Groundhog Day at the Potwell Inn

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There’s a really interesting feature about urban farming in Bristol in today’s Observer that described one urban farmer (not known to us btw)  as “a veteran of the grow-your-own, self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s”.  That rattled our cages a bit – “veterans” indeed  – we weren’t even pioneers, just ordinary everyday descendants of the Diggers and other subversives who didn’t much care for “the way they did things round here” – which is as good a working definition of culture as you’ll ever need. A single glimpse of the photos was enough to say that even if we didn’t actually know this younger generation of urban farmers, we certainly knew their spiritual forbears and possibly even their parents.

One of the few shafts of light in these gloomy times is the re-surfacing of values that we feared we’d lost forever. The bailiffs and developers had moved in on our inner mindscapes and trashed them as they trashed the environment, and I never tire of arguing the point with our oldest son, who was born in the year that Thatcher came to power, that it wasn’t the whole of our generation who stitched up the young; and large numbers of his generation have been only too pleased to be bought off by the machine. Yes were were allotmenteers back in the day, and we kept a goat, recycled as much as we could, did anything we could to keep financially afloat, we lived in a couple of communes and set up workers’ cooperatives not small businesses. The principal ideal in those idealistic days was to put something back, not extract value from other human beings and pocket it.

Today we sat together and read the article with a sense of real excitement that these (often) young people still share the same values.  It’s nice when they listen to us, but this is a time when we, who will not be around to see the Great Harm bearing its evil fruit, should listen to them.   The allotment movement was rejuvenated after the First World War because the enforced clearance of the commons through the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had left the vast majority of the population landless – just as we are today. That was what opened up the intensification of farming for profit and ignored the question of the public good which is just now resurfacing. Bristol City Council should be applauded for making land available to the community in this way and not – as Bath City Council tried recently to do – to build a park and ride scheme on ancient and species rich flood meadows. We shouldn’t have to shame our representatives into doing the right thing.

Anyway, the article – do read it –  was a great scamper around some of the opportunities and the issues, and brought up another previously neglected thread when discussing development. We’ve got very used to scientists – ecologists, botanists and medical researchers for instance, hogging the microphone when it comes to debating the natural world. Yes of course they have a right to put their point, but not to drown out those who fight for the emotional impact of the natural world. Wildflower meadows are good for us because they heal us – not just by boiling roots and steeping flowers in alcohol but by simply being there. There’s a hotlink below to more detailed information:

One of the staff later mentions the influence of Miles Richardson, a professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby. Richardson has recently shown that people who feel an emotional and physical connection to nature are 30 times more likely to do something to help the natural environment than those who have just read, or been taught, about it.

If and when the merde hits the Dyson, we won’t just be digging for victory, we’ll be digging (or perhaps no-digging) for sanity and for the future of the earth.

Just to finish, I wrote last week about a riverside development here in Bath, and particularly about the impact on the environment.  Last night we were having a meal with several couples who live over there. The willow trees planted next to the river have, amazingly, grown rather well over the last three years and so they’re being pollarded this winter to keep them in check.  They also said that a promising young oak tree that had been planted in Ryegrass Park has been sawn off at ground level for no discernable reason. I expect the developers will fix that when they fix the missing dampcourses, the absence of wall insulation and structural features supporting tons of glass which, mysteriously were never installed either. There is a platoon of scissor cranes in permanent residence over there, doing work which the residents fear will take at least a year. It’s austerity, you see.  There were hardly any buildings inspectors left so the developers were unimpeded by the nanny state. I suppose it’s just possible that by the time it’s finished the evicted invertibrates will have moved back in and it will have become a derelict industrial site once again.

Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

Despair is the last weapon they have left

 

I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and  I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste.  She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation.  He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.

So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.

And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader  (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.

That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.

I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon.  Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.

We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.

 

 

High Summer overtakes the kitchen

IMG_5878There’s a smell  – or perhaps more mellifluously a perfume – for each season, and often it’s the perfume that gets you into the one that’s coming without your becoming aware of it.  Suddenly the kitchen is full of glugging and bubbling ferments, you’re scratching around on the top shelves looking for preserving jars and that packet of rubber seals you were sure you bought last year, or was it the year before that? Dill, garlic, basil above all, and the apple smell of the sourdough starter fill the air and the feeling of hunkering down becomes dominant. Six weeks after the solstice it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the evenings are drawing in.  Apart from weeding there’s not a lot to do on the allotment other than bringing home the vegetables but it’s still too hot to embark on the civil engineering projects that you’ve got lined up for the autumn and winter. After a prolonged dry period it’s raining on and off here and so the urgent need to water has gone.

I’m always astonished at the capacity of ferments to survive.  The kefir which we secreted at the coldest part of the fridge months ago came out yesterday smelling as fresh as it went in.  A quick swill under the tap to wash off the painfully sharp ferment from the grains and then some fresh milk and within hours it had warmed up and thickened as if it was last topped up yesterday. The sourdough starter needs a bit more attention but provided it’s fed weekly it will wait patiently until the urge to make bread overtakes me tonight and I start a new batter. The second batch of half sours is awaiting a clean jar and perhaps some fresh dill and a touch more sugar, but they’re crisp and still taste of gherkin. Madame is mass producing pesto for the winter and rolling it into long sausages which, after a couple of hours in the freezer, can be sliced into portions and returned to the freezer for later. Real instant food.

The Potwell Inn allotment is capable of throwing up all sorts of surprises, and this season the tender fruits and vegetables have done better outside than they did in the greenhouse.  The exception is the habanero chillies which really do need the heat, but the other chillies, the basil and the aubergines have all done better outside.  After decades of loathing I’ve finally made peace with ratatouille (as long as Madame cooks it) just in time for the usual surplus of courgettes. In France, or at least in the South East which we know better, the whole of August seems to be occupied by fêtes but here the rhythms of sowing, harvesting and feasting seem to have very largely disappeared, choked out by the vacuous plenty of ‘food as entertainment’  and flowing into the eutrophic ponds of our impoverished lives.

Today a new garden tool arrived in the post.  I’ve wanted a hori hori – a narrow Japanese combination of trowel and knife  – for ages, but it’s been a struggle to find one that wasn’t a foot long and looking like a lethal weapon of some sort. This one looks innocuous enough to carry in my bag without attracting attention to itself.  It’s really for digging bits of root, dandelion, burdock, horseradish – nothing rare – without digging out the whole plant. It was only a fraction of the price of some of the loftier artisanal products that boasted carbon or stainless steel forged blades and leather holsters, but I thought I could test the principle before lashing out on one to impress the neighbours.

I absolutely love the changing seasons apart from a couple of weeks between September and October when the declining daylight and the empty ground combine to make me feel listless and sad.  All my charges have been harvested and I get a bit rootless, but it’s never long, then, until my birthday and after that the sun rises a little earlier each day until the winter solstice.

 

Antics in the long grass

The City Council have gone green – well that’s one explanation, and another might well be that they’ve seen a way of saving money that they can dress up as a green policy. Either way round it’s still a good idea except  we’ll have to see what kind of reception it gets from the local residents in the longer term.

Essentially the policy is to stop mowing a strip of grass around the southern edge of the green and also under the trees outside our flat, . The idea was circulated and the response was very positive and so it’s being implemented. The text of the announcement uses the words “leave a strip uncut” but doesn’t specify how wide the strip should be, which has led to a variety of interpretations by the tractor drivers – some of whom have left a couple of metres and others who’ve mowed right back to the edge as usual. You can’t blame them, they’re grounds workers whose job has always been to keep things looking tidy and suddenly they’re being asked to go against all their instincts and leave a whacking great area of weeds.  It must feel completely wrong, and this has resulted in a piece of wide stubble instead of allowing any plants to grow up and set seed.

But there’s another problem looming. The responses made great play of the reappearance of ‘wildflowers’ on the green, and I fear that when residents don’t see the poppies and scabious they’re expecting but the thriving nettles deter them from retrieving lost footballs there may be a reaction. Butterflies, moths and pollinating insects – the kind we’re trying to preserve – feed on, and lay their eggs on all manner of wild plants including (but by no means exclusively) the pretty ones, and a proper mini-reserve wouldn’t necessarily look pretty at all, quite apart from removing some favourite shady areas.

Yesterday we were having a picnic with the grandchildren on the green, and my oldest grandson brought back a burdock leaf to ask me what it was. Later on I had a scout around the tree and found a whole collection of Lesser Burdocks of various ages, some obviously in their first year when they’re just a rosette on the ground.  There were also a couple of magnificent Welted Thistles, lots of Broad Leaved Plantain, some Chickweed, lots of Wall Barley and – mysteriously – a tomato in flower. The tomato must have come from a picnic like ours, but it begs the question (given our locality) how long it will be before we see the first seedlings of Cannabis. The area under the tree has long been a favourite place for a quiet smoke while waiting for the dealer to show up.  Now these are (nearly) all nice and useful plants, but apart from the tomato they can barely boast a ‘decent’ flower between them. I was most pleased about the Burdock because it’s a useful medicinal plant, but I’ll harvest the seeds rather than the plant because there are far too many dogs on the green to make consuming them a pleasant thought, and I can try growing some in drainpipes on the allotment. That’s OK they think we’re bonkers already.

If this kind of ‘wilding’ is going to work we’ll need to communicate much more effectively what the outcome will be. Most people can’t tell a wasp from a hoverfly and are afraid of almost every insect except ladybirds.  Some signage would help, as would an opportunity to meet a naturalist who could explain things and answer questions, otherwise thre’s a danger that local residents will react against the scheme and demand their tidy lawn back again. Primary schools are already doing great things with the under-elevens who are far more ecologicaly sophisticated than most parents.  Our oldest grandson is only six but he’s fierce about the natural world.

So it’s a great idea, but if the City Council see it as a money saver then it’s sunk before it starts.

Turning up the heat

This year was year two of the chilli trial.  Last year I sowed five varieties and had two complete failures. The so-called hot variety I grew also turned out to be cool enough to munch off the plant – and I don’t like very hot chillies  – goodness knows why I’m growing them.

Then (I know I mentioned this in an earlier posting) I read in James Wong’s book that chillies get hotter if they’re a bit stressed and so this year I haven’t mollycoddled them at all. This has certainly worked well in the Scoville heat rating department.  Last year’s munchers have become the new chancers, and for the first time two even hotter chillies have set fruit including one that clocks in at 1,000,000 Scovile Units.  Needless to say I shan’t be trying that one without a medical team on hand.

We were discussing what to do with them this year and we agreed this morning that some of the hotter ones can be dried and kept for the winter.  We made a great chilli sauce last year and we can do that again. Then in the preserving department we started the first lot of gherkin half sours on their fermentation as well as sowing the last 2 varieties of French beans and some autumn carrots. The blue varieties of french bean and peas are so much easier to spot amongst the vines.  I also harvested the first of the heritage beetroot varieties – some Rouge Crapaudine and cooked them this evening, but as soon as I took them out I realized I’d cooked them too long – so that’s a lesson for the next batch.  Beetroots vary enormously in the amount of cooking they need – some are as tough as old boots and others – especially the very sweet ones – just need a quick wave in the steam. The flavour, however was very good – very sweet but full of that earthy flavour that good beetroot has.

We set two plants of Tromba d’Albegna, (which can’t make up its mind whether it’s a courgette or a squash) behind the greenhouse and they really like it there.  So much so that I discovered today that one of them had penetrated the greenhouse via the ventilator and lifted two of the louvre panes right out of their housings.

That’s two posts today – so thanks for joining us at the Potwell Inn, and if you like it here please tell your friends, it’s good to share.

Records played, updated and broken.

It was always going to be the hottest day of the summer so far, and so we agreed to give the (shelterless) allotment a miss.  The thunderstorm on Monday night had given the ground a real soaking, in fact we went to bed and then got up again at around half past midnight as the first growls of thunder got underway. It was the oddest storm I’ve ever watched – there were no lightning bolts to be seen and yet the sky was as bright as day each time there was a flash.  When I was a child I took part in a survey where I had to count the time between the flash and the thunderclap and send off other bits of information on a postcard, but if I’d been doing the same survey on Monday night I’d have had nothing to write.  The thunder was – well – thundrous and almost continuous, and when the rain eventually got underway it was very very intense.  People were out on the Green whooping and running around and at the back we could hear cheers breaking out. The sheer oddity of the storm had turned it into a comunity event.

IMG_2163So no need for watering and far too hot to be doing any jobs on the allotment we elected to walk up the river and along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bathampton. We’re very fortunate to be able to walk right across Bath without leaving the footpath (bar crossing a couple of main roads). We got to a point opposite the railway station where the heights of the many floods that have affected the river are engraved on the plinth of the footbridge.  Some of the floods were way above our heads, and if you’ve ever seen the Avon in flood you’ll know what a scary prospect that would be. The canalisation of the river has always been a main source of the floods and in the last couple of years an artificial flood plain has been built in the most affected area.  Sadly (as per normal) the native bankside flora was stripped out by the diggers and a pre-seeded carpet of so-called wildflowers was put there to replace them. Do architects and civil engineers ever actually look at wildflowers?  `The resulting mess that extends along the length of the ‘improvements’ comprises plants from every corner of Europe except this one and it looks either stupid or downright ugly – depending on your mood. A much loved and reliable crop of Burdock near the road bridge has been replaced by a chocolate box mix of intense reds and blues that don’t belong, and the saddest thing of all is that the majority of passers-by probably don’t even notice. Flooding, environmental destruction and heatwaves are all part of the same massive challenge and the mainstream political parties here just don’t get it. Enough!

By the time we got to the station we realized that a walk up the canal was going to be far too uncomfortable and so we took the short cut through town, opened the windows and pulled the shutters across and while Madame dozed I wrote for a couple of hours.

In the evening a workshop on Polygonaceae (that’s Docks, Sorrels Knotweeds etc in plain English).  Sadly , and probably due to the 32C temperature, the attendance was a bit disappointing  – well there were two of us.  I was slightly outgunned by the workshop leader and the only other participant who was a County Recorder and who could easily speak a sentence where I could only understand the conjunctions. However I quite enjoyed it and while they argued about promiscuous hybridizing I got on with it and looked at the samples.  After a mind-numbing two hours I’d successfully identified three easy plants and learned two new terms, which I count as a great night out. I’ll never look at a Dockweed the same way again.

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Mercifully, this morning it’s cooler and we’re off to do a great deal of weeding.  We have a rule on the allotments that says we can’t have a “bonfire” between March and the end of September – which happens to be the time we most need to burn weeds like couch. We’ve argued the toss about whether a small incinerator – burning at low temperature and creating very little smoke except when first lit – is the same thing as a bonfire. But rules, apparently are rules and so we must bag up  our noxious weeds in plastic sacks (obviously we compost almost everything), and drive them to the tip, engine idling while we advance a metre at a time in the queue. There they will be bulldozed around the bays and loaded into huge lorries when they can be driven either to landfill somewhere miles away, or to Avonmouth where they can be – wait for it – burned in a brand new incinerator.  Ah yes – that’s going to save the world!

Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

The allotment, a recipe, some history, a bit about medicinal herbs and even a bit about bread! No botany.

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Enough botany for now, then – it’s back to ‘real’ life, sweating it out at 30C on the allotment and then bizarrely cooking supper in the oven, raising the temperature in the kitchen to about 40C, ‘nothing’ for my two chef sons, I can hear them saying, but plenty hot enough for me.  We went up at 8.30am in the hope that we could get things done in the cool part of the day, but 2 hours later we were still at it when Madame got the vapours and went on strike under the umbrella. It’s great having the umbrella on the allotment but despite its size it seems only to provide shade for one. I think I’m going to invent a pivotable sail to attach to the shed so we can move it around with the sun.

This year we’ve followed the advice of James Wong in his book about growing for flavour.  He says that chillies get hotter if they’re subjected to stress, and so it seems mollycoddling them with with auto watering last year may have prevented them from reaching their full potential. This year they’ve been watered only when almost dried out and they’ve loved it.  Last year’s F1 Apache chillies were so mild I could pick them off the plant and eat them.  I did the same thing today and they almost blew my head off – I was left scampering around the allotment looking for something cold to drink. So I’ve managed to grow successfully all five varieties including the Scotch Bonnet type which around the top of the Scoville scale, but I shan’t be randomly picking them!

Last Friday’s rain was a decent soaking and when I dug the shallots today the earth was quite moist.  A couple of haulm’s worth of Arran Pilot potatoes were looking good and plump.

Back home with a trug full of fresh veg I cooked an old favourite dish – Carbonnade Nîmoise a very simple French dish which would have been cooked in a cooling bread oven back in the day, and makes a very small amount of lamb go a long way.  Garlic, carrots potatoes and fresh herbs all dug and picked this morning and baked in the oven with some olive oil, a couple of slices of bacon, a glass of wine and a dollop of reduced stock from the fridge. It’s impossible to overcook it, sealed in an extra foil cover under the lid. The star of the show is usually the potatoes which seem to soak up all the flavours, and if it’s cooked right it’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon.

More good new too on the allotment.  I was starting to clear the 50 square metres of loaned land, on which we grew potatoes this year,  and our neighbour said he was happy to continue the loan for another season, so we decided on the spot that we would overwinter our broad beans there this autumn.  To be honest we grew far too many spuds this year but we pay our neighbour in kind for the loan and he takes a share of the produce from his piece of land – it works very well.

And although the field botany phase has ended, there’s still all the typing up to do.  I usually make a sortable list in Word so I can eliminate any duplicates and do a final check on any doubtfuls. Luckily I have a contact in the Bath Nats who is willing to cast an eye over any dubious identifications and we’ll be seeing him on Thursday anyway because he’s running a workshop on identifying Rumex spp – yes I’m a complete propeller head!

On another tack, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been sharpening my skills in identifying plants with medicinal uses. That’s raised some very interesting ethical issues, for instance I found dozens of Betony plants on the clifftop at St Davids, but nothing would induce me to pick them because there just aren’t enough, and there are many medicinal plants that are in danger of being foraged into extinction, sometimes for money. I mentioned in a previous posting how I watched in horror when, on a fungus foray, I saw a young woman (known to me) pick every single Ragged Parasol fungus in a stand of a couple of dozen – far more than any family could reasonably eat. In fact foraging is becoming something of a menace in places.  I know there are many medicinal herbs we can grow on the allotment and some – couch root, dandelions and nettles, for instance, are so prolific that it’s perfectly OK to take a regular cut.  I’m trying to make a list of sustainably available plants in our immediate area and, trust me, I shan’t be publishing their whereabouts. However the vast quantities of these plants that are being processed and added to everything from cough mixture to cosmetics makes you wonder how sustainable or ethical the supply line is.  There’s no real compulsion to monitor it – for instance I was greatly shocked to read on the Plantlife website that even the supply of licorice is under threat.  We know it can be (or was) at least grown in Pontefract and presumably could be grown again – a nice little niche income for a farm with the right soil conditions.

This has been a bit of a mixed bag of a posting but, in my defence, I haven’t mentioned sourdough, mainly because we bake less in the summer.  While we were away Madame was reading about farm life on Ramsey Island and in those days (the 1940’s) ‘mother’ would bake 30 loaves a week in a paraffin fuelled oven. The same book had many photos of the family, and it was clear that the grandson of the family is still farming in the area – in fact he was the one with the brilliant sheepdogs – and the image of his grandfather. A photo of the flock of sheep is at the top of the post.

If you’re interested in following up on the sustainability of medicinal plants I found this paper – but be warned, it’s mind bogglingly thorough!

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_med_plants.pdf

 

Oooh you little showoff

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IMG_5747.jpgWe only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning.  It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it.  The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.

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Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land  – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.

A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time.  One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had  bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar.  The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time.  Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads.  The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard  – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early.  One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night.  Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species,  but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me.  Three years ago they all looked the same.

The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!

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And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a  bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious.  I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could –   finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.

The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true.  Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.