Fascinating though it may be to revisit the Camino journal after 13 years – (in fact I’m finding it pretty painful going) – life goes on at the Potwell Inn with the last of the tomatoes to be processed into two sorts of passata; one roasted and the other simply simmered with onion and indecent amounts of butter. It’s been an odd year, but we’ve now pretty well replenished our stores with a big crop of tomatoes from the polytunnel and our biggest ever crop of aubergines. Our only real failure was the broad beans early on and we’ve resolved to sow next year’s crop in November rather than wait until the spring reveals its hand. The asparagus bed failed yet again to rise to the occasion and so I’m afraid it’s going to come out in the autumn. It’s in the coldest part of the allotment and that may have something to do with it; but for the last three years we’ve spent out more on saving the crop than the value of the harvest and we can’t afford the indulgence. The surprise crop of the year was the Tayberry vine which gave a lovely crop of berries; and the apple trees which all fruited for the first time since they were planted.
The trip to our friends’ smallholding on the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) was partly to celebrate Madame’s birthday and partly because it’s a joy to spend a few days there with our friends. There’s always work to do on a smallholding – fencing, feeding animals and suchlike – but this time we helped to butcher a couple of two year old sheep (AKA mutton) which had just come back from the slaughterhouse. Vegetarians may prefer to look away now but as a meat eater on a modest scale, I have no moral difficulty with eating organic, free range sheep whose lives are entirely natural and whose lifetime travel takes them just ten miles to a local slaughterhouse.
Butchers – I mean real butchers – are highly skilled at what they do. As for me, confronted by a quartered carcass, it was a matter of trying to remember where all the joints come from and what they are supposed to look like. Three of us worked as a team in the kitchen and reduced the carcasses to joints, cuts and mince and enjoyed playing silly games whilst avoiding chopping our fingers off. Then we made a vast pot of stock and boiled all the bones down while Nick and me made trays of faggots – that may need translating for some readers – basically meat patties made from all sorts of offal; we only used the liver and hearts. By the time we’d finished we had four leg joints, four shoulder joints, 15Kg mince, 4Kg diced, 4 hocks, fillets for stir fries, leg steaks, racks, whole loins, 32 faggots in gravy, a gallon of stock and 36 blocks of dog food using every left-over scrap of meat from the bones.
I always feel, when I’m writing like this, that I should explain or defend hill farming and the killing and eating of animals. There’s no denying that intensive farming is the source of terrible cruelty and much avoidable pollution; but to equate what goes on in a 20 acre hill farm with what happens when two million chickens are crammed into sheds is a bit of a debater’s cheap shot. I go back to Michael Pollan’s wise motto – eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables. The consumption of ultra processed foods has been shown to be the cause all manner of illnesses and, if we all took to eating ultra processed vegetarian and vegan food we’d soon be totally enslaved by the gathering disaster of the food industry’s war on healthy eating, quite apart from swelling the profits of the industrial grain giants and the growers of palm oil and soya beans. Of course the killing and eating of animals raises all manner of ethical issues but we’re far too prone to exporting the hard questions as far away as possible. Buying your meat shrink wrapped and trimmed doesn’t detract from the big moral question of killing it in the first place. The taking of life is a big deal and so we should try never to eat more than we need, and endeavour not to waste any part of it.
We came home to the Potwell Inn with meat for the winter; we had dined on the freshest eggs you’ll ever see and we also brought a fleece back. Kate has used them for weed control, composting and also for lining hanging baskets. Nothing ever goes to waste on the smallholding. We’ve known them for over thirty years and from day one we treasured our fellow inner peasants. It takes a certain kind of personality to get so much pleasure from shaking plums out of a tree. I also fell in love with their Welsh terrier Dilys and proposed to her secretly but she rejected me, saying she was already suited.
Anyway, that was a long day and the following day we gathered plums, identified moths from the overnight trap and baked bara brith. Moths are attracted to a strong light and then they drop down into the depths of the box where they find egg boxes to spend the night before being identified and released in a manner that minimises the risk of them being eaten by birds. The wall outside the kitchen is used for feeding birds throughout the year and it’s fascinating to see the variety – most of the tits, nuthatches, robins, yellowhammers (increasingly rare) and finches too. At night we listen to the tawny owls and in the early spring there are cuckoos – it’s the last place I heard one, four or five years ago; pure joy. A family of field mice live in the crevices of the wall and pop out nervously from time to time to grab some grains.
Then finally, before driving home, we had a dip in the pool; filled with rainwater and warm from the combination of sun and solar panels. Paradise indeed!