Feeling a bit seasonally affected

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
You know those days when you wake up, look out of the window and you think November.  I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” for the first time more years ago than I care to remember – it’s in front of me now as I write this. Somewhere in the book he wrote that, of all the jobs in the pottery, filling in the tax return was the one that cost him most sleep.  Mercifully I no longer have to fill them in, but today I had to complete some unintelligible forms to claim back a small amount of money that was owed to me. Somehow the (relatively) simple action of searching for forms and letters last seen more than a decade ago saps the energy in a terrible way.
There were jobs on the allotment that needed to be done, but it was no use; I just had to get down to it. Of course in the event it wasn’t nearly so hard as I’d feared and by lunchtime the documents were on their way but the Black Dog lingered on. Cooking always seems to do the trick, so we did some shopping and I knuckled down to batch-cook 3.5 Kg of ragu, prepping 3Kg of blackcurrants ready to make cordial, and toad in the hole for supper – does that translate into North American, I wonder? Basically it’s sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter.  That, plus some spiced red cabbage and left-over gravy, made a meal to lift the soul.
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Where the allotment and the kitchen join together

 

Here’s an idea stolen shamelessly from the Harvest Meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  My only spin is to add a slice of goats cheese. Oatmeal biscuit with a slice of goat’s cheese and on that some ordinary beetroot mashed with black pepper and salt and a teaspoon of horseradish sauce. Then some diced super sweet beetroot on top. It looks even better if you use yellow beets, but we used what we’ve grown.

Where’s the little sharp knife?

 

Squash the juniper berries roughly , maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don’t want them so much a powder, simply well bruised.

I was reading Nigel Slater’s vegetable cookbook “Tender” when that phrase suddenly struck me.  One of the reasons his books are such a pleasure to read is that they so often capture the sense of what it feels like to cook. Cooking is a truly multi-sensory experience involving taste and smell, colour, sound and texture but also memory of meals eaten, lessons learned, friends who were deeply appreciative and meals cooked and swallowed rather than savoured by those who could not recognise a love letter unless it was written down. Some food writers are a bit cerebral; some assume you’ve got skills you never learned, some assume that the pleasure is all in the eating, and that the cooking is no more than the warm-up for the main event.

My mother taught me how to make Yorkshire puddings one Sunday morning when the condensation was running down the kitchen windows. “How do you know when it’s thick enough?” I asked. The answer came in an action; she moved the spoon rapidly back and forth in the bowl causing the mixture to flop back making an utterly distinctive sound that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a formidably accurate measure that works every time but I couldn’t describe it in words.  The old cookbook standby “like cream” is too vague. The sound, on the other hand, never lets you down.

And in that contemplative moment I remembered her little sharp knife. She wouldn’t have known what ‘mise en place’ was all about but she knew that it was always kept in the right hand drawer of the cupboard in the kitchen, and she also knew that she was the only person in the house who understood why that was important. Other people would take it out to cut string, or whatever, and then it would be left lying around somewhere else, not close at hand.  It was everything to her, although it was probably second hand when she acquired it from her mother. Sharpened to the point where there was little of the original shape or length left, in truth it wasn’t that sharp at all but just sharper than the others. Carbon steel, slightly flexible and stained by what might have been generations of use: it came to represent her. It was her peeler, her tester her filleting knife

That was the knife I used when I first learned to trim shin of beef. I thought you had to remove all the connective tissue so I landed up with some very small shreds of meat and threw all the flavour and texture away. I used it clumsily to core kidneys with much the same results, but in doing so I learned something about the tactile pleasures of cooking. It’s hands-on and hands-in alchemy that takes the most unpromising or even faintly disgusting, and transforms it into something beautiful. Every day the ugly duckling in the larder becomes a swan. She had a tiny repertoire of meals that marked the seasons year by year. The day she made a curry for the first time, the day she added a single chilli to a stew were memorable days because her menus revolved like the stars in the sky. Innovations were like comets hinting at disasters to come.

The sensual pleasures of cooking are not talked or written about nearly as much as those of eating and yet they’re the foundation of good cooking. It’s in the hands, between the fingers, even with the whole body when kneading dough. The difference between right and not quite right are better inscribed in tactile memory than they can ever be described in words.  But Nigel Slater sometimes gets close.

 

Quiet day at the Inn

IMG_4281So why is this blog called the Potwell Inn? I feel the question hovering, unspoken, in the air. Part of the answer is that (for me) it’s the equivalent of a keyboard shortcut that takes me immediately to where I need to be in order to write. The two words are analogous to a complex in psychological terms and so when I say ‘I’ve got a complex’ I mean it in the wholly positive sense that it’s the ‘madeleine’ that gets me going. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair.  Stanley Spencer had an even more unpleasant olefactory shortcut it seems. For me it’s just those two words. Of course there’s nothing more obscure than someone else’s obsession and I realize that some potential readers turn away in bafflement.  A pub that doesn’t exist is a blog too far! But a good pub embodies all of the qualities I most treasure. It’s a place of welcome, of meeting, an escape.  It’s never judgemental, it sells good beer and good food. Any topic of conversation is permitted and it might even lead to a memorable evening from time to time. In my working life I spent ten years teaching in a prison and two old style mental institutions; ten years as a community worker on an outer fringe estate, and thirty years as a parish priest. All 50 years of experience taught me that the qualities needed to do that kind of work were exactly the same as those needed to run a good pub. Add to that the fact that HG Wells’ novel “The History of Mr Polly” has the Potwell Inn as a place of liberation and self-discovery and that seals the deal for me. I hope it might for you as well.

Not much happening at the Inn today, but the sun shone and drove away the frost and we siezed the opportunity to catch up with some household jobs. If I’m feeling particularly melancholic there’s nothing more therapeutic than making stock, filling the flat with the aroma of meals as yet uncooked. Making stock is like planting seeds, it insists that there will be another day. The other running project is to eat more veg, and so an hour in the bookshop sorting through endless possibles, I eventually invested £30 in the Leith Vegetable Bible. No breathless exuberance, no claims of everlasting life and best of all no photographs – like all the best cookery books. So the overcrowded space on my side of the bed now has four of the best vegetarian cookery books with barely a photograph between them. Apart from the Leith book, there are Nigel Slater’s veg book “Tender”, Jane Grigson’s magnificent “Vegetables” which has the best and most comprehensive research, and finally Rose Elliot of course.  There are many others in the bookshelves, but those are my personal favourites.

The asparagus bed is refusing to bow to winter, but tomorrow I’m going to cut all the fronds back so I can spread the seaweed we gatered in North Wales.  It was pretty ripe when we loaded it into the car, and we had to tie the sack tight to stop the copious wildlife escaping – so God knows what it’s like now.  Tomorrow will tell.

 

How do you make a turnip exciting?

IMG_4675Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed.  Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’.  Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can.  So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest  across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses?  I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.

But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:

Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.

 

That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner.  So no thanks.  Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.

IMG_4678Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine.  One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.

So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown  a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible.  Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly.  So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.

It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?”  I’ll have to think about that one.

Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg.  The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view.  And if that all sounds  bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!

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Pasta the way it should be

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Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008

“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.

The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.

So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.

Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.

OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.

Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.

The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’

What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!

Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.

Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.

The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).

So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.

The fox puts in an appearance

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But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!

IMG_4666As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes.  It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well.  But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney.  So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed  straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends.  All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses.  That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.

Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared.  We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food.  We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.

Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it.  We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic.  It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.

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