The suffix (3) in the title is because it’s the third time I’ve used the same title although the content is different as you’ll see if you click here. If you read the piece in the link you’ll also notice – apart from the photo of elderflowers – a useful description of the archaic tobacco enema should that be of any interest.
Anyway the three pieces were written at very roughly this time of year in 2019, 2021 and today and they share the sense of liberation that comes with late spring and early summer made especially poignant by the fact that the earlier two postings book-ended the COVID epidemic. We thought it was all over then, but it wasn’t and it still haunts our politics, memories and dreams today. Without wanting for a moment to parallel the trauma of war with the pandemic, I remember my Father and his contemporaries with renewed respect when I try to imagine the thoughts and memories they carried and the impact it had on on our whole family.
Anyway, we treasure our slow emergence from COVID with each moment of joy, and today, making the first batch of elderflower cordial I realized how much it celebrates and marks the early summer for me. We’re lucky to be living on the edge of a patch of public green space that has many Elders amongst the other riverside trees and so yesterday we harvested about 100 flower heads and soaked them overnight with lemon and orange zest. Last year we had a problem with some of the seals on the flip top bottles and about half of one batch went mouldy, so this year we’ve bought all new rubber seals and scrupulously scrubbed and sterilized the bottles before refilling them. Up at the allotment there’s a marvellous purple variety so we’ll harvest another load of flowers from there and make pink cordial. We don’t bother to filter out all the pollen because it takes forever to drip through a jelly bag – and of course the longer it’s exposed to the air the more likely it is to pick up airborne moulds. I hate the taste of sulphite, so we combine a little extra citric acid before simmering it and bottling it. Somehow – in spite of the cost of fruit and sugar – it seems that we’ve received a free gift from nature before the allotment starts properly yielding crops.
On the other hand we’ve been eating rhubarb and digging the volunteer potatoes that were missed when we dug the crop. Miraculously we’ve even eaten a few maincrop potatoes which survived the winter and the slugs unscathed. We’ve had plentiful spinach and swiss chard so although we’re a million miles from self-sufficient, we still have the benefit of fresh veg during the hungry gap.
Yesterday, with watering out of the way, we sat out on the green reading when we heard a loud crash and looked up to see that one of our elderly neighbours had taken a tumble. Within seconds three of us sprinted to help and a passer by stopped as well. Within the constant churn of just passing through residents, there is a core of neighbours who’ve been here for many decades, and we often have impromptu parties on the pavement when the sun shines. It just happened that the first aiders were two nurses, a retired vicar and a retired post office worker – so we were fully equipped for any eventuality! In the end our neighbour suffered nothing worse than a cut on his head and another on his finger, but it underlines the great benefits of a functioning community. On the other hand the constantly changing tides of students, Airbnb’s and just passing through’s can feel a bit alienating at times. Often they do a moonlight flit and leave their rubbish in the basement for someone else to clear up.
The other problem we have is with aggressive dogs and their owners being let loose on the green to crap, bark and intimidate the rest of us. We still have a massive problem with drug dealing, and yesterday I was greatly amused to overhear a conversation between a customer on the street and the dealer in a car. The dealer was protesting that if the customer wanted whatever it was, he’d have to order it and he’d get it in for Saturday. Life’s rich tapestry, I suppose. Enduring over a decade of incompetent, corrupt and greedy government leaves its mark on the communities that we live in and which they rarely see. On the other hand we’ve had to become adept and resourceful; mastering the kind of skills that the clowns in charge will neither possess nor enjoy.
Madame and I are definitely no-diggers, but not in a religious sense and so there are some occasions when we resort to the fork because we share a thirty yard border with several untended plots which constantly test our defences with daring raids. Sometimes they’re aerial – dandelions and sow-thistles are regulars, but also underground – particularly bindweed (hiss) and couch grass. Both of them, especially bindweed, spread underground rapidly; I think I read somewhere that they can grow a metre a week. Anyway, every two or three years we have to dig it out and dispose of it. There’s no point in composting it and we’re all much more circumspect about garden bonfires now we know how dangerous the smoke is. In the intervening years when it’s not a problem, it’s usually enough to run a three tined cultivator hoe, or a sharp draw hoe across the beds and slice them off at ground level. What’s particularly irritating is that our then neighbour allowed us to grow potatoes on a part of one of the plots. We could still keep the ground clear and even improve it but the Council wouldn’t hear of it. However often the plots are offered, there are no takers, it seems, and meanwhile we listen to the bindweed growling at the gate!
It’s been a difficult year for growing so far. We were late getting on to the ground with spells of very wet and very cold weather so we decided to go with the flow, sowing and planting whenever we could. Many of our veg will be later than usual, but fellow allotmenteers who stuck to the textbook timetable have been caught out. We lost some old friends during the winter; the Achillea, the Calendula and Salvias all gave up and a quick trip to a garden centre showed a huge increase in prices so we’ll have to do without for the time being. However the always reliable angelica and some second year parsnips are flying the flag for the insects. We also lost two rosemary bushes down at the cold end of the allotment, so we’ll have to replace them with cuttings somewhere out of the frosts.
The polytunnel has given us great fun and tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a long row of basil are all thriving. This year – purely as an experiment – we’re growing a patch of sweet corn in the tunnel, hopefully out of reach of the badgers. So notwithstanding a fortnight’s camping in Cornwall; between the kindness of neighbours and the lateness of the season the plot came through for us.
A bit of a post-covid tree planting binge has shown its first fruits in the shape of ten victoria plums while the others all flowered for the first time. We bought them just after the lockdown eased and they were pretty poor, but loads of TLC has helped them along. A Tayberry has grown tremendously fast and looks like it will be providing a good crop later on. All in all, our resolution to cut back last autumn has been comprehensively trashed, so maybe next year. We both ache in every muscle after having to water the vulnerable plants so much in this mini-summer. On the other hand, seven years of regular composting and leaf-mould spreading have left the soil in good condition with decent amounts of moisture at about four inches down.
The asparagus bed is under a final warning because it’s not really producing nearly as well as we’d hoped. Our immediate neighbour grows Connover’s Colossal and he gets great crops, so maybe it’s another example of the old saying – “Right plant, right place”. After a rather lonely winter, the site is finally buzzing again. A few of the newcomers who started during Covid have discovered that Liz Leendertz’s book about a “one hour allotment” doesn’t stand up well to the reality of jobs, children and all the other distractions. Hopefully they’ll return to gardening later in life.
The title – very roughly translated from the Psalm says – I’d rather be a vegetarian than live with a loveless cook. I did say I’d report back on the much anticipated pub lunch featuring “Cull Yow” a few days ago, when I may have been a bit scathing about the necessity to describe an old dead sheep as a “Yow” and I’m just about to honour that promise.
Somehow me and pub lunches very rarely enjoy one another. Coming from a long and extended family of excellent cooks and chefs I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been disappointed and more often than not, it’s to do with insufficient attention to detail.
When a pub goes viral and you have to book several weeks in advance you can be sure it’s going to be packed with people looking for some kind of experience. In that department we were not disappointed; indeed the highlight of the meal was when someone wheeled a dog into the restaurant in an expensive pram. The look on Madame’s face was priceless! The problem is that many of those experience- hunting people only get their experience from glossy magazines and breathless reviews. In fact, as I quickly established when I ordered the “old dead sheep”to the amusement of the waiter; Cull Yow was, in fact, not mutton at all but hogget and frankly it was the best thing on the menu except for the pud – which I’ll come to. I guess – to be kind – people are prejudiced against mutton but have no idea what hogget is, so inventing a name almost screen grabbed from Yorkshire welly telly probably sounded like a good idea to the chef. A better idea would be to cook the meal for the waiting team and then train them to go out and sell it to the customers because they had it for staff lunch and it was delicious.
The accompanying veg were not in the same league. Not even in the Strict and Particular Baptist Church Sunday Football League. I have a big issue with young chefs who think al dente means nearly raw, but they’d gone the extra mile with the cauliflower cheese because they’d smoked the (blown in the field = cheap) cauliflower until it looked like a bog burial and then cooked it up with some outer leaves of old leek and anointed it with a cheese sauce topped it with breadcrumb, parmesan and caramelized onion and then frozen it, only to resurrect it (if that’s the word) by microwaving it until it died and left a thick brown ring around its little individual serving dish.
The chard had been left on the ribs and waved over some steam, leaving the ribs as indigestible umbrella spokes, the carrots just staggered over the line but carried suspicious looking griddle marks to suggest that the kitchen had run out of time and taken a shortcut. I’ve never liked Bisto gravy so we’ll pass over that quickly. The tragedy of all this is that with a little more skill, time and attention the tragedy could have been turned into a triumph. Stripping the ribs off the chard and steaming them for a couple of minutes more than the leaves would have turned them into a lovely side. Roasting the Yorkshire puds at 240C without steam would have made them crisp on the outside and creamy in the middle, so long as you used enough eggs. The roast potatoes were good except they were supposed to have been wood smoked – from which not a smidgeon of flavour remained; and the bubbles in the skin suggested they just might have visited a deep fat fryer at some point.
On, then, to the pudding which really was the star of the show because it was so simple – poached pear, blue cheese, walnuts and honey – delicious.
I hate to be a curmudgeon about this because the waiting staff were lovely and worked hard to give everyone a good time; but it was the kitchen that let the side down. There was no-one in the kitchen brave or well enough trained to tell the difference between good and bad and consign the bad to the bin; and so the meal, as a whole, failed unnecessarily. That said, we could hear any number of compliments being offered so who knows. As we left the proprietor’s wife drove up in a flashy car and sashayed into the pub like a model. I expect there was a round of applause.
If you’re interested in food – especially in the slow food movement, you may well have read John Barlow’s excellent book “Everything but the squeal” – which is an account of a year in Spain during which he attempted to track down and eat the whole of the animal as expressed in the wide range of Spanish pork cooking. The title says it all; it’s a not for the faint hearted guide to not wasting a single scrap of a living creature after it has been slaughtered for our benefit.
Vegetarians and Vegans may, by this time, have decided to abandon this post but I’d argue that wastefulness afflicts us all. As a meat eater I entirely accept that I bear a moral profound responsibility for my choices and one of the ways I try to live that out is to eat meat less and then usually the cheapest cuts and make sure that they are sourced from farmers with high welfare standards. In fact, that point alone means that we could never afford the kind of daft offer that Waitrose came up with this weekend, inviting us to celebrate Coronation Weekend with a rib of beef joint costing £185.00.
Meat eating is a kind of in your face introduction to the earthiness of food and the biggest problem for our culture is that we are not (generally speaking) cooks and so prefer any engagement with meat to be as fast and painless as possible -which in turn obliges us to eat the leanest and most expensive cuts. Coupled with that is our fear and aesthetic loathing of raw meat because it shouts mortality at us and finally because we have no time left after our neo capitalist culture has eaten up any fragment of it there’s none left either for cooking or – tragically – for eating together.
So let’s take a look at sheep meat. These days we all know about sheep because of the glut of TV programmes in which we can easily see half a dozen lambs born before Sunday supper. Ah …. baby lambs we coo. In the spring we are bidden by the supermarkets to eat Spring lamb for Easter just as we are bidden to eat turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Our culture demands that we eat meat as frequently as possible whilst not counting the cost in suffering and methane production in the industrial fattening units. Boning a piece of pork belly is a meticulous operation that brings us irrevocably to the moral issue of meat eating. We can’t face eating tripe these days, nor chitterlings nor any of the 80% of the animal that we are far too sophisticated and fastidious to eat. “Stuff a heart? – I’d rather starve!”
So the meat industry – and that includes the restaurants as well, needs to find a way around our aversions and we came across a particularly egregious example here in Cornwall this week. To begin at the beginning, sheep meat comes in various forms. Spring lamb is the youngest and possibly the least flavoursome of the trio, but almost anyone can chuck a piece on the BBQ and make something of it. The next stage is the one to two year old lamb which is called hogget and if you can find it, is lovely. The third stage is mutton which is meat from a sheep that has had lambs but is no longer productive. It could be almost any age depending on when successive pregnancies have worn it (or rather its teeth) out. The trouble is, mutton has a bad rep because it’s the quintessential slow food and so – unless the chef or cook knows what they’re doing it can be as tough as old boots and taste like cardboard. So how do we get around this insuperable obstacle? The answer, of course, is to promote mutton for its real strengths and train chefs and cooks to deal with it properly. Naturally that’s never going to happen because it costs money. So the PR poets barge in with a cunning plan. “Let’s” – they say – “call it Cull Yow! – nobody knows wtf it is but it sounds pretty ethnic “
Obviously they’ve been watching too much TV because ‘Yow’ – anywhere in the country except Cumbria which is entirely populated by warrior models who cut hay in miniskirts – means ‘yew’ – everywhere else. So it’s a slam dunk win for the industry. Distancing from the real name of the meat which is really ‘dead old sheep’ we now have the entirely virtuous name “Cull Yow” – local; slow food and entirely life enhancing.
I don’t mind a great mutton revival – for reasons I’ve already explained -but I do loathe the sheer dishonesty of putting mutton on the menu at an up and coming gastro pub as if it were some hitherto undiscovered delicacy. We’re actually booked in for lunch there next week as a holiday treat and I will report back on whether the mutton was any good!
We’re back in Cornwall; this time on the Roseland Peninsula and in the campervan. We were pretty knackered when we arrived but after an excellent 9 hours and 44 minutes sleep we felt rested and ready for Madame’s favourite walk ever. This is a campsite we’ve stayed in for years and between the site and the sea there’s a bridle way about 2.5Km long lined on both sides for the majority of the way by Cornish hedges. It’s a very special environment – partly at least because you rarely see anyone on it apart from the occasional walker or horse rider.
Today we saw Red Admiral, Small Blue, Small White and Orange Tip butterflies; we saw a buzzard hunting at a little distance and later we saw a Kestrel no more than 25 m away. It was a wonderful and inspiring sight with its capacity to keep its eyes completely still over the prey, whilst fluttering and gyring in the sky.
On the way down to the sea I kept on seeing such a variety of wildflowers I decided to record them whilst walking back up the hill. There were way more than I recorded, but I made a list of forty species in the gathering rain. I was never more grateful for the waterproof pen and notebook. Many of them require further exploration but that’s half the fun. For instance I caught sight of a single Geum urbanum, that’s to say Wood Avens or Herb Bennet in the UK. The word “Bennet” caught my eye because Benedict was often shortened to Benet. So Herb Benet has a history in herbalism – probably because this ‘Blessed Herb’ found a use in herbal medicine, probably because of its aromatic root. There were also large numbers of Pellitory of the Wall – Parietaria judaica – used to treat urinary infections. Of my forty plants, twelve were either traditionally used as foods or medicines – excluding the Foxglove which will damage your heart!
They’re all common enough plants; for instance the Broadleaf Plantain travelled to the US in migrants’ boots and spread wherever they went – hence the First Nation name “White Man’s Foot”. It’s apparently a remedy for foot pain – you just wear a fat leaf inside your socks. I really should try it some time. A guide at the Lost Gardens of Heligan once showed us how you could peel off the outer skin of Navelwort – Umbilicus rupestris -with your thumbnail, and apply the sticky side of the leaf to your skin as a kind of natural plaster. I’ve often wondered whether Stitchwort is a cure for the kind of stitches you get when you run?
Anyway, on our return to the van, and when the real work began, I began to wonder whether my Fumaria could possibly be F. capreolata but, like the Polypody, that ID might demand a microscope.
I was especially pleased that my list of forty species was as long as my previous best but which took a fortnight to complete, but the price you pay for speed is a bent back and a compulsive swivelling of the eyes; not a good look.
This is going to be a very short post but I think it’s important to think aloud occasionally, if only to begin to set out some kind of a stall. My aim here is to tease out a couple of missing threads in the environmental movement; threads that – if we could fill them with life – might release enough energy to get this heavy stone to the top of the mountain.
The only data I really understand is myself and my feelings which seem constantly to suck the life out of any hope. Despair is utterly destructive. I’ve mentioned before (often) that any kind of earth spirituality needs a structure, a framework in which to function, to act, to think and to conduct our daily lives. This doesn’t seem to me to require the invention of any supernatural entities; there’s more than enough awe in nature to inspire the biggest of thoughts and responses and even to drive to our knees from time to time. That’s the first missing link – a structure or framework which will need to be maintained and expanded by our best thinkers.
This would be the first task of what I’ll call the geologians – the earth philosophers who know how to ask good questions and frame good answers. Theologians do God which is a good deal easier since “because I say so” is a circular argument which I’ll come to with the next missing link. Geologians will help us to think sensibly, coherently and truthfully without waving big sticks like damnation and purgatory.
The second missing link after the framework begins to take shape will be to form a canon – a collection of writings that can command general acceptance. This wouldn’t be too hard, there are loads of books on my shelves that call themselves “readers”- selections of writings that seem to demand our attention because they help us to think more clearly. I’m certainly not proposing we turn our geologians into a high priesthood. A canon is a collection of trustworthy writings that come with the assurance that they won’t lead us into the wilderness – and I’m sorry for the occasional reference to more biblical notions but they’re handy shortcuts sometimes. However, as I hinted before, even canonical literature needs to be constantly examined and revised if it’s not going to die and become putrid. That’s why “because I say so” ican never be on the agenda.
The third, and possibly the trickiest component will be what we have to describe as the cultus – without for a moment implying a derived cult. The cultus might involve – for instance – thanking a plant for meeting some of our needs before we dig it up; community harvest or planting festivals and so forth.
These three threads already exist extensively within native, first nation and ancient cultures. They have elders and wise people who maintain the culture and guide actions, they have highly refined structures of belief and they abound in ceremonies and rituals which enfold communities and hold them together. However this can’t mean that we could just take a system off the shelf and apply it to ourselves. Many of the existing systems are highly localized – to plains communities; herding communities or forest communities. We in the overdeveloped and greedy west have obliterated the concepts of theology, cultus and canon in order to remove any opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The vision I’m talking about refers more to a possible post apocalyptic future. The driving force is the hope that the most thoughtful and creative minds of our generation; artists, poets, scientists engineers and philosophers (well not my generation perhaps; I’m pretty ancient!) – may forge a new vision that can act as a bridge towards a new sustainable future.
Most revolutions are fought without much of a vision of what happens afterwards and this is what leads to populism and dictatorship; easy to fall into and hard to dispense with. Lashing out might feel good for a moment but the bad actors have all the power and they won’t hesitate to use it. What they don’t have is the power to eradicate a contagious vision. Faith – as the evangelists often say – is caught and not taught. Belonging is far more powerful than believing. We’ve got local elections in the UK in a few days time and I’m immensely disheartened by the fact that the Greens have the right policies expressed in the style of a university seminar reading. To borrow and adapt an idea from Monica Furlong; feminist theologian “anger is hope overwhelmed by despair”. Only visions can express theories with sufficient power to change “the way we do things round here”.
Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!
It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.
There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.
We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:
the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework?
The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.
For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.
So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?
And so what about these three components?
The marriage service
These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.
Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.
Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.
I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.
So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?
And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!
So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.
Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.
We know you can buy asparagus at almost any time of the year, but our own asparagus bed is only just beginning to throw up a few spears and we don’t – on principle – buy it from other parts of the world with all its attached air miles. So today our eyes lit up when we saw some bunches of Hereford grown (Chinns – praise where it’s due) and although it was expensive it’s as iconic a sign of spring as Easter, or Oestre which gives a better clue as to what it’s all about.
You can look up the recipe (which comes from Simon Hopkinson – one of our finest cookery writers) – it’s freely available if you Google it. From my point of view it combines four of my favourite elements; pancakes, asparagus, air dried ham and hollandaise sauce. All in all our special treat supper cost just over £10 which compares favourably with any takeaway and tastes ten times better. I know this because we always eat them in silence -like Montalbano on the television.
Years ago, hollandaise took me several tries to make at first – mainly because I didn’t read the precise instructions closely enough. Our son Jo used to make it by the gallon in one of the restaurants he worked in – he said it was easier in bulk. It’s like mayonnaise and all those other emulsion sauces; a bit of practice makes perfect.
Spring is sprung, the grass is riz …
So today we completed the last of the infrastructure work on the allotment and soaked the polytunnel with 250 litres of our stored rainwater. The paths are all topped up with wood chip; every bed is now ready or already planted up and this morning I unscrewed the retaining boards to give us easier access to about 1.5 cubic metres of leaf mould and the same of compost. At last the compost production line is beginning to deliver as we planned.
Now, with broad beans and potatoes in the ground we can ease back on the hard work as the seedlings get stronger and we wait for the last chance of frost. Our ever obliging French Sorrel has reached its prime so I think a French soup is called for. We are content, replete and celebrating with a bottle of Provenĉal rosé (don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it). The Potwell Inn is ready for the season!
I should open my Severnsider mailbox more often, I know, but mostly it’s full of technical stuff that I don’t understand – which is why I only found a polite note concerning the proper Welsh spelling of an author I’d written about – it ran – “Not a massive typo – you have Carwyn down as ‘Carwen’ on this post which is the female rendition of the name.” The post, from many months ago was titled “This is beginning to look like my mother’s siege larder” – and I’ve just amended the spelling by placing Carwyn in the correct gender.
Blog posts are ephemeral of course, but books last forever so I thought I’d give Carwyn Graves another plug for his two books; the first was (I think) published in both Welsh and English and it was called “The Apples of Wales”. If you’re at all interested in the innumerable local varieties of apple which result from its promiscuous cross pollinations, then this is a really interesting book offering marvellous insights into the local histories of some of these varieties. And if you’re really interested there’s a whole orchard of Welsh apple varieties behind Plan yn Rhiw on the Lleyn peninsula, and we were also able to visit an orchard at Cwmdu in the Brecon Beacons which was planted by the Marcher Apple Network – a society for reviving old varieties of apples and pears. We’ve planted a number of traditional varieties on the allotment, and our friends in the Beacons have planted many more.
Carwyn Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories” is equally engaging and informative, so much so that I was tempted into following up on some of the books he mentions and I’ve managed to buy two or three of them secondhand. So I hope this mention makes up for my inadequate knowledge of the Welsh language; long may it prosper!
Anyway, while I’m in the mood I’ll also mention a piece I stumbled on yesterday called “Failing nature on Dartmoor – why its protected areas are in such poor condition and what needs to be done” by Tony Whitehead, analysing the heated debate on successes and failures in preserving Sites of Special Scientific Interest on farmed land on Dartmoor. It’s a subject that I’ve written about before and it’s been much clouded by misreporting and exaggerated accusations. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it but if you’re interested in getting a better grasp of what’s at stake it’s a really useful summary.
Back on the allotment an instinctive starting pistol was fired over the Easter holiday and the site was swarming with allotmenteers. For once it seemed sensible to be planting the potatoes on Good Friday, and the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework? Nonetheless, not everyone is as engaged with nature as we are. We were expecting a delivery of plants which eventually turned up yesterday, three parts dead, after sitting in a courier’s warehouse for six days. The boxes were festooned with notices that warned they contained live material.
Now we’re sitting indoors waiting for Storm Noa to pass over while Madame sorts the wheat from the chaff in the seed box. This is such typical spring weather. Southwesterlies laden with moist air bring pulse after pulse of rain and sunshine to us in the west country, gifted by the Atlantic. The warmer the sea gets the more extreme the weather gets.
I rather enjoyed dating the damson vodka “April Fools’ Day”. As spring advances, we feel the urgent need to do something useful with the produce which we abandoned to the freezers last autumn because we were tired and wanted a break. That’s the biggest danger with freezers. We chronically overproduce on the allotment and then use the freezers to hold the surpluses until we can think what to do with them. Consequently the 5 kilos of damsons were removed from cryogenic storage last week and were turned into 2 litres of damson vodka and 11 lbs of damson jam. The last couple of kilos will become damson ketchup early next week. They were a gift from a friend on Severnside who didn’t know what to do with them either. His tree is old and marvellously productive and ours is just two years old and may take 15 years to bear any serious quantities of fruit – by which time I’ll be 91 and possibly too wobbly to climb ladders! I seemed to have inherited from my mother some kind of Jungian shared trauma which impels me/us to bottle, pickle and jam at the mere sniff of a plum, ‘because we might need them one day’ .
Of course there is an upside to this. I curl my lip at recipes for instant pickles in the glossy supplements because they just taste like raw veg with vinegar on them. If you enjoy the feeling of your taste buds doing a Mexican wave inside your mouth then be my guest. I prefer to make chutneys and pickles, label them and pack them away somewhere so hidden they come as a complete and marvellous surprise 2 years later when we find them just coming into their prime. Plums, green tomatoes, mixed vegetables and damsons all make lovely chutney but our absolute favourite is a Delia Smith plum chutney called “Dower House Chutney”. Immediately after it’s made it tastes like paintstripper with chilli sauce, but after a couple of years at the back of a cupboard it’s the go-to for anything with cheese – dark, rounded and perfectly blended. The same goes for the ketchups ( we make all our own).
Damson jam is my favourite breakfast treat after marmalade. I don’t think we made any last year – at least we haven’t found it if we did! – and so it was a joy to have some again. Unlike pickles and chutneys, jam is ready to eat as soon as it’s cool. The vodka is blissful after dinner. The books say to strain the fruit off the vodka and sugar after six months, but once again we’ve sometimes left it for well over a year and extracted some of the almond flavour of the stones – giving a much more nuanced and darker taste. Sloe Gin, which we also make, needs a couple or three years to reach its state of grace so the vodka is an easy standby. The other couple of photos are of some bread and a lemon meringue pie that I was practicing for a family meal on Easter Sunday – (I’ve never made it before).
I haven’t written much about the allotment recently simply because the wettest March since records began was a bit of a deterrent. But a few brighter days have made it possible to almost complete the spring preparations whilst we eat spinach from the polytunnel and parsnips, leeks and parsley out of the ground. The potatoes are chitted ready to go in on Good Friday – that’s tomorrow – as per long British tradition. It’s a bit of a daft tradition because Good Friday – as does Easter Day – wanders around all over the calendar simply because solar and lunar calendars can never quite sync; so for the church festival and for allotmenteers we revert to the lunar calendar for planting potatoes. Kind of Steiner lite, you might say.
The broad beans are in, the asparagus is just shooting and the damson (our damson) is in flower. Gratifyingly, the fruiting buds on the apples are looking hearty and – this is down to Madame – beautifully pruned. So it’s all looking good for another season. As I finished bottling the jam the other day, Madame was musing whether we might be that last generation to have learned these skills. On the other hand, our middle son and his partner are keen cooks and gardeners (well he’s a chef, like number three). And post lockdown there are far more young people on the site – which is marvellous too.
There’s nothing like a day on the allotment, with the sun on your back. It can lift the heaviest gloom. For some fine weather gardeners being tempted out for the first time this year, the plots may look a bit overgrown and neglected but that’s just nature doing what nature always does – healing its wounds. Although most of the time we don’t dig but just cultivate the surface; some infestations like Couch, Bindweed or Creeping Thistle really do need to be dug out carefully. That can be hard work, but the robins will come and keep you company and a host of birds will visit the turned earth and eat some pests (so long as it’s an occasional digging and not an annual religious ritual). We think too highly of ourselves if we come to believe that the Earth depends upon us for her vitality. Quite the reverse is, in fact, true. It’s we who depend absolutely on the incredible generosity and healing power of the Earth.