Even slower cooking

The 36 hour loaf – showing very strong gluten development

This was an experiment that was rather forced on me because, (not for the first time), the oven door – posh hide and slide – has begun to offer just a touch of resistance and a faint grinding noise as it opens. Rather than wait until it breaks completely, we called out an engineer and he ordered the bits. Two weeks later we’re still waiting for the oven to be repaired, but at least it’s still usable with care. Obviously he can’t come to fix the oven if it’s in use, or even hot so we attempt to manage the situation by keeping the oven cool during working days.

The downside of this cooperative gesture is that under the previous 24 hour bread baking schedule there was no alternative but to bake during the day – so I wondered what would happen if we changed the dough cycle from 24 to 36 hours. So the new regime was to make the batter at around 8.00 am and make up the dough at 8.00pm. This length of time demands that things are kept relatively cool for the whole process – around 18C instead of 21C, in our flat at least. Once kneaded the dough went into its bowl to prove overnight until 8.00am the next day – outside the flat in a corridor that goes down to somewhere around 12C on winter nights. Then it was knocked back and placed in its banneton and shuffled around the flat from warm to cold to try to get it ready for baking at 8.00pm – 36 hours in total. All this sounds like a lot more work than it is in practice – it’s more like a kind of benign contemplative neglect.

By 8.00pm on the second day the loaf had risen like a pale belly, just above the top of the banneton – it looked lovely – so I turned it on to the peel, slashed it and slid it into the oven for 10 minutes at 220 C and twenty minutes at 180 C on full steam. The question is – is there a discernible difference between the 24 and 36 hour method? It makes absolutely no difference to the workload or fuel cost and since I work for free there’s no reason not to adopt it.

There’s no question that with sourdough, time equals flavour and the 36 hour loaf certainly tasted better. The crust is a matter of choice because I can’t bear those palate tearing loaves so beloved of Instagram bakers. The best justification for baking at home is that with a bit of experience you can bake bread just as you like it – never mind what the current fashion dictates. We like the crust to be firm but not hard and the crumb to be open textured but not so full of holes you could spread a quarter pound of butter on to one slice. Sourdough can be quite springy so it helps if it’s possible to slice it thinly for toast – but that’s just what we like. If you prefer the razor crust and the texture of Swiss cheese you can do that too.

Sourdough has a much lower glycaemic index than yeast bread made quickly with the same flour and for me at least it doesn’t provoke the weird feeling of bloating and discomfort that (delicious) white bread almost always causes – so it’s a win win decision. For UK readers we use Shipton Mill organic white flour and a starter that’s fed with their wholemeal rye. I’m sure you can bake excellent and equally well flavoured bread with dozens of other flours but being a creature of habit I’ve got used to the texture of the dough and the right feel during kneading. Years ago I was very fond of an 80% flour made by Bacheldre Mill but sadly they stopped producing it. I’ve yet to see any 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf that was worth breaking your teeth on. During the lockdown my son got me a 25 kilo bag of the typical refined white flour used by bakers. I could hardly use it, but it kept us going.

One of the most useful lessons I’ve learned about baking at home is to find an artisanal bread that you really like and then go all-out to imitate it. It’s a process, not a religion, and there are no penalties for heresy! All the important knowledge is in your hands rather than in any recipe – the feel rather than the theory – and even the most embarrassing failures (almost) always taste good even if they don’t look great. There are no secret ingredients, just flour, water and a little bit of fat – and ignore all that unhelpful nonsense about very wet doughs unless you like scraping two foot diameter flatbreads off the floor of your oven. Amazingly, and completely in accordance with common sense, if your loaf spreads out like a cowpat when tipped out of the banneton, you need to make it a bit stiffer next time. And that’s about it. With a bit of luck nobody dies!

About a book

If you are one of the very few people who’ve followed this blog from the beginning you’ll know that I’m somewhere near that point on the neurodiversity spectrum where lists become a bit obsessive. You’ll need to be a foodie to get this one –

  • MFK Fisher
  • Serve it Forth – 1937
  • Touch and Go 1939
  • Consider the Oyster 1941
  • How to Cook a Wolf 1942
  • The Gastronomical Me 1942
  • Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets 1946
  • Not Now but Now 1947
  • An Alphabet for Gourmets 1949
  • The Physiology of taste. Translation of Brillat-Savarin 1949
  • Elizabeth David – A book of Mediterranean food 1955
  • Elizabeth David – French Country Cooking – 1951
  • Elizabeth David – Italian Food – 1954
  • Elizabeth David – Summer Cooking 1955
  • Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd – Plats du Jour 1957
  • Elizabeth David – French provincial cooking UK 1960, US 1962
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 1 US 1961
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 2 1970
  • Richard Olney – The French Menu Cookbook 1970
  • James Beard – How to Eat (and Drink) Your Way through a French (and Italian) Menu 1971
  • Richard Olney – Simple French Food 1974
  • Elizabeth David – An Omelette and a Glass of Wine 1984
  • Patience Gray – Honey from a Weed 1987

As I predicted in my last post – well, last posting – “last post” looks a bit funereal – I/we spent this week cooking in the inspirational glow of our lovely Italian meal in Birmingham at the weekend. The kitchen was by now a slum and we had to fit in an extra visit to the gym to head off full porker status. In the midst of all this we were both visited by a non fatal but nasty virus which had us coughing heartily all night, and I decided to redeem the shining hour by reading one of the many random volumes I’ve bought but never read. You can see from the cover photo why this might be – I’d never heard of M F K Fisher but I must have read the abbreviated reviews on the covers “The greatest food writer who has ever lived” – Simon Schama – really ? ……..

But then, I didn’t as much read the book as fall on it. As Monica Furlong once memorably said – “lust is love, overwhelmed by hunger” and this book – aside from providing the first nine entries on my list – exploded my whole idea of what food writing might be and introduced something far more dangerous and lovely. It’s not a book about cooking as much as a book that embraces the whole of the ethos I wrote about in the last posting –

……. but resistance is everything. Loving, carousing, delighting, laughing and feasting; generosity, faith in the future, cooperation and mutual respect are like tank traps to the soulless and mechanised descendants of that miserable bank manager who went after me on the radio.

Dave Pole What would you spend your last £100 on?

At first I found the early chapters slightly irritating; this fortunate young American woman immersing herself in the food and wines of Burgundy, necking off fine wines and fine foods and travelling by freighter between Europe and America in considerable luxury. But her forensic eye and ear for writerly detail – conversations; appearances; dress and a hundred other prescient details captivated me. Here was someone watching France, along with the rest of Europe, drift into the shadow of fascism. Unlike some of her fellow Americans she was far from just a tourist. She noticed things, people like waiters and chefs, railway guards and ships’ crews, the elderly landladies, the street life that sustained pre-war France. Not, then, a book about cooking but a book about eating; the people who prepare food and those who eat it, but especially the manner of their eating – the cultural matrix that enables celebration but conversely sometimes crushes it. It’s a book about love – not the etiolated marriage that was slowly consuming her, but reckless passion that must learn to reckon with terrible loss and yet survive. By halfway through the book I was lost to it and when the last section came I never wanted it to end. It ended, though, as it always had to with a coda of such erotic tenderness I thought I was reading D H Lawrence. My mind was churning with the kind of excitement that could only be discharged by cleaning the kitchen in a mad outbreak of displacement activity. Later, stinking of bleach (psychotherapists may make of that what they will), I threaded my way through the milling crowds at the Bath Christmas Market like a salmon swimming upstream, smiling slightly madly at everyone I passed.

To return to the list, for a moment – until yesterday it began with Elizabeth David when she published “A Book of Mediterranean Food” in 1955. But I knew that the genealogy was incomplete. There’s always a “before”. The list contained all the books I’d read, treasured and worked with over the past 55 years, culminating with Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” in 1987. And of course there are dozens more I could have mentioned, many of them published much later and I’ve used them many times – but these were the books that entered my bloodstream. I can plot the genealogy from Elizabeth David to the present day quite easily; it was always the ‘before‘ that eluded me. MFK Fisher is, for me, a newly discovered and irreplaceable step in that before, and it came as no surprise that she was friends with Julia Child whose book taught me and a million other autodidacts to chop an onion.

The common thread that binds these books together is that none of them are recipe books. They are all about France and her whole culture and they brought a wholly new way of understanding and replicating the qualities of the food. Very few books do this – Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte but especially Patience Gray do it for Italy; Jane Grigson,Dorothy Hartley and Gillian Ayrton for Britain. I haven’t yet found the writer for Spain and so I cook from memory.

The miracle is the post war transition that came to inflect the best of British and American cooking and prepared the way for the whole seasonal, slow food, local food revolution. There are countless chefs who dance on the thin ice of novelty and rarity and you need a shipping container full of half used condiments to replicate their style. But MFK Fisher understood that cooking, eating and loving are mysteriously connected in a way that no amount of gold leaf can imitate. Better to be well fed every day than amazed twice in a lifetime. Mercifully the message got out and I still have a lot more reading to do.

Postscript

There’s a fine documentary – on MFK Fisher that’s just been released on YouTube – well worth 90 minutes of your time.

What would you spend your last £100 pounds on?

Saturday night’s menu

I was presenting a local radio panel show once, during a Lent series, and our subject was money. I said my bit (which hasn’t really changed over the decades), along the lines that I’d spend it on a lovely, memorable experience that would at least feed my imagination over the lean times. Spending the last £100 pounds on value range baked beans would just crush me. We were always hard up and so I can remember with wonderful clarity the day we sat on Seatown beach with a large crab that we’d just scratched enough money together to buy. We smashed our way into it with pebbles and ate with our fingers as we swigged a bottle of cheap Soave which we’d dangled in the sea to cool down.

Almost as soon as the phone lines were opened an irate bank manager (remember them?) called in to berate me. “You’re the kind of customer that makes my life impossible” – he barked. Point taken but I never thought it was part of my life’s mission to keep bank managers happy.

On Saturday the whole family drove from our various homes to meet for a walk in the sunshine on the Malverns. We met at British Camp, celebrating one of the boys’ birthdays – it’s a special place for all of us because we spent so much time in a borrowed cottage nearby when they were children. The trees were still stunningly colourful in the autumn sunshine and we could see right across the Vale of Evesham towards Bredon hill with the River Severn making a sinuous course through it. From the very top of British Camp you can easily see Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and looking west you can see Hay Bluff and parts of the Brecon Beacons. We prefer the British Camp/ Herefordshire Beacon end of the Malverns to the Worcestershire Beacon end because once you get away from the crowds around the Iron Age fort, it rapidly gets quieter and if you’re lucky it can even feel remote – although wet winter days can be a bit trying!

After the walk and the obligatory teas at Sally’s Place the grandchildren and their parents went back to Bristol while the rest of us drove across to Birmingham where we were staying overnight.

That’s enough of that, though, because we’ve always loved a good party and our oldest, whose birthday we were celebrating, had made a reservation for Tropea in March – it gets busy there. You can see the menu at the top, and it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that it’s all too easy to run up a whopping great bill. The ghost of the bank manager must have absented himself altogether from my mind because between the five of us we ran up the largest bill I’ve ever seen on a till roll.

But then, life’s nasty, brutish and short – especially under this wholly incompetent and morally bankrupt government – and having a great time together felt like an act of resistance. The food, the wine and the ambience were brilliant and the owner was such a compelling guide to the food it would have been churlish not to take his word for it and order almost everything. We’ve eaten in a lot of Italian restaurants both here and in Italy and honestly this was paradise. It was as if we were eating in the owner’s house in Tuscany, being spoilt rotten by a crack team of Nonnas. Sadly it’s precisely these marvellous restaurants that are most likely to fold under this latest kicking by the bankers and their pals in government. Of course we couldn’t afford it but we chose – like the moral grownups we all are – to eat beautifully rather than sensibly and as soon as we got home I was planning to teach myself to cook the dishes we’d so liked. Better to think of the bill as a kind of down payment on ten years of pleasure. I asked if I might marry the chef but she was already married and partnered in business to the host- and in any case Madame was keeping a close eye on proceedings and gave me a threatening look, so we feasted through the eighteen plates we’d ordered making those little grunty noises that – as a cook – I love to hear.

As we walked through Harborne the Christmas lights were on. “Why are they putting them up so early?” – someone said. I knew exactly why. We’ve had the Tories in power for twelve years and they’ve all but run the economy into the ground. For me leaving the EU was like being rendered stateless. Life has got progressively worse as the support systems we relied upon were monetised, sold off and run down. We had Covid and lockdowns and now, like 17th century doctors, they decided that one more bleeding was what we all needed. Resistance is futile they try to convince us, but resistance is everything. Loving, carousing, delighting, laughing and feasting; generosity, faith in the future, cooperation and mutual respect are like tank traps to the soulless and mechanised descendants of that miserable bank manager who went after me on the radio.

So if you ask me what I’d spend my last £100 on you already know the answer; and by the way – the owners of Tropea aren’t Italian at all, they’re both Brummies. That’s resistance!

Eating beyond our means!

The Marie Antoinette moment
One of our own parsnips.

Two articles in the Guardian caught my attention this week. The first was tactfully entitled Replace animal farms with micro-organism tanks, say campaigners – advocating the rewilding of 75% of the earth’s farming land with trees and then growing most of our food in microbial factory farms known as “precision” fermentation. “Precision” like “technical” is like sticking a plastic filigree on a rotten argument. A Range Rover is both technical and full of precision engineering but it ain’t helping climate change. Two counter arguments spring immediately to mind. Firstly, to achieve this technical miracle you’d have to destroy millions of livelihoods and absolutely crush local food cultures the world over. Secondly you’d have to turn over the feeding of the world to corporations whose present behaviour does not encourage any optimism that these behemoths would pick up the tab for supporting the ruined and the poor. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s a real food hater’s charter that could have been designed by Bayer/Monsanto. A fruitful third line of attack might investigate the real costs of so-called rewilding. Rewilded land still needs maintenance and a great deal of human intervention. And maybe a fourth line of investigation could discover whether the majority of us think that there’s a bit of a way-in being promoted for the intensive forestry industry to become the green fuel supplier of choice. Long live Drax – probably best not. Then there’s the impact on biodiversity of forestry monoculture. This kind of thinking is the reductio ad absurdum of reductionist thinking.

The failure to distinguish between the climate impact of intensive animal feedlots and small mixed farms undermines any climate solutions derived from these dodgy figures. Yes I do understand that de-intensifying farming will impact food production but the argument for eating less meat is now pretty well established for all except Cargills who profit handsomely from shipping feed grain around the world. Sadly for us the era of cheap food is over because the true costs are hidden by using both the earth’s atmosphere and her surface as a dump. We are subsidising our own ultimate destruction if we carry on as we are – but that’s no excuse for campaigners on either side sticking their fingers in their ears and saying la la la to shut out any opposing arguments.

So what about the cost of living?

Another Guardian article on the rising cost of popular foods gave a list of the ten foods whose price has inflated most over the past couple of years. They are:

  • Heinz tomato ketchup sauce – top down 460g 53%
  • Dolmio lasagne sauce 470g 47%
  • Heinz classic cream of chicken soup 400g 46%
  • Dolmio bolognese original pasta sauce 500g 46%
  • Anchor spreadable butter tub 500g 45%
  • Heinz cream of tomato soup 400g 44%
  • Colman’s classic mint sauce 165g 44%
  • Colman’s horseradish sauce 136g 44%
  • Batchelors super noodles BBQ beef flavour 90g 43%
  • Hovis granary wholemeal 800g 43%

So here’s the rather dangerous Marie Antoinette moment. IF we are to campaign effectively for change we can’t be telling people who are already living on the edge that they should be eating cake. So very hesitantly I’ll say that of the ten items on the list, we at the Potwell Inn are already making our own much cheaper versions of nine. Butter, sadly, is beyond our reach. OK so we grow 90% of the tomatoes we use but that’s in a 15′ X 10′ polytunnel on the allotment. But there are other sources of cheap tomatoes – you can often buy them by the box from veg markets clearing out their old stock. Lasagne sauce – come on .. really? Dolmio and Batchelors produce ultra processed foods and bread is so easy to bake you’d never want to go back to the supermarket version. What’s needed is a little investment in tools and equipment; some time; a few fairly simple to learn skills and a bit of forward planning.

Of course this is me with sixty years of practice, but believe me when we started we hadn’t a clue. We’ve always been relatively hard up, especially with three sons to raise – so buying the equipment was never easy, but here’s a lesson you’ll soon learn – always buy the best equipment you can afford. Don’t be seduced by Damascus steel knives and all that blather- I’ve tried most of them; all the top German brands, but my go-to knives for the past ten or fifteen years have come from IKEA! – and keep them sharp. Raw ingredients – except for meat and fish are relatively inexpensive so never be afraid to fail. Failures are your best teachers so don’t wimp out, figure out what went wrong and do it better next time. Meat is expensive if you insist on buying the most expensive cuts – but the cheap cuts are the ones that butchers take home. A piece of slow cooked brisket or pork belly is often far better flavoured. Always buy the best quality meat you can afford – but not too often. The lives of £4.00 chickens don’t bear thinking about, so buy free range and organic infrequently and then you’ll be able to spread the meat over several days and after that, make your own stock. The Potwell Inn fridge is never without a litre or so of stock. It’s the ultimate culinary pixie dust and it’s unbelievably easy to make – I’ll put the method up if anyone’s interested.

Eating is – as I was quoting the other day – an agricultural act. It’s also a sacramental act. To cook for someone you love is the greatest honour, and that’s a lesson we learned from Sid Harris our unorthodox Jewish tutor who was a witness at our wedding. I wish we could teach more people to cook – we taught the boys and two of them are now professional chefs; in fact our youngest came third in a National Pizza Competition only yesterday, and his older brother was once a finalist in the Young Chef of the Year awards.

So do the two halves of this post join up in any way? Well, I think they’re deeply related because the future of the earth relies on an enormous cultural change that affects our food culture, the way we travel, and the way the majority of people earn their living. Less could really be more in this unfamiliar vision, but trying to pile all the blame on the others is never going to work. Nothing suits the corporate giants better than watching their opponents exhaust themselves by fighting each other. The new world order needs to meet what are often portrayed as unreasonable demands. More time, better working conditions, better health and social care, better and broader education and training and an earth sustaining agriculture and horticulture. We’re not fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our grandchildren. The only certainty in all this is that we can’t go on as we are.

Quince – a sinister fruit?

All I want for Christmas is my ……… don’t go there!

15th November 2022

You might have thought – with no supporting evidence at all apart from a mention in a glossy food supplement – that the quince was just another unusual fruit. Quince marmalade, quince cheese and quince jelly all feature on the menus of aspirational (overpriced) restaurants where the finished food slides effortlessly onto the plate and we eat it with no thought of the process; in fact with not much thought at all except possibly its impact on the bill.

A couple of years ago I made medlar jelly which is unlikely to figure on any menu anytime soon because the faffery involved in picking, bletting, cooking and bottling them exceeds any fleeting pleasure at its weird flavour. The French name which roughly translates as dog’s arse, referring to its appearance, is close to being the only amusing thing about it. The recommended use of medlar jelly as a companion to game is a bit of a clue – possibly best eaten with something like a long buried seabird. Its principal value is its prodigious longevity. We’ve had half a dozen jars in the store cupboard since the day I made it – and they’re likely to stay there until they start growing an obvious layer of penicillin.

However yesterday’s task seemed, on the surface, to be a more likely culinary prospect. Quince figures on posh menus and in historical novels but never having tasted it I wouldn’t know why, and when our allotment neighbour’s tree set a huge crop this year we asked her if we could pick a few.

Possibly the nicest thing about the quince straight from the tree is its astounding perfume. Three in a bowl fragranced the whole flat until they quickly went mouldy and then smelt a bit darker. It’s best – the books say – to pick them is when fully ripe and still on the tree. This is one of those bits of hand-me-down gardening advice that has escaped serious scrutiny for generations, because they pass from not quite ready – to lying dead on the grass in the single blink of an eye. In precisely the way the badgers harvest our sweet corn during the night before we intend to harvest them, the moment you look a quince tree in the eye a stopwatch starts ticking and by the time you’ve fetched your bucket they’ve gone – apart that is from the ones at the very top of the tree just out of reach. Undaunted I balanced on a wobbly rail and picked four pounds of them ripe, but still on the tree.

The quince does not give it up without a fight. As I was slicing and chopping them the pips reminded me irresistibly of sets of spare dentures for rats (see photo above). This thought was probably brought on by the fact that some of these fruits had clearly been nibbled by rats – which are great tree climbers – but not consumed. If one bite was enough to put a rat off what could they possibly taste like? Much chopping later I quickly looked at my treasured 1968 HMSO book “Home Preservation of Fruit and vegetables” and found that I needed to simmer them for up to four hours, strain them through a jelly bag, return the pulp to the saucepan and add more water, simmer for another 10 minutes and then pour back through the jelly bag.

During this time the overpoweringly fresh, floral radiance was followed by something more like boiled sweets or bubblegum. Many hours later I’m still waiting for the last drops of juice to drip from the soft but essentially undamaged chopped fruit and then the sugar, boiling and bottling can begin. I reckon we might get four 14 oz jars out of it with a following wind.

However I have to report a deeper pleasure in the making. We’d over indulged in the last everyday sourdough loaf and so I had started a replacement early on the previous morning and left it proving in its banneton overnight. Fermentation is a time and temperature process, and so I woke several times in the night wondering if it was overflowing its banneton like a muffin top – that’s annoying – and so soon after 5.00am I was having a sleep defeating mental battle about going to check. I lost the battle and got up at about 6.30 and, needless to say, the dough had behaved perfectly; gently domed above its basket.

And then, alone in the kitchen, I had one of those epiphanic moments, remembering Christmases past. My parish duties meant that on Christmas Eve I would be at work by 8.00am and then after three services finishing at around 2.00am after the Midnight, I would turn the oven on, grab a few hours of sleep and then start the Christmas turkey in the oven before racing off to take another five services – getting home by 1.00pm usually totally exhausted. But those solitary moments in the kitchen were absolutely precious to me. If there is a reason this memory popped into my mind it must have been the perfume of the quinces, still filling the kitchen with Christmas perfumes; citrus, apple and spice. If I can bottle that later today it will be the first time I’ve ever made a preserve that made me shed a tear!

Postscript

24 hours on and here are the results. Exactly as I predicted the 4lbs of raw quince yielded 4 lbs of quince jelly; bearing in mind the added water and sugar. The flavour is lovely- certainly not bubble gum or candy – but not the same as the raw fragrance of the quinces off the tree. Chatting to a neighbour on the allotment yesterday she told us that she’d baked a couple in the oven and eaten them with ice cream, and that they were delicious. So all in all, well worth the effort. Picture below.

Gilding the lily – on a pie!

My Dad had a simple repertoire of basic food – it was grilled bacon. Aside from that he couldn’t cook at all. I went to see him one day and he said “Thank goodness you’ve come, I just offered to make my friend a coffee but I don’t know how to do it”. “Just add boiling water, Dad”. My Mum on the other hand was a plain cook, largely I think due to my Dad’s culinary conservatism; but – although I never realized this until recently – she broke all the stereotypes and not only taught my sister to cook but me too. I was only thinking about her the other day when I was coating a piece of fish with flour, egg and breadcrumbs. I have no idea how old I was but after she taught me how to do it, I clearly remember tipping the leftover flour back into the tin complete with the fishbones I’d removed from the fish. Why I did that I’ve no idea, but my Mum was a fierce complainer and so later, when she discovered the bones, she sent the bag back to Henry Jones on Stapleton Road and demanded a refund. I was too scared to tell her that I was the culprit but the flour mill sent three bags by way of compensation without questioning the likelihood of their product being contaminated by fishbones. The first home baked loaf of bread I ever encountered was made by her. In those days flour came in two sorts – plain and self raising both white and over refined, The plain was a soft flour, low in protein, and really only suited to cakes and so her bread never tasted as good as the loaves from the bakery at the top of the road. The process, though, was fascinating and has always stayed with me.

Today I was making a chicken and ham pie and as I rolled and cut out some decorative leaves I remembered that was another of the tricks she taught me. On another occasion I asked how she knew that the Yorkshire pudding batter was thick enough she didn’t say a word, but swished a spoon back and forth in the bowl making a distinctive plopping sound that I’ve never forgotten. I still use the same test today.

So I do realize that expecting young people to cook these days is a counsel of perfection however powerful the arguments in favour. I still think it’s worth a nag, though, because in these straitened times cooking is an act of resistance as well as a deeply satisfying and therapeutic (yes, that word again) way of spending some time. There’s a kind of alchemy to cooking; taking basic ingredients and by combining them creating something with depth and complexity. The combination of chicken, leeks and tarragon with good stock transcends its ingredients. All power, then, to the charities that are working so hard to teach young people how to do it. Two of our sons are professional chefs and the other is a more than competent cook too, but so many 18-30’s have grown up without any exposure to what I’d like to call real food which introduces the skill of making lovely meals from the cheapest raw ingredients and might even lead to a job eventually. Eating together creates powerful bonds too. Junk food makes us ill and in extreme cases even kills.

I’m profoundly grateful for my Mum’s departure from the 1950’s norm. Of course, at school, my sister learned dressmaking and home economics while I did some wood work and engineering – skills which should never have become gendered, but we both escaped with the cookery basics on which we could build and, in case you’re wondering, I could also sew a patch on my jeans or stitch on a button. At school one of our sons did at least get a chance to cook, but when he made a bechamel sauce properly his teacher said she’d never seen one that wasn’t lumpy before – oh dear! Just think – most of us can’t afford to eat out except for rare special occasions – but if you can cook you can eat like the rich; better in fact because they’re completely dependent on other people to feed them.

At the Potwell Inn we make five meals from a medium sized chicken with some lovely chicken stock, using up even the leftovers. A simple rolled breast of lamb or piece of pork belly makes the most fabulous and inexpensive meal, and ironically a piece of unpasteurised handmade Cheddar turns out to be far more economical than the cheaper industrial product because the flavour is so much better. Our waste is greatly diminished too, with all our paper, cardboard and peelings going straight to the compost heap.

Being hard up is tough going and our hearts go out to the young people who are struggling. This culture sucks the life out of us if we let it, but we don’t have to accept the King’s Shilling and become dependent. Being just that bit independent with the allotment and the kitchen lets us lift two fingers to the bailiff and the beadle.

Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

How to bring a neglected sourdough starter back from the dead.

Even in the best regulated households – and the Potwell Inn isn’t one by a country mile – days and weeks can pass when routine jobs like feeding the sourdough and the kefir get pushed aside by seasonal emergencies like fungus hunting and holidays from the allotment. Not that any of these derelictions go unnoticed. The kefir, so long as it’s tucked away at the back of the fridge, will survive as many as six weeks, and as long as you give the grains a wash – they’ll be the size of chickpeas – and feed it properly for a few days, it’ll come back to life. I have an entirely non-scientific approach to figuring out whether food is dead and dangerous. If it stinks, or if there are moulds actually growing on it it goes into the recycling. I remember one neglected kefir culture that smelt so evil – think dead sheep – that I had to throw away the container as well.

However the sourdough starter is a different matter. It’s an old friend that sprang into spontaneous existence maybe fifteen years ago and has done well ever since. Mine hasn’t got a name – I think naming starters leads to disappointment; but it does have a unique smell – no, perfume. Mine smells of apples – what does yours smell of? Starter sniffing is a dangerous game because if you criticize someone else’s they can take it badly, as if you’d said their child was ugly.

But a couple of weeks ago I opened the container and there was something wrong. Not dead sheep by any means, but faintly sulphurous. It was pretty obvious that my neglect had starved the starter to the point where some of the yeasts had begun to decompose. An idea of how to save it came into my head by way of the weekend spent looking at Welsh apples. Madame, in the distant past, was a small part of a research station team growing virus free apple bud-wood. They achieved this by growing the shoots faster than the virus could travel through them. Consequently the grafted buds were virus free.

So would it be possible for the remaining lively yeasts to outgrow any usurpers and dullards while eliminating the dead ones altogether. I started an intensive care programme of feeding the starter every day with its favourite organic dark rye flour, each time throwing just over half of the old starter away. Very gradually the sulphurous smell disappeared and the apple perfume came back. It started bubbling more fiercely than ever as well – good news! After a week of reliable bubbles I made a loaf yesterday and the result is in the photo. My impression is that the renewed starter is better than it was before I let it escape, and so the kitchen now feels content again. I also made 12 lbs of green tomato chutney during the day – enough to keep us going for a couple more years.

Where wild means wild!

How about watching a family of long tailed tits; great tits; several robins; nuthatches; blue tits and a wren in about ten minutes of pure rapture, looking out of the kitchen window – 900 feet up a hill on the Brecon Beacons? Autumn gets to me – that’s no secret – the reasons are so obvious that I’m not even bothering to rehearse them here; but there always comes a time, often a single day, when the black dog slinks away and feel I’ve turned a corner.

I haven’t written for a while but that’s not because I’ve been sitting in the corner weeping silently (not my style) – but because we’ve got the allotment largely under control, and we’ve spent hours and days fungus hunting. I’ve been interested in them for years but this year we’ve gone into hyperdrive; photographing, identifying and recording these beautiful and fugitive life-forms. Fungi live on decaying matter; they also share resources with plants and trees and – at this time of year especially – are the tangible evidence of the ever renewing web of life beneath the fallen leaves.

My friend Nick who graciously let me play with some serious machinery.

And so we came up to stay for a couple of days with old friends on the Brecon Beacons where they keep a smallholding. Feeding the pigs and the chickens, moving the sheep around and helping out around the place – oh and eating the freshest eggs and the best organic produce; planking and planing seasoned oak from the woods; keeping the stove going; cooking together with food grown and raised less than a couple of hundred yards away and talking, talking, talking. These are truly – and I’m avoiding the therapeutic cliché – renewing activities. In between showers, the sky cleared and the sun shone through the raindrops, illuminating the landscape with pinpoint jewels of refracted light.

At night the Tawny owls called to one another over the sound of the springwater filling the cistern outside our bedroom in a musical series of spurts and sputters. Even the sound of a dog barking down the valley in the darkness engorges the imagination. The autumn ground was a pointillist painting in ochres offset by dazzling yellows and reds and buzzards and carrion crows called overhead. For three days we escaped the tyranny of linear time and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the greater and lesser cycles of sunrise and moonrise; season and lifespan.

Sheep on the horizon – looking as if they’re about to charge us

Even the farmhouses have their span. In the year I was born, just after the war, this cottage was derelict, and for the past thirty five years we’ve watched it come to life under the care of our friends. It’s been a home, playground and a natural history mentor to three generations of children and their friends. If intuition and imagination aren’t included among the senses how we are ever to understand how neighbourhood, community and mutual aid, along with an understanding of our vulnerability and finitude are the foundation to our flourishing. Yesterday evening we sat in the old parlour and talked by the light of the only remaining gas mantles I know of. The mantles themselves now cost something like £14, but this isn’t a life of self indulgent luxury – their car has done 220,000 miles.

On Saturday we visited a couple of community projects in the village. One of them was an orchard run by the Marcher Apple Network which is a voluntary charitable organisation set up to preserve traditional apple varieties from the Welsh Marches.

They have collected and grafted all sorts of almost unknown apple varieties on to modern rootstocks and have begun to set up a DNA database so they can be identified and propagated through grafting – as a service to the future. I have to confess to scrumping a few, and trust me, they’re not all utterly delicious! One of Madame’s first jobs after leaving Art School was working as a trials assistant in a cider research station and so she was in seventh heaven as we walked around photographing some of the apples for our records. While we were there a couple of young people from the local community run pub were picking up windfalls for the apple bobbing at their Halloween party. This village is rich in community projects. You’ll see below why some apples have rudely descriptive names such as Goose Arse and Pig’s Snout

Possibly one of the ugliest apples I’ve ever seen.

Then we went up the hill to a community run woodland which we scoured for fungi and found quite a few we’ve never seen before. One of the best things about being a relative beginner in any field is the fact that even very common and well known species are exciting first time finds. A fungus like the Panther Cap – deadly poisonous – takes on a whole new reality when you’ve got down and dirty photographing it in a rain soaked woodland. Our friends were generous enough to scout the wood for new fungi for us to see – we had a ball – and then finished up down at Llangorse Lake drinking tea in the cafe as the clouds gathered over Pen y Fan.

So what could be better than eating with friends? Well cooking with them surely comes to the top of the list. I cooked one of my party pieces – Carbonnade Nimoise, and with a free run of the food stores we used some hogget leg steaks. Hogget is lamb in its second year, so it comes between lamb and mutton. Most butchers give you a funny look if you ask for it but it’s worth searching for. It’s more expensive than lamb because it’s been fed for an extra season but the flavour is marvellous. Oh what a weekend!

So here are a few of the fungi we saw – they’re not named because we need to check and double check, but they are so beautiful that they need no justification at all.

And yes, the one at the bottom is almost certainly a Panther Cap – greatly to be avoided when you’re foraging! In fact its neighbour in the centre is almost as bad. The lesson is – never forage unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing (so don’t ask me!). And if you recognise the only innocent one in the ID Parade – good for you. And I hope you’ve had as much joy from finding out as we have.

As for us, we drove home contentedly with a couple of big bags of fragrant sheep daggings in the back of the car. It’s an acquired taste I know, but they’re better than Chanel Number 5 for arousing a compost heap!

Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

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