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!
This both is and is not a photograph of the Potwell Inn. Let’s just say that the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw are very close to my heart. Rhiw is pronounced a bit like the sound a buzzard makes when it’s circling in the sky. Welsh is a very beautiful language! Notice the chestnut fence which is so economically constructed, and notice also how quiet it is, presided over by the spirits of the Keating sisters and their mother. There are some places, some hills, some groves, even the smallest of things, that can function as portals if you’re paying attention. What floored me on our very first visit to the Plas was the stove in the kitchen. It was a paraffin powered stove complete with an oven, each burner having its own primus style pump; the exact stove that my grandparents had in their cottage in the Chilterns. I can only have been four or five years old, but I have the clearest memory of having it drilled into me that the stove was dangerous and that I should never ever touch it. Continue reading “Small crisis at the Potwell Inn”
The greatest thing about the Potwell Inn is that it’s the imaginary creation of H. G. Wells and therefore both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, rather like an obscure subnuclear particle. In fact the other potential name for this blog was “The Cloud Chamber” but I thought that was too pessimistic by half because being human is, after all, more fun than being a particle. Continue reading “About the Potwell Inn”