us will say it for fear of somehow jinxing ourselves, but there’s a good feeling about this batch.

Beer. Well, specifically, a porter. A deep, hearty, near-sweet dark-brown liquid, and the lifeblood of many a nation. Porter, and its burlier brother stout, remain an enduring link between London and Ireland, and locally distinctive varieties are celebrated in both places. If London was the birthplace of this tenebrous ale [1], however, Ireland became its home – and it remains serious business to this day [2]. It’s no coincidence the Irish Rover set out to New York with seven million barrels of it.

In Mallow, Co. Cork, where I spent much of my childhood, the drinking of stout was a serious business. No self-respecting Corkman would be caught dead with his hand wrapped around a glass of Guinness. It had to be Murphy’s. You could try and order a Beamish, but let’s just say that you wouldn’t start making friends fast. You could read a person’s allegiances by their choice of the dark stuff. There is no guessing where those of the family-run Murphy’s lay, built on the site of a holy well [3]. It was a catholic drink in both senses of the word: a universal drink for the workers and the rebels, who were, for the most part, Catholics. Had he not lived in Dublin, the heartland of Guinness, I would swear blind that Flann O’Brien had written The Workman’s Friend for a pint of Murphy’s. The poem, featured in At Swim Two Birds, explores the comfort of the velvet brew in the face of all kinds of quotidian miseries with the refrain “a pint of plain is your only man” [4]:

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

The link here isn’t coincidental: the poem could well be a microcosm of Ireland’s modern history. Since the eighteenth century, the fortune of the Irish people has run hand-in-hand with that of its brewing industry:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

And go wrong they did, for a while.

Throughout the long struggle for Irish independence, stout, and the breweries that made it, played a strategic role on both sides. At least four pubs tied to the Murphy’s brewery were fire-bombed and destroyed through UK government action in 1920 [5] – with a number of British Auxiliary Officers leading charges on public houses, looting drink in the process [6]. British military officers joined in the looting at Murphy’s [7] during this period of incredible British state-sanctioned violence that came to be known as the Burning of Cork. (In the years that followed,Lady Carin Beamish, descendant of the Beamish dyntasty, had married Hermann Goering and joined the Nazi party, rendering the shade of that particular stout somewhat darker.)

Two decades later, after Ireland had gained de facto independence, stout proved to be vital to de Valera in thwarting Churchill’s efforts to punish the young country for its stance of neutrality during the Second World War – a stance that Churchill saw as a betrayal of the terms set out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty [8]. Ireland’s lack of ships and dependence upon British trade was a cause of great concern for the Irish government. De Valera reflected on the situation mournfully: “No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships, most of which had been sunk, which virtually cut all links with our normal sources of supply” [9]. In a letter from the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs to de Valera in August 1940, it was noted that a German blockade would “draw attention to the vital importance of trade with Britain to our national economy” [10]. Churchill was not unaware of this, and throughout 1941 attempted“to deliver a death blow” to the Irish economy by completely cutting off its supply of agricultural feed and fertilisers [11] (integral to de Valera’s agrarian dream of an Ireland filled with “cosy homesteads”[12]), as well as petrol and coal.

The misery of the squeeze of Churchill’s measures can be felt in the letters of John Betjeman, writing from Dublin during his time as a press attaché: “All pubs are the same. Guinness Good. Sherry good. No wine. No coal. No petrol. No gas. No electric. No paraffin.” [13] The key to de Valera’s success, Dr Evans claims, lies here. Ireland may not have had much, but it did have Guinness. Despite reservations about a group that was perceived as an “Anglo brewing dynasty … viewed with suspicion by officials …who worried that the company’s sympathies lay with England” [14], de Valera knew the drink was a crucial ingredient in the maintaining of the spirits of troops over the Northern border [15]: “…by 1942, with tens of thousands of thirsty American and British troops in Northern Ireland requiring alcohol to sustain morale, Ireland halted Guinness exports. It only revived them in return for tractors and agricultural chemicals from Britain.” [16][17].

For all the historical and political significance and differences between Ireland’s major stout-brewing dynasties, little difference remains between them today. Both Beamish and Murphy’s are now run by Heineken International. Murphy’s was taken over in 1983, and the Beamish and Crawford Brewery closed in 2009. In a strange twist of historical irony, Beamish is now brewed at the former Murphy’s plant alongside its historic rival.

Despite concerted drives by Heineken to market both stouts internationally, neither has managed to make major inroads on the Guinness global market share. Last year alone, Heineken sealed a £20 million sponsorship deal that would make Murphy’s the exclusive drink of the Rugby World Cup. The story was spun in the Daily Mail and subsequent churn articles as a “ban” on Guinness inflicted by Heineken “despite being favourite with rugby fans”. Despite the claims to the contrary, Heineken is reported to have lost out from the deal. Given the prominent brand imagery throughout some of these pieces, one can but wonder where the ‘news’ of this otherwise anodyne deal might have come from.

The battle of the big brands over revenues brings to mind the words of Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation: “Industrial brews have captured ever-growing market shares, but with economic repercussions…mass-producers of food concentrate wealth, erase cultural difference, render vital cultural knowledge and skills obsolete, breed dependency, and decontextualize our food” [18]. Given the declining domestic market for stout [19], one can only hope that these mighty historical markers don’t get left in Heineken’s store cupboard of assets to decline and gather dust.

But there is hope, as, thankfully, there’s far more to Irish stout than the trinity of Guinness, Murphy’s, and Beamish. As Ireland’s traditional pubs (and the brewers they were tied to) started to fall into decline, people in Ireland started to do something about it. Lamenting their stakes living in “a land rich in [a] culture of drinking but totally dominated by large global drinks companies”, Liam LaHart and Oliver Hughes opened Ireland’s first independent “brew pub” [20]. The group, Porterhouse, specialises in the production of stout (a “plain”, nonetheless, like that mentioned in the Flann O’Brien), and has won multiple gold medals in the Brewing Industry International Awards over the years [21].

Though the prevalence of stout may appear to be on the wane in Ireland, craft beer is booming. In 2013, the production of beer by Irish microbreweries grew by 32% in volume 49,000hl, only to expand by a further 35% in 2014 to 71,000hl [22]. Hopefully with the support of organisations such as Beoir – Ireland’s answer to CAMRA, founded in 2010 – we will continue to see these endeavours blossom and flourish.

(Our brew did turn out well incidentally, though I finished this article with a bottle of McGargles Uncle Jim’s stout,)

[1] Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford University Press, p.494.

[2] Drinksindustryireland.ie, (2016). Beer a fifth of all beverage exports. [online] Available at: http://www.drinksindustryireland.ie/beer-a-fifth-of-all-beverage-exports/ [Accessed 4 Jan. 2016].

[3]   Corkancestry.com, (2016). James Jeremiah Murphy. [online] Available at: http://www.corkancestry.com/Families%20of%20Note/Murphy/JamesJeremiahMidletonBrewery.aspx [Accessed 7 Dec. 2015].

[4]  O’Brien, F. At Swim-Two-Birds.

[5]  Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer.

[6]  Archive.org, (2016). Full text of “Who burnt Cork City? a tale of arson, loot, and murder; the evidence of over seventy witnesses”. [online] Available at: https://archive.org/stream/whoburntcorkcity00dubl/whoburntcorkcity00dubl_djvu.txt [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Gibbons, F. (2000). How verse saved poet laureate from the IRA. [online] The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/apr/22/books.booksnews [Accessed 2 Jan. 2016].

[9]  Widely attributed to De Valera’s Christmas 1940 broadcast to the United States, although I was unable to find a copy of the recording itself. I could, however, find one reference to the speech in Forde, F. (1981). The long watch. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

[10]  http://www.fusio.net, F. (1940). Cover letter and Memorandum by Walshe from Joseph P. Walshe – 19 August 1940 – Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY. [online] Difp.ie. Available at: http://www.difp.ie/docs/1940/Impact-of-German-blockade-on-Britain-on-Irish-trade-and-shipping/3264.htm [Accessed 9 Jan. 2016].

[11]  Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: https://drbryceevans.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/guinness-saved-ireland/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[12] de Valera, É. (17 March 1943). “That Ireland which we dreamed of.”. In: R. Aldous, ed., Great Irish Speeches, 2nd ed (2009).

[13] Betjeman, J. and Lycett Green, C. (1994). John Betjeman letters. London: Methuen, p.314.

[14]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p.233.

[15] Evans, B. (2014) Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave Manchester University Press, pp. 25-26, p.179..

[16] Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: https://drbryceevans.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/guinness-saved-ireland/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[17]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, p.233.

[18]  Katz, S. and Pollan, M. (2012) . The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, p.256.

[19] Notte, J. (2016). Guinness can’t afford to alienate loyalists as beer sales fall. [online] MarketWatch. Available at: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/guinness-cant-afford-to-alienate-loyalists-as-beer-sales-fall-2015-11-12 [Accessed 12 Jan. 2016].

[20]  Theporterhouse.ie, (2016). Porterhouse – About. [online] Available at: http://www.theporterhouse.ie/about.php [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[21]  Theporterhouse.ie, (2016). Porterhouse. [online] Available at: http://www.theporterhouse.ie/beers-plain.php [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[22]  http://www.accaglobal.com, A. (2016). Ireland’s craft beer industry | ACCA Global. [online] Accaglobal.com. Available at: http://www.accaglobal.com/vn/en/member/accounting-business/corporate/craft-beer.html [Accessed 10 Jan. 2016].

The Great British Roast: Tradition? PR? A Brief History of Meat-Eating in Britain

Roasts: A Handbook, 17 October  2015
Roasts: A Handbook, 17 October 2015 It was a pleasure to participate in yet another lovely edition of Guardian Cook this weekend, alongside some wonderful contributions from cooks including Olia Hercules and Yuki Gomi. In this edition, I presented some thoughts on possible alternatives for those looking to reinvigorate their Sunday lunches (see clippings).
The roast has become a fundamental cornerstone of British culture, but, as with all traditions, it can become tired and neglected through repeated exposure. Happily, in most parts of the country, gone are the days of over-boiled, soggy vegetables, dry centrepieces and lumpy instant gravy, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t all benefit from rethinking what we put on our plate from time to time. For meat eaters, this could mean thinking about locally distinctive, seasonal meats and cuts, moving away from the limited selection presented by supermarkets, and supporting local producers and artisans in the process. It could also mean moving away from meat entirely for at least one weekend a month, and considering the other options are available – such as my delicious vegan haggis. Such a move would certainly fit more accurately in line with the eating habits of the vast majority of British people over the centuries.

Although the eating of meat at a roast dinner is presented as a tradition of great historical precedence, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the eating of meat was neither financially nor nutritionally viable for great swathes of the British population.  At the turn of the 18th century for instance, the price of a single chicken would have equated to around one tenth of a cottager’s weekly income[1], rendering the possibility of buying one for the Sunday table all but impossible for just under a quarter of the population[2].  Labouring people and out servants fared slightly better, but only just, and modern research supports contemporary statistician Gregory King’s suggestion that these two classes of people, who constituted over half of the population, had to spend more than they earned[3] (just how they managed remains a mystery). Further to the problem of the price of meat was its distribution: even if a family could afford meat, this did not necessarily mean that they would all have the opportunity to eat it. It certainly wasn’t the most efficient way for most families to get their nutrients[4]. Though working class men and women both commonly worked long hours, [some] men would eat meat daily, whilst women and children would have to make do without, eating meat perhaps once a week[5]. In some parts of the country they would subsist predominantly on bread and water[6]. As Meredith and Oxley recount, “women in particular came to rely on the new drug-foods of Empire: tea, sugar, treacle… although largely empty in calories, these were stimulants, and to an extent appetite suppressants”[7].

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Food For Thought: Newe-Fangled Meates

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 26 August 2015

Image courtesy of Martin Scott 2015.

“Therefore I give my simple advice unto those that love such strange and newe-fangled meates, to beware licking honey among thornes, least the sweetness of the one do not countervaile the sharpnes and prickling of the other.”

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597

There are few people out there who will share my enthusiasm for the gathering grey skies that have come to define the last couple of weeks. As balmy summer days picking canalside raspberries give way to the familiar damp of insolent British drizzle, my mounting excitement has been difficult to hem in. Pulling on my wellington boots, I know that the arrival of rain after a warm summer can only mean one thing: mushrooms.

I am what Lorna Bunyard once referred to as “a confirmed toadstool eater”[1], always keeping half an eye out for these mysterious fruits of the earth. It is no wonder that Mrs Bunyard’s chapter on mushrooms should follow a chapter entitled Strange Meats, however, as this is, historically, how they have been perceived by the British. John Gerard, perhaps our most revered botanist, was certainly not a fan, affirming that they “do hunger after the earthie excrescences”[2] –  an association he makes more than once – whilst noting their habit of popping up on the “rotting bodies of trees” in “dankish”, “shadowie”[3]places. Gerard dismisses fungi as “unproffitable” and “nothing worth”[4], repeatedly warning the reader that they are “full of poison” and “deadly”[5].

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Food For Thought: The Poverty of Knowledge

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 16th July 2015

a butcher's window
The renaissance of offal and other cuts is welcome, but all too often it serves merely as a conversation piece for Generation Niche.

There are two places remaining in Wandsworth’s ever-changing landscape that formed an integral part of my early epicurean lessico famigliare [1]: Hennessy’s butchers and Tooting Market. The rest have fallen away in time, succumbing to the slow but continuous gentrification of the area, and the death of many of its small traders and traditional industries. The sickly-sweet smell of yeast from the Ram Brewery no longer fills the air on certain days of the week – as it did for almost half a millennium –  and the sounds of its majestic shire horses fell silent almost a decade ago. The historic site has since been purchased by a Chinese development company, and, like many other places in London, is set to be turned into “an exciting new residential and retail quarter” [2]. Because we need more of those.

My paternal grandparents immigrated to London in the 1950s, arriving in Wandsworth from Malta and the Amalfi Coast. Both had experienced the ravishes of extreme poverty during the War, and came to London in hope of starting a better life. To the neighbours’ dismay, my grandmother kept chickens and rabbits in the garden to help feed her burgeoning family, bringing with her a tradition of cucina povera that her younger brother would later champion all over the world.

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Food For Thought: The Right to an Allotment

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, June 9th 2015

allotments wheelbarrow

After four years of waiting, I am now number 321 in a queue of 690 waiting for an allotment in my local borough. The wait may seem long, but, as the situation currently stands – with some waiting lists extending for over a decade – it seems that I am lucky to be on a waiting list at all. Like most Londoners, I have to live with very little outside space, making the most of a single window sill and any vertical area that I have in order to produce a few small crops, interspersed with calendula and cornflowers that bring me great joy throughout the rest of the year.

Whilst there is a statutory duty for outer London boroughs to provide a “sufficient quantity”[1] of allotment plots to the people living in them, what this quantity is proportional to the number of residents in the area is unclear. And it is precisely this lack of clarity, “built up through a century of agitation”[2] in the fight for our right to allotments, that is now leading to their wanton destruction in the name of short­-term profit. The law, described by Colin Ward as “both vague and voluminous” and “in urgent need of revision”, is exploited by those in power, who perceive these hard­-won rights as burdensome and standing in the way of profit. If we replace the “safety­ first” culture of the 1960s, for that of “profit­ first” in the 2010s, it seems that John Betjeman put it rather succinctly: “We slice off old buildings, fell healthy trees, replace hedges with concrete posts and chain ­link fencing, all in the name of ‘[profit]­ first’, which is another phrase for ‘hurry past’.”[3]

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Food For Thought: The Meaning of Foraging

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 23rd May 2015

foraged salad leaves and flowers

No, I should love the city less
Even than this, my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.

The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins [1]

It is the end of May, and my kitchen is alive with bubbling decoctions of blossoms as the hawthorn starts to fade and elderflower sprays take its place. The pale blush of oak apples teases in the distance; the inedible galls a cheerful reminder of the bounty to come in the months ahead. The season of abundance is upon us, and, it seems, many kitchens across the country are keen to make the most of the nation’s new­found love for wild food.

My first forays happened in childhood, inadvertently trampling blankets of alium ursinum on walks with my aunt, and being astounded by the pungent smell of garlic that rose up from the woodland floor. I felt as though I had discovered a great secret, and wanted to learn how I might cultivate it for myself. Then I started to learn about the habits of plants, their seasons, their stories, and how to read the land – town or country – by the types of plants that choose to grow there. The outdoors became a movable feast in the truest sense; a series of little treasures to be enjoyed within reach of whence they sprang, or stowed with squirrel­-like jealousy – dried or in jars – for the months ahead.

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Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 6th May 2015

Malthus and Hazlitt
William Hazlitt, right, issued a scathing critique of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, left.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s general election, the most notable legacy of the last coalition government will be the critically under-discussed revival of the nation’s food banks. Despite promises from the Con-Dem government of economic recovery, of increased levels of employment, and an improvement in wages, there was still an 163 per cent increase in the number of people needing to use food banks between 2012/13 and 2013/14, bringing the total up to 913,138 – more than one person in every hundred in the UK – roughly a third of whom were children. [1] The disparity is particularly remarkable considering that it occurs at a time when 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food waste – the equivalent of roughly six meals per household per week – is being created in the UK every year. [2]

Recent reforms to the UK welfare system, said to be designed “to help claimants and their families to become more independent” [3] cheerfully disguise the language of a much older agenda. Making his case for the abolition of the Poor Laws in 1807, Thomas Robert Malthus called for a system that would “throw off the rising generation from that miserable and helpless dependence upon the government and the rich” [4]. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus proposes that population growth naturally exceeds our ability to produce food, and that unchecked population growth (it is suggested, among the poor), is reset and brought down to subsistence levels by “misery, and vice”. [5]

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Food For Thought: What Montaigne Can Teach Us About Ultraprocessed Foods

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website 23rd April 2015.

montaigne baudelaire food concepta cassar
In Des Cannibales, Montaigne contrasted wild and cultivated food.

The wisdom of Michel de Montaigne extends to most spheres of human life, not excepting agriculture and matters of the palate. In his 1580 essay Des Cannibales(Of Cannibals), in which he lambasts Europe’s hypocrisy in its perception and treatment of the people of the New World (in particular the Tupinambá people), Montaigne also draws some striking comparisons between cultivated and wild food. These comparisons not only strike a chord with the forager within me (who delights in the taste of what is to be found growing in the most unlikely of places), but also to the grower, who notes the difference in flavour when food is cultivated with a little care.

According to Montaigne, it should not be wild fruit that we call “sauvage” (carrying the implication of “savage”), but “[those] fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order”[1]. He affirms that “living”, “vigorous”, “natural” fruit has been “bastardized …by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes”[2]. This last thought has particular resonance when we consider it in light of the mass­-produced and ultra­processed food that has come to dominate so much of people’s diets around the world today. In high-­income countries, ultra­processed foods can make up more than 60 per cent of total energy intake [3]. This would not be a problem if these foods provided people with adequate nutrition, but according to recent studies, ultra­processed foods are currently responsible for more than 18 million deaths each year through non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, high body­mass index, high fasting blood glucose and high­ total cholesterol [4]. More troubling still is that these multinational companies, that have become so adept at manipulating the fats, sugar content and textures of foods, market these products aggressively to the poorest societies, where they will make most of their profit in the next five years [5]. Just as the eating of meat has become a marker of prosperity in many societies, so the giants of the processed food industry have come to embody the capitalist dream across the world.

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A Quick Note on Wild Garlic, Foraging & Pickling

wild garlic buds pickled in vinegar
Wild garlic buds pickled in homemade cider vinegar. Deliciously piquant, and completely free to produce. Pickling is a cheap and simple way to preserve the flavours of plentiful times for the months to come.

Wild garlic is perhaps one of my favourite plants to forage, and was certainly one of my first. The leaves are wonderfully versatile, and can be used in anything from salads to lactoferments (the latter of which I use as a vegan-friendly ‘trotter gear’ to flavour soups and stews). For me, they are the true flavour of Spring. It is worth noting, however, that the leaves are not the only part of the plant that can be used, though they are, arguably, the most sustainable.

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