How about raw rhubarb in a salad?

IMG_5267There aren’t many occasions when we eat out when I don’t come home with an idea to try out. I must confess I’d never even thought of eating rhubarb raw before we were offered it in a mixed salad at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  To be fair it was just one ingredient but it tasted pretty good – I just had no idea whether it had been prepared in some way. My first thought was that it could have been fridge pickled, but it’s already pretty sour and so I experimented this morning by chopping the rhubarb into chunks and pouring over it a boiling mixture of water, raspberry vinegar (home made) and a little salt – and then allowing it to cool completely. I tasted it and it still seemed to need a little sweetness, so I stirred in a tablespoon of undiluted rasperry vinegar. It tasted very good and would add a tart component to any mixed salad.  My guess is that it would be even better using early season forced rhubarb but this year we relocated all our plants on the allotment and so forcing was out of the question.

IMG_5268Back in the flat, the chillies, peppers and aubergines have all left the propagators and are sitting in the south facing windows waiting for the temperature outside to allow them into the cold greenhouse. They’ve been replaced by the whole second wave of tender seedlings and so this begins the period when we can’t close any of the shutters and every available inch of floor space is in use.

Up at the allotment it was mostly routine stuff – not least mending a puncture on the wheelbarrow caused by a gooseberry pruning on the path. But I love it just pottering around and doing a bit of hand weeding or hoeing.

One of our big discoveries this year has been the variety of basil varieties available  as seed.  So far we’ve tried two, and now we’ve ordered two more and maybe we’ll try another later in the season.  Allotmenteering isn’t free or even cheap and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that we save money against supermarket prices. I was in Lidl today buying the cheapest possible beer for our slug traps, and I was amazed at how cheap their vegetables were. They were certainly flying off the shelves but I wondered what the human and environmental cost of production would be. On the allotment we may spend more on our veg, but we know exactly what’s gone into their production, they taste better than anything you could buy, they’re fresher than anything you could buy and we get to choose exactly the varieties we prefer. We’ll  have five mints – all quite different, and now four basils, three thymes and so it goes on. We can grow for flavour and the final bonus is the exercise and sheer joyfulness of growing things.

Tonight we ate what will probably be the last picking of our purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re still picking chard and true spinach.  This is the real beginning of the hungry gap for us, but the allotment is full of growing crops and the hotbed is giving us an abundance of salad leaves, spring onions and radishes. It won’t be very long before our container potatoes give us a small crop and the broad beans are at the point of setting pods.  We shan’t actually go hungry of course, and we’ve got loads of preserved and frozen tomato sauces so pasta dishes will probably be featuring largely, along with the frozen borlotti beans.

The Potwell Inn oven door broke a few weeks ago and we steeled ourselves for a big bill, but a local tradesman who glued our broken dishwasher back together – saving us a replacement – also mended the oven yesterday and so I can bake again.  Tonight I’ll mix the first batch of sourdough sponge. Outside the world is going to hell in a handcart.  At the weekend I watched in horror as a couple of players from the local rugby club beat a homeless man unconscious, accusing him of stealing a wallet. I called the police but the police bike was in use in Midsomer Norton so nobody was able to attend. I’m five foot seven and seventy two years old and the two players were around six foot four and in their twenties, so I thought twice about heroism. The man recovered and wandered off and they walked home without a care in the world. Another neighbour turned up and the victim  tried to blag his bus fare off her, so he probably survived.  But if I were the Bath Rugby Club manager I’d probably advise them not to wear their club training tops in future – it doesn’t quite tell the story the corporate sponsors want to convey!

Lunch at the Potwell Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’ll march for these?

If you’ve been following every posting for months you’ll know that on 21st December 2018 I told a story I’m about to revisit because it bears on another news story today.  To be honest my original piece had very few readers.  I generally try not to get preachy  but today it was reported that in the UK pollinating insects had diminished by 25%  

There’s clearly something wrong and if you thought that the main suspects – neonicotinoids – had been completely banned in the UK you’d be mistaken. Here’s the DEFRA information from just over a year ago:

Further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides have been approved following a vote by EU member states today.

The UK voted in favour of the proposals that will see a ban on outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

What the press release also goes on is to say that there are exceptional variations available …. etc etc.  So it’s good news that the use of these pesticides has been reduced but it’s simply not true that they’re completely banned. Of course the reason for the decline of wildlife in general is complex, but agricultural practices have to be a part of the problem. I spend much of my time defending farmers, and the way they’ve been squeezed between a rock and a hard place is nothing short of shameful, but there’s no prospect that the sowing of wildflower meadow mix in suburban gardens and allotments is going to reverse this decline. DEFRA admits that the value of insects as pollinators exceeds half  billion pounds a year. If the UK leaves the European Community and abolishes even these limited restrictions, many of these precious pollinators may well disappear altogether. I’ve seen maize seed treated with neonictinoids it’s bright blue and it’s so toxic you have to protect your skin from contact.

Biodiversity isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue, an aesthetic issue and a moral issue as well. Last night we watched the news on television with increasing dismay and we talked about The Potwell Inn and our little allotment which sometimes feel like they hold the key to the future. Should we engage or withdraw? All I know is that I can remember the exact moment I photographed each one of the beasties at the top of the page and my life would have been all the poorer without them.

So maybe we should adopt a Benedictine saying. As you enter the chapel in the monastery you read the words “To pray is to work” and when you leave the chapel to carry out your daily work – possibly in the garden –  you read  “To work is to pray”. Can’t argue with that, even if I never quite know if anyone’s listening.

Potwell Inn? – not here mate!

P1080742The owners of this car are on holiday.  We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath.  There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.

The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load.  All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy.  Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.

Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do.  But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.

I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life.  Of course I could create ……

The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience

– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed.  I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.

Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.

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On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.

Winter thoughts at the Potwell Inn

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In the world of virtuality that we bloggers inhabit, it’s tempting to create a parallel unverse in which we are self-perfecting and untouched by the blights that affect lesser mortals. And so, by carefully selecting from the events of the day and choosing our words as poets might, we convey our privileged position on the sunny highlands of human consciousness without for a moment descending into bragging.

It will be a strange sort of book, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree ; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be as ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.  Yet I do mean to get to the truth of the thing , spite of this.

Herman Melville in a letter to Richard Henry Dana on the first draft of Moby Dick

I read blogs. The best of them fire me up and get me back to work, but the worst of them make me feel inadequate – as if the only place to start a new life is “anywhere but where you are”. I see photographs of perfected lives, perfected allotments and perfected meals and I know that I could never compete. Nobody’s going to stick my face on an advert for the good life, so I created the Potwell Inn as a place where the real, the blight, the shit that happens, has a place as well – a place that I’m allowed to live in because I am fallible, I am human and I have never lost the longing for something better.

The Potwell Inn, in its first iteration by H G Wells, is set in the South Downs and it’s all orchard and grass and gently murmering river. It doesn’t rain – in fact the sun seems never to stop shining – but over everything hangs the shadow of Uncle Jim who may return at any moment in a drunken fury. H G Wells knew better than to write a novel of perfection.

So, mea culpa, in all my postings I’ve never mentioned anything much more frightening than allium leaf miner or a late frost; and you might run away with the idea that the Potwell Inn and its allotment exist in a faery glade at the edge of an exquisite Georgian city. It’s true that the city we live in has a lot of Georgian architecture – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge one of its most beautiful parks.  But Bath itself is a monster with a severe personality disorder that can’t make its mind up whether it’s a University town, a Roman tribute act, a continuously ‘in session’ meeting of the Jane Austin fan club or a vibrant modern shopping/eating/clubbing experience. In fact, “Bath – the experience” occupies a limited area at the centre and it’s surrounded by a hinterland that’s not so lucky.  Our beautiful Georgian terrace comprises mainly houses in multiple occupation filled with a shifting population of students, young families unable even to look in an estate agent’s window, and housing assocociation properties many of which have some deeply troubled residents.

So we live in a lovely flat near the centre of a beautiful city and the corner of our street next to the flat is a favourite spot for drug dealers because there’s no CCTV and there are four or five escape routes inaccessible to a police car if trouble kicks off. Through our windows we can enjoy a view of the river and the trees and also – at times –  violent domestic disputes, machete wielding ‘county lines’ enforcers and crack smoking minor league dealers on bikes. Most of the trouble never comes near us – just once I was the victim of the most pathetic attempted mugging in history. There’s a young man who lives a block away who we call ‘mong’ because he shuffles around as if he is permanently on spice or ketamine. He’s well over six feet tall so potentially could be a bit frightening if the fog ever cleared. I came down the road and despite the fact that he was already holding a mobile, he said “give me your phone” in his best menacing tone. I replied “fuck off!” in my most menacing OAP manner, and he said “there’s no need to be rude”. He probably had a good polite upbringing some time back.

The police and the local council are having a purge on rough sleeping and street begging in the centre because it scares the tourists. Naturally this means that the problem moves outwards towards us and street begging becomes petty crime – burglary, shoplifting, stolen bikes, muggings and such like. Sustaining a £200 a day habit either means a good begging pitch in town or something much more scary around the edges.  Our posturing local councillors – many of whom are part of the problem inasmuch as they own property and let it out at increasingly ridiculous rents – like to grandstand with talk about ‘zero tolerance’ but that does nothing to help the elderly residents who are terrorised by dealers and users.  We have no police station any more, and our air quality is so polluted by heavy traffic that we regularly break EU limits. So that’s where the Potwell Inn can be found – not in an  idyllic imaginary parallel world, but here on a cold December day when it’s too wet to get on to the allotment (again).

But this is where we’ve chosen to live and we love every moment. I’ve always had a conviction that there’s no better place than where you are set down, and the best way to live a flourishing, fully human life is to transform the place you live in rather than spend a fortune in time and energy looking for somewhere better. And so we get involved in the local neighbourhood and in its politics.  We all know that the source of many of these problems is lack of compassion and lack of resources compounded by a malignant ideology.  We love the fact that we can hear a dozen languages and more every day on the streets and we can shop in half a dozen food cultures within a mile.  We love the allotment and its capacity to provide for us, and our neighbours who live such interesting and occasionally complicated and exotic lives.

In one of those long meandering chains of thought that sometimes sieze my attention I began ten days ago with watching the riots in Paris on television and emerged 24 hours later with a changed perspective. That change of perspective took me to a single word; a crystallisation of the chain of thought and it was the word “commonwealth”.  The absence of the capital letter is absolutely deliberate because it is not a proper noun.  It doesn’t refer to any of the manifestations of the original idea that has been misappropriated so often from the days of Cromwell’s parliament to the cultural remains of the British Empire. It’s been so often misappropriated, in fact, that when I googled it, I looked at 27 pages of results without finding a single reference to its original meaning – a political community founded for the common good. This lovely idea seems to me to be slap bang in the middle of the Potwell Inn mission statement, or it would be if we had one!

I wondered for a long while whether to post this, and here it is. A provisional mission statement for the Potwell Inn, driven by the sheer baffling and beautiful complexity of human flourishing.

Commonwealth: A political community founded for the common good.