Taking stock?

img_4859I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action.  Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds?  There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.

Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying.  Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it.  I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. img_3327In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask.  Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site.  So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.

I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock.  It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none.  It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream.  Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.

Kefir – the easiest expensive food to make

This won’t take a moment. Here at the Potwell Inn we make kefir most days and using locally produced organic cows milk it costs about £1.30 a litre and takes 24 hours, although you can leave it longer it gets a bit sharper. We got the grains from our son who got them in turn from a dedicated fermenter friend. With a bit of effort almost anyone could find a source of grains – like the ones in the first photo – which are also called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). It’s not the same as yoghurt. In keeping with our commitment to no-faff cooking (and no-dig gardening) we never take its temperature, just shove it on the back of the stove when we top it up, so let’s say it stays at about 20C all day and then that night it goes into the fridge. During the day it may well separate and look like “gone off” milk and if that offends you give it a shake. When it goes into the fridge it thickens up overnight and at breakfast time we strain it in a chinoise – but any sieve will do – and then top the grains up with milk straight from the fridge. I quite like drinking it straight, I like the sharp slightly fizzy taste, but you can whzz it up as a smoothie with fruit or spinach or whatever. As the grains get more plentiful you can give the excess to a friend.  Good eating!

The scent of Seville oranges fills the Potwell Inn kitchen.

A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse.  I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors.  Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges.  By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.

The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels.  We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.

It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade.  Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance.  Normally!

It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools.  I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel  artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.

Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground.  Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.

Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise.  When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.

img_4840But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community.  He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane.  He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”

I feel better already!

First pickings of 2019!

Of course it’s cheating because these are the winter pickings of last season’s sowings, but it was nice to be able to take these off on the first day of the new year.  We took the last of the beetroot partly because I was reconfiguring the patch it was growing in as a raised bed this morning, but also because the weather forecast is predicting some severe weather with temperatures some way below freezing. There’s even some suggestion that this winter might exceed last winter in severity, so we dug these and they’re cooked already.

The other green vegetable aside from the savoys which are doing well this year is the cima di rapa – turnip tops with a college education. We read about them in the late summer and sowed a few just to see what they were like.  The leaves, eaten raw,  are quite mild with just a hint of horseradish like heat.  They’re most often used in a pasta dish and are apparently much liked in Italy but sadly Anna del Conte, one of my favourite writers says she doesn’t like them at all.  Still, we mustn’t be slaves to fashion. It’s rermarkable that they’ve grown steadily through the diminishing days and are just coming into flower. Once they’ve done that they don’t last long before breaking into flower.

The other main job of the day was covering any growing crops with fleece to stop them from checking when the temperature goes down to -3 or -4C.

Daily bread!

IMG_4819Here at the Potwell Inn I bake sourdough bread about three times a week during the winter when the timetable of starting the sponge first thing in the morning fits best of all with our timetable, although we might have to slow the final rise down a bit (24 hours later) if we need to be at the allotment early. That’s more of a problem in the summer when it’s warm all night, and so I bake a little less often. Regularly baking bread  soaks into the warp and weft of kitchen life and becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

Although dough thrives on a bit of neglect, it also demands attention to detail.  My recipe has evolved over the years since I first tried it, but it’s unforgiving of mistakes. On Christmas Eve I was in a rush and added a bit too much salt, for instance. Salt really inhibits the dough, and although the loaf was OK there was an undertone in the flavour that diminished its appeal. Getting the right hydration can cause problems too if you don’t pay attention.  Different flours take up different amounts of water and so you can only know if it’s right by the texture of the dough. All the books say the dough should be as soft as you can manage but if you try to make bread with a dough that’s just that bit too soft, when it comes out of the banneton it will flatten out like a cowpat. I try to adjust it so it’s just – but only just – sticking to the table but pulls off easily with the aid of a scraper. If it’s too easy to knead – ie too stiff – it will be easier to handle but it won’t be able to rise to its full glory. There are other tricks I play but that’s not really what I want to write about today.

Because there’s always something else going on. Ten minutes kneading can become a meditation, with the everyday mind quietened by the purposeful movements of the arms, hands and body.  I remember reading once that religiously inclined French people would make the sign of the cross over the new loaf before cutting it. For all the visits we’ve made to France – which is a determinedly atheist country for the most part – I’ve never once seen that action, but it stuck in my mind because it suggested that, religious or not, the new loaf should be treated with special respect because it provides so much of what we need. It feeds us in the process of baking and it feeds all equally in the eating. Flour, water, salt, and a little oil along with the ferment which is a kind of gift because you can’t make it, only accept it as a gift. If I can shamelessly steal a religious concept, baking bread is a sacramental activity because the loaf becomes:

The ‘outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace”.

Which, if you think about it could equally apply to any number of activities like growing an allotment, cooking, brewing beer, writing to a friend or even darning a torn sweater!  Did you know that the familiar phrase “daily bread” is the best that all the scholars have managed in 2000 years when they attempted to translate the little Greek word ‘epiousios’?  I like to drag it out of retirement in our weary culture and translate it as relating to the things we really need in order to flourish, bread being among them but also the almost spiritual practice of making it and sharing it with friends and loved ones. It’s being fully human, there on a plate in front of you.

 

Turnip wars at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4815For the most part Madame and me rub along pretty well – we wouldn’t have stayed together for all these decades if we didn’t – but on some matters we do not agree. When we first married there were the garlic wars, I remember. Madame liked garlic whereas I had been nurtured on the bitter doctrine that garlic was “foreign muck” by my mother. The convergence has taken more than five decades and now we eat and grow garlic in four or five varieties and provided I don’t think about it too much and screw up my face, I’ll even eat and enoy it raw. Isn’t it interesting how different things taste once you’ve screwed your face up and decided in advance of actually tasting it that you’re not going to like it?

But turnips are not part of either of our repertoires and I can’t really understand why Madame sowed them in the first place; but she did and, predictably, they turned out to be phenomenally vigorous and have ‘blessed’ us with a crop and an argument – well, perhaps argument is too strong a word, but however I’ve tried to introduce them to the table they’ve stayed – untouched – at the side. I wrote about this problem on November 1st, or- if you want to read that post- search tags for turnips.

But I had a bit  of an experience the first time (really!) I tasted them.  I’d casually thrown one golf ball sized turnip into the steamer and when I tasted it later it was a revelation. I need to explain that in my peculiar mind, flavours are a bit like music – more especially chords in music but occasionally it’s like one unexpected note in a phrase. There’s a fundamental note – let’s say D – and then there are the others stacked around it. And it’s the ‘others’ that introduce depth and complexity to the sound.  This is all beginning to sound unbearably foodie, I know, but hang in there in case something useful comes out at the end!

So my first turnip – or as Nigella might say – ‘the first time I kissed a turnip’ the thing I noticed most was that I didn’t particularly like the fundamental note but that there were other components of the flavour that blew my socks off. You can’t really describe the ‘taste’ of the umami flavour because it functions as a catalyst for all the others, but my little steamed turnip had that quality in abundance.  Here was a prophet without honour it its own country.  Since then I’ve tried a number of ways of cooking and presenting this new flavour to the determined turnip atheist at the Inn, but nothing has worked. Boiled, steamed, sautéed and roasted have all been met with a curl of the lip and a toss of the head.

IMG_4675I just bought a copy of the Noma book on fermentation and for a brief moment I thought my turnip trials might be over but the word does not appear in the index, and so I’m on my own except for this: I Googled the question and came across a fellow obsessive on the Minitab website under the title “How Statistics Got to the Root of My Turnip Problem” . Do look it up if your relationship is beseiged with turnip haters. As for me, I’ll try lacto-fermenting the little monsters.

On the other veg that are coming off the allotment at the moment we are as one.  Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, brussels sprouts, chard, beetroot and all the other joys of winter will probably see us through for another month and then we shall have to start buying some to supplement the thin pickings during the hungry gap.  Better planning for next season is needed. I love winter veg, and I’m not one of those allotmenteers that forsakes the site in September and doesn’t reappear until March. The Potwell Inn serves food the year round.

Meanwhile at the allotment we’ve had a few days of high pressure, meaning early fog clearing to occasional sunny interludes. We were up there a couple of days ago and we were able to work until 4.15 pm in daylight. It’s happening! – although it’s getting darker in the mornings still.  By Twelfth Night the days will be stretching at both ends and with luck and a trip to the sawmill I’ll get the raised beds completely finished, along with a new composting setup.  Then, I think, a bit of an adventure in the campervan beckons.

Stocktake reveals marmalade deficiency

IMG_4420It’s frosty and there’s a lingering mist over the city that suggests it’s going to be one of those bone-chilling days out there, so we’re not racing to get up to the allotment. As ever the post-Christmas fridge is stuffed with leftovers demanding attention and bits of overbuying are ticking away dangerously like timebombs. And that’s not all, because there are things – nameless things – in the storecupboard that should be thrown away.  Old and failed lactofermenting experiments like two of the three ways of preserving cucumbers should probably be given a respectful burial. Experiment number three, which was the least  – shall we say – purist, is the most successful by far and even gained the approval of our son’s Polish girlfriend, and so we’ll mark that recipe in Diana Hendry’s book on preserving. Sadly – much as I love Sandor Katz – the first version failed mainly on texture.  Cucumbers are prone to get rather slimy and soft in pickles, and when you add tough skin to the list of properties you can see that the poor unloved jar was going to lingeIMG_4249r in the cupboard to the end of time!  The second version was so salty you’d probably have to tell your doctor if you ate more than two. But then the upside of the clearout is that there are more 2 litre Kilner jars for sauerkraut and other experiments, and we’re trialing a new variety of pickling cucumber next season. We’ve yet to try the salted beans which were inspired by a remark in her biography by by Patience Gray’s son who said he actually preferred them to the fresh ones. I can hardly believe that’s possible but we’ve done a small batch anyway.

There’s one thing we’ve been waiting for January to make, and that’s marmalade.  We ran out in the spring because I mistakenly thought we’d got loads in a box in the garage. It turned out to be ten jars of rather aged plum chutney.  January is when the new crop of Seville oranges comes into the shops and I can hardly wait.  We did buy a jar of commercial marmalade but in the end we chucked it out after a few tries because it lacked bite.  Far too much sugar and low on fruit it was precisely what you get when you favour price over value.

IMG_0452The other thing that comes in January may not appear at all this year because cod stocks are always a bit fragile and the only kind to get is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But since I was a child I’ve always loved fresh cod roe. Most of it goes for smoking to make taramasalata As you see, the fresh stuff’s a bit in your face and it’s a faff to prepare because it needs poaching before you can do anything with it. But I love it – possibly all the more because it only appears for a brief season and often not at all so there’s no prospect of ever getting bored with it. But I’m probably among a dwindling number of people who will buy it.  It’s almost certainly one of those dishes like feijoada that can only be fully loved by those who’ve eaten it from childhood. But next Saturday I shall go to the farmers’ market where I know there’s a fishmonger who will have it if there’s any about. Poached and then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and fried, it’s really lovely with the cheapest white bread you can get and some tomato ketchup. It’s like being six again.

Self-sufficiency? – not sure.

IMG_4517On Christmas Eve I dropped into Christmas mode again and by sheer force of habit by early evening I started to wonder what I wanted to say to my non-existent congregation.  I’d ended up cooking all day  – sourdough bread, morning rolls, gammon, lentil soup, sherry trifle (well it is Christmas), and a game terrine – the pheasants were a gift from an old friend. Madame timed shopping to the last minute and came home with a piece of beef at less than half price with some fish at 1/3 usual price.  It’s a high risk strategy but it works as long as you’re prepared to countenance a thin time for a couple of days. I love this time of year, when everyone makes an effort. Then Afelia for supper with two of the boys home with partners. In fact it turned into a multi-cultural celebration of Christmas Eve because after eating our family favourite Cypriot dish, our son’s Polish girlfriend brought a traditional Polish Christmas dish – pork, sausage, dried mushrooms and sauerkraut. It was delicious.  On Christmas Day we all gathered at son number two’s house with grandchildren and assorted friends for lunch.

But why the pig? We saw this fine animal in the woods at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and I instantly thought of one of my heroes – William Cobbett whose book “Cottage Economy” ought to be required reading for every child. His other book – “Rural Rides” is a wonderful and scabrous portrait of a countryside on the skids.  If you read it, bells will ring in your head, I promise.

This year on the allotment has been more productive than I can remember for years, but I worry a bit when people talk about self-sufficiency because I can’t see how we can claim all of the credit for the success of the season to ourselves.

you may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” (Deuteronomy 8:17)

That’s not a plug for any particular religion, by the way, but it’s a well expressed thought by an ancient writer who sees how dangerous the absence of humility can be.  If thoughts of self-sufficiency encourage anyone to separate themselves from their neighbours or to undervalue the gifts of health, weather and good fortune then it’s a dangerous philosophy. At best, I think, we can share thankfully in the generosity of an earth that’s beyond our understanding and upon which we are completely dependent. If gardening teaches anything it’s vulnerability and dependency. All the horrors of ecological catastophe stem from human pride, and from an extractive mindset that asumes the earth is there simply to obey our will. So no, I don’t care for the kind of “self sufficiency” that encourages foraging wild mushrooms to extinction and I don’t want to separate myself from the rest of humanity.  We’re all part of what Francis Schaeffer called the “glorious ruin” of our nature. So feasting is fine – the pig at the top is having a wonderful time – but the very essence of feasting is that we never deserve it, it is a gift that, like water becomes stagnant and dangerous if we try to dam it up and keep it to ourselves.

Solstice

What a difference in a year. The before and after shots are the second of the half-allotments. We took this one on in October 2017 and since then it’s been completely revamped and has given us excellent crops this season. If you look carefully you can see next year’s onions, shallots and garlic sending down their roots.

But today is the winter solstice and it has always brought out the pagan in me. It has seemed to me since I was very young that this still point – which will happen at 22.23 today when the north pole reaches its furthest tilt away from the sun and then begins to tilt back again is the true turning point of the year.  I don’t want to go into all the whys and wherefores of the Christian calendar, the Gregorian reformed calendar or, for that matter the argument as to whether Christmas or New Year is the more important. So far as i’m concerned as a gardener, this is a fundamental moment. Between the solstice and Twelfth Night comes the natural rest in the horticultural and agricultural year. Yesterday I talked a bit about Wassail, but in my old parishes we also celebrated Plough Monday when the local Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into Elberton church where I would bless the plough and the seed for the new season. As an aside I should say that the last time I tried to beg a bit of maize seed off a local farmer for the ceremony, she warned me not to touch it because it was treated with a systemic insecticide.  It certainly was, it was bright blue and looked (probably was) thoroughly dangerous and in its small way part of the reason for the destruction of the insects and bees. But there we are  – perhaps I should have nagged but they were good people whose farming practices were being deformed by the pressure to put profit before anything else.  Not many of their critics would have been happy to work the hours that they did for such small reward.

But back at the Potwell Inn we’re completely organic and today we shall be celebrating the solstice with our own roast potatoes, carrots, squashes, parsnips and brussels sprouts along with a piece of slow roasted beef and a glass of wine. Slow roasting is the most brilliant way of making the cheapest cuts taste wonderful.

This morning I was up way before dawn to finish off a sourdough loaf that had been proving all night.  Then a quick sprint to the sorting office to collect a delivery of seeds and then a couple of hours up at the allotment. The outbreathing of the earth is almost over and tonight the great inbreathing begins again. Strength light and hope to everyone who reads this.

At last! the seed order

IMG_4796And there’s three pages of it, which sounds a bit excessive, but it’s a boiling down of all our previous seasons; garden visits (especially Heligan); conversations with other allotmenteers; oveheard radio and TV programmes and not least, many happy hours poring over the seed catalogues; googling; and the odd blind gamble. As the photo demonstrates, we’ve already got half packets of some of the varieties we intend to grow – even after this week’s purge of out-of-date ones, so a little of the expenditure is spread over from last year and not included.

What are the other costs of allotmenteering, then? Well, the rents come to £93.36 for our two half-plots. Last year’s other big expenditure was composted manure while we get our own operation up to speed and that cost about £200.  We’ll probably spend the same again this year as we build up the soil.  Add to that the cost of gravel boards, posts, pegs and the other materials required to make the beds and you can see that allotmenteering is by no means free. That’s the bit the coffee table books don’t tell you about when they sell the dream, but you have to see all this as a long-term investment. Nets, cloches and tools can last for years and so if we look after them we can write down much of this expenditure over the next decade.

This year we used five different seed suppliers.  It’s always worth checking what they’re charging and how many seeds there are in a packet.  Even the cost of postage can vary widely between companies so once you’ve decided what to grow, shop around for the best deal. Don’t leave ordering too late because some vegetables – especially the heritage varieties, but even those that just get a mention in an influential forum, will run out.

We’ve spent decades trying to garden on some pretty awful soil.  The last big garden was further up the Cotswolds on cornbrash which was quite productive but there was no real depth of soil and huge amounts of loose limestone rocks.  I remember chatting to the gravedigger one day (we lived next to the churchyard), and he said that if he had to dig in a spot where there was no access for machinery it could take an hour to dig an inch. It certainly felt that way when you pulled up the turf to break a new patch and took almost all the topsoil off with its roots. That was our first experience of raised beds and we got lucky.  The boards were free, courtesy of a builder who was renovating an old chapel and allowed us to take away all the floorboards. I knew a lorry driver who worked for a quarry company and I asked if he ever came across any topsoil.  I drove back to the house one day and found him with an enormous tipper lorry dropping off about 30 tons of lovely soil.  Then, in a similar vein, I asked a farm contractor if he could lay his hands on a bit of manure and a similar quantity was dumped outside our front door, (and very rich it was!).

Here on the allotments we’re much more fortunate with more than a foot of rich alluvial  clay/loam topsoil that’s capable of growing almost anything it seems, but is inclined to get waterlogged – hence all the organic material.

But is it worth it? We’re certainly out all weathers, and it can be hard physical work at times, so no gym subscription needed.  But the clincher is that we reckon the value of our produce exceeds the cost of producing it by at least 10:1 so long as you’re prepared to discount the value of your own labour and call it pleasure. If you think of the cost of organic vegetables and then add the bonus of having them so fresh they taste better than anything you can buy, and then the combination of tangible and intangible value makes allotmenteering a no-brainer.

I can see a clear blue sky through the window this morning and that means we can get out into the fresh air and maybe create two more beds for the overwintering broad beans we’ve started under glass. Last year we had very little sucess with freezing runner and French beans, but the broad beans froze well and taste miles better than the shop-bought ones. Is it worth it? See for yourself.

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