Christmas incoming

2018-08-24 14.05.56Date: 16 August 2018 at 19:41:38 BST
Weather: 16°C Mostly Sunny

Suddenly it’s nearly autumn and the kitchen is calling to me.Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. In the spring, there are days of hope as the sun breaks through and then nights of frost that remind you that winter’s not done with yet, and in late summer my mind resonates with the shrinking hours of daylight and applies itself, like a squirrel, to preparing for the winter. It’s a favourite season and yet the harvest touches my melancholic soul every year by modulating from the major to the minor key.

2018-08-19 20.22.18

Jams, pickles and preserves become the centre of focus and I’m drawn to the kitchen. The fruits and vegetables that are coming off the allotment each day are almost overwhelming in their richness and numbers and finding ways of cooking or keeping them becomes an obsession. But there are only two of us and my deepest atavistic urges are to feed a family of five, or eight or ten. The parish priest emerges from the the intense shadows of summer and, every year, and imagines a time of plenty for all. Today I thought of Christmas for the first time even though we’ve not finished sowing for autumn. It’s raining as I write this, and we’ve had plenty of rain in the last week. We longed for rain and some will have even prayed for it yet when it arrives like the Seventh Cavalry to rescue the besieged vegetables I think that somehow, if we could have just one more glorious day, I’d find the energy to go on watering. Never satisfied! I can hear my mother saying it.

In the Guardian this morning there was a piece about the way our culture is rapidly losing its cooking skills. The writer cited Jane Grigson’s “English Cooking” and wrote that it doesn’t contain any recipe or instruction for making pastry because she didn’t think it worthwhile wasting print on something so well understood it needed no explanation. The proofs of the article apparently came back with innumerable queries and questions from young subeditors who had no idea of the basic skills.  In another piece yesterday George Monbiot explored the reasons behind the epidemic of obesity and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in our overstretched, overstressed lives, the food culture that embodied so much more than food has been systematically eroded – quite deliberately – by the food processing industry, and the results are as depressing as the results of any other kind of addiction. We have simply moved from one form of servitude to another, and the much cited ever increasing life expectancy has turned out to be yet another fraud. We’re sadder and sicker and lonelier than ever. Do all these things tie in together? Is it just the usual self indulgent longing for the past that always afflicts old people like me? I can’t help thinking that these disappearing cultural values and their associated skills are as important as they ever were, and somehow we need to hold on to them for the future when they will be needed by another generation.

Today we cleared half of the sweetcorn away and I prepped the second cold frame with SylvaGrow as planned. But I’m getting cold feet about sowing carrots there as we’re so far behind and I really can’t see them coming to anything. It would be more sensible to postpone the carry experiment and fill the frames with stuff we really know we can grow, some spring onions for instance and winter lettuce. We’ve grown so many lettuce and salad leaves this year but the supply we’ve created outstrips our appetite so much it feels wasteful. I’m not that keen on green salad leaves and frankly some of them taste bitter. So that’s a matter for further discussion. But we picked lovely beetroot grown in coir pellets and simply planted in. I think we can call that experiment a complete success, We also picked runner beans, radishes and cucumbers, and had an improvised tasting of the chillies. The apache chillies are very hot indeed, and the pearls quite tasty and mild. The Jalapeño I picked wasn’t really ripe enough to do justice to its eventual flavour and heat.

We’ve reached the tipping point in the year when at last we’re clearing ground faster than we can plant it. Charles Dowding’s book on winter veg arrived today and it’s clear we’ve missed the boat on quire a number of opportunities Next season we’ll do it better. In the evening I cooked a flan with the calbrese we picked yesterday. The plants are doing well and will give us some good meals. We had shopped for wholemeal flour to make pastry and I made some tonight. It’s very hard going and I almost abandoned it while I was rolling it out as it splits so easily and has next to no plasticity, like working with porcelain or perhaps heavily grogged crank mixture. But with a bit of cursing, persistence and some running repairs glued in with egg white it all came together in the end and tasted delicious.

IMG_4385But the last word on the day belongs to the Sweet Cicily which Stella discovered growing once again. We planted it to use in the kitchen with rhubarb, and it proved to be a bit of a challenge. The seed is only viable for a short period and really needs some time in the fridge or (presumably) in the cold winter ground. Eventually it germinated but never really thrived so I shoved it in a patch of bare earth next to the water butts and left it. For such a frail plant with a history of abuse and neglect, not to mention being felled twice by slugs, it just keeps coming back. Like Robert Bruce’s spider it never gives up – an inspiring end to a slightly melancholic day.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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