The Potwell Inn dispensary

Well, it was a rainy day so there was nothing for it but to spend it at the stove, catching up on the list of to-do’s, the first of which was to turn the calendula flowers, harvested from the allotment in the autumn and infused in sweet almond oil – into a most useful cream to use at home. Among herbal remedies, calendula is a reliable go-to for eczema and itchy dry skin. Bought from commercial suppliers it’s pretty expensive – the best brands cost around £6 a tube, and so we decided that this year we’d make our own. There is, however, something of a dilemma to be addressed in making it because almond oil is way beyond the resources of our allotment so we have to buy it. But there’s a choice to be made that turns out to be quite an expensive one. Our usual supplier lists two types of sweet almond oil – the organic and non organic, and the standard non organic oil costs £12.59 a litre. The organic oil, on the other hand, costs £52.85. So on price alone, the non organic wins hands down – but wait – because if you look up the source country you discover that the organic oil is produced in Spain and processed in Germany. The country of origin of non organic oil is not listed so it’s probably a blended generic oil from many places ……… including California?

So what’s the problem with California? you might ask and the answer is that according to Tom Philpott’s excellent new book “Perilous Bounty” it’s not just the fires that have brought disaster to California. In the Central Valley there is a massive industrial scale almond farming enterprise. The valley has always been fed by the meltwaters of the Sierra Nevada snows until, that is, drought and global warming began to take their toll and so the farmers started to pump groundwater at an increasing rate – it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. The result has been fairly catastrophic. As the wells deepen, the water becomes more saline. The aquifers are emptying rapidly because they are being drawn on far more quickly than they can be refilled by the melting snow and so the land is literally sinking – up to two feet a year; causing havoc with the local infrastructure – roads, pipes aqueducts and canals. A second problem has affected the industry because the margins are so tight, it can only make a profit by employing migrant labour at the lowest possible wages. Before the long drought began in 2011, this area produced $20.7 billion worth of fruit, vegetables and nuts – 53% of the US total (all these figures are from Tom Philpott’s book).

So it turns out that the cheaper almond oil comes at a cost that is simply not reflected in the price. Cheap almond oil depends upon cheap labour and the overuse of cheap water – and it’s destroying the environment. For all we know, precisely the same slow destruction is taking place in Spain. One of the great unspoken problems with the organic movement is the way in which it is being slowly industrialised. However, that’s why we bought the expensive organic oil which, of course, will be much more expensive again after brexit if (when) tariffs are applied. That’s how politics, economics and ethics are hanging together when we think about a Green New Deal. There’s no way of building a greener future without changing our political, economic and ethical assumptions. As I wrote yesterday, it amounts to such a profound change it will feel like a bereavement as long as we refuse to embrace the evidence that’s before our eyes.

Anyway, the home produced organic calendula cream still came in at 50% of the price of the commercial products and there was nothing whatever added; just the flowers extracted into the oil, and some beeswax. As for the method, you simply melt the beeswax slowly in a double boiler and stir in the strained oil. It’s best to check that the cooled ointment is the right density, so we tested it like jam – on a cold plate. Then we bottled and labelled it …. ta da!

But that’s not enough to keep us out of mischief for a whole day, so I made a favourite old stager from the Potwell Inn book of borrowed delights. This one came initially via a friend (and occasional diner) at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny – just one of the huge list of marvellous restaurants we could never afford to eat in – but who needs a restaurant when you’ve got a recipe? – after all I can do my own washing up. This dish comes up all over the place so it’s hardly a scarce and exotic signature dish; just plain Italian cooking whose flavour is like the brass section in a Brahms symphony.

Then there was stock to be finished. This time it was a proper pot au feu with a whole chicken and a small piece of beef plus all the usual herbs and vegetables. The beef gets turned into Salade Parisienne with a spicy salsa verde of gherkins, capers, shallots, parsley and oil. The chicken is picked and will make at least three meals and a soup, with stock to spare. We always freeze surplus meat rather than leave it in the fridge until it has to be wasted. On a cooking day it seems like a lot but this batch will last us the whole week if not longer, served in as many ways as we can think of. But there is just as much of an ethical and economic challenge with our diet as there was with the almond oil. I’m also re-reading Michael Pollan’s brilliant book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan is one of the best writers around on food and its constellation of issues and I’d happily recommend this book as an excellent starting point for a big think on living responsibly. Dieter Helm, Simon Fairlie, Tim Laing and James Rebanks have all written about the ethical issues surrounding food and food production and they’re worth the effort as well.

So, (lecture over), finally I baked a wholemeal sourdough loaf – our everyday bread. Let’s be honest, it’s never going to win any prizes against a bloomingly adolescent loaf made with white flour but if flavour counts at all, this loaf is a constant pleasure. You can look in vain for a 100% wholemeal recipe for sourdough bread, and there’s a reason. It can never compete in the crisp crust and open texture competition. It won’t rise to the same degree without adding a significant (say 50%) amount of white flour – which we’re not eating at the moment. But it’s not a competition, silly. Cooking at home means you can eat exactly what you want at a fraction of the price – it’s a no-brainer. Happy days!

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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.