Three for one offer!

So after the philosophical tone of the last couple of posts, I thought I’d share an anxiety free photo of a wheelbarrow. There’s not much going on at the allotments at the moment – mostly the site is like the Marie Celeste; full of signs of occupation but devoid – apart from the diehards – of human company; no gossip to be had.

There are two especially dangerous moments for new allotmenteers – six months apart but equally fatal to the morale. In July the early optimism of cleared ground and early sown crops gives way to an explosion of weeds – especially on newly won ground. In December, once the pruning is done and any bare earth covered or mulched, the cold and often grey, greasy weather is a powerful disincentive to gardening. These days, knowing what we do about air pollution, it’s even difficult to justify the bonfire – the old friend of bored allotmenteers on winter days.

But composting goes on whatever the month, and with time on our hands it’s the perfect opportunity for clearing up, leaving lots of habitat for overwintering insects; any bits of civil engineering that have been on the “to do” list for several seasons and, if you’re lucky like us, starting next season’s leaf mould. I remember many years ago buying one of Christopher Lloyd’s books – I think it was The Well Tempered Garden – and becoming increasingly dismayed that his idea of a small garden was about the size of three football fields, complete with mature trees and an abundance of compostable materials. For the vast majority of us, the materials available for composting are extremely limited.

However, our local authority, in a bid to save money, has now built a number of gigantic bunkers on various allotment sites around Bath in order to save the cost (I can hardly believe this!) of dumping leaves. Obviously we’re delighted but slightly overwhelmed with this generosity. Added to regular supplies of free wood chip they’re a blessing and in the past they disappeared almost as fast as they arrived. Possibly not so any more.

Leaves are a threefold blessing, as well as being – for different reasons and in different phases – biochemical miracles. As green leaves attached to their trees they convert sunlight and water into sugar and, with the aid of countless fungal networks and bacteria, swap sugar for micronutrients in ways we’re only just beginning to understand; storing carbon in the soil at the same time. As fallen leaves they make a perfect mulch for soft fruit bushes and empty plots. We once covered a patch of cleared ground with six inches of leaves and threw a cover over them. When winter was over we removed the cover to find that they’d all but disappeared due to the actions of worms..

But stacked in one of our compost bins – ours will accommodate ten bags similar to the one in the photo (just big enough to be able to lift and empty when full)- and through the action of moulds, fungi, bacteria and the whole gamut of leaf eating insects they slowly decompose. By March the heap will have shrunk by around a third and we’ll cap it with six inches of compost to grow a prolific crop of ridge cucumbers whose roots reach deep into the moisture holding leaf mould.

Then in a final act of beneficence the finished leaf mould will be mixed 50:50 with our own compost which will be spread on our plot in the autumn when the whole cycle starts again. I suppose in a perfect world the leaves would be left to rot where they fall, but we try to accomplish the same thing whilst growing food – which brings me to an excellent article in today’s Guardian which reports on a new piece of research that supports the idea that allotments can make a substantial contribution to food security and local (ie low carbon footprint) sustainable food networks. If only forward thinking local authorities would take up the challenge and secure leases on plots of suitable land surrounding villages, towns and cities, the waiting lists (thousands in some cases) could be reduced and a secure supply of wholesome, mainly organic food could be in place within a couple of seasons.

Taking a flail mower to the inner landscape.

Winter scene – taken just outside Priddy today

There’s a long walk around the village of Capel y Ffin in the Black Mountains that takes you up Hatterall Hill at just over 530 metres above sea level and joins the Offa’s Dyke path. Walking west along the ridge you come to a track that’s a lot easier to find with GPS, down past Vision farm. You drop steeply down into the valley, cross the Honddu river by a bridge and then climb up the other side through Capel, passing the ruins of the monastery there, and uphill until you reach a second ridge that offers the most spectacularly airy views of Hay Bluff and across into Wales. Turning left you follow the ridge, keeping an eye open for a single wind blasted thorn, several miles further on and which is the only clue to the whereabouts of a path leading back down the valley to Llanthony Abbey and the starting point. It’s about ten, maybe twelve miles, I suppose – a fine walk in any weather although there’s no shelter from sun, wind or rain and it can get a bit gloopy in winter. That thorn tree is an essential part of the navigation. If you miss it you let yourself in for a long and difficult thrash.

The image came to mind today as I was struggling to make sense of the confusion I am feeling at the prospect of yet more restrictions and growing numbers of deaths from the Omicron Covid variant. Hefting – to use the phrase that describes that way sheep “belong” to particular parts of their fells is a powerful description of an attachment that goes far beyond owning an internal sheepy satnav. Hefting includes within its meanings the knowledge of particular plants for food; of water; of shelter from storms; of tracks of use only to sheep who have different purposes than careless walkers. Hefting embeds ancient inherited knowledge within a whole landscape – an almost sacramental image combining outward form with inner grace; shared – and here’s the point – between sheep and shepherds. I remember once talking with a farmworker in his seventies who could point out, and actually name a field on an east-facing slope of the Forest of Dean, a mile away across the River Severn.

It’s an important clue to the way it feels to be human, here in this place and at this moment in time. Covid, brexit, the collapse of social care, appalling and uncaring politics and the impossibility even of seeing a doctor when their answering machine says – “If it’s an emergency dial 999 and if it’s not – talk to your pharmacist”; all add up to the feeling of walking on a rainy and windblown ridge and discovering that every single waypoint has been taken down. The thorn bush that’s always been there as a pointer to the way home, is gone. You feel lost.

And so, today – much to Madame’s bewildered amusement – I just had to drive up to High Mendip to make sure it was still there, even if it was too wet to get out of the car and too misty to see beyond a hundred yards. “God it’s bleak up here”, she said, and I thought to myself that its bleakness may have been its saviour.

When someone’s taken a flail mower to your inner landscape you have this primal urge to find a place that you know, and that – in some strange way – knows you. I’ve explored Priddy’s underground streamways and passages with more moments of sheer terror than bliss; seen the power of the water reshape an entire cave system in a single night, and then retraced my steps sixty years later walking the map above ground. It’s a three dimensional landscape for me ….. or could it be four? My son gave me Robin Wall Kimmerer’s latest book – a collection of essays – for my birthday this weekend. Here’s something truly significant that she writes towards the end of the preface:

In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective.

“Gathering Moss” – Robin Wall Kimmerer – published 2021 in the UK by Penguin Books.

You need to know that Kimmerer is both a scientist, professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. But you don’t have to be a First Nation American to embrace the earth in its totality. There was never a more important moment in human history to turn away from the narrow vision of the reductionist arrow slit to embrace the intensity and difficulty of the whole. For me, the emotional and spiritual connection to landscape -and not just wild places and countryside, but the towns and cities in which we are also hefted – these connections are being tested like never before. We are being shriven by the weather of events, huddling beneath the walls, waiting for a spring that’s failed us now, for two years, and fearing that there is no shepherd to lead us down to food and shelter.

For each of us the equivalent of my blasted thorn will be different. The signs that guide us to safety are rarely the ones erected at great public expense – like the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol – in order to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The Post Office and corner shop, the local pub, the tatty GP surgery, the school where the teachers remember your name thirty years later, the alleyways and steps, the bus stop that’s always hosted the number four bus, the sweet shop of your childhood that suddenly and overnight turned into a bookies on the day you finally understood why your grandfather would send you up to give a note to the shopkeeper and occasionally bring an envelope back – evidently not a rebate on sweets. When the flail mower visits your own blasted thorn you feel lost and sad; and if there’s a calculus for feeling lost then I have lots of data.

A breath of hope!

Winter Heliotropes

It’s been a testing few weeks for all of us, I know, and there’s something energy sapping about living in a country that’s pretty much falling apart under a corrupt and incompetent government. I could list the terrible consequences of government idiocy but there doesn’t seem much point – we all know how and why they’ve failed; it’s just kicking them out that seems so difficult.

But there’s been another psychological hurdle at the Potwell Inn, and that’s a birthday that seems to take me over a line. Six years ago, when we retired, a friend had a T shirt made for me with the slogan “I’m not old I’m experienced!” written on it. Madame wouldn’t let me wear it outside because she said it seemed aggressive – “tough!” – I thought; “I’m not ready to screw my life down into the box marked old man”. There are so many assumptions about us – that we’re slow and doddery; that we’re all right wing bigots; that we have no idea about technology or media and that we have nothing to say that a young person might find remotely interesting. Harrumph!

Anyway, walking along the canal yesterday, these winter heliotropes made my heart sing; flowering, as they do, when the rest of nature looks like a dog with worms. They have a curious and indescribable scent; flower for a couple of weeks and then revert to looking like coltsfoot: most confusing.

In Henrietta Park we found a priceless oyster mushroom growing on the side of a long dead tree. I photographed and left it and then a couple of days later we found it had been cut off, probably by an urban forager. I was slightly peeved because, had it been left in place, it could have inspired lots of people to try to identify it. Who knows ? a future president of the British Mycological Society could have been jolted into a lifelong passion by that single fungus. The same tree had some nice brackets, turkey tails and honey tuft on board. What a good idea to resist all thoughts of tidying the stump away in favour of teeming fungi, going about their business clearing up dead matter and storing carbon.

The robins seemed more than usually pugnacious on our walk, and we spotted the Widcombe heron, not to mention wagtails, mallard, moorhens and swans – which we now know how to sex: dead easy when you’ve been taught to examine (from a respectful distance) necks and beaks (well, noses I suppose). The river, meanwhile, was flecked with foam and the perfume of detergent filled the air near Pulteney weir. While the new omicron variant of Covid stalks the streets we instinctively avoid crowded places now and didn’t feel able to go to the last indoor meeting of the Bath Nats – which is a massive deprivation for us; a second winter with no lectures and no meeting up with friends. Anyway, dawn will come and the heliotropes were a lovely sight in a grey landscape.

Who’s the big cheese around here?

Gatt talks, WTO tariffs and trading partnerships all sound a bit remote – at least they do to me – until, that is, – I start to wonder where we’re heading with our grip on global climate change, atmospheric pollution, biodiversity loss, food policy, the obesity crisis; zoonotic pandemics, and feel free to add any other candidates. The official government line on all this is to stick its fingers in its ears and shout lalalalalalalalala as loud as it possibly can. Scientists?? pifflewaffle; we know what we think and we think what we know! The great joy of knowing the answer before you’ve even formulated the question is the amount of time it releases for doing more fun things.

Anyway, I listened to a programme on the radio last evening about Flann O’Brien’s novel “The third Policeman” and whilst thinking about bicycles (if you’ve read it you’ll know!) I remembered a theory I formulated many decades ago when I was studying ceramics. My lecturers, with the exception of the saintly David Green (the rest deserve to remain anonymous) regarded my interest in the science and technology of firing clay and decorating with glazes as a dangerous diversion from the main task of being creative. I simply couldn’t understand how I was supposed to create anything without the knowledge of the chemistry and the physics that made things possible. The alternative was the opposite of creativity because it limited you to flicking through magazines and catalogues and making things with readymade ideas and readymade materials. I paid for my interest with a drinker’s degree but with some grasp of what you could do with mud and fire.

So my theory was simple. The sum of human knowledge is accessible from any single point you might start out from rather as a bicycle wheel is supported and rendered strong and functional not by a single spoke but by a multitude of spokes radiating from the centre. A pHd in the study of one spoke will leave you as powerless as when you began. Beginning with hand made ceramics at the centre of the hub I was able to explore chemistry, physics, history, industrial and domestic design, the economic geography of the Midlands; geology – of course – and the evolution of industrial ceramics; and that’s not to mention Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics through their history and bearing in mind the religious cultures in which they were situated. Altogether a marvellous complement to the business of creatively expressing the idea of being human through mud, fire and human hands.

It seems to me that the same bicycle wheel analogy can be applied to any or all of the challenges I outlined in the first paragraph. Yes I’m an allotmenteer but also I’m a cook, a writer, a parent, a partner, a shopper and a human being struggling to discover how best to be human in this strange century. So all the old disciplines come back again, because to understand what’s going on it’s not enough to follow a single spoke. We need sound grasp of all of them if we’re to deal creatively with the challenges – otherwise, as my argument suggests, we are chained to endlessly repeating old and (as we now know) ineffective solutions.

What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like

Let’s take cheese as a starting point – no surprise there then! The wheel of thunderous raw milk Cheddar or the block of its industrial, cling wrapped namesake share some features but it’s the differences that really count. To take an interest in cheesemaking necessitates taking an interest in farming and demands that we consider the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The two cousins may share a common ancestor but they grew up in different cultures, thriving and failing in different economic structures. They each have roots in many other questions – not least how should we feed ourselves without destroying the earth? What should we do with the waste products? Is it possible to feed the population without resorting to industrial farming with its chemicals? Can we even afford the additional expense of time and human labour if we turn our backs on the feedlot and the intensive dairy operations? Can we afford not to? What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like?

We’ve become so reliant on technological solutions for complex problems that we’re shunting lethal earth-threatening events down the line awaiting the arrival of the uninvented as if technology were like the Seventh Cavalry – always appearing over the hill in the nick of time. The reality is that we’re locked in the cabin of an aeroplane that’s plunging earthwards while the crew argue about which button to press.

There will be ways of changing our bearing and finding a way through the challenges but it will demand the understanding and collaboration of the sociology and economics, psychology, agricultural and horticultural sciences and political structures in order to untangle the threads that have created this disaster. But most of all this can’t be an imposed solution without the input of farmers and the food distribution networks; of consumers and – dare I say – the thousands of workers who depend on ultra processed food production for jobs. A bicycle with a one spoked wheel is suitable only for leaning against walls.

I had a friend who was a keen amateur cyclist and once or twice he tuned my bike wheels in order to remove a kink acquired in a pothole. The sensitivity required as he turned the spoke spanner tiny amounts was amazing. Every twist on one spoke would demand a tweek somewhere else – it took ages; and so it will be as we try to deal with the crises we’re facing. The devil will always be in the detail.

not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle

The crisis of end stage capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Basic foodstuffs have been so commodified that they have no relation even to the country, let alone the county of origin. Commodified milk, for instance is often sold at below the cost of production and I remember well a dairy worker telling me that when one chain wanted to depress the farm gate prices they began importing milk from Poland which, by the time it finally arrived was beginning to turn. This doesn’t matter much because, as a result of lobbying pressure from the largest producers, all milk has to be pasteurised to such an extent that the friendly natural yeasts, bacteria and microbes on which regional artisan cheeses depend for their unique flavours are all dead. So then they have to add one or more industrial starter cultures. Unsurprisingly, most commercial Cheddars taste much the same – not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle.

Where the trade agreements come into this is that the big producers have found it easy to crush artisan cheesemakers by imposing regulations that destroy the handmade product. The fightback has been fierce, beginning with the trumped up charge that raw milk cheeses were quite likely to infect you with Listeria. It took a titanic battle to prove that traditional raw milk cheese production – when done properly – is actually less likely to give you Listeriosis because all those naughty microbes are able to create an environment that’s hostile to Listeria. It’s just that you should avoid raw milk cheeses and soft blue cheeses if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised.

I’m sorry to have focused on cheese, but the same thing exactly goes on with cattle breeding – most high yield grain fed cattle are too closely related to one another due to the international trade in bull semen. Consequently many cattle are born sick and need copious amounts of prophylactic antibiotics just to stay alive. Traditional herbal remedies, many used effectively for centuries, have been driven off the shelves because the producers can’t afford the huge costs of testing and registration. In fact, as I’ve been reading about the scandalous results of the actions of agrochemical industries, big pharma and intensive farming and their relationships with industrial and ultra processed food.

The commodification of the food chain in order to drive down prices is the principal engine of almost every challenge we face. Cheap ultra processed food makes us sick while it drives ecological and climate devastation and, worse still, is the fact that it’s only cheap because we the longsuffering taxpayers subsidise it; throw money at it. There’s only one way forward and that’s to turf out governments that refuse to take this problem seriously; to bear down hard on the industries that spend billions on lobbying (more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were members of official delegations at COP26! – let alone the big pharma and agrochemical lobby), and to regulate fairly to protect and promote sustainable agriculture within local food chains. If we were to remove the subsidies for junk food and apply them to genuine producers we’d see the price differential close dramatically.

Do I sound cross? ….. you’ve no idea !!!!

If it ain’t broke …

Proved on a couche cloth and supported by a couple of rolling pins.

Being a conservative (with a small C) kind of person, I can get absurdly attached to the way we do things round here, and after a couple of successful outcomes with loaves, for instance, I have to almost force myself to try something different. There has to be a strong reason for me to change; and happily a strong reason came along just at the very moment I’d grown a bit tired of circular bannetons which I’ve been using for years after an even longer period of using nothing but tins. You may call it boring, but for me it’s a way of taming an unforgiving and unpredictable world. Of course I know perfectly well that the fact there’s a familiar shaped and flavoured loaf on the table with some home made marmalade at breakfast time – doesn’t guarantee that the roof won’t fall in by lunchtime, but ….. well most of the time it doesn’t!

So it was the impossibility of cutting two slices the same size from a circular loaf that finally pushed me towards the sandwich maker’s friend, a broadly rectangular loaf that yields lots of similar sized slices. Nothing else changed at all; same recipe, same proving time, same baking times. However it wasn’t all that simple to achieve because clinging to the lifebelt of a banneton I bought a rectangular shape without thinking through the obvious problem of getting the dough out of the banneton and on to my improvised peel without at some point turning it over. The resulting loaves were fine tasting but looked like baboons bums by the time I’d deflated them by clumsily handling them. And so I bought a linen couche cloth to line the banneton so I could gently lift the risen dough out and slide the peel underneath it. Nice theory but there was one problem. I’d got very used to producing soft, sticky doughs and baking them on a cast iron griddle plate heated to 240C – smoking hot – so that they wouldn’t spread out and pancake in the oven. Even in the short time it took to transfer the loaf from the couch cloth to the peel, my infant loaves were spreading like regency ladies when they removed their corsets. Good fortune intervened when I had to knock out a couple of batches of morning rolls and I discovered that proving them on the couche cloth firmed the outsides and bases just enough to make it a breeze to transfer them to the oven; and if you could do it with rolls, I thought to myself, why not a whole loaf? I just needed to make the dough a tiny bit stiffer.

Consequently the familiar everyday loaf has suddenly mutated and changed its shape. The slashing was a bit iffy and needs to be a touch deeper next time, but given the new shape it occurs to me I could bake two or even three – side by side – if I could lay my hands on a larger cast iron sheet or baking stone. Then I’d probably need to get a proper peel instead of my improvised cake tin base, because the rectangular loaf overhangs the tinned sheet by about three inches. You see how this baking business sucks you in! before you know where you are you’ve graduated from the occasional recreational loaf to full fledged addiction and the purchase of quite unnecessary accessories like waxed cotton aprons. Luckily Madame has an abundance of common sense which she shares with me whether I like it or not.

I’m perfectly prepared to admit that my loaves would rarely win a beauty contest, but on occasions that we give in to the temptation of a shop loaf we’re almost always disappointed. As I wrote a couple of days ago; when style and ease of manufacture triumph over flavour, food declines. I’m always reading that bread makes you fat, but our experience suggests that the better the quality of the food we buy or prepare, the less of it we actually eat; and in any case when bread making, a little extra time can mean you are able to incorporate more wholemeal flours. 100% wholemeal sourdough can be very hard to bring to life, but our everyday bread has a combination of wholemeal wheat flour, dark rye flour and also strong organic white flour. It tastes, as I’ve said before, like the granary and wonderfully complements a piece of raw milk farm Cheddar. Expensive, yes of course, but the bread comes in at a third of the shop price and the cheese is so well flavoured you need much less of it to satisfy your appetite. It’s junk food – sugar, salt and fat combinations that make us overeat, then makes us sick and overweight. Am I sounding a bit evangelistic? Sorry!

Properly made bread is good food – we can’t emphasise that too much. The process of milling and then fermenting grains outside the body enables us to easily digest a truly amazing source of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. Wonderful stuff even if – like me – after years of exploration you’re still wandering around in the foothills!

Say hello to storm Arwen

I get the impression that we’re in for another record breaking season of Atlantic storms – this one’s called Arwen but it might be better to name it COP1 and then carry on through to COP26 or more if needed. Down here in the relatively mild Southwest of England the main problem was wind overnight which, rather than battering the windows in gusts, seemed to seep through any gaps like a prolonged polyphonic sigh. These gigantic air masses fascinate me as they flow across the earth’s surfaces, competing, invading and clashing with their neighbours like ethereal versions of the tides, and just as potentially dangerous. Elsewhere there was snow, but here the drifts comprised leaves piled around the parked cars. The trees have taken on their winter form and the wet trunks gleam in the rain. The fabulous colours of the tulip tree beyond the window are now shining briefly on the grass before they’re gathered up. Some of them will end up on the allotment as leaf mould. Walking down to the farmers market today we suffered a bitingly cold northeasterly wind that, to our surprise, hadn’t deterred the crowds at all although some of the stallholders had moved pitches to get out of the bite of it as much as possible.

Cofiwch Dryweryn (English: “Remember Tryweryn”) on a wall at the end of the lane to our borrowed cottage

I haven’t written yet about our trip to Cardiff last week. Madame woke up at three o’clock last Sunday morning and said “I’m bored – I’m just so bored!” – which I took to be an announcement of lockdown fever rather than a premonition of impending divorce. We both feel more vulnerable now that the crowds are back, than we did when the streets were deserted and the shops closed, even though we’re both triple vaccinated. Anyway, I can take a hint so I renewed our lapsed railcards as soon as we got up, and booked a trip to the National Museum of Wales. It’s a brilliant place, and they run some really excellent and challenging exhibitions. They also have fine collections of ceramics and art. We’ve been watching a series called “The Story of Welsh Art” – actually we’ve seen all three episodes three times because they’re so interesting. Presented by Huw Stephens they show what a powerful and neglected tradition of art has existed in Wales. Coincidentally, Huw Stephen’s father Meic was the poet who first inscribed the slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn on a wall near Aberystwyth and which became the most memorable text associated with a very brief arson campaign aimed at holiday cottages. These two words were, he later said – ( a little ruefully perhaps), the best known two words he’d ever written. Trywern was the village flooded in order to provide a water supply for Liverpool. Whatever you think about that old campaign, the fact is that the artificial inflation of house prices by wealthy incomers has made it all but impossible for many young people to establish themselves in Wales – at great cost to the communities and the language.

Our train ride was made even more interesting than usual because I booked the tickets from memory and inexplicably I asked for returns to Grangetown rather than Cathays which is four stops in the opposite direction. We only thought about it when we got off the local train on a totally unfamiliar platform in a place we’d never visited before. Luckily there was a friendly woman who pointed us in the right direction.

The present exhibitions include one called “The rules of Art?” – the question mark is an essential part of the title and it addresses a question that always drops into my mind whenever we go there. The grand building and its huge collections – however priceless and rare they are – was enabled through the terrible exertions of men and women who created wealth out of coal and steel. Wealth that they never shared. It’s pretty much first cousin to the travails of the National Trust in England who are just beginning to address the fact that many of their grandest properties were built on slave money. I’ve never yet been inside Dyrham Park House, although we often visit the estate and gardens, because until recently the source of its opulence was never even captioned. Fortunately that’s now changing. I was delighted to see a collection in Cardiff of small paintings by William Jones Chapman who was a third generation member of an extremely wealthy steelworks family who took himself out of the grand family pile and lived in a small cottage near the steelworks and befriended and painted portraits of some of the workers there. These are thought to be the only named portraits of working people in the eighteenth century – isn’t that extraordinary? The exhibition really squares up to the dominant artistic traditions of the past and sets them against an alternative historical backdrop – it’s marvellous stuff! When the winds begin to blow, who knows where they will take us ?

Here’s my absolute favourite among the portraits – it’s of Thomas Euston – the Lodge Keeper at Hirwaun – I guess from his apparent age, a retirement job. The artist, William Jones Chapman was greatly liked by the workers who addressed him as Mr William – which seems to combine respect with familiarity and affection; a rare commodity, I imagine, in those rapacious days.

Organish? – not all turtle soup and silver spoons

Found on the green yesterday – bluet?

Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.

Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.

There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!

We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.

Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.

More about rats

I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing.  They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt.  I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others. 

So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen.  It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps.  You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings.  We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost.  They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard.  55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off. 

I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste.  Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents.  Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again.  We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike.  Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments? 

And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run.  One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them? 

What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too. 

Shopping mindfully – does it cost a fortune?

We’ve been creeping up on this decision for many months now, and because we’re quite passionate about shopping sustainably and locally, it seems like a good time to have a look at the pros and cons. In truth the decision to seriously cut back on supermarket shopping was forced on us as our weekly delivery became more and more random. Substitutions became the rule rather than the exception; the supermarket started to charge for deliveries and since we were largely shopping organic anyway the step up to local was less of a hike than it might otherwise have been. However there’s no doubt that sourcing as much of our food locally involves a hefty premium. Our son also pointed out to me – very sensibly – that for many working families there’s neither the money or the time to commit to the kind of shopping that we’ve tried to initiate for ourselves. Cooking all our food from scratch is a luxury that very few people have and I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who just can’t stretch to it. We treat the allotment almost like a job but when the lockdown eased we noticed that many keen and new allotmenteers simply couldn’t put the hours in any more. We know what that feels like having both worked full time (I mean 60+ hours a week), for decades. Now we’re retired we can do it and although it won’t save the earth we’re pleased to do our bit.

Let’s look at some specifics. If you’re not a vegetarian and you enjoy chicken, you could probably buy a small roasting bird for around £3.50. You certainly wouldn’t like to see the horrific conditions it had spent its entire life under and so you could go for an organic one at roughly twice the price. Such a small bird would probably feed two generously and produce a reasonable stock afterwards. Buying a larger bird makes much more sense because you can do so much more with it. A large, free range organic bird is going to cost something like £12 – £14; again twice the price of the value range bird. Both types, however, will have been filled with the maximum amount of water and, in the most egregious cases, chemicals – to “improve the customer experience” .

If you love the River Wye as much as we do, you may have seen that the water in some parts has become so loaded with nitrate and phosphates it’s become eutrophic – dead in plain English – almost certainly caused by intensive free range organic industrial chicken producers on the banks of the river – precisely the premium products that supermarkets sell. So at this point you’ve got two perfectly sensible choices – firstly to abandon chicken (probably all meat eating) out of respect for the environment – OR to eat much less of it but source it locally from farms you know, or have researched. A large chicken from a local organic and free range farm – dry plucked – cost us £22 last week – and yes I had to stifle a gasp when the butcher told me the price. However, when roasted there was no shrinkage; it genuinely tasted like the chickens we had as an occasional treat as children, and it served us for four meals as well as providing enough stock and pickings to make two days worth of soup and to flavour another dish of pommes boulangere. Looked at in that way we think we can afford to buy a chicken maybe once a month instead of once a week as we have in the past. We’ve now tried three local butchers offering high spec free range and organic meat and the same kind of markup in cost but also in flavour applies. A joint of free range Gloucester Old Spot pork belly will instantly demonstrate the reason that cheap supermarket pork will never develop a proper crisp crackling – the added water makes the skin irredeemably soggy and wet.

I have the greatest respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat on ethical grounds but vegetarians and vegans also have to think through the production processes because in organic, all that glisters is not gold. We haven’t quite reached the scandalous excesses of the organic industry in the US, but with the present regime in power here, it’s only a matter of time. As I read recently, it’s not so much the why, but the how of farming that needs to determine our choices. Since we’ve always been hard up, we’ve always managed on the cheapest cuts and avoided high priced follies like fillet steak. The question “can I afford it?” applies as much to the production as to consumption. If the outcome of eating any meat at all is to destroy the environment – and I think there are very powerful arguments to counter that view – but if it were so, then we’d have to turn to high spec, organic and local vegetables, grains and pulses. Turning to cheap imports of industrially chemicalized soya going into industrially processed food would simply compound the problem.

The same kind of argument applies to many of the other staples of our diet. We can easily source good eggs that sit up in the pan, full cream milk that’s three or four days fresher and makes the best kefir ever because it’s pasteurised slowly at much lower temperatures and isn’t homogenised. We’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful local cheeses that are so well flavoured you only need a half the quantity to cook with. Welsh rarebit or plain cheese on toast cooked with Westcombe Cheddar is a revelation. We have local flour mills and several market gardens who deliver by bicycle! and we have one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country within easy walking distance. We’ve even got a local organic cooperative that sells all the dry goods and cleaning materials. I’ve already written enough about the meat. So I’ll answer my own question – does it cost a fortune – with this reply. Either way round it either costs the earth or costs the consumer a a bit more – you choose!

But there’s another positive to local sourcing – you get to know (and are able to ask questions of) the producers. Our farmers’ market is a stable (no pun intended) community of stallholders and more often than not you’re talking to the producer, or a member of their family. When did you last do that in a supermarket? In the last two weeks I’ve had conversations with two of the best cheesemakers in Europe the second of whom told me yesterday that the cheese I’d just bought, (Merry Wyfe), had won the top prize in an international competition only last Saturday. The regular trip to the market is quite a bit more expensive but the food is better for us and better for the earth, and it’s fun to stand and chat – we never haggle! – and the range of foods is tremendous – Go weep Waitrose when you see the edible fungi. Oh and the supermarket bill is much smaller – maybe 50%.

So how can we afford this on our pensions? Well we make other sacrifices, for instance we rarely – maybe once a year – eat out and our holidays are home brewed in our 12 year old campervan apart from by the generosity of friends who let us use their cottage in Snowdonia from time to time. I think we’ve been to the pub once in the last 2 years. A period of sobriety is as good for the bank balance as it is for the liver. I used to brew our own beer but I’m afraid we enjoyed drinking it too much. We’re a family of chefs and cooks who love growing, cooking and eating together, and a wander around the market is a timely reminder that we’re not the only people who choose to live this way and we could be a powerful voice for change if we organised like the French farmers do!

The stallholders aren’t rich, they could almost all make more money doing something less demanding; but they’re passionate about what they make and sell and, even more importantly, they’re the vanguard movement of local sustainable living. If we didn’t have them there we’d have to invent them. They’ve had a marvellous opportunity to extend their off farm sales during the past 2 years of covid and they are the spearhead of a movement to undo some of the damage done by industrial farming – but only as long as we support them – even just now and again for special occasions; but better still on a regular basis that gives them the confidence to grow their businesses.

And finally, if you don’t live in Bath, and none of these structures exist where you live – there could never be a better time to start some of them.

Marmalade crisis strikes the Potwell Inn

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

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

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

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

Old? Moi??

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

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

Blessed are the cheesemakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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