St Francis of the boot rack

Our youngest son has a fine sense of irony

I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:

  • Tea in bed
  • Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
  • lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
  • Supper: Chicken fajita

The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!

And so to St Francis.

I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?

I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???

Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.

Pop. There goes another one!

So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.

Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?

I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .

Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.

For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.

The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.

Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.

The big but little day

Here’s our solstice breakfast – photographed as near to 10.00am as I could – I was starving hungry! The gloop in the bowls is a a kind of muesli – I prefer to think of it as a cold porridge made with rolled oats, oatmeal, nuts, seeds including milled flax seed and grated apple. We have it almost every day because it tastes lovely and will last us until supper if we’re busy. The loaf is a freshly baked 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, our ‘everyday bread’. The solstice treat is home made marmalade and damson jam, and the liturgy was the lighting of the candle. Simple but lovely.

Later our son drove down from the Midlands to exchange Christmas presents which are now quarantined in the boot of our car – a strange meeting with face masks and social distancing plus a bit extra for luck. There were no hugs and absolutely no kisses and we conspired silently not to breach the line between what was being felt and what was being said, but it was a bit of a charade really and no-one was fooled, I think.

Madame has taken to watching the French news channel broadcasting in English. It’s so much better at telling it straight than the BBC. For months now the most reliable newspaper sources of English news have been the Scottish ones. The English press is so partisan it’s barely worth reading unless you want a laugh; and even the Guardian’s liberal pose is constantly undermined by its visceral fear and hatred of any kind of politics that might change things for the better.

We spent the afternoon preparing a celebration supper and watching a documentary about Polyface Farm which I’ve been reading and writing about over the past couple of days. But I’ve forsworn any campaigning today. Up at the allotment digging a parsnip (they’re big) – paralysed as we have been by the weather – I suddenly thought we might span three of the raised beds with a polytunnel to extend our growing season at both ends. In the spring our tiny greenhouse is always full of germinating seeds and because it’s so small it heats up to eye watering temperatures very quickly so we’ve found that tomatoes get very stressed in there. Only the hottest chillies seem to like it. I’ve always resisted the thought because of the increased demand for hand watering but now the thought has lodged in my mind I’m wondering if I could design a means of storing the water and redirecting it on to the beds with soaker hose. It’s tricky because a 17′ by 10′ tunnel would collect an awful lot of rain in a storm – but the hardest problems are always the most fun.

Outside it was dark by 4.00pm and there was continuous drizzle under a leaden sky almost all day. This is all very hard emotional work!

The Potwell Inn prepares for the winter solstice

From one of my old notebooks that I found in the garage when we moved to Bath.

According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.

In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.

But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.

However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.

Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.

Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.

Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.

The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.

And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.

Happy solstice!

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

The Potwell Inn dispensary

Well, it was a rainy day so there was nothing for it but to spend it at the stove, catching up on the list of to-do’s, the first of which was to turn the calendula flowers, harvested from the allotment in the autumn and infused in sweet almond oil – into a most useful cream to use at home. Among herbal remedies, calendula is a reliable go-to for eczema and itchy dry skin. Bought from commercial suppliers it’s pretty expensive – the best brands cost around £6 a tube, and so we decided that this year we’d make our own. There is, however, something of a dilemma to be addressed in making it because almond oil is way beyond the resources of our allotment so we have to buy it. But there’s a choice to be made that turns out to be quite an expensive one. Our usual supplier lists two types of sweet almond oil – the organic and non organic, and the standard non organic oil costs £12.59 a litre. The organic oil, on the other hand, costs £52.85. So on price alone, the non organic wins hands down – but wait – because if you look up the source country you discover that the organic oil is produced in Spain and processed in Germany. The country of origin of non organic oil is not listed so it’s probably a blended generic oil from many places ……… including California?

So what’s the problem with California? you might ask and the answer is that according to Tom Philpott’s excellent new book “Perilous Bounty” it’s not just the fires that have brought disaster to California. In the Central Valley there is a massive industrial scale almond farming enterprise. The valley has always been fed by the meltwaters of the Sierra Nevada snows until, that is, drought and global warming began to take their toll and so the farmers started to pump groundwater at an increasing rate – it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. The result has been fairly catastrophic. As the wells deepen, the water becomes more saline. The aquifers are emptying rapidly because they are being drawn on far more quickly than they can be refilled by the melting snow and so the land is literally sinking – up to two feet a year; causing havoc with the local infrastructure – roads, pipes aqueducts and canals. A second problem has affected the industry because the margins are so tight, it can only make a profit by employing migrant labour at the lowest possible wages. Before the long drought began in 2011, this area produced $20.7 billion worth of fruit, vegetables and nuts – 53% of the US total (all these figures are from Tom Philpott’s book).

So it turns out that the cheaper almond oil comes at a cost that is simply not reflected in the price. Cheap almond oil depends upon cheap labour and the overuse of cheap water – and it’s destroying the environment. For all we know, precisely the same slow destruction is taking place in Spain. One of the great unspoken problems with the organic movement is the way in which it is being slowly industrialised. However, that’s why we bought the expensive organic oil which, of course, will be much more expensive again after brexit if (when) tariffs are applied. That’s how politics, economics and ethics are hanging together when we think about a Green New Deal. There’s no way of building a greener future without changing our political, economic and ethical assumptions. As I wrote yesterday, it amounts to such a profound change it will feel like a bereavement as long as we refuse to embrace the evidence that’s before our eyes.

Anyway, the home produced organic calendula cream still came in at 50% of the price of the commercial products and there was nothing whatever added; just the flowers extracted into the oil, and some beeswax. As for the method, you simply melt the beeswax slowly in a double boiler and stir in the strained oil. It’s best to check that the cooled ointment is the right density, so we tested it like jam – on a cold plate. Then we bottled and labelled it …. ta da!

But that’s not enough to keep us out of mischief for a whole day, so I made a favourite old stager from the Potwell Inn book of borrowed delights. This one came initially via a friend (and occasional diner) at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny – just one of the huge list of marvellous restaurants we could never afford to eat in – but who needs a restaurant when you’ve got a recipe? – after all I can do my own washing up. This dish comes up all over the place so it’s hardly a scarce and exotic signature dish; just plain Italian cooking whose flavour is like the brass section in a Brahms symphony.

Then there was stock to be finished. This time it was a proper pot au feu with a whole chicken and a small piece of beef plus all the usual herbs and vegetables. The beef gets turned into Salade Parisienne with a spicy salsa verde of gherkins, capers, shallots, parsley and oil. The chicken is picked and will make at least three meals and a soup, with stock to spare. We always freeze surplus meat rather than leave it in the fridge until it has to be wasted. On a cooking day it seems like a lot but this batch will last us the whole week if not longer, served in as many ways as we can think of. But there is just as much of an ethical and economic challenge with our diet as there was with the almond oil. I’m also re-reading Michael Pollan’s brilliant book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan is one of the best writers around on food and its constellation of issues and I’d happily recommend this book as an excellent starting point for a big think on living responsibly. Dieter Helm, Simon Fairlie, Tim Laing and James Rebanks have all written about the ethical issues surrounding food and food production and they’re worth the effort as well.

So, (lecture over), finally I baked a wholemeal sourdough loaf – our everyday bread. Let’s be honest, it’s never going to win any prizes against a bloomingly adolescent loaf made with white flour but if flavour counts at all, this loaf is a constant pleasure. You can look in vain for a 100% wholemeal recipe for sourdough bread, and there’s a reason. It can never compete in the crisp crust and open texture competition. It won’t rise to the same degree without adding a significant (say 50%) amount of white flour – which we’re not eating at the moment. But it’s not a competition, silly. Cooking at home means you can eat exactly what you want at a fraction of the price – it’s a no-brainer. Happy days!

A quiet start to the day in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins

I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.

A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?

Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Chef’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.

the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons

But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.

When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.

Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.

And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

– even a miss is something of a triumph

So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!

We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!

Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Sunset, dusk, twilight.

I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.

We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.

Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.

What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”

There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.

As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.

And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.

And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.

Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

It’s all in the fingers

Off to Shipton Mill for a sack of flour today – which is what passes for a day out during a lockdown. Buying flour in bulk (well, 25Kg anyway) is a bit of an event in my book- it confers a feeling of confidence about coping with the post brexit food shortages that are surely on their way, and helps me to feel that after 50 years of practicing I’ve moved up a rung on the baking ladder. Not so my son, because once – when I struggled down to his pizza shack with a sack of Italian flour, he told me he gets through five a week of them at least. Ten years ago I’d have been driving across to Berkeley to see my old mate Dick England who set up a mill there, where I could see the milling going on and soak up his expertise – how he allowed the grain to ripen properly before he’d mill it and why a millers’ thumb was better than verniers and microscopes for assessing the quality of the flour. In fact, for him smell, taste, feel and even sound were all part of the process. Dick was a singer too, a rare tenor whose voice you could recognise anywhere, cutting through a choir in a way that was thrilling to listen to but extremely annoying to conductors. Anyway, Dick passed away some years ago and most of the time, if I can get it, I use Shipton Mill because it’s local and excellent quality and they don’t mind letting punters like me go and collect a small order. Collecting has become something of a cloak and dagger affair since covid began. I ring them and make the order, pay for it and they give me a time slot; then I turn up at the mill at the appointed time and look for a white van in which my order has been placed. It’s the ultimate covid compliant handover that feels like a spy swop at Checkpoint Charlie and with the added advantage of a wander around the Cotswolds through scenery I’ve known since I cycled around there as an eleven year old. Those were the days.

On the way the way there we spotted an old bottle kiln sitting incongruously by the side of the road near Luckington. The Cotswold landscape is mostly limestone – known as cornbrash and which is used for walls, buildings and even roofs where every course of stones is a different size and has its own name. That was something I learned from a long conversation with a retired roofer in the pub. One of those memorable evenings. As for the kiln, I had no idea there were pockets of clay in Wiltshire large enough to exploit but the evidence was before us. When we got home we found a reference and it turned out that this one was the last survivor of a bank of three and had never been fired.

What came to mind was a thought that so many of the truly important skills are embodied, exercised through all of the senses and deepened by constant practice. It’s almost impossible to describe in words when a dough is just right. Of course you can stick to a recipe as long as your ingredients are standardised, but using local flours, for instance, the protein content and workability can vary from batch to batch, depending on the season and the weather. The recipe is – so to speak – in the hands and fingers. And so with clay, which will sing if you know how to do it. I even knew a plasterer once who could advance or retard the setting of a bucket of mixed plaster as if by magic.

Last night we watched a TV programme on the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was marvellous to see how many women were among the engineers and specialists at the top of their professions; and it was also pretty awesome to see young carpenters learning how to cut the new roof timbers from trees they’d felled themselves by hand. The timbers are selected by shape; curved pieces for curved shapes, making them as strong as steel. At one point there were three young people standing next to one another on a huge baulk of timber, finishing the curve with nothing but adzes and hand axes. I could almost smell the oak chips flying off. My own grandfather was a carpenter and would talk about his days as a bottom sawyer in a saw pit, when he was young, with flakes and sawdust falling into his eyes and his back half broken by the effort. He was the same; he could cut a complex joint by eye and actually came out of retirement in his early 70’s to help restore a medieval timber framed building in Bristol. As we watched these fortunate apprentices I asked Madame if it was too late for me to learn a new craft – OK so you know the answer to that one!

Why is it we so undervalue these skills. Anyone who can count to twenty without taking their socks off is applauded; everything is subject to examinations and tests which skew value towards assessable targets, while a decent gardener will understand how plants talk to us and what they are telling us if we will but listen. How do you assess how a compost heap is going? By touch and by smell.

Young chefs often fail to taste their food, and if they do, but they smoke – which is extremely common it seems – they habitually overseason their food. Experience, texture, smell, visual appearance and taste are far more important to food than photographs and recipes. Like so many working class kids of my generation I first learned to cook good food from Elizabeth David, without any detailed recipes and glossy photos. Then, later on as we travelled in Europe we would spend hours tracking down dishes and discovering whether I’d even got close. Frankly some of my bodges were a good deal less anxiety provoking than the real thing – local delicacies can be a bit in yer face if you know what I mean. My first genuine andouillette (tripe sausage) in a motorway service station near Lyon was a reminder of precisely the bits of the animal I least wanted to think about, and my order of a feijoada near the old market in Lisbon attracted a crowd of waiters as it was served up. Apart from the tooth that had fallen out of what I think was a pig’s jaw, it was marvellous – well, character forming anyway. The market is now a foodie destination but I doubt if you could order feijoada there – too peasant by half; and in another Lisbon restaurant I had to almost fight a waiter to get what I’d always known as stone soup which is basically boiling water, raw garlic and raw egg. “You won’t like it!” he said. He was right. One of my favourite things is to try to recreate something wonderful that we’ve eaten, without a recipe but just a memory. Careful, thoughtful eating often gets you surprisingly close.

I once knew a drystone waller – Herbie Curtis – who was asked by someone how much he charged – “£100 a yard” he said. “That’s a lot of money for a pile of stones” the enquirer said. “Well” said Herbie – “It’s a pound for the stone and £99 for knowing what to do with it”. Yep – that just about nails it.