You can stuff your truffles!

It doesn’t take long for us to find our inner forager, especially when we know a place as well as we know this. The fungi in the picture are Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushrooms. We were pleased to see them, although we didn’t collect them (I don’t recall ever having eaten them) – however they were a good sign that the season is underway and so we were a bit more switched on to see what other fungi we could find, and they were there: horse mushrooms, puffballs, waxcaps and fairy ring mushrooms – dried they’re very good in stocks but a bit too tough to be palatable.

So we went on to a tried and tested clifftop site and found the field mushrooms exactly where they’ve appeared in the past. They were a bit more difficult to collect, though, and I had to scramble across a steep cleft and down the top of a cliff to get a handful of button mushrooms – they’re the best because they’re less likely to have been attacked by grubs – the one in the photo was the best we saw but it involved a dangerous climb over a thirty foot drop so we left it. In twenty minutes we’d collected enough for breakfast plus one intruder that was probably a yellow staining mushroom, and which betrayed itself in the bag by turning chrome yellow. I’ve been caught out by them before and always because greed overcame caution or I picked them on the borders of a hedge in longer grass. Luckily I’ve never eaten them, but our cat once ate some that I put aside (she licked them because they were cooked in butter) and she was violently ill, poor thing. This particular usurper was hanging around the edge of a patch of gorse. The genuine field mushrooms prefer open grass, particularly when it’s well cropped by sheep. In our last house we lived next to the playing field of the local primary school, and every summer there was a competition between me and the local milkman to harvest the masses of mushrooms early in the morning. He was a very early riser and it turned into a bit of a competition until we agreed a truce and each left plenty for the other.

But field mushrooms are a proper treat. Overnight the kitchen filled with their fragrance and cleaned and fried this morning they turned an omelette into a feast. I do wonder a bit why people pay such fabulous prices for imported truffles. Our son’s a chef and he once gave us a whole black truffle as a Christmas present and, to be brutally honest, it tasted like the smell of a gas leak – not North Sea gas, but the old fashioned sort of towns gas. If it was as free as a field mushroom and if it grew locally we’d probably acquire a taste for them but paying fifty quid and much more for them seems more like a way of poncifying – or worse, disguising – mediocre food and just bragging about the rarity and expense. Anyway, the seasons roll on endlessly and each brings its delights; autumn fruits and fungi give way to the winter when the only show in town for a nosy naturalist are bryophytes and lichens – always something to try and identify.

We’re slowly learning how best to use the trailcam, and we’ve captured some decent videos of birds. Last night a fox was poking around in the woods below the cottage, so tonight I’ll put out some peanuts to try to lure it closer.

Yesterday on our clifftop walk I noticed something red hiding in the grass on the edge and it turned out to be a Crocosmia – goodness knows how it got there, it’s miles from the nearest garden. But what else is in flower at the moment? Given that it was a proper walk I had to be circumspect but I spotted (without being spotted) loads of yarrow, watermint, common ragwort, fleabane, a few stragglers of silverweed and ditto thrift, purple clover,lesser knapweed, red campion, bramble, meadowsweet, wild angelica and, of course heather.

Then there was one harvestman spider – I don’t know why I was so pleased to see it but I was!

And then the birds – sorry this is turning into a list, a bit of symptom possibly, but we were alerted by the insistent demands of a young shag demanding food, herring gulls in abundance, one oystercatcher hanging out in a little inlet that we climbed down to. Last year we spotted seals there and last night you could see why. A shoal of fish were leaping in the water, some of them large enough to see their dorsal fins quite clearly. The oystercatcher is a lot bigger than you’d expect when you get close. Finally, and I’m not that good at birds, there were a small number of what I think were terns, in the mix. I’ve come back and read them up a bit so when we go back I can identify them properly.

The coast path was crowded with walkers – and I mean crowded – Madame asked one group (rather challengingly I thought) where their coach was parked. Whistling sands was more crowded than we’ve ever seen it so we beat a retreat and completed our walk in the evening, rather luckily as it turned out because we picked our breakfast.

Oh and as we walked the path we found what looked like an ancient earthwork but which, I suspect was a more recent (last century) attempt to drain a large area of marsh. Luckily it hadn’t succeeded so that’s a treat for another expedition and a different set of books!

Fasting and feasting

I like the way they do harvest in Provence where everything ripens by the end of July and for the next six weeks it’s too hot to work the land so there’s nothing but fêtes, bull runs and general mayhem. The bull runs are especially good fun because they get a fairly safe bull with blunt horns and all the village lads dress up, douse their white shirts in red paint, put on their red neckerchiefs and get completely hammered before they dash drunkenly up the main street between walls of steel barriers, being chased by the bull. No-one seems to get hurt but it seems to work like pheromones with the local girls. In Uzės, on the other hand, it’s a big deal where the local Camarguais cowboys (and girls, but cowpersons sounds like a secret Bayer agri project) drive a genuinely scary bull down the main street, galloping flat out on either side of it out while the young men try to dive between the horses and wrestle the bull away from its escorting riders by grabbing it by the tail – that’s serious! It’s an extraordinarily moving spectacle, especially because the riders are all dressed in traditional costume and they’re ferociously good riders, and the competing young men are completely fearless. Hundreds of spectators line the street and some of the drunker ones even squeeze between the barriers at great risk.

Back at the Potwell Inn it’s a bit more prosaic. Harvesting the last of the tomato crop today we reckoned we’ve picked around sixty or seventy pounds which have been preserved as sauces (3 recipes), passata and dried; while there are still two trays of green tomatoes and one of immediate eaters. We’ve got jams in three or four flavours, damson vodka and sloe gin (even though we don’t drink), and pickles and couli and I’ve spent days on the stove, bottling and preserving and there’s still more to do – and so today as we carried the latest trays back up to the car Madame said “It’s harvest festival”, and she’s almost right. It’s been the weirdest season ever but as the summer crops come to an end we’re pleased that we coped as well as we did. Everything about the weather has been hyperbolic – wettest, coldest, windiest and hottest, sunniest and most disappointing – and yet we coped and learned a great deal and began to plan for next season when we’ll be introducing far more wildflowers and a pond.

But as for a harvest festival, well that’s a different thing altogether. We spoke to a couple of fellow allotmenteers as we carried the last tomatoes up and laughed about the weather (it was raining) but as for any kind of community thanksgiving – not necessarily religious – there’s none. Religious or not it seems churlish not to give thanks for the sheer generosity of the earth, and I’m perfectly sure that I’m not in a minority of one. Maybe it’s because it feels weird to offer thanks to an invisible power without any apparent content to get a handle on. On the other hand I’m perfectly at home with the experience of thankfulness without attributing my good fortune to any particular branch of the God franchises on offer. Perhaps that’s the answer to my own question “who, or what should we thank?”, and it’s this: It’s the thankfulness that matters much more than the address you send it to.

The autumn – which we’ve just entered untidily – is one long occasion of thankfulness, and nothing dents my enthusiasm for it; not long hours at the stove with a backache, not turning the compost or watching plants you’ve tended all season die back, because the joy is the way we can preserve food and ourselves against the coming winter.

But that doesn’t answer the other part of the question. While I can find thankfulness in my own, or our own few square yards of the earth it’s hard not to be sharing it with others. There used to be a big flower show in Bristol, in fact they happened in almost every village in the country and they’re dying out. The Bath allotmenteers used to have a show until the council imposed insurances and form filling made it no longer viable. The Church of England used to be another kind of place you could take your bit of thankfulness and share it with all the other lukewarm or absolutely non- Christians; just bring the courgette that grew and grew and that was your ticket with no fear of any theology spoiling the occasion. Now they’ve taken out the back row and it’s full of gimlet eyed enthusiasts.

The big flower shows and harvest festivals were the last survivors of an age when a full larder and good friends was the difference between surviving the winter and starving. We’ve been sold the lie that we can feast every day and forget about famine, except that there are tens of millions of children in the UK who know differently. Our inner lives have been broken up and sold off in lots to private enterprise along with the air we breathe and the water we drink and there are powerful people who think that protesting against the injustice is the same as terrorism. Am I beginning to sound like William Cobbett? In “Cottage Economy” he wrote that the only time you could rely on a visit from the local minister was after you’d killed the fattened pig for the winter.

So what does that make a harvest festival? is it a worrying far left demonstration against the food industry? A sign of how far we have to go to escape the clutches of irrationality? A sales opportunity for artisan producers of pickle and gin? Or is it an enormous freewheeling gale of gratitude from those of us who have grasped the essential fact that our culture, our agriculture and our food industry are on the road to ruin, and who are trying to live differently.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’

Proverbs 15:17 (you’d better believe it – no faith required!)

The closest we’ll get to Cornwall this year?

Echium pininiana

If ever there was a plant that reminded me of a place it’s this one and the oddest thing about it is that it doesn’t really belong there. The Echium pininiana really belongs somewhere around the Canaries but it’s found a wonderful niche in Cornwall where, because it seeds freely, it’s almost naturalised. This one came from our old friends because they love them too (he’s almost a Cornishman although he comes from over the border in Devon). Aside from being very architectural during the winter, it grows a huge flowering spike in its second year – the one in Tony and Glen’s garden is over fifteen feet tall. The other thing you need to know about it is that it’s related to the Viper’s Bugloss which, if you know it, is deeply attractive to bees and the like. So this fifteen foot giant is just covered in borage blue flowers all the way up the spike and can have dozens if not hundreds of bees and other insects nectaring on it. Better still, the day we saw it in their garden there was a virtual army of ants ascending and descending. It grows everywhere on the Lizard peninsula but it’s a bit fussy about soil so we’re going to plant this one on the allotment in the best place for its temperamental ways. If it succeeds, every time we look at it we’ll be reminded of one of our favourite places.

Elsewhere today we took up an invitation from some more friends to pick damsons, and so we arrived home with 20lbs of damsons and a big bag of bramley apples; then later we dropped in at the allotment and harvested some carrots which are looking fine. So more time in the kitchen for me; but just to show that even close to home there’s bags of natural history to enjoy we were taking a look at their new pear trees and noticed a grey dagger moth caterpillar having a chew at the leaves which were also carrying some pear rust. In close-up the rust is rather fine looking and it has a complicated lifestyle, relying on pear and juniper exclusively to complete its life cycle.

The sheer glamour of the allotment

Runner beans in flower – If the video doesn’t work very well I’d appreciate it if you commented and let me know. This is new technology for me.

I’ve written before about the default, but quite inaccurate view of allotmenteering that gets propagated by the seed catalogues and coffee table books. Grow all your food in 20 minutes a month! whispers the siren voice, accompanied by shots of glamorous looking models in distressed straw hats strolling through the sunlit beds of their immaculate patches; pausing to pluck a rose or taking note of an enormous cabbage – presumably – var Findhorn – which they will turn into a handmade oak barrel of sauerkraut.

Meanwhile back in the real world the grey skies are rent with cries of uuuuuuuuugh OMG as ghostly slugs slide silently through the lettuces and rats slink out of the compost heap. I’m not doubting the occasional blissful day – they come along like buses, unpredictably – but the danger is that when disappointments come along, as they inevitably will, we get crushed and give up.

Blight, for instance, has arrived on the site as it inevitably does when we get this kind of wet weather for days on end. I well remember the first time we had our potatoes and tomatoes destroyed by blight – seemingly overnight – and it felt dreadful. In fact it was pretty much the end of it for that particular garden. Our neighbours on the site are in their first year and they lost all theirs last week – we wondered why we hadn’t seen them – and they told us how devastated they were. The takeaway point is that you can’t regard blight as an occasional unwelcome visitor, it comes nearly every year. The good news is that there are some really good blight resistant potatoes and tomatoes, not GM or anything like that but just bred selectively in the old fashioned way and easily as good to eat as many of the heritage varieties. UK allotmenteers can look for RHS “Award of Garden Merit” varieties that have been independently tested in field trials mirroring the different kind of soils and climate that we have to work with.

I totally agree that it would be a crime to let the heritage varieties disappear and we always grow a few old-timers among the crops. Often they grow beautifully and taste sublime but they may well be more susceptible to disease – so the answer is (as always) to grow a disease resistant variety as an insurance crop and a row of Grandad’s Teeth beans as a gamble – and don’t be fooled by the catalogues; the best tactic is to ask around on the site and see what the best allotmenteers are growing. That was how we came across Sarpo Mira potatoes and Crimson Crush tomatoes. There are others to try but those are bankers for us. Every year we see glossy pictures of the ultimate this and that but the seed merchants are often beta testing their new varieties on us, and they disappear from the catalogues within a year. Almost anything you grow yourself is going to taste a whole lot better than something grown to survive a 1000 mile journey in a lorry and with a warehouse life of months (it’s true! how do you think they sell ‘fresh’ apples out of season?) .

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Folk proverb

The other thing to say is that the more time you spend on your patch, the better you’ll understand it; and an evening stroll around on a wet night can be the most effective way of controlling slugs without using chemicals. If you’re squeamish you can chuck them in a bucket and sprinkle salt on them but whatever way you do it they’re not going to become extinct. We get asparagus beetle every year but knowing that it’s coming means we can control it by squeezing the caterpillars and spraying with a soap and oil mixture. Nearly all infestations and mildews start slowly and if you can nip them in the bud you won’t need to use anything except low cunning and soap. Plants can look absolutely terrible too. By winter time, the biennial brassicas have all got dead leaves because leaves, surprisingly, have a limited life. If they fall on the ground they look dreadful and attract pests like slugs. So we give them a trim and remove all the dead and dying leaves to the compost heap and they look like RHS show plants all over again. Many perennials die back and, again, it’s safe to remove the dead leaves.

And finally daunting jobs, like weeding, are easy if you do a bit as often as you can; and if you’re short of time – like most people – then ground cover crops can help to do the job for you. In April people look at the Potwell Inn plot and think it looks amazing. They don’t say it in August because the nasturtiums and marigolds have ramped everywhere, and the courgettes, cucumbers and squashes are spreading all over the place. But when you clear the plots at the end of the season you find bare earth under the close cover of leaves and then you have the choice of covering with sheeting until Spring, or sowing a green manure crop. We often put a thick layer of leaves over the earth and then sheet it, and within a couple of months the worms have taken most of them down into the soil and improved it greatly in the process.

It sounds cockeyed, but honestly failures are your best teachers. The worst mistake you can make is to try to control nature. Gardening, to steal a phrase from Tai Chi is an internal art – it doesn’t rely on power but on flexibility, intuition and the ability to relinquish control, and when the onions have given you a whipping for the third year in succession and thrown you contemptuously across the plot, treat them with respect. Bow and reflect, and next year remember to put the insect mesh on, before allium leaf miner arrives.

Heaven is kitchen shaped

Thankfully, glass milk bottles are at last popping up in Bath!

More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.

Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.

As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.

I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.

Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.

And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.

Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas

Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.

Tortured by damsons

Yesterday belonged to Storm Francis which, following so quickly behind Storm Ellen, raged about us with intermittent heavy rain and shed-busting gusts. It’s impossible not to feel just a bit excited in the thick of a storm but maybe it’s easier when you know that your allotment is sheltered from South Westerly storms when the lucky ones at the top of the site who grab all the sunshine and only half of the frosts are getting the full force of the weather. When the rain eased for an hour we went up to see how things were, and I couldn’t resist making this short video of an old cherry tree being battered by the wind – it gives some impression of it at least.

However, that wasn’t the highlight of the day at all because just when I thought it was safe to sit down and watch the rain running down the windows we were given a bag of ripe damsons that looked as if they needed some instant attention. Now I love damsons – however they’re cooked. We make damson jam, damson vodka – there’s about a gallon of it maturing in a cupboard waiting to see if we’ll start drinking alcohol again – there’s damson chutney which is delicious and the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten was some home made …… need I go on. Why I am so passionate about the damson is a mystery except that I think my Granny used to make it using damsons from their orchard. They also had greengages which also make the loveliest and most fragrant jam, but however the obsession began, it’s never gone away. We haven’t got any damson trees on the allotment. We didn’t plant any four years ago because they can take 15 years to come into full fruit; but we have friends who, in normal times, would let us pick a few pounds of fruit from their trees, but these aren’t normal times and visits are out of the question. So damson jam suddenly became a possibility even though we’re on a very low carb diet and can’t eat it.

You wouldn’t think, after three weeks of successfully and painlessly avoiding bread and sugar and all things carbohydrate, that it could be so challenging to make five pounds of jam for the store cupboard -but it was.

What follows is hardly a recipe, possibly an entirely new form of psycho-recipe, since a list of actions and ingredients hardly does justice to the damson. The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones. Almost all the books tell you to remove the stones before you cook them. That’s just about the daftest idea ever and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would sit and stone a big bag of damsons. Although they’re a kind of plum, ripe plums will release their stones far more easily than damsons will. Damson stones can only be removed with a great chunk of lovely flavourful flesh, so I cook them down until they’re just soft; give them a bit of a pummel with a potato masher to loosen the stones from the flesh and then take out the stones with a skimmer, leaving the maximum quantity of flesh in the pan. Don’t, though, be tempted to sieve the stones out because those gorgeous whole skins are a huge part of the aesthetic of the jam. They furl like dark leaves in the finished jam which, with a bit of luck, will be all the clearer for your trouble when you spread it on a slice of bread.

The jam

In, then with the sugar. You might be tempted to use raw sugar, but really I prefer refined cane sugar to let the maximum flavour come through, and then bring it to the boil stirring all the time to stop it from catching. Then you chuck a knob of butter on to deter scum from forming and boil it until it gets to setting temperature or wrinkles on a cold plate – whatever. Yesterday the boil brought to mind Homer’s often used line about the wine dark sea. As the pan seethed and bubbled, the wind and rain shook the Potwell Inn windows and howled through the cracks, and the jam – which is the colour of rich burgundy – moved like a troubled sea in my imagination. But like Odysseus, tied to the mast to escape the temptations of the Sirens, I was adamantine in my determination not even to taste the forbidden fruit, except when the murderously hot jam bubbled and splashed on to my arms and hands, and the only way I could ease the pain was to lick it off. In fact I had to move closer to the pan to make sure I had plenty of occasions to do so.

Once the jam was finished and bottled I scraped every possible morsel into the last jar when Madame appeared and grabbed the wooden spoon – I have the photo to prove it. And all the while I was cooking, my heart was broken at the lack of a loaf of everyday sourdough – also off the list – and a lump of butter and a slathering of damson jam which would amount to half a day’s allowance blown in a moment of madness. Madame, however smirked as she licked the spoon into the unprecedented whiteness of a gull’s bone left on the seashore of the wine dark sea.

That’s what I mean about recipes and cooking – there’s always more going on than meets the eye. If you have a mind to, you could read William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say” – I’ve always loved it. I’d print it here, but writers and their descendents deserve their royalties – I don’t know of many rich poets. I do know a blogger, though, who’s lost more than half a stone – which didn’t come from a damson. I’ll escape the clutches of the diabetes nurse and her threatened medications yet!

Something hot?

Habanero – the hottest one we grow!

Well, in the midst of this strangest of seasons we have managed to grow enough chillies to keep us going through the winter, although taking the extraordinary weather into account it looks as if ripening the last few stragglers is going to be a problem. For the first year since we’ve been on the plot, we managed to eat all our sweetcorn before the badgers/rats/squirrels and possibly deer got to them. We only managed this by planting them in the most inaccessible place and surrounding them with sheep netting barriers – it was, however, worth the hassle because home grown corn (like most veg) is so much better than the shop version. You wonder if they’ve been 3D printing them from cardboard.

The chillies seem to be a bit of a blokey enthusiasm, with fierce competition to grow a chilli hot enough to heat a small town for a week – a sort of vegetable willie waving, if that’s not too lively a metaphor for a Tuesday morning. We don’t even eat anything much hotter than a Jalapeño, so my Apache chillies are dutifully frozen, and the Habaneros respectfully avoided. The pleasure it seems is in the achievement of getting them to bear fruit and ripen – which in a season that’s swerved between the biblical extremes of flood, fire and storm is a bit of a problem. *Even the frogs have done exceptionally well this year but the boils have mercifully stayed away.

However the cherry tomatoes have suffered terribly from brown rot, and that’s down to the erratic rain and sunshine and exacerbated by water splash on the leaves. But we’ve gathered enough from the rather sad looking bushes to make a couple of litres of oven dried tomatoes in oil. It’s a skill to balance dryness with sheer toughness because once they’ve gone to far, no amount of olive oil will bring them back to life. I like to give these tomatoes twenty minutes in their oil at around 110C in the oven after drying them overnight at 65C because low acidity bottled fruits can, in exceptional circumstances, develop botulinus contamination.

The same problem happens with figs if you dry them in their skins. To be fair, nearly everything is better eaten fresh, straight out of the ground or off the tree. I’d make some fig compôte except we’re cutting out sugar at the moment and all of my favourite preserves are close to pure carbohydrate. As Oscar Wilde said – “I can withstand anything except temptation”, and DH Lawrence got positively aroused by them, but I think they’d both be quite safe with this year’s efforts in the Potwell Inn kitchen.

So this year has been pretty good. I love the fact that the old, unglamorous plants like savoy cabbages, brussels sprouts, and especially leeks are all loving it. The autumn leeks are stout and sweet and the succession ones are coming along far better than they have for the past four years, which – I guess – is what allotmenteering is all about. You have to embrace and enjoy success when it comes, but never get blown off course by failure. Once you’ve renounced the chemicals and given up the extractive attitude then you’re in a one on one relationship with the earth which has its own ways and is a far better teacher than any book. In many ways, ‘though I can’t claim any deep knowledge of the subject, the earth teaches a form of Tai Chi, or Taoist spirituality. I don’t mean all that stuff about being ‘closer to God in a garden’ which completely misunderstands what happens when merely looking at something miraculously becomes beholding. Forgive me, I’m digging deep here but it’s a crucial distinction.

There really is a huge difference between hard gardening that wants to bully and harry the earth into submission, and contemplative gardening that opens intangible channels through which we can ‘hear’ and even ‘understand’ what response is asked of us.

Don’t cling! Don’t strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryōkan

* Biblical joke, sorry. Old habits die hard.

The only way is up

Many apologies for the long silence – 5 days is something of a record, almost Trappist on my part. We have been out and about doing the usual combination of walking, allotmenteering, grandparenting and so forth; but we’ve also been embracing a rather challenging fitness regime to shed the lockdown lard, so our walks have been both longer and quicker, and given that we live in Bath there’s no escaping some tough hills which are terribly character forming especially on an 800 calorie diet. I won’t bore myself, let alone you, by listing the sufferings mainly because it hasn’t been bad at all. We sleep like logs and always eat up everything on our very small plates.

So today we took ourselves up to the Skyline again, passing St Thomas a Beckett church on the way up, and later on from the top of the hill we could look down across Bath and see any number of towers and spires. I have very mixed feelings about churches. I remember being shocked, when we first went to France, to experience what a truly secular society felt like and yet it seems to me that we’re reaching the same kind of culture here in the UK by neglect. I always used to describe my own churches as “lost luggage offices” where people who were sometimes in great anguish could look for something quite intangible that they’d lost. The building itself seemed to do something very important but I never quite understood how it worked. I was just the keyholder. I would remind myself that Job’s friends were doing really well until they opened their mouths.

St Thomas a Beckett is a place I’ve never been inside. I’m fearful of churches now, fearful that they’ll smell musty and damp; fearful that some well meaning person will offer help and most of all, fearful of meeting my alter ego there. Silence is the only comfort. About ten years ago I was on a course at Canterbury Cathedral, and one evening after it was closed to the public and just getting dark, we were taken on a candlelit tour of the silent building. I think we all (it was a small group) – found the Great Silence when we came to St Thomas a Beckett’s tomb. On another occasion we (Madame and me, that is) went to Chartres with friends and against all my expectations of a kind of Disney/Blackpool experience, I was so powerfully moved that I took my shoes and socks off and walked with bare feet around the Cathedral for a couple of hours. The rest of our group went off for lunch and even in the midst of the crowds I found the Great Silence and I stayed alone.

I know it sounds a bit wacky but bare feet can channel that energy in a way that nothing else can. Because we don’t usually experience the world directly through our feet, it’s very hard to conceptualise what’s going on and it has to be taken on its own terms.

There’s something else that could be said about St Thomas and that’s the fact that he was prepared to make a stand. The capacity for confrontation should be counted as one of the virtues in my view.

But that’s enough of that because our walks haven’t been so focused that there wasn’t any time to stand and watch. Here’s a wasp, and this is the lovely thing about getting into nature because it’s not and ordinary wasp, the picnic spoiling type – although for all I know this one could be a demon when roused. But I noticed it nesting in quite the wrong place to be a common wasp – the rotten core of a felled tree. A quick look at the books when we got home and I discovered it’s called Vespula germanica – the German wasp – a bit bigger than the common wasp, and yes it does sting; so my courageous photo was made safer by the fact that only his bum was sticking out of the hole.

We’ve also spotted a kingfisher on the river bank a couple of times right next to a building site. Today we could hear some kind of raptors in the sky but couldn’t get a close enough glimpse of them to be sure what they were.The piercing peeeoo call, with two distinct ‘syllables’ sounded as if they could have been red kite, which I think have been spotted here; but it was impossible to be sure. However the robin was the winner with its sad, declining cadence. If robins sang in choirs they’d alway be in the minor key. Or perhaps it’s just the smell of autumn in the air getting into my imagination..

Just as we were leaving the Green and walking along the river bank I took a photo of the sun shining through the trees. Goodness knows why I found it so affecting but although I grumble about the loss of the summer, autumn is a season of great beauty and new beginnings – maybe it resonates better with my melancholic default. As I write I can smell another six litres of rich tomato sauce reducing on the stove. The allotment is so abundant at the moment that I could spend every day at the stove and feed the whole block.

Its feels as if summer is over

Here’s a photo I took during our Sunday morning walk across the canal and up over Bathwick Fields and then down into Smallcombe Valley, up the other side and down again to Widcombe. I’m only mentioning these places because their names are so delightful. The walk in itself is a long haul with over 150 metres of climbing and scrambling down. The footpath down to Smallcombe was particularly slippery after the recent spells of rain. We’re exploring the hinterland of Bath in a series of 5 mile loops and Madame is immersing herself in the history of our adopted city.

Everywhere, the hedgerows are filling the air with the heady, almost alcoholic scents of autumn. The bees are still busy pollinating the late flowers, but fruit is ripening on the trees. Apples, plums and damsons; sloes and lesser known delights like medlar. The allotment took a bashing as weeds relished hot weather followed by torrential rain and so today we spent the afternoon doing some urgent hand weeding. The compost bin that was far too large when I built it has now been full twice this season; but by tomorrow it will have heated again and sunk by six inches. The leaf mould in a neighbouring bin has shrunk by over a half now, and so has the hot bed – the capacity of our wonderful worms and micro organisms to reduce waste to compost exceeds our capacity to create it, it almost growls out loud when I walk down with a bucket of waste; and it also has a huge appetite for cardboard which simply disappears within a month or two.

It’s just a matter of experience with compost. We’ve read all the books and in the end, it seems everybody is right. There are very few systems that can’t create good compost, but I emphasis the word system because a neglected heap of weeds with an old bicycle on top at the end of the plot is not a system, it’s a dump. With compost at over £5 a bag in most garden centres, making your own is a massive money saver. The secret is regular and vigorous turning and keeping an eye on it – wet through is bad and so is dried out, as ever the middle way works best – moist; that’s the word! and now and again a bag of horse manure, or some fish blood and bone scattered in or – if you don’t care for animal byproducts, some comfrey leaves or liquid work as well as anything else.

With the air so full of the smells of ripening and over-ripening fruit it’s amusing to remember that John Masefield, the poet, liked to have a box of rotting apples under his desk for inspiration! The painter Stanley Spencer had much a weirder taste in under easel smells – but we won’t go there, except to say it wasn’t a madeleine. However, moving rapidly on, the Potwell Inn kitchen does smell pretty wonderful at the moment. Food is coming off the allotment at such a rate we’ve been delivering veg parcels to anyone that will take them. It’s a strange time to be dieting, I know, but with so many good things to choose, keeping to 800 KCal a day is a breeze. No vegetable is safe at the moment, and while we lose weight we’re laying up sauces and preserves for the winter. The tomatoes are producing trays of fruit which we’re converting to passata, sauce base, and today oven dried cherry tomatoes in oil which are like sweets. A couple thrown on a salad are wonderful little flavour bombs. Yesterday we baked figs with orange zest and juice and fennel seeds – delicious! I also whipped up a coulis with wild blackberries and James Grieve apples. I had to put it through a sieve to get the pips out – there’s no added sugar so it’s sharp, but it goes really well with plain full fat yoghurt or kefir.

Anyway, enough kitchen talk- we’re sad the summer has passed us by as far as trips in the camper van are concerned, but we’re hopeful of getting some winter camping in when the crowds have gone home – Madame said today “I don’t care if it’s raining, I just want to sit in the van and look at Ramsey Island.” The autumn is my time for a bit of civil engineering on the allotment – quite a lot of it in fact because we’re building a pond, creating a small open meadow space and a shelter for ourselves, as well as planting more fruit trees and bushes. It’s amazing what can be packed into 250 square metres.

Meanwhile I’m wondering why I let myself in for making a short video on urban botany. The biggest problem with being completely self taught is the ever present danger of mispronouncing a name or mistaking an i/d. But I don’t want to be an expert; I just love getting into the natural world and sharing my disconnected bits of knowledge with anyone who might be tempted to have a go themselves. So I’ve got to get the selfie stick out and ramble on for a couple of minutes without freezing, swearing or tripping over ….. what could possibly go wrong?

Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.