Groundhog Day at the Potwell Inn

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There’s a really interesting feature about urban farming in Bristol in today’s Observer that described one urban farmer (not known to us btw)  as “a veteran of the grow-your-own, self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s”.  That rattled our cages a bit – “veterans” indeed  – we weren’t even pioneers, just ordinary everyday descendants of the Diggers and other subversives who didn’t much care for “the way they did things round here” – which is as good a working definition of culture as you’ll ever need. A single glimpse of the photos was enough to say that even if we didn’t actually know this younger generation of urban farmers, we certainly knew their spiritual forbears and possibly even their parents.

One of the few shafts of light in these gloomy times is the re-surfacing of values that we feared we’d lost forever. The bailiffs and developers had moved in on our inner mindscapes and trashed them as they trashed the environment, and I never tire of arguing the point with our oldest son, who was born in the year that Thatcher came to power, that it wasn’t the whole of our generation who stitched up the young; and large numbers of his generation have been only too pleased to be bought off by the machine. Yes were were allotmenteers back in the day, and we kept a goat, recycled as much as we could, did anything we could to keep financially afloat, we lived in a couple of communes and set up workers’ cooperatives not small businesses. The principal ideal in those idealistic days was to put something back, not extract value from other human beings and pocket it.

Today we sat together and read the article with a sense of real excitement that these (often) young people still share the same values.  It’s nice when they listen to us, but this is a time when we, who will not be around to see the Great Harm bearing its evil fruit, should listen to them.   The allotment movement was rejuvenated after the First World War because the enforced clearance of the commons through the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had left the vast majority of the population landless – just as we are today. That was what opened up the intensification of farming for profit and ignored the question of the public good which is just now resurfacing. Bristol City Council should be applauded for making land available to the community in this way and not – as Bath City Council tried recently to do – to build a park and ride scheme on ancient and species rich flood meadows. We shouldn’t have to shame our representatives into doing the right thing.

Anyway, the article – do read it –  was a great scamper around some of the opportunities and the issues, and brought up another previously neglected thread when discussing development. We’ve got very used to scientists – ecologists, botanists and medical researchers for instance, hogging the microphone when it comes to debating the natural world. Yes of course they have a right to put their point, but not to drown out those who fight for the emotional impact of the natural world. Wildflower meadows are good for us because they heal us – not just by boiling roots and steeping flowers in alcohol but by simply being there. There’s a hotlink below to more detailed information:

One of the staff later mentions the influence of Miles Richardson, a professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby. Richardson has recently shown that people who feel an emotional and physical connection to nature are 30 times more likely to do something to help the natural environment than those who have just read, or been taught, about it.

If and when the merde hits the Dyson, we won’t just be digging for victory, we’ll be digging (or perhaps no-digging) for sanity and for the future of the earth.

Just to finish, I wrote last week about a riverside development here in Bath, and particularly about the impact on the environment.  Last night we were having a meal with several couples who live over there. The willow trees planted next to the river have, amazingly, grown rather well over the last three years and so they’re being pollarded this winter to keep them in check.  They also said that a promising young oak tree that had been planted in Ryegrass Park has been sawn off at ground level for no discernable reason. I expect the developers will fix that when they fix the missing dampcourses, the absence of wall insulation and structural features supporting tons of glass which, mysteriously were never installed either. There is a platoon of scissor cranes in permanent residence over there, doing work which the residents fear will take at least a year. It’s austerity, you see.  There were hardly any buildings inspectors left so the developers were unimpeded by the nanny state. I suppose it’s just possible that by the time it’s finished the evicted invertibrates will have moved back in and it will have become a derelict industrial site once again.

Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

Sourdough? – bring it on!

I overheard a young bloke in the supermarket the other day explaining to his girlfriend that one particular brand of something or other was better ‘because it was higher in protein’.  Most of us who have struggled to bake a sourdough loaf that looks and tastes like the ones that go for £3.50 at the local ‘artisan’ bakery, have turned instinctively to higher protein flours.  Protein is the ingredient that turns into gluten and gluten is the stringy substance that gives the loaf texture; holds it all together.  If you’ve ever tried to make bread with ‘soft’ (low protein) cake flour you’ll have seen the result is far from satisfactory – it tastes like cake – drrr.

Industrial bakers like high protein flours because, as someone in the industry once said, ‘it’s the cheapest way of making water stand up’. But most industrial bread is densely textured and fine grained.  The enviable artisan sourdough of our dreams has a much more open texture whilst still maintaining strength and texture.  The answer is so simple it’s almost unbelievable. The best way to get a loaf like the ones at the bakery is to substitute about 20% of the total high protein flour with soft ‘cake’ flour. I can’t give exact figures because it will depend on the particular bread flour you have, but trust me I’ve experimented for years and this does the trick.  When you see sourdough loaves advertised as containing ‘three flours’  it’s probably nothing more secret or complicated than the mixture of high and low protein flour in the main mix with the small amount of rye flour in the starter. What the soft flour does is to weaken the gluten to the exact point where it will allow the big bubbles to develop.

I’ve totally given up on the idea of 100% wholemeal sourdough.  Maybe I’m thick, but every time I’ve tried it, (dozens), it’s come out like a doorstop. If you believe that eating nice food is a foody distraction, and if you can afford to get your snapped off teeth crowned regularly that won’t be a problem. I remember the ‘Grant Loaf’ from the 60’s and 70’s.  It was certainly a bit of a statement then, although modern bakers seem to be claiming to have invented it. They’re not trying to do it with soft wholemeal flour, though.

This loaf takes about 24 hours from start to finish and the best advice is to leave it alone as much as possible. Of all those hours, I don’t suppose the actual amount of kitchen time amounts to more than an hour, and that includes baking. It’s made with organic flour, tap water, seasalt and a tablespoon of olive oil and the levain was started years ago with a little bit of rye flour and whatever it was that blew in through the window.  The biggest downside is that it tastes so good we eat a lot more of it than we should.  There is a slight glimmer of hope, though.  It seems that white sourdough bread has a similar GI (glycaemic index) to wholemeal, i.e. it doesn’t make your blood sugar skyrocket.  Naturally the homemade jam on it does but hey! …

 

“Not Bath any more?”

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Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different.  We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information.  Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.

There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing.  There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers  and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.

And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’?  Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance,  and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful.  Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community?  If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?

I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days.  Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park.  It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off.  You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants.  Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token.  Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject.  The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing.  Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –

…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)

How long until we get to “Not bath any more”?  How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”

The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater.  Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –

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Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me).  Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me.  I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.

On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese.  It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.

We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song.  Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song.  How should I respond to it?  Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.

Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding.  We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”  Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?

 

High Summer overtakes the kitchen

IMG_5878There’s a smell  – or perhaps more mellifluously a perfume – for each season, and often it’s the perfume that gets you into the one that’s coming without your becoming aware of it.  Suddenly the kitchen is full of glugging and bubbling ferments, you’re scratching around on the top shelves looking for preserving jars and that packet of rubber seals you were sure you bought last year, or was it the year before that? Dill, garlic, basil above all, and the apple smell of the sourdough starter fill the air and the feeling of hunkering down becomes dominant. Six weeks after the solstice it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the evenings are drawing in.  Apart from weeding there’s not a lot to do on the allotment other than bringing home the vegetables but it’s still too hot to embark on the civil engineering projects that you’ve got lined up for the autumn and winter. After a prolonged dry period it’s raining on and off here and so the urgent need to water has gone.

I’m always astonished at the capacity of ferments to survive.  The kefir which we secreted at the coldest part of the fridge months ago came out yesterday smelling as fresh as it went in.  A quick swill under the tap to wash off the painfully sharp ferment from the grains and then some fresh milk and within hours it had warmed up and thickened as if it was last topped up yesterday. The sourdough starter needs a bit more attention but provided it’s fed weekly it will wait patiently until the urge to make bread overtakes me tonight and I start a new batter. The second batch of half sours is awaiting a clean jar and perhaps some fresh dill and a touch more sugar, but they’re crisp and still taste of gherkin. Madame is mass producing pesto for the winter and rolling it into long sausages which, after a couple of hours in the freezer, can be sliced into portions and returned to the freezer for later. Real instant food.

The Potwell Inn allotment is capable of throwing up all sorts of surprises, and this season the tender fruits and vegetables have done better outside than they did in the greenhouse.  The exception is the habanero chillies which really do need the heat, but the other chillies, the basil and the aubergines have all done better outside.  After decades of loathing I’ve finally made peace with ratatouille (as long as Madame cooks it) just in time for the usual surplus of courgettes. In France, or at least in the South East which we know better, the whole of August seems to be occupied by fêtes but here the rhythms of sowing, harvesting and feasting seem to have very largely disappeared, choked out by the vacuous plenty of ‘food as entertainment’  and flowing into the eutrophic ponds of our impoverished lives.

Today a new garden tool arrived in the post.  I’ve wanted a hori hori – a narrow Japanese combination of trowel and knife  – for ages, but it’s been a struggle to find one that wasn’t a foot long and looking like a lethal weapon of some sort. This one looks innocuous enough to carry in my bag without attracting attention to itself.  It’s really for digging bits of root, dandelion, burdock, horseradish – nothing rare – without digging out the whole plant. It was only a fraction of the price of some of the loftier artisanal products that boasted carbon or stainless steel forged blades and leather holsters, but I thought I could test the principle before lashing out on one to impress the neighbours.

I absolutely love the changing seasons apart from a couple of weeks between September and October when the declining daylight and the empty ground combine to make me feel listless and sad.  All my charges have been harvested and I get a bit rootless, but it’s never long, then, until my birthday and after that the sun rises a little earlier each day until the winter solstice.

 

Turning up the heat

This year was year two of the chilli trial.  Last year I sowed five varieties and had two complete failures. The so-called hot variety I grew also turned out to be cool enough to munch off the plant – and I don’t like very hot chillies  – goodness knows why I’m growing them.

Then (I know I mentioned this in an earlier posting) I read in James Wong’s book that chillies get hotter if they’re a bit stressed and so this year I haven’t mollycoddled them at all. This has certainly worked well in the Scoville heat rating department.  Last year’s munchers have become the new chancers, and for the first time two even hotter chillies have set fruit including one that clocks in at 1,000,000 Scovile Units.  Needless to say I shan’t be trying that one without a medical team on hand.

We were discussing what to do with them this year and we agreed this morning that some of the hotter ones can be dried and kept for the winter.  We made a great chilli sauce last year and we can do that again. Then in the preserving department we started the first lot of gherkin half sours on their fermentation as well as sowing the last 2 varieties of French beans and some autumn carrots. The blue varieties of french bean and peas are so much easier to spot amongst the vines.  I also harvested the first of the heritage beetroot varieties – some Rouge Crapaudine and cooked them this evening, but as soon as I took them out I realized I’d cooked them too long – so that’s a lesson for the next batch.  Beetroots vary enormously in the amount of cooking they need – some are as tough as old boots and others – especially the very sweet ones – just need a quick wave in the steam. The flavour, however was very good – very sweet but full of that earthy flavour that good beetroot has.

We set two plants of Tromba d’Albegna, (which can’t make up its mind whether it’s a courgette or a squash) behind the greenhouse and they really like it there.  So much so that I discovered today that one of them had penetrated the greenhouse via the ventilator and lifted two of the louvre panes right out of their housings.

That’s two posts today – so thanks for joining us at the Potwell Inn, and if you like it here please tell your friends, it’s good to share.

Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.

 

More weeds

 

The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot.  Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.

But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants”  It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude.  The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family.  The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest  any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity.  I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow.  Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down.  Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received.  More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.

But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals.  Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.

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Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

The allotment, a recipe, some history, a bit about medicinal herbs and even a bit about bread! No botany.

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Enough botany for now, then – it’s back to ‘real’ life, sweating it out at 30C on the allotment and then bizarrely cooking supper in the oven, raising the temperature in the kitchen to about 40C, ‘nothing’ for my two chef sons, I can hear them saying, but plenty hot enough for me.  We went up at 8.30am in the hope that we could get things done in the cool part of the day, but 2 hours later we were still at it when Madame got the vapours and went on strike under the umbrella. It’s great having the umbrella on the allotment but despite its size it seems only to provide shade for one. I think I’m going to invent a pivotable sail to attach to the shed so we can move it around with the sun.

This year we’ve followed the advice of James Wong in his book about growing for flavour.  He says that chillies get hotter if they’re subjected to stress, and so it seems mollycoddling them with with auto watering last year may have prevented them from reaching their full potential. This year they’ve been watered only when almost dried out and they’ve loved it.  Last year’s F1 Apache chillies were so mild I could pick them off the plant and eat them.  I did the same thing today and they almost blew my head off – I was left scampering around the allotment looking for something cold to drink. So I’ve managed to grow successfully all five varieties including the Scotch Bonnet type which around the top of the Scoville scale, but I shan’t be randomly picking them!

Last Friday’s rain was a decent soaking and when I dug the shallots today the earth was quite moist.  A couple of haulm’s worth of Arran Pilot potatoes were looking good and plump.

Back home with a trug full of fresh veg I cooked an old favourite dish – Carbonnade Nîmoise a very simple French dish which would have been cooked in a cooling bread oven back in the day, and makes a very small amount of lamb go a long way.  Garlic, carrots potatoes and fresh herbs all dug and picked this morning and baked in the oven with some olive oil, a couple of slices of bacon, a glass of wine and a dollop of reduced stock from the fridge. It’s impossible to overcook it, sealed in an extra foil cover under the lid. The star of the show is usually the potatoes which seem to soak up all the flavours, and if it’s cooked right it’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon.

More good new too on the allotment.  I was starting to clear the 50 square metres of loaned land, on which we grew potatoes this year,  and our neighbour said he was happy to continue the loan for another season, so we decided on the spot that we would overwinter our broad beans there this autumn.  To be honest we grew far too many spuds this year but we pay our neighbour in kind for the loan and he takes a share of the produce from his piece of land – it works very well.

And although the field botany phase has ended, there’s still all the typing up to do.  I usually make a sortable list in Word so I can eliminate any duplicates and do a final check on any doubtfuls. Luckily I have a contact in the Bath Nats who is willing to cast an eye over any dubious identifications and we’ll be seeing him on Thursday anyway because he’s running a workshop on identifying Rumex spp – yes I’m a complete propeller head!

On another tack, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been sharpening my skills in identifying plants with medicinal uses. That’s raised some very interesting ethical issues, for instance I found dozens of Betony plants on the clifftop at St Davids, but nothing would induce me to pick them because there just aren’t enough, and there are many medicinal plants that are in danger of being foraged into extinction, sometimes for money. I mentioned in a previous posting how I watched in horror when, on a fungus foray, I saw a young woman (known to me) pick every single Ragged Parasol fungus in a stand of a couple of dozen – far more than any family could reasonably eat. In fact foraging is becoming something of a menace in places.  I know there are many medicinal herbs we can grow on the allotment and some – couch root, dandelions and nettles, for instance, are so prolific that it’s perfectly OK to take a regular cut.  I’m trying to make a list of sustainably available plants in our immediate area and, trust me, I shan’t be publishing their whereabouts. However the vast quantities of these plants that are being processed and added to everything from cough mixture to cosmetics makes you wonder how sustainable or ethical the supply line is.  There’s no real compulsion to monitor it – for instance I was greatly shocked to read on the Plantlife website that even the supply of licorice is under threat.  We know it can be (or was) at least grown in Pontefract and presumably could be grown again – a nice little niche income for a farm with the right soil conditions.

This has been a bit of a mixed bag of a posting but, in my defence, I haven’t mentioned sourdough, mainly because we bake less in the summer.  While we were away Madame was reading about farm life on Ramsey Island and in those days (the 1940’s) ‘mother’ would bake 30 loaves a week in a paraffin fuelled oven. The same book had many photos of the family, and it was clear that the grandson of the family is still farming in the area – in fact he was the one with the brilliant sheepdogs – and the image of his grandfather. A photo of the flock of sheep is at the top of the post.

If you’re interested in following up on the sustainability of medicinal plants I found this paper – but be warned, it’s mind bogglingly thorough!

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_med_plants.pdf