The Tao of sourdough?

IMG_4760I will never make any kind of claim for understanding sourdough because I don’t; and neither would I write any kind of definitive guide to it for two reasons”

  • I never seem to reach a point where I feel there’s nothing left to learn, and –
  • I hate the way books so often intimidate and make our efforts feel pointless.

On the other hand I well remember leaving art school with a degree in ceramics and remarking to one of the lecturers that it would have been helpful if they had taken the time to teach me some techniques and not left it all to me to find out. So in that spirit I feel it’s OK to share some of the facts I wish someone had told me about years ago. So herewith the Potwell Inn bakery shortcourse, completely free of charge.

  1. Bread flour  – For too long I thought that the stronger the flour (ie. the higher the  protein level) the better the bread would be. Not true! The loaf in the photo is made with a third soft wheat flour and only two thirds strong bread flour. Obviously there’s a crossover point where you get a cakey texure but 1/3 to 2/3 seems to work with the flours I use. Should I say what they are?  Well no, because anyone can bake beautiful bread using whatever ingredients are to hand, as long as they’re prepared to experiment a bit – which leads me to –
  2. Complete failure is very rare – Sometimes they’ll slump, and sometimes they’ll stick to the banneton and sometimes they just sulk.  But the resulting bread is almost always better than anything you could buy.
  3. Rice flour I wish I had a pound for every mixture I’ve tried to dust the dough and help it to release. Of all the things I’ve tried, rice flour works best.
  4. Getting a hot base –  feel free to buy a lump of granite or a hi-tech widget made from recycled space shuttle nose-cone tiles, but I use a cast iron griddle for Welsh Cakes that was incredibly cheap and holds a tremendous amount of heat. I never clean it.
  5. Kneading –You can use a machine but you’ll learn more about the quality of a dough in ten minutes of hand kneading than you will in a year of tiny changes to the recipe. Flour is a natural product and even branded flours can vary from batch to batch.  Wholemeal flour takes more water than white, but beyond that, the exact proportions can vary from week to week. It’s easy to add a bit more flour if a dough feels too sticky but it’s horrible trying to add water to a too-stiff dough, so start wet and stop as soon as you can.
  6. Sourdough takes up too much time –  first make the batter, say ten minutes maximum, and then go and do something else for the rest of the day or night – whichever suits you best. Second, add the final amount of flour, the salt and some olive oil bearing in mind point 5 above and knead it for ten minutes or until it just ‘feels’ right. Let’s say that takes you another 15 minutes. Then go away again for a another 12 hours or so. Third, fold the dough over on itself gently a few times and form it into a ball and put that in a banneton which you’ve copiously dusted with rice flour. That takes another 5 minutes. Leave it for another three or four or however many hours it takes to look perky.  Finally turn it out, slash the top and bake it as hot as you can get the oven for ten to fifteen minutes and with steam if you have it.  Then turn the oven down a bit and bake for another 30 – 35 minutes. Elizabeth David suggested in her book “Bread and Yeast Cookery” that you’re trying to imitate the falling temperature of a wood fired oven. You have to be there for some of that bit – so let’s say another twenty minutes of your undivided attention. So that adds up to not a lot more than an hour of actual work. If you’re away at work, bake at the weekend or maybe kick the batter off before work on Friday morning and finish baking before lunch on Saturday.
  7.  Have you got a posh steam oven? Yes but for the first 47 years I didn’t and I still made bread. I’ve got a very small and cheap car – priorities I suppose.
  8. You need to buy a starter – No you don’t.  If it smells nice it’s probably OK – no faff, just dark rye flour and water and lots of time.
  9. Is it a spiritual experience? Only in the sense that you have to be ‘in the moment’. In that respect it’s just like every other craft skill, you have to have a dialogue with the material.  It’s not MDF board!
  10. Why bother? Because £4.00 for a large loaf is ludicrous however big the baker’s beard is, and very soon your bread will taste better than theirs, I promise.

Meanwhile – back on the allotment

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Even with the eyes of a proud parent I’d never claim that our allotment in winter is ‘handsome’ – as the Cornish might say.  I think, perhaps, ‘showing potential’ is a better description. The months between November and April – and that’s half a year, can be a stark reminder that we have no control over the weather and our aspirations to clear ground and to build raised beds run into the hard reality of sodden soil and rain from the south west.

But yesterday the rain stopped and the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to go and do some work.  When we took on the first plot in May, three years ago, it was a weed infested field and our whole priority was focused on clearing, sowing  and planting to make the most of our late start. It was a good year for crops, the ground having laid fallow for as many as three years. But as we’ve come to understand the soil better, we’ve realized that ‘though it’s very fertile – it’s also very fragile. It’s an alluvial loam with a clay content high enough to ball-up when it’s wet. There’s about 12″-18″ of topsoil overlaying an impermeable clay layer which led to serious waterlogging last year. Our strategy has been to pile on as much organic material as we can in order to improve the soil structure.  The decision to move to raised beds was pretty much forced on us by the soil conditions and so, three years on, we’re revisiting the design of the first plot to incorporate the lessons we’ve learned and the plots have piles of boards and pegs stacked here and there, ready to sieze any opportunity to do some infrastructure work. The most urgent need is to get at least one 12’ X 4’2″ bed ready to plant out the overwintering broad beans which are doing well in the tiny unheated greenhouse.

The ground is already so wet that it would be foolish to walk on it, so we’ve concentrated on building a deep surround which will contain the mulch on the grape vine next to a path.  Since we have a free supply of leaves most of the allotmenteers on the site use leaves.

So a couple of hours of damp work saw the surround all but complete, but more than that, it was lovely to be out in the fresh air after an enforced week inside.

This rediscovered kitchen tool could change your life!

It was raining and blowing a hoolie all day yesterday – in fact it’s been like that since the weekend. The wind insinuates itself through every tiny gap in the windows, soughing away gently IMG_4757as if we were out at sea. What with the accompanying rain, this series of south westerly gales is bringing the sea to us I suppose, so there was no chance of getting up on the allotment to finish making the raised beds that would make it possible to get up on the alloment in the rain.  There’s a horrible circularity about that statement!

Anyway I’d been putting off making the Christmas cake for ages, preferring to be outside in the fresh air.  That was one reason, but there was another – the ancient Kenwood Major blew up last year while I was making Christmas puds, and the thought of all that arm ache was rather holding me back.

It didn’t exactly blow up in the conventional sense.  I noticed a peculiar smell, the sort of smell you might expect from burning ancient flour, fat and fluff deposits along with a couple of overwintering weevils – the normal kitchen kind of smells. Then there was smoke, but because I’m a man I pushed through the pain until flames appeared from one of the air inlets. Then I pulled the plug out before Madame called the fire brigade and I decoupled the cake mix from the deceased machine and carried on by hand.

It was something of a revelation, I recall, to discover that you could make a rich fruit cake without spending twenty minutes hunting through the cupboards looking for missing parts, or half an hour hand-washing all the dirty bits before losing them again for another year. My son rescued a dead Kitchen Aid from work and repaired it and I confess to a pang of cooks’ envy when I saw it; but yesterday I made the Christmas cake almost by hand. I did use the little electric whisk to beat the eggs and the sugar butter mix, but even that handy little gadget threw cake mix around like a terrier digging a hole on the beach, and in the end I went back to a balloon whisk and the wooden spoon. Obviously my wooden spoon is the mark 5 version with the invisible digital motor – I wouldn’t be seen dead with any other, but it seems that I’m walking backwards towards a new dawn of artisanal, hand crafted resistance cooking, and I expect the world will change any day soon.

Wouldn’t you just love it if I shared my ancient family recipe with you? Well, generally speaking I prefer Delia Smith whose recipes always seem to work. I realized years ago that most of my inherited recipes were forged in the bleak war years of food rationing and tasted filthy. It took a while – my electric scales are also broken and will only measure in pounds and ounces, briefly, before shutting down without warning and sulking for ten minutes. But eventually we got there and for four and a half hours the flat filled with Christmas smells, the shining hour redeemed. I won’t be icing it because these days everyone picks off the icing and leaves it on the side of the plate.  The only bit I really miss is the marzipan, and to be honest the cake never gets eaten at Christmas in any case.  But on a cold day on the allotment in January, a lump of cake and tea from the flask is ……. words fail me!

Calling time? I think not.

 

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So 25% of British pubs – mostly the small ones like ours  – have closed down since 2001 according to the Office for National Statistics.  We at the Potwell Inn have bucked the trend and stood firm against rent and rate increases by the simple expedient of not existing. We are expectantly waiting for the day when an eagle eyed official with too much time on their hands and an irony deficiency sends us a rate demand or accuses us of not having a current license.  We do not, of course have any such documents.

But what of the others? What of the ones whose ceiling were so encrusted with nicotine that they would loose acrid brown drops the colour of iodine on the heads of the inebriates beneath? What of the pubs where the landlord and his wife, having fallen out with one another decades previously, entertained the customers by trading ferocious insults between the public bar (hers) and the lounge (his – normally empty). What of the clandestine meetings at the Ich Dien followed by frantic couplings in a mini parked in a layby, with passers  like Madame and I slowly driving past eager to catch a glimpse of the owner of that voluminous tricell skirt? What of the dockside pub where you could drink every night in a lock-in, as long as you bought the landlady a gin each time you got a round.  Even the police used to drop in there. I could go on for longer than the doctor would be pleased to hear, but the fact is, something unique is slowly dying. The pub is often deadly, the beer terrible, or the locals may eye you up strangely and polish their shotguns, but there’s always the possibility of something happening.

So forget the bucket lists and the industrialisation of pleasure, the most unforgettably beautiful moments are always a surprise – across a crowded room etc – you know the trope. Here are two of mine from the same winter in the early 1970’s. Strangely, both were facilitated by industrial action so massive that the country virtually ground to a halt.  Art schools in the early ’70’s were properly counter-cultural in the days before the suits learned how to merchandise the air we breath and sell it back to us, and one of the new forms of expression creeping in at the time became known as “happenings”. They were often spontaneous and unscripted and sometimes they were unbelievably tedious and then sometimes they were life changing. This one started with a postcard sent to every art school in the country with nothing more than a time, a date and a grid refrerence.  That was it – no explanation or any clue what might be happening so of course, we went along. The grid reference led us to a track just east of Avebury Henge and there were about twenty people milling around with a couple of special branch officers trying to blend in inconspicuously.  It was worth the journey just for that – they were spectacularly inept at blending. A rather tall and thin young man with a wooden staff led us up the Ridgeway with a commentary full of leylines and mystic connections which we mostly ignored and got along with chatting to one another. We climbed eastwards to a high vantage point near Fyfield Down just as the sun was beginning to set and as we turned and faced the dusk we realized that there were no electric lights anywhere. Aside from a few distant car headlights, the miners had arranged the most perfect view across Chippenham and Bristol towards the Severn and the Forest of Dean beyond.  The electricity had been cut off and we had become a band of accidental pilgrims on an ancient pilgrimage route and with a view that I had never seen in my lifetime and never will again.  It was gin clear and the stars above us shone with such intensity we were transported. Later we walked down to Avebury village and found the pub open by candlelight and so we celebrated with a few beers and cemented one friendship that has lasted to this day.

The second experience was during the same dispute and we had cycled out to a pub on the A420 near Castle Combe.  At about half past eight, with the bar filled with talk about the strikes, a coach load of miners came in on their way back from London. There was a bit of a frozen silence and almost all the customers, except us, walked out attempting to look hard – in case their little protest should inflame the strikers.  But the miners sang. There are tears in my eyes as I write this, because they sang their hymns so wonderfully that we had our humanity dusted off and straightened out free of charge.  For an hour they ministered to us and we listened in rapt silence, knowing that this would never happen again.

And so – the Potwell Inn? Well, we haven’t smoked for years, but if the couple in the Mini want to drop in and celebrate an anniversary we would serve them without a trace of reproach.  We would wecome anyone who was on Fyfield Down near Avebury that day, especially the Special Branch officers and Gandalf the half-demented leader and it goes without saying that if any group of singers, miners, saints or sinners should drop in, we would have an all-nighter. We would even welcome Henry and his wife who could do with a good night out together. We would welcome all the ne’er-do-wells and undiscovered poets and talk gardening until the sun rose over the runner beans and Madame and me could sit down to a bacon sandwich and a mug of tea and say – “Haven’t we been lucky!”

On a mission??

A digression on the downside of being rather more opinionated than is good for me. I’ve always been something of a fundamentalist – in the traditional sense of needing always to go back to basics. So there’s an instinctive progression of thoughts and ideas with me that functions like a microclimate. Here’s an instance.

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I’ve been baking bread on and off since we were first married so that’s fifty two years give or take. My first port of call whenever I want to do something or learn a new skill is to read everything I can get my hands on. But not for me the exotic and elaborate confections that please the eye and get photographed in the Sunday supplements . I want to dig down to the simplest instance of my quarry. For years it was a cottage loaf like the ones my mother would occasionally buy at the bakery. It took me about ten years to learn that bread dough positively thrives on a bit of neglect. I was always fiddling, prodding, turning and looking for the trick that would yield the Ur Loaf, the Dead Sea Scroll of the living bread. Eventually I forgot to fiddle, got too busy to prod and neglected a loaf. It was the best I’d ever managed.

But somehow I’d slipped into a puritanical fundamentalism that forbade me even to glimpse at a different way of doing things, or using a new ingredient. I suppose if you’ve ever been forced to eat half-mouldy, wholemeal onion bread (“I’ve never tried this before”) and attempted to control your gag reflex while smiling weakly and saying “mm delicious” you might be suspicious of novelty. But that’s a cop-out, it was me really, clinging to the raft of certainty in a roaring sea of possibilities and ingredients. I wanted a monogamous relationship with the loaf I’d always longed for and only found after a perilous journey through hardship and loss.

Some time ago, because there was nothing else left on the shelf, I bought a sliced loaf (mea culpa) of Bertinet’s sourdough, malted, multi-seeded Notting Hill Carnival bread (I made some of that up!) It was delicious. So I bought a bag of the same sort of flour and baked a loaf in a bread machine. I felt like a complete culinary slapper , but it was good. As Robin (my psychotherapist) would often say to me “what on earth is wrong with that?”. “Never let the perfect drive out the best” – exceptionally good advice for me. My parents abandoned my sister and me to a Primitive Methodist Sunday School when we were young and impressionable, hence the psychoanalytic psychotherapy to help me out of the shackles I was dragging around, like Mendoza dragging his armour and weapons around in “The Mission”.

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Last year I was very much looking forward to the arrival of the Katz book since I became inflamed with the thought of fermenting things. When it arrived I read Michael Pollan’s foreword, and skimmed through the text. Suddenly I was back in the world of the Whole Earth Catalogue and it felt good that in the midst of the madness of Brexit and Trump there are other voices not yet surpassed and crushed by neoliberal orthodoxy. We shall push back with pickled gherkins and sauerkraut!

Thinking about chillies

Why think about chillies anyway? – after all it’s November.  But then we like to cheer ourselves up at the Potwell Inn by reading seed catalogues and planning next year, so chillies are among the earliest seeds to be sown, and it’s always best to order seeds early because the seed companies often run out of popular varieties quite quickly when the season gets going.  According to my notes we sowed our chilli seeds in the last week of January this year. We sowed a little round and mild chilli called ‘Pearls’, some Jalapenos, a mid-heat F1 Hybrid called Apache and finlly habaneros.  This is the first year we’ve ever tried to grow them, so I wasn’t expecting miracles, but we’ve now got a couple of heated propagators with LED lights, so it seemed the obvious time to give it a go. I think we underestimated the appetite of the young plants for heat and light, so initially we ran the propagator at about 22C which turned out to be at the very bottom end of the required temperature.  The milder chillies germinated anyway, but the habaneros didn’t show and by the time I realized my error and turned up the heat I think I’d lost them so we got 0% germination for those. Next year we’ll at least get the temperature right from the outset. The other mistake, I fancy, was using pure Sylva Grow instead of a soil based compost.  Like most allotmenteers these day we’re trying to avoid peat, but that leaves us in a bit of a quandary with finding the appropriate equivlent sowing compost – any ideas would be most gratefully accepted!  I think next season we’ll make up our own mixture of peat free compost and soil if no better advice comes along.

As ever we had masses more plants than we could use, so we gave loads away to family and fellow allotmenteers, and in the exceptionally hot weather they all grew very well. The Jalapenos did as well outside as they did in the greenhouse. The pearls had a wonderful flaIMG_4753vour but almost no heat at all, and the jalapenos too even milder than we expected.  The only one that gave us any heat was the Apache, but we missed the habaneros when it came to making chilli sauce this autumn. I was never that keen on chillies but as time’s gone on my taste for using them in the kitchen has increased, and we both seem to be adapting to the hotter flavours.

The sauce recipe was from James Wong’s “How to eat better” and it’s turned out beautifully fragrant as well as quite hot – we seem to be romping through it, and I’ve added it to all sorts of dishes to give a touch of background heat. Next season I think we’ll leave out the Pearls and possibly the Jalapenos as well, and go for the hotter ones again.  Our problem is that the greenhouse is terribly small at 6X4 and one of the standout successes this season were the greenhouse cherry tomatoes.  Apart from being delicious fresh, they’ve been brilliant dried and preserved in oil, and so we definitely need to make space for them. Then of course there were red peppers and aubergines as well.  Perhaps we need a bigger greenhouse …….

We certainly need more space.  We’ve been getting rude letters from the managing agents at the flat because we’ve occupied a little bit of the landing outside the flat for storing the odd barrel of wine and stored veg – life essentials as you might say. They claim it’s a fire hazard but really they’re just cross, because notwithstanding the fact that they make a good living from us tenants, they feel obliged to treat us as dangerous low lifes because we don’t own our own property. I’ve buried a few people in my time and I never saw anyone yet stuff a house into a coffin so they could take it with them.  “There are no pockets in a shroud” I say.  Anyway, below is a picture of our living room window in the spring.  We’ve got four south facing windows at he front of the flat and they all look pretty much like this by March.

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Black Friday at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4749Well, it was so unbelievably quiet at the Potwell inn today that after a lunchtime that was about as much fun as a funeral director’s waiting room I went up to the allotment in the kind of gloom that only November can offer. Being a fully paid up member of the age of the electric light bulb and the wireless set I find it just a bit difficult to understand why most of my customers spent the day glued to their computers in search of a bargain on the interweb, or whatever it’s called. For me there’s nothing to beat a couple of hours of declining afternoon light, digging a trench and setting the third side to a group of four raised beds.  I was even reasonably warm with my old tracksuit bottoms under my overalls. These four beds are for next year’s potatoes, but the side I was completing today also borders the grape vine as I work towards replacing all the posts and wires.

Back home I cooked the “feijao frade com chourico” I posted about yesterday and you’ll have to look at that posting to see the photo.  I know it’s shameless self-promotion but I get lonely leaning on the bar waiting for the door to open.  Actually I was rather proud of my efforts today, and now I’ve got the second LED propagator in my tiny study, I can even fight off  my ‘seasonal affective disorder’ while I write stuff that only a tiny number of people want to read. But I’m being positive because ‘the tough get going when the going gets tough’ as the bishop once explained to me when he gave me a couple of extra parishes to look after. A dear man and so gifted.

Feijoada -the perils of translating food

IMG_4476Isn’t that the prettiest railway station you ever saw? I took it on a trip to Lisbon in 2009, and it popped into my mind yesterday when madame was going through an old sketchbook in which she’d handwritten the recipe for feijoada from our friend Denis some time in the mid-1970’s. Here’s the first trick of the memory, because I’d always assumed it was his own take on the Brazilian Sunday lunch, but written alongside the recipe in pencil was the name Ursula Bourne, and the name of the dish was not feijoada at all but “feijao frade com chourico”.

Denis was young, Portuguese and a wonderful singer who could light up a party just by walking through the door.  He was an olympian drinker and smoker whose lifestyle finally killed him when he was absurdly young, and he could sing Fado so powerfully that ‘though you couldn’t understand a word, you knew it was dragged wailing out of a very dark place. We had some memorable times and parties – once, I recall, involving a huge quantity of alcohol liberated from the Venuzualan embassy by the son of the ambassador’s chauffeur.  We were all working together at an old-school mental hospital that was in the throes of  moving out of the eighteenth century Bedlam it had become. I still dream about some of the stuff I saw there.

But it was Denis that first cooked that meal for us and (I was quite certain) called it feijoada. I remember the discussion we had at the time about the impossibility of cooking it properly because so many of the ingredients were unavailable in this country and so he had ‘translated’ it into something close enough, using – as I discovered yesterday – Ursula Bourne’s recipe. I recalled then that I’d bought two of her books secondhand last year for next to nothing and so I grabbed them out of the bookshelf and double checked.

So the story I’d made my own was that you needed all sorts of meat, goose, bacon and sausage which you cooked with beans and a kind of chopped greens only grown in Portugal. The Denis/Ursula Bourne version was made using garlic sausage and celery with a bit of cream and lemon juice added at the last minute, and for years we enjoyed cooking and eating it.  It was cheap and cheerful but very filling for a growing family with no money.

IMG_4751Then, as funds permitted and the food culture changed, I was once able to try it in a real Brazilian restaurant in Bristol where my son was working as a chef. It was OK but absurdly expensive and sanitized from the description Denis had planted in my mind. Over the years I’d been cooking and learning about other cuisines and my collection of cookery books was growing and so I’d made a resolution to try to eat as many of these disppearing recipes as I could whenever I came across them; which was why when we arrived for a week in Lisbon we set about hunting a couple of them down. There were two in particular – one I called ‘stone soup’ which Denis had talked about but never cooked.  Its real name is Acorda Alentejana and it couldn’t be simpler – or harder to find. We trailed around the cafes and restaurants until eventually we found a cheerful waiter who spoke good English and knew what I was after.  Except he point blank refused to sell it to me – “it’s horrible and you won’t like it” he said. But I pressed on and promised that however disgusting it was I wouldn’t blame him or complain and that I’d pay in advance if that was what was needed. He went and talked to the chef and eventually he brought it to the table shaking his head and, not for the last time that week, he hung around waiting to see what I’d make of it.

Well, it was pretty basic. A couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a slice of bread covered with boiling water with a raw egg broken into it and a sprinkling of parsely on top. I finished it off and it was, as he’d said, pretty disgusting, but I thanked him, shook his hand and ticked it off my to-do list. The cafe did not, however, do feijoada and he didn’t know anywhere that did.

Later we wandered around what was then a market but has now turned into a foodie venue.  We found the required cabbage, called ‘couve’ heaped up in the market next to what looked like a victorian chaff cutter which they used to cut it into fine shreds.  But nowhere we visited had feijoada on the menu and no-one knew where we could buy it.  We were followed by many curious glances wherever we asked, until eventually ( as if he were confessing to a mortal sin) someone told us about a cafe down near the market that occasionally offered it. They were open.  It was on the menu. I almost had to beg for it but eventually they relented and we sat outside in the sunshine drinking beers and waiting for the final reveal. There was everything short of a miltary fanfare as a really huge cazuela was brought out, probably enough for four hungry peasants, followed by the entire waiting staff who came and surrounded me curiously as if I’d just landed by helicopter in the main square.

I cannot adequately describe the contents which included a big chunk of pig’s skin, a great number of bones from various animals, and – I swear – a tooth! But true to my resolution I ate about half of it and the crowd drifted away.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and – like the curate’s egg – was good in parts. Memories of Denis were swirling around me as I ate, and later in the day we visted the Fado museum to see if we could find a photo, but we didn’t.

But in answer to my own question about translating food there are two things to add. Isn’t it interesting that the more obsessive about “authenticity” we become, the more homogenous the food culture seems to be. Adding new ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean accessing another culture. What generations of poor people ate (still eat) out of necessity doesn’t translate at all when you’re wealthier beyond their wildest dreams.

Compost bin? Wormery? who knows?

IMG_4254I’m not sure what to call this beast any more. It doesn’t seem to obey any of the rules that  I thought we’ve been following for years, but goes on it its own sweet way consuming everything we put into it.  It’s supposed to be a compost heap, and at the beginning that’s how we treated it. A compost heap is an exercise in managing cycles – loading, turning and eventually extracting the finished compost, and that’s how ours has always worked in the past.  But this one seems to be different.  We began it back in the summer when we relocated it from some neighbouring unused ground.  We didn’t really pay too much attention to it apart from makng sure that it was kept moist through the dry summer. We compost all of our suitable household waste  (probably 5Kg a week) – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, tea leaves (not bags) plus anything that comes off the allotment. It’s not huge, it’s 1m diameter by about 1.5m tall which is just over 1 cubic metre – about the maximum size we can manage.  Any bigger and it’s difficult to remove the wire frame to get to the compost.  It couldn’t be simpler to make, you just make two cirular cages with sheep wire, one about 25 cm larger than the other and line the gap with heavy cardboard.  The boxes bicycles are delivered in are easy to scavenge in town. Then you fill the wire and cardboard tube with whatever comes along.

In the summer we started to feed the heap with urine diluted 10:1 with water and it heated up considerably, not to the 60C claimed by some systems but above 40C which, at 10C above ambient even in the hottest weather, showed that something microbial was happening. While this was happening I noticed that very large numbers of brandling worms were moving to the top, presumably to avoid the heat. We’d never added any worms to the heap, they just seemed to find their own way there. As autumn came on they moved down again and I expected that the heap would slow down and not do much until the spring.  I was mindful of the fact that it was now very full and would need turning as soon as I could build a second container. But whatever process is going on seems not to have diminished at all, and each time we top the heap up, within days it’s reduced once again, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the primary process is driven now by worms.  So has it turned from being a compost heap to a wormery?  I’m really concerned about disturbing it while it’s working so efficiently so I think I’m going to leave it alone over the winter, maybe wrap it up a bit with some insulation and see what happens. I’ll just build a second compost heap alongside it.

If it has turned itself into a wormery, then extracting the compost is going to be a bit more difficult because the cages don’t permit the easy removal of material from the bottom, and so I might just build a proper worm bin with a means of extraction and then try to move the original contents, complete with worms, across to it.  I don’t know exactly what the weight would be but 1 cubic metre could be 500-600Kg depending on the moisture content.  I’d always thought that I’d need to buy worms to start the process, but as always nature needs very little help in doing what it always does. I guess I’ve created an ideal environment for brandling worms to breed in and they’ve just done their thing. I’m delighted, hopeful, grateful and I feel properly put in my place once again.

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The timber has arrived for the new batch of raised beds and so the next couple of weeks are going to be devoted to civil engineering. There are a lot of outstanding jobs to be done, not least plumbing together the four water butts because the mains water supply has now been turned off and we need to get all 1000 litres of rainwater gathered over the winter. I also now need to get a wormery constructed and finally I want to do some experiments with a moveable hot-bed next season. Our second LED propagator light has now arrived so soon it will be time to sow chillies ready for an early start. Yesterday we removed all the window boxes to the greenhouse to protect the geraniums from the frost, and we’ve replaced them with another six boxes planted with spring bulbs.  For a while it looked very bare through the windows, but there’s something hopeful about seeing the green spears poking through the soil. It all sounds easy but everything has to be lugged up and down three flights of stairs and across the sloping allotment site and my knees are complaining.

After the celebrations, back to the vines

IMG_4742It’s been a week of celebrations at the Potwell Inn with a fortieth and a ninetieth birhday and a lot of catching up with old friends. Our oldest son’s fortieth has spread itself over two weekends of reciprocal trips between Birmingham, Bristol and Bath with a good deal of modestly riotous fun. The ninetieth birthday belonged to an old friend and parishioner whose anniversaries and birthdays along with those of her ninety one year old husband are celebrated by friends and family from all over the world at gatherings that are filled with what can only be described as grace. When I said in a recent posting that we inherit more than genes from our grandparents, I can think of no more powerful instance of it in these gatherings of brothers, sisters, nephew nieces and a multitude of cousins and so many friends brought together by love and affection and generosity. We came away from it with a couple of brace of pheasants and a frozen partridge (another ethical dilmma to ponder) given to us by a friend who carries on alone on her small farm. We drove back with the setting sun in our faces and it was truly glorious, and then we turned towards the East and there was a three quarter moon to light the last miles home.

And so Monday began with a bit of game preparation and the meat is now in the freezer until it’s incorporated into a Christmas terrine.  Later we went up to the allotment and while Madame weeded and cleared away the dead leaves among the cabbages, I made a start on restoring the posts and wires supporting one of the two grape vines. When we took the plot on it had been neglected for years and I’ve replaced a couple of posts piecemeal, but it’s time it’s replaced in its entirety especially after such a generous crop this last season. So after a good deal of pondering and measuring I set the first, and largest post and drove it two feet into the ground with a huge rammer, that weighs about 20 kilos. Tiring work, followed by four more subsidiary posts that took me almost until it was dark.  Then we packed up and carried two of the newly planted spring window boxes up to the car.

It was another superb sunset, and just as we were leaving I spotted another fox about twenty feet away regarding us coolly.  He was a big , thickset dog fox with the same white tip to his tail as the younger one we saw on our plot recently.  But here was an older, wiser animal who stood his ground with no fear of us at all. We see their leavings all over the site and it’s clear by the darker colour that these animals are living largely on what they can find around the allotments rather than going off into town after discarded human food. At this time of the year there’s a preponderance of berries, but it looks as if they’re finding plenty of small mammals.  The chickens on the site are all well protected by high fences buried into the ground. Leave a door open or any vulnerablity in the defences for even one night and the foxes will take the lot.  We’ve seen the results when well -meaning beginners forget that basic fact, and over the years we’ve lost enough birds to wonder if we were running a takeaway service!

So an ‘everyday’ day and a celebration of the ordinary that even the news of our continued descent into political and economic chaos couldn’t quite dent.