Cucina povera? who’s kidding who?

Field mushrooms harvested near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

Madame was sitting in bed this morning reading recipes aloud. She does it quite often and every now and again she’ll mention something that makes me really sit up. On this occasion it was the mention of a recipe for making a cold tomato soup which ended with the suggestion that it should be served with slivers of Serrano ham. I immediately set to wondering about such weighty issues as authenticity in cooking. Regional cooking is all the rage, and in many ways the slow cooking movement and so-called cucina povera might be an ideal resource in a time of constriction and shortages, but there’s a big proviso.

When I first started learning to cook I was quite obsessive about getting the “correct” ingredients – I was an absolute slave to the recipe. It was wilfully stupid. I once visited half dozen greengrocers in Tunstall Market trying to buy twenty small onions of exactly the same size – so forty odd years ago I would have thought it impossible to cook any dish containing Serrano ham because no-one in Stoke on Trent would have even known what it was.

So if we’re to explore what local and sustainable really means for cooks we might take notice of the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. It was a constant menu item at Culinaria; Stephen and Judy Markwick’s small restaurant in Bristol. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t normally have anything to do with such luminaries but one of our sons was lucky enough to train under him and someone else also paid for an eye opening meal at their previous restaurant in Corn Street. Stephen’s cooking was absolutely simple but his obsessive attention to detail meant that when he finally took to writing he even offered a recipe for mushrooms on toast. Typically, of course, the recipe demands field mushrooms. Wild, field mushrooms freshly harvested and cooked as simply as possible are food for the gods. Knowing where to find them is a closely guarded secret – in our previous house there was a school playing field, just the other side of the fence, where they grew abundantly but rather erratically. The only other person who knew was the retired local milkman who became school caretaker and so for years we competed silently and entirely without rancour to get there first in order to harvest as many as we needed. Over time I’ve found a number of places, not least a clifftop on the Lleyn Peninsula where – at this time of the year – they can often be found, and they are completely irreplaceable. Nothing you can buy could ever, possibly be as good. The very definition of cucina povera would involve cooking what is to hand – that’s to say not Serrano ham when you live in the Disunited Kingdom. There’s often a local substitute and if there isn’t you could maybe set up a small business to fit into the niche.

The purpose of this excursus on field mushrooms and Stephen Markwick was to lead back to fish soup and a kind of culinary dynasty. Fifty odd years ago, here in Bath, George Perry Smith (much inspired by Elizabeth David) ran a restaurant called The Hole In the Wall. It was one of the best in the country and completely innovative in its references to Mediterranean dishes. However, George learned to cook in times of rationing and shortages and evolved a way of doing things where, for instance, nothing was ever wasted. George Perry Smith taught Joyce Molyneux to cook and she in turn taught Stephen Markwick who taught our son. If I were writing about Tai Chi or Buddhism, the question of who taught the teacher would be the most natural thing in the world because it really matters. In cooking it’s rarely if ever asked.

So George Perry Smith, confronted by food shortages took a very different path with ingredients; a path which ultimately led to the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. I should confess immediately that I absolutely love fish soup and whenever we get the chance to eat it I’ll order it. We’ve eaten it in France, Corsica and all over the place but nothing comes close to fish soup that has passed through the dynastic hands of Elizabeth David, George Perry Smith, Joyce Molyneux and Stephen Markwick. The recipe – published in his brilliant self published book “A very Honest Cook” is almost bafflingly simple. The takeaway point is that there’s no mention of any exotic fish such as might feature in a grander and more ‘authentic’ recipe. For goodness sake it even includes smoked haddock and refuses to specify the other fish except to say it would include white fish and any other fish scraps from the kitchen. No more unobtainable Rascasse or any other bony monsters. This Provencal soup is the most “at hand” soup you’ve ever seen.

The so-called secret is of course using superb and locally available ingredients in the most thoughtful way possible. Truly great cooking is most creative and thoughtful when it asks of an unavailable recipe item – “what does this ingredient bring to the dish? and how could I achieve the same authentic balance and flavour using something else?”

And if you ask how, in this time of shortage of both ingredients and the money to buy them, we would do well to follow George Perry Smith’s doctrine of waste not want not. There’s an abundance of locally produced food here in the UK. What’s lacking are the skills to make the most of them. Today at the Saturday Farmers’ Market I overheard a wonderfully instructive conversation between the stallholder and what must have been an extremely wealthy customer. She was insisting on buying a hideously expensive rib of beef joint (organic grass fed etc) to barbecue. He didn’t think this was a good idea at all and I overheard him say to her “I’m a farmer not butcher” as he discouraged a profitable sale in favour of making sure she wouldn’t be disappointed with her expensive purchase. When I read how we should all give up eating meat because it’s so impactful on climate change, I wonder if it wouldn’t be much better to less meat, but eat much more of the animals rather than insist on the most expensive cuts.

A lifetime of Potwell Inn finances has taught us that sometimes the cheapest cuts are much better flavoured. Pork fillet, for instance is much more expensive than shoulder, which is more expensive than belly or any of the offal cuts. Even a humble pig’s trotter can add a marvellous silky texture to slow cooked beans. There’s no need at all for cucina povera or slow cooking to feel like second best. We should maybe get over our obsessive compulsion to buy the rarest, most expensive and showy ingredients. Perhaps we should address the problem of food security by stopping being so precious and insecure about impressing other diners with our wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes; and if we’re vegetarians maybe we could seek out the best and freshest vegetables or – even better – grow them ourselves.

Small harvest festival at the Potwell Inn?

And this isn’t the half of it. Its 7.00 pm and I’ve just finished processing the last of the tomatoes into 8 litres of passata. 10Kg of green tomatoes have gone to the freezer along with 10kg of damsons. We’ve already made shed-loads of roasted tomato passata and various chutneys so it’s been a great year. The Borlotti vines – as I mentioned a few days ago – simply rolled over in the heatwave; but the total yield of smaller beans was twice last year’s. We didn’t grow too much sweetcorn because the badger usually gets there first, but this year we erected a three layer fence around them and we’ve been eating them every day. More squashes – Uchiki Kuri and Crown Prince successfully completed the three sisters trio, although we didn’t try to grow them together after several years of trying. Apples are ripening – again a good year.

Our failures? Well the Calendula were a bit of a write off; the garlic bulbs were very small and the Courgettes and cucumbers seemed to hate the hot weather in spite of constant watering but the aubergines and melons sharing the polytunnel with basil and tomatoes loved it. The total yield of tomatoes was in the region of 150 lbs but we gave up counting . The wildflowers and herbs all benefited from the sunshine and, of course, the Mediterranean herbs loved the weather. The wildlife component was a complete success, with more pollinators and bees than ever before. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees and hoverflies were our constant companions and triggered the trailcam more than anything else. However we have filmed badgers, foxes, mice, domestic cats and rats – not to mention a roe deer one remarkable night. We’d love to set up a moth trap but sadly we’re so plagued by petty thefts we’d have to sit up all night with it.

So yes it’s been a wonderful year in spite of the weather; but it’s been a massive effort with watering, and then processing and storing. There’s always a bittersweet feeling as we complete harvesting for the year. It’s very early to be clearing beds but as ever the weather and the seasons have their own domain and we can only bend to their will.

What I miss, more than anything else, is the opportunity to share in thanksgiving. Obviously we can silently vocalise our thanks but there’s nothing like a public liturgy – which needn’t be at all overtly religious -but allows us to gather with our neighbours and say thanks. There’s a sense of glory in the air as we gather our crops together, but somehow our much talked about connection with nature has been ruptured over the past decades. Nature is something we all too often look at and admire passively at second hand. Eating a melon you’ve grown, warm from the sun is something else, and peeping into a store cupboard full to bursting with food for the winter and the hungry gap gives reason for hope even in a time of uncertainty and fear.

So I miss the giant marrows and the harvest loaf and the rejected apples, even with the rotten bits turned to the back out of sight. I miss the harvest festival where one of our wealthier congregation members once sorted through a pocketful of change and picked out the copper coins to put into the collection while the steward waited patiently. I miss the way that the unlikeliest people would turn up because they could see the point of it all, and I miss counting the hundreds of tins of food that were collected every year to be taken to a homeless charity and I miss roaring out the hymns that lurk somewhere deep in collective memory although we hardly share their feudal sentiments any more.

So the closest I can get to that public thanksgiving is here. As always I am utterly blown away and grateful – even joyful – because the harvest has come home – again – in spite of every obstacle thrown in its way.

Is botany nothing more than a science?

The Pilgrim church of St Maelrhys Church, Llanfaelrhys, near Aberdaron, Lleyn.

Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.

Well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!

The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

  • One pound plain flour
  • Quarter pound lard
  • A little salt
  • buttermilk

Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.

Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.

TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.

So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.

It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.

*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.

The grace of dreaming thoughtfully

Lackey moth caterpillars on Blackthorn May 2022 in Portscatho. Or a horror story?

When I started writing this blog I always thought of it being read sequentially by a very small number of people who know me or once knew me. Three years later and with the benefit of a (paid for) improved search engine for readers, there are more readers than I ever dreamed of. However most of them are highly selective and search for the stuff that piques their interest regardless of when it was written. I do my best to categorise and tag the posts and I work hard to write eye catching titles now because I’m almost certain that I’m the only person in the world who sees the Potwell Inn as a kind of journal. Pretty much everyone else must think of me (if they think of me at all) as that old bloke who writes completely random stuff about cookery, allotments, philosophy, climate change and living in Bath. So what better time than a warm bank holiday Sunday when sensible people are doing anything but reading blogs – to write a piece about dreams and how they’ve helped me? It’ll sit somewhere up in the cloud, possibly for years before it meets its only reader who’s been looking for something on exactly this subject.

Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!

So here goes. Most people probably think that when you go to see a psychoanalytic psychotherapist you tell them about your dreams and they – because they’ve read Freud or Jung from cover to cover – will tell you what the dreams mean and you’ll experience a lightbulb moment and find yourself miraculously cured. Well that’s absolute tosh. In around four years of intense therapy Robin – my therapist – only explained a dream once, and that was by way of a joke. I’d explained to him how I’d dreamed I was walking down Hotwells Road, separated from the harbour by a row of houses, and I kept glimpsing a pair of elephants walking alongside but on the far side of the houses. “What’s that all about?” I asked, not expecting an answer. “Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!” He was far too modest a man to laugh at his own joke, but I thought it was hysterical.

After four years on the couch – well three and a half because the first six months were spent sitting rigid with fear in an armchair facing him – I had learned that dreams really are the royal road to the unconscious mind, but it’s the dreamer’s work to embrace them. No one else can tell us what they mean, if indeed they mean anything at all, and if by that you mean discovering a one-to – one relationship between a dream and an interpretation.

As an example, and don’t worry there are no cringeworthy moments in what follows; as an example I’ve just completed what I think is a long cycle of dreams that came to me over many months. They were all anxiety dreams, some of them nightmares, and they would wake with me and occupy my mind for the whole of the next day. They were all furnished by the ghostly remains of the more traumatic events of the past decades. Clergy work is almost by definition traumatic because its currency is life and death. Too much exposure to raw grief and anger can cause tremendous psychological damage if it’s not dealt with, and it’s not just the people whose lives I briefly entered and left; there were the authorities and the congregations to deal with – and they could be, without doubt, pretty poisonous in the pursuit of their personal agendas. But there was never time and rarely the support to deal with these issues before they were pushed to the edges of consciousness and then stored deep in the unconscious like little timebombs.

The grace of dreaming thoughtfully only showed up seven years after I retired and four years after I left therapy. I can never express my gratitude to Robin enough because by the time we parted company I was so infused with his forensic questions, I felt brave enough to embrace whatever came along; however painful or frightening. One recurring dream in particular haunted me for years; leaving me in sheer terror. Then, out of the blue, instead of waking in fear I walked through the circle of my tormentors and they made no attempt to stop me. The dream still occurs but I know that I survived and that neutralises it completely.

So after a while I realised that this long sequence of dreams was regressing into the past. The subject or the trigger was moving back further and further in time until I seemed to have processed a whole stack of bad memories, thoughts and fears that just needed time and only a little courage to allow them to emerge and then be dismissed. I haven’t interpreted them in any way but just allowed them to say their piece and go. The grace – and I’m sure it qualifies as a grace -is a conscious sense of peace that comes from the fact that the long delayed embrace of bad memories was accomplished through dreaming. The events of the past are not erased, they never could be, and they’re so much a part of me I’m not sure I’d want them to go, but there’s no thought of confrontation or revenge.

There’s a Jungian idea which I’m happy to rehearse here – the last thing we need is sectarian counselling! – and it’s based on a metaphor that comes from growing things – so it suits me perfectly! Jung suggested that new growth always emerges from the wound. In the pursuit of eudaimonia or flourishing, we can’t learn to thrive or be compassionate or love justice; to be brave, temperate, truthful or generous or embrace and live out any of the virtues if we simply ignore, repress, or lock out the wounds and knockbacks we have received through life.

And so I’ll press the send button and this post into the cloud in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find it a help.

A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun – Paul Valéry

At last! I’ve changed the blog tagline

The tin tabernacle in Cadgwith; Lizard, Cornwall last winter.

The penny dropped very suddenly today – hardly a Damascus Road conversion but a sudden realization that the original tagline “A sceptic’s take on being human”, which I’ve put up with for over three years, was not right. After a wonderful day catching up with old friends yesterday – almost entirely by accident – something moved in what passes for an operating system in my head, and the thought emerged that what this blog is about is not so much being human as being virtuous. I must immediately qualify that statement because there have been many people in my life who thought that being virtuous was a matter of obeying rules; but what I’m about to argue here is that being virtuous (perhaps being a moral grown-up) is more useful state of being than trying to do virtuous things. We can hardly avoid being human – after all every single member of our present lamentable government is human and see where that’s got us!

This isn’t some brave new philosophical world – virtue is fundamental to Aristotle’s ethics and it’s centred on the idea of flourishing – eudaemonia in the original Greek. There are several ways to try to steer a moral course through the ethical challenges that being human always presents us with. We can choose what to do in response to a challenge by asking “What would be the consequences of this response?” We could look up the appropriate response in a trusted book, like the Bible or the Koran (harder than you’d think), or we could trust the instincts formed over time in our character by living virtuously. Right habits have a vital role in this system; we figure out how to do the morally right thing since we are formed by our way of life because it is shaped by Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Other virtues like compassion are often slipped into the mix.

That was a bit chunky I know but the takeaway point is that in a situation such as we have at the moment with a sequence of climate, economic, ecological and political disasters advancing on us; relying on a set of rules from the past that have demonstrably failed us, is not enough. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Rule bound ethics (and economics) aren’t up to the job. Neither are consequential ethics because it’s almost impossible to judge what the outcome of an action might be – as Dostoyevski famously put it in “The Brothers Karamazov” speaking of a cruelly treated child whose mother thought that the concept of good and evil could be beaten into her – “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.'” 

The question I ask myself over and over – especially during sleepless nights – is “why?” – “Why do people/politicians make such dreadful decisions. Who designed the Flechette – the weapon packed with sharp plastic arrows that slice and rend the flesh but are invisible to x rays? Who concealed the evidence that glyphosate was killing people and destroying the environment? Who taught the philosophy that extractive chemical based farming is more efficient than the many alternatives we know about? Why is it OK that we have so many people living in poverty? The answer can’t be that such people are not really human because they’re as human as you or me. What they lack is virtue.

It may be that our crisis is so great that for a while we will have to become temporary consequentialists in the sense that the consequences of doing nothing are so terrible that we must insist and prevent that outcome. But ultimately any workable vision for the future must depend on teaching and leading our children in the practice of virtue, of flourishing, and living lives in which moral decisions are approached thoughtfully and on the basis of lived experience. That amounts to nothing less than changing our culture.

The consequences of magical thinking have never been clearer or more dangerous than they are at the moment and yet we still cling to the sinking life raft believing that something’s bound to turn up – a new invention, a better leader, an invasion of unexpectedly helpful extra terrestrials …… ? Meanwhile we are taking refuge in anger, shouting and threatening and lobbying for ever more draconian punishments to inflict on our enemies. But we have seen the enemy ……. it is us”

This is beginning to look like my Mother’s siege larder.

Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.

The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.

So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!

But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.

That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.

The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.

I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.

The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.

Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.

Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.

During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwen Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.

Harvesting the Borlotti Beans II

Well, one unexpected outcome of the two recent heatwaves was that the Borlotti – obviously thinking the game was up – set their pods, fattened up their beans and expired. The leaves went from healthy green to pallid yellow in a couple of days, and that was that; an early harvest was forced upon us. The pods look a little shorter than usual, but all things considered it seems to be a decent crop. In fact one of this year’s features will probably be an early clearance of many of the beds. There’s a subtle difference between picking and harvesting and given that we intend to dry and store the whole crop we would definitely describe it as harvesting over and against picking the runner beans. Naturally we pick a few of the Borlotti as soon as they begin to fatten up and eat them raw off the vines; rich and earthy. We move the harvested beans, pods and all, into the greenhouse in mushroom trays, where they can dry out of the way of any rain; and then we’ll shell them, dry them a little more in the oven on a very low temperature, and then pack them into kilner jars away from the attention of any moths. A couple of seasons ago we stored them carelessly and lost about half a kilo of beans to small grubs. Of course we could buy them in packets from the supermarket but once you’ve grown your own, soaked and cooked them you’ll never accept anything less – they’re just so delicious and creamy.

The other plants that have come in early are the tomatoes in the polytunnel. We picked another 20Kg this morning and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen prepping them for oven roasted passata. The aubergines have suddenly started fruiting as well and so we’re in the happy position of enjoying the summer glut a couple of weeks earlier than usual. In fact nearly all the crops are doing pretty well considering the continuing drought. There are some pictures at the bottom of this post.

Is all this fecundity in the midst of a drought down to no-dig, plentiful compost and keeping all the beds covered with growing plants? It’s difficult to say for sure but our allotment neighbours who prefer a more regimented, clean soil policy, seem to have suffered more. Messy allotments keep their soil moist much longer.

The trail cam has captured a couple of badgers mooching about looking for sweetcorn recently, and we’ve seen a fox, numerous mice climbing the Calendulas to eat the seeds and a domestic cat. Overwhelmingly, though, the camera has filmed the intense activity on a clump of Nepeta – Catmint – with all manner of insects visiting during the day, and a variety of moths at night. The concerted effort to attract more wildlife and pollinators has been a great success and this last week a young half-fledged robin has taken to coming into the polytunnel with us, sitting quite confidently on a tub and darting down to catch insects and worms.

The annual battle to save the sweetcorn from badgers is in full swing now, and we’ve surrounded our small patch with sheep wire and soft mesh in the hope of keeping them out.

One further point that may be worth noting is that after growing numerous varieties of garlic over the years we’ve come to the conclusion that Carcassonne Wight enjoys our ground better than any of the others – and so I think we’ll concentrate on growing that variety in future. There’s much more to write about, including a trip to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday and a visit to Carter’s Steam Fair which bookended a day entirely lost to sedation after a routine trip to the hospital for an endoscope which apparently revealed nothing much too wrong – but all of that can wait for now because we’re both exhausted and completely tomatoed out !!

At last the heatwave begins to break down!

A tremendous storm blowing up during August 2019 in Swaledale near Keld, North Yorkshire

After two years of periodic lockdowns I suppose we should have become used to staying indoors, but this second heatwave in a few weeks felt more than usually punishing. We could only control the temperature inside by following the Met Office advice to close all the windows and shutters, making the dimmed interior of the flat feel like a funeral parlour. By dint of this sacrifice of light and fresh air we were able to keep the indoor temperature to 27C – seven degrees cooler than the outside, but leaving us almost breathless in the thick air. Today, though, normal service resumed so we were able to escape the flat and walk up the canal and when it finally rained a few heavy drops and began to wet my T shirt I felt almost exultant. We’ve grown tired of perpetual early morning watering on the allotment and tired of watching the dust clouds trailing after visiting cars as if they were the Deadwood Stage (if you’re not really old – like 105 years old – think 1953 film about Calamity Jane who, played by Doris Day, had a thing with a stagecoach).

The fitful shower dripped on for an hour – just enough to raise the relative humidity to the point where the sweat was displacing the raindrops but we carried on anyway enjoying the cloudy skies. We thought we’d drop in at the Holburn Gallery to see the David Hockney exhibition but when we saw how much it would cost – £25 – we walked home through town. Has no-one told them there’s a cost of living crisis going on?

So then we wandered over to the allotment and after discovering two very ripe melons hiding in the polytunnel, we picked some plums and apples and had a fruit lunch. Very delicious. This afternoon as I was writing this the police came hammering down the road towards the towpath, blue lights flashing. There’s never a dull moment in genteel Bath! Tomorrow promises decent rain and even thunderstorms which would be such a relief.

Oh and I ordered a new book on the history of Welsh Food. It doesn’t take much to overflow my cup.

Too hot – even for red peppers

We had to remove five of these pepper plants from the greenhouse this week, because they were in danger of expiring in the heat. It’s hardly surprising that plants can be extremely fussy about their environment. A couple of years ago we had aubergines in pots in the same greenhouse and they sulked and looked deficient until I moved them outside into a border where they instantly revived and produced a decent crop. Even chillies will complain if they get too much heat.

This week I also learned an entirely new and very useful term from a book on the economics of so-called green capitalism. I’ve mentioned it before – “The Value of a Whale” by Adrienne Buller and I thoroughly recommend it. The term is “Knightian uncertainty” which describes the likelihood of an event occurring for which there is no possibility of assembling any predictive data. We’re very comfortable with the idea of risk because, as the author points out, when you’re throwing dice it’s simple to calculate the odds of throwing (say) three sixes in a row. A Knightian uncertainty is the kind we might ascribe to ecological and climate events like the ones we call “tipping points” and she cites the example of the possibility of the Thwaites Glacier collapsing completely – it already dumps 50 billion tonnes a year into the Antarctic Ocean and if it failed would raise sea levels by up to ten feet! We know it’s capable of happening but the scenario leading to such a catastrophe is simply too complicated to calculate. There are too many variables and too many possible contributory factors to make a calculation of risk. Therefore the only rational response is to abide by the precautionary principle that minimises any activities which even might be a contributory factor.

Anyway – enough of the dismal science; today we may or may not be in the midst of one of those climactic moments because we won’t know until a few more drought affected summers have passed, by which time it might be too late to do anything. “Wait and see” is not a coherent basis for climate change policy any more.

In the real world we get up increasingly early to tend the allotment and then we pretty much lock ourselves into the flat with the windows and shutters closed against the heat. Today we watered and went just as the Farmers Market was opening, and where we discovered that hundreds of other people had adopted the same heat busting tactic.

After a long process of trying out all the local butchers we’ve finally settled on Kimbers Farm Shop who are at the market every Saturday. We’ve got to know them pretty well and today the conversation inevitably turned to the drought and how it was affecting their grass-fed herd of beef cattle and the flock of sheep kept by one of the sons in law, nearby. They’ve been farming the same land for 300 years so for a long view of farming they bring a world of experience, and they’re having a desperate time at the moment. Their grass is so parched and brown that they’ve had to start cutting grass and taking it to the animals rather than grazing them in open fields. As she explained the rationale to us, one of the family members told us how – with four legs to trample, and a rear end to distribute the manure – cattle and sheep make a significant amount of precious grass inedible. It’s immensely labour intensive taking the food to the animals, and they’ve had trouble with some machinery clogging with seed heads, so it’s being done by hand. The shame, she said, is that so many wealthy incomers have bought up farms in the district and refuse to allow farming on them. In a sane system, they would be forced either to maintain the land properly themselves or rent it to farmers who would do it for them, but here in the UK if you’ve got the money you can take prime agricultural land out of circulation during what’s becoming a food crisis – just so you can enjoy the view without the bother of cows and sheep making noise and smells. We all too easily forget that there are a series of interrelated crises going on simultaneously. It’s not just climate because food production is an intimately related

Of course there are ways of regenerative farming that can preserve and build up the soil and its capacity to hold water, but they all take time to implement. Today’s Guardian featured a nice photo of a sheep dozing in the shade of a tall oak tree. The trouble with the photo is that the tree must have been at the very least fifty years old as the old joke related of the man asked for directions to a distant place and who responded with “well I wouldn’t start from here!”

Yesterday we went out into the heat to plan a route to the hospital I need to attend for a routine surveillance procedure next week. With thoughts of the drought, the heatwave and the increasing evidence that a climate catastrophe upon us right now; We had discovered that it’s only accessible by car since there’s no bus service – it’s a private hospital that only takes patients like me for a fat fee when the local NHS hospital need to massage their figures. We had to negotiate much of a ring road which was as close to hell as anything else I’ve ever experienced, and eventually after several false turns emerged into a business/industrial park in which our building was sited and indistinguishable from all the other units in which -for all I know – Russian oligarchs are busy waterboarding prisoners they’ve hijacked and sent to this country for ‘interrogation‘. It was not an encouraging introduction to these state of the art facilities in which I will be sedated and unable to flee.

I’m maundering I know, but these crises are bowling down the road towards us and yet no-one seems to be taking ownership of them or even attempting to formulate some policies. Anyone can make a mistake but to run a whole country into the buffers takes a peculiarly ideological kind of stupidity. We’re promised a bit of rain next week so we should be able to report soon on how well the Potwell Inn allotment has coped with this second heatwave in a difficult summer.

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