“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

Taking the fight to Australia

Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island.  He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears.  I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well.  What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well.  The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water.  I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five.  What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.

I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis.  I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones.  Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through.  I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.

So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction.  We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.

How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.

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Doing the right thing beautifully

Since the sun shone this afternoon, once I’d finished baking we went over to Dyrham Park for a walk. In fact the park itself was closed because it’s a fairly unique combination of grass and limestone, so quite thin soil and easily damaged by walkers – which didn’t bother us much because we could walk down the main tarmac path to the house, following the course of a stream in full spate after all the rain. There were patches of waterlogged soil in many places, and we couldn’t drive home the back roads because the road was completely flooded at the top of Dyrham Hill. It’s a steep walk down to the house and gardens, and we were met there by one of the terribly efficient welcomers who offered us a leaflet about the gardens parts of which are in the process of restoration to something like the original plans.

I’m not a fan of formal gardens, I don’t like things to be too orderly and sterile, and so my heart sank a bit when this process began. The notices boast something like 40,000 bulbs planted, and new yew hedging no doubt accompanied by finely cut and weed free stripy grass. However once you leave the formal garden, which amount to less than half of the total area, things are altogether more interesting – with a lake, or I think more accurately a large pond with flowing water taken from the stream; a waterfall, and a much more informally planted area of shrubs and flowers. The leaflet described all the exotic plantings but could have made much more of the wildlife potential. Someone, somewhere had made the decision not to deadhead or cut back all of the seed bearing grasses but to leave them over the winter, a marvellous food source for birds and small mammals and very beautiful in their own right. I thought the leaflet had missed an opportunity to show people the potential of wildlife gardening. Dave Goulson’s book “The Garden Jungle” was on sale in the shop, and the subject seems to be rising higher and higher in the consciousness of gardeners everywhere, so why not put up some signage to say “this is what it can look like” – which is very beautiful.

Outside the house the snowdrops are flowering and you could almost have thought spring had arrived if it weren’t for the cold wind blowing steadily up the escarpment. We could see that it’s going to take weeks for the soil to dry out. Apparently things are even worse in Northern France.

On the allotment today Madame followed up on my idea that perhaps our rat trap had not been stolen but dragged off by a fox who’d found a rat in the trap and had carried it off to a more private place to devour the remains. My hunch turned out to be true, and the fox had eaten all bar the tiniest scrap of fur and even cleared out the last remains of the crunchy peanut butter bait, leaving the empty trap in its box about 50 yards away in some long grass. I’ve said before that I don’t in the least mind the foxes eating the rats, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t steal the plates and the cutlery as well – it’s such bad manners.
Naturally we were relieved that it wasn’t another visit by our burglarious predecessor who now just owes us two net cloches, two water butts, two very expensive cold frames and a max and min thermometer. We can solve the fox problem by attaching the rat trap boxes to some long pegs, and on the plus side another neighbour who is moving to a different site has given us an enormous tarpaulin and a storage bench which he doesn’t want to take.

It’s lovely to see our early sowings taking off so well. I was so concerned about the waterlogging in one part of the plot which lies above an underground stream, that I gently mooted the possibility of digging a small pond on it, sealed by puddling it with the plentiful clay. Madame didn’t just disagree, she saturation bombed the whole idea and could see nothing but drowned creatures and malaria infected mozzies. I think I’ll put that one to one side – for the time being!

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Daldinia concentrica – Cramp balls

Back at the park, as we walked up the track I spotted a felled tree trunk – there are lots of them lying around with their associated brash, another sign that the National Trust policy is changing very much for the good. Once again the instinct for tidiness is being restrained to the benefit of the many plants, fungi, bacteria and small creatures who can both eat and shelter under the piles; and this particular tree had an array of turkey tail fungi – Trametes versicolour at one end, and cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes – Daldinia concentrica – at the other; neither of them the remotest bit rare but fun to name.

Nothing more to do this evening than bake a loaf and pack the cakes and scones into tins for our grandson’s charity cake sale tomorrow.IMG_20200115_134048

Q – is there a great way to decrease meat consumption?

A: – eat less meat

OK so most of us would agree that living on pasta, marmalade and Cornish pasties would be a tiny bit unbalanced, but the pasties – which Madame made for supper this evening – have additional benefits.  They only have 1.5oz of meat in each one – the rest is pastry, potato and swede.  You don’t have to be working class or wear trainer bottoms to eat one, just the ability to get over yourself – PLUS – they are better at cheering you up than any prescription drug after a rainy day. Obviously the pesto is lovely as well, and the two photos are only there to show how to make a sausage which you put into the freezer for 2 hours before removing it and cutting it up into servings.  Last night we had it with tagliatelle, crushed potatoes and steamed broccoli – positively life affirming! and finally the marmalade which is enough to get us through until next January – that’s 365 breakfasts and 365 slices of our own everyday sourdough toast – possibly 400 if you include the greed.

It has been raining all day again. Last night’s TV  documentary on the Church of England’s cover up of the predatory bishop Peter Ball – who I knew slightly when he came to theological college as an occasional lecturer – depressed me beyond measure, not least because it was so entirely predictable. A church hierarchy that protects its reputation before it protects vulnerable people is utterly unworthy.

Dave Goulson’s book “The Jungle Garden” which I’ve been reading made me gnash my teeth as well, but this time in a good way. You’ll never eat a shiny Cox apple or a Spanish non-organic grape again.

……. and thank you so much for reading this blog.  Yesterday I had my largest number of views ever – completely inexplicable!

Hiding from Storm Brendan

Well, not quite hiding but certainly not going outside.  The weather has been filthy and looks determined to get filthier and so Madame made a large batch of pesto and then we worked together prepping what should be around 30lbs of Seville orange marmalade by the time it’s finished.

We’ve been intending to make a stock batch of pesto for ages – partly because we’ve almost run out, (it freezes very well), but also because we need the propagators empty in order to get chillies going fairly soon.  For the sake of convenience we combined the two types – ‘Bolloso Napolitano’  and ‘Classico’ – both from Franchi – because we had them ready to harvest, although I think I prefer the first more, it’s got a hint of aniseed somewhere.  These plants were grown in a home made compost mixture combining 40 topsoil, 40 composted manure, 10 vermiculite and 10 Perlite. The seeds were germinated and kept at around 20 C until the plants were ready to harvest and they were grown under 12 hours daily of overhead artificial daylight.  They were only watered from below and once they’d got their feet down we fed them regularly with dilute seaweed feed. We’ve previously tried growing them in compost only, but these have been the best plants we’ve ever produced and the pesto today was absolutely delicious. It’ll be rolled and part frozen, cut into individual portions and wrapped.  One important point is to sow thinly and then thin again to stop the plants competing and exhausting themselves.

The marmalade reminded me (again) that it’s always good to read even a familiar recipe twice, because we’d peeled, deseeded and knife cut six pounds of peel into fine shreds before I realised that we were going to have to add 12 pints of water for the initial cooking.  That brought it almost to the top of our biggest preserving pan with no room to add the sugar so we’re going to have to share the big batch between two pans.  I made the same mistake last year and there was a discernible difference between the two batches – both were very nice but just different in texture and set.  I also need to climb up to the top cupboard to make sure we’ve got enough jam jars. When we first moved here I bought what I thought would be a lifetime supply of screw top lids from a wholesaler, but I think we’ll have used them all up with this batch of marmalade.

Meanwhile storm Brendan has spared us the worst of the wind and rain because we’re sheltered here in the Avon valley, but we cancelled a proposed overnight stay in the Forest of Dean because the campervan can rock and roll a bit in high winds. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen baking for our grandson’s cake stall.  I’ve bought a muffin mould especially, but I’ve never made a muffin in my life so it could all go terribly wrong.

My friend Rose has texted to say that she’s modelled her whole life on Flora Poste (see previous posts) and Emma Woodhouse. It would be churlish to comment!

All that glisters

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They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment.  In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time.  “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced  armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour.  In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.

So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears.  Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer.  It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?

But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?

If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded  “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”

I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits.  These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.

Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once!  – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E.  Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.

For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.

Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.

Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.

Oh yes there are!

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I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.

 

Potwell Inn (Christmas) sherry trifle recipe

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Sponge fingers
1 bottle sherry, (or to taste – probably less)
Frozen raspberries from the allotment
Raspberry jelly (jello)
Crême Anglaise
Whipped cream
decorations  – must include crystallised angelica + glace cherries
non alcoholic version for grandchildren – leave out sherry but they’ll still eat yours if they get a chance.

So after 4 days at the stove, the last of the guests has departed, the Potwell Inn has returned to its usual quiet existence and I feel as if I’m a stone heavier. The sherry trifle is such a favourite with everyone that I usually wish I’d made two, but we even managed to eat one of the Christmas puddings this year, which means there are only three left to look reproachfully out of the cupboard until we eat them during the year.  Christmas cooking is as much liturgy as it is cooking; traditions to be observed and rituals to be followed to the letter. From the moment the turkey arrives the die is cast, and the familiar sequence begins once again.  The difference this year was that I cooked the turkey in Bath  and we drove it over to Bristol in a pile of pre-prepped trays, boxes and bags so our chef son could have a break from cooking. The thrill of the Christmas roast palls after the first thousand have gone out to the pass, but I’m an amateur so I never get bored with it. All that remains today is the stockpot simmering away very slowly on the stove, filling the flat with its aroma.  We both agree, (as we always do), that a period of  restraint would be rather good.

We ignored the stupefying dolt-fest of television and our oldest son continued our film education by force-feeding us Tarantino films, although we managed to negotiate a brief respite with Naked Gun for the 200th time. So all reigned peaceful and no-one got upset for the whole period although we all enjoyed a jolly good moan about our sad lives under the cosh of our incompetent superiors. It’s Christmas for goodness sake, if you can’t feel sorry for yourself at Christmas there’s no hope for humanity, and that suits us very well – bah humbug.  The revelation of the week was that our son is very good at extracting broken keys from locks – it was (stone cold sober) me that broke it this time – and we had to go to Timsons to get another cut.  The young man there did a brilliant job in the face of imminent collapse after looking after eight guests – our hearts ached for him. The most amusing event was meeting our upstairs neighbour on the stairs on Christmas morning. I thought he was behaving a bit strangely, and then he produced a set of flash cards one of which said “I’ve lost my voice” and another “Happy Christmas”.  He managed a weak smile and stumbled off upstairs.

And so we rehearsed our tour of the town this afternoon, using the tourist minimising route, and although the bottom of Milsom Street resembled the Mississippi in flood, we skipped across like loggers and enjoyed a quiet walk along the rather damp side streets. I feel completely exhausted and all I can dream of is some sunshine and a few plants in flower, but having struggled past the solstice, the weather continues wet and miserable. I’m sure we’re breaking records – just not very good ones.

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Let’s hear it for Brussels sprouts

 

Bath. now the Christmas market has packed up and gone, becomes beautiful once again.  I photographed the Abbey just before the market kicked off, but the other photo is of the veg stall on Kingsmead Square taken in the pouring rain today. In fact it doesn’t seem to have stopped raining for weeks, and because the purple sprouting hasn’t ripened yet on the allotment we’ve been buying some Brussels sprouts.  They’re best on the stalks which keep them fresh for days, and as I was cutting them off one by one tonight it occurred to me that we couldn’t grow anywhere near the quality and consistency on our allotment. I know I have the odd poke at farmers, and these sprouts weren’t organic – and so I can’t say what was or wasn’t sprayed on to them during their lives – but in conditions such as we’ve endured during this last couple of months, how on earth the farmers manage the crops is a mystery, especially when the selling price is kept so low. Most years we’ve grown three or four plants and frankly they’re usually embarrassing.  The sprouts are breaking open, they’re a wild mixture of large and small sprouts and the stems – after a prolonged growing season are as tough as old boots – so woody I have to break them up with the back of an axe before I put them in the compost.

I’m very proud of what we grow, and maybe the problem is to do with our soil, but hats off to the farmers who manage to get something on to the table for Christmas.  In fact it’s quite hard to find organic sprouts, and so maybe they’re just too difficult for allotmenteers.  Either way round, if we want to eat good organic sprouts I suspect we’re going to have to pay a lot more for them – or – get used to the kind of blemishes and variability that go with nearly all home grown crops. In the end, we’re the ones doing the choosing and so if we turn our noses up at anything below grade one quality, we’ve no-one to blame except ourselves if that’s what farmers produce.

I suppose many people would say “good thing too – we hate sprouts” but I love them and I’d just love to grow them looking less like green firework displays on a stick, but meanwhile we’ll have to choose between physical perfection or organic perfection.  The ball’s always in our court.

Meanwhile, back on earth

I find these last few days before the solstice almost unbearable, especially when the weather is as gloomy as it’s been here.  As the earth drops down and tilts away from the sun, the darkness dominates and it doesn’t take a (so called) primitive consciousness to feel it. Of course we know – or rather scientists have calculated – that the slow tilting descent will pause at 4.19am on Sunday 22nd December, just four days from now and the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back again, gathering more sunlight each day until mid-June. But on the allotment it’s as if some of the plants at least have anticipated the changing season. Garlic, broad beans, shallots and winter lettuce are all stretching their wings, and when, as we did on Monday, we get clear skies and sunshine you can almost taste the spring, it’s a real joy.

We agonise about our compost bins because this is the time of year when the rats tend to turn to an easy source of food, and almost every time I open the bay that takes most of our green kitchen waste, I’m greeted by a sleek and well fed rat, an agile jumper who always manages to miss me as it runs off. The answer of course is not to put kitchen waste into the heap – but in the winter, apart from a few dead cabbage leaves,  there’s not enough to keep the heap going.  The number of worms living in there is quite staggering and I suppose one way to solve the problem would be to start an enclosed  wormery, but then I’m sure the rats would soon get wind of it and move their attention to chewing through it. I’ve read that you can bury the waste direct into the ground in a bean trench but a little bit of research shows that rats are able burrowers. I suspect that people don’t see the rats because they’re more active at night, and so they assume they haven’t got them. It only affects me because I keep turning their cosy home upside down. Even the most canny rat is going to bale out at the sight and sound of a dirty great yard fork slicing into its nest.

There’s bokashi, but that’s an expensive method which only pickles the waste, and still needs to be rotted down afterwards.  Its proponents claim that rats don’t like the smell, but the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. My only experience of deliberate anaerobic rotting was a barrel full of comfrey. It smelt dreadful and perhaps more importantly, anaerobic rotting releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some people claim the rats don’t like the smell of humans, and especially human urine – but they thrive in sewers which must mean something! We activate the heap in summer with urine, and so I gave it 5 litres of human activator yesterday, but I’m not hopeful. If we let the heap get waterlogged the rats will leave it but so will the worms, and then it’s liable to go anaerobic. That leaves only one alternative – trapping. I don’t like killing anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve already seen rat poo on the garlic, and the thought of getting Weils disease from our summer lettuces is a bit of a turn off. We don’t use poison because of the impact on our foxes (also a nuisance), hedgehogs owls and anything else that might fancy poisoned rat for supper. So it’s traps – big, powerful (ie ‘humane’), and encased in a box so that cats, foxes, hedgehogs,  and other larger beasts can’t get into them. One of our neighbours keeps parakeets on his allotment and says that he’s been battling the rats for twenty years – they’re brilliant climbers and can scale a shed wall or a nearby tree quite easily.

So that’s rats.  I’ll bait but not set the traps for a week and leave them in or near the heap – crunchy peanut butter is recommended – and then arm them all until I’ve thinned them out, and then stop.  When spring comes they’ll move off to easier pickings when the green kitchen waste is diluted with much more garden waste. It would be lovely to live in a perfect world but allotmenteering is all about understanding your competitors and staying ahead.  In our previous garden we had our cats to do the business, but they were also very partial to the birds.

I’ve stayed away altogether from newspapers and broadcast news and I feel all the better for it.  No more shouting at the telly. I felt so utterly betrayed by the media during the election campaign that I’d started channelling the darkest parts of my mind. On the bookshelf in front of my desk is a copy of the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse. I suddenly remembered  a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid – called “Perfect” –

I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,

All the bones white and dry, and chalky,

But perfect,

Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.

 

At the back, rising out of the beak,

Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,

Almost transparent, where the brain had been

That fixed the tilt of the wings.

I love the sense of fragility that the poem captures so well, and the killer line is the way that MacDiarmid uses the tiny skull to reference the brain that ‘fixed the tilt of the wings.’ Our minds and brains too will, one day, no longer be here to fix the tilt of our wing, and if our living minds are full of falsity, then we shall not be able to fix the tilt of our wings while we are still alive.

Plants at least don’t tell lies, and the White Dead Nettle at the top of the page reminded me that there was a time when every child would have recognised it and plucked the flowers to suck out the nectar.  It’s a lovely plant to find at this time of the year and I had to photograph it, in all it’s commonplace ubiquity. I just think it might help me to fly straight.