One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market – http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk – and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available. Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins. Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?
In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go. Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them. Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price. How can that be right? In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.
The little boy on the right is me, and it’s my sister who’s got her hand in the feed bucket. The photo was taken probably 67 years ago on my Grandfather’s smallholding in Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. In those days there were red squirrels in the woods behind, and now it’s an industrial estate. But this isn’t a lament for lost idylls, I’m making a much bolder claim. TPC was a carpenter from generations of carpenters who had assimilated what’s now called ‘generic’ building into their bones. He retired three times, his last job was as foreman on a restoration project working on medieval buildings in Bristol. He wasn’t an historian, he just knew how timber frames worked in the days when the knowledge was all-but lost, and he was 70 years old, younger than me now, but not that much.
A few months back I was laying the foundations for the greenhouse on the allotment and as I was trowelling sand between the flags I tapped the edge of the trowel twice on the slab . It was an instinctive gesture that went off like a fuse, deep in my memory, because I knew that I had learned that simple and completely unnecessary gesture from him. And I realized too that I had learned everything I was doing that morning from my grandfather and my father. That memory of helping my grandfather to feed the hens, too, is one of the threads from which the Potwell Inn is constructed.
Then yesterday I was working on the allotment when two of the grandchildren turned up and I knew that there was a duty inscribed in my memory that I needed to carry out. Here it is: the ride in the wheelbarrow – deeply subversive it turns out and rather like laying down wine for the future.
“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”
Madame has pointed out that there is a major historical error at the Potwell Inn, inasmuch as there are no pickled eggs lurking darkly at the back of the bar – and therefore she is not able to indulge her favourite passion for consuming them, lurking like reproachful sheep’s eyes, at the bottom of a packet of crisps. I pointed out that the Inn is trying to move with the 20th century and may well introduce “Chicken in a Basket” at some point, and in any case Alfred Polly suffered terribly with indigestion and so pickled eggs were not his ‘thing’ as it were. Furthermore I could find no reference to them anywhere in the novel.
However a happy landlady is a happy pub, and so I have bowed to her pressure and produced a jar for her exclusive use. We always treasure our customer feedback. I must clean behind the cooker at some point!
I think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen. I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on. Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days. This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.
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They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.
You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate. We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food. We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.
Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides. TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment. Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.
One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize. It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements. Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.
So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.
So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects. But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.
I’d like to pay tribute to the absolute pleasures of the ordinary – in fact I think it deserves to be capitalised. The Ordinary stands for something very special. It’s our ‘daily bread’, the epiousios, the around and about us things that turn life from drudgery to joy.
Madame and I never had any money, never owned any property and, for the majority of our working lives have never done anything glamorous, well paid, or even full-time. Even the Potwell Inn is borrowed from a book! We’ve been supported by many kind and generous people who loaned us cars and cottages so that we could have holidays we could never otherwise have afforded. There are days like today when I feel we’ve lived richer lives than we could ever dream of when we were young. I’m not sure I could explain the visceral pleasure of spooning out home-made piccalilli, or seeing the table set for breakfast with three sorts of jam and marmalade, all tasting much better than the stuff you can buy, and all costing a fraction of the price. For goodness sake, it’s even enjoyable making it!
But I need to explain the capitalisation of the word ‘Ordinary’ because in this case I want to preserve a number of meanings in one term. The first two meanings come from the Christian church. The Ordinary, normally the bishop, is the person of ultimate authority in the diocese. It carries the sense that the ‘ordinary doesn’t just happen, it has to be nurtured.
Then there’s the sense of ‘ordinary time’ which, in the church calendar, means all the weeks that aren’t parts of special seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. Although it looks as if those seasons cover the bulk of the year, they only include about half the Sundays, from memory, so ordinary time doesn’t mean ordinary in the sense of ‘not worth bothering about’, but the bits of the year that are under the control of the Ordinary. What this complex idea offers is the sense that the administration of day-to-day, moment-to-moment ordinary life commands attention and respect.
A second layer of meaning comes from Ordinary Mind Zen Buddhism and the words that follow were spoken by Dizang:
You come here and use words like ‘tranquillity,’ ‘reality,’ ‘perfection,’ or ‘constancy.’ Worthy practitioners! What is this that you call ‘tranquil’ or ‘real?’ What is it that’s ‘perfect’ or ‘constant?’… Sounds and forms assault us every moment. Do you directly face them or not? If you face them directly then your diamond-solid concept of self will melt away. How can this be? Because these sounds penetrate your ears and these forms pierce your eyes, you are overwhelmed by conditions. You are killed by delusion. There’s not enough room inside of you for all of these sounds and forms.
‘Perfection.’ ‘Constancy.’ ‘Tranquillity.’ ‘Reality.’ Who talks like this? Normal people in the village don’t talk like this. It’s just some old sages that talk this way and a few of their wicked disciples that spread it around!
The words are quoted by Andy Ferguson in a webpage called tricycle.org, and he says this :
The “sublime gate” of signlessness is not at all empty of meaning. Traditionally, taking Zen’s signless path leads first to perceiving, then seeing through, reincarnation, the “wheel of birth and death.” What is quite profound is then inextricable from what is entirely ordinary. It is passages about the “ordinary,” where the difference between sacred and mundane is forgotten, that Zen literature takes on its peculiar flavor.
So Ordinary Mind is far from ordinary. Sacred and mundane are inextricable from one another. Stamp and circumponce are not needed, although the capitals are needed to remind us to slow down and pay attention.
A third thread is simply that ordinary is good. We’ve become so addicted to the exceptional, the sensational, the ‘out of the ordinary’, that we’ve lost the real treasure that lies everywhere at hand. I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s lovely book on weeds which perfectly expresses the wonder of the riches we disdain to pay attention to. We’ve become spiritually and emotionally stunted, blundering around the word easing our pain with synthetic and powerful experiences of which we have no ownership.
Ordinary is another way of expressing the much misunderstood virtue of humility. As William Blake expressed it – “the world in a grain of sand”.
Auguries of Innocence
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour …….
I could as easily cite John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
So there it is. The Ordinary is a spiritual concept, expressed – in this case – by a few bottles of home made elderflower cordial that we bottled one morning, and some bread baked overnight. After a long day on the allotment, when we leave in the evening and turn back to look at it we’re filled with joy and amazement, and often overwhelmed by that sense of grace that flows from the Ordinary.
OK so it’s not the prettiest sight, a very dirty hand, but I’ve come to see that sometimes the best therapy for November is getting out on the ground. I remember one of my spiritual directors once saying to me (at about this time of year) “there’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right” and today, after a very grey day yesterday, that’s exactly what did the trick.
Yesterday I didn’t post because we spent the day with my old friend Big Al, and his wife. I’ve known them both for 28 years. Al was the very first person I met when I took on my first parish. I was sent to placate him one night because the Acting Head of the school in which I’d automatically become Chair of Governors, had made a disastrously bad decision. I think I was thrown over the wall to take the flack. The monstrous parent I was sent to sort out had, I quickly realized, got a real case. We got along famously from that moment and we’ve shared some great adventures together. It was Al who took me to Compiegne where the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918. We stood quietly immersed in our own thoughts in front of the railway carriage deep in the woods where the war ended. We were delivering some furniture to a place in Belgium, and apart from having the scary experience of driving the Green Goddess, a borrowed veg lorry, around the Periferique in Paris, we managed to visit as many 1st World War cemeteries as he could fit in. In Arras I got really ill and Al looked after me, calling the doctor and dealing with Madame (basically by not telling her). We stood at Vimy Ridge together in awe at the monstrous craters and the sheer number of dead. He’s traced and visited every single war grave of every soldier who came from the parish and died in action. I’m proud to call him a friend.
With Armistice Day on Sunday (it’s all been on my mind this week), I had a curious experience in Bath a couple of days ago as I walked past the Post Office into Green Street. I turned the corner and I suddenly felt the presence of children there- but not there – if that’s not too strange. They seemed to be sad, fearful, suffering souls asking me to help them or perhaps just to remember them. It was such a powerful experience I had to struggle to deal with it. But it’s bearing down on me to say that just remembering alone isn’t enough if it doesn’t change our behaviour. Why are we celebrating the dead of 100 years ago when we’re still manufacturing and selling weapons that we know are being used to kill and maim civilians and above all children? Are the employment statistics so important that they’re worth killing children for? That’s why it was a grey day yesterday.
So I’ve said it and it feels good. Madame is very sensitive to my melancholic states and she knows what’s good for me. Yesterday I coped by cooking for Al and Helen. I made the very last fresh tomato soup of the year as the rotting remains of the tomatoes damaged by the recent frost went on to the compost heap. It was a recipe from the Leith Vegetable Bible, and we were really delighted with it. Making veg stock is such a good way of using up the inevitable scraps from cooking. I think I rate this new addition to the library – two recipes and two successes.
This morning, with a bit of prompting from Senior Management we went up and spent the day at the allotment once I’d made some bread, labelled all the blackcurrant cordial, whizzed up the chilli sauce and labelled the blackcurrant jam. I’m very adept at displacement activity. Interestingly, this years is so much more flavourful than the last year’s batch we just finished – at least according to my breakfast slice of toast, spread with samples of both. The chilli sauce is so fragrant I could eat it by the spoonful. Say what you will, home produced food tastes just so much better.
So now we’ve planted all the alliums – 5 sorts of garlic, 2 of shallots, onion sets, and prepped the spring bed for leeks. We’ve planted broad beans ( Aquadulce Claudia) and overwintering peas (Douce Provence) and last of all, as it was getting dark, I grease -banded all the trees. What a filthy job! It took 3 washes of surgical spirit to break down the sticky coating on my hands. But the allotment looks great and I felt a whole lot better. It’s a good reason for prescribing gardening as a treatment for modern life. Cheap, drug free and free exercise as well. Oh and the root veg are doing so well.
So today turned out to be something of a day of reckoning in the Potwell Inn pantry, largely on account of the large batch of ragu I cooked yesterday. It had to be frozen in individual batches today, but our little freezer was stuffed to capacity – not least with 12lbs blackcurrants that went in there when we were too busy to do anything with them. Fridges and freezers can very easily become the slow -food equivalent of the dustbin if you’re not ruthless, and I’m not nearly ruthless enough.
But that brought around another challenge; what should we do with the defrosting blackberries? Easy-peasy we thought, we’ll make some cordial and some jam. The elderflower cordial we made in the summer is beginning to run low and in any case the flavour diminishes the longer it’s in a bottle. Already it’s a shadow of the glorious scent of early summer that it possessed when we made it. So what better than blackcurrant cordial for the winter, all that vitamin C to fight off colds. But then that left six pounds to make jam with, and when I counted our empty jam jars there were just six and I needed at least twice that. The easy thing to do would be to go and buy some more, but I knew there were quite a number of full jars of jams and chutneys being stored in the garage, some of them quite old. Cue head torch and a stumble around in the chaos of a garage repurposed as a dump for yet more things we don’t quite know what to do with since we moved here 3 years ago. I found 20 jars of various substances some without labels, some with the contents shrunk by 25% and some whose once pristine lids were spotted with rust. Initially, when I got them up 3 flights of stairs to the flat I opened each one and tasted it. Some were flat-out gone, in some the sugar had granulated out leaving crunchy bits and all of them were, like the elderflower cordial, diminished in flavour. In the end I spooned all the contents into the bin and shoved them into the dishwasher to be cleaned and sterilized. Sadly one of the more recent casualties was some 2016 marmalade which we’ve run out of altogether so we can’t make any more until the Seville oranges come in January. The most venerable was a jar of 2009 jam that was still edible but devoid of any identifying taste. It was supposed to be gooseberry.
This is a constant problem for most of us in this situation.We wouldn’t be gardeners at all if we didn’t want to eat the things we grow, but the fruit grows generously every year and it’s all too easy to try to use every bit of it up. Freezers and jam making cost money and in truth it would be much better to give the surplus away to someone who can use it. The same kind of argument goes for many of the other things we grow, it all comes in at once and we go into surplus in a matter of a few days. This is all the more reason for researching the heritage varieties in favour of the F1 hybrids. What’s the point of having a huge crop all at once when what you need is to have it spread out so you can eat fresh every day for a few weeks. Today our thriftiness began to feel more like selfishness; twenty pots of jam and chutney that could have fed someone else if we hadn’t instinctively hoarded them again a rainy day that never came. Who’d have thought that making a batch of ragu could expose a moral dilemma?
You know those days when you wake up, look out of the window and you think November. I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” for the first time more years ago than I care to remember – it’s in front of me now as I write this. Somewhere in the book he wrote that, of all the jobs in the pottery, filling in the tax return was the one that cost him most sleep. Mercifully I no longer have to fill them in, but today I had to complete some unintelligible forms to claim back a small amount of money that was owed to me. Somehow the (relatively) simple action of searching for forms and letters last seen more than a decade ago saps the energy in a terrible way.
There were jobs on the allotment that needed to be done, but it was no use; I just had to get down to it. Of course in the event it wasn’t nearly so hard as I’d feared and by lunchtime the documents were on their way but the Black Dog lingered on. Cooking always seems to do the trick, so we did some shopping and I knuckled down to batch-cook 3.5 Kg of ragu, prepping 3Kg of blackcurrants ready to make cordial, and toad in the hole for supper – does that translate into North American, I wonder? Basically it’s sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter. That, plus some spiced red cabbage and left-over gravy, made a meal to lift the soul.
Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed. Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’. Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can. So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses? I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.
But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:
Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.
That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner. So no thanks. Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.
Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine. One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.
So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible. Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly. So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.
It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?” I’ll have to think about that one.
Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg. The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view. And if that all sounds bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!
Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008
“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.
The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.
So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.
Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.
OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.
Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.
The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’
What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!
Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.
Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.
The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).
So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.