Nothing stays the same

I’ve shown this photo before – it was taken in the garden of the farm cottage we rented when we were at art school in Wiltshire almost 50 years ago. Just a few weeks later someone left the gate unlatched and it was completely trashed by pigs. We never really managed to get it up and running again – the disappointment was too much. Gardening can be like that; you have to ride out the failures and accept that you have to combine stoicism and gratitude in almost equal measure. Now we only have the internet to tell us how the farm has fared over the years, but a small mixed dairy farm will have been sailing against a headwind and it may have gone the way of so many others. All we know for sure is that the farmhouse is used as an upmarket B & B.

But we did soon get other gardens going, several in tiny backyards, two of them in allotments and the last in a much more challenging garden of around 1/3 acre; all the while learning more – so the allotment represents the latest expression of what we’ve discovered and, now we’re retired and can give all our time to it, is probably the best we’ve ever managed.

Right now, in the teeth of the Covid 19 pandemic, the internet is alive with allotmenteering and I couldn’t be more pleased, so long as the long delays with seed merchants and the difficulty of getting garden sundries don’t put newcomers off before they’ve started.  My inbox has seen a lot of seed offers from companies I’ve never heard of, and there are going to be sharks out there who’ve bought up stocks of seed that may be near the end of their storage life, or not good quality. My advice is to stay with the reputable merchants even if it means waiting a bit longer. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to coax life out of dud plants.

That said, you only have to take a walk up to our allotment site to see a huge influx of newcomers wielding spades – possibly for the first time. The thirty-somethings are getting it and I hope that local councils are including new allotment sites in their local plans to meet the demand. It would be sensible on every level to make many more plots available; well managed allotments are incredibly productive environmentally helpful and healthy. Now’s the time for a big push, and that should include strategies for teaching basic skills.  There are some things that are best taught one-to-one or in a small group – common weed recognition is one of them. I’m always banging on about mentoring because this generation often can’t fall back on childhood experience with parents and grandparents.  There are great teachers out there in books and on websites, but growing is a very local activity and slavishly following dates suggested by someone who lives 200 miles north or south of you, or even in a different country, can be tricky.

However – what I want to think about this morning is not the techniques, not bigger or better or any of those things, but the bigger picture – the gestalt of growing, because growing, cooking, eating, to take the three most obvious topics, don’t exist in a vacuum but they belong with one another.  Separating them out into distinct disciplines misses the point and diminishes everything. Even global terms like self sufficiency reduce our activities to the selfish pursuit of stuff. If, for example, you read Patience Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a Weed” you can begin to understand how growing, cooking, eating and sharing are deeply embedded in a whole culture. Buying a ready made tomato pasta sauce from the supermarket doesn’t make you an Italian, however hard the advertisers try to kid you it will. I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” leaning against a library stack one summer afternoon that changed the direction of my life.  It wasn’t the recipes for glazes that attracted me, it was the integration of so many things I was interested in within a lived life.

Some cookery writers – like Elizabeth David, Anna del Conte, Jane Grigson and Dorothy Hartley and Marcella Hazan situate their recipes within their whole complex cultures – the gestalt – to go back to that useful word. Somewhere along the line we missed the connection between cultures, lived experiences that include growing and distributing food, as well as cooking and eating it.  To reduce the experience of food to a brief set of neurological responses in the palate is just bizarre. Restaurant and supermarket food are the souvenir shops of any sort of real food culture which, to make any sense at all, has – like any great adventure – to begin where you are.

But at this moment I’m wondering whether to describe a food moment  – like the one at the Potwell Inn last night – isn’t just another piece of internet grandstanding – “look at me, so handsome, young, and clever (????) doing what only I can do and boasting about it.”  Yesterday we spent the day on the allotment and, because of the lockdown and the bleak food outlook this year, I cleared and dug the last available patch of land on the plot. It was always a difficult and weed infested patch, right on top of what we think is an underground stream, and so it’s been covered with a pile of palettes on which we grew potatoes in bags and pots of mint. But it’s very sheltered and sunny – and we need somewhere to grow peppers, hardier chillies, aubergines and bush tomatoes this year. It took most of the day but it’s finished and ready to use – dug, composted, fed and broken into a fine tilth.  Two years under weed control mat had done most of the work for me.

So back home, too tired to be bothered to cook much and mindful of eking out the food supply for as long as possible we turned to the store cupboard in which there are about six litres of bottled sauce labeled “Hazan number one”. The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan’s “The essentials of Italian Cooking” and its one of seven recipes for tomato sauce. There were two half used packs of linguini in the cupboard – pasta has become impossible to find, but mercifully I discovered a 1 kg bag of pasta flour in the cupboard yesterday, and there were four pots of basil growing in the kitchen window. There was parmesan in the fridge, so we were away.  The tomatoes were our own from last year, and we have bottles of sauces and passata stored, so it was very much a meal made out of what was there – “clanger pudding” in Potwell Inn speak.

And it was so good we wanted to sing. It wasn’t the recipe, or the ingredients or any one marketable thing that made it beautiful – it was everything. The allotment, the earth, the sunshine and the neighbours, the kitchen and its equipment collected over the decades, the scent of basil growing, the plates chosen by us and even the table we ate at.  It was each other and our shared history and our adventures in Europe that we can’t afford any more – it was the gestalt.  Did it matter that Italians would have eaten it with different pasta? was it a bad case of cultural misappropriation? – oh do get a life! It was what humans do best when we get it right – being human. 

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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