I baked my first loaf of bread (with some help from my mother) when I was around twelve or thirteen – so sixty years ago – give or take. In those days before artisans had been invented, flour was either plain or self-raising and the idea of obsessing over the provenance, the manner of milling or the protein content was unheard of. As for wholegrain, the closest thing had been 81% National Flour for which the demand collapsed once food rationing was ended. That was a shame because 81% or 85% extraction flours are really flavourful and easy to work with.
I’ve made bread more or less continually since then and if there’s one lesson I’d want pass on to posterity it’s not to fuss. Bread does better when you leave it alone, and don’t ask how long that might be because the answer changes all the time. What that means is that bread making, rather than being a time consuming chore, is a delightful opportunity to – well – think, browse, mull things over and make plans, and so yesterday, when it rained, I abandoned any thought of going up to the allotment in favour of cooking a celebration meal and planning next year’s planting.
Madame thinks I’m a bit obsessive about planning, and she’s absolutely right as always. We come from different schools of gardening and where I dream of orderly rows and accurate records, and she celebrates the random by shoving things in and seeing what happens. We have evolved a foolproof system for dealing with this by each having our own allotment and although we could never say whose was which, I make detailed plans and work out the beds and rotations knowing that so long as we stick broadly to them, the odd interloper could appear almost anywhere, sown by Madame’s invisible hand. We decided long ago that if we were going to stay married we needed to adopt a tolerant approach to each others’ idiosyncratic behaviour.
But our allotments have been a particular challenge because they both started off as weed infested scrub and so any sensible planning was abandoned in favour of getting every square inch planted up as soon as we cleared it. Then, when we had only just cleared and planted the first allotment, a second presented itself in the same state. These “allotments” were, I should say, half allotments, each of them around 100 square metres, and so the two united plus a bit borrowed from a neighbour makes 250 square metres, the official dimensions of a standard British allotment. The good news was that the bits of land were all next to each other so it made more sense to run them as one piece. One year you might suppose, Madame would grow potatoes and, say brassicas and I would grow onions, roots and legumes. Then a lively trade would follow, unencumbered by borders and tariffs. It’s an idea that could find wider application, we think!
However, the random planting up of the land for two years means that rotations became a bit of a nightmare, and so yesterday I finally completed the whole plan of the beds (some of which are still to be built). The plan has meant hours of measuring and double checking because the plots are irregular and no two lines are either parallel or at right angles.
The plan irons out the irregularities while accurately depicting the bed sizes and makes it clear that we can make four sections for rotation with four beds in each, while our borrowed land can be pressed into service for as long as our neighbour is incapacitated. So at last we can begin to plant out overwintering crops like shallots, garlic, onions and broad beans in their correct places. Yes it’s a bit propellor headed, but bear in mind that allotments are ten times more productive than farmland and so pests and diseases can be a bit of a problem – especially for organic allotmenteers like us; plus I can sleep more easily knowing exactly where the potatoes will be going next spring. I can’t be the only person in the world to lie awake doing ‘virtual gardening’ at three in the morning – surely?
And, as day follows sleepless night, so does searching the seed catalogues follow the arrangement of the beds. But one ‘policy’ decision will make a big difference to this year’s seed order because we’ve been talking about increasing our production of pulses. As time has gone on the amount of meat we eat has gone down. True, as pensioners we don’t have the money for extravagance, but we’re slowly moving towards a vegetarian diet because it feels like the right thing to do and we have the means to grow a wonderfully rich and healthy diet for ourselves and our nearby family. We’ll be talking this through together in the next week or so but I think our minds are pretty well made up.
But beyond that there’s the catalogues and the endless varieties we could try, as well as the ones we’ve already grown and loved. I used to think that winter was a bit depressing and I couldn’t wait for the solstice; but now many of the staples we’ll enjoy next season are already in the ground as a kind of earnest of intention and we’ve a good idea we want to grow more heritage and open pollinated varieties so we can save seed. And who could resist growing beetroots called Crapaudine (toad’s skin) and bulls’ blood? Magic!