Then there were more

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Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.

So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity.  I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.

When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes.  When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.

Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.

I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.

And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.

Oh but I do hate these dark nights!

 

 

Placating the gods of mortality?

 

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Not another dead leaf?” you may well ask, and I will admit to having a bit of  thing about them – because a leaf can be stunningly beautiful even if it did once belong to a red cabbage rather than a Japanese Acer in an arboretum. I get my pleasures where I can.  The fact that it looks a bit like the back of my hand on a bad day is neither here nor there because the gods of mortality are strictly neutral as to species.

This is one I just have to paint for its sheer delicacy, for the way it expresses the temporality and fragility of all living things and for its exquisite colours.

The world is a better place for this one dead cabbage leaf.

But isn’t it rather morbid to reflect on these things?  Christmas is coming and we’ll all have a jolly time and …..

One of my earliest memories is of making Christmas puddings with my mother – or at least my sister and me would watch while my mother, red faced, would mix the ingredients and give us our turn so we could make a Christmas wish, and then lower the pudding bowls  – covered in cotton torn from old sheets and tied around with string – and lowered into the wash boiler suspended from the copper stick. The copper stick outlasted the old boiler by several decades because it was still used to extract boiling washing from the super up-to-date twin tub washing machine. Everybody had a copper stick in those days, and I have a vague memory that our next door neighbour “Aunty Doreen” was fond of threatening us with hers.  Unlike most old boilers, though, ours never found its way into the garden and a new life containing a rampant mint plant. But my memory includes the reckless danger of lighting the gas ring under the boiler; of smelling the wet cotton and watching the steam condensing on the kitchen window for hours on end.

All of which may, or may not explain why making Christmas puddings is nine parts ritual to one part recipe; but I always feel that I’m channelling my mother when I do it. There’s an element of defiance in holding a feast when everything looks as if it’s finished, done for. The same goes for painting dead leaves, or for that matter writing a blog. It’s always an act of defiance, a two fingered salute to the gods of mortality and entropy.  We shall have our feast and celebrate all this unnecessary beauty for the sheer joy of it. No I don’t think we’re placating any gods, although it would please me enormously if we were annoying the gods of the economy, the gods of greed and selfishness, the gods of eternal growth and prosperity and especially the gods of industrial farming, along with all the other liars.

‘Seeing the world in a grain of sand’ is a bit of a stretch for me most of the time, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of it in a leaf, and it was leaves that occupied most of my morning.  As it got light I looked out of the window across the green and I could see leaves, scuttering along in the wind, piling up in drifts.  “Good” I thought – “There’ll be leaves up at the allotment” – and there were: several tons of them dropped off by the parks department. But don’t for a moment assume that allotmenteers are a peace loving equitable bunch of people who love nothing more than sharing.  The terrible truth is we only share our surpluses and not our shortages. The leaf season only lasts a few weeks and I just happened to be first on the scene this morning so I had to drop everything and haul leaves back because I knew that within hours our narrow eyed neighbours would be competing for every last leaf. Speed is essential and over the years I’ve evolved a rapid system using a 1.5 cubic metre woven sack.  It holds just the right number of leaves – probably four or possibly even five barrow loads – just a bit more than I can comfortably lift – but I’m prepared to be very uncomfortable when there’s free mulch about.  By the time our bin was full, pressed down and covered there were three more people working on the heap – like locusts we were – maintaining the pretence of neighbourliness all the while. More leaves will arrive, no doubt, and there are more than enough to go around but we’ve got this year’s supply secured – result!

Meanwhile, the slow process of cooking the puddings went on all day. We don’t have a pan nearly big enough to cook four puddings at once, and so I’ve been doing them one at a time in the pressure cooker. Each one takes two hours in total, so the whole operation still takes eight hours, but I can set the hob to turn itself off automatically so we can leave each one cooking without supervision. The flat is full of Christmas smells and there’s something quite nice about closing the shutters when it gets dark – earlier every day.

The wine we made last year went down the drain today. It was fun to make, but it tasted rubbish and it was taking up a lot of space.

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First frost – bang on time

 

Or at least, bang on time as long as two consecutive years make a trend. Cropping French beans in the autumn is always going to be a bit speculative, and although we’ve had a few feeds off these and another batch, last night’s frost was enough to do for them. A year ago we’d had the coldest October for many years and this year it’s been the wettest, all of which is completely symptomatic of global heating. Twenty years ago we could entertain ourselves with thoughts of a Mediterranean climate but now we are begining to grasp that what we’ve inherited from our destructive behaviour is extreme and destructive weather.  Last night the temperature on our north facing  second floor window ledge went down to 4.5C, and when I looked out of the window as soon as the sun came up I could see frost on the green outside. When we got up to the allotment the beans had succumbed. However this year we were ahead of the game, and so any other tender plants have been moved under cover or harvested and stored.  This has produced a great deal of material for composting and we’d been slightly concerned that the heap wasn’t heating very well, largely due to the ingress of rain. But adding a lot of cardboard, turning it roughly and chopping the waste by getting on top of the heap with a spade have all helped. Along with a few handfuls of fish blood and bone sprinkled  with the wood ash from our incinerator, the heap was heating up fast today and we’ll resist resist adding any more material until we can turn it all into the next bay and start afresh.

The window boxes are due to be changed too, and so today we swapped the first couple with new ones planted up with spring bulbs. It doesn’t make much of a photograph, but gardeners have a lovely knack of seeing beyond the bare facts into the future.  To me those neat boxes, covered with gravel to stop the mud splashing up aganst the windows, are a promissory note for the future, and it won’t be long before the green shoots appear. We’ll strip out any of the existing plants in the summer boxes that can be saved, divided or propagated and get them ready for next summer. Any spare or spent earth and growing medium goes straight on to the allotment.

The wisdom of converting to raised beds really came home today.  After so much rain, in the past we’d have struggled to do any work at all on the wet ground – but now it’s easy, and the no dig regime means that we just loosen any weeds and pull them out carefully. The beds themselves are often firm enough to step on without fear of compressing the soil too much. Weeding, and the raking up of any green material that’s lying around isn’t just cosmetic. Slugs feed on decaying matter and the less food we leave lying around for them the better.

This morning the christmas cake emerged from its wallpaper hat and went into a cupboard wrapped in greaseproof paper and ready to be fed with a little brandy whenever I think about it. Maybe this year I’ll actually get to ice it, but it takes ages and costs a fortune for the marzipan, and I’ve noticed that the family often peel the icing off and leave it on the plate because it’s so sweet. Madame and me, however, love to share a flask of tea and a slice of Christmas cake up on the allotment on cold winter days.  As soon as I’ve sent this post I’ll be back in the kitchen making Christmas puds – so then all the preparations are done and we can concentrate on everything else we want to do. There’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn.

 

Stowaway found in the cupboard

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This wouldn’t happen in our son’s kitchen because he’s a a professional chef and I’m only a cook. He does cheffy stuff like fridge labelling whereas I usually apply the ‘hairy or smelly’ test to unexpected finds – it all comes from decades of being skint, and making do, and, maybe – subliminal memories of wartime rationing. I was born after the war but I can remember playing shops with my sister and using the redundant ration books as money.

This Christmas pud was not hairy and neither did it smell, but I know for a fact it must be at least five years old because I haven’t made Christmas puds since we came to Bath. The reason it’s survived at the back of the cupboard all this time is that it’s a two pounder and far too big even when the whole family is together. So this year I’m only making one pounders, and Madame and me will eat one whenever it takes our fancy, but probably not at Christmas when we’re all far too full. So out it went this morning and then we set off on a 40  mile round trip to put the new battery in the campervan.  It was all planned out like a military campaign and so the job was done in next to no time with no electrical  sparks and without losing the radio and security codes.  The biggest problem was getting some jump leads close enough to the van to maintain the power while I swapped the batteries.

What a deadly boring paragraph, I’m thinking, except the feeling of satisfaction when the old beast roared into life is beyond pleasure.  Now we can go away for a couple of nights and visit friends, paddle the kayak or just sit and read.

Back home later I weighed out flour, muscovado sugar, eggs and cake stuff; beat it senseless with my hand mixer which is miraculously good at not splitting the mixture when I put the eggs in, measured, folded and drew greaseproof and brown paper (well, wallpaper actually) and finished it all off by hand – which is all I can do now since the second hand Kenwood burst into flames last Christmas after 25 years of efficient cake making. Now it’s (the cake not the Kenwood) – in the oven and any minute the fragrance will fill the flat.  As soon as I’ve done the washing up I’ll weigh out the ingredients for the puddings and cook them tomorrow when they’ve stood all night soaking up the Guinness, rum and barley wine. This is all monstrously stupid behaviour given that I’ve only just managed to get my blood glucose readings back to normal by completely changing my diet and foregoing any alcohol at all, and so only I’ll be eating tiny portions.  But there’s a big plus side to all this, which is feeling fit enough to cope with Spaffer Johnson’s brexit nonsense without wanting to throw myself off a raised bed.

Earnest negotiations have begun concerning next year’s seed order.  Ask any allotmenteer if their allotment is big enough when the spring comes, and we’ll all say we need more space.  This is because we’d love to be able to grow the whole catalogue.  Reality, however, means that we can only grow a certain amount, and next year we’ll be obliged to grow less potatoes because we’ve lost the borrowed 50 square metres loaned by our neighbour.  That’s OK though, because we’ll never be able to eat all we’ve grown this year. The issue arose when we were talking about where to relocate the chamomile plants. We cracked it by deciding to treat them more as a crop, and give them the situation and sunshine they need to keep us in flowers all summer. The same goes for the calendula which we can use in a home made skin cream. In fact I’ve been checking out which medicinal herbs are growing wild around the site and it’s surprising how many there are.  Luckily many of the companion plants are ‘dual purpose’, having medicinal applications as well as insect attractant/repellant properties, not to mention tasting good too.

Tomorrow we begin moving fruit bushes, strawberries and shrubs into new locations.  We’ve already decided to grow many of the companion plants in moveable tubs so they can be deployed where they’re most needed.  All this, remember is happening on 250 square metres of allotment, not RHS Wisley, so it’s entirely do-able. When the children left home I found myself still cooking for five (plus unexpected friends) for months. We can grow a great deal of what we need at the Potwell Inn, but we’re still learning how to moderate our sowing – I’ve just finished drying enough chilllies to keep us going for years.

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Yesterday we tried our third Jamie Oliver veggie recipe in a week.  I loved it but Madame wasn’t so keen and thought the halloumi was tasteless. I slept well enough last night after manually adjusting the kitchen clock but bizarrely I kept waking up to check whether my phone had reset itself, and then I woke at my normal ‘body clock’ time and had to force myself to stay in bed another hour.

 

Rainy day – I hate rainy days!

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_1080345“Hello” – I say, as I shuffle up the garden in my baggy corduroy trousers with my two ancient laboradors following – “I’m worrying about my hyacinth.”

I daydream in bed, listening to the wind and rain buffeting the windows and knowing from the outset that this is it for the day.  All there is to do is to watch the hyacinth growing in its special pot and know in the depths of my heart that it will flower sooner or later and I shall have to paint it, or rather finish painting it. Madame is peacefully asleep but I make tea anyway open the shutters and muse aloud about the weather. More tea, then strong coffee – why on earth do I drink stimulants when what I need is something to send me to sleep until the sun shines? Back in bed I read fitfully and take a wild and fruitless leap at a conversation.  “It’s like living with a tornado when you’re in one of these moods”, she says.

Every rainy day needs a plan. The campervan battery needs replacing but I can’t do that in the wet. We need to go to the garden centre to get more seed sowing compost and some extra modules but the Christmas bonanza has started in earnest and you have to fight your way past Father Christmas and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon candles to get to the gardening bit – bah humbug! Finally the idea of baking the Christmas cake floats into my mind.  Up again, I discover a huge cache of half-full packets of dried fruit none of which is full enough to make a Christmas cake and much of which is beginning to crystallise – this is what happens every year and instead of throwing the old ones away and buying new, I will get lumbered with another stash exactly the same size next year. Wouldn’t it be good to buy them loose?

And then in a typical bit of mission creep, I decide to make a Dundee cake as well and so it goes …..

Sainsbury’s, it’s clear, is suffering from brexit already. Things are unexpectedly missing and there are notices appearing about supply interruptions. Barring the possibility that the identical aspiration to make Christmas cakes today has struck half the population simultaneously, I’d say that some shelves were suspiciously empty. I set out in search of dried porcini mushrooms.  They were missing from their usual spot and even the customary label was missing. I asked one of the assistants who did a search for me on her handset – “They’re on hold” – she blurted out; not “sold out” or “impounded by customs” but “on hold”.  Which sounds suspiciously like one of those sharp suited London types is frantically trying to renegotiate a post-brexit supply from the porcini groves of Putney.  This will end in tears. 

And so, for a breath of reality to the Farmers Market in Green Park Station.  We like going there because it’s a good place to get some sense of what our vegetables are worth – quite a bit is the answer – although one farmer is still selling sweetcorn on the cob – probably not very sweet today, more like fodder maize.  Farmers markets aren’t the complete answer to all our woes, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction. We’ve three independent bakers, two really good butchers, a man who sells game, a fishmonger, artisan cheesemongers and any number of value added food stalls.  You can even buy cannabis oil products but I hate queuing. Today there was a newcomer with a fabulous display of fungi. It was like being in France again, and he had dried porcini mushrooms.

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The dreadlocked couple on one of the bread stalls had obviously struggled with the effect of the wind on their wood fired oven because all their loaves were baked several steps beyond perfection, but it didn’t seem to matter to the crust loving customers.

Farmers markets are a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the upside is that you can talk to the producers and get the measure of them before you buy, and the difference in the price could probably be expressed in animal welfare and/or organic standards. But the biggest advantage is that they’re local – I think the furthest travelled food on sale today was the kimchi – up from Salisbury.  What it all boils down to is a personal choice, would I prefer to eat organic free range beef maybe a couple or three times a year, accepting it as an occasional luxury? or carry on as usual turning a blind eye to the abuse of animals, the environmental impact of intensive food production and the terrible quality of mass produced food.  Local and small scale food production creates many more real skills and jobs for local people who spend their money locally. And I’m not away with the fairies imagining that we can change the world by thinking nice thoughts – we must make the polluters pay for their mess and pay their taxes like the rest of us.  We will have to legislate too, if it’s going to work, and of course the industrial farmers and their chemical industry supporters won’t be very happy about it – tough!

Without wanting to pick a fight, the choice isn’t binary – either vegan or feedlots, but exploring the possibility of less impactful lives and engaging with (willing) food producers to discover what we can jointly do as producers and consumers. The face to face interaction of a farmers market is exactly the right place for this to happen and I would dearly love to see the whole of the undercover part of Green Park Station turned into a giant continental style food market. But for now, there’s no choice but to go to a supermarket for some more currants and sultanas because I didn’t get enough.  The Dundee cake is just out of the oven and smells fantastic, and when we get back we can put the rest of the fruit into a bowl to soak with some brandy until I make the Christmas cake tomorrow, when the clocks go back and it gets dark at lunchtime but at least the sun’s going to shine.

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“Pile em high, sell em cheap?”

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Not in the case of most plants as can be easily seen from the photo. These are two pots of the basil (var.’Classico’) we’re growing in a propagator in the kitchen – and you’ll also see that the right hand pot was accdentally sown far too densely, and what’s happened is that the plants are failing to thrive as they should because they’re all competing for light and food.  So Madame intervened by thinning the right hand pot when the plants were only just beyond the cotyledon stage, and took a chance on transplanting them. The results were almost instantaneous as you can see – the transplanted ones have rocketed away, the thinned area of the pot they came from is responding too but the front part is stuck in a herby timewarp.

It’s always tempting to sow or plant just a bit more densely than the books suggest, but nine times out of ten you don’t get any more of a crop and sometimes you get less.  Light, circulating air and food are all really important for plant health and although the oversowing was an accident and not an experiment, the message is obvious – firstly, that amount of seed would have filled at least four or even five pots with healthy plants, and secondly it’s always worth having a go at transplanting – all it costs is a pot of compost and a chopstick to make the holes – but don’t try it with tap  rooting plants lke carrots because they hate it.

But yesterday, as I wrote, I was clearing a bed of chamomile because (same thing, I suppose) it was hating its rather greedy, light stealing neighbours like fennel, globe artichoke and angelica. What we had was straggling plants trying to haul themselves into a bit of sunshine, with hardly any flowers that we could harvest for chamomile tea. You can tell how fed up they were by the fact they thought they might stand a better chance in the asparagus bed! And the striking thing about the chamomile was their tangled and dense root systems – obviously that’s part of the reason they do well as low-traffic lawns.  The other part of the reason is they don’t mind being cut, so long as it’s not test wicket short.

This year we did some experiments with interplanting which showed mixed results. Nasturtiums did well under the apples and did no harm even if they did no good, although they do have a gift for wandering off.  The squashes under the brassicas were a bit of a disaster as they ramped away under cover of the butterfly proof nets which are such a chore to lift up. Summer savory and basil were pretty happy wherever we put them. Chamomile ticks all the boxes with its properties and we were chatting about where to relocate our bedtime-tea flowerbed.  Ideally it would be a bed of perennials so that  they could all get along famously together and get their roots down. Has anyone got any bright ideas?

Doing the right thing is so much fun

 

OK – so bare ground isn’t very photogenic, but this is a most enjoyable part of the allotment year because all the while we’re clearing last season’s crops, weeding and covering the ground with compost and a winter coat we’re chatting away about what went well, what went badly and what we’ll sow next season. The new seed catalogues are dropping into the postbox almost every day now and after three full seasons getting to grips with a new kind of soil we’ve got a much better idea what will work and what won’t. We’ve moved from a very difficult but typical Cotswold mixture of stone and clay, to a clay loam that – in its pristine state – balls up easily in a sticky mess.

In addition, we’ve watched the way our patch of land behaves over three full years.  We’ve dug drains to conduct the worst of the water away; we’ve raised beds to get them above the water table because we’ve got an underground stream passing right beneath the allotment – you can see the water flooding across the pavement below after heavy rain. I suppose it’s a good thing to have some extra soil moisture in the hottest weather, but most plants don’t enjoy having wet feet for weeks on end.  The strategies we’ve employed –  draining, raising soil levels, adding organic matter to hold the surplus and adding some grit to improve water flow have all had some beneficial effects.  By keeping careful notes of the way the sun tracks across the allotment over a year, we now understand that we get full sun (when there is any) for part of every day between the spring and autumn equinoxes.  We also know where the frost will settle and we’ve even devised a few strategies for holding the cold air back or diverting it around.  We know where the bad wind and the good rain come from and which direction is full of threat to our grapevines.

Today we decided to move some lavender bushes to a border which was previously full of camomile.  The camomile was greatly overshadowed by taller herbs which inhibited its flowering, so this afternoon I lifted as many plants as I could and then topped up the bed with a mixture of 50.50 topsoil and horticultural grit which will suit the lavender much better and attract many pollinators to the edge of the allotment where, hopefully, we’ll lure them in with other plants.

While I was prepping the borders and tending the incinerator, Madame was sowing broad beans and planting onions and shallots. Obviously most of the sowing goes on in the spring, but beans, peas, garlic onions and shallots all tolerate or even appreciate a bit of a cold spell, and with a bit of luck give us an early crop.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen we cooked another veggie meal from Jamie Oliver’s new book and I lashed up a roasted tomato, onion and garlic soup for tomorrow’s lunch. This was the second meal from the same book this week.  On Monday I cooked a white risotto with roasted tomatoes and today Madame made an aubergine curry. Both recipes were delicious – doing the right thing really is more fun. If I’m honest I started this year with an instinctive dislike of both aubergines and courgettes, but during our exploration of vegetarian food we’ve found ways of cooking them that I really like. There’s something about the range of colours, flavours and textures available from vegetables that makes my previous commitment to meat eating much easier to leave behind than I ever expected. I haven’t spent hours daydreaming about bacon sandwiches, and nothing would induce me to use meat substitutes which are, like it or not, industrial foodstuffs.  I did make a veggie burger once with rice and beetroot to make it look like real meat – it was the most tremendous faff and didn’t taste very nice anyway. But even that didn’t taste nearly as bad as the vegan cottage pie from a National Trust cookbook. I think if vegetarian cooking is ever going to be mainstream, it needs to put all thoughts of imitating meat dishes completely to one side.  My biggest reservation is the widespread lack of basic cooking skills. Not knowing what to do and having very little time and, in many small flats – almost no cooking facilities, is driving people  into the dubious hands of the industrial producers of ready meals.

We’re nowhere near fully vegetarian yet, but the prospect of moving in that direction is more attractive than it’s ever been, and growing our own vegetables has given us a huge push in that direction.  When we were both working full time we could never have given either the garden or the kitchen the attention we do now. Tomorrow there’s rain forecast so we’ll deliver the pumpkin to our grandchildren and collect a new battery for the campervan. Not much sitting around and reading is going on at the Potwell Inn!

Mind you, sometimes our unglamorous lives has its compensations.  Two friends have just returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Japan where they watched the first three World Cup matched played by Wales while all the time expecting the arrival of a typhoon.  Then they travelled on to Hong Kong where the riots inhibited their sightseeing.  We just watched the council mend a hole in the road outside – very cheap and nobody got hurt.

The Princes Motto

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These kales always remind me of the Princes Motto – an excellent pub to the south of Bristol and known by the locals as the ‘ich dien’. Bristolians have a gift for shortening names, and you’d expect the abbreviation to be ‘the Princes’ but for some reason the locals lapse into German and recall a rather bloody episode which resulted in the Black Prince getting his feathers – so to speak.   We used to meet up there for lunch occasionally when Madame worked at the research station and it was there we once spotted a couple in the layby just down the road.  All we could see, apart from the violent rocking motion of the Mini, was a voluminous tricel skirt which seemed to be simultaneously shielding and expediting the action.  They were probably gymnasts, we concluded, and parked somewhere else, desperately hoping that they would appear – crumpled and red faced – in the pub later. Sadly they didn’t, and left us forever wondering who they were.

IMG_6260Anyway, amusing memories aside, these kales are now standing on the allotment with the purple sprouting broccoli, some beetroot and leeks, celery, celeriac as the last mature vegetables of the season as we hunker down for winter. All except a few pounds of fresh tomatoes have been processed frozen and stored, along with squashes, potatoes and the inevitable pickles, chutneys, jams and sauces. The other beds are becoming a seasonal blank canvas on which we shall dream the plot next season.

There’s plenty to eat for the time being, but casting back my mind a century or so, most cottagers would have lived an increasingly thin existence as winter progressed, and remember the so-called hungry gap isn’t in January or February it’s in later spring when the weather is much improved but the veg crops are yet to grow. If they were lucky and thrifty there might have been a fattened pig and a few hens, with flour and malt in store for bread and beer, but compared with our present diet, immeasurably poorer. When compared with their lot, at best we’re playing at self-sufficiency. Of course we’re very proud of what we achieve, and in terms of quality and flavour, and bearing in mind the impact these tiny oases of good practice have, allotmenteering can’t be faulted as a positive move, but it’s not nearly enough.

I’ve mentioned before the way we’re exploring vegetarian cooking and of course we’re aware of the impact of intensive farming on the environment. Probably two in three of our main meals are now vegetarian. I think we’ve both ‘gone off’ meat a bit because we can’t actually afford to eat meat of the kind of quality and welfare standards we’d wish. This morning I asked myself the question – do the media paint a false picture of the countryside? – after all, when did you last see a contributor to the BBC flagship “Countryfile” programme proudly loading up their sprayer with poisonous chemicals and saying with a satisfied smile that they’d increased their profits by 20% by eliminating the insect competition? “Last year”  – you might correctly say, except that in the clip I watched we were invited to wonder at the sheer size of the computerised behemoth without once hearing about what it was doing!

TV programmes tend to focus on ‘proper’ farmers on small farms with lots of calves and cuddly lambs. They call it ‘welly telly’ and focus on artisan gin producers or cheesemakers, pole lathe turners and hand crafted clothes-peg whittlers at the expense of telling us what’s really going on. Who wants to watch a programme about intensive pig fattening or feed lots for gigantic methane belching beef cattle? Even as we walk around the supermarket we’re conned by photos of gnarled looking tweed suited country folk who are supposed to ‘represent’ the products. Obviously that doesn’t include the legions of zero-hours contract workers who do the actual work of picking and packing. We should try to be more aware of the real state of play in our food system and ignore the subtle  ‘greenwashing’ that hides the reality. I cheer myself up with the fact that research has shown allotments to be ten times more productive than farms when they’re turned over to food production.

Back at the Potwell Inn the garlic arrived today and we were surprised to see that the bulbs of the same variety were easily twice the size of last year’s. It was probably down to the summer heat and dry weather in 2018 but we were also disappointed with the small size of the resulting crop.  Here’s hoping for better things next season – we planted them out this morning. Tomorrow we’ve got to clean a pile of root trainers and get the broad beans sown, along with the Douce Provence peas. It seems ridiculous but it’s really worth getting the seed order in as early as possible. We’ve often been disappointed at the quality of seed when we’ve ordered very late and, of course, you run the risk of not being able to obtain the varieties you want. We’re almost through prepping the beds, and the contents of the spent hotbed made an excellent contribution to levelling and raising other beds on the plot. The biggest job remaining is clearing out the fruit cage and moving things around.

We learned today that we’re losing the extra 50 square meters we’ve borrowed for two seasons because our neighbour can’t affort to pay the £9 clean air zone charge on his little campervan every time he comes down, so he’s moving to another site. An unintended consequence I’m sure, but he’s fallen victim to broad brush policies.  Speaking of which, the incinerator is generating more steam than smoke and it’s only used once a year to dispose of the most noxious weeds which, if we took them to the civic amenity site would be burned anyway – but not near Bath. We try not to let the perfect drive out the good.

 

 

It’s 60p for the flour and £3 for knowing what to do with it.

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I’m adapting the reply from a drystone waller I knew, to a suburban incomer who had queried the price of a new wall “because it’s only made from stones”. Of course there are foods like caviar that can cost the earth (in every sense), but for the most part the raw materials cooks begin with are modest. It’s the alchemy of cooking that turns the base metal of the raw ingredients into something a lot better, if not gold.

I was musing on this today as I dried the old Pyrex bowl that I’ve always used for proving bread dough.  It was part of a set given to us as a wedding present, so it’s almost 53 years old and very scratched. All the other parts of the set have been dropped and broken over the years, but this one piece survives  and gets used twice or three times a week. Of course, logically the age or composition of the bowl can have no impact whatever on the rising of dough aside from the sentimental pleasure of using it.  To be honest, if I had an old slipware bowl of the same size I’d use that – but I haven’t got one.  The familiarity of old and trusted tools is only peripheral to the main task, but anyone who’s mislaid a favourite knife will know how difficult the most ordinary jobs can become.

I write a lot about food, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a recipe.  There are hundreds of bloggers who do, and I wish them the best of good fortune, but I can never quite figure out why some things work for me and – more importantly – how to get it down on the page. Take my ragu recipe, for instance.  This may be completely bonkers, but I think chopping the vegetables by hand with a very sharp knife gives a different and better flavour than whacking them into a food processor. Hand chopped onions don’t stew in the way they would if they were processed. It’s just possible that the way I chop them might make a difference, but how would I explain that in words without making cookery sound like nuclear engineering?

There are hundreds of little actons that go together to make a dish.  My mother taught me to judge the right thickness of a Yorkshire pudding batter from the sound it makes – it has to be just the right sound, and even though these days I always use a stick blender I still resort to a spoon to sound out the thickness – flop, flop, flop – perfect. I once asked a man in a Chinese supermarket what was the difference betwen ‘soy superior’ and ‘superior soy’? He simply picked up a bottle of each type and rotated it back and forth in his hand without saying a word. Point taken; it was all in the thickness.

So when it comes to sourdough – which is surrounded by a miasma of completely unnecessary magick anyway – my own recipe is utterly unoriginal, and adapted from a dozen or so books that mostly amounted to the same thing. In fact I change it all the time because I like doing experiments and, with a few exceptions, it tastes better than anything you could buy in a shop. I could be micro-critical of the loaf in the photo, the crust was a bit too thick because I forgot to turn the oven down, but that just gave me an incenive to be more careful. In matters of hydration – the proportion of water to flour – the only proper recipe would have to admit “it all depends”. You can only properly figure that out as you knead (yes I knead: not for me the desperately sloppy sticky method!).

But in my imaginary recipe, how do I express how the dough feels when it’s ‘right’? I always start with the same proportions which gives a sticky dough, and then, depending on the circumstances, I’ll add more flour a bit at a time until it feels right – and feeling right is a whole world of experience. I’ve never watched a ‘real’ baker knead dough, so I just use the same technique I used for clay. I hold the dough with the fingers of the left hand and and then push the mass out, stretching it with the heel of my right hand in a rhythmic movement using my whole upper body.  Then I rotate the whole mass by 90 degrees with the left hand and repeat the stretching action – it sounds much more complicated than it really is. To begin with it’s always too sticky so I use a flat scraper to release it from the table and keep going until the dough forms a coherent mass.  At that point I start to knead in small quantities of flour – a little at a time, and I judge when the dough is right just from the feel and from the way it sticks to the table. At the outset it all sticks horribly, but when it’s just right only the bit under my fingers attaches to the table. The dough, when it’s ready is still sticky but just – and only just – manageable. I sometimes wet my hands to move it into the bowl to prove. I suppose I could work out the exact hydration by weighing everything, but to be honest the composition of the flour can be a bit variable.  I had a miller friend who would not mill flour until he felt it was right – wheat grains have their personalities too.

And then there’s the proving, the moving to a banneton , the second proving and the cutting and baking.  Even what I’ve written makes it all sound so daunting and yet it’s easy – which is why I don’t do recipes. Do it, and then do it again and again and it’ll come right; no magic just experience.

Natural, organic but bad!

Following on in much the same vein as  “Frugal, thrifty, tight?” which I posted on December 18th last year, I was reflecting today on the perils of regarding everything organic as necessarily good to eat.  I remember (possibly 40 years ago) eating a bean pie from Cranks Restaurant in London which was, at the time, something of a flagship for organic food.  Even then, back in the day, an organic wholemeal loaf could be more character forming than fun to eat, and the bean pie-crust tasted like an early experiment in military armour.  But they were selling like hot cakes in Ladbroke Grove and appeared to confer some kind of ethical glow on the consumers. Decades later, I’ve learned by practicing that it’s entirely possible to make lovely wholemeal pastry as long as you don’t overwork it and I’ve occasionally made an effort to create my own beanie pie – without much success so far.  Maybe this years borlotti beans will break my run of bad luck.

But now, with the allotment, we can guarantee the organic provenance of all our vegetables, but not necessarily their wholesomeness. You get used to washing and soaking to remove the beasties but having done that it’s all too easy to assume that if it’s come off the allotment it will be good for us.

Most mornings I make a kefir based smoothie and if there’s any available I always put some spinach in the mix.  But just now we’re between crops, and the only spinach available when I looked was rather old and had bolted.  It really needed to go on the compost heap but being frugal and thrifty I laboriously picked all the leaves off the mighty stem, gave them a good wash and – for two consecutive days – whizzed them up raw in the kefir.

In the bathroom this morning I was, as I said, reflecting – as one does – and as I read one of the stack of books I keep there for reflecting purposes, it became clear that ancient raw spinach contains uncomfortable amounts of oxalic acid – like old rhubarb does. “Bingo” I thought as my synapses added two and two together and revealed the secret of our suffering.  The acid is broken down by cooking, but we’d eaten it raw and in considerable quantity.  A little bit more recearch later I discovered that raw salad vegetables are superb vectors of several other disorders you don’t want to experience.

Normally I’m careful about adjectives like natural, fresh and organic …… “So”, I always say, “are foxglove and deadly nightshade, and they won’t do you any good at all!” But I’d never expected that staple foods like spinach need to be treated carefully – in future I’ll think twice.

On the allotment we continued clearing up for winter and composing all the empty beds. As Madame wanted to wash down the greenhouse, I picked the last of the chillies whatever their state of ripeness and we gathered up the shallots from the drying shelf. Now we’re ready to sow the overwintering legumes and green manure. No-dig has relieved us of one heavy task, but the turning and humping around of quantities of compost will soon put on a sweat. After several weeks of rain and gloom there’s a prospect of some drier weather for a few days and that’s all we need to carry on growing.