Winter Solstice – I should go down to the canal

Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Christmas brings out my inner Thomas Hardy. I’d really like life to be like “Under the Greenwood Tree” his only cheerful, not to say funny book; but reality turns out to be – in the main – “Jude the Obscure”.

I wake up early this morning at around 4.30am and lie in bed filled with the sense of a recurrent dream in which I am slowly becoming invisible; a wraith moving through remembered places and among people I loved and some who loathed me -evoking feelings inviolable to passing time but always there; a miasma.

Madame asks “can’t you sleep?“; “No”; “What’s up?”; “Dreams”. A pause. “Go and make a cup of tea”. And so I shuffle off to the kitchen and boil the kettle – searching for a packet of shortbread biscuits to cheer myself up. I give myself a stern talking to: “For crying out loud – do try to stop being so down!” – so I read for a bit, drinking tea and eating biscuits. I’ve just started “The Waste Land – Biography of a poem.” by Matthew Hollis. I’ve been spending far too much time reading in the past, and I quickly run out of concentration – it’s possibly a bad choice for a chronic melancholic. Then I remember that this evening at 21.47 we will celebrate the Winter Solstice. For some bizarre reason it feels like a personal achievement, although in truth it’s the beginning and not the end of winter. But seasons come sheathed inside one another like celestial music, and so today we celebrate a subtle change of key. The buds are on the trees. The long winter nights concede their dominion to the sun and from now until the summer solstice the light dominates and thistledown memories give way to new life.

We haven’t been down there yet, but the canalside will be showing the first flowers of Winter Heliotrope. When they’re in their full glory they have a strange perfume – like almonds possibly – but subtle – you have to search for it. There will be Coltsfoot – but in eight years we’ve not seen it here in Bath, and in fact the last time I saw it I was on my bicycle taking a turn around my parishes bordering the Severn and I spotted it peeping through snow. Of course there are many winter flowering garden plants but they never lift the heart as much as wildflowers. We greet them one by one in the spring like old friends with whom we’d lost touch.

The seasons aren’t just measured by day length but by events like this and – as my sister reminded me yesterday – some time in mid January we will suddenly notice that the brief snatches of the themes we overheard in the overture, have broadened out and asserted themselves. The woodwinds have been joined by the strings and by June it will have become a full Brahmsian orchestra. The saints pass in procession; the old Christian calendar which had the good sense to borrow extensively from the (so-called) pagans – is the liturgical song of the earth. Plough Monday – the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany – when the Young Farmers carried an old Ransomes Plough into the church to be blessed and it was so bitterly cold that the Archdeacon lost his voice as he preached at the beginning of the old farming year and his breath crystallized in the air. These are the furnishings of the memory; a form of defence against the enslavement of technology and greed.

And so I shall throw off my gloomy cloak and we will celebrate. The season that begins tonight and lasts around two weeks is often deprecated as a festival of overconsumption and indulgence. From 1644 until 1660 Christmas celebrations were officially banned in England by the Puritans and replaced by a period of solemn reflection on our sins! – In their dreams! Of course Christmas and its revelries were never suppressed and our reputation for surly disobedience remains untarnished – but the celebrations always ran deeper than the deepest roots of imposed religion. The fear of the dying of the light and the joy when it returns defies all logic. We know perfectly well that the sun will triumph – until next year – and yet – the return of green shoots leaves us shuddering with thankfulness and we celebrate. In this time of catastrophic climate change we know that the unthinkable may yet come to pass.

And so this week, as we all meet up again, I’m cooking; practicing and planning. The diary is marked up with the day we need to collect our meat from the farm, the exact time and day I need to start a sourdough loaf to be ready, fresh, on Christmas day. We’ve hunted down our best pickles and chutneys; I’ve taught myself to bone, stuff and roll a chicken; our groceries and a good deal of wine will arrive early on Christmas Eve and there is fresh stock in the fridge. I’ve learned how to make hollandaise reliably with a good deal of help from our youngest (chef) son and so Christmas breakfast will be eggs royale, or benedict according to taste. Madame – who likes neither – will probably have poached eggs on toast; either way we all get spoiled. We won’t be eating anything like a month’s calories in a day. We’ll be spending money we haven’t got on treats we can’t afford but the government hasn’t crushed our will to live yet. Christmas Eve will be Italian; a light salad of lambs lettuce, dried ham and burrata followed by pappardelle in a rich ragu of tomato and ox cheek and Christmas lunch will be utterly traditional by popular demand.

In the midst of Covid lockdown Madame and I had a Mexican and really enjoyed it. For the first time in decades I haven’t made a Christmas cake or Christmas puddings – all far too rich for us these days and then the festival of cold meat and lentil soup will take us up to New Year’s Eve when we’ll probably be in bed by 10.00pm. I see nothing much to celebrate from last year apart from its ending and short of an unexpected political earthquake nothing much to look forward to. The earth, though, has her own seasons and we’ll begin by looking for those Winter Heliotropes whose faint perfume will certainly overpower the stench of corruption and idiocy that surrounds us. Our celebrations are an act of resistance.

And if I don’t post again before the weekend – we wish you a very happy time this weekend. Whatever name and faith you give it, we hope it’s cheerful Hardy, not too Laurel and Hardy and not at all dark Hardy!

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any colder!

Ice formed in a ditch

Looking back to my optimistic post about making 36 hour sourdough in late November I see that I wrote that the temperature outside in the communal hallway drops to about 12C in winter. Well that was then! After record breaking warmth in November we’ve switched to record breaking cold and this week the overnight air temperature has dropped to -6C and it hasn’t risen much above zero all day, and so the hall temperature – assisted by the open window downstairs which our neighbours use to disperse the tobacco and weed smoke – drops to about 6C. This last couple of weeks we’ve used the hall as a large additional fridge.

Living as we do in a concrete block of flats built to 1970’s specifications, we’ve been struggling with black mould on the walls for which the only remedy is keeping the flat warm – which costs about £120 a week; rotating a dehumidifier around each room and spraying the affected areas with bleach. A request for advice from our landlord (Church of England Pensions Board) has gone unanswered for three weeks. Just feel the love!

This morning it was so cold inside the flat that I had to resort to three layers and a woollen hat. Madame thought this was so funny she took this photo from the warmth and comfort of our bed – I possibly look like a miserable old git. But amazingly the sourdough had hardly slowed down during the night and so I was able to knock it back early – hence the grubby apron; not really grubby more spattered with bleach stains (see above). I make all sorts of bread, and the difference in flavour between the slow 36 hour sourdough and a quick four hour yeast loaf is so huge you wouldn’t believe they’re made with exactly the same flour

The kitchen is a real sanctuary during these troubled times. With the allotment frozen it’s the only place I can make things happen. This morning I knocked up some eggs benedict for a breakfast treat. The loaf is proving until this evening when I’ll bake it, and there’s a casserole in the oven – it feels like a small victory against entropy except that when we went up to the allotment to get some bay leaves we discovered that the rats had found our stored squashes and eaten the lot. I can’t get too cross about it though; there are bigger challenges to face.

I read somewhere this week that blogs with a vaguely homestead/self sufficiency feel are doing especially well at the moment. I can’t say I’d noticed it here at the Potwell Inn – maybe because this blog is not about polishing the political turd with a bit of lifestyle blather. We won’t bring about the desired paradigm shift with home made marmalade. Although I loathe William Cobbett’s reactionary politics, I do think that Rural Rides and Cottage Economy are an indispensable record of a period of great hardship in the 18th Century, and I’d be pleased if the Potwell Inn provided a similar account of these low and selfish decades.

PS – The algorithm that WordPress uses to pick similar postings has selected three that mention marmalade. Obviously artificial intelligence has a way to go just yet!

A ray of light

Hazel catkins beside the River Wye at Hay on Wye

I haven’t written for more than two weeks, which is an unusually long silence. There’s no particular reason apart from seasonal ennui and the slow collapse of our culture into angry senescence – OK so that’s a rather big reason, and the most dangerous of all. Whilst in Hay on Wye this weekend we scoured the bookshops and I came across a marvellous volume of essays titled “The Welsh Way – Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution” – which I devoured mostly sitting in bed in our hotel room because the drains in the building were blocked and the trenchant smell of sewage forced us us keep the window open, in spite of the outside temperature being -3C. It all somehow reflected my mood. Even on the drive home the sun struggled to shine and just hovered us like a black and white pastel drawing of a poached egg. Our dirty weekend had turned out dirtier in a different way than either of us ever imagined.

The book, on the other hand, is brilliant and gave me much food for thought hinging, as it does, on the continued fantasy of Welsh radicalism examined against its actual deployment over the past 50 years. “Could do better” hardly describes it. But the book also brought home how the individual and separate crises of our time are nothing more than related symptoms of the single malignant disease known as Neoliberalism. The book also gave me an unexpected metaphor expressing two ways of living with the crisis drawing on a structure I know well from the inside. Huw Williams writes of the contrast between the old independent and baptist churches that they were:

…… reformed beyond recognition by the Methodists. To [Iorwerth Peate] the Methodists performed a corruption of tradition, in particular in their aspiration to engage with the world, reform it and transform it. The true spirit of the original nonconformity was to distance oneself from the world, seek salvation in the next life, and carry the burden of this life with dignity and patience.”

Huw Williams; The New Dissent: Page 105. Neoliberal Politics and the Welsh Way

I was almost born into Primitive Methodism and later moved into the Wesleyans and from there to low church and then Anglo Catholic Anglicanism. A long path through the traditions that taught me a great deal about the ancient rift between the activists and the withdrawers. I learned well that withdrawal from the world, whilst it might feed the religious ego, just allowed the devil free range. Where’s the virtue in finding some new cruelty or horror to turn away from and ignore every day?

So the photograph at the top was taken – as the caption says – on the banks of the River Wye; now polluted almost to extinction by intensive chicken farms which have proliferated along her banks and which pour many tons of phosphorus and nitrogen from poultry manure into her water every day. The ray of light is that the tree was growing just a few yards upstream from the bridge under which I finally and suddenly realized that I had lost my faith somewhere along that long journey.

It’s December 14th and in just a week we’ll celebrate the winter solstice which signals the return of the earth from the darkness of the declining days and I remember the words of Mother Julian of Norwich ; ” … all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

About a book

If you are one of the very few people who’ve followed this blog from the beginning you’ll know that I’m somewhere near that point on the neurodiversity spectrum where lists become a bit obsessive. You’ll need to be a foodie to get this one –

  • MFK Fisher
  • Serve it Forth – 1937
  • Touch and Go 1939
  • Consider the Oyster 1941
  • How to Cook a Wolf 1942
  • The Gastronomical Me 1942
  • Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets 1946
  • Not Now but Now 1947
  • An Alphabet for Gourmets 1949
  • The Physiology of taste. Translation of Brillat-Savarin 1949
  • Elizabeth David – A book of Mediterranean food 1955
  • Elizabeth David – French Country Cooking – 1951
  • Elizabeth David – Italian Food – 1954
  • Elizabeth David – Summer Cooking 1955
  • Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd – Plats du Jour 1957
  • Elizabeth David – French provincial cooking UK 1960, US 1962
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 1 US 1961
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 2 1970
  • Richard Olney – The French Menu Cookbook 1970
  • James Beard – How to Eat (and Drink) Your Way through a French (and Italian) Menu 1971
  • Richard Olney – Simple French Food 1974
  • Elizabeth David – An Omelette and a Glass of Wine 1984
  • Patience Gray – Honey from a Weed 1987

As I predicted in my last post – well, last posting – “last post” looks a bit funereal – I/we spent this week cooking in the inspirational glow of our lovely Italian meal in Birmingham at the weekend. The kitchen was by now a slum and we had to fit in an extra visit to the gym to head off full porker status. In the midst of all this we were both visited by a non fatal but nasty virus which had us coughing heartily all night, and I decided to redeem the shining hour by reading one of the many random volumes I’ve bought but never read. You can see from the cover photo why this might be – I’d never heard of M F K Fisher but I must have read the abbreviated reviews on the covers “The greatest food writer who has ever lived” – Simon Schama – really ? ……..

But then, I didn’t as much read the book as fall on it. As Monica Furlong once memorably said – “lust is love, overwhelmed by hunger” and this book – aside from providing the first nine entries on my list – exploded my whole idea of what food writing might be and introduced something far more dangerous and lovely. It’s not a book about cooking as much as a book that embraces the whole of the ethos I wrote about in the last posting –

……. but resistance is everything. Loving, carousing, delighting, laughing and feasting; generosity, faith in the future, cooperation and mutual respect are like tank traps to the soulless and mechanised descendants of that miserable bank manager who went after me on the radio.

Dave Pole What would you spend your last £100 on?

At first I found the early chapters slightly irritating; this fortunate young American woman immersing herself in the food and wines of Burgundy, necking off fine wines and fine foods and travelling by freighter between Europe and America in considerable luxury. But her forensic eye and ear for writerly detail – conversations; appearances; dress and a hundred other prescient details captivated me. Here was someone watching France, along with the rest of Europe, drift into the shadow of fascism. Unlike some of her fellow Americans she was far from just a tourist. She noticed things, people like waiters and chefs, railway guards and ships’ crews, the elderly landladies, the street life that sustained pre-war France. Not, then, a book about cooking but a book about eating; the people who prepare food and those who eat it, but especially the manner of their eating – the cultural matrix that enables celebration but conversely sometimes crushes it. It’s a book about love – not the etiolated marriage that was slowly consuming her, but reckless passion that must learn to reckon with terrible loss and yet survive. By halfway through the book I was lost to it and when the last section came I never wanted it to end. It ended, though, as it always had to with a coda of such erotic tenderness I thought I was reading D H Lawrence. My mind was churning with the kind of excitement that could only be discharged by cleaning the kitchen in a mad outbreak of displacement activity. Later, stinking of bleach (psychotherapists may make of that what they will), I threaded my way through the milling crowds at the Bath Christmas Market like a salmon swimming upstream, smiling slightly madly at everyone I passed.

To return to the list, for a moment – until yesterday it began with Elizabeth David when she published “A Book of Mediterranean Food” in 1955. But I knew that the genealogy was incomplete. There’s always a “before”. The list contained all the books I’d read, treasured and worked with over the past 55 years, culminating with Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” in 1987. And of course there are dozens more I could have mentioned, many of them published much later and I’ve used them many times – but these were the books that entered my bloodstream. I can plot the genealogy from Elizabeth David to the present day quite easily; it was always the ‘before‘ that eluded me. MFK Fisher is, for me, a newly discovered and irreplaceable step in that before, and it came as no surprise that she was friends with Julia Child whose book taught me and a million other autodidacts to chop an onion.

The common thread that binds these books together is that none of them are recipe books. They are all about France and her whole culture and they brought a wholly new way of understanding and replicating the qualities of the food. Very few books do this – Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte but especially Patience Gray do it for Italy; Jane Grigson,Dorothy Hartley and Gillian Ayrton for Britain. I haven’t yet found the writer for Spain and so I cook from memory.

The miracle is the post war transition that came to inflect the best of British and American cooking and prepared the way for the whole seasonal, slow food, local food revolution. There are countless chefs who dance on the thin ice of novelty and rarity and you need a shipping container full of half used condiments to replicate their style. But MFK Fisher understood that cooking, eating and loving are mysteriously connected in a way that no amount of gold leaf can imitate. Better to be well fed every day than amazed twice in a lifetime. Mercifully the message got out and I still have a lot more reading to do.

Postscript

There’s a fine documentary – on MFK Fisher that’s just been released on YouTube – well worth 90 minutes of your time.

Winter squash ravioli – eventually.

Yesterday didn’t go well – at least it started to go wrong not long after successfully finishing the quince jelly. We had about three quarters of a large winter squash in the fridge and it needed eating up. Crown Prince is a brilliant squash to grow, and very occasionally you see them in the shops. They’re thick skinned and as long as they get a spell maturing in the late autumn sun, they’ll store until late spring. They’re also delicious – orange fleshed and far and away richer and sweeter than the butternut squash that’s mainly popular with supermarkets because it’s almost indestructible.

Anyway I cut the remaining Crown Prince into chunks; roasted it in a splash of olive oil until it was tender and then separated it from its skin with a spoon; mashed it with some ricotta cheese, pepper, salt, chopped sage and nutmeg. That was the easy bit. The next stage was to make the pasta and that’s where it all started to go wrong. Somewhere along the line I managed to get the proportions of egg and flour wrong. It’s supposed to be 1 egg for every 100g of 00 grade flour so I cracked four eggs ready and then weighed out the flour but somehow must have weighed 300g instead of 400g. The wholly predictable result was an unholy and virtually unmanageable sticky dough which I was only able to partially rescue by kneading in more flour – but I made the fatal error of sticking to my guns and assuming that this recipe (Marcella Hazan) was somehow meant to be that soft. Not surprisingly the resulting paste had to be as thick as boot leather just to put it through the machine and the resulting struggle to fill the ravioli would make an entertaining video clip.

So wholly unaware of the grave offence she was causing me Madame sat in bed this morning and Googled up half a dozen videos demonstrating how far from the straight and narrow I’d strayed. I bravely endured the torrent of supportive advice and agreed through gritted teeth that we would repeat the adventure today and do it properly this time. Sadly, though I’d used up most of the 00 grade flour and used up all but two of the eggs, so we had to go down to our son’s pizza shack and borrow a kilo – he gets through at least 75 kilos a day so it wasn’t a big deal.

Then slowly and methodically we worked through the recipe again and of course the dough was perfect – (no need for any smugness darling). There is nothing, really nothing to compare with the fun of making your own pasta when everything goes well. The sheets were coming out of the hand cranked machine like gossamer; I’d already decided to serve them with a sage butter dressing so today’s return match snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

I recall a self op satellite radio studio I once broadcast from. Over the desk there was a large notice which said – “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. One day I asked the engineer what it meant. He said “Read the manual!”

Quince – a sinister fruit?

All I want for Christmas is my ……… don’t go there!

15th November 2022

You might have thought – with no supporting evidence at all apart from a mention in a glossy food supplement – that the quince was just another unusual fruit. Quince marmalade, quince cheese and quince jelly all feature on the menus of aspirational (overpriced) restaurants where the finished food slides effortlessly onto the plate and we eat it with no thought of the process; in fact with not much thought at all except possibly its impact on the bill.

A couple of years ago I made medlar jelly which is unlikely to figure on any menu anytime soon because the faffery involved in picking, bletting, cooking and bottling them exceeds any fleeting pleasure at its weird flavour. The French name which roughly translates as dog’s arse, referring to its appearance, is close to being the only amusing thing about it. The recommended use of medlar jelly as a companion to game is a bit of a clue – possibly best eaten with something like a long buried seabird. Its principal value is its prodigious longevity. We’ve had half a dozen jars in the store cupboard since the day I made it – and they’re likely to stay there until they start growing an obvious layer of penicillin.

However yesterday’s task seemed, on the surface, to be a more likely culinary prospect. Quince figures on posh menus and in historical novels but never having tasted it I wouldn’t know why, and when our allotment neighbour’s tree set a huge crop this year we asked her if we could pick a few.

Possibly the nicest thing about the quince straight from the tree is its astounding perfume. Three in a bowl fragranced the whole flat until they quickly went mouldy and then smelt a bit darker. It’s best – the books say – to pick them is when fully ripe and still on the tree. This is one of those bits of hand-me-down gardening advice that has escaped serious scrutiny for generations, because they pass from not quite ready – to lying dead on the grass in the single blink of an eye. In precisely the way the badgers harvest our sweet corn during the night before we intend to harvest them, the moment you look a quince tree in the eye a stopwatch starts ticking and by the time you’ve fetched your bucket they’ve gone – apart that is from the ones at the very top of the tree just out of reach. Undaunted I balanced on a wobbly rail and picked four pounds of them ripe, but still on the tree.

The quince does not give it up without a fight. As I was slicing and chopping them the pips reminded me irresistibly of sets of spare dentures for rats (see photo above). This thought was probably brought on by the fact that some of these fruits had clearly been nibbled by rats – which are great tree climbers – but not consumed. If one bite was enough to put a rat off what could they possibly taste like? Much chopping later I quickly looked at my treasured 1968 HMSO book “Home Preservation of Fruit and vegetables” and found that I needed to simmer them for up to four hours, strain them through a jelly bag, return the pulp to the saucepan and add more water, simmer for another 10 minutes and then pour back through the jelly bag.

During this time the overpoweringly fresh, floral radiance was followed by something more like boiled sweets or bubblegum. Many hours later I’m still waiting for the last drops of juice to drip from the soft but essentially undamaged chopped fruit and then the sugar, boiling and bottling can begin. I reckon we might get four 14 oz jars out of it with a following wind.

However I have to report a deeper pleasure in the making. We’d over indulged in the last everyday sourdough loaf and so I had started a replacement early on the previous morning and left it proving in its banneton overnight. Fermentation is a time and temperature process, and so I woke several times in the night wondering if it was overflowing its banneton like a muffin top – that’s annoying – and so soon after 5.00am I was having a sleep defeating mental battle about going to check. I lost the battle and got up at about 6.30 and, needless to say, the dough had behaved perfectly; gently domed above its basket.

And then, alone in the kitchen, I had one of those epiphanic moments, remembering Christmases past. My parish duties meant that on Christmas Eve I would be at work by 8.00am and then after three services finishing at around 2.00am after the Midnight, I would turn the oven on, grab a few hours of sleep and then start the Christmas turkey in the oven before racing off to take another five services – getting home by 1.00pm usually totally exhausted. But those solitary moments in the kitchen were absolutely precious to me. If there is a reason this memory popped into my mind it must have been the perfume of the quinces, still filling the kitchen with Christmas perfumes; citrus, apple and spice. If I can bottle that later today it will be the first time I’ve ever made a preserve that made me shed a tear!

Postscript

24 hours on and here are the results. Exactly as I predicted the 4lbs of raw quince yielded 4 lbs of quince jelly; bearing in mind the added water and sugar. The flavour is lovely- certainly not bubble gum or candy – but not the same as the raw fragrance of the quinces off the tree. Chatting to a neighbour on the allotment yesterday she told us that she’d baked a couple in the oven and eaten them with ice cream, and that they were delicious. So all in all, well worth the effort. Picture below.

Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Is the climate emergency really a conceptual emergency?

A section of the soil strata on the appropriately named Hell’s Mouth Bay – Porth Neigwl

That’s it folks. That’s all there is!

For three centuries we had been encouraged to consider the earth simply as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs. To be forced to suspect now that it is instead a living system, a system on whose continued activity we are dependent, a system which is vulnerable and capable of failing, is extremely unnerving.

Yet the damage already done undoubtedly shows that this is so. How can we adjust to this change? As I have suggested throughout this book, in conceptual emergencies like this what we have to attend to is the nature of our imaginative visions – the world-pictures by which we live. In the vision belonging to the contractual tradition, the natural world existed only as a static background. It was imagined simply as a convenient stage to accommodate the human drama. That vision radically obscured the fact that we are ourselves an organic part of this world, that we are not detached observers but living creatures continuous with all other such creatures and constantly acting upon them. It blinded us to the thought that we might be responsible for the effect of these actions. In order now to shake the grip of that powerful vision what we need, as usual, is a different one that will shift it. We need a more realistic picture of the way the earth works, a picture which will correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please. I think that we need, in fact, the idea of Gaia.

Mary Midgley – From “Individualism and the Concept of Gaia” in “The Essential Mary Midgley” Published by Routledge, Page 350.

I was totally struck by that sentence about this being a conceptual emergency, but of course it’s a no brainer if you think how much our attitudes and unexamined core beliefs shape our actions. In a conversation with Alan Rayner last Wednesday about his book (See the post “About Glory” for more details), he said that what is needed is no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way evolution works; and I completely agree. Mary Midgley expresses this as a conceptual emergency and urges us to create new imaginative visions; “the world pictures by which we live” – and this is work for poets, artists and dreamers. A shocking piece of American research, featured in the Guardian a few days ago, showed that only 2% of American TV and film even referenced the environmental catastrophe that is barreling down towards us.

There’s a very good reason why changing the description from environmental crisis to conceptual crisis is a brilliant strategy, and that’s because moving the problem up a level takes the search for a solution out of the hands of the unholy trinity of big business, politicians and scientists and moves it back to all of us and the way we do things round here. Only a complete conceptual change supported by new visions , new hopes and an acceptance that we are a part of nature will do. The broken concept under which we are suffering is the same one that is destroying the earth and all that it is capable of doing is offering some new kind of kryptonite widget at great expense and available only to the wealthiest. Like the medical treatments of the past, their cure is to bleed the patient – and if the patient (rapidly becoming the victim) fails to get better, to bleed them again until they expire. In our case the patient is the earth and the doctors are the politicians whose fundamentally wicked attitudes were on display this week at the tory party conference.

I’m happy to count myself among the “enemies of enterprise” if by enterprise they mean the kind of extractive enterprise that impoverishes all but the most powerful and pollutes the earth. And I’m happy to count myself as part of the “anti growth coalition” for the same reason although I’m grateful for the inadvertent gift of a good rallying cry.

Just look at the photograph at the top of this piece and notice how thin is that precious layer on which we are utterly reliant for life itself. There is absolutely no need to turn this into a new religion, dance around maypoles (although that might be a lot of fun) or ingest hallucinogens – although I’m very tempted to do just that, after all at my age what’s to lose? But the identification of fungi is quite a bit harder than you might think. It’s taken me two days to provisionally identify my clifftop find as Macrolepiota excoriata – the delightfully named “Frayed Parasol” as opposed to the “Shaggy Parasol” or the Slender Parasol. Endless lexical amusement and a long draught of poetry after a week of shameful news.

Four seasons in one day

Thrift in flower!

We’re back in Snowdonia on the northern side of the Lleyn peninsula and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the weather has been very Welsh indeed. We arrived in bright sunshine on Sunday afternoon and since then we’ve had driving rain, more warm sunshine, gale force winds, a very warm night and two cold ones. The plan was to get some walking in, and while we were doing that, to look for some fungi, but Monday and Tuesday found us pretty much stuck indoors while we waited for the storm to calm down. We weren’t idle by any means, though. I’ve taken the opportunity of doing some serious reading while Madame drew.

I’ve been reading “The Essential Mary Midgley” edited by David Midgley, published by Routledge; alongside Alan Rayner’s book “The origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux” published by Springer. I often find that there’s an advantage in reading in parallel across a similar theme where one text illuminates another. Anyway – lest that implies that I’m some kind of academic I’m really not; I’m just trying to figure out what practical steps we might take firstly to understand the dodgy ideology that’s led us into the current earth crisis in order best to tackle it with something more effective than depression, banners and a set of counter arguments. Alan Rayner’s book offers a new paradigm for understanding the way that evolution works while avoiding badly understood Darwinism with its endless battles for survival, and also the triumphalist writing of Richard Dawkins and others who, like Vladimir Putin, have declared premature victory just as their new religion runs into winter and endless mud. Mary Midgley was writing with exactly the same concerns and is just a dream to read; scything off bad arguments at the knees with laugh out loud efficiency.

Anyway, between early mornings at an improvised desk and dodging the rain for a bit of fresh air, we did manage to find some Ink Caps and common Puffballs in the garden and then as soon as a wisp of blue sky appeared at lunchtime today we walked off to the clifftop and a favourite mushrooming spot. And yes, we found some field mushrooms but when I got them back to the kitchen they were a bit too wormy even for me. Still, we’ll go back tomorrow to look for some more because there’s a fine circle of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that I’ll pick and dry. They’re as tough as old boots, but dried in a string in the kitchen they make a good addition to stocks because they’re full of umami flavour. There was another fungus there that I brought back to the cottage because I didn’t know what it was. I’m doing a spore print in case that adds any light and I think it’s some kind of Dapperling but I’m no mycologist. Anyway I’ve put some photos below in case anyone can cast any light, and (although I’ve no intention of eating it) there’s no noticeable smell; the stipe is hollow towards the top and swollen towards the base and I didn’t find a ring or any significant sign of one – although it’s a mature specimen and it could have disappeared.

I think it’s really lovely that just as the wildflowers pack up for the year we get weeks of fungus hunting and then we can hunt for mosses and liverworts or lichens. Tomorrow is forecast with fine weather so we’re off to Rhiw where there’s a good fungus field according to our son, and then up to the top of Mynedd Rhiw for some fabulous views and down again to Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth bay to pack in some supplies of wonder and glory to get us through the winter.

Now this is what a holiday looks like!

Madame with a handful of freshly picked field mushrooms – note the one stuck in her binoculars.

Our son, (at least, one of them did), said once that we can’t go on holiday because by virtue of being retired we’re always on holiday. I told him to get on his bike, because there is a profound difference in being away and being at home and working flat out on the allotment. Even going to the supermarket in a new place is more interesting than the same old same old. That said, we know this particular place pretty well now – so we know where the good walks are and especially we know where the field mushrooms grow abundantly at this time of the year.

So what’s so great about St David’s? Well I’ve already written about St Non’s Well so I won’t repeat myself except to say that it’s a very special place. St David’s itself is not necessarily very beautiful, and there’s not much to see apart from the cathedral – but – it’s a place that repays a peaceful and contemplative walk with its profound sense of history. Walking in the footsteps of 1500 years of pilgrimage puts you in your place in the gentlest of ways, and beneath the huge dragon backed rock formations of St David’s Head, you sense a history that goes back two or three times as far as that. Ancient is a powerfully affective concept.

Apart from that, just today we watched a couple of young women swimming in the sea being captivated as they were approached by a curious seal. We had taken our ludicrously expensive super lightweight chairs (retirement gift) down to the beach so we were able to sit comfortably and quietly on the pebbles which meant that a couple of rock pipits were able to approach within four feet of us, searching for insects in the seaweed. So amidst the plashing of the waves there was a robin singing non-stop just behind us, crows and jackdaws were crossing the little bay in noisy groups chattering to one another in what must surely be some sort of Corvid language. On our way back from the beach we saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows. Sheep were being noisily sheepish, some of them well raddled, while the tups wandered around flaring their lips in search of love.

Our supposition that chicory flowers would be palatable to the sheep was dashed as we passed them today, but an examination of the leaves suggested that it’s the green bits that the sheep like. The flowers were pretty well untouched – ah well.

A Dragonfly was depositing her eggs in a pond that we passed. They have several different ways of egg laying; some attach eggs to water plants but this one was dipping her ovipositor and dropping them one at a time into the water. We crossed stiles past a bog where abundant Brooklime covered the surface and Water Mint, in flower, pushed its way into the warm sun. Where in April the grass would have been yellow with Dandelions, here in early autumn there was an abundance of Fleabane. The sloes are poor here, at least half their normal size due to the drought in the summer, but the field that was direct-drilled with grass only a few days ago is green with germinated seed.

I had to keep stopping as we walked back along a bridle path edged, on one side with Withy bushes and Comfrey and on the other with bracken, because the sound of bees and insects was so overwhelming. Dozens of Speckled Wood butterflies were nectaring and scrapping with one another. On the roadside verges Alexanders were already pushing their first leaves through the grass ready for an early start in the New Year. It’s curious the way that there are always signs of the coming seasons, slowly appearing. Nature is replete with fugitive signs; never still for a moment.

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