Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Cast not a clout ’till may be out.

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May, in this case, being not the month but the hawthorn flower – notwithstanding the pedants who claim it refers to the begining of June.  Of course it’s the flower, silly, hawthorn might well be flowering earlier and earlier due to climate change and it seems appropriate to pay attention to that inconvenient fact rather than go by the (disputed) Roman calendar. Whatever – today we took off the last of the winter clothes from the new beds and at last the allotment looks like a garden rather than a recycling centre. A early morning trip to the sawmill saw me drive back with a precarious load of stakes ready for the new peas.  This year we’ve decided to grow a heritage variety called Alderman which reaches five or six feet in height and therefore needs a different form of support.  We decided to go for biodegradable Jute netting which we could buy in 10 metre lengths at 2 metres high – just right for our beds.

While I was at the sawmill, Madame was repotting the chillies, peppers and aubergines in the kitchen.  They’re growing so quickly it’s a struggle to keep up, but it’s going to be at least a fortnight until we dare to take them up to the greenhouse.  So then, this afternoon, we got on with clearing beds of their winter wrapping, watering the many seedlings that need lots of TLC at this time of the year and planting out successional sowings in anticipation of a week of warm weather.

I was daft enough to take a book up, thinking I might grab some time in the sun but – at this time of the year particularly –  the jobs are queueing up to be done.  It was so good to wake up this mornng to the news that Mark Carney was warning businesses to take climate change seriously or face enormous losses. There’s definitely something in the air, and the present wave of demonstrations seem to be resonating with many people rather than just annoying them.

As the allotment matures, and (the first half) enters its third season it’s settling down and looking – dare I say – as if it’s been there forever, which goes to show just how unnatural nature generally is.  As Sam Goldwyn once said, it’s all about sincerity and once you’ve learned to fake that you’re made. But walking around amongst the plants they feel more and more like children  You can see when they’re pleased with themselves and you can see when they’re not doing so well and need a bit of help or encouragement. There’s an old saying that the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer and it’s absolutely bang on.  Plants don’t just die, although blight can make it feel that way, but generally they tell you when something’s wrong. The time spent looking at our plants is never wasted and may well be as important as hoeing on some days.

But our biggest problem – as always – is that we’ve propagated many more plants than we can concievably  find space for so a bit of bartering is inevitable.  As I write, my shoulders are burning from the first touch of sunburn of the year – I really shouldn’t, given my risky history, but the sun warms the soul as much as it threatens the skin, and I’ll promise to be more careful in the future. The conditions in the hotbed are provoking a surplus of growth – particularly among the beets and radishes, and luckily the leaves of both taste pretty good too.  Tomorrow we’ll plant out the heritage peas and maybe I’ll even sit down and read for half an hour! The first photo is of the remarkable sweet cicily plant which has survived infinite hardships and just come into flower.  The other flowers are wallflowers which were alive with bees all afternoon.

How about raw rhubarb in a salad?

IMG_5267There aren’t many occasions when we eat out when I don’t come home with an idea to try out. I must confess I’d never even thought of eating rhubarb raw before we were offered it in a mixed salad at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  To be fair it was just one ingredient but it tasted pretty good – I just had no idea whether it had been prepared in some way. My first thought was that it could have been fridge pickled, but it’s already pretty sour and so I experimented this morning by chopping the rhubarb into chunks and pouring over it a boiling mixture of water, raspberry vinegar (home made) and a little salt – and then allowing it to cool completely. I tasted it and it still seemed to need a little sweetness, so I stirred in a tablespoon of undiluted rasperry vinegar. It tasted very good and would add a tart component to any mixed salad.  My guess is that it would be even better using early season forced rhubarb but this year we relocated all our plants on the allotment and so forcing was out of the question.

IMG_5268Back in the flat, the chillies, peppers and aubergines have all left the propagators and are sitting in the south facing windows waiting for the temperature outside to allow them into the cold greenhouse. They’ve been replaced by the whole second wave of tender seedlings and so this begins the period when we can’t close any of the shutters and every available inch of floor space is in use.

Up at the allotment it was mostly routine stuff – not least mending a puncture on the wheelbarrow caused by a gooseberry pruning on the path. But I love it just pottering around and doing a bit of hand weeding or hoeing.

One of our big discoveries this year has been the variety of basil varieties available  as seed.  So far we’ve tried two, and now we’ve ordered two more and maybe we’ll try another later in the season.  Allotmenteering isn’t free or even cheap and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that we save money against supermarket prices. I was in Lidl today buying the cheapest possible beer for our slug traps, and I was amazed at how cheap their vegetables were. They were certainly flying off the shelves but I wondered what the human and environmental cost of production would be. On the allotment we may spend more on our veg, but we know exactly what’s gone into their production, they taste better than anything you could buy, they’re fresher than anything you could buy and we get to choose exactly the varieties we prefer. We’ll  have five mints – all quite different, and now four basils, three thymes and so it goes on. We can grow for flavour and the final bonus is the exercise and sheer joyfulness of growing things.

Tonight we ate what will probably be the last picking of our purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re still picking chard and true spinach.  This is the real beginning of the hungry gap for us, but the allotment is full of growing crops and the hotbed is giving us an abundance of salad leaves, spring onions and radishes. It won’t be very long before our container potatoes give us a small crop and the broad beans are at the point of setting pods.  We shan’t actually go hungry of course, and we’ve got loads of preserved and frozen tomato sauces so pasta dishes will probably be featuring largely, along with the frozen borlotti beans.

The Potwell Inn oven door broke a few weeks ago and we steeled ourselves for a big bill, but a local tradesman who glued our broken dishwasher back together – saving us a replacement – also mended the oven yesterday and so I can bake again.  Tonight I’ll mix the first batch of sourdough sponge. Outside the world is going to hell in a handcart.  At the weekend I watched in horror as a couple of players from the local rugby club beat a homeless man unconscious, accusing him of stealing a wallet. I called the police but the police bike was in use in Midsomer Norton so nobody was able to attend. I’m five foot seven and seventy two years old and the two players were around six foot four and in their twenties, so I thought twice about heroism. The man recovered and wandered off and they walked home without a care in the world. Another neighbour turned up and the victim  tried to blag his bus fare off her, so he probably survived.  But if I were the Bath Rugby Club manager I’d probably advise them not to wear their club training tops in future – it doesn’t quite tell the story the corporate sponsors want to convey!

We all need to choose!

Two pictures that seem, to me, to express a parting of the ways that’s so important the future of the earth depends on us taking the right direction. The first was taken in Portscathoe, Cornwall in October 2014.  A green lane and bridleway that we often used, and which had ancient hedges on either side was flailed, presumably to make space for farm equipment to travel up and down. The second was our organic hotbed, taken this afternoon.  Notwithstanding the difference in the seasons, the lane will never properly recover, and the displaced small mammals, insects and birds may never return. The hotbed, in its various iterations will go on providing good food and spent manure to the soil for as long as we are able to tend it.

Last time we went to Heligan I took with me Wendell Berry’s collection of essays “The world ending fire” and it lit me up.  So too this last visit when I read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” and followed that with my latest read – “Green and Prosperous Land” by the economist Dieter Helm. It’s so easy to get despairing and cynical about the state of the earth and it’s vital the we don’t get sucked into a mindset that plays into the hands of the agrichemical industry and the climate change deniers. I spend a lot of time trying to make connections between what’s possible for an individual or a couple like us and the sort of global change that’s needed. It’s no accident that the isolated individualism of our culture plays into the sense of helplessness.

Yesterday I was talking to a leading light in our neighbouring community garden -with which we share an ugly boundary of Cupressus.  When I explained a plan to replace it with a more natural hedgerow he agreed completely and then spent the next five minutes explaining why it would be difficult, the Parks Department would never agree and they’d make us pay for it all anyway.  He was probably correct in every sense and yet …… ?

I know I quoted the old management saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” only last week, and it’s still true – but that’s not a reason for giving up. It just means that we need to go about it in a different way, by changing hearts and minds.

There was a warm southeasterly wind today. It was so strong it pulled out all the pegs on one side of a net guarding our chard from the pigeons, and left it flapping helplessly. We fixed it and moved on to other jobs.  We don’t talk much on the allotment, we both know what needs doing and we seem to divide the work without much discussion, each according to our preferences and abilities. It is a place of sanity and re-enchantment, and  a place where our 250 square metres can represent the whole earth in our experiment in low impact living. It is, in truth, a culture of its own and the truly radical thing about new cultures is that they’re caught and not taught, and they don’t care a fig about power, wealth, gender or age. Individually the choices we make don’t change the world much. But collectively? that’s a different matter altogther. Collectively we can change things if we can only believe that it’s possible.

Hi Veronica – Hi Violet

So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop.

In a ideal world- that’s to say the one we don’t actually inhabit – I would organise my botanising a bit better – but what I mostly do is start out resolved not to spend the whole walk rooting around at ground level, and then reinforce my decision by leaving behind everything I will eventually need.  Field guides – out, pocket magnifier – out, camera with ridiculously expensive macro lens – out. Mostly, then, I take my mobile phone a weatherproof notebook and a space pen that writes in the wet.  Serious field botanists are the ones that walk around with a permanent crick in their necks carrying a clipboard with the vice-county list on it and they know the plants by heart. I’m so unconfident that I could easily persuade myself that a dandelion might not really be a dandelion at all, but any one of a dozen similar looking plants.

This is a serious challenge, although I joke about it. I was in my twenties before I realized that not all dandelions were dandelions but could be cats’ ears or hawkbits; and even dandelions live such promiscuous lives that their microspecies number in hundreds. There are people out there who can sort them out, but not me. So I muddle along like all self-taught amateurs, fearful that I’ll make a complete idiot of myself by mispronouncing a name or fail to get even close to identifying a plantain properly.

I know that the proper way to do it is to gather all the information I know I’ll need but in reality I never do.  My phone photos don’t have sufficient depth of field and so the very detail I need is just out of focus and useless.  I fail to observe the shape, pattern and placing of leaves, or whether the roots are creeping, and if the stalk is square or hairy, and don’t even ask about flowers! I found a despairing note today in my journal from three years ago where the identification of a very common plant hinged on my understanding what a ‘hemi zygomorph’ might be. Aaargh.

Some families are real killers – Apiaciae, umbellifers to most of us, are stinkers and I’ve spent hours getting them wrong.  The culprit at Heligan last week was Angelica sylvestris  – wild angelica – which I can’t say I’ve ever noticed before.  But our walks took us through a very wet and marshy habitat which has a flora all of its own. All of which grumbling is a long way of saying that my resolve to list all the flowering plants we found has been frustrated by my inability to nail the second plant from the left, top row because I only had a rubbish photo.  The closest I can get is one of the forget me nots, but which one I can’t say because I didn’t get enough information. Veronicas and Violets have the same capacity to drive me mad because even with 100% hindsight there’s no substitute for plodding through the keys with a hand lens and a partner with more patience than Madame posesses. Enough! There’s a daisy and a dandelion there that I am confident I recognise and can name, except the dandelion will have to be Taraxacum agg, which is scientific for WTF?

Why am I writing this? I love every moment of it, and every foray into the ordinary everyday plants that I vaguely recognise (like most people) makes the world feel richer, deeper, more complicated, more generous and simply more beautiful.

Potatoes, however, are easier to list – I just had to walk up the rows at Heligan and write them down.

  1. Pink fir apple
  2. Shetland black
  3. Lumpers
  4. Tyecroft purple
  5. Herd laddie
  6. Ninetyfold
  7. Vitelotte noir
  8. British queen
  9. Beauty of Bute
  10. Edgecote purple
  11. Early market
  12. Snowdrop
  13. International kidney
  14. Forest gold
  15. Myatts ashleaf
  16. Lord Rosebery
  17. Royal kidney
  18. May queen
  19. Early rose
  20. Sharpes express
  21. Red Duke of York
  22. Epicure
  23. Arran pilot

On the allotment ths year we’re growing pink fir apple, Arran pilot, jazzy, red Duke of York and sarpo mira. I love the fact that these old varieties are being kept alive because we may well need their genetics in the future, but I’m grateful for the efforts of plant breeders who can increase blight resistance in a potato like sarpo mira to the point where they’re safe to grow, even in our blight ridden weather.

Later today we’ll be up at the allotment.  The potatoes are very nearly ready to ridge up for the first time.  We’re expecting warmer weather for at least a week, and every day we creep closer to the time when our tender plants won’t be ravaged by a late frost. Happy days.

If you ask me ‘why bother?’

IMG_5264Sometimes, when it’s snowing and you have to go up to the allotment to clear the nets, or when it’s pouring with rain, or so hot that even walking up there makes you sweat, it’s easy to ask that question and the answer is in the photo. If you’ve ever seen better true spinach, fat, fresh and bursting with life – in a supermarket – I’ll eat my new and beloved hat. This is the season for true spinach in the UK at least, and it’s also the season when the garden centres are rammed with people wanting to grow something, anything to make contact with that strange and powerful urge that must be encoded into our DNA. We went today to buy more seed trays and compost and I was happy to queue up ten deep at the checkout because every single customer was on to the same thing as me.  As I often used to say at live music events, if the authorities knew how much fun this was they’d tax it or close it down. If I have one criticism of garden centres it’s their eagerness to get tender plants out sooner than they really should, which must lead to many disappointments and losses for inexperienced gardeners.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the hotbed has excelled itself in spite of my own lack of experience and we’ve been eating lettuce and lovely radishes.  Elsewhere on the allotment the container potatoes seem to need earthing up every other day, and the others, planted into the soil, are beginning to pop up enough to start modestly ridging them.  Our decision to eschew any more asparagus pickings until next year has provoked a tremendous response from the plants.  The apple trees are in full blossom although the grapes caught the frost just as they did last year.  Back then, we were devastated twice – firstly because we foolishly heeded the advice of a famous TV gardener that it was OK to prune in the early spring.  It wasn’t, and the plants bled their sap copiously to the point where we feared for their survival. Trust me, autumn pruning is safer. Then the frost all but destroyed the swelling buds. Amazingly the vine threw another bunch of buds and we had a tremendous crop. So rule two for allotmenteers is – ‘never despair, plants are tougher than you’d ever imagine.” I can’t remember rule one by the way but it’s almost certainly about not giving up.

Peas, broad beans and carrots are up and the herb plots are full of energy.  We decided while we were down at Heligan that we would expand the number of mints that we grow and so we came back with four more varieties that we’ll plant apart to avoid the possibility that they’ll all do the hokey cokey and taste the same.

IMG_5265In the flat the chillies are actually in flower and need repotting into their final sized pots. This is always the conundrum.  If you sow too early you land up with a lot of tender plants that need to be indoors for a couple of weeks at least before you dare move them into the unheated greenhouse. So just as the M5 was utterly congested yesterday as we drove back from Heligan, so too is our plant supply. Every spare  surface within a yard of a window is pressed into service. We were so busy today I didn’t have time to ID the flowering wild plants I photographed, so that list – plus the list of potato varieties they’re growing at Heligan will have to wait.

But this photo, taken down near the charcoal burner at Heligan did amuse me!

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Busy bees

 

Up very early, woken by our neighbour who seems to be commuting to work from his campervan. But he wasn’t the only early riser because after owls during the night (who could resist listening?) a cockerel kicked off on the farm and I was wide awake and very much looking forward to finishing reading Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. I won’t try to sumarise the book but I would urge anyone to get hold of it and read it – it’s a brilliant introduction to some ideas that are going to dominate the next twenty years if we’re going to survive the anthropocine period. Campervans are like submarines, there’s not a lot of space, so I read sitting in bed, with the aid of a spotlight while Madame slept on.

Really good books change the way we think, and I’ve already mentioned some paradoxes that we allotmenteers need to address, such as being over-tidy, making space for insect favouring plants, making space for some species we’ve historically shunned, and worrying about the chemicals that might be hiding in the manure we apply to our plots. As I was reading all sorts of ideas were popping into my mind (which I’ll come back to later) but first I want to explain why when I took these photos of the bee wall at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I knew – without knowing why – that this was what I was going to base my next post on.  Yesterday, technology got in the way and I was frustrated by my inability to get myself online at the campsite.  But now I’m glad because it’s taken more than 24 hours to figure it out.

The official line – the one being suggested by our excellent guide – was that the straw skeps were no longer being used to keep bees because an over-curious visitor had gone behind the barrier and shoved their finger into the skep.  Cue very cross bees! But I’m perfectly sure that the real reason is more complicated, because for all their visual appeal, skeps and their use in beekeeping are the sign of an attitude towards wild creatures that we’re still battling with in the 21st century.  In fact the photos at the top of the page could easily stand as a visual representation of the content of Isabella Tree’s book. Harvesting honey from skeps has a history that probably stretches back many centuries if not millennia. But there’s a problem with it because the honey could only be harvested by killing all the bees first.  In the days of Heligan’s bee wall they would probably have been killed by burning sulphur. To deliberately kill a colony of bees today is unthinkable to most of us, but until the early 19th century it was the only show in town.  But that didn’t matter because honeybees were so plentiful that every year a new queen and colony would set up home or perhaps a swarm would be given a home by an astute beekeeper.  The history of the removable frame hive, where the honey could be removed without killing the bees could go back to the 17th century, but things started to move in 1814 the when a Ukranian beekeper called Petro Prokopovych took the first steps. In 1848, Jan Dzierzon cut slots in the sides of his hives to take removable frames, and in America in 1851 Langstroth invented the first modern hive after calculating what’s known as the ‘bee space’ the smallest gap between the frames that the bees won’t bridge.

But what really matters here is the underlying psychology of the beekeepers of the past who saw no reason why a natural resource like honey should not be treated as essentially free, to be harvested without responsibility.

In 2019 the idea of harvesting without regard to the cost and the impact on the natural world suddenly seems utterly wrong.

img_5227And that, I’m sure, is why honey is now gathered from conventional hives at Heligan while the skeps are treated as an historical record for the benefit of the tourists. Our visit to Heligan has provoked a lot of thought. It’s a brave idea to recreate a garden that last existed in its full glory over a century ago, and we love being there.  But there’s no way that modern gardeners could justify using the old chemical treatments in the name of authenticity. On the other hand, some of the potato varieties being grown are so vulnerable to extinction that they simply have to be protected by modern chemical sprays for fear of them being lost forever. There are no easy ways of doing real gardening and sticking to the high moral ground all the time.

IMG_4281Anyway, on the Potwell Inn allotment some new ideas are unfolding.  At the border of the allotment site we have a long row of Leylandii – ugly sun-stealing brutes they are, and apart from providing a perch for wood pigeons they’re hardly a wildlife hotspot.  It would mean moving a bureaucratic mountain, but why not cut them down and replant with mixed smaller trees like birch, field maple and hazel interspersed with a thick undergrowth to create a boundary hedge attractive to wildlife? Why couldn’t we link up with a goatkeeper and provide them with moveable fencing to graze off abandoned and out-of control allotments.  We used to keep a goat and believe me she would eat anything.  There used to be a wildlife corridor on the southern side of the river which took in a long derelict site before the Local Council awarded a contract to Crest Nicholson to build ludicrously expensive flats that effectively concreted over the whole area.  By way of honouring their agreement they planted some sick looking sallows and laid a park with some kind of turf with a dozen species trees. It’s exactly the same mindset as the old skeppers had. “Nature is infinitely abundant and all those bats and birds and insects will soon find somewhere else to go”.  And under the skep goes the sulphur – except this time the skep is the same size as the earth and there’s nowhere else for the wildlife to go, and now we’re the wildlife being choked to death by the sulphur.

Do I sound a bit cross? Well I am cross. But as sure as eggs is eggs, retreating to an idealized past is not an option.  Which bit of the past should we aim for? The nineteenth century? the eighteenth? the sixteenth or the tenth? The question is – “how much change in my life am I prepared to embrace in order to create a future for my grandchildren and their heirs?’ And the answer is – a great deal!

Sadly, you may think, there’s yet another list of wildflowers brewing at the back of my mind. If we don’t know what we’ve got we’ll never notice that we’ve lost it.

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