Less is more on the Potwell Inn allotment,

To be honest, after a two week break in Pembrokeshire I was dreading going back to the allotment. Two weeks is an awfully long time to leave any garden to nature and my particular worry was that our plot – in which we deliberately allow nature to have an almost free hand would have totally succumbed to the fatal embrace of the bindweed which has been an absolute pain this summer.

The reason, of course, is that bindweed roots travel deep and fast so it laughs at drought while many other shallow rooted plants keel over. Our strategy this season was to keep the ground covered at all costs, and so as a matter of principle when the drought began to grip we largely stopped weeding in order to keep the soil shaded and as cool as possible. I know people make the most tremendous fuss about weeds stealing sunshine, water and nutrients from the crop; but in our own wildly uncontrolled trial we found that our crop plants, so long as they had a bit of headroom, soldiered on through the heatwave, and whatever nutrients the weeds steal will be quickly returned to the soil via the compost heaps.

There were two other weed species that had a field day this year. One was the Sow Thistles, and the other was the clump of Fumitory which I was unwilling to weed out, because it is a notable rarity here in the centre of Bath. However two weeks of rain and sunshine tested the theory to the limit and it was that thought which was beginning to bother me as we recovered from a pretty exhausting harvest.

But what we didn’t expect was such a large late crop of vegetables, as we approached the Equinox on Friday. When we went to see the allotment yesterday we harvested two whole deep bags full of produce. Old potatoes were weighing in at a pound and a half each and of course it’s been so dry we didn’t have blight to contend with this year. That said we always grow blight resistant varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. There were aubergines, peppers, runner beans, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes and apples and yet more tomatoes grown outside. The large crop of squashes have been hardening off in the sunshine ready for winter storage, so contrary to all expectations we’ve had the best overall harvest ever. We even managed to eat the whole crop of sweetcorn and didn’t concede a single cob to the marauding badgers.

The downside to all this was the excessive amount of watering we still needed to do. With just 1750 litres stored it’s clear that we would have lost crops if we hadn’t used the council provided cattle trough. Quite apart from the shame of using high quality drinking water on thirsty crops, there’s the physical wear and tear on us and our knees, carrying two cans at a time which weigh in at forty pounds and need to be carried down very rickety paths at the risk of damaging tendons and joints. I may just have muttered “I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey” once or twice! And so we need to think about drought resistant crop varieties and perhaps consider growing more perennials. The tap-rooted vegetables were left pretty much to their own devices and they’ve done amazingly well. The second issue will be weed seeds, but in early season it’s relatively easy to keep them down with a sharp hoe. The final part of the climate change conundrum is to keep the ultimate height of plants lower, which will make frost and wind protection much easier. That the climate is changing rapidly is beyond denial and hoping that next year will bring better weather is wilful magical thinking. The biggest sadness would be to lose the wonderfully flavoured -Robinson’s “Show Perfection” pea. Make no mistake, this is not a cardboard flavoured show variety, but it does grow easily to 6-8 feet.

We had also theorised that growing far more insect attractors and digging a pond would attract more predatory wasps and pollinating insects. For whatever reason the Ladybirds never really got going this year, but aphid numbers were well down so maybe the other predators took up the slack. It’s impossible to make any great claims, but our deliberately scruffy approach – although it looked terrible enough to earn reproachful looks from our tidy neighbours – kept producing abundant crops where the weed free and bare earth allotments failed on a grand scale.

I think obsessive tidiness is an entrenched value in British allotments. The catalogues are full of model specimens growing in straight rows on cleared ground, but our holiday in Wales, next door to a large organic farm, showed just how much of a role natural soil fertility and good, rich, moisture retaining soil, plays out in providing increasingly good yields over time. The grassland wasn’t overrun with any noxious weeds in spite of a no-till and no chemicals regime. What this means of course is that it’s almost certain that the kind of approach we’ve been trying to master on 100 square metres, could be upscaled to hectares. Sadly, though, the Council allotments Officer’s twice yearly assessments still seem to overvalue the straight row, weed free allotment over and against the holy disorder of our own attempts to garden thoughtfully.

So our holiday fears were not realised, and that was the most tremendous morale booster. But a second bonus followed quite naturally because all those fresh ingredients led straight back to the stove, just as the new seed catalogues were dropping into the post box. Today we ate the best mushroom soup ever, thickened with bread and made with one and a half pounds of field mushrooms brought back from the organic fields in St David’s. With the equinox two days away and the nights drawing in, there are a few joyful hours still to be had, planning for next year as we clear the beds and pile on compost and leaf mould ready for next season.

More glory than you ever expected, plus an Oxford comma

Some of these photographs were taken from inside the campervan here in St Davids, and some in Whitesands Bay and St David’s opposite what’s known as the City Hall – but appears to be a charity shop. I suppose I could do a Matthew Arnold; lamenting the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of the tide on Brighton beach and compare my superior aesthetic response to St David’s with the inferior and faithless reactions of the pasty and ice cream eaters.

But life’s not that simple – not unless you’re one of those politicians that (they don’t deserve a who“) – can watch the destruction of lives and cultures with complete equanimity under the protection of a blind dogmatic faith (and I do mean faith) that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t!

So I’ve been struggling to see how we can address the terrible problems that we face; and because we’re here in the van and out walking every day there’s been time to read and talk and think about how we might go on with some hope – because without it we’re sunk. With the present shower in power, it’s impossible to hope that conventional politics will ever find a way past the lobbyists and the bungs from the industrial giants and non-doms whose untaxed profits are salted away out of sight of the rest of us. There are some things we can do at a personal level, like growing allotments, walking and cycling, recycling, and, buying thoughtfully – (I stuck that Oxford comma in just to piss off Thérèse Coffey who as an obvious pedant doesn’t deserve a pause before her full stop!); but there are also some actions that can only be accomplished at a regional and national level.

There’s a tired old cliché in ‘management speak’ that has just enough truth in it to suggest a way forward: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If national politics has a stranglehold on climate strategy and all the other major strategic decisions that need to be made then let’s concentrate on changing the culture instead. Let’s focus all our energy and resources on changing it using every cultural means possible instead of spending so many dispiriting hours at political meetings being voted down by members who just don’t get it. We have music, poetry, theatre, art of all kinds, samizdat newsletters, the internet, independent seminars and pop up schools; not to mention conversations with friends and neighbours.

There have been many occasions in history when the people – like the pasty and ice cream eaters and the people that run the charity shop, the hotel owner here who can’t get staff because of brexit, and me and Madame too, have wanted real change in sufficient numbers to sweep away the old guard. So why are we sitting around feeling sad and sorry for ourselves? To abuse a very good saying from the past – we have seen the solution, it is us!

Cucina povera? who’s kidding who?

Field mushrooms harvested near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

Madame was sitting in bed this morning reading recipes aloud. She does it quite often and every now and again she’ll mention something that makes me really sit up. On this occasion it was the mention of a recipe for making a cold tomato soup which ended with the suggestion that it should be served with slivers of Serrano ham. I immediately set to wondering about such weighty issues as authenticity in cooking. Regional cooking is all the rage, and in many ways the slow cooking movement and so-called cucina povera might be an ideal resource in a time of constriction and shortages, but there’s a big proviso.

When I first started learning to cook I was quite obsessive about getting the “correct” ingredients – I was an absolute slave to the recipe. It was wilfully stupid. I once visited half dozen greengrocers in Tunstall Market trying to buy twenty small onions of exactly the same size – so forty odd years ago I would have thought it impossible to cook any dish containing Serrano ham because no-one in Stoke on Trent would have even known what it was.

So if we’re to explore what local and sustainable really means for cooks we might take notice of the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. It was a constant menu item at Culinaria; Stephen and Judy Markwick’s small restaurant in Bristol. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t normally have anything to do with such luminaries but one of our sons was lucky enough to train under him and someone else also paid for an eye opening meal at their previous restaurant in Corn Street. Stephen’s cooking was absolutely simple but his obsessive attention to detail meant that when he finally took to writing he even offered a recipe for mushrooms on toast. Typically, of course, the recipe demands field mushrooms. Wild, field mushrooms freshly harvested and cooked as simply as possible are food for the gods. Knowing where to find them is a closely guarded secret – in our previous house there was a school playing field, just the other side of the fence, where they grew abundantly but rather erratically. The only other person who knew was the retired local milkman who became school caretaker and so for years we competed silently and entirely without rancour to get there first in order to harvest as many as we needed. Over time I’ve found a number of places, not least a clifftop on the Lleyn Peninsula where – at this time of the year – they can often be found, and they are completely irreplaceable. Nothing you can buy could ever, possibly be as good. The very definition of cucina povera would involve cooking what is to hand – that’s to say not Serrano ham when you live in the Disunited Kingdom. There’s often a local substitute and if there isn’t you could maybe set up a small business to fit into the niche.

The purpose of this excursus on field mushrooms and Stephen Markwick was to lead back to fish soup and a kind of culinary dynasty. Fifty odd years ago, here in Bath, George Perry Smith (much inspired by Elizabeth David) ran a restaurant called The Hole In the Wall. It was one of the best in the country and completely innovative in its references to Mediterranean dishes. However, George learned to cook in times of rationing and shortages and evolved a way of doing things where, for instance, nothing was ever wasted. George Perry Smith taught Joyce Molyneux to cook and she in turn taught Stephen Markwick who taught our son. If I were writing about Tai Chi or Buddhism, the question of who taught the teacher would be the most natural thing in the world because it really matters. In cooking it’s rarely if ever asked.

So George Perry Smith, confronted by food shortages took a very different path with ingredients; a path which ultimately led to the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. I should confess immediately that I absolutely love fish soup and whenever we get the chance to eat it I’ll order it. We’ve eaten it in France, Corsica and all over the place but nothing comes close to fish soup that has passed through the dynastic hands of Elizabeth David, George Perry Smith, Joyce Molyneux and Stephen Markwick. The recipe – published in his brilliant self published book “A very Honest Cook” is almost bafflingly simple. The takeaway point is that there’s no mention of any exotic fish such as might feature in a grander and more ‘authentic’ recipe. For goodness sake it even includes smoked haddock and refuses to specify the other fish except to say it would include white fish and any other fish scraps from the kitchen. No more unobtainable Rascasse or any other bony monsters. This Provencal soup is the most “at hand” soup you’ve ever seen.

The so-called secret is of course using superb and locally available ingredients in the most thoughtful way possible. Truly great cooking is most creative and thoughtful when it asks of an unavailable recipe item – “what does this ingredient bring to the dish? and how could I achieve the same authentic balance and flavour using something else?”

And if you ask how, in this time of shortage of both ingredients and the money to buy them, we would do well to follow George Perry Smith’s doctrine of waste not want not. There’s an abundance of locally produced food here in the UK. What’s lacking are the skills to make the most of them. Today at the Saturday Farmers’ Market I overheard a wonderfully instructive conversation between the stallholder and what must have been an extremely wealthy customer. She was insisting on buying a hideously expensive rib of beef joint (organic grass fed etc) to barbecue. He didn’t think this was a good idea at all and I overheard him say to her “I’m a farmer not butcher” as he discouraged a profitable sale in favour of making sure she wouldn’t be disappointed with her expensive purchase. When I read how we should all give up eating meat because it’s so impactful on climate change, I wonder if it wouldn’t be much better to less meat, but eat much more of the animals rather than insist on the most expensive cuts.

A lifetime of Potwell Inn finances has taught us that sometimes the cheapest cuts are much better flavoured. Pork fillet, for instance is much more expensive than shoulder, which is more expensive than belly or any of the offal cuts. Even a humble pig’s trotter can add a marvellous silky texture to slow cooked beans. There’s no need at all for cucina povera or slow cooking to feel like second best. We should maybe get over our obsessive compulsion to buy the rarest, most expensive and showy ingredients. Perhaps we should address the problem of food security by stopping being so precious and insecure about impressing other diners with our wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes; and if we’re vegetarians maybe we could seek out the best and freshest vegetables or – even better – grow them ourselves.

Small harvest festival at the Potwell Inn?

And this isn’t the half of it. Its 7.00 pm and I’ve just finished processing the last of the tomatoes into 8 litres of passata. 10Kg of green tomatoes have gone to the freezer along with 10kg of damsons. We’ve already made shed-loads of roasted tomato passata and various chutneys so it’s been a great year. The Borlotti vines – as I mentioned a few days ago – simply rolled over in the heatwave; but the total yield of smaller beans was twice last year’s. We didn’t grow too much sweetcorn because the badger usually gets there first, but this year we erected a three layer fence around them and we’ve been eating them every day. More squashes – Uchiki Kuri and Crown Prince successfully completed the three sisters trio, although we didn’t try to grow them together after several years of trying. Apples are ripening – again a good year.

Our failures? Well the Calendula were a bit of a write off; the garlic bulbs were very small and the Courgettes and cucumbers seemed to hate the hot weather in spite of constant watering but the aubergines and melons sharing the polytunnel with basil and tomatoes loved it. The total yield of tomatoes was in the region of 150 lbs but we gave up counting . The wildflowers and herbs all benefited from the sunshine and, of course, the Mediterranean herbs loved the weather. The wildlife component was a complete success, with more pollinators and bees than ever before. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees and hoverflies were our constant companions and triggered the trailcam more than anything else. However we have filmed badgers, foxes, mice, domestic cats and rats – not to mention a roe deer one remarkable night. We’d love to set up a moth trap but sadly we’re so plagued by petty thefts we’d have to sit up all night with it.

So yes it’s been a wonderful year in spite of the weather; but it’s been a massive effort with watering, and then processing and storing. There’s always a bittersweet feeling as we complete harvesting for the year. It’s very early to be clearing beds but as ever the weather and the seasons have their own domain and we can only bend to their will.

What I miss, more than anything else, is the opportunity to share in thanksgiving. Obviously we can silently vocalise our thanks but there’s nothing like a public liturgy – which needn’t be at all overtly religious -but allows us to gather with our neighbours and say thanks. There’s a sense of glory in the air as we gather our crops together, but somehow our much talked about connection with nature has been ruptured over the past decades. Nature is something we all too often look at and admire passively at second hand. Eating a melon you’ve grown, warm from the sun is something else, and peeping into a store cupboard full to bursting with food for the winter and the hungry gap gives reason for hope even in a time of uncertainty and fear.

So I miss the giant marrows and the harvest loaf and the rejected apples, even with the rotten bits turned to the back out of sight. I miss the harvest festival where one of our wealthier congregation members once sorted through a pocketful of change and picked out the copper coins to put into the collection while the steward waited patiently. I miss the way that the unlikeliest people would turn up because they could see the point of it all, and I miss counting the hundreds of tins of food that were collected every year to be taken to a homeless charity and I miss roaring out the hymns that lurk somewhere deep in collective memory although we hardly share their feudal sentiments any more.

So the closest I can get to that public thanksgiving is here. As always I am utterly blown away and grateful – even joyful – because the harvest has come home – again – in spite of every obstacle thrown in its way.

The grace of dreaming thoughtfully

Lackey moth caterpillars on Blackthorn May 2022 in Portscatho. Or a horror story?

When I started writing this blog I always thought of it being read sequentially by a very small number of people who know me or once knew me. Three years later and with the benefit of a (paid for) improved search engine for readers, there are more readers than I ever dreamed of. However most of them are highly selective and search for the stuff that piques their interest regardless of when it was written. I do my best to categorise and tag the posts and I work hard to write eye catching titles now because I’m almost certain that I’m the only person in the world who sees the Potwell Inn as a kind of journal. Pretty much everyone else must think of me (if they think of me at all) as that old bloke who writes completely random stuff about cookery, allotments, philosophy, climate change and living in Bath. So what better time than a warm bank holiday Sunday when sensible people are doing anything but reading blogs – to write a piece about dreams and how they’ve helped me? It’ll sit somewhere up in the cloud, possibly for years before it meets its only reader who’s been looking for something on exactly this subject.

Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!

So here goes. Most people probably think that when you go to see a psychoanalytic psychotherapist you tell them about your dreams and they – because they’ve read Freud or Jung from cover to cover – will tell you what the dreams mean and you’ll experience a lightbulb moment and find yourself miraculously cured. Well that’s absolute tosh. In around four years of intense therapy Robin – my therapist – only explained a dream once, and that was by way of a joke. I’d explained to him how I’d dreamed I was walking down Hotwells Road, separated from the harbour by a row of houses, and I kept glimpsing a pair of elephants walking alongside but on the far side of the houses. “What’s that all about?” I asked, not expecting an answer. “Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!” He was far too modest a man to laugh at his own joke, but I thought it was hysterical.

After four years on the couch – well three and a half because the first six months were spent sitting rigid with fear in an armchair facing him – I had learned that dreams really are the royal road to the unconscious mind, but it’s the dreamer’s work to embrace them. No one else can tell us what they mean, if indeed they mean anything at all, and if by that you mean discovering a one-to – one relationship between a dream and an interpretation.

As an example, and don’t worry there are no cringeworthy moments in what follows; as an example I’ve just completed what I think is a long cycle of dreams that came to me over many months. They were all anxiety dreams, some of them nightmares, and they would wake with me and occupy my mind for the whole of the next day. They were all furnished by the ghostly remains of the more traumatic events of the past decades. Clergy work is almost by definition traumatic because its currency is life and death. Too much exposure to raw grief and anger can cause tremendous psychological damage if it’s not dealt with, and it’s not just the people whose lives I briefly entered and left; there were the authorities and the congregations to deal with – and they could be, without doubt, pretty poisonous in the pursuit of their personal agendas. But there was never time and rarely the support to deal with these issues before they were pushed to the edges of consciousness and then stored deep in the unconscious like little timebombs.

The grace of dreaming thoughtfully only showed up seven years after I retired and four years after I left therapy. I can never express my gratitude to Robin enough because by the time we parted company I was so infused with his forensic questions, I felt brave enough to embrace whatever came along; however painful or frightening. One recurring dream in particular haunted me for years; leaving me in sheer terror. Then, out of the blue, instead of waking in fear I walked through the circle of my tormentors and they made no attempt to stop me. The dream still occurs but I know that I survived and that neutralises it completely.

So after a while I realised that this long sequence of dreams was regressing into the past. The subject or the trigger was moving back further and further in time until I seemed to have processed a whole stack of bad memories, thoughts and fears that just needed time and only a little courage to allow them to emerge and then be dismissed. I haven’t interpreted them in any way but just allowed them to say their piece and go. The grace – and I’m sure it qualifies as a grace -is a conscious sense of peace that comes from the fact that the long delayed embrace of bad memories was accomplished through dreaming. The events of the past are not erased, they never could be, and they’re so much a part of me I’m not sure I’d want them to go, but there’s no thought of confrontation or revenge.

There’s a Jungian idea which I’m happy to rehearse here – the last thing we need is sectarian counselling! – and it’s based on a metaphor that comes from growing things – so it suits me perfectly! Jung suggested that new growth always emerges from the wound. In the pursuit of eudaimonia or flourishing, we can’t learn to thrive or be compassionate or love justice; to be brave, temperate, truthful or generous or embrace and live out any of the virtues if we simply ignore, repress, or lock out the wounds and knockbacks we have received through life.

And so I’ll press the send button and this post into the cloud in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find it a help.

A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun – Paul Valéry

This is beginning to look like my Mother’s siege larder.

Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.

The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.

So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!

But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.

That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.

The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.

I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.

The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.

Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.

Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.

During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwen Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.

At last the heatwave begins to break down!

A tremendous storm blowing up during August 2019 in Swaledale near Keld, North Yorkshire

After two years of periodic lockdowns I suppose we should have become used to staying indoors, but this second heatwave in a few weeks felt more than usually punishing. We could only control the temperature inside by following the Met Office advice to close all the windows and shutters, making the dimmed interior of the flat feel like a funeral parlour. By dint of this sacrifice of light and fresh air we were able to keep the indoor temperature to 27C – seven degrees cooler than the outside, but leaving us almost breathless in the thick air. Today, though, normal service resumed so we were able to escape the flat and walk up the canal and when it finally rained a few heavy drops and began to wet my T shirt I felt almost exultant. We’ve grown tired of perpetual early morning watering on the allotment and tired of watching the dust clouds trailing after visiting cars as if they were the Deadwood Stage (if you’re not really old – like 105 years old – think 1953 film about Calamity Jane who, played by Doris Day, had a thing with a stagecoach).

The fitful shower dripped on for an hour – just enough to raise the relative humidity to the point where the sweat was displacing the raindrops but we carried on anyway enjoying the cloudy skies. We thought we’d drop in at the Holburn Gallery to see the David Hockney exhibition but when we saw how much it would cost – £25 – we walked home through town. Has no-one told them there’s a cost of living crisis going on?

So then we wandered over to the allotment and after discovering two very ripe melons hiding in the polytunnel, we picked some plums and apples and had a fruit lunch. Very delicious. This afternoon as I was writing this the police came hammering down the road towards the towpath, blue lights flashing. There’s never a dull moment in genteel Bath! Tomorrow promises decent rain and even thunderstorms which would be such a relief.

Oh and I ordered a new book on the history of Welsh Food. It doesn’t take much to overflow my cup.

Dawn baking

For five days a week and over many decades, Brian English – once our village baker and now sadly passed away, set his dough to prove in the early evening after the bakery closed and then got up at around 4.30am to bake. It’s a punishing regime and when he retired he told me how glad he was to escape the grinding routine. You didn’t often see him in the shop unless you went early; he was a great countryman and would take his dogs out for long walks along the banks of the Severn. Sometimes he would emerge into the shop, dusted with flour, wiping his hands on his apron and share a joke or a yarn about the old days when they delivered bread by horse and cart . Jenny, his wife would sell the bread, cakes and buns adding to their value with abundant village gossip. An invaluable source of information for anyone involved in pastoral work.

So with his example in mind I can’t claim any virtue for getting up early to bake. This hot weather – it was above 22C all night – encouraged the sourdough to run away with itself and by 5.00am it was threatening to overtop its banneton like a giant muffin so there was no alternative but to bake or waste the time and flour and start again. Fermentation, being a process of nature rather than the plaything of human will; will have its way and we have no alternative than to respond.

It’s been a tricky few days; unremittingly hot and growing hotter with no respite forecast until the weekend. Hot weather brings its own challenges and out on the green, sunbathers pick their spot as if on the beach; children play all day, their happy sounds echoing around the crescent; dog walkers are out two or three times and not all of them pick up the mess. Later in the afternoon the barbecues are lit and small groups of friends take the opportunity for some alfresco dining. As afternoon turns to evening the parties grow rowdier and after dark the impact of all the alcohol begins to unravel the temporary alliances, and the conversational noise can easily turn to hostile shouting. Yesterday we had a major incident in the house with the police and ambulance attending for a couple of hours. A young man had gone off the rails in the middle of the night and needed help. Dogs bark incessantly and doors slam as the revellers return home. We’re lucky to be able to snooze during the hottest part of the day.

So I’m sitting here wearing next to nothing, drinking tea which I know will prevent me from going back to sleep and writing this post as the timer counts down. The flat is fragrant with the smell of baking. They say that change is as good as a rest – but with the climate breaking down, brush fires blazing, drought gripping the farms, fuel prices going through the roof and poverty stalking the streets with the government indulging itself with an onanistic month away from their desks, it seems like our society is hovering – two cans of cheap cider away from a riot.

Runaway season brings early blackberries.

I was going to write about our polytunnel tomatoes which have done very well this year – just loving the hot weather. So a piece I was thinking about on the making of panzanella will have to step aside because we were totally gazumped by the blackberries yesterday.

Given the number of privateers who like to climb over the fence and nick our produce without the bother of paying for it or growing it; we’ve capitalized on two of the most useful properties of the blackberry, that’s to say its murderous thorns and its ability to put down roots whenever one of the shoots touches the ground. The third property never really entered our heads, that’s to say the marvellous eating qualities of some wild blackberries. That italicised “some” comes from the fact that the blackberry hybridizes like nothing else, and whilst they all look pretty much the same they vary in palatability from heavenly to a mouthful of sour grit. So what are the chances of choosing a random blackberry to make a fence impregnable and hitting on a bigger, sweeter and more fragrant variety than any of the professionally bred hybrids we’ve all been planting at no little expense.

The downside of this horticultural magic trick, is that word gets around and a polite but steely middle class battle to harvest the fruit is conducted. There are no rules, but the winner takes all. This year we won! And after a dawn raid we came home with a carrier bag and four pounds of sweet blackberries plus a few assorted spiders and grubs.

It was an early encounter with blackberries that introduced me to the spiritual conundrum – that the profound gratitude I was feeling had no home to go to. Who to thank for this outrageous generosity? It’s a question I’m still working on – so please, no easy answers! I’m ashamed to say that we repaid the generosity by making forty pounds of the most disgusting chutney ever, and giving it away to friends. That’s probably why we haven’t got many friends.

Good blackberry bushes, like good spots for harvesting field mushrooms and other fungi are family secrets and never divulged to strangers. Just as when asking farmers how they’re doing you expect nothing more than noncommittal shrug and a mournful shake of the head so too, the passing stranger – asking if the blackberries are any good – will likely be told that they’re very poor indeed, but the rabbit seems to like them; but in the secrecy of the kitchen where the ripe berries have a perfume as fugitive and erotic as truffles, we hug one another and celebrate our great good fortune. In the midst of bad news we’ve pulled a rabbit out of the miserly hat. My uncles were pretty good poachers apparently and doubtless shared the same feelings.

Of course, harvesting them is one thing and locking that exquisite floral perfume into food is another. Blackberry and apple pie never really floats my boat and blackberry jam shares the same pippy texture even when the perfume is there; and so my very favorite way is to make bramble jelly. It’s tricky to make because it needs a bit of pectin to set it and if you add apples you tend to lose the glossy burgundian transparency and so we use proprietary jam sugar which seems to give a better finish.

The other challenge is that the fragrance is really very fugitive and so gentle cooking followed by the shortest possible boil to setting point is the only way to lock in the perfume of the blackberries; but when you bring it off, it’s worth all the faff. Jelly making always seems a bit wasteful but I usually let the initial ingredients drip for at least 12 hours. Our blackberries yielded just under a litre of juice (another reason for finding the best bushes) and with under a couple of pounds of jam sugar it made four and a half small 14oz pots which will only be brought out for special occasions. I remember my grandmother dropping a spoonful of bramble jelly on a rice pudding as a special treat.

And so an intimation of the harvest came early in this season of drought and heat – but it sent us singing into the kitchen where Madame cooked while I assembled the first panzanella of summer. If the Government Scrooges knew how good it felt they’d make it illegal!

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