How to turn anger into food

Last night turned into a bit of a lost cause, I’m afraid. I was angry at the unfolding election results, the people in the flat upstairs had their television turned up loud so I couldn’t get away from the mindless excitement of the commentators who seemed emotionally detached from the harm being caused, because they had framed the election as a heavyweight boxing match. So I got up and made bread – an everyday sourdough and some soft rolls for the morning.

I can’t sleep when I’m angry and one strategy is to get dressed and wander the streets – it was easy in our previous place, but much dodgier here – the burger bar at the back is open until 3.00am and has more than its share of angry confrontations. The other is to cook, which in many ways is more successful because it’s active and there’s always something positive at the end. So a sourdough loaf proving on the stove and ten morning rolls represented the positive transformation of venom into breakfast – an almost alchemical feat which left me a lot calmer.

But we were both very tired and needed some fresh air in the morning and so we drove over Dyrham Park for a walk around the boundary. The wind was roaring in from the west but it felt as if it had come straight off the Russian steppes. Within minutes we were shriven with the cold and we walked quickly to keep warm. A large flock of roe deer kept a wary eye on us as we walked the ridge in the full force of the wind but then we dropped down into the more sheltered valley and thereafter we had the wind in our backs. An occasional breach in the clouds allowed the sun to drench the bare beech trees in intense light , illuminating this year’s new wood and next year’s buds as a reddish brown halo around them. Underfoot many of the perennials were pushing out rosettes of leaves – winter is anything but static. Overhead the rooks and crows were making the most of the wind, tumbling down like black leaves and rising again in the wind, playing,  like the buzzard cruising the fields below. Immediately overhead two gliders found the updraught and circled in complete silence. There were a few other walkers around but apart from a brief greeting there was no will to stand and talk. Yesterday’s rain had drenched the ground and there were deep puddles to be negotiated.

The walk did its own healing and we drove home in a reflective mood.  I’d been fascinated by the fallen tree and its surprisingly shallow and small root ball.  The park seems to have a policy of leaving a good deal of dead timber lying around – which must be a boon to the invertebrates.  Later the boys phoned, one by one, having gone through exactly the same emotional journey as we had.  Our teacher son said that these days when angry parents ask why their child is being taught by a supply teacher he replies – “didn’t you know there’s been a recruitment crisis in schools for the past ten years?” But these middle class parents often have no contact with the real world.  They’re young and fit and well paid and so they never come into contact with the world of frozen benefits and deprivation and don’t yet need social care or the NHS. It’s a failure of the imagination compounded with complacency that provides ideological cover for the government. What people don’t seem to fully appreciate is that the air we breathe and the water we drink; the food and the environmental matrix of our wellbeing is not defined by wealth and social class it’s something we all depend upon and which should bind us together in concern.

What can we do?  Well it’s nothing like sufficient, but paying attention to our own use of the earth is a vital first step towards changing perspectives. Just putting a sign over the taps marked “To the earth” would be a salutary reminder that the chemicals we dump down the sink will be back in our drinking water before very long. So paying attention to our own lifestyle, doing a bit of volunteering for a charity and not instinctively interpreting our neighbour’s new six litre pickup truck as a classy move would all make a contribution.  When winter comes and the future looks bleak, it’s best to wrap up warm, keep busy and look for the signs of spring – because the personal really is political.

 

More tea Vicar?

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So yesterday, being rather wet, was a day for writing and catching up with friends, and that meant plentiful quantities of tea and coffee.  I’ve always loved tea – black tea, builders tea – the stronger the better. The worst cup I ever drank was in the course of a visit when I was offered a cup from an aluminium pot – still boiling on the stove after what could have been hours. On being asked if I wanted milk and sugar I was offered a can of condensed sweetened milk with a half submerged teaspoon in it. I swear my teeth were chattering by the time I finished it –  but I did finish it.

I once counted how many cups I was drinking in a day and it was more than I dare confess, but it never seemed to have any adverse effects and I would happily drink a mug of tea at bedtime and still sleep well. Actually that last sentence should be qualified to say that I didn’t actually sleep any worse than usual. Restless, dream infested nights were my metier as Madame will testify. When it became possible to make decent coffee at home I started drinking espressos in the intervals between mugs of tea – and made it much worse by buying a huge teapot – big enough for an extended family party – and emptying it slowly as the brew became ever stronger. Yesterday I discovered that my caffeine consumption might be a bit of a problem ….

First off there were the usual 2 mugs in bed, followed by a double espresso while I did a bit of reading. Then I started on the green tea which (I thought) was very low in caffeine.  Not, however, when it’s been steeping for half an hour. More black tea. Off then to meet up with friends at Waterstones (2 more strong coffees) and then back home (2 more mugs of builders’).

Then I had a dizzy turn.  I’m very used to dizzy turns – hah!

Ever …….so …….. slowly …… the notion began to seep into my stupid mind that my AF attacks could be linked to something more than stress – and goodness knows it’s been stressful watching our political system implode for the last three years. But could it also my ridiculous caffeine consumption? and so I quickly drank three glasses of water and the weird feeling subsided.    Not evidence I agree, but a sledgehammer of a hint.

Blogging usually means putting your best foot forwards and making your life look like a paradise of virtue, uninterrupted bliss and an example for all to follow. Not the Potwell Inn!  I’m happy to share the screw-ups as well as the successes, because human flourishing has to take place in the weather of events, misunderstandings, resistances and sheer doltish stupidity. I made a small start this morning with just one mug of builders’ tea and then spreading single small cups of green tea out for the rest of the morning. After about 5.00pm I’ll turn to chamomile tea, and I’m giving up the espressos for a while just to see what happens. The problem is that it’s so easy to normalize our everyday behaviour that we (I) don’t ask the right questions and, ‘though we might not be making ourselves exactly ill, we push ourselves into that grey area between thriving and ‘just doing OK’. 

We were supposed to be camping in the Forest of Dean for a couple of nights, returning today – but the weather has been so relentlessly cold and wet we cried off. Earlier today we went down to the polling station to vote.  There were crowds of young people passing through – which left us hopeful for the results tomorrow. I long to tell the crooked rose that our age is no longer bent by the wintry fever of austerity.

Fine words butter no parsnips

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These were grown on a piece of the allotment that the previous tenant said nothing could be grown on and demonstrates two points at once.  Firstly, there’s no saying what a piece of ground will grow once you’ve removed not just one, but two layers of carpet and weed control mat separated  by a four inch layer of soil and weed roots; and secondly that the old tale that parsnips fork when they’re grown in recently manured ground may be a bit more complicated than it seems.  There’s some evidence, apparently, that parsnips and other roots fork as a result of eelworm infestation, so it may be that the forking eelworms (dare I say?) like manure. Who can tell?  This ground was absolutely inundated with well-rotted horse manure  after we discovered what the problem was, and then uncovered and removed it- well, sort of rolled up!.

So that’s the parsnips almost dealt with except to say that roasted with carrots, one of our ukichi kuri squashes and some of our potatoes and rainbow chard made the most lovely treat. The difference in quality and flavour between shop bought veg and our own is beyond dispute.

So that leaves butter and fine words.  A couple of days ago I ran out of olive oil when I was baking, so I substituted the same weight of butter in my everyday sourdough and it worked perfectly well.  However there’s a difference in the texture that I can’t quite put my finger on, so I probably won’t do it again unless I run out of oil.

And finally, fine words. LIke all bloggers I pay attention to the stats, and like everyone else I love it when they go up and I wonder what I’ve done wrong when they go down. When a whole continent disappears for three days I do worry a bit – and if anyone says they don’t care about things like that, they’re telling fat porkies. The Potwell Inn would be simpler to describe in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. In particular it isn’t a feelgood site, a natural history site, a life coaching site, a spirituality site or a cookery site although, confusingly, I write about all these things. So I have to expect that sometimes when people follow the Potwell Inn because they have an allotment, they might be disappointed when – especially in the winter – there’s not much to write. “Went to allotment to take up the kitchen waste, very muddy” is not going to butter any parsnips or, indeed, crack any pots in Warrington.

In fact, yesterday we took the kitchen waste up to the allotment and dug a few parsnips. I uncovered the compost heap, which I’ve been turning frequently to bury the rat attracting food under the older stuff.  I don’t mean cooked food scraps – they go into general waste because the council won’t collect food waste from our block of flats; but rats also love to chew a lump of raw cauliflower trimming or a sprouted potato. As I turned the waste in, a sleek brown rat jumped out from somewhere near the bottom and scuttled around looking for a way of escaping.  I was holding a murderous looking four pronged stable fork but the sight of the rat’s rather lovely shiny fur softened my heart and I stood back while it went on its way.

The winter heap is very different from the summer heap.  Apart from the rats, the worms love a winter heap and multiply in their thousands if you keep it aerated and warm.  You can almost hear them chomping away at the kitchen waste, and as long as I keep the heap from going anaerobic and smelly it consumes kitchen waste, shredded paper and cardboard faster than we can put it in.

Winter compost and summer compost are very different. Winter words and summer words are very different too. Life at the Potwell Inn has its seasons, and as it moves on, my interests, experiences and outlook change as well.  At the moment there are over 250,000 words in this blog.  Sometimes – it’s lovely when it happens – someone will come on to the site and read fifteen or twenty pages at one sitting.  Many readers seem to dip in and out and as the blog has grown I’ve realized that people access it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m looking to change and re-index the categories and tags to make it easier for readers to access the bits they’re interested in. But the core purpose of the Potwell Inn blog is to reflect on the whole tricky business of being human and staying human in whatever ways catch my attention from day to day.

I’d like to reach more people.  The Potwell Inn is, hopefully, a sanctuary for the alternative, the bewildered, the joyful and the curious – against the onslaught of the free market vultures. If you’ve read H G Well’s novel you’ll know that the Potwell Inn has a river running through its grounds. There were once fish in it and a ferry to make the crossing. The brewers are desperate to close it down and sell it for redevelopment as a gated housing development. I’d love it if you passed the link to the site on to your friends – I’m confident that if you like the site I’d like your friends too, so do press the button. Small is beautiful but a bit bigger would carry more weight in the fight against all that diminishes our humanity.

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

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Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.

 

More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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If only it were true!

Another walk along the canal today, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the sign and a homeless person’s tent on the opposite side.  More often than not these temporary shelters are situated in places that are difficult for random thugs to reach because they are frequently targeted for abuse. This one tent is the tip of the iceberg and the canal is a favourite place.  There are probably dozens of rough sleepers along its edges – many of them with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s hard to tell.  Sleeping rough and living in fear of being beaten up or constantly moved on has its own corrosive effect. Then there are a large number of just-about floating narrow boats housing those who can afford the mooring fees but not much else.

Today the last half mile of the canal was rammed with boats unable to enter the river and head off towards Bristol.  The exit to the river through Bath Deep Lock is almost impossible in high water states because the long narrow boats have to enter the river broadside on, and the water was running like a train today.  Its deadliest state is always surprisingly quiet but always menacing.  Even Pulteney bridge gets quieter as the river rises and almost obliterates the weir in what looks more like a breaking wave. At this time of year when the Christmas parties get under way, the river has taken so many young lives it’s unusual to take a walk and not see a bunch of flowers tied to a fence.  Today was no exception. It’s cold at night, and the wet weather must have made life impossible for many homeless people.

Are we a humane society? We shall see in a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling despondent as our democracy is reduced to rubble by lies and deliberate lawbreaking.

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My favourite little patch of weeds is coming along nicely at the moment, and there was a hint of sunny weather to come as the birds practised a few bars of their spring songs. As we wandered back into the town centre we discovered that the Christmas Market had started hours earlier than we expected, and so we hunted down the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm stall and bought some more seed garlic and a few other bits and bobs from Rob Solari who gave the talk at the Allotment Society AGM. When we arrived home the monograph on garlic that I’d ordered had already arrived so we’re well set up now.  In honour of the occasion we baked some large mushrooms with a wholly improper amount of our own crop and shop butter and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Up at the allotment the Early Purple garlic has finally emerged in sympathy with our new-found commitment and so the world looks like a better place just now. The kitchen waste had piled up in the kitchen and so we took it all up to the site.  The compost heap is going well, but a winter heap is an entirely different proposition to a summer one.  It’s dense with peelings and vegetable leftovers and therefore more attractive to rats and prone to going anaerobic, so it needs a lot more brown waste like cardboard and it needs turning regularly to let some air in. But it’s nice and warm – around 25C – and the worms are still reducing it at a tremendous rate. However much we put on the heap it seems to shrink day by day.

Everything else is quiet on the plots, but the broad beans and overwintering peas are germinated and ready to go into the ground over the weekend when the weather looks much better. But it’s just as well the pace has fallen a bit because the constant shortening of the day length and the grey wet weather seem to lower our energy levels. The table is piled high with books to read but it was better to be out walking for much of the day. We shift into official winter on Sunday which is promising brilliant sunshine and cold conditions – proper winter then, and the garlic loves a cold spell. The photo was taken in Sydney Gardens where we walked past a large Ginkgo biloba – this one without stinking fruit surrounding it.  Someone must have swept it all up.

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Got anything for cold feet?

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Plantago major

IMG_20191126_141144All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”.  Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine.  It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.

I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.

I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality.  I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not  – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.

The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert.  As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.

It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!

IMG_6262Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders.  Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.

What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic.  Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true.  But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic.  I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that  hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject.  I was so inspired  I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.

All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it.  RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging.  However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.

And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious.  It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste.  You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.

 

 

 

 

Mexican fleabane bids for world domination

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I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations.  The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.

Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode.  Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac,  beetroot, spinach  – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.

We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators  – plus they’re beautiful.

Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview.  That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when  looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational.  I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.

Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould.  Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority.  But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster.  Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me.  The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath.  Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was  Lucian Freud’s muse.  I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.

 

Season of mists and mellow wastefulness

 

EFFECTSDon’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste.  There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife.  Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky.  Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).

In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would  clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted.  On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his.  It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.

The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself.  I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers!  However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.

But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning.  Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council.  Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing.  Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile.  All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.

While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow.  We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.

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Signs of life everywhere

 

No doubt about it, Bath is  beautiful place to live in.  The sun shone this morning and we decided to go for a favourite walk along the Kennet and Avon canal which enters the River Avon just upstream of where we live. The cuttings and the tunnels at the end of the canal were all designed to keep the smelly working classes out of sight of Sidney Gardens and its wealthy patrons and it’s an ironic reversal of fortune that the gardens are presently awaiting a major restoration project whilst the canal is, and has been fantastically well looked after since it was ‘rediscovered’. Incidentally that’s a cracking instance of the way a culture can change its mind about the value of a resource that’s fallen into disuse, and a good reason why we shouldn’t destroy these places, plants, environments, resources or even buildings – just because we don’t like them at the moment.

MVIMG_20191107_120223The canal bank is a marvellous and very specific habitat for the kind of plants that don’t mind having wet feet and being overshadowed – here’s a Lungwort that’s probably a garden escape and found a perfect spot to thrive in. It was mostly found as a cottage garden plant, and used to be used a great deal as a medicinal herb, and it’s not that common around here. I refuse to sneer at it because it’s a garden escape, because it carries its own history of usefulness and it always cheers me up in early spring. In fact, if you look closely, there are all sorts of spring flowers beginning to push up leaves; they can be tricky to identify without their flowers, but that makes a case for choosing a particular plot, walk or stretch of land and revisiting it over the four seasons. Field naturalists call it a ‘transect’ when they walk week by week along a set route and identify everything they see there. It’s a foundational technique for describing the ecology of a particular place, and much of the work is done by amateurs.

Rivers and canals are just such interesting places with their own set of plants, birds, invertebrates (I’m just saying that, I know next to nothing about them) and animals, and the fact that we live so close to all that wildlife is a proper bonus.

But today wasn’t just about going for a walk.  With one of the wettest Octobers for years behind us, we were a bit concerned about the garlic and onion sets we’d planted in the ground.  In particular we were concerned that they might have rotted. So this afternoon we made a hands and knees inspection of the beds on the allotment and everything seems to be in good shape. The photo of the sprouting garlic exaggerates its size – it was barely half an inch high – but the whole row is gradually coming to life.  The peas and broad beans too have germinated in the greenhouse.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the gigantic beetroot on our neighbour’s plot, easily the biggest I’ve ever seen!

But star of the show today was the Sweet Cicily I grew from seed I collected last year in Yorkshire.  It’s a powerful and probably invasive weed, but it’s trapped between the shed, the greenhouse and a well-trodden path so its options for world domination are a bit limited. But today I  noticed it’s in flower still and it lifted my heart to see it.  Even as winter bears down on us there are signs of life everywhere.

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