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!

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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