Panzanella – Oh Glory!

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As I’d promised myself when I woke up this morning, it could only be panzanella – Anna Del Conte’s recipe – for supper. It’s a trumpet voluntary, a salad in D Major, the whole brass section of flavours, the very food to make you joyful! Tomato, garlic, onion, basil, capers, good olive oil and red wine vinegar. It’s summer in a bowl, a last shout of sunshine and the kind of dish that I always make for four even though there will only be two of us at the table. It’s the salad that can transform a bad day into a good one – I’m going too far now, but you get the picture. We had the possibility of some pasta in hand, a frozen roll of pesto that would only have taken ten minutes to prepare, but the sourdough component of the salad is filling enough and apart from a pear we were done and smiling.

After supper we sat together reading through cookbooks – we are very greedy after all. Who’d have thought exploring a new vegetarian cuisine could be so much fun?

A change of gear and mood on the allotment

This is the time of year when there’s a definite change of pace on the allotment. There’s a change of crops too as we harvest the last of the summer vegetables like courgettes and (still) a few tomatoes and French beans, and start clearing those which have ‘done their bit’. We had a rogue volunteer squash that grew from last year’s compost and after we’d cleared and sheeted the potato patch we allowed it to range freely over about 20 square metres.  But as the temperature dropped over the past couple of nights we could see the plant wilting and so today it went into the compost, along with the asparagus. The trug we brought home was more typical of autumn with its muted colours, and the parsnips are doing well in their no-dig bed –  the latest sowing of spinach is growing nicely under its cloche, and we staked the purple sprouting broccoli ready for the expected winds.  There’s stil basil to pick and tonight that’s going into what’s bound to be one of the last panzanellas of the year.  We need to pick the borlotti beans in the next couple of days, but gradually, one at a time, the beds are moving into their winter modes.  The decision to convert both allotments into beds was quite costly, but it’s paid off handsomely because we can work them all in any state of the ground. Without digging the whole task of preparation is much quicker and there’s no evidence that crops have been affected adversely at all. We’re hoping for a spell of dryer weather to sow the overwintering broad beans and peas, but we’re not bothering to overwinter any of the alliums because the results have been very patchy.

Without doubt one of the less welcome aspects of the autumn has always been, for me, a debilitating spell of low mood, but although it’s been lurking there like the black dog for a couple of weeks, I’ve found the allotment an enormous help. It’s impossible not to be uplifted outside in the fresh air, and a couple of hours quiet weeding is a cure for any sort of melancholy. Obviously once the remains of the dying season have been composted, pickled, cooked or – in extremis – burned, the new season always feels that much closer.  Our soil in in great form – three full seasons of TLC and tons of compost have turned it from a sticky clay-loam, full of couch grass and bindweed, into a rich soil that runs through the fingers and makes weeding so much easier.  Even an attempted invasion of creeping buttercup into the asparagus bed was easy to deal with.  The individual plantlets could be gently lifted and the soil shaken of, leaving no bits of root to sprout next spring.

A little extra time away from gardening has allowed us to do a few more experiments in vegetarian cooking in the Potwell Inn kitchen. There’s no doubt it’s a challenge, but we’re enjoying the new styles, and vegetables that have gone straight from the soil into the pan, taste so much better – plus the fact that we’ve laboured over them makes wasting them unthinkable. As I was writing this, Madame called me into the kitchen to taste a new recipe for braised red cabbage and it was fabulous, much more restrained than our go-to recipe has always been. It’s like being let loose in a sweet shop, so many new flavours and textures to play with. Prepping the panzanella this afternoon, I was using our own tomatoes, chillies and garlic and my own sourdough bread – it transforms the way you regard the raw materials when they haven’t come double wrapped in plastic, doused in chemicals and a fortnight old already.

The compost bin is almost full to the brim for the third time since I built it in the spring.  It’s been inclined to run a bit wet and cold because of the rain we’ve had so I’m going to put a roof over the whole group of four bays so I can control the moisture and gather rain from another nearly 50 square feet of roof, it seems all wrong to water with tap water when there’s the possibility of harvesting several thousand litres a year on site.

Below, the compost bins when they were first built with our cold frames – now stolen – in front, and beyond them, the hot-bed experiment which was so successful we’re going to build two more where the coldframes used to be.

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Go on – sneeze!

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Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one.  It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty.  He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.

It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.

There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.

But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.

I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.

 

Buying fish in Newlyn

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Bit of a rave from the grave, this one and I published it here a year ago when I could count my followers on the fingers of one hand   – but since we’re in Newlyn again I thought the amateur cooks like me  might enjoy it.

Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)

The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham where we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, although I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.

There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever considered that a family could live an entire life in an end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It was joined on to a row of houses  but only on one side.

It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper, a new new kind of meal I’d never heard of before,  at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet – the place they called the lavatory; a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in Bristol Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.

So, forty years later we went to Newlyn to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, prepared or frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.

An amateur cook, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming John Minton style illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. So a couple of dozen scallops seemed straightforward enough.

Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?  Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts.

And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn painters whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.

Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner was in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There was nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience had closed down and there were one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it wasn’t. But the sea was as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We tried the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seemed to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Said there was meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which was dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It was “responding to the potential of everyday life practices”. We could see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there was a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we went away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that actually  was the exhibition, so maybe we missed something awesomely subtle.

Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there was a load of emotional freight attached to buying these shellfish. This was not fish fingers we were after here, it was a piece of conspicuous consumption. I didn’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this was, or how I was supposed  to cook them. I’d got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years previously I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. “Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick” I thought,, and in any case there was only the two of us so no need to be even secretly embarrassed.

So we got to the fish shop. It was like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later?

The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the pottery workers who operated the  jigger machines in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’d never seen it in a swordfish.

I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, archly pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.

“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”

He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Madame, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. So we bought a bag of whitebait.

I was losing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box and drove back to our rented cottage in Cadgwith.

I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.

These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.

Then there was the experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening freshly caught scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the ‘stiff fresh’ and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have inside. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh-God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops.

I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads railway station when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and deep fried the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.

Working landscape

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I woke up this morning listening to horses passing.  Their hooves were sounding  on the cobbles outside, except they weren’t because it didn’t take long to realize that these horses were big clots of rain falling from the blocked gutter into the yard below.  We’re staying in an old net-loft, once used as an artist’s studio, and the gutters in the building opposite (so close you could reach out and touch it) are completely clogged with a wonderful array of grass and ferns – very Cornish! I’d  been having one of those dreams that you can chase down to an event during the previous day. My dream concerned a pair of wellington boots – black and very ordinary looking – but which I knew were known as “recording boots” – and which I desperately wanted to own.  They were (needless to say) very expensive. At this point, amateur Freudians, Jungians and my properly professional therapist would be saying – “What were you supposed to be recording?”  I’d gone to bed after reading from John Wright’s new book on foraging, so the obvious (but wrong) answer would have been that I wanted to record plants.

As I often do, when Madame and I sit in bed with a cup of early morning tea, I mentioned the dream to her in the knowledge that it would be hard for her to find any sinister interpretation in my harmless desires. We chatted for a bit and then there was one of those therapeutic silences and it occurred to me that I had spent an amount of time on the bus stop outside the old fishermen’s institute in Newlyn yesterday, regarding a young man – or more precisely – regarding his wellingtons.  I promise that this is not some homoerotic/rubber confession, at least not mine.

And so, with a bit of clarity beginning to dawn, I explained the origin of the dream and Madame launched into one of her revelatory discourses.  Our conversations often seem to possess unexpected emergent qualities.  Suddenly we were back on the quayside in a Newlyn harbour some time between 1880 and 1900.  The young man I observed yesterday, the one with the slightly too large, green, steel toecapped safety boots was obviously a fisherman returning from a spell at sea.  He looked tired out.  On his back was a rucksack that contained very little – I could see a bottle of shower gel, so probably his work had taken him away for several days.

“It hasn’t changed very much”, Madame said. “Not from the Stanhope Ford paintings.”  And it was true. With a different set of clothes he could have been one of the eponymous “Jack” models from the paintings, which were revolutionary at the time, with their focus on a rather romanticised view of working lives. The fishermen, smokng their pipes as they mended their nets and their wives, sometimes grieving wives, gutting fish or hauling them off in huge baskets to sell.  The beautiful young girls not yet eroded by the weather of a harsh life – all there then, and all still here now.  Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and the others had found their recording boots.  The herring and pilchard have gone, long since but the young men still put to sea.  In the pub a group of older men came in – down fishing, but not local men – among them one from the Shetlands, one from Ireland.  We eavesdropped on their conversation. They were talking about boats and about the cost of gear.  One remained silent, keeping his counsel and sipping his single pint where two of the others were downing them.

Out on the street there was a lot of ordinary life going on. Young mothers out with their children in pushchairs, a couple of men outside another of the pubs, one saying to another – “She’s not speaking to me so I might as well ….”. There’s work, but it’s often poorly paid and seasonal just like it always was.  Nowadays the catch goes off in lorries while the remaining boats play cat and mouse games with the Spanish and Dutch factory ships out there hoovering up everything including the sea-bed. The fishwives have morphed into an army of cleaners who look after the holiday cottages whose owners live elsewhere. Not much of the money comes into Cornwall.

The Newlyn School painters, if they were able to come back, would find plenty of familiar scenes to paint.  The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their original models are probably still here somewhere. They’d be able to buy their favourite French cheeses in the upmarket shops  and get some sourdough bread too – that would have pleased them, no doubt. They never lost their London ways. But here, life’s a gamble – only the bookmakers get rich, and hardly anyone can afford a pair of recording boots.

Anyone for angelica?

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IMG_6212Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica.  We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least.  I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle.  The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture.  As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished.  Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute.  No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.

When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and  always tastes better as a happy accident.  IMG_5459

We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk.  How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.

We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home.  I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest.  I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.

Penzance is a place of contrasts  – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street.  Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.

Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community.  Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit.  I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.

But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was.  Am I too hard on this place?  We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary.  You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.

We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.

IMG_6206There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.

So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history.  It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly.  If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry.  Love it?  Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!

Trouble with the bogs

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The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog.  I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.

On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.

Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.

At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.

While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket  bogs of the UK?

Well sadly we’re not.

When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die.  It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.

On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream.  In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.

So here is a terrifying figure.  The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon.  The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.

Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow.  For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions.  I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.

Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings.  I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer.  The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability.  People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams  on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.

But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing.  But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers  we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.

The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.

So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights.  My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!

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Storm passing over Mount’s Bay. St Michaels Mount is just visible in the centre

 

 

 

Please God – no more tomatoes!

Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney.  I cannot look another tomato in the eye.

Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear.  There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato.  It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.

My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe.  The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes.  As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson.  I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….

So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean?  Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.

IMG_6186All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces.  It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods.  The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.

I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs.  Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?

So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all.  But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?IMG_6019

 

Chilli round-up+

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This little boxful was the third crop of chillies this season and I’m properly pleased with the way they’ve gone.  All five varieties provided a crop, and following James Wong’s advice to stress them a bit has paid dividends in the heat department as they’ve all reached somewhere near their potential. What’s been so interesting is the difference in flavour between the varieties, and the fact that some of the milder ones did better out in the sheltered parts of the open allotment than in the greenhouse. So next year I’ll look around for perhaps one new variety but I think I’ve found a good range of heat and flavour with an abundant crop. We’ve made chilli oil, chilli sauce; we dried some and we’ve eaten some raw. When I first thought of growing them, like most people I suspect, I thought they’d be far more difficult than they turned out to be.  I didn’t use any special compost and they only got fed with liquid seaweed.  The only specialist kit we used was the propagator with its daylight lamps to get them going in the late winter so we could give them the longest possible season. Looking back over the past two years the only real failures have been in germination – I think in the first year I had the temperature set far too high, in nervous anticipation of the supposed difficulty, because a steady 20 – 25C brought more reliable results in our set-up. The organge ones in the photo are Habaneros and the smaller red ones are the third flush of F1 Apache – much smaller than their earlier flushes. The organic farm shop in the market were selling these at 35p each, so they’ve more than earned their keep.

But much of today was spent at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath where we went to see an exhibition of ceramics by James Tower, and very fine it was.

It’s great to see a finished piece with its preparatory drawings – this one’s called “Copse” and I think it’s very beautiful.  Yesterday’s RWA Open was a selling exhibition and as always, very densely hung. I often find one or two pieces in a show that I really like, but the Open left me stone cold and I couldn’t quite figure out why. The pieces of work were often very competent (that sounds like faint praise, I know) but seen en masse it felt like gorging on sweets.  The James Tower exhibition gave the work (and us) room to breathe and we loved it. Suffering as I always do, from morbid introspection, I wondered why this work  seemed so much better. One awful possibility is that I’m old and set in my ways and unwilling to accept new media and ideas.  But really I don’t think that’s the case so much as the difficulty I have with much recent work that’s trying to teach me something. Didactic, concept driven art often lacks the contemplative and quiet side that I prefer.  I sat once in the Rothko room in Tate Modern, I was there for about 3/4 hour and during that time dozens of people walked in, walked around and out again. The work demands, and repays time spent with it. The much derided practice of copying favourite paintings is actually a rather good way of understanding them, and the sheer discipline of drawing is all-but disappearing from the curriculum. Does that make me an old fogey? I’m sure there’s a great deal of recently produced art that emerges from the kind of obsessive study and contemplation I’m talking about and, in fact, it’s possible think that those artists who are still pursuing drawing as a means of understanding, are still carrying the flame. We always make a point of going to the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibitions, obviously only possible if you’re in the UK.

Anyway, there we are – I expect I’ve annoyed quite enough people by mixing up allotments and art but tough.  I’m also interested in philosophy, the price of fish, heading off the coming ecological and climate crisis and (consequently) economics.  I’ve spent a lifetime refusing to be simple and so should anyone who cares about thriving. Our culture wants us all to live as if we could fit life into a small shed, but I’ve discovered (with a great deal of help) that I actually live in a large, rambling and poorly maintained stately home which I choose to call the Potwell Inn. There are still rooms I haven’t been in yet; we’re not subsidised by the National Trust; it’s open all hours, and we’re always happy to have a lock-in with the right company. Tonight’s special is toasted cheese on sourdough.

Sweating it out over the preserves

There ought to be an easier way but there isn’t.  I can’t quote the absolute figure but I think it’s said that nationally we waste about 1/3 of our food. Given the vast amount of effort (plus chemicals and fertilizers and diesel transport) that goes into producing it, one fairly obvious way of cutting our carbon footprint would be to stop wasting it.

At the allotment level it’s easier, I know.  We recycle all our green waste plus our own paper and cardboard.  We also recycle other peoples’ cardboard from the basement skip, leaves from the local council and anything else we can get our hands on.  The one thing it’s really dificult to do is to maintain control over the quantity and timing of crops.  Gluts and shortages are a fact of allotment life, and so storage and planning always need to be attended to.  It’s the weather that gets in the way more often than not.  In these uncertain days of global heating, the weather has become more extreme and that has an immediate impact on how our crops grow.

So today – because it was raining – was an ideal time to catch up on our surpluses.  I spent most of the day in the kitchen, bits of leftover bread were dried and turned into breadcrumbs, I made six pounds of green pepper, green tomato and chilli relish, another seven litres of passata and there’s a big second batch of spiced red cabbage about to go into the oven. Tomorrow I’ll harvest all the Habanero chillies and dry them and then on Sunday if the weather holds I’ll lift the last two rows of maincrop potatoes (a bit late I know).

It’s hard work, much harder than wandering around to the supermarket, but the rewards are tremendous.  We know exactly what we’re eating and the quality is as good as we can make it, plus our winter stores are looking very healthy.  I can only suppose that our carbon footprint is lower than it would be if we bought everything in and sent all our waste to landfill. It’s not going to save the world but it would make a huge contribution if more people took it up – and judging by today’s “State of Nature” report the sooner we get on with it the better.

I was shocked by some of the BBC’s reporting on the issue. The World at One covered it by opting for a cosy discussion about action to save water voles and contrived to give the impression that everything is under control. The impact of farming and climate change was not mentioned at all.  Shame on them – is it any surprise that the audience, especially among young people, is dwindling.

So preserving, pickling, drying, freezing, fermenting are at the top of the agenda at the moment.  In one working day, all of the ingredients in yesterday’s photograph have been preserved for the winter – it’s almost magical that we can do this and it brings a great deal of pleasure.  I’ve always thought that cooking is very close to alchemy in the way that it transforms pretty basic things into really good things.  When I think about nature I want to include food in that thought, because none of this is possible without harnessing the extraordinary power of nature. It’s a demonstrable fact that understanding microorganisms and knowing the good from the bad is as much a kitchen skill as whipping up a sauce.

Incidentally I should thank carolee for the idea of cooking the relish – I’ll report back when it’s matured for a couple of weeks, but off the spoon it tasted great.

But it has to be said that allotmenteering and preserving, baking, brewing and cooking can be very hard work. Sometimes – like when it gets to nine o’clock at night – all I want to do is crash into a chair and fall asleep. It’s all a matter of what I call texture. Yesterday we spent some time in Bristol at the Royal West of England Academy open exhibition. I can’t say I was particularly lit up by what we saw, but it was a lovely break with two of our oldest friends., and tomorrow the rain is set to stop!