A very genteel affair!

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Yesterday afternoon, after a long fish and chip lunch (working class dinner) with friends, we both needed a walk so we wandered up to the Botanical Gardens with no particular quarry in mind except the vague hope that there might be some traces of a physic garden in amongst the plantings. No such luck, though – the garden has its seasonal moments, but apart from a couple of very nice borders the trees are the main survivors of the relentless pressures of austerity.  The garden is just far enough from the tourist hotspots to allow the City Council to neglect it without much fear of being called out. Any protesters can be labelled as ‘minority activists’ citing the pressing and greater needs of social care and claiming that these sorts of things are expensive fripperies  – like libraries and galleries …… and – the list goes on, the cuts get deeper and the fabric of society begins to disintegrate. The Garden is only a short walk from Royal Crescent which is constantly crowded with visitors who photograph the lovely architecture without giving a thought to where the money came from.  William Beckford whose folly overlooks Bath from a commanding position on Lansdown was one such landowner.  His Wikipedia entry gushes on about his achievements as an art collector, novelist and politician but remains silent on the slave plantations that provided his inherited wealth.

So it was a relief to find Carters Steam Fair setting up next door.  Carters is unlike any other funfair you might have been to – for a start you’re safer at the fair than you would be crossing the A4 to get to it.  When I was a child, travelling fairs were thought of as being a bit rough and risky.  On the hot evenings fights would break out like summer showers and I can recall the boxing booths where the local lads would get up and have a go.  There were still a few freak shows and I even remember the name of one burlesque act, called “The Naughty Nineties Girls”.  These all added to the erotic undertones of the funfair.  During the afternoons it was mainly attended by families and children, but as a teenager when I was first allowed to go at night, it took on an altogether darker and more exotic life.  As you approached, you could hear the raucous music and see the lights. What was so wonderful about it?  Well, it was edgy, liminal – you had to cross the penumbra of scattered light to enter – it was everything that life at home wasn’t – joyful, noisy, disorderly, open-ended.  They played rock and roll music and there were girls. The young men running the rides were like young predators stalking their supper. It was Weimar Berlin, bathed in diesel fumes and the smell of the summer night.  There were huge noisy generators run by men who’d seen it all, there was mud and straw and the greatest thing of all was that it would disappear after a week leaving just tyre tracks and yellowed grass. A truly proletarian event.

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Carters has all the old rides, the paper roll steam organs and the rock and roll music. There are generators and candyfloss and hotdogs but it’s resolutely respectable and run by a family who spend their winters restoring the unloved relics of the dangerous days. They even run courses on funfair lettering and painting.

Re-live Grandma’s Yesterday

That’s the slogan on one of the lorries and we’ll be there on Saturday afternoon when it opens, listening (I hope) to the Everly Brothers and photographing the spectacular machinery. All very low-tech, 1950’s and hauntingly beautiful.

Meet the new parishioners

 

Two new neighbours, thanks to Richard Mabey’s book on weeds which has reminded me how we don’t know these plants because, through some cultural trick of the mind, calling a plant a ‘weed’ means we often don’t even see it. These two plants are growing on the pavement outside the flat and one of them at least is rather pretty. I don’t think the one on the right – Conyza canadensis, or Canadian Fleabane is ever going to win a prize for its looks, but the other, Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane is very pretty.  We’ve been here almost 4 years now an in that time it’s extended its precarious life in pavement cracks almost the whole length of the street.

There’s a direct parallel with the human population in our ward.  On a short walk into the centre of town it wouldn’t be unusual to pass people of half a dozen nationalities from right around the world. Among our visitors here, Chinese and Japanese are almost as common as the French and Spanish speakers.  Some residents have been here for generations, some stay for years and there’s a whole other mixed age group of students and others who are far more ephemeral. Mexican Fleabane and Canadian Fleabane are just two more visitors who came and stayed.

IMG_3768There are others too – this one is Saxifraga tridactylites – the Three Fingered or Rue Leaved Saxifrage that turned up on our fire escape steps in 2018 and promptly disappeared.  It was replaced by a fine crop of slime mould the following winter. I had no idea that slime moulds were mobile but this one slowly worked its way down the steps and on to the yard where it too promptly disappeared.

I love it – the constantly changing plants seem to fit the constantly changing population. There are beautiful plants of course, but there are loads of imposters, spivs and generally indestructable plants like Hedge Mustard and Wall Barley.  I’m not calling them weeds any more because if we’re going to bring the earth back from the brink we’ve got to start calling these plants by a different name.  I’m calling them parishioners because because like it or loathe it we’re sharing both our space and our fate with them. They’ve all got names,  parents and a history, just like the drunks and spiceheads who also spend their days immobile outside on the grass.

I hope I shall be Parson Woodforde to all my new parishioners of whatever life-form; speaking of which, the dog belonging to our neighbour Nutter is barking furiously (fruitlessly) at a hot air balloon passing overhead. His owner is sitting in the sun drinking beers – he hasn’t even gone out busking today – which is a great mercy to all our visitors.

 

Turning up the heat

This year was year two of the chilli trial.  Last year I sowed five varieties and had two complete failures. The so-called hot variety I grew also turned out to be cool enough to munch off the plant – and I don’t like very hot chillies  – goodness knows why I’m growing them.

Then (I know I mentioned this in an earlier posting) I read in James Wong’s book that chillies get hotter if they’re a bit stressed and so this year I haven’t mollycoddled them at all. This has certainly worked well in the Scoville heat rating department.  Last year’s munchers have become the new chancers, and for the first time two even hotter chillies have set fruit including one that clocks in at 1,000,000 Scovile Units.  Needless to say I shan’t be trying that one without a medical team on hand.

We were discussing what to do with them this year and we agreed this morning that some of the hotter ones can be dried and kept for the winter.  We made a great chilli sauce last year and we can do that again. Then in the preserving department we started the first lot of gherkin half sours on their fermentation as well as sowing the last 2 varieties of French beans and some autumn carrots. The blue varieties of french bean and peas are so much easier to spot amongst the vines.  I also harvested the first of the heritage beetroot varieties – some Rouge Crapaudine and cooked them this evening, but as soon as I took them out I realized I’d cooked them too long – so that’s a lesson for the next batch.  Beetroots vary enormously in the amount of cooking they need – some are as tough as old boots and others – especially the very sweet ones – just need a quick wave in the steam. The flavour, however was very good – very sweet but full of that earthy flavour that good beetroot has.

We set two plants of Tromba d’Albegna, (which can’t make up its mind whether it’s a courgette or a squash) behind the greenhouse and they really like it there.  So much so that I discovered today that one of them had penetrated the greenhouse via the ventilator and lifted two of the louvre panes right out of their housings.

That’s two posts today – so thanks for joining us at the Potwell Inn, and if you like it here please tell your friends, it’s good to share.

Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.

 

More weeds

 

The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot.  Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.

But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants”  It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude.  The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family.  The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest  any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity.  I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow.  Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down.  Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received.  More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.

But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals.  Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.

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Muckyannydinny Lane

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Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.

Records played, updated and broken.

It was always going to be the hottest day of the summer so far, and so we agreed to give the (shelterless) allotment a miss.  The thunderstorm on Monday night had given the ground a real soaking, in fact we went to bed and then got up again at around half past midnight as the first growls of thunder got underway. It was the oddest storm I’ve ever watched – there were no lightning bolts to be seen and yet the sky was as bright as day each time there was a flash.  When I was a child I took part in a survey where I had to count the time between the flash and the thunderclap and send off other bits of information on a postcard, but if I’d been doing the same survey on Monday night I’d have had nothing to write.  The thunder was – well – thundrous and almost continuous, and when the rain eventually got underway it was very very intense.  People were out on the Green whooping and running around and at the back we could hear cheers breaking out. The sheer oddity of the storm had turned it into a comunity event.

IMG_2163So no need for watering and far too hot to be doing any jobs on the allotment we elected to walk up the river and along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bathampton. We’re very fortunate to be able to walk right across Bath without leaving the footpath (bar crossing a couple of main roads). We got to a point opposite the railway station where the heights of the many floods that have affected the river are engraved on the plinth of the footbridge.  Some of the floods were way above our heads, and if you’ve ever seen the Avon in flood you’ll know what a scary prospect that would be. The canalisation of the river has always been a main source of the floods and in the last couple of years an artificial flood plain has been built in the most affected area.  Sadly (as per normal) the native bankside flora was stripped out by the diggers and a pre-seeded carpet of so-called wildflowers was put there to replace them. Do architects and civil engineers ever actually look at wildflowers?  `The resulting mess that extends along the length of the ‘improvements’ comprises plants from every corner of Europe except this one and it looks either stupid or downright ugly – depending on your mood. A much loved and reliable crop of Burdock near the road bridge has been replaced by a chocolate box mix of intense reds and blues that don’t belong, and the saddest thing of all is that the majority of passers-by probably don’t even notice. Flooding, environmental destruction and heatwaves are all part of the same massive challenge and the mainstream political parties here just don’t get it. Enough!

By the time we got to the station we realized that a walk up the canal was going to be far too uncomfortable and so we took the short cut through town, opened the windows and pulled the shutters across and while Madame dozed I wrote for a couple of hours.

In the evening a workshop on Polygonaceae (that’s Docks, Sorrels Knotweeds etc in plain English).  Sadly , and probably due to the 32C temperature, the attendance was a bit disappointing  – well there were two of us.  I was slightly outgunned by the workshop leader and the only other participant who was a County Recorder and who could easily speak a sentence where I could only understand the conjunctions. However I quite enjoyed it and while they argued about promiscuous hybridizing I got on with it and looked at the samples.  After a mind-numbing two hours I’d successfully identified three easy plants and learned two new terms, which I count as a great night out. I’ll never look at a Dockweed the same way again.

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Mercifully, this morning it’s cooler and we’re off to do a great deal of weeding.  We have a rule on the allotments that says we can’t have a “bonfire” between March and the end of September – which happens to be the time we most need to burn weeds like couch. We’ve argued the toss about whether a small incinerator – burning at low temperature and creating very little smoke except when first lit – is the same thing as a bonfire. But rules, apparently are rules and so we must bag up  our noxious weeds in plastic sacks (obviously we compost almost everything), and drive them to the tip, engine idling while we advance a metre at a time in the queue. There they will be bulldozed around the bays and loaded into huge lorries when they can be driven either to landfill somewhere miles away, or to Avonmouth where they can be – wait for it – burned in a brand new incinerator.  Ah yes – that’s going to save the world!

Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

The allotment, a recipe, some history, a bit about medicinal herbs and even a bit about bread! No botany.

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Enough botany for now, then – it’s back to ‘real’ life, sweating it out at 30C on the allotment and then bizarrely cooking supper in the oven, raising the temperature in the kitchen to about 40C, ‘nothing’ for my two chef sons, I can hear them saying, but plenty hot enough for me.  We went up at 8.30am in the hope that we could get things done in the cool part of the day, but 2 hours later we were still at it when Madame got the vapours and went on strike under the umbrella. It’s great having the umbrella on the allotment but despite its size it seems only to provide shade for one. I think I’m going to invent a pivotable sail to attach to the shed so we can move it around with the sun.

This year we’ve followed the advice of James Wong in his book about growing for flavour.  He says that chillies get hotter if they’re subjected to stress, and so it seems mollycoddling them with with auto watering last year may have prevented them from reaching their full potential. This year they’ve been watered only when almost dried out and they’ve loved it.  Last year’s F1 Apache chillies were so mild I could pick them off the plant and eat them.  I did the same thing today and they almost blew my head off – I was left scampering around the allotment looking for something cold to drink. So I’ve managed to grow successfully all five varieties including the Scotch Bonnet type which around the top of the Scoville scale, but I shan’t be randomly picking them!

Last Friday’s rain was a decent soaking and when I dug the shallots today the earth was quite moist.  A couple of haulm’s worth of Arran Pilot potatoes were looking good and plump.

Back home with a trug full of fresh veg I cooked an old favourite dish – Carbonnade Nîmoise a very simple French dish which would have been cooked in a cooling bread oven back in the day, and makes a very small amount of lamb go a long way.  Garlic, carrots potatoes and fresh herbs all dug and picked this morning and baked in the oven with some olive oil, a couple of slices of bacon, a glass of wine and a dollop of reduced stock from the fridge. It’s impossible to overcook it, sealed in an extra foil cover under the lid. The star of the show is usually the potatoes which seem to soak up all the flavours, and if it’s cooked right it’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon.

More good new too on the allotment.  I was starting to clear the 50 square metres of loaned land, on which we grew potatoes this year,  and our neighbour said he was happy to continue the loan for another season, so we decided on the spot that we would overwinter our broad beans there this autumn.  To be honest we grew far too many spuds this year but we pay our neighbour in kind for the loan and he takes a share of the produce from his piece of land – it works very well.

And although the field botany phase has ended, there’s still all the typing up to do.  I usually make a sortable list in Word so I can eliminate any duplicates and do a final check on any doubtfuls. Luckily I have a contact in the Bath Nats who is willing to cast an eye over any dubious identifications and we’ll be seeing him on Thursday anyway because he’s running a workshop on identifying Rumex spp – yes I’m a complete propeller head!

On another tack, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been sharpening my skills in identifying plants with medicinal uses. That’s raised some very interesting ethical issues, for instance I found dozens of Betony plants on the clifftop at St Davids, but nothing would induce me to pick them because there just aren’t enough, and there are many medicinal plants that are in danger of being foraged into extinction, sometimes for money. I mentioned in a previous posting how I watched in horror when, on a fungus foray, I saw a young woman (known to me) pick every single Ragged Parasol fungus in a stand of a couple of dozen – far more than any family could reasonably eat. In fact foraging is becoming something of a menace in places.  I know there are many medicinal herbs we can grow on the allotment and some – couch root, dandelions and nettles, for instance, are so prolific that it’s perfectly OK to take a regular cut.  I’m trying to make a list of sustainably available plants in our immediate area and, trust me, I shan’t be publishing their whereabouts. However the vast quantities of these plants that are being processed and added to everything from cough mixture to cosmetics makes you wonder how sustainable or ethical the supply line is.  There’s no real compulsion to monitor it – for instance I was greatly shocked to read on the Plantlife website that even the supply of licorice is under threat.  We know it can be (or was) at least grown in Pontefract and presumably could be grown again – a nice little niche income for a farm with the right soil conditions.

This has been a bit of a mixed bag of a posting but, in my defence, I haven’t mentioned sourdough, mainly because we bake less in the summer.  While we were away Madame was reading about farm life on Ramsey Island and in those days (the 1940’s) ‘mother’ would bake 30 loaves a week in a paraffin fuelled oven. The same book had many photos of the family, and it was clear that the grandson of the family is still farming in the area – in fact he was the one with the brilliant sheepdogs – and the image of his grandfather. A photo of the flock of sheep is at the top of the post.

If you’re interested in following up on the sustainability of medicinal plants I found this paper – but be warned, it’s mind bogglingly thorough!

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_med_plants.pdf

 

And one for the road

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Sunday 21st July

Woke up on the campsite this morning to find most of our neighbours gone, leaving an uninterrupted line of site to the wireless transmitter and a full signal. “Wonderful”, I thought, “I’ll be able to post today” But it didn’t last long – when we got back after today’s walk a whole line of lunking great motorhomes stood between us and the aerial – how on earth they imagine they can manoeuvre these behemoths around the narrow lanes without causing chaos baffles me. Yesterday our bus had to reverse 100 yards back down a steep hill and three blind corners because an oncoming car driver was either unwilling or unable to reverse. Pembrokeshire run a brilliant and cheap shuttle service around the peninsula and yet many people still drive here for the boat trips assuming there will be somewhere to park when they get here. Seeing the first and the second car parks full they invariably push on in the Trumpian hope that there ought to be a place. Eventually they reach a locked gate and the belated realization that you can’t make a an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’, and the lane near the gate turns into the purse net full of panicking trippers realising they’re going to miss their £60 adventure. Ah well, it’s fun to watch, and – for the record – our van, Polly, is the size of a transit – plenty big enough for us – and we park it and then, for however long we’re here, we walk or catch the bus.

Anyway, the days are falling into a kind of pattern and after a leisurely morning’s reading we generally wander off for another walk down one or another of the footpaths that lead eventually to the coast path. It doesn’t matter a bit that it’s repetitive because every occasion brings new plants and new things to look at. Today I was wading around in the edges of a bog trying to photograph amongst complicated mixture of Watercress, Hemlock Water Dropwort and Brookweed when I heard the loud sound of a dragonfly which, because I was standing very still, flew between me and my subjects about a foot from my nose. I lost sight of it for a moment but the noise continued – it was a big female Golden Ringed dragonfly over three inches long and with a wingspan not much less and then I was able to see it hovering vertically, head up, probing and testing the surface of the mud with its ovipositor until it found the right spot and then presumably laid its eggs barely three feet away. I watched, amazed, until it finished and flew off. The photos became a sideshow to a sight very few people will have witnessed for no other reason that I was crouching there quietly at just the right moment. Sadly the quality of the photograph was somewhat compromised by my distraction. Then, moments later I watched a pair of large white butterflies mating, the female much larger than the male; I guess it was my lucky day. In fact the hedges were alive with butterflies as we walked, and a little further on as we passed a pool the air was full of dazzling damselflies.

Elsewhere I returned to the Comfrey plant I’d logged two days ago because I wasn’t completely sure I’d identified it correctly and my doubts were confirmed as it was Russian Comfrey and not the native variety I’d logged – it’s all about attention to detail – and double, even triple checking. As we walked I was checking off more new discoveries and confirming old ones. It’s amazing how once you’ve identified a plant, you begin to see it everywhere. Today included a hands and knees search in the grass for some shy plants that I spotted when I was tying my boot laces. It’s amazing how much a change of viewpoint can throw up. When we eventually got to the café at Porthclais I did a quick count and once we got home and I’d identified a couple of grasses and some more photos I was astounded to have reached over 150 with another day left.

Returning to the beach at Porthlysgi bay, the children had all gone and it was quiet once again. I prowled around the margins to double check some of Thursday’s plants and found a group of Rock Sea Spurry clinging to life on a collapsing wall of mud alongside a similarly impoverished group of Hartshorne Plantain. On the other side of the bay the same plants were doing much better with some shelter from the prevailing winds,

And after a cup of tea at  Porthclaes, we caught the bus back to the campsite – this time driven by a much more sedate driver who kept the radio a good deal quieter.

By late evening it was drizzling and the South Westerly wind was getting up towards gale force so we battened down hoping for a better day, but after an eceptionally rough night we woke up to more glowering mist and rain and so we decided to cut our losses 24 hours early and drive back to Bath.

Monday 22nd July

Packing up the van has developed into a kind of silent duet because we’ve done it so often.  I remember someone telling me that submariners are obsessively tidy because they have so little space, and that pretty much fits the bill for living in a smallish campervan. It usually falls to me to empty the cludger and, trust me if you let it get too full it’s a nightmare to lug down to what’s euphemistically called the ‘chemical disposal point’, so we (I) have a strict routine to keep it simple.  On many campsites the CDP is a more or less separate building with all manner of facilities to make an unpleasant job as quick and easy as possible.  Not so here – it’s a manhole cover with ‘CP’ daubed on it in white paint. As I was strolling down I met our neighbour – the one in the twelve bedroomed pedestal bedded and complete with washing machine (no kidding), obliterator of all wifi signals, pantechnicon. Not that I ever judge a man by the size of his motorhome! Seeing that I was carrying the cludger he accosted me.  He was in full peacock glory with his permatan and much toned face, shorts and expensive trainers – the kind not made for running –  and damselfly blue reflective sunglasses moored on top of his head.  “Where do you take the stuff mate? ” he said in a slightly saaf London accent.  “Stuff”? – I thought to myself  …. are we talking ordure? sewage? night soil? crap? I explained the technicalities of lifting the manhole cover, ensuring that your mobile was not in your top pocket, tipping the “stuff” in and returning to the palace triumphantly dragging your empty elk behind you. I thought he’d probably get his wife to do it.

On my way back I spotted another plant.  Discarding my (smaller) elk for a moment I got down and had a proper investigatory look. It was – is – a Broomrape. I think that makes 154. Sadly no phone (for aforementioned reasons) so no photographs.  The identification stops there because they’re a complicated group of plants that need more time and much more expertise than I possess.

Home then in blisteringly humid conditions on a busy motorway, breathing fumes and being part of the problem rather than the solution.