If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the recent changes to the seasonal calendar brought in by the Met Office. I know it’s tidier to begin the season of Autumn on September Ist and then rotate the rest on a three monthly cycle; easier but plain wrong. For me the seasons will always be marked by the solstices and equinoxes. Messy but holding tight to the astronomical events surrounding the hours of daylight. Last Friday saw the autumn equinox at exactly 2.03 am marking the moment of equal day and night and from now until December 21st the hours of darkness will get progressively longer.
Nature is, by and large, pretty orderly in her seasons too and so we instinctively recognise them by the quality of the light, sounds and smells. I’m interested that these phenomena actually seem to speak to us. Our absorption in the earth and her seasons means the bare sensation, of a birdsong for instance, becomes encrusted with memories. The smell of newly turned earth in the Spring evokes in me a powerful memory of Good Friday when, according to tradition, potatoes were planted. I think of a steady queue of customers at Palmer’s Seed Store and the smell of National Growmore fertilizer and Mr Flook the fishmonger in his wellingtons and yellow oilskin apron.
So these accretions of memories make simple things like listening to a singing Great Tit into a deeply embedded, often emotional, complex. Scientifically, and some would say factually, it’s just a singing bird with a Latin name representing something so common as to be beneath a birder’s dignity; but in the far greater field of meaning it’s as affecting as a Nightjar like the one that kept me awake much of the night, camping in France, or the Nightingale that I heard on a retreat near Ilfracombe one evening as I walked in the grounds.
But to get back to the Great Tit and the Autumn Equinox, something profoundly odd happened on Friday morning. I was helping our youngest move some last belongings out of the flat he’s just left. It’s been a sad few weeks because his relationship with his girlfriend has broken down and everyone’s been walking on eggshells. Anyway I was parked up in a place I shouldn’t have been, close to the old flat and keeping a sharp eye out for Parking Wardens who are pretty ruthless here in Bath. Then, as he carried the last load across the road, with his bass guitar in one hand and a bundle of clothes in the other – he looked just like the cover of the Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin” Album sleeve. I would have been sad to see him that way except that as I sat there in the car with the window wound down, completely out of the blue I heard a Great Tit singing its two note ‘saw sharpening’ song, somewhere in the trees above. It’s a song I associate so powerfully with Spring and new beginnings that it felt like some kind of omen. “Stupid, irrational, meaningless emotional nonsense” say the ghosts of the old Logical Positivist philosophers, and “Hear Hear” say the materialist scientists, and yet ……. and yet?
Nothing I’ve ever come across shakes my understanding that language – whether human language or the subtle languages of mammals, birds and insects; or flowers, or the incomprehensible silent language known as the “Wood Wide Web” – that language is more like a coral reef growing in a sea of meanings, with living ideas on the outside and deep within, the whole history of human speaking, singing and dancing. The simplest level of reference in that unexpected out of season birdsong is probably the least interesting.
It’s been a long hot and dry summer and so it must have been the case that the bird I heard was singing out of season because in this settled weather a second brood was still “thinkable” and “do-able“. But he said much more than he intended. That Spring embodying song on the very day of the Autumn Equinox was a portent of new beginnings, a sign of environmental crisis, a reminder that Nature has her own ways and heaven help us if we ignore her signs.
The tag at the head of all my posts reads “A sceptic’s take on being human”. Maybe that’s a little too firm. The title of this post dropped into my mind without warning and then, 12 hours later I realized that it sounds exactly like a reading from the I Ching – which are always ambiguous, no more than a suggestion as to where an answer might be sought. My scepticism is mainly about the kind of idea that’s fed to us like the predigested food that seagulls vomit into their chicks’ eager gape, and which may never be examined or questioned. The BBC have been re-running a series of brief 15 min talks by Neil Macgregor in which he quoted an intriguing thought. “Religion” he said, “is always political, and politics is always religious”. In the light of a new and even more deranged government dominated by an obviously religious fervour for neoliberal economics. I’m inclined to agree. These people remind me more of evangelical theologians (an oxymoron) than rational beings.
So scepticism is a tricky term to use because it depends on who’s being sceptical and what they’re being sceptical about.
And so, down to business
My scepticism is of the kind that functions as an adjunct to curiosity – the don’t knock it until you’ve tried it kind of scepticism. Oscar Wilde once wrote that you should try everything once except incest and morris dancing. I’d be happy to keep morris dancing on my bucket list. And so today we walked down to the well at St Nons and because I have been suffering from a painful ankle for ages I took my boots and socks off and dangled my feet into the cold water. Several coast path walkers passed in stony silence, too fixed on their destination to wonder whether I might do a little dance and declare myself healed. It wasn’t expecting much to happen – that would have been very challenging – but it was incredibly comforting to join with the countless other pilgrims who have visited this place over the past 1500 years looking for exactly the same kind of comfort. To steal a line from TS Eliot:
You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.
TS Eliot – Little Gidding.
I’ve been in that place before – well yes, in this place but also in this headspace. Full of doubt; hoping but not daring to hope; clinging to the possibility that there are mysteries that can’t be explained – the possibility of surprise without explanation. I’ve been on many pilgrimages, and rationally they’re pointless but emotionally; spiritually; the sheer plod of putting one foot in front of the other can speak to a realm beyond words. I love St Davids and I’ve pondered whether to walk here from Bath on a number of occasions, but if I ever do – if my ankle and my knackered knees will allow it – I’ll walk to St Non’s Well not to the cathedral which I can never bring myself to enter because in the end religion is all too inclined to be political; acting as a chaplaincy to the status quo; a monument to the wealthy and powerful; a message in stone to the peasantry that the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate (a line from ‘All things bright and beautiful’) is the way that God ordained it to be.
There are two pieces of kitchen ware I’d dearly love to own but I’ve never found at a price I could contemplate. They were utterly commonplace until the end of the 19th century but fashions change and these days you’re more likely to see them adorning a high-end gastro pub, or in a museum. Both of them are associated with baking; they are the barm pot – used for keeping a (mostly) yeast starter alive, and a combined mixing/proving bowl. The bowl I have used forever is a very scratched Pyrex bowl – it’s been a familiar friend for over fifty years and the barm pot, sadly, is a cylindrical 500ml Lock and Lock plastic container which just happens to be the one I created the first sourdough starter in years ago. It’s the one in the picture.
Being a potter by (long neglected) trade, I could easily have made both objects in brown and cream slipware, but for all their artlessness they’re fiendishly difficult to make a good job of. The second reason is that many of the most delightful examples of traditional slipware are lead glazed – it’s what gives the glossy melted honey finish that’s not easily replicated, and so I’ve carried on baking with same pair of less glamorous but perfectly serviceable containers that I do own. Of course it doesn’t matter what you make bread in – it’ll still tastes the same. Lead glazes are no longer used because they were so dangerous both to the potters and to anyone who was silly enough to store acidic foods in them. Village baker Bryan English – a truly delightful man – still used wooden proving chests until he retired. His wife Jenny was always known to our boys as “Mrs Bun”.
Anyway, this long chain of associations came about because having neglected the sourdough starter for ages in favour of quicker yeast bread, it had grown sulky and sad; so much so that I was rather afraid I’d killed it. But long experience shows that these sourdough starters are far more resilient than the people who write books and sell bakery supplies would have you believe. After all, it only takes a few cells of the wild yeast to fall into your initial starter to get the whole thing going, and so I guessed that among the casualties there would be thousands of still alive cells that just needed a feed; and so it proved to be. After a week of intensive care and feeding up the result is a barmy, fizzing mass of eager starter and the first batter is sitting in its Pyrex bowl on the side. There’s no reason to be paralysed by the mysterious process, these wild yeasts are as tough as old boots. If you can dry them out and send them around the world by post then why would they expire so easily in the container?
Meanwhile, we’ve started harvesting ripe tomatoes from the polytunnel. Most of these early crops will be turned into sauces and different recipes of passata for storage. We’re completely self-sufficient in these base sauces, and along with drying them and eating them fresh they’re probably the most valuable crop we grow. What with the blackberries yesterday, and now the Mediterranean aromas of tomatoes shallots and fresh herbs, roasting in the oven, this marks a change of seasonal gear change on the allotment. High summer means more time in the kitchen, and more time spent in frantic searching for clean jars and lids.
It’s relentless work in the kitchen but that’s where the focus needs to be if we’re to make the most of our hard work on the allotment. We did manage to find an hour so go to an exhibition of Mary Fedden’s work in Bath and I felt utterly at home in her lovely paintings, any one of which I’d love to have – but hey! we did at least see them and they perfectly displayed – in two dimensions – the tricky business of being human; an unfashionably domestic kind of life.
Early this morning we went to the market and whilst I was standing in a queue for the farm milk dispenser a casually (but perfectly judged casually) dressed woman passed me to stand beside the man at the machine, who had his back to me. She immediately apologised and said “I’m with him”. I replied – hoping to make a joke of it “I wasn’t planning on hitting anyone!” She flinched a bit, which seemed odd and the man at the machine turned around and they went off together. I had the strange feeling that I knew him from somewhere and Madame (who’s brilliant with faces) said – “you know who that was?” “No” I said. ….. “it was X” – a well known minister in the Thatcher government. The flinch suddenly made sense. Ah well, welcome to the hostile and divided Malthusian world you helped to create my friend. What goes around comes around.
After a week of glum silence, suddenly my phone sparked into life this morning when the clouds rolled in. Who knows whether there’s a link? It’s probably nature’s way of telling me to get out there, rather than waste a week of exceptional sunshine brooding over a laptop. We’ve been staying at the very end of the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall and we’ve been walking and photographing around the coast every day.
Of course I’ve also been reading, writing and doing stuff offline and I’ll post at greater length and with some of the photos when we’re back on broadband. Meanwhile this picture was taken a couple of nights ago from the kitchen door!
I wondered if this might be a good time to write a bit about crop damage by some of the other members of the allotment community – not the two legged oned – but the insects, mammals and molluscs who were there before us and will still be around, hopefully, long after we’ve been recycled ourselves. So this post comes in two parts. In part one I’ll try to give some pointers to what might be causing the damage; but in part two I’ll be pondering on whether we’ve got our attitude towards what we choose to call pests completely wrong.
I’ll start with the causes first, and there are dozens of excellent books that will explain a lot better than me what’s causing the problem – so I’ll just give some very general pointers. The biggest of the problems comes with deer (we don’t have them here, but we had as many as a dozen at a time in our last garden – happily scrumping apples as we watched in amazement from the bedroom window. Deer are heavy duty munchers of grass, but also of leaves and bark, so they’re a bit of a menace in an orchard. The only preventative is good strong fencing.
Next comes badgers. Badgers love sweetcorn and so if you grow it you’ll have to engage in hand to hand combat with them and they will invariably win because they tend to be about in the darkest hours of the night. You can always tell when a badger’s been in the corn because they smash it down flat – as in the right hand photograph in order to bring the corn within reach so they can eat the cobs whole.
Rats (left hand photo) are brilliant climbers who love the stuff just like the badgers. However they’re much lighter and climb up for a feed, eating just the grains and leaving the empty cobs on the stalk. While strong fencing might work for a badger – although I once watched a big boar throw himself at a newly built stock fence until it fell down – rats will burrow under it or climb over it. Since there are a lot of rats in the world; and since they are admirably smart; traps – however expensive or fiendish – tend only to work once and since rats breed like rabbits, in a manner of speaking, you’re stuffed anyway.
Squirrels don’t seem to attack corn, but they love broad beans which they shell tidily and extract the beans from the pods which they stack tidily on the side. Rats also like them but they just nibble into the pods, wandering from plant to plant in a thoughtfully destructive way.
Mice love seeds and seedlings and often you don’t even notice they’ve visited until a tray full of seeds fails to germinate. My problem with all of these nuisances is that I’ve increasing come to believe that they’re all – even rats – rather beautiful and simply doing what nature intends. It’s not always possible for us to understand nature and its huge “brain” stuffed with trillions of connected species, and our scientific, mechanistic mindset encourages us to think we can remove all these irritants by fair means or foul. But removing a pest from a hugely complex system is like removing a wire from a signal box. It might take a while but sooner or later a consequence will emerge.
Mentally declaring war on insects, molluscs and mammals is a miserable attitude to live with and, worse still, it won’t solve the problem because on balance they’ve all got their own place in the grand dance, predating on some living beings and being predated on by others. I was leaning on the fence looking at our pond earlier today and the most gloriously beautiful dragonfly stopped by, idling with its twin pairs of wings like a Chinook helicopter but in a far less warlike way. Just below it was a hoverfly of a type I’ve never seen before. They may well have been eyeing up the water boatmen on the surface.
Yesterday as we came to unlock the greenhouse I spotted a sleek rat scarpering away along the top rail of the compost heap, and I realised I had no thought of taking its life. It’s a nuisance – get over it!
So where it’s important, and likely to be effective, we’re evolving ways of keeping the nuisances away from the crops we want to preserve. Our leeks, for instance, have been felled by allium leaf miner three years on the trot so this year they’ve spent their entire lives under fine insect mesh – and at last we’ve got a crop. On our allotment it’s not worth even trying to grow cabbages without keeping the white butterflies and the pigeons out. Protection is so much much better than spraying and damaging the very soil that gives us healthy plants.
I’ve increasingly come to think we should make peace with nature and stop throwing our weight around in the way that’s brought the earth close to catastrophe. We had some corn this year – it was the best we’ve ever grown – and between them the badger and the rats took the rest. I bet they’re looking sleek and plump; fit to survive the winter. However much harm they do it pales into insignificance when compared with the damage that we as a species have done over the past couple of centuries.
Tomorrow is the equinox, when this charged season of late summer comes to an official end. Late August is always a bit depressing because the season has given all that it can and the allotment is looking a bit tired. But with the equinox we clear away the remains of the last season and start feeding, mulching and planning as we sow the winter crops in the polytunnel. The compost heaps are working flat out and every minute we don’t spend on the allotment is spent in the kitchen, cooking and preserving ready for the winter. We too, like the badgers and the rats, need to be ready for the months ahead. Today we made 5 jars of cucumber relish with our final crop of blimps. We don’t throw them away we just remove the tough seeds and the skin and make a lovely condiment; flavoured with celery seeds, dill seeds, saffron, onion and peppers. Bring on the Boxing Day feast I say !
When I mentioned in yesterday’s post that we’d had to go looking to buy one or two vegetables before we could steam ahead on the pickles and chutneys; carolee, who has been a longtime and much appreciated reader, commented, asking what vegetables we’d had to buy; i.e. which we hadn’t grown. I answered her question briefly, but later today our son asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to plan more carefully to avoid the surpluses and shortages. Both questions were capable of being answered more fully than I managed in either case because the issue raised is really important.
Those of us who grow vegetables for pleasure are the lucky ones. If our crops fail, most of us – if we live in the wealthy west – can top up from supermarkets or elsewhere without too much difficulty. True subsistence farming is a very much more demanding institution, and for some is literally a matter of life and death. So my answer must accept that it applies to the fortunate ones with (however fragile) safety nets. We garden for fun and of course we eat our produce joyfully and with a greater understanding of nature than might otherwise be the case.
But if the allotment teaches us anything at all it’s that growing is a risky business. Farmers know this already but we mostly have to learn it the hard way. So gardening effectively is always a bit of a gamble. We tend to lay off some of the risk by growing rather more than we need, and if things go well we’ll have a glut to deal with. There are other ways. We can grow only expensive to buy crops like asparagus or – like one of our neighbours – devote a whole plot to grapes; or another to blueberries; which raises the tricky question as to what constitutes profit and loss on an allotment. Anything approaching monoculture is particularly risky because if the crop fails there’s nothing – and the temptation to try to dominate nature with chemical weapons rears its ugly head.
Learning to fail gracefully, and as few times as possible, must be by far the biggest contributor to the mythical gift of green fingers. This year our crop of strawberries was miniscule because the plants failed to arrive and we could only grow half a dozen we got as a free gift from a seed supplier. Next year we’ll have 24 plants, propagated from the initial six – because we knew how to do it. Our broccoli was badly affected by the random weather and flowered too early and most of the overwintered crops got sick and died in a prolonged spell of bitterly cold east winds. But we re-sowed the broad beans in the spring and got a decent, but later crop.
Pests and diseases come in waves and sometimes not at all. Our decision to dedicate about 15% of the plot to a pond and greatly increased wildflower/pollinator plants has paid off in sheer interest. There’s never a dull wildlife moment; but our miniscule contribution to a wildlife corridor along the river also helps farmers and other growers along the way. In a very early season, for instance, the honeybees aren’t plentiful enough to pollinate the early crops, but mercifully there are plenty of other insects to do the job. We gardeners depend absolutely on a truly awe inspiring network of ecological relationships and the good news is the more we enable those relationships to thrive the better our crops will do.
We garden in a connected world. That’s a joy and a challenge because we’ve become dependent on technological fixes for every problem. So as well as learning to fail gracefully we have to learn to garden modestly. When gluts come along they can be a blessing because sharing builds communities like nothing else. The biggest danger is to waste what the land has given. That’s an ethical failure. When we lose a crop there’s usually something else we can eat; and if we have to buy we can exercise our choice as carefully as we plan our crops.
The yearly plan is something like a rule of life. It demands that we sit down – usually in the autumn – and talk about priorities; strengths and weaknesses, issues for action and habits that need contesting; and just as a good rule of life never yet led to a perfect human being, then even a good yearly plan will never make a perfect garden year. Weather, bugs, diseases and downright incompetence will always intrude. This year, for instance, whilst side shooting the tomatoes in the tunnel I inadvertently pinched out the growing point of one of the plants. Wherever possible we need to take the Jungian line that the injury, even if it’s only a punctured ego – is the point of growth.
We have been fortunate to live a long time and so we need to share whatever experience we’ve gathered with those who are willing to listen. I often think of the Chinese proverb that says – to teach someone who is not ready is a waste of breath, but not to teach someone who is ready is a waste of that person.
I hope that goes some way to answer an interesting question. As I’ve often heard of astrology, the stars incline but do not compel. I suspect the best gardeners are the ones who listen to what the earth is saying through the languages of plants and pests, thriving and shriving, and see themselves not as masters but servants of whatever it may be – the Tao, let’s say, but I’m not one for theological orthodoxies.
So thanks again for the question. The answer which has emerged is as much of a surprise to me as it may be to you – but then I’m not entirely sure where it came from.
We knew that this part of the growing season would be tough – it always is – but it’s been more demanding than ever for a number of reasons. There was the weather which has set us back by around three weeks for the tender plants; then there was the polytunnel which has been both a joy and a challenge to use; but then, finally, there’s the fact that we’ve made a dramatic change in the emphasis of the allotment this year; building the pond and changing the planting scheme to include a large number of insect and bee attractors; making companion plantings in the vegetable beds, introducing more fruit trees and reorganising the fruit garden. We’re not rich (that’s an understatement) so most of the plants we’re introducing were grown from seeds which has been an experience in itself. Some of the seeds were saved from our own crops last year too, in fact the Calendulas (pot marigolds) from which we harvest the flowers to make creams were more successful than the packet of seed we paid for.
When we got back from our mini break on the Mendip Hills we knew that as soon as the weather cheered up a bit we would have three or four days of pretty relentless planting out. Passing the last frost date was the starting gun for moving tomatoes, peppers, a small variety of melon (Minnesota Midget) and aubergines into the tunnel. We’ve companion planted them with Calendula, Tagetes and four types of basil. We’d scanned YouTube for hints on how to support the tomatoes in particular and by the third plant I’d refined it to a number of bold steps approach; digging and preparing the planting holes and fixing the supporting polypropylene strings – which we shall re-use year on year – and dropping the plants into their places. We’ve managed to clear sufficient space for the newcomers without sacrificing too many of the existing plants. The Japanese turnips will be harvested in a couple of days, the radishes had raced past their best, as had the spinach and the carrots were just about big enough to eat – more on that later. Some of our lettuce surplus we gave away to our allotment neighbours. That’s one of the nicest things about allotments, they’re highly cooperative, collaborative little micro communities.
Planting up the tunnel has taken three days, what with moving all the plants out of the flat, and the working environment hovered around 30C ( 86F in America) and nurturing them through those crucial 24 hours while they get accustomed to the radical temperature swings. There’s nowhere in the flat to replicate even a moderate degree of temperature swing to harden them off, and all we can do is clog up the communal hallway with them for a few days. Happily they all seem to like their new surroundings. The strawberries certainly do – they’re ripening already and as soon as they’ve finished they’ll go into a spare corner outside (if we can find one) and we’ll propagate some more by runners so we can double up next year for free!
Outside, the rather regular plantings have been broken up by inserting dozens of marigolds and other plants between them. Our neighbour was digging out a problem patch of borage and so I’ve put two clumps of them under the water butts where they’ve got full sun and nowhere much to invade. Right now the beds still look quite regimented but in a month or so they’ll probably look quite messy. Excellent! Today I also found time to empty the spring window boxes and remove all the bulbs for next year. We had filled them with a mix of compost and about 50% grit to allow them to drain freely, and all the spent medium went straight on to bottom of the plot where we’re slowly creating a long, narrow bed of freely draining and poor soil which houses the Mediterranean herbs. Nothing ever gets thrown away at the Potwell Inn – we even save the ashes when we sacrifice the bindweed to the garden gods in November. They’re full of free potash.
The war on slugs has been a losing battle, and so today the heavy artillery arrived in the post, and the worst of the beds will be watered with nematodes tomorrow before we plant any more beans outside.
The last job today was to prep a bed for the three sisters planting experiment, mixing Crown Prince winter squash, Painted Mountain corn and borlotti beans. It’s the only patch of the allotment that we’ve never cropped because it lies above one of the underground watercourses. I’ve spent a year adding compost and sand to open up the heavy clay loam and improve drainage and I think (hope) it’s the ideal place to grow water greedy plants. We used the same technique to drain the beds below it on the slope with pretty reasonable results, although nothing would have coped with the amount of rain we had after Christmas.
But to go back to the thinnings. On Monday we were both exhausted when we got back and we knocked together a mixture of the thinnings we’d gleaned during the day. Together – although they looked like nothing you’d ever think of buying in a supermarket – they made a delicious and rather thought-provoking meal. Something has happened over the past 12 months of lockdown. Previously, eating our own produce has induced a degree of pride; the – look what we grew – pleasure and an almost aesthetic experience. But on Monday, remembering how disrupted the food chain had become, feeding ourselves narrowly crossed the line into an altogether different sense of the daunting challenge of providing food for ourselves. I remember reading a short story by Seán O’Faoláin many years ago, which described beautifully and rather desolately the struggles of an Irish peasant farmer. You couldn’t and never should try to romanticise how difficult subsistence farming is. We call it self-sufficiency and imagine it allows us to claim the high moral ground. It doesn’t, of course, it just makes us look like over indulged rich people.
I’m posting this without spellchecking because there’s a programme on Psilocybin treatment for depression I want to see on television – draw your own conclusions on that! Corrections to any egregious errors will be made tomorrow.
Not the best photo ever, but I spotted this little daffodil under the grape vine as we were leaving the allotment this afternoon. We mightn’t have gone up today because the weather was pretty wet and there was a strong but warm wind blowing in from the south under lowering grey skies – but a day indoors is never enough and when our son rang to say he could bring some old bricks over we jumped at the opportunity. We have a supply of heavy stones and slabs that we use to hold down sheets and fleece which have a way of working free from pegs, and so the offer of a few more was too good to miss – especially when he turned up with partner and grandchildren in tow and we were able to see them at last. No hugs and kisses, of course so our pleasure was tinged with an ache that any grandparent will understand, and when the middle child said “I miss you granny” we bit our lips and said we missed them all too. Of course we made plans to meet up properly for a big family picnic some time soon. At last there is the faintest light at the end of this awful year- which, ironically, makes it harder than ever.
But once you’re there you might as well work, and so I wheelbarrowed four loads of wood chip to restore the emergency drain that we’d dug when the apple trees were in danger of becoming waterlogged. The buds are all swelling now, which is good and bad news because we were pleased to see that the trees were still healthy in spite of the wettest winter ever, but on the other hand we’re still waiting for a delivery of five more bare root trees and we’re growing fearful that they’ll be out of dormancy before they can be despatched. I emailed the nursery last week and they rather fobbed me off with an anodyne “trust us” response.
After remedial work on the paths we trimmed back the frosted and dead leaves from the Swiss chard and a bed of brassicas. The purple sprouting broccoli have made an excellent recovery from their sorry state after being hammered by the prolonged east wind at -6C. Then we adjusted the fleece cover on the asparagus bed and hand weeded a couple of squatters. All the while a blackbird was singing up at the top of the site – a little bit rusty, so maybe it was a young male; but the sheer complexity of his song was breathtaking – with some unusual trills. Overhead a buzzard – quite a common visitor – was circling and ignoring the gulls that were halfheartedly mobbing it. There was no one else on the site. I’ve never minded working in the rain, not since I was a groundsman. In fact, laying hedges in filthy weather with a big bonfire was always one of my favourite jobs. With decent (breathable) waterproofs I’d rather be outside in the midst of it than watching the rain run down the windows – however warm it might be inside the flat.
We’re just waiting now for a sequence of dry days to finish tensioning the polytunnel and hang the door so we can mark out the beds inside and start composting them. We discovered that the uneven surface under the ground rails was preventing us from tensioning the polythene cover properly, so there are some adjustments still to be made before we can turn our attention to filling it.
At home the rapid germination of the tomatoes – 100% successful – took us rather by surprise and filled us with foreboding because we’d factored in a much longer wait for them. Only yesterday I went through the diary and marked the six countdown Saturdays before the predicted last frost – which means we’re going to have to protect them until after May 12th. The danger is that we land up with very leggy plants, not to mention having every window occupied by pots for weeks on end. Just in case, we bought more seed yesterday as an insurance against the young plants blowing our crop.
At this time of year the earth feels like a huge slumbering dynamo slowly waking up. We all sense it; the birds and the insects too. Everywhere you look there are old friends poking their leaves above the soil. The weeds need no gardeners to tell them when to grow. Maybe instead of diaries, journals, weather forecasts and spreadsheets, we should follow the plants in the hedgerows and ask them what to do next. We do make use of garden planning software to get some kind of a rough hold on the coming season, but I’ve had to invent imaginary beds alongside the main plan to house the last minute additions and impulse buys. Every day new seed catalogues come through the post, tempting us so it’s not easy.
One supplier of gardening tools did come to my notice this week. I stumbled on Blackberry Lane after a bit of a Google search for a UK supplier of some of the hand tools that crop up regularly in the American books I’ve been reading. Biointensive gardening, permaculture, organic and no-dig gardening all use a specific set of implements that don’t seem to exist in any typical garden centre. Being a born-again tool geek I just love finding tools that I’ve never seen or used. Anything that makes our allotment lives easier is worth at least a look. So I logged on to their website and then followed up with an email to Dave Taylor who, with partner Val runs the business and received a most encouraging and helpful reply within hours. So if you’ve ever wondered what a broadfork is, or what’s so special about Eliot Coleman’s hoes, I thoroughly recommend a look at their website. It’ll probably tempt you to make a purchase or two – who could resist an oscillating hoe? – and I’m not on commission and neither is he my cousin!
And now the wet boots are out in the hall and the Barbour, board stiff, is drying in the hall. The flat is full of the aroma of a cassoulet warming in the oven. Life is good. Spring is coming!
I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.
A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?
Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Chef’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.
the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons
But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.
When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.
Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.
And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.
– even a miss is something of a triumph
So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!
We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!
Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?
I don’t have a harp, but there have been many times over the past few years when I might have hung it on the first available poplar tree in rage and sadness at what’s been happening – except rage and sadness don’t really achieve much. What’s depression, after all, except rage and anger turned inwards. “If only we could have better government” was always my first port of call when looking for a solution to the multiple injustices being suffered by the most vulnerable people. Chris Smage, in his book “A small Farm Future” which I’ve been reading and writing about enthusiastically this last week lists ten (yes ten) interlinked crises which should concern all of us. I think they’re worth listing here.
Stuff (you’ll have to read the book!)
Health and nutrition
You don’t have to be a philosopher to see that these stress markers are all flashing red at the moment. Equally, you don’t have to be a Marxist, waiting for the iron laws of history finally to show their hand, to know that these kinds of crisis tend to go critical unpredictably, like erupting volcanoes – Covid is a classic example. While we all (I hope) know that something needs to be done about them all, nothing seems to happen beyond a few reports and a bit of hand wringing.
I’ve been fascinated at this ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feature of our political lives; assuming that everyone can see the dangers but can’t – for whatever reason – react; whilst all the while I was getting more and more agitated about it. But what if the oncoming bus with no brakes was unconcerning to some/many people precisely because they think it’s a long way away and all we need to do is get a better bus driver (Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, President, Inventor – write your own in ….). For me the most acute pain of this dilemma has been to realize that there are no competent bus drivers because there is (almost by definition) no-one around who’s ever tried to control a ten headed beast like this one. We’re so immersed in our economic structure and its cultural apparatus that it’s impossible to see the crises being tackled in any other way than saving jobs, even if it means digging more mines; fracking oil; selling weapons; gambling the markets and building more nuclear power stations and inventing cardboard piercing laser weapons. Choosing another charismatic ‘big man’ to lead us back to the Promised Land is pointless.
And then, suddenly it came to me that this epochal upheaval is insoluble by any method we yet have any detailed hold on because, like Covid 19, we don’t know how it will start, how it will develop and what course it will run. Ironically this was something of a relief – not having to choose between policies that turn out to be no more than aspirations to be discarded at the first sign of a headwind. And equally surprising to me is my sense that we have many of the answers we need tucked away in our experiences and memories.
Madame and me were once on a course where we were separated and invited to write down the best and closest moment in our relationship. Our fellow course members all mentioned holidays, honeymoons and some other pretty predictable stuff. We, though, had both written down the time when we were being evicted because our basement flat was deemed unfit for habitation. Madame was 7 months pregnant and we had no idea what we were going to do but freed from any responsibility for what was being done to us we improvised, nagged, haggled and fought and after 18 months living in our unfit basement with a baby, we were rehoused. I don’t think we were ever closer than we were during that time.
So I’m able to find a ray of hope in human ingenuity, creativity and (this is the risky one) a capacity for kindness towards strangers . No-one in their right mind would look forward to a societal, ecological or economic breakdown but if it comes I’ve no doubt that we will discover gifts that we never dreamed we possessed.