Marmalade crisis strikes the Potwell Inn

I suppose running out of marmalade would be fairly low on the agenda as COP26 falls through the wormhole that is Boris Johnson’s mind and into alt reality territory where anything can be true as long as you want it to be, and Bobby Ewing will still be pumping oil after all.

But here, in what we cling to as the real world where in January – as a result of the lockdown – we were unable to make marmalade because we couldn’t get any Seville oranges, and the cupboard is now bare, of marmalade at least. In my fragile frame of mind something as trivial as marmalade can loom large and grey. However this is also a season where some pretty hard work on the allotment takes place. For much of the year the management of the compost heaps means turning one of the bins at a time; but this week we needed to move the contents of all four bins – amalgamating the leaf mould with the finished compost, refilling the empty leaf bin with this year’s leaves and then turning the active heap into the adjoining bin. I reckon that involves forking, shovelling and wheelbarrowing approaching 1.5 tons of decaying plant material. The upside is having up to a couple of tons of black gold for free every year.

I’ve discovered over the years that there’s nothing more likely to send the black dog away into the wilderness than having some sort of plan; the only obstacle is taking the first step. Going back into the gym was one part of the plan and doing the compost was another. If there’s a downside to turning compost it’s the lingering smell of an anaerobic heap which penetrates your clothes and takes up residence in your nostrils. Letting the air in to a heap is essential to prevent this from happening, but it’s not always possible to do it in time to head off the stench. The rule is – if you can smell the heap it needs turning and shaking up. Yesterday’s active bin was on the edge of becoming a nuisance and by the time I’d moved it all into the empty bay next door, the previously mentioned penetration had occurred. I didn’t notice it until I sat down in the armchair to rest my aching muscles, but such is the power of the stink, it seems a couple of molecules of whatever it is could clear a lift in ten seconds. So that meant my overalls and shirt had to go into the wash even though they looked perfectly clean. The hard manual work, though, had exactly the desired effect on the black dog which withdrew – at least for a few hours.

I know when I’m down because otherwise enjoyable jobs get neglected. The sourdough starters aren’t fed, the kefir sulks in the fridge and I can’t be bothered to do anything about it. So the good news was that after a discussion with Madame we decided to drop the experimental white sourdough project and go back to the old everyday sourdough bread recipe based on a dark rye starter; 250g of stoneground wholemeal wheat flour to make the batter and then after 12 hours adding 300g organic white strong flour, mixing it (it’s very sloppy at this stage) and adding enough dark rye flour to bring it to a kneadable consistency then 10 mins kneading a rather soft and sticky dough, and transferring it to a banneton seasoned with rice flour which has no gluten and releases the risen loaf easily. All this, then yesterday evening, and foolishly, I left the loaf to rise in the only room in the flat with heating turned on. I have to say that this is an extremely lively dough, and so – resisting the temptation to peep during the night, I woke at 6.30 and the exuberant dough had overflowed the sides of the banneton and was making its way onto the table. Luckily I was able to fold the billowing belly back into the banneton; slash the top and transfer the loaf into the oven (240C for 10 minutes then 180C for about 25 mins more). Sourdough evangelists will notice that I don’t give this loaf a knock back and second rise – mainly because if you leave it too long the acidity builds up rather more than we like. It’s dead easy and takes 24 hours from start to finish with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. I hardly dare say that there’s no ur loaf lurking out there virtually beyond Plato’s cave. Cooking is just the best way of making exactly what you like eating – end of!

Old? Moi??

Any way, this morning we were back at the gym and after a 20 month layoff I finally did a 10K row with no more serious repercussions than an aching bottom. All that’s left now is to work on reducing the time! The black dog has gone off with his tail between his legs. I hope he goes up to the allotment because as I was turning the live heap yesterday three very fat rats beat a hasty retreat; one of them provoking piercing screeches from Madame who was weeding nearby. We have a real problem with rats across the site at the moment but I won’t use poison and they quickly get wise to traps. Disturbance seems to be the best way of upsetting them.

Oh and I have a new project forming in my mind. Having sourced some farm fresh milk that’s only pasteurised at low temperatures and which, ironically, we buy from a slot machine in Green Park Market; I think we’re (I’m) in a position to have a go at making some some cheese. Madame will say it’s the thin end of the wedge, and I wish that could be true – but I’m thinking of the soft and smelly end of the spectrum. My cheese library is growing rapidly and it seems this rotting business filled the whole of the day yesterday. From compost heaps to bread and kefir and – hopefully – cheese; the beloved fungi, bacteria and yeasts of the earth, knowing nothing of black dogs or Boris Johnson, continue to transform our lives for the better.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Smoked Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett’s Caerphilly and at the front, Westcombe Cheddar.

This is a bit of a catch up post for a multitude of reasons which would have to include the loss of British summer time, dark nights and 36 more days to be endured before the winter solstice gives us something to celebrate. I find it impossible to write when the black dog pays a visit and so there have been a few weeks now when it’s been hard to turn on the laptop. Madame and me have talked a lot about it and we came to the conclusion that spending almost two years on our own much of the time is at the heart of the problem. All of the groups and societies we belong to have effectively shut down; so no lectures, talks, classes and field trips; no galleries or markets and very few human interactions. The real world has shrunk to a first floor flat and the allotment – and it hasn’t been good for us – and then, just for pudding we have to live in a corrupted and feeble democracy; the obvious failure of COP 26 to honestly address the issues; and the inflationary effects of brexit.

These black dog episodes always come to a climax and so, having had flu jabs and covid booster doses we (truthfully Madame) decided to confront the beast head on and do something about it. That something really amounted to getting out and rejoining the human race; and so a week ago we went to the Saturday Market; raced around looking for a particular cheese – of which much more later – and scuttled home like anxious mice. Why does going to the shops feel like an act of defiance, I wonder? – or perhaps it’s the hordes of unmasked people who seem not to have noticed that there are still 1000 victims a week dying from covid.

The Potwell Inn strategy also included trips to the recently expanded and independent Toppings bookshop – which ought to be sufficient reason for coming to Bath because it’s huge! we reinstated the daily 5 mile riverside walk and re-joined the gym. If the gym sounds a bit unlikely, well sorry, but ever since I took myself into a gym for the first time 20 years ago I’ve loved it. There’s no finer antidote to the black dog than forcing yourself to achieve hard targets, and while Madame swims I prefer to occupy the rowing machines in a quiet corner away from the grunters, and row a 10K in as near to a wholly unachievable 50 minutes as I can get. Yesterday, on my first row since lockdown began, I would have struggled to do it in 60 but it was so good to be back. As any endurance athletes will know, there’s a moment in a long and hard workout where there’s a sudden release of endorphins into the bloodstream – so much so that in my running days I used to call one particular part of a run up Nightingale Valley in Clifton Gorge, the Lord’s prayer moment; so predictable was the rush. My knees are too shot for that malarkey these days!

And then Madame, who has taken charge of the re-entry programme, dragged us back to the bookshop where the strangest series of coincidences began to unfold. I should say that any Jungians would say they’re synchronicities – which sounds a bit more portentous. On our first visit last weekend they were still awaiting the arrival of some bookshelves, they said, and so we rather galloped around, avoiding the freeloaders with their gratis fizzy – searching for the natural history section which wasn’t there. After a quick email we discovered that the promised bookshelves might take a week or two. I said well, we’ll pop back when it’s quieter anyway. So yesterday we popped back. I’m a terrible impulse buyer of books. I know it and so I’ve learned to pick the book up, put it down and walk away and see if the magnetic field draws me back for a second or third time (depending on the price of the impulse). This was a two visit temptation called “A cheesemonger’s history of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer. Madame, who had been looking elsewhere, spotted it under my arm and said ‘oh I saw that one, I was going to get it for you‘ – which I took as her permission to lash out.

Now I love cheese more than is probably good for my heart, which needs no additional provocations from me. I took the book home and read the first third before bedtime; learning a great deal more than I’ve ever known about my favourite food. Fast forwarding to this morning, we went back to the Saturday market in search of the anonymous cheese stall that sells the best cheddar I’ve ever eaten – it reminds me of the way it used to taste before pasteurised block cheeses dominated the market. The stall only shows up irregularly – well, first and third Saturdays we discovered today. There doesn’t seem to be any sign advertising the company or the names of the cheeses – you just have to ask. So I’m there in the queue, and when my turn comes I buy a big piece of the favourite and smaller ones of a smoked cheese and a Caerphilly which also reminded me of the best Caerphilly I’ve ever tasted and which our grocer in Clifton told me was a “failure” that he’d bought cheaply because it wasn’t crumbly enough to qualify as a proper Caerphilly. The Caerphilly I bought today was exactly that experimental failure from thirty years ago, and it’s still just as delicious. So with my cup overflowing already I asked the young woman on the stall where the cheeses are made. “Westcombe Farm” she said, and a small explosion went off in my head. I’d just accidentally bought two of the finest unpasteurised cheeses on the market – not because of any prior knowledge or fawning write ups in foodie magazines, but simply because they tasted so good. The Potwell Inn tastebuds were vindicated! At that moment the maker himself – Tom Calver – turned up on the stall and I was reduced to a pitiful state of wordless admiration. Enough! you cry and I hear you.

The final synchronicity came as we feasted eclectically on the bits of cheese, porchetta, arancini and Indian street food we’d bought at the market. Life doesn’t get much better. I was (intolerable rudely) googling an article on Westcombe Cheddar when I had to ask Madame “who do you think is Tom Calver’s partner?” – “go on” –” It’s your hairdresser!” Drum roll for Mr Jung please.

Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

Flour, water, salt and a little oil

Grumbling about the misdescription of allotmenteering and natural history as being necessarily therapeutic has become a bit of a theme for me at the Potwell Inn, and I feel it’s time to balance things up a bit. Last weekend, in the Observer, there was a fascinating piece written by Jay Rayner, who’s a proper food writer, unlike me, about the film director, actor and foodie Stanley Tucci – centred around the cooking of an Italian dish known as a timpano – which originates from Calabria where his grandparents were born. Great article by the way, but one thing led to another and so we watched the film of the dish – “Big Night” and then, because Tucci was acting and directing, we watched “Julie and Julia” – his film about Julia Child whose two volumes on French Cooking were fundamental to my own cooking journey; oh and then we watched “Pig” which was the most dark and philosophical film about truffles you’ll ever watch but nothing whatever to do with our hero. Naturally we bought Tucci’s latest book as well so you can see the way we, at the Potwell Inn, pull the shutters in late autumn and console ourselves by thinking about and cooking food.

Meanwhile, and because the allotment has been too wet to get on to, I’ve returned to some serious experiments with bread. Among the many false dawns of hope and grace in my life the consolations of bread baking have never let me down – not in fifty odd years. Sourdough was late on to the scene for me, probably because until it became fashionable again in the US it stayed firmly below the media radar. Then, of course, everything changed, except that whenever I saw the subject mentioned it was always in the context of huge difficulties and arcane practices that put the whole thing beyond reach – until, this is, I gave it a go myself.

There are other posts here on the subject of getting a starter going; and after getting bored with dancing naked under a full moon and collecting stones of divers colours whenever there was an R in the month I made the elementary discovery that when you mix flour and water in a pot and leave it exposed on a window ledge it will sometimes, but not always, ferment in a helpful way. But it was always very hit and miss and I was too busy to do the groundwork until one day I started a controlled experiment. I’d already figured out that flour and water were the only necessary ingredients although the initial starters used bottled – ie non chlorinated water to give the yeasts a leg up in the first week. So all I did was mix a starter with each of about half a dozen flours I had in the cupboard for yeast loaves, tended them all equally for six weeks, and selected the best performing – ie the most lively starter; discarding the rest.

And the winner was – dark rye (which I could have found out in almost any book, but I’m stubborn like that). The downside of dark rye is that it’s very – well, dark and coarse and so it can make an 80% white loaf look surprisingly like wholemeal. The other thing is that it’s got a remarkably strong (and beautiful) flavour that can sometimes overwhelm the foods you’re eating with the bread. In the end, this half pint container of starter has kept us in delicious bread for at least the last ten years.

I should say that the final arbiter in the matter of crust and crumb experiments is Madame who loathes having butter run down into her armpit via the large and overrated holes in what’s come to represent the gold standard sourdough loaf. She loves butter almost as much as Julia Child did) – and so like all sensible cooks, I bake bread the way my customer prefers. For a couple of years the go-to recipe has included (all organic) wholemeal wheat flour, hard white flour (for the elasticity) and dark rye in the starter and as a final addition during kneading. That gives us a loaf that keeps down to the last slice and tastes lovely – OK it tastes like the granary floor, which in my world is the highest compliment! But it is a beast of a flavour and anything less than strong home made marmalade, or a mustard, marmite and parmesan sandwich is likely to be overwhelmed.

So I wondered what would happen if I made another starter using only light rye flour because all of the original white flour starters had been slow and bad tempered. So beginning with the original master, I began feeding the experimental starter then I used the light rye starter with white flour to make a batter and discovered that it worked really well – not quite as energetic as dark rye, but less rustic, paler and more genteel in its fermentation. Then yesterday I took the first loaf out of the oven (pay no attention to size in the photo; the darker loaf is the end crust because we’d eaten the rest, and the two loaves, baked in the same banneton were broadly identical in size. My only thought was that the “white” loaf could easily have coped with a longer second rise in a bigger banneton because it was still quite energetic.

All this is not so much to show off but to demonstrate that there’s really nothing complicated about sourdough; however the variables in play stack up really fast. What flours? what starter? how much or little salt? oil, butter or no fat? how long to ferment the batter? one or two rises? what starting and what finishing temperatures? with or without steam? The interplay of all these variables can send you screaming to a recipe book to take away all the pain; but honestly, most of the variables remain unaltered and even the difference between summer and winter can change the timings. The take-home point is that baking has huge consolations so long as you don’t for one moment imagine that there’s a right or a wrong way to bake bread. Over the years you get better; you develop a sixth sense through your hands in the dough and as you watch the rise – which is always faintly miraculous.

Michael Pollan wrote a marvellous book entitled “Cooked” which uses bread as an example of cooking with air. To accompany the book, a film appeared later following the same framework of elements – earth, air, fire and water; and in the section on bread he talked about the way in which sourdough transforms the flour which – if you ate nothing else would cause you to starve – into bread which is one of the few complete foods – doubling in size and food value along the way. The best thing about the new loaf was that Madame really liked it and so – in a larger banneton, a longer second rise and a few artistic slashes it will become the new everyday bread unless I miss the old growler recipe too much.

The term everyday bread deliberately references the daily bread in the Bible because it shares the same shape shifting quality. In fact the Greek word that’s used in the Lord’s Prayer and was translated as daily bread (I think) by Miles Coverdale, back in the day – is epiousios and no-one knows what it actually means, and so I’ve always thought of it as meaning something like “give us today the around and about us things we need”. Those things that promote our emotional and spiritual lives as well as meeting our material needs. The King James bible wisely recognised that bread is just such a thing; food, consolation and joy all in one transitory moment. I reckon that’s a genius bit of translating!

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”

A little literary tease!

So we were wandering back from the market clutching a refillable bottle of locally produced milk from a dispenser and I wasn’t getting any pleasure at all from it. The phrase grass fed cows ought to have pressed the endorphin button – wherever that might be found; but it didn’t. This feeling has been creeping up for weeks now and it’s come to a head, leaving me feel cranky and sad. Of course there are explanations. I don’t like these days of declining daylight and deteriorating weather – who would? – but by nature I’m an enthusiastic sort of person; I get excited by new ideas and grand projects.

The spiritual abscess came to a head and burst as I listened to a radio programme about COP 26 at lunchtime. The crisis we’re facing, the (carefully chosen) experts seemed to be saying, is no less soluble than any other technological challenge. A few bright scientists and engineers and a pile of state investment eagerly swallowed up by declining industries, will save the earth in the blink of an eye. Money, technology and investment opportunities will ride over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save the earth. The earth herself was never mentioned, so excited were the prospective saviours.

I was re-reading Ann Pettifor’s “The case for the green new deal” this morning and in her introductory section she makes the sensible but challenging observation that

At the same time , environmentalists have treated the ecosystem for too long as almost independent of the dominant economic system based on deregulated, globalized finance

But it’s worse than that, I think. Those of us who are concerned for the future of the earth all too often hitch our hopes on to one specialised aspect of the problem – change our diets, regenerative farming, end animal cruelty, save the trees and campaign furiously and largely ineffectively for our tiny corner of the problem. And if you say to me – ‘well you do pretty much the same, going on about allotments and moths and buying one or two things from the local farmers market’ – I’d have to plead guilty as charged. In my moments of enthusiasm I can half convince myself that the Potwell Inn allotment is part of a movement that’s saving the earth – as I once read – “one cabbage at a time”. Change can seem almost more attractive from the bottom up – especially when you’re governed by those wholly owned servants of finance and industry, known in this country as members of parliament. But, like the unhelpful advice that if we were going to get to zero carbon we wouldn’t want to start from here, there isn’t time to row back to a more propitious starting point. There’s so much at stake I could weep with frustration when I read that the Department of the Environment’s best advice is to fill some more sandbags and put the chairs on the table when it rains; or that Boris Johnson is pouring yet more money into nuclear power stations that take decades to design and build and aeons to make safe afterwards.

While I long for the day that the last feedlot shuts down and Bayer/Monsanto go bankrupt because no-one wants their filth any more; that’s never going to happen by tinkering around with a few regulations. The action that’s needed is both dramatic and quite frightening, and it involves a fundamental change in our culture, our politics, our food chains, our transport and above all the economic power of transnational finance. Anything less than such a fundamental change will fail.

Now I know how to grow carrots and lettuce; I can cook, bake bread, pickle and preserve along with the best of them. I can shop locally and walk whenever I can’t use public transport, and more; but I don’t think that entitles me to feel complacent or virtuous. The bare minimum level of citizenship is to live as ethically as the system allows, to invest our savings (if there are any) in areas that can change the future for the better, and to get sufficiently involved in this fragile democracy to compel governments to get green or get out! It’s an overwhelming agenda.

So that’s why I’m feeling flat – because I don’t know much about international finance except that it doesn’t care if thousands of people starve so long as the money rolls in. I would love to be able to suggest that another million allotmenteers could save the earth, and I truly believe that the more people grow their own food the better they’ll understand the fact that all life comes from the sun and the earth; and every leaf and blade of grass is a miraculously efficient solar panel.

Should I worry that perhaps some who’ve struggled through this jeremiad might think I’m over egging the problem? – that readers might drift away and look for comfort from more carroty bloggers? But that’s not me. I lament every single reader who pulls the plug on me but, at the end of the day – and we’re terrifyingly close to it – if we don’t embrace the challenge – things will get worse – so much worse!

Port Diddly Eye – according to Mrs Malaprop.

We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.

So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.

It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!

Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!

Digging the dirt – could do better

No doubt this derelict shack will be appearing on AirBnb sometime soon but all that glitters is not gold.

There’s a huge difference between running cattle and sheep on 5000 hectares (12,300 acres) and growing vegetables on an allotment; but the starting point is exactly the same – earth.

Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.

Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:

  • Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
  • Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
  • Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
  • Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas

Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.

The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.

If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.

So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.

So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?

Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.

But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.

Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.

In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.

So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.

Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.

Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.

It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.

Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?

These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.

So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.

Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.

The best of times and the worst of times

But first the blokey propellerhead stuff

I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement

For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.

Coming down from the highest point towards Caernarfon

Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.

The remains of a manganese mine on Rhiw

Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.

On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.

If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.

Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.

Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!

After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.

Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,  slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

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