I was wandering around the Potwell Inn this morning, surveying the seasonal carnage, when I glimpsed into the front hall and saw a pile of letters there – thirty or forty of them. The thing is, no-one opens the front door. It’s very gloomy, the doors are rotten and the hinges are rusted through and haven’t been used in years, – so the front hall is a sort of improvised storage area full of junk and incomprehensible stuff with a letter box at the back marked “spam”. Who on earth looks in letterboxes marked “spam”? Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me this morning and I looked, and among some fairly random stuff about footballers I’ve never heard of I found a number of very supportive and enthusiastic comments on the Potwell Inn. What a nice surprise! It seems that WordPress are so keen to preserve my sanity that they’ve been sweeping any general comments – ie not attached to a specific posting – into the spam filter.
So thanks to all those who’ve been so positive, I really appreciate it. There were also one or two questions about technical issues that I wouldn’t dare try to answer – when I get stuck I just go onlne, there’s mountains of help out there. The visual format is one of the “off the shelf” ones that comes with the package and I took the photo of my son walking with my grandson 2 years ago – lucky shot. Yes this is a WordPress hosted site – basic level but not free. I’m computer literate but the least glimpse of code sends me looking for the smelling salts!
As to “why Potwell Inn?” Please don’t run away with the idea that there must have been anything so advanced as planning or focus groups (eeoogh). I must be the only human being on earth to be inspired and radicalised at the age of 14 by an Edwardian (1910) comic novel, so I’ve spent the rest of my life torn between looking for it and building it for myself. The reason for turning it into a blog was that the journalling software I’d been using daily for three years was upgraded without warning so that the various clapped out old machines here at the Inn wouldn’t talk to one another any more. When I looked around for an alternative I had a moment of inspiration and thought – “why not make it into a blog – there’s nothing in it I couldn’t share ? ” So the Potwell Inn became a virtual place that I already felt comfortable in.
The biggest challenge for writing a blog was the discipline to keep going – a habit which I’d already got, and more importantly, the capacity to treat setbacks, indifference and critical remarks as par for the course and I’ve had plenty of experience of that! This is a tiny enterprise with a handful or so of regular supporters (I’m old so I don’t need to bull it up!) – so I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to share web the address with anyone they thought might enjoy it. At the moment I’m more likely to be hit by a lump of the Mars Lander than I am to get even 100 supporters.
But above all: Happy 2019 and, once again, thank you so much.
Is there something about New Year’s Eve that compels us all to reflect back on the year? Two years ago we were at St Ives in the campervan, being rocked and battered by the remains of a huge Atlantic storm. Then last year we were with friends in Shaftesbury.
Last night we were at a lively gathering of neighbours next door and consequently I woke up at the usual time feeling very sleep deprived and – shall we say? – a bit muzzy. Rather too much wine, I’m afraid, but three and a bit years after we moved here we’ve made friends with most of the people who live in the street on a long-term basis. Every year we have a fluctuating population of students and temporary residents and it can be hard to tell one group from the other when you first move.
I would love to be able to say that I’d finished all the raised beds by today, but it’s been a much bigger undertaking than we ever dreamed, and apart from the expense, much of the earlier layout and borders on the first allotment have needed to be replaced and repurposed in other places. It took two years on the waiting list for us to get a second adjoining plot and so all the original rotation plans had to be changed, and it’s taken a year to bring the second plot completely into a new design so we could then move back and redesign the first one. The bed on the right of the photograph is the foundation for the new compost heaps from which we aim to produce a far greater quantity of compost during next year. There will be three bays each capable of holding approximately two cubic metres of material, and that’s a big ask because the existing setup is so full of brandling worms it simply eats up the waste, which means that the first bay will shring to less than 50% of its original volume.
As I write this I hear Madame calling from the snug where she sits holding her glass of milk stout. (I made all of that up). “Where are you?” ; “Writing”, I reply. “What are you writing about?” she asks. “The new compost heap”. “Are you completely bonkers?” she says, “- who in the world is interested in the compost heap?”
Well, I’m not sure that I know who is interested, so passing on rapidly I can say that most of any achievements on the allotment are pretty small-fry compared with crossing the North Pole on a unicycle, but for allotmenteers life is marked by a good deal of hard work and the odd moment of unexpected joy. ‘Though I felt pretty miserable when I woke up and reflected on the many occasions during last night when I could have refused a top-up; I also knew that if I didn’t get up to the allotment and at least try to do some work I would feel much worse. So that’s what I did and I felt better after a lot of earth moving and wheelbarrow pushing and if – and I mean if – if it all comes together then next season will go well, BUT whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must remain silent – to nick a phrase from Mr Wittgenstein…. and Madame nods approvingly.
But we’ve had a good year and grown things we’ve never grown before. The extra space meant we were able to grow some potatoes which will last a week or two longer, and tonight we baked a couple of them and among other things we enjoyed our own home made tomato ketchup in a lashed-up marie rose sauce. Earlier in the day I snacked on the remains of the game terrine between slices of my own sourdough bread and anointed with last year’s piccallili. It feels good to write that! This day 12 months ago the seed potatoes had already arrived and we were worrying whether we should chit them straight away. This year we’ve bought them from a different supplier who promises to send them a month later. It turns out that life’s rich tapestry is woven from many tiny threads.
In the world of virtuality that we bloggers inhabit, it’s tempting to create a parallel unverse in which we are self-perfecting and untouched by the blights that affect lesser mortals. And so, by carefully selecting from the events of the day and choosing our words as poets might, we convey our privileged position on the sunny highlands of human consciousness without for a moment descending into bragging.
It will be a strange sort of book, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree ; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be as ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I do mean to get to the truth of the thing , spite of this.
Herman Melville in a letter to Richard Henry Dana on the first draft of Moby Dick
I read blogs. The best of them fire me up and get me back to work, but the worst of them make me feel inadequate – as if the only place to start a new life is “anywhere but where you are”. I see photographs of perfected lives, perfected allotments and perfected meals and I know that I could never compete. Nobody’s going to stick my face on an advert for the good life, so I created the Potwell Inn as a place where the real, the blight, the shit that happens, has a place as well – a place that I’m allowed to live in because I am fallible, I am human and I have never lost the longing for something better.
The Potwell Inn, in its first iteration by H G Wells, is set in the South Downs and it’s all orchard and grass and gently murmering river. It doesn’t rain – in fact the sun seems never to stop shining – but over everything hangs the shadow of Uncle Jim who may return at any moment in a drunken fury. H G Wells knew better than to write a novel of perfection.
So, mea culpa, in all my postings I’ve never mentioned anything much more frightening than allium leaf miner or a late frost; and you might run away with the idea that the Potwell Inn and its allotment exist in a faery glade at the edge of an exquisite Georgian city. It’s true that the city we live in has a lot of Georgian architecture – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge one of its most beautiful parks. But Bath itself is a monster with a severe personality disorder that can’t make its mind up whether it’s a University town, a Roman tribute act, a continuously ‘in session’ meeting of the Jane Austin fan club or a vibrant modern shopping/eating/clubbing experience. In fact, “Bath – the experience” occupies a limited area at the centre and it’s surrounded by a hinterland that’s not so lucky. Our beautiful Georgian terrace comprises mainly houses in multiple occupation filled with a shifting population of students, young families unable even to look in an estate agent’s window, and housing assocociation properties many of which have some deeply troubled residents.
So we live in a lovely flat near the centre of a beautiful city and the corner of our street next to the flat is a favourite spot for drug dealers because there’s no CCTV and there are four or five escape routes inaccessible to a police car if trouble kicks off. Through our windows we can enjoy a view of the river and the trees and also – at times – violent domestic disputes, machete wielding ‘county lines’ enforcers and crack smoking minor league dealers on bikes. Most of the trouble never comes near us – just once I was the victim of the most pathetic attempted mugging in history. There’s a young man who lives a block away who we call ‘mong’ because he shuffles around as if he is permanently on spice or ketamine. He’s well over six feet tall so potentially could be a bit frightening if the fog ever cleared. I came down the road and despite the fact that he was already holding a mobile, he said “give me your phone” in his best menacing tone. I replied “fuck off!” in my most menacing OAP manner, and he said “there’s no need to be rude”. He probably had a good polite upbringing some time back.
The police and the local council are having a purge on rough sleeping and street begging in the centre because it scares the tourists. Naturally this means that the problem moves outwards towards us and street begging becomes petty crime – burglary, shoplifting, stolen bikes, muggings and such like. Sustaining a £200 a day habit either means a good begging pitch in town or something much more scary around the edges. Our posturing local councillors – many of whom are part of the problem inasmuch as they own property and let it out at increasingly ridiculous rents – like to grandstand with talk about ‘zero tolerance’ but that does nothing to help the elderly residents who are terrorised by dealers and users. We have no police station any more, and our air quality is so polluted by heavy traffic that we regularly break EU limits. So that’s where the Potwell Inn can be found – not in an idyllic imaginary parallel world, but here on a cold December day when it’s too wet to get on to the allotment (again).
But this is where we’ve chosen to live and we love every moment. I’ve always had a conviction that there’s no better place than where you are set down, and the best way to live a flourishing, fully human life is to transform the place you live in rather than spend a fortune in time and energy looking for somewhere better. And so we get involved in the local neighbourhood and in its politics. We all know that the source of many of these problems is lack of compassion and lack of resources compounded by a malignant ideology. We love the fact that we can hear a dozen languages and more every day on the streets and we can shop in half a dozen food cultures within a mile. We love the allotment and its capacity to provide for us, and our neighbours who live such interesting and occasionally complicated and exotic lives.
In one of those long meandering chains of thought that sometimes sieze my attention I began ten days ago with watching the riots in Paris on television and emerged 24 hours later with a changed perspective. That change of perspective took me to a single word; a crystallisation of the chain of thought and it was the word “commonwealth”. The absence of the capital letter is absolutely deliberate because it is not a proper noun. It doesn’t refer to any of the manifestations of the original idea that has been misappropriated so often from the days of Cromwell’s parliament to the cultural remains of the British Empire. It’s been so often misappropriated, in fact, that when I googled it, I looked at 27 pages of results without finding a single reference to its original meaning – a political community founded for the common good. This lovely idea seems to me to be slap bang in the middle of the Potwell Inn mission statement, or it would be if we had one!
I wondered for a long while whether to post this, and here it is. A provisional mission statement for the Potwell Inn, driven by the sheer baffling and beautiful complexity of human flourishing.
Commonwealth: A political community founded for the common good.
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!”
The little boy on the right is me, and it’s my sister who’s got her hand in the feed bucket. The photo was taken probably 67 years ago on my Grandfather’s smallholding in Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. In those days there were red squirrels in the woods behind, and now it’s an industrial estate. But this isn’t a lament for lost idylls, I’m making a much bolder claim. TPC was a carpenter from generations of carpenters who had assimilated what’s now called ‘generic’ building into their bones. He retired three times, his last job was as foreman on a restoration project working on medieval buildings in Bristol. He wasn’t an historian, he just knew how timber frames worked in the days when the knowledge was all-but lost, and he was 70 years old, younger than me now, but not that much.
A few months back I was laying the foundations for the greenhouse on the allotment and as I was trowelling sand between the flags I tapped the edge of the trowel twice on the slab . It was an instinctive gesture that went off like a fuse, deep in my memory, because I knew that I had learned that simple and completely unnecessary gesture from him. And I realized too that I had learned everything I was doing that morning from my grandfather and my father. That memory of helping my grandfather to feed the hens, too, is one of the threads from which the Potwell Inn is constructed.
Then yesterday I was working on the allotment when two of the grandchildren turned up and I knew that there was a duty inscribed in my memory that I needed to carry out. Here it is: the ride in the wheelbarrow – deeply subversive it turns out and rather like laying down wine for the future.
“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”
Madame has pointed out that there is a major historical error at the Potwell Inn, inasmuch as there are no pickled eggs lurking darkly at the back of the bar – and therefore she is not able to indulge her favourite passion for consuming them, lurking like reproachful sheep’s eyes, at the bottom of a packet of crisps. I pointed out that the Inn is trying to move with the 20th century and may well introduce “Chicken in a Basket” at some point, and in any case Alfred Polly suffered terribly with indigestion and so pickled eggs were not his ‘thing’ as it were. Furthermore I could find no reference to them anywhere in the novel.
However a happy landlady is a happy pub, and so I have bowed to her pressure and produced a jar for her exclusive use. We always treasure our customer feedback. I must clean behind the cooker at some point!
So today turned out to be something of a day of reckoning in the Potwell Inn pantry, largely on account of the large batch of ragu I cooked yesterday. It had to be frozen in individual batches today, but our little freezer was stuffed to capacity – not least with 12lbs blackcurrants that went in there when we were too busy to do anything with them. Fridges and freezers can very easily become the slow -food equivalent of the dustbin if you’re not ruthless, and I’m not nearly ruthless enough.
But that brought around another challenge; what should we do with the defrosting blackberries? Easy-peasy we thought, we’ll make some cordial and some jam. The elderflower cordial we made in the summer is beginning to run low and in any case the flavour diminishes the longer it’s in a bottle. Already it’s a shadow of the glorious scent of early summer that it possessed when we made it. So what better than blackcurrant cordial for the winter, all that vitamin C to fight off colds. But then that left six pounds to make jam with, and when I counted our empty jam jars there were just six and I needed at least twice that. The easy thing to do would be to go and buy some more, but I knew there were quite a number of full jars of jams and chutneys being stored in the garage, some of them quite old. Cue head torch and a stumble around in the chaos of a garage repurposed as a dump for yet more things we don’t quite know what to do with since we moved here 3 years ago. I found 20 jars of various substances some without labels, some with the contents shrunk by 25% and some whose once pristine lids were spotted with rust. Initially, when I got them up 3 flights of stairs to the flat I opened each one and tasted it. Some were flat-out gone, in some the sugar had granulated out leaving crunchy bits and all of them were, like the elderflower cordial, diminished in flavour. In the end I spooned all the contents into the bin and shoved them into the dishwasher to be cleaned and sterilized. Sadly one of the more recent casualties was some 2016 marmalade which we’ve run out of altogether so we can’t make any more until the Seville oranges come in January. The most venerable was a jar of 2009 jam that was still edible but devoid of any identifying taste. It was supposed to be gooseberry.
This is a constant problem for most of us in this situation.We wouldn’t be gardeners at all if we didn’t want to eat the things we grow, but the fruit grows generously every year and it’s all too easy to try to use every bit of it up. Freezers and jam making cost money and in truth it would be much better to give the surplus away to someone who can use it. The same kind of argument goes for many of the other things we grow, it all comes in at once and we go into surplus in a matter of a few days. This is all the more reason for researching the heritage varieties in favour of the F1 hybrids. What’s the point of having a huge crop all at once when what you need is to have it spread out so you can eat fresh every day for a few weeks. Today our thriftiness began to feel more like selfishness; twenty pots of jam and chutney that could have fed someone else if we hadn’t instinctively hoarded them again a rainy day that never came. Who’d have thought that making a batch of ragu could expose a moral dilemma?
So why is this blog called the Potwell Inn? I feel the question hovering, unspoken, in the air. Part of the answer is that (for me) it’s the equivalent of a keyboard shortcut that takes me immediately to where I need to be in order to write. The two words are analogous to a complex in psychological terms and so when I say ‘I’ve got a complex’ I mean it in the wholly positive sense that it’s the ‘madeleine’ that gets me going. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair. Stanley Spencer had an even more unpleasant olefactory shortcut it seems. For me it’s just those two words. Of course there’s nothing more obscure than someone else’s obsession and I realize that some potential readers turn away in bafflement. A pub that doesn’t exist is a blog too far! But a good pub embodies all of the qualities I most treasure. It’s a place of welcome, of meeting, an escape. It’s never judgemental, it sells good beer and good food. Any topic of conversation is permitted and it might even lead to a memorable evening from time to time. In my working life I spent ten years teaching in a prison and two old style mental institutions; ten years as a community worker on an outer fringe estate, and thirty years as a parish priest. All 50 years of experience taught me that the qualities needed to do that kind of work were exactly the same as those needed to run a good pub. Add to that the fact that HG Wells’ novel “The History of Mr Polly” has the Potwell Inn as a place of liberation and self-discovery and that seals the deal for me. I hope it might for you as well.
Not much happening at the Inn today, but the sun shone and drove away the frost and we siezed the opportunity to catch up with some household jobs. If I’m feeling particularly melancholic there’s nothing more therapeutic than making stock, filling the flat with the aroma of meals as yet uncooked. Making stock is like planting seeds, it insists that there will be another day. The other running project is to eat more veg, and so an hour in the bookshop sorting through endless possibles, I eventually invested £30 in the Leith Vegetable Bible. No breathless exuberance, no claims of everlasting life and best of all no photographs – like all the best cookery books. So the overcrowded space on my side of the bed now has four of the best vegetarian cookery books with barely a photograph between them. Apart from the Leith book, there are Nigel Slater’s veg book “Tender”, Jane Grigson’s magnificent “Vegetables” which has the best and most comprehensive research, and finally Rose Elliot of course. There are many others in the bookshelves, but those are my personal favourites.
The asparagus bed is refusing to bow to winter, but tomorrow I’m going to cut all the fronds back so I can spread the seaweed we gatered in North Wales. It was pretty ripe when we loaded it into the car, and we had to tie the sack tight to stop the copious wildlife escaping – so God knows what it’s like now. Tomorrow will tell.
Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed. Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’. Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can. So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses? I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.
But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:
Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.
That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner. So no thanks. Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.
Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine. One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.
So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible. Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly. So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.
It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?” I’ll have to think about that one.
Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg. The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view. And if that all sounds bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!
Here we are, back home and that means two posts today with a bit of luck and some time. First off, ‘though, there is the revival of the sourdough starter and the kefir to think about. The Potwell Inn is a plain sort of a place – or it would be if it existed – and here we try to avoid mystification, and when it comes to sourdough starters and their care, there’s enough ordure written about it to keep our allotment fertile for the next ten years. So here’s the key principle: wild yeasts are are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere and they’ll still be there centuries after the last lobbyist declares that chemical X will save the world, thereby ending the world. I’ve only killed a sourdough starter once and that was a deliberate experiment to see how long I could neglect it before it died. The answer was that I couldn’t kill it at all, but under the anaerobic conditions of its container it turned into another life-form so powerfully smelly that I had to throw the container away. Second point is that getting a starter going is so easy you wonder how the hipster artisan bakers have got the nerve to sell the knowledge for £150 a morning. Get some dark rye flour and stir it into some tap water and leave it in a warm place until it starts to bubble (could be days – don’t wory). Then throw half of that away and add more flour and more tap water, give it a stir and keep going like that until it’s ready to use.
So getting back from North Wales means the neglected starter needs a feed because it’s been neglected for a fortnight and it’s sulking. I do use organic flour; my favourite is Bacheldre Mill, but I don’t fuss about water. By all means waste your money on organic single malt virgin water brought over from the Isle of Sky in a coracle but it won’t taste any better. I do not employ holiday starter sitters to stir the infant broth daily, even on minimum wages. I have not scoured the antiques markets for authenic barm pots and neither do I subject the infant starter to any ceremonial prayers or position it on a lay line. Most particularly I would never dream of shelling any money out for someone else’s starter, but if you happened to know where the Potwell Inn is (which for reasons already described would be difficult because it doesn’t exist), but if you should happen to pop by at the back door of the pub I’ll gladly give you a bit. It’s lovely and it smells like apples.
As for the second exercise in controlled rotting, the kefir was in an even more perilous situation because I’d forgotton about it for weeks. You know how it goes with kefir – drinking it every single day for ever would bore you stiff. So it’s been languishing at the back of the fridge waiting patiently for someone to show it some love. Today I showed it some love and I strained it and washed the grains off (with tap water) and and put it in a clean container with more full cream milk. Once again it’s organic milk because that’s what we use. Because I’ve washed it and possibly because the chlorine in the water is a bit of an inhibitor, it will be slow to recover, but it will recover.
The pantry is full of various other vegetable bits and bobs undergoing their own lacto-fermentation and they too will cope with whatever life throws at them. I don’t sell this food so any public health inspectors reading this need not trouble themselves to Google up the Potwell Inn and attempt to pay me a visit, and if I do suddenly expire one day from some unexplained cause it’s vanishingly unlikely that the wild yeast will have done it!