Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?

You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!

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Making hay – in a manner of speaking

We know that cooler weather is on the way, but meanwhile we’re -metaphorically speaking – making hay. The three photos are, left to right, the allium bed which was planted up in the autumn and is now thriving with three varieties of garlic and some shallots.  In the centre the kitchen window is filled with chilli plants which are loving the heat and light, and finally the fruits of the carrot experiment which had to come to an end today because we need the space in the cold frame.  The carrots were sown in the autumn in pure composted horse manure and on top of a very hard soil pan, and so germination was fine but the roots really failed to make much progress. I think that successful no-dig gardening must depend on adequate initial preparation of the soil, a lot of organic material, the removal of pernicious perennial weeds  and an open texture. The key thing is that this can’t be achieved in one season and to make a go of it you need to go through the whole process patiently, particularly for deep rooting crops like carrots and parsnips.  We’re happy to do that because we can see that it’s a method worth waiting for, but I think sheeting a weed infested patch of ground for a few months and then trying to use the no-dig system is likely to lead to disappointment.

Elsewhere on the allotment the apple trees are coming into flower, so the blossom needs protecting from sharp frosts. Madame used to work at an apple research station where they had the most amazing frost protection system that involved spraying a fine water mist on the trees during frosts.  The effect was so beautiful that it regularly attracted visitors and film cameras.  We can’t afford anything so exotic for our few cordons, so it has to be a cover of fleece.

Most of the day was spent weeding, transplanting Swiss chard plants into their growing positions, feeding the old-stagers and perennials, and sowing seeds.  We’ve become great fans of liquid seaweed foliar feed, and everything gets a spray several times during the season. The container potatoes have already poked their shoots through the soil and so needed topping up with peat-free compost.  Some of the seedlings which we recently transplanted needed a touch of water and I wandered around the allotment with the watering can, my heart filled with the sense of promise.  In many ways this is the best season of the year because come July the occasional skirmish with weeds escalates into grim hand-to-hand combat if you haven’t already fatally weakened them. So at this stage of the year it’s wise never to pass a weed, however small, without uprooting it. Once they’ve set seed you’ve created years of misery for yourself. Later we cooked the first batch of spinach and added it to a fish pie.  I love real spinach.  I love chard and perpetual spinach too, but there’s not doubt that true spinach has a unique flavour.  It’s just a shame that it only really thrives in spring and autumn/winter.  In hot dry weather it bolts at the drop of a hat, and then we eat the spinach beets.

Someone pinned this touching tribute to Terry, one of our longest serving allotmenteers, on the entrance gate to the site.  His funeral takes place on Monday and we already miss him greatly.

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Taking a longer view

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

Here are some photos of the allotment as it is today.  It hasn’t aways been like this This blog began as a private journal that I kept for three years after I retired. Sadly – or gladly – the software I was using (Day One) and which I loved, upgraded automatically one night and suddenly the various bits of my computer setup would no longer talk to one another and, after fruitlessly complaining, and receiving a rather lofty and patronising response – “you should buy a better computer” – I dipped out and moved to WordPress. Good move!

Anyway, what that means is that I can refer back to the previous three years of the allotment and today I made what may be an interesting discovery.  It started after a conversation with Madame about whether our broad beans really are early this year.  I won’t go into a blow by blow commentary except to say that in spite of some very different weather over the past three seasons it seems that the earliest date of cropping hasn’t changed all that much.  I wonder if the real impact of the weather has been to affect the quality and quantity of the crop.  In the second year of the allotment – with more ‘normal’ weather we had a great crop. Last year the first pickings of the overwintered Aquadulce Claudia broad beans came at roughly the same time but were very poor. This year we’ve had an easier time but I’m sure we won’t beat our previous date of first picking and we’ll have a much better crop.

We allotmenteers tend to use earliness as a measure of success, but I reckon we’d do better to measure the crop.  One of the big concerns about climate change is that the varieties we grow will not cope with changed climatic conditions, and maybe the symptoms won’t be failure to grow at all, but greatly reduced crops.

IMG_5151So we’ve had a lovely week, the water troughs have been turned on, and everything seems to be growing merrily but one experiment seems to have reached a conclusion.  The carrot on the left was part of an experiment to test two types of compost, a new carrot variety, and to see if the carrot roots would penetrate a soil pan. Just to take the last test first, it’s clear that this carrot at least has fattened up in the layer of compost but hasn’t penetrated the soil pan at all.  I guess the root just wasn’t strong enough – so point taken (unintentional pun) – and this isn’t a refutation of the no-dig method at all, but it doesn’t work miracles. The soil structure will still need easing and improving before ‘no-dig’ will work properly, and yes I’m well aware of the dangers of confirmation bias! IMG_5153

But there was a piece of extra good news and that was that we cut the first four spears of asparagus today.  It’s a bed that’s only had one season but the first spears have been emerging for a couple of weeks.  We’ve been agonising about whether to cut any spears this year, but today I thought “it’s right at the beginning of the season, why not take a few spears?” So I did, I cut just four and presented them to Madame at supper time. So – honest truth –  the very first spear to emerge wasn’t terribly good, but ranked by age they got better and better. Oh my goodness that was a great moment.  The chillies and peppers have all been moved from the propagators to the south facing windows in the kitchen.. Tomorrow we’ll sow the tomatoes and cucumbers.

One further thought.  Is the light in the spring and autumn actually brighter than the light in high summer? The sun is moving away from its closest proximity, but it has a very special quality at this time of the year.  For me the effect is almost emotional, I can smell and taste the change of season and it’s lovely.

 

These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday

 

However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.

IMG_5117Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts.  We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it.  Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.

Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.

IMG_5120But there was no basil yet.  We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies.  Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots.  It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator.  So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.

Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress.  The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia  (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!

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A bucket full of carrots

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of the last gasp, last season crop of carrots?

A: Cook em.

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of last gasp etc. misshapen carrots?

A: Scrub em and cook em.

Q: What do you do with the aforementioned when you’re feeling fed-up?

A: Make stock!

So that’s half the carrots gone, and there’s 1/2 gallon of lentil soup, 1litre of super concentrated chicken stock and three meals worth of casserole in the freezer. Doubtless Madame will compete with her carrot soup, and one way and another we’ll eat them all up.  There is something very special about your own veg – honestly they taste so much better and you know exactly what went into their production, so there’s no worrying about pesticides and insecticides. I’m not taking a cheap shot at farmers, goodness knows they’ve plenty to worry about and if there’s a vegetable we need but can’t grow I’d buy it (preferably organically grown) without hesitation, this is an allotment not a religious institution.

One great failure in the kitchen, however, was the last batch of sauerkraut.  It was doing fine in its tall fermenting jar, but that was too tall to get into the fridge while we went away so I split the batch into two jars but left the pressure valves open, and then kept them in the fridge.  I knew (don’t you always?) that the brine level was too low and so inevitably the fermenting sauerkraut was exposed and dried out. Then it went genuinely mouldy and when I opened the jars the dreadful smell of dead sheep filled the kitchen. It was all laid to rest in a double sealed bag and – as people always say when they’ve screwed up – “lessons will be learned”. No, really they will. So sauerkraut and the Mark 5 watering device joined each other in the bin.

Good news, however, from the hot bed.  We sowed the same salad veg in the unheated greenhouse a week in advance of sowing them in the hotbed. Nonetheless, the hotbed plants are now twice the size of the greenhouse sown. It’s not that the hotbed is dramatically hot – it chugs along at 12-15C but of course the temperature remains the same, day and night. The early crops of broad beans and peas are looking well, and the cordon apples in their second season are also coming to life along with the asparagus. It’s all very exciting but with so many perennials in their first fruiting season we’ll need to hold back and give them every chance to get their roots down.

The bad news is that the slugs have woken up too and so we’ll need to take up the cudgels again.  Most gardeners will be aware that metaldehyde slug pellets are being withdrawn from the market and so if it’s pellets you want, they’ll have to be ferrous phosphate about which there are still some worries. We’ve found that beer traps are brilliant as long as you tend them regularly, emptying and refilling them with fresh beer.  They’re not cheap but used properly they’re killing machines.

But stock? It’s so healing to make, and the closest thing you can get to pixie dust in the kitchen. I could make the recipe available freely in the certainty that I’ve been making it for so many years no-one else could quite replicate it. All our three sons have cooked ragu to my recipe and yet it never quite tastes the same. There’s no mystery there, I’m sure, but just the thousand and one tiny decisions and adjustments that happen unconsciously when you’re cooking a dish that’s evolved over decades. Sadly though the oven door is broken and I’m waiting for a phone call from an engineer with the bad news about the cost of repairing it.

Say hello to Gareth, Hannah, Idris, Jane, and Kevin.

P1060263Another storm from the Met Office alphabetical list rattles up from the Atlantic today, so yesterday saw us on the allotment preparing. Our plot is partially sheltered from all but due easterly winds because it’s at the bottom of the site with a row of trees to the south and west. This makes it a frost trap, and it doesn’t get nearly so much sun at this time of the year as the plots at the top.  By the equinox things even out a bit and the sun is high enough in the sky to fool the trees. But there’s always two sides to ill fortune, and we gain a great deal from our sheltered position, for instance in the higher plots polytunnels are shredded and even sheds sometimes overturned.  Our sheltered position doesn’t, however, protect us from gusts of 60mph and all the turbulence that these storms bring and so yesterday we fixed a windbreak around the broad beans, and battened down the hatches on the coldframes with a layer of fleece.  It’s not really very cold, so the response of the beans to their pampered existence is to produce even more flowers. We shall either emerge as cunning horticultural whizzkids or hopelessly over-optimistic amateurs and we shan’t deserve either label because to garden well you need to take a few risks and enjoy a good deal of luck.

Sad day too, when we discovered that one of the stalwarts of the site had died at the weekend. We could see that he was in failing health, but he managed to conceal the extent of his illness from everyone. He had wicked nicknames for everyone on the site, and usually managed to nail them in a word or two. He was quick to befriend us when we first took on our plot, and I’ll miss our exhange of friendly insults when I pass his shed.  His allotment was an extension of his personality and it will be awful if the next person on the plot clears away all his unusual perennials without even knowing what they are.

IMG_5003The most enjoyable part of the day was the first turning of the new compost bins.  After years of  building cylinders that needed to be dismantled before you could access the compost, it was a joy to wield the big manure fork and turn the heap into the next section in no more than ten minutes.  When I first turned the compost into the new bins the temperature shot up and I was fearful that the brandling worms would desert the heap altogether.  But they must have retreated to a lower, cooler layer and yesterday they were back in their thousands.  This, of course, has been a slow winter heap and shortly we’ll be adding loads of fast decomposing green material to the new one so having the sections in a row means the population of worms can find which bin works best for them and set up permanent residence. It’s quite wonderful the way they found their way into the original heap.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the sole casualty of our holiday appears to have been the sauerkraut which we stored in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It appears that the drying atmosphere of the fridge has sucked a lot of the juice out. Sadly I left the valves open on the jars to allow any gas to escape. I haven’t had time to taste it yet, but there are a couple of large savoys left on the plot and if needs be I’ll just start again. We need to clear out the last of that brassica bed ready for planting the potatoes in the next ten days when this sequence of storms has blown through. On another bed, though, we’ve started to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli, and we’ve still got lots of carrots in the ground.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had something to put on a plate right through the hungry gap?