The title, “Well tempered household” is a steal from a gardening classic by Christopher Lloyd called “The Well Tempered Garden” – well worth reading even though he seems to think of a small garden being anything less than three acres. “Tempered” in the sense that he’s using it has nothing to do with bad tempers or good manners because it’s drawing on a process familiar to sword makers when steel is heated and cooled in order to make it less fragile, more ductile and altogether stronger. A well tempered garden in this sense is a garden that’s capable of withstanding the kinds of climatic surprises and shocks that we’re becoming all too familiar with.
So extending the metaphor to a whole household – like the Potwell Inn – seems not to be too far a stretch, at least to me. We’re not tidy, we’re frequently bad tempered but the Potwell Inn is a well tempered household because in amongst the joyful moments we’ve seen a few shocks and many stresses; we’ve endured scary times and sad times; we’ve frequently been hard up, and to borrow another idea from Nietzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I like to think that layer after layer of experience has been forged into the steel of our being, such that our resilience has made us strong.
Of course there are some shocks that experience can’t overcome. Yesterday we went to visit an old friend with Motor Neurone Disease and against all the odds we had a really lovely afternoon together. Any difficulties in listening to his failing voice were overcome, and – not for the first time – I felt the presence of a kind of luminosity which is not unusual among those who are approaching death. We left and drove back to Bath on a warm and sunny evening and I was overwhelmed by a sense of fullness as all my summer evenings were forged into one. It was an unexpected and extraordinary moment.
Back in the kitchen there were jobs to do, and so I kneaded the new batch of dough for the morning and set it into a banneton that I’ve only used a few times before. I don’t think I could ever write a full account of baking bread. It’s so embedded in my memory and my hands that hundreds of micro decisions contribute to the final loaf. There is a recipe stuck to the fridge, but it’s overwritten with so many amendments I rarely even look at it. But when the stars align and the starter, the batter and then the dough come right there’s a feeling that it’s going to be good. But there’s another feeling too because having the starter right, having the flour and then the loaf right are tokens of stability. Well tempered baking is a fundamental part of a well tempered household and so too is the allotment which brings us healthy food. Today we harvested tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, green beans and sweetcorn and Madame picked 2Kg of blackberries from the footpath. Today we’re winning the sweetcorn battle with the badgers six nil. Lunch was good.
The Pyrex bowl in which I’ve proved every loaf I’ve ever baked is so precious and replete with memories that it’s only ever hand-washed. I’m not sure I could cope with losing it. The sourdough starter is more than ten years old and always sulks when we go away and don’t feed it. Recently a couple of American neighbours were in the process of moving away and they entrusted a three generations old sourdough pancake batter to our care.
So yesterday evening we ate late, watched television far too late – binging on “Bear” series two – and then listened to some of the music again while we drank too much wine. The sound track is amazing. A short night, then, and up early with a thick head to bake the loaf.
As the produce floods in, I spend more and more time in the kitchen. Today there were the blackberries to be cooked and strained through a cotton twill bag to make jelly. Bramble jelly is one of the most fragrant of all the jellies, and it always feels like we’re eating summer when we have it. Then today I also made the first batch of roasted tomato passata which we use as a base for many meals throughout the year. I suppose all this is another instance of resilience; of the tempering process that keeps the household on track even during the toughest of times. Without our sack of flour, the bakers yeast and the sourdough starter and a cupboard full of preserved produce from the allotment we’d have felt very exposed, but as it was, our principal enemy was isolation.
Are we self-sufficient? Absolutely not; but are we well tempered and resilient? without doubt!