Bit of a breakthrough on the sourdough. Can it really be time to reset the propagator?

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I gave the bread 8 hours to mature before I cut it this morning. I was looking for a better structure and a thinner crust and I think I achieved the first aim and I’m on my way to achieving the second, so I thought I’d better make a note of what I did because I’m bound to forget. There are two principal changes. Firstly I diluted the strong flour by substituting 25% organic white soft flour. This was an idea that came from the Shipton Mill website which says that (home) bakers struggle to achieve a good result with because apparently most strong bread flours are all a bit too strong, which seems to suit industrial bakeries but makes such a strong dough that it can’t really expand into the big open textures we all like. The 25% figure was a pure guess and it would be worth experimenting around that percentage and maybe also trying different flours. I addressed the issue of tough crust by giving the loaf a 15 min blast at 220C with maximum steam and then turning it down to 180C (opening the door for a moment to let some of the heat out), for a further 15 minutes and then finishing with five minutes with the oven turned off and the door ajar by a couple of inches. The crust is definitely thinner – still crisp, but not tooth-breaking hard. I think I must have been cooking the loaves too hot. On occasions with wholemeal loaves I’ve had brick hard crust but undercooked crumb at the centre.

65634f2e9f7941a24b0c586094e9f77aMeanwhile the propagator has been brought back into the kitchen and filled with coir pellets sown with winter lettuce, chard and spinach. The coir pellets have been a great success and have enabled us to avoid peat based sowing composts. They’re less messy and even beetroot seems to develop naturally from them. My only misgiving is the material used for the fine netting that surrounds them – is it biodegradable or are we in danger of loading yet more plastic into the earth. A bit of research on the internet suggests that the peat industry is sponsoring a fightback through so-called independent websites, suggesting that the netting surrounding Jiffy 7 pellets doesn’t degrade. There’s a lot of confusion about degradability in any case. The ‘degradable’ bin liners we all use don’t degrade in normal domestic compost heaps but only in commercial high temperature industrial composters and so the many that I’ve used in our heap seem undiminished even when the heap reaches 40C. It’s a fraud on the gullible who hope to save the world by buying something different and the manufacturers are getting away with it. Then there’s a distinction between biodegradable and photo degradable plastics. If the Jiffy 7 netting is only photodegradable it’s never going to decompose while it’s under the soil surface. Coir pellets only need to to be contained until the seedlings are planted out – so maybe five or six weeks maximum – and then they can biodegrade as quickly as possible. Don’t we have any suitable materials to to this? and could we not use a form of woven cotton to achieve the end we all want. The problem I suspect is that the highly compressed pellet (light, robust and cheap to transport} doubles or trebles in size when it’s soaked prior to sowing and so the coating fabric needs to be able to expand accordingly. Some form of extra fine cotton crepe or sheeps’ wool might do it but would probably need developing. As ever it’s cheaper to use weasel words on the packet than to do the research and development. I think this is calling for an experiment. It would cost more than a penny to bury a few pellets and to expose some more to sunlight and weather, and I could find out for myself.

Later we decided not to go to the allotment but to go for a walk along the canal. It was a great decision and we both enjoyed it enormously, especially when the skies cleared a bit and the sun came out just as we came to the refreshment hut above Bath Deep Lock. So we walked up to Sidney Gardens and back along Great Pulteney Steet.

Then home and I made a salad of mango, smoked chicken and a thai style dressing on our own salad leaves. I chucked a few cooked salad potatoes in underneath for a bit of padding but there was ample for both of us. I even managed to use one of the Apache chillies without making th whole thing too fiery.

 

How hard can it be to make dill pickles?

2018-07-02 20.28.42The cucumbers did amazingly well this year. Last year we planted them amongst the tomatoes and they got swamped.  I think we had a very few and so the question of preserving them never came up.  But this year we ran the propagator and grew nearly everything from seed, under lights in the kitchen. For several months the whole flat looked like an overfurnished greenhouse but it resulted in many more young plants than we’ve ever grown before. In the end we gave many of them away but we still planted out half a dozen plants and they generated a surplus that just cried out to be preserved in some way. Continue reading “How hard can it be to make dill pickles?”

Who knew all that about worms?

2016-04-14 12.08.39Tuesday 18th September 2018 – Dr Frank AshwoodEarthworms

Earthworms are recognised ecosystem engineers, proving invaluable services to humanity and transforming and improving the soil habitat for other organisms. Most naturalists are aware of their fundamental ecological importance, but few have detailed knowledge of any of our 30 or so native British species. Frank’s PhD was entitled ‘Woodland Restoration on Landfill Sites: Earthworm Activity and Ecosystem Service Provision’. He is a soil ecologist working within Forest Research’s soil sustainability research group. Here Frank will describe earthworms’ behind-the-scenes work, which underlies the productivity and diversity of the natural systems we see every day.

Brilliant  talk last night at the first Bath Nats indoor meeting of the season. Who knew, for instance, how many different species there are, or how to tell the head from the tail and even how mature they might be? Continue reading “Who knew all that about worms?”

Christmas incoming

2018-08-24 14.05.56Date: 16 August 2018 at 19:41:38 BST
Weather: 16°C Mostly Sunny

Suddenly it’s nearly autumn and the kitchen is calling to me.Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. Continue reading “Christmas incoming”

Suddenly – no, slowly, a feeling of contentment.

 

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Joy does suddenly, grabs you by the throat and shakes you. Depression lives like a beggar on your threshold so you have to step over it whatever you do; but contentment steals over you slowly so that the realisation dawns that you’ve actually been there some time. Continue reading “Suddenly – no, slowly, a feeling of contentment.”

Suddenly it’s nearly autumn and the kitchen is calling to me.

Bath, England, United Kingdom Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 7:41 pm BST 16°C Mostly Sunny

b9974c3390f2d9db32521928a836e7c6Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. In the spring, there are days of hope as the sun breaks through and then nights of frost that remind you that winter’s not done with yet, and in late summer my mind resonates with the shrinking hours of daylight and applies itself, like a squirrel, to preparing for the winter. It’s a favourite season and yet the harvest touches my melancholic soul every year by modulating from the major to the minor key. Jams, pickles and preserves become the centre of focus and I’m drawn to the kitchen. The fruits and vegetables that are coming off the allotment each day are almost overwhelming in their richness and numbers and finding ways of cooking or keeping them becomes an obsession. But there are only two of us and my deepest atavistic urges are to feed a family of five, or eight or ten. Today I thought of Christmas for the first time even though we’ve not finished sowing for autumn. It’s raining as I write this, and we’ve had plenty of rain in the last week. We longed for rain yet when it arrives like the Seventh Cavalry to rescue the besieged vegetables I think that somehow, if we could have just one more glorious day, I’d find the energy to go on watering. Never satisfied! I can hear my mother saying it.

In the Guardian this morning there was a piece about the way our culture is rapidly losing its cooking skills. The writer cited Jane Grigson’s “English Cooking” and wrote that it doesn’t contain any recipe or instruction for making pastry because she didn’t think it worthwhile wasting print on something so well understood it needed no explanation. The proofs of the article apparently came back with innumerable queries and questions from young subeditors who had no idea of the basic skills. Our three sons are all good cooks and two of them are professional chefs, but their various partners over the years have seemed suspicious of the very idea of cooking from scratch – as if it were a sign of domestic servitude.

In another piece yesterday George Monbiot explored the reasons behind the epidemic of obesity and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in our overstretched, overstressed lives, the food culture that embodied so much more than food has been systematically eroded – quite deliberately – by the food processing industry, and the results are as depressing as the results of any other kind of addiction. We have simply moved from one form of servitude to another, and the much cited ever increasing life expectancy has turned out to be yet another fraud. We’re sadder and sicker and lonelier than ever.

 

On the radio yesterday there was a piece on a new computer game craze, discussing whether it was a good or a bad thing for children. By all accounts it’s borderline addictive with children forsaking almost anything else including face-to-face contact with other children in order to play for hours. As a retired parent I don’t have much trouble deciding that children spending hours slaughtering even virtual people is a bad idea. One young woman working in the billion pound industry even ventured that to deny your children access to these games would ruin their carer prospects. Well, in Mandy Rice Davis’ phrase, she would say that wouldn’t she.

Do all these things tie in together? Is it just the usual self indulgent longing for the past that always afflicts old people like me? I can’t help thinking that these disappearing cultural values and their associated skills are as important as they ever were, and somehow we need to hold on to them for the future when they will be needed by another generation.

 

Today we cleared half of the sweetcorn away and I prepped the second cold frame with SylvaGrow as planned. But I’m getting cold feet about sowing carrots there as we’re so far behind and I really can’t see them coming to anything. It would be more sensible to postpone the experiment and fill the frames with stuff we really know we can grow, some spring onions for instance and winter lettuce. We’ve grown so many lettuce and salad leaves this year but the supply we’ve created outstrips our appetite so much it feels wasteful. I’m not that keen on green salad leaves and frankly some of them taste bitter. So that’s a matter for further discussion. But we picked lovely beetroot grown in coir pellets and simply planted in. I think we can call that experiment a complete success, We also picked runner beans, radishes and cucumbers, and had an improvised tasting of the chillies. The apache chillies are very hot indeed, and the pearls quite tasty and mild. The Jalapeño I picked wasn’t really ripe enough to do justice to its eventual flavour and heat.

We’ve reached the tipping point in the year when at last we’re clearing ground faster than we can plant it. Charles Dowding’s book on winter veg arrived today and it’s clear we’ve missed the boat on quite a number of opportunities. Next season we’ll do it better. In the evening I cooked a flan with the calbrese we picked yesterday. The plants are doing well and will give us some good meals. We had shopped for wholemeal flour to make pastry and I made some tonight. It’s very hard going and I almost abandoned it while I was rolling it out as it splits so easily and has next to no plasticity, like working with porcelain or perhaps heavily grogged crank mixture. But with a bit of cursing, persistence and some running repairs glued in with egg white it all came together in the end and tasted delicious.

 

But the last word on the day belongs to the Sweet Cicily which Stella discovered growing once again. For such a frail plant with a history of abuse and neglect, not to mention being felled twice by slugs, it just keeps coming back. Like Robert Bruce’s spider it never gives up – an inspiring end to a slightly melancholic day.

 

On ecstacy and getting out (of it) more

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5th February 2018

It snowed here in Lleyn last night. It doesn’t usually snow in this maritime climate, it usually waits for another ten miles until it hits the mountains and falls there, but last night it snowed a bit and the surrounding hills were dusted with white when we woke up.

But the thought that woke with me was a nebulous sense of vulnerability associated with growing old and, from there in one of those strange leaps that the mind makes, to writers who share their everyday lives with us whether we like it or not, and from there to the legions on Facebook and other social media. Why is it so important to share everything? Or to include myself among the guilty, why do we do it?

Maybe my waking sense of vulnerability makes a starting point. Possibly it was the news that A has been ill with repeated UTI’s and in bed for a fortnight. Perhaps it was the story of a heroin addict son (written by his father) that we talked about before we went to sleep: these things have a habit of resurfacing in some way. The unexpected idea that, in a sense, everyone suffers from ‘locked in syndrome’ to a degree, came into my mind as I wondered what this strange waking mood was all about. Stripped down to the most basic level isn’tcropped-img_33431.jpg being human necessarily being lonely? -and what was that lovely quote from Chekov? – “If you’re afraid of loneliness don’t marry!” . It sounds harsh but it’s the unpalatable truth we rarely want to address. The starting point for our humanity is a terrible aching isolation. Love, laughter, joy and ecstacy are acts of defiance; and all art – painting, drawing, writing – are a declaration of war. Like Jacob at the Jabbok Brook, we wrestle with the angel who refuses a blessing and we always emerge from the encounter more or less damaged. Art dares to grasp the ephemeral and render it. By painting his rotting leaf in its glorious colours I have snatched it from the same oblivion that awaits me. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” That’s it Dylan Thomas – although the fuse metaphor always seems a bit contrived. “If only you could bottle it” say the emotionally illiterate who can’t be arsed to join the resistance.

And so ecstacy – being out of oneself – is the release from that primordial isolation. The stupidity of trying to describe the furniture in the afterlife and to write the seating plan for the heavenly banquet is precisely that in order to materialise it you’d have to import the very thing it was designed to replace. If I’d had five lovers I would presumably feel five times as lonely in the heavenly kingdom. Thanks, but I’ll take oblivion.

But let’s, for a moment, take the side of the ‘bottlers’ who may have a point. We’ve all had moments that we’d love to be able to hold on to. This journal, for instance, is a way of holding on to the ephemeral that works for me. I’m not offering it up as any kind of exemplar for others to follow, in fact I’m its only reader. But what would it add if I published it? It might add a degree of self censorship, although that always exists in some form. Please meet my superego, my own personal policeman who seems never to go off duty. I think its principal benefit to me would be the assurance that I’m alive. My little protest against isolation and loneliness is no longer the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown into the raging sea; it’s being heard, it’s being read by six people? by a million people? Does this help me to feel less lonely? Does it give me a friendly hug in a friendless world? Well yes and no. The friends and the hugs are virtual, they’re not real and when I turn my phone off they’re not there any more. The ‘likes’ are not the unconditional ones of sweat and blood relationships, but electronic gestures.

And so I wonder whether there’s a sense in which blogging is the bastard child of ecstacy. That ecstacy is deformed from the sense of being lifted out of oneself, of mysteriously losing oneself as we do when we truly love someone, to the entirely banal sense of sharing what pleases us and makes us feel good. Getting (it) out of oneself, for good or ill, like a form of mental cleansing, thoughts, feelings and emotions – especially when it’s hatred, fear and anger – can be swept into the app and flung into space, and the reward is a handful of emoticons and ticks that can reassure us for an instant that we’re not dead, not forgotten, not alone. I’ve seen it described as a form of narcissism but that’s just a little off target. Yes there are full-on narcissists who waste their time gazing at themselves in a mirror and enjoying it but most of us who have narcissistic tendencies (that’s everyone else, I think) are far more sad and desperate than we are self-satisfied.A few years ago ecstacy stopped being a Greek term and became a drug you could take to feel ‘loved up’ among a bunch of strangers at a club. That’s almost as sad as being alive.

2018-02-06 14.20.29It’s too cold and wet to get out today so apart from going to Nefyn to get some milk I’ve spend all day writing or thinking. From time to time we’re getting intense flurries of sleet and snow and as I was typing I noticed these fine mammatus clouds outside the window. They’re very odd and striking. Beyond them the sea is paynes grey and disturbed. By about 3.00pm patches of blue sky had begun to appear and although the wind is still a fierce and bitterly cold north westerly gale, and where the birds emptied the feeders yesterday, today they spent much of the time sheltering and periodically appearing as small flocks of one species or another.

Tomorrow we must pack up and go home, our drawing pads are untouched. Perhaps next time, we say, and next time there may be flowers or more likely leaves on the blackthorns that edge the little valley that runs down to the sea. Their dense thickets of branches and fierce thorns would be a worthy challenge for an artist with the necessary skills. Deeper down there are clouds of willows whose thin twigs reach upwards towards the light and, at this time of year take on a reddish hue. If I could be bothered to fight my way down there I would find them in bud, I don’t doubt.

2018-02-06 16.12.58Picking up my earlier thread, the other constant factor in our humanity is change. We age, and for years we ignore it or perhaps welcome the changes. We count it as maturity in our powerful days and then we cling to wisdom as the reward for our energy until we notice that our skin and sinews are less resilient than they once were. I once had a dream about being followed by two elephants. i woud occasionally catch sight of them, often a street away. I talked about it to Robin [my psychoanalytic psychotherapist] and he said “I’m a Freudian. They’re sex and death.”

And the Heraclitian theme of endless irrevocable change is what motivates and challenges a gardener too. I didn’t mention gardening as a means of challenging the loneliness, but I should have . Gardening and the love of the natural world teach us how to snatch something from the jaws of the monster. When we sow seeds we raise a finger of defiance to the forces of decay. We think, but never articulate the thought, that we shall live to reap the harvest. And the study of nature what’s that? My endless lists are my way of trying to nail down what’s there, just for a moment. Plants in flower on 2nd August 2017? I identified my first Vipers Bugloss on the cliff at Tenby that day and later I wrote about feeling an almost godlike sense of engagement in naming things.

I have a pen, designed for astronauts, that will write in any weather, upside down, on wet paper and I have notebooks that I can write in under the same conditions. They’re very precious and contain the record of the things I noticed that day. They’re not comprehensive – how could they be? – and to a more accomplished botanist or birder than me they would probably seem rather commonplace. Yesterday I watched sparrows and chaffinches – so what? – well because I really did see them and consequently they were noticed, cared about, recorded. Is that the primordial need that lies at the heart of our humanity? Our need to be noticed, cared about and even recorded?

And isn’t it the case that we are betrayed by a culture that only values the rare and the extreme at the expense of the ordinary? We surrendered the complex metaphor concerning God that had taken thousands of years to perfect and substituted  Facebook, Instagram and the TV talent show. No winners, all losers. We each go back at night to our lonely one-room conciousnesses aware that there’s everything to do tomorrow. So by 4.00pm we were feeling a bit housbound and we drove to Porth Dinllaen for a walk along the beach but we were thwarted by a hailstorm that we could see sweeping across the bay towards us. There was a hopeful patch of blue behind Trefor cliffs but soon after we got back from our aborted walk the sleet was coming past the house sideways.2018-02-06 16.13.36