Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

Going green – ish

Back on the Potwell Inn allotment, we’ve reached peak runner bean and courgette mountain time; not that I particularly mind because there’s no finer meal than a bowl of runner beans with a bit of grated cheese on top – Gruyere turns it into a gourmet meal but Cheddar works perfectly well. The courgette mountain can be very challenging because they have the gift of hiding under the foliage until they’re a foot long and almost unusable. We have several of them and I’m trying to figure out a suitable stuffing – vegetarian for preference because I’ve never seen what the point of putting sausage meat into a marrow might be. A strongly flavoured herby rice would work I think. But it’s miles better to harvest them young and full of flavour, before the seeds develop. I love them sautéd with a splash of lemon juice instead of salt. I’ve never liked the sprinkle of chopped parsley on top, it’s a herb and its place is in a side salad. Neither do I bother with all that salting and washing lark. Clearly there was a time (in the olden days?) when courgettes and aubergines were inclined to be bitter but not now, they’re much too well bred. If you want to stop them from turning into a mush, sauté them fast in blazingly hot oil and you get the brown edges as well as the full flavour and texture plus the excitement of setting off the smoke alarms – it’s a win-win.

So we are slowly turning green in several senses of the word. This is the time to become a vegetarian because you can eat a huge range of fresh, locally sourced and organically grown fruit and veg, and a lot less industrially produced meat. Good for us and good for the environment too. We’re not doctrinaire vegetarians here at all, but we eat less and less meat, and I can see a day coming soon when the minuses add up to a tipping point, but going a step further into veganism would be a much greater challenge, and intensive vegetable farming has its own ethical and ecological difficulties of a different kind and so we’re plodding down a middle path and hoping that sustainable, organic, high welfare mixed farming can provide milk, eggs and cheese alongside arable crops. But if the environmental crisis continues unabated then we may not have the luxury of that option any more and then my biggest fear is that the industrial food processing industry will seize the opportunity to flood the market with more expensive junk food.

Also on the allotment we’ve had loads of invertebrate visitors, two of them were butterflies, a gatekeeper and a speckled wood, that flew by yesterday and posed for me along with the whites, the red admirals and a tiny little shy one that flew away every time I got close – which didn’t. Previously I’d written about the suspected Jersey tiger (moth) that took a break on the kitchen window. I posted it on the Bath Natural History Society Facebook (Nature Watch) site and attracted a cluster of comments about whether I’d got the i/d right. It’s a bit rare in this part of the world, but it seems that as global heating increases it’s moving northwards.

However I’d underestimated the competitive instincts of (some) lepidopterists and was quite surprised at how hard I had to fight for my record. In the end, after a couple of heavyweights took my part it was allowed – or at least I’ll feel brave enough to send it to the County Recorder for verification and a puff of smoke up the gabled chimney. There’s no moral virtue in accidentally bumping into a rarity but somehow I felt as if I didn’t deserve to spot it! In the end, though, it was a very beautiful moth and after our discussion of minute details I reckon if it ever comes across my path again I’ll be able to identify it at twenty paces, and since I thoroughly enjoyed the scrap too, a good time was had by all.

Today we added another part of the Skyline walk, which involved yet another stiff climb up the hill to the south of us. As ever the access to the route allowed us to shortcut along the canal, avoiding the city centre which is more crowded than it has been for months. We spotted the resident heron perched opposite – too far away for a decent picture but I took one anyway. Later we dropped in at Sham Castle, with fabulous views over the City and then looped around the top of the hill, through the University and down Widcombe hill – about seven and a half miles in all; a decent walk.

“Well I think the answer lies in the soil”

To quote the advice of Arthur Fallowfield – the wonderful invention of comedian Kenneth Williams, “The answer lies in the soil”. It always does, but he was spoofing the whole organic gardening movement in its tweedy 1930’s incarnation. I am aware, of course, that the gag will completely pass over the head of anyone under retirement age but I remember the tremulous plummy voice that seemed to spring straight from the pages of “Cold Comfort Farm” – dripping with the husky erotic overtones of flowering sukebind.

Last autumn, when I built the compost bins I was doubtful if we’d ever be able to fill them, even with the green kitchen waste included. Each bay is approaching two cubic metres in size, and there are four of them – and I was right to be dubious. One of the bins has been used ever since to store leaves, and should provide at least a cubic metre of leaf mould every year. One bin has been used for storage of bags of consumables like bought-in compost, topsoil and grit, and I’ve built removable shelves over both of those bays to make use of the upper area for growing in bags. But the other two bays have shown that they are well up to providing a constant supply of compost. They’ve only been up for less than a year and we’ve already taken off two cycles, maybe ten heaped barrow loads of really good compost.

Previously we’d always used California cylinders which are portable, cheap and easy to make but almost impossible to turn. The hope was that having permanent wooden bays would make turning easier -which has turned out to be true, and because it’s easier I turn the heap more often, which keeps it sweet and hot and remarkably efficient at reducing the most intractable waste into compost. Woody waste is chopped into small pieces and cabbage stumps get smashed with the back of an axe, but even soft fruit prunings disappear. The only things we don’t compost are noxious perennial weeds and annual weeds that have set seed. We’ve also learned that as well as regular turning, the heap responds well to a surprising quantity of cardboard (as long as it doesn’t have a plastic finish). The one thing you never find in a finished heap is cardboard – it seems to disappear really quickly and we often supplement our own household cardboard waste with shredded paper and large boxes from the recycling containers in the basement. The worms also love it although they don’t seem to eat it, they tend to congregate around it. Finally the heap gets a regular soaking of urine and the odd layer of comfrey if I can find any; or a handful of organic fertilizer or seaweed meal now and again. The one thing you can’t do is just leave it uncovered for months. It’s far better to keep it covered and water it when it looks dry, than it is to allow it to get cold and wet. Are you getting the picture? Composting is an intense and interventionist activity.

So today was heap turning day because we’ve cleared a couple of beds and the plan is always to clear them, compost them, and then sow or replant them as quickly as possible. Allotmenteering is pretty intensive all round, and digging out a full bay is hard work because in our case our optimistic use of “biodegradable plastics” – Jiffy 7 modules and degradable kitchen waste bags in particular has taught us that they are rarely broken down and can persist for years. So we’ve been removing them – hundreds of them – as the finished compost is dug and put through a wire riddle. It’s slow but very rewarding work as lumpy garden waste emerges from the process as sweet smelling friable and fine grained compost, inoculated with worm casts – in fact almost all of it seems to have passed through worms at some point making it vastly more valuable than bought in compost. There was enough today to cover two 12’x 5′ beds to a depth of 3″ and fill two large planters – and enough pieces of plastic to fill a large bag! After riddling and taking out the plastic, any hard residue, bits of twig etc. go back to the bottom of the new heap.

Rats

Turning the active heap which was full to the brim was a bit more of a performance, not least because I came across a very large rat and was forced to engage in hand to hand combat with it for fear of getting bitten. I once had a rat jump over my shoulder and I’m not sure which of us was more terrified! Rats are a tremendous nuisance but it’s hardly surprising that they congregate around compost bins which provide food, warmth and shelter. The problem is that they’re also carriers of leptospirosis which is transmitted through their urine, and so we really don’t want them leaving their traces on crops, particularly those like salad greens that are eaten raw. They also ruin sweetcorn crops because – like badgers and deer – they love the sweetness. We try as best we can to exclude them but they’re great climbers and even if the bins themselves are rat-proof, they can easily climb the sides and get in through the top and so they’re a regrettable pest and although I hate despatching them they come under the same banner as slugs. And so if we can, we kill them with powerful spring traps designed to keep out other less harmful species and occasionally I have to do the job myself because they soon learn to recognise the traps and even manage to eat all the peanut butter bait without springing them. We don’t use poisons of any kind because that just displaces the moral responsibility by making the consequences invisible.

Worms

But aside from the pests, what about the friendly inhabitants of the compost heap? I’m constantly amazed at where the brandling worms come from. We’ve never gone to any trouble, they just emerge from somewhere and in a lively heap they multiply exponentially. There’s a paradox here because there’s more than one process going on in a heap. The bacterial process is stage one, and it’s the foundation for the worms’ work. All the feeding with water, urine (human not rats!) comfrey and carbon in the form of cardboard facilitates the initial stages where the heap warms up. Many enthusiastic bloggers will make great play of the maximum temperatures in their heaps and some will claim that they reach quite extraordinary heights. We much prefer to leave the heap to heat up to – say – 30C in the initial stages. Bacteria, insects and worms all have their comfortable temperature ranges, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to drive all the invertebrates out by having the heap too hot.

In practice, the brandling move around – to the cooler edges when the heap is heating and then back to the centre when it cools and they can begin their vital work of digesting the partially rotted waste and turning it into worm casts which are absolutely crammed with soil improving bacteria. Well made garden compost and cheap garden centre compost are worlds apart. When the worms have done their work the population declines and they move elsewhere – which means it’s time to dig the compost out and spread it thickly on the plot.

Yesterday as I was digging out the finished compost, it was clear that there were far less brandling than in the ‘live’ bin, but as I dug deeper I was finding more of the deeper soil dwelling earthworms. It’s wonderful to watch how the process constantly balances itself. And worms aren’t the only inhabitants – it’s teeming with invertebrate life all chewing their way through our waste and turning it into gold, and I don’t doubt that the inhabitants get smaller and smaller in a massive interconnected ecosystem – it takes your breath away.

The result of building up the soil with organic matter is increased fertility, increased yields, greater biodiversity and healthier plants. It’s a no-brainer. Of course you can increase yields by pouring on artificial fertilizer year after year, but as the biodiversity drops the intractable pests increase and you find yourself trapped in an expensive and depressing spiral of feeding and spraying. But here are some photos of the allotment taken yesterday, and hopefully they speak for themselves.

Great Bread Race declared void as both contenders collapse

Surely, I thought to myself as I surveyed the ruins of the race; in the story of the tortoise and the hare the point of it all is that the tortoise wins, thereby providing invaluable material for ten thousand dreadful headteachers’ talks. But life and art are not quite the same thing and grim reality – like the brown rat – is never more than a metre away from any point on earth. Yesterday it visited the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Theoretically – and I realize that’s a dangerous word – theoretically, a bread baking contest between an industrial high protein flour whose proud boast is:

A smooth free flowing white flour that shall be free from hard lumps or foreign matter. The flour shall be free from any off taints or odours shall have a neutral cereal taste

  • and an organic, stoneground, off-white bread flour with impeccable UK sources and designed for long fermentations – ought – to be a no-brainer BUT – in the memorable phrase from my first ever ethics lecture – “You can’t make an ought into an is” – and that’s a fact!
  • I’ve developed a soft spot for the industrial flour during the months of the shortage when it was all I could get. Baked with Allinsons dried yeast it was reliable and always produced a useable white loaf, and with my sourdough starter it would make a serviceable and better than ‘neutral’ sourdough loaf. The problem came when my old supply of modestly adequate home baking yeast ran out and I bought some scarily fast professional bakers yeast. It was exactly like asking the two naughtiest boys in the class to sit together at the back. Isolated from one another they were both tolerable, but working together they become a nightmare of disruptive behavior. I’m absolutely not (lawyers’ demand) absolutely not accusing anyone of adulterating their products with steroids, or genetically modifying them using DNA from racing weasels but I have my suspicions.

So yesterday when we were in danger of running out of bread, I started a rapid white loaf which I ‘knew’ would be ready hours ahead of the organic sourdough I’d kicked off the previous morning. Usually the sourdough takes around 24 hours. But something was up. While the yeast bread raced ahead and doubled in size as I answered the phone, the sourdough batter had produced a couple of sulky bubbles and then sat still and mournful on the stovetop. It didn’t even smell right – a developing loaf has a distinct and rather lovely smell; sharp with apple notes as a hipster wine-taster might say.

So I had a bright idea to kick start – or rather re-start the sourdough by putting it in a cool steamy oven for an hour. The recovery was not spectacular and by this time the dough had absorbed a good deal of extra water.

People often say they don’t have time to bake bread and I always reply that it doesn’t take much active input, but you do need to be there at the critical moments. Yesterday my capacity to recognise a critical moment deserted me entirely. While the blimp metastasised and set up mini loaves all over the kitchen, the sourdough looked more dead than alive. However, in the boom and bust economy of the modern bakery, the white loaf – which looked marvellous in the tin had, in fact, blown and the moment it hit the fierce steamy heat of the oven, collapsed with heat stroke. My sweat lashed face was etched with disappointment! (And if that doesn’t get me into Pseuds Corner there’s no justice in the world). [my superego is telling me that there’s no justice in the world].

All my hopes were vested in the Shipton Mill loaf by this time, but it was cowering at the bottom of the banneton like an orphan sheep. So I did what all good farmers do and moved it to the cool oven, not sadly an Aga, but the Neff which was still cooling down from the Beast. After 36 hours the orphan loaf was creeping up to within an inch of the banneton top, but its steam immersion had given it a cracked surface through which I could see some very slack dough, and I wanted to go to bed anyway so I slammed it into the oven where it immediately pancaked. Half an hour later it was all over. I had managed to waste an entire day making two terrible loaves, one of which I hope will be sponsored by our dentist given its capacity to break teeth. He usually sponsors Easter eggs in schools but with the schools all closed by the pandemic he’ll have a bit of money left in his ‘income generation’ account.

So what’s the best flour, then? The 11.5% protein in the white flour is really too strong to make the best sourdough bread, and in any case I’d rather use organic flour. The specifications for the organic Shipton Mill flour come as close to my ideal as possible but after a dozen loaves I’m still finding it a bit temperamental. I think it works best when the starter is really fired up. My starter yesterday hadn’t been fed for a couple of days. With many bread flours that wouldn’t matter too much but maybe this one needs all conditions to be ‘just so’ to give its best results. Equally we left the kitchen window open during the time the batter was fermenting – perhaps the slightly lower temperature – maybe a cold draught – hampered the fermentation. Or perhaps the organic bread was just sulking because it was sitting on the stove next to a non organic loaf with steroid rage. Or – and I hadn’t thought of this – maybe the Potwell Inn lucky layline has moved …. heaven forfend!

Meanwhile, and at the risk of sounding dreadfully old fashioned, may I recommend Elizabeth David’s magisterial book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” published in 1977 which, in its quiet way, is packed with precisely the same wisdom that was rediscovered to great fanfare forty years later by artisan bakers – except in her book it’s backed up by extensive research and attributed sources! My copy is falling apart and the paper is turning yellow. Here and there it falls open to a heavily stained recipe. A few black and white line illustrations are all there is to go by, but it manages to encapsulate a whole baking culture stretching back into history. Wonderful stuff; but I wonder if, when writing her book, she had bad days too in the relatively small flat in which she lived and presumably tested her ideas. Last night I called upon her ghost for a word of comfort; she – sitting at the corner of a small table, glass of wine in hand and me – surveying the ruins of a no-brainer bet.

The hidden killer lurking on the allotment ….. ?

If I dare make a prediction, I’d say that very shortly seed merchants will be inundated with anxious emails about courgettes. Now I know that some regular readers will think this post is going to be about one of my dreams, but this is a totally genuine, ram-stamped fact, up there with all the other googlefacts we love to share with our friends. This one arrived on our allotment facebook page having been copied there from another allotment group facebook page and possibly copied there from somewhere else. It’s a friend of a friend story if ever there was one, but it’s got all of the basic constituents of a viral folk panic. The facts are sparse, but someone, somewhere ate a meal containing allotment grown courgettes. It was, they said, desperately, unbelievably bitter and so they didn’t finish the meal but threw the remains into the bin. Later that night they felt dreadful, suffered from sickness and diarrhea and got on to the dreaded internet where they self diagnosed poisoning by courgette. Unsurprisingly the diagnosis did not impress any of the emergency doctors they consulted by phone, but the last advised them to go to A&E where the doctor also said he’d never heard of it but he’d go and look it up. Having done so he advised the patient to go home and rest.

Anyway, this story has now reached Bath and I was curious, because it’s the first I’ve ever heard about killer courgettes. A quick search revealed one (yes one) verified death in Heidelberg, Germany – five years ago, when a 79 year old man polished off a plate of courgettes that his wife wisely refused to eat. The toxin in question is called cucurbitacin and it’s a natural constituent of cucurbits (there’s a surprise) – plants like cucumbers, gourds and courgettes – and its there because its bitterness repels herbivores and insects. In fact nearly all the useful chemicals we derive from plants are there for much the same reason, and there’s plenty of evidence that these bitter components are good for us, but only in very small doses! In Mediterranean peasant communities, the gathering and eating of bitter herbs in spring is a deeply rooted ritual.

I also recall that in the past we were advised to fertilize cucurbits in the garden by transferring pollen from the male flowers to the female ones with a paint brush “to avoid bitterness”. This is an important clue, since cucurbitacin is insanely bitter, and plant breeders have gone to enormous trouble to breed the cucurbitacin out of their plants because the customers won’t buy them and certainly won’t eat them. The danger is that many of the decorative gourds have been selected for appearance alone, because they are not eaten. So – for instance – if you grow fancy gourds in the same bed as your courgettes you may well get a hybrid and very bitter courgette. If then you are a seed saver as well, then your saved seeds will be of the hybrid type and will therefor produce more bitter offspring. You could probably go for several lifetimes and not be unlucky enough to encounter an intensely bitter courgette, but the sensible advice would be

  • Never to eat anything you’ve grown if it tastes terrible.
  • Don’t mix ornamental cucurbits with ones you’re going to eat.
  • Be especially careful only to pollinate plants for saved seed under controlled conditions in a greenhouse ( or under insect netting perhaps) to avoid random pollinations from elsewhere on the site..
  • Don’t re-post alarmist rumours, you’re in more danger of being struck by lightning.

Does that sound a bit bossy? Well it’s true, I think that substituting fears and rumours for hard evidence is one of the less attractive features of the internet culture. I’m not against science; I’m against bad science. I’m not against seed merchants but I am certainly cautious about genetic modification. Neither am I against farmers – just for the record – but I am decidedly against intensive chemically driven agriculture because the scientific evidence shows us how dangerous it is.

Enough! The low pressure that has depressed us all is moving off eastwards and the sun even shone for a couple of fitful minutes today. But the temperature definitely went up and the humidity went down and that’s just what our plants need. The last thing we want is an outbreak of blight. Madame is cooking ratatouille in the kitchen – and here’s a confession – until last year I loathed the very sight of courgettes. They always seemed to turn to some kind of primal gloop, and as for aubergines and what I came to speak of as “rat”, I would rather have eaten a dish of pure cucurbitacin. So when I came to writing this piece I couldn’t find a single photo of a courgette anywhere in my bloated collection of 17,000 photos – and I had to go and take one on the allotment. But last year I suddenly discovered that it’s not the vegetable but the way you cook it. I think I had been traumatised by a ratatouille that was cooked on a campsite by a friend, and which was infusd by the rich aroma of methylated spirits and reduced to the kind of texture and consistency we see on the fire escape steps when the students are here.

Anyway, and moving on. Madame paid me a great compliment today when she compared my writing with one of our favourite writers. The compliment was diminished slightly when I realized that being compared with a totally forgotten 1930’s writer had something of an edge to it, but it cheered me up nonetheless.

And the enforced extra visit to the allotment to visit the courgettes was made golden by stumbling on the basal rosette of a guaranteed (Poland and Clement – “Vegetative key to the British Flora”) – common ragwort which perfectly demonstrates what a lyrate-pinnatifid leaf looks like. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve decided to make it my weed of the day. Even more gloriously, the process of finding all that out introduced me to the entirely new world of the white tipped hydathode. I probably should get out more. Madame would agree!

Watch out! Noah’s built another ark

And it looks as if he’s heading out … We spotted this one on the canal today; it was busy for the first time in months with holiday hire boats colliding and grinding with everything in reach and the family of swans we’ve been watching for months, effectively blocking the entrance into Deep Lock by refusing to move with their cygnets. The permanent human residents and their boats have been shuffled around up and down the pounds as the canal is being dredged and they’ve all been temporarily displaced as work moved towards Dundas. There’s a sizeable community of permanent residents at this end of the canal, living in boats ranging from luxurious to waiting for the last weld to give way, and it’s not uncommon to see a pile of bedding on the side of the canal and a half sunken home dangling on the end of its string. But house prices and rents in Bath have become ludicrously inflated as empty properties have been bought up by ‘buy to let’ landlords and Airbnb speculators and the social housing schemes are starved of funds, so buying a narrowboat in poor condition becomes one of a number of options being taken up by young people. Another, less pleasant option, has been to move into one of the tents or benders hidden along the canalside. During the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic most of the homeless were moved into temporary housing, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they will be back on the streets now the lockdown is being eased.

But Noah’s ark seemed to be alive and well today. It was a bittersweet moment to reflect on the government’s evident intention to ignore the looming environmental tragedy, tear up the regulations and spend billions of pound building dodgy houses while pouring more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever gardened or farmed would understand that the weather we’ve experienced over the past decade is all the evidence we need to understand the gravity of our situation. Today we saw a plea to reduce the use of chemicals by 50% if we are to save major extinctions of insects and pollinators.

We’ve always grown our allotment on the assumption that whatever we can grow organically ourselves means less burden on the earth. But in one of those long conversations that old friends have, we’ve come to the decision to replace about a third of our crop growing space with plants for the other part of our family, the insects, pollinators, aquatic beasties, birds and mammals who have their rights as well. So today we paced around the allotment in the rain, mulling over the best places for a pond, more wildflowers, more seed bearing plants, more early and later flowering plants for the bookends of the seasons, more bird feeders and a place to sit and contemplate. This autumn we’ll clear some beds, move a few bushes to better places, plant some more fruit trees and lots of beautiful plants. I long for a trailing species rose, clematis, Malus floribunda John Downey, perhaps a quince, maybe foxglove – who knows, it’s a major change of direction for us but in the face of the crisis we’ve collectively brought on ourselves, it’s a step in the right direction. Our 250 square meters is evolving to meet the new needs.

Today, while we were walking I was thinking how lovely the weeds were, just as the strimming brigade were out in force levelling them to the ground. So here’s my weed for today. It’s an absolute pain but it’s really beautiful too. Hedge bindweed is almost indestructible and grows in choking coils all over our plants if we let it. But it’s good to remember how beautiful it is as well. If you look closely you’ll see a railway arch behind – I think it gives the picture an edgy look! Immediately opposite on the same footpath were a group of greater celandines. A few weeks ago they were in full flower, but now the verges are beginning to look a bit tired as many of the plants set seed and die back. Tempus fugit – it’s a phrase that belongs with its companion carpe diem – time flies away, so grab the moment and make the most of it. I might redeem the shining hour by doing a “weed of the day” spot on the Potwell Inn blog – a sort of page three photo for botanists with strange tastes.

Yesterday’s rather industrial white split tin loaf was, as expected a bit of a non event. Exactly as I thought, the sheer speed of fermentation and proving limited the development of the wheat flavour. With a thick layer of home made marmalade it was OK and its texture would mean it could do for a summer pudding, being perfectly close textured and stodgy to prevent the escape any of the lovely juices – but really? ….no, not really. Give me our everyday sourdough any time.

Oh and I notice that two readers clicked on the Dr M grass i/d video – does that mean I’m not entirely alone in the universe? Another new unexplored grass today, I’m on a roll!

I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

Sometimes, eating out of the cupboard can be a revelation.

In fact the photo – of a prickly sow thistle on the allotment today – has nothing whatever to do with my subject – except perhaps to say that just as weeds have their unique beauty. (this one looks to me like a dragon landing on the earth to me), so too can meals made from leftovers.

Or not exactly leftovers. Yesterday I mentioned that I was reducing four bottles of stored passata to a thick tomato sauce. With this year’s tomatoes ripening on the vines we really need to clear the cupboard, and we have a whole case of passata stored amongst the pencils and paper in Madame’s studio. If you’ve got a good memory you’ll remember that our favourite recipe is labelled Hazan number one. It’s the go-to recipe for tomato sauce at the Potwell Inn. It’s in Marcella Hazan’s book “The essentials of classic Italian Cooking”– as simple as could be, but devastatingly good. At its most basic it’s tomatoes passed three or four times through the passata machine, a dollop of butter and a few onions. We grow around 60 lbs of tomatoes a year and they’re all made into sauce and passata for stores. Last night I modified it a bit and threw in some of this season’s green garlic and – right at the end – a handful of basil.

When I first tasted it I thought I’d blown the sauce completely. It had a real acidity, and initially I thought I’d over salted it but it was done and we would eat it anyway. On with a large pan of water, then, and some linguini and then I united the sauce with the pasta and – well, it was stunningly rich; like a D Major chord played by a full symphony orchestra. We ate in silence and licked the bowl clean. Too rich off the spoon, it was extraordinary on the pasta.

So that was the first third of the pan of sauce. Today I made a goulash – just an ordinary one but instead of using the usual tinned tomatoes I added the second third of yesterday’s sauce. Once again the transformation was complete. The usual notes were modulated and there were sevenths, ninths and thirteenths, and so again we ate greedily- this lockdown is turning us into a pair of porkers! Sorry, by the way, for the musical metaphors but they’re the only ones that come close to flavours.

Tomorrow the last third is going into the zucchini al forno recipe from Patience Grey. I’ve never properly appreciated the tomatoes as functioning like a stock. We make stock all the time and we freeze blocks of it because running out is a bit of a catastrophe. When they work they’re there but not there – they liberate and accentuate all the other flavours without dominating themselves. The flat is stuffed with bottles, preserving jars and jam jars all waiting to be used over the next few weeks. Our sugar purchasing during these summer months is almost embarrassing, but the eating of it is spread out over a whole year and in any case quite a lot of the produce is given away.

I feel sad for people who don’t, or can’t cook. For me, the stove is a marvellous place and eating our own produce is almost sacramental in the way it binds together the collaboration with the natural world on the allotment and brings it to our table as we share and eat together. That’s been one of the worst aspects of the lockdown for us – we haven’t been able to share food with our family and friends. Slowly, though, we’re inching back towards a different kind of life where perhaps we’ll be able to address the pressing problems that we, as a whole worldwide culture, have created for ourselves and the earth.

A stranger on the allotment causes great consternation

I was just settling down to planting out some leeks for the winter when Helen came across with disturbing news. She had been poking about – although that’s not quite how she put it – on a disused plot when she had discovered what she thought might be Japanese Knotweed growing. This would be exceptionally bad news because it’s an incredibly difficult plant to eradicate without dousing the entire site with several tons of agent orange and keeping it under armed guard for six months. The treacherous thought passed through my head – look on the bright side it might be Himalayan Balsam which is almost as invasive but has prettier flowers. So we trekked across to the offending plot and had a look. Thankfully at this point she hadn’t rung the council, although she had mentioned it to the site rep. Anyway, whatever it was it wasn’t either of the nasty plants but I had no idea at all what it was, so I took some photos and promised I’d have a go at identifying it. Later on I had a scout around on the internet and discovered that it’s a golden kiwi vine – Actinidia chinensis. It’s a big and energetic looking plant so we’ll see if it bears any fruit this year; but people plant the wackiest things on their allotments and then when they leave, the next tenants often dig them up for fear that they’re weeds. We’ve seen many mature plants destroyed by newcomers who think they need to cluster bomb their plot and start again. Sometimes it’s a good idea to wait and see for the first year. Our vines and one of the white currants are both incredibly productive and neither of them cost us a penny apart from a bit of work. The same goes for the Lord Lambourne apple that was quickly escaping its espalier form from neglect when we took it on, but after a couple of hard prunings it’s looking the part once again and producing dozens of delicious apples for us.

Anyway, my forensic adventure revealed another useful neglected resource – a rampant patch of post flowering borage, which is a marvellous addition to a compost heap. So later I popped back and took a cut. It’ll grow back and flower again this summer with ease, and so we’ll share the spoils with the bees.

This is another of those transitional times on the allotment when we’re busy taking spent crops out and replanting the beds immediately. I harvested the last of the first earlies, around 28lbs of new potatoes. There’s just one more bed to clear because we like to get them safely out of the ground before the risk of blight. So spuds out and leeks in – that’s what I was in the middle of doing when helen shipped up. They’re lovely looking plants this year so we’re optimistic about a good crop. The peas, on the other hand, have been not been good. They came late and rather erratically and so the pea moth was able to invade before we got to eat them. There were a few pounds but nothing to get excited about – so, sadly, they’ll be coming up tomorrow if the rain lets up, and we’ll get something else planted in there.

One crop that’s totally reliable is the courgette. There are only two of us and we usually have far more than we need. To be honest it’s never been one of my favourite vegetables but growing them turns them into a wholly new treat. Often I sauté them and give them a splash of lemon juice just before serving them – maybe with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Lemon lifts the flavour in a way that salt never can, so it’s a perfect substitute. Another favourite way is to cut the courgettes in lengthways slices, dip them in beaten egg and flour and then fry them. OK it’s a bit of a faff, but then you alternate layers of courgette with pieces of mozzarella cheese and good, rich (home made) tomato sauce, pop in some hard boiled eggs and top it with bread crumbs and bake in the oven. It’s a recipe I got from Patence Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a weed” – look for zucchini al forno. We cook it with aubergine as well. Finally I’m trying something new today; you might best think of it as an Italian antipasti – courgettes , fried golden brown and then marinaded with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint leaves. They’re maturing in the fridge right now.

And on the subject of tomato sauce, we make litres of it every year, along with passata; treating the passata as a base ingredient which almost always needs turning into something else – like proper tomato sauce. I must have been in a hurry last year because while I was checking the stocks today I found about 10 litres of very thin passata and so I tipped four bottles into a pan and I’m reducing it with a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic and a big lump of butter. It’ll sit there simmering very very slowly until I can almost stand a spoon up in it, and then I’ll put on a pan of boiling water for the pasta.

The crops are coming off the plot so fast that it’s a job to keep up; but after a four hour stint on the allotment this morning we unloaded the trug and everything looked so beautiful my tiredness evaporated and I went back to the stove hungry and almost singing. Just occasionally you can feel a bit stale – especially being as confined as we’ve been for months – but the constant changes on the allotment adds enough texture to our lives to keep us upbeat.

And finally, I’ve bought a new hand lens; a 20x achromatic job with LED and UV illumination built in. I was so pleased with its capacity to reveal the smaller parts of grasses I put it around my neck on its lanyard today and tucked it inside my T shirt. When I got home and changed out of my overalls I noticed a strange swelling under my T shirt, around my navel. My God! I thought I’ve got a hernia ….. but it was just the hand lens. No wonder Helen was looking askance at me this morning.