How do you make a turnip exciting?

IMG_4675Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed.  Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’.  Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can.  So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest  across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses?  I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.

But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:

Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.

 

That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner.  So no thanks.  Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.

IMG_4678Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine.  One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.

So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown  a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible.  Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly.  So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.

It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?”  I’ll have to think about that one.

Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg.  The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view.  And if that all sounds  bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!

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Pasta the way it should be

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Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008

“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.

The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.

So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.

Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.

OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.

Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.

The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’

What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!

Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.

Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.

The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).

So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.

The fox puts in an appearance

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But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!

IMG_4666As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes.  It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well.  But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney.  So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed  straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends.  All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses.  That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.

Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared.  We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food.  We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.

Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it.  We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic.  It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.

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Controlled rotting resumed in the kitchen

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Here we are, back home and that means two posts today with a bit of luck and some time. First off, ‘though, there is the revival of the sourdough starter and the kefir to think about. The Potwell Inn is a plain sort of a place – or it would be if it existed –  and here we try to avoid mystification, and when it comes to sourdough starters and their care, there’s enough ordure written about it to keep our allotment fertile for the next ten years. So here’s the key principle: wild yeasts are are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere and they’ll still be there centuries after the last lobbyist declares that chemical X will save the world, thereby ending the world. I’ve only killed a sourdough starter once and that was a deliberate experiment to see how long I could neglect it before it died.  The answer was that I couldn’t kill it at all, but under the anaerobic conditions of its container it turned into another life-form so powerfully smelly that I had to throw the container away.  Second point is that getting a starter going is so easy you wonder how the hipster artisan bakers have got the nerve to sell the knowledge for £150 a morning. Get some dark rye flour and stir it into some tap water and leave it in a warm place until it starts to bubble (could be days – don’t wory).  Then throw half of that away and add more flour and more tap water, give it a stir and keep going like that until it’s ready to use.

So getting back from North Wales means the neglected starter needs a feed because it’s been neglected for a fortnight and it’s sulking. I do use organic flour; my favourite is Bacheldre Mill, but I don’t fuss about water.  By all means waste your money on organic single malt virgin water brought over from the Isle of Sky in a coracle but it won’t taste any better.  I do not employ holiday starter sitters to stir the infant broth daily, even on minimum wages. I have not scoured the antiques markets for authenic barm pots and neither do I subject the infant starter to any ceremonial prayers or position it on a lay line. Most particularly I would never dream of shelling any money out for someone else’s starter, but if you happened to know where the Potwell Inn is (which for reasons already described would be difficult because it doesn’t exist), but if you should happen to pop by at the back door of the pub I’ll gladly give you a bit.  It’s lovely and it smells like apples.

As for the second exercise in controlled rotting, the kefir was in an even more perilous situation because I’d forgotton about it for weeks.  You know how it goes with kefir – drinking it every single day for ever would bore you stiff. So it’s been languishing at the back of the fridge waiting patiently for someone to show it some love.  Today I showed it some love and I strained it and washed the grains off (with tap water) and and put it in a clean container with more full cream milk. Once again it’s organic milk because that’s what we use. Because I’ve washed it and possibly because the chlorine in the water is a bit of an inhibitor, it will be slow to recover, but it will recover.

The pantry is full of various other vegetable bits and bobs undergoing their own lacto-fermentation and they too will cope with whatever life throws at them. I don’t sell this food so any public health inspectors reading this need not trouble themselves to Google up the Potwell Inn and attempt to pay me a visit, and if I do suddenly expire one day from some unexplained cause it’s vanishingly unlikely that the wild yeast will have done it!

Buying fish in Newlyn

Bit of a rave from the grave, this one – but I thought the amateur cooks like me  might enjoy it.

Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)

The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham when we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, ‘though I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.

Looking back (and of course that’s the only way to get a nice joined-up narrative with no loose ends); looking back the lyrical and epiphanic experiences always had an additional element. There was more than food going on. My mother’s spices were kept in a circular white painted tin divided into segments into which each ingredient would go. At the very centre was a small circular compartment in which dried ginger root was kept. I can remember clearly that you could never get your fingers into the compartment to lift out the mysterious looking root, so it had to involve jiggling with a knife or some other tool. The tin came out primarily at Christmas when the puddings were made. My sister and I were allowed to stand on a chair and stir the mixture. In reality the mixture was so stiff we could only move it at all with a little help from our mother. The tin, though, was a metaphor. Just like fish and chips on the back doorstep. It was about something bigger – it might be a wonderful sunny day with no quarrels – something simple like that.

There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever though that a family could live an entire life in and end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It was joined on to a row of houses  but only on one side.

It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper (new idea) at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet (lavatory); a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in the Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.

So, forty years later we went to Newlyn last week to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.

An amateur chef, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. Many years later when we started to keep chickens the local butcher showed me how to do it. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention because the first time I actually did it myself I steeled myself to kill the bird – so far so good I thought – as it expired without too much fuss. However when I shoved my hand up its rear end to extract the guts I must have pressed on the lungs and so the cock, which had previously seemed irrevocably dead suddenly crowed. My blood slowed down, went backwards for a bit and then froze. In the end I learned but it was a slow process. One thing I did learn was that the bigger the animal the greater the challenge. A friend once asked if he could borrow our kitchen to butcher a deer he’d caught. Don’t ask!

The recipe says ‘take a dozen small onions and peel them’. That’s an Elizabeth David. In Stoke on Trent market I wandered around for an hour buying two small onions here and comparing them with two there. I’m anally retentive when it comes to recipes. So a couple of dozen scallops seem straightforward enough. Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?? Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts. Maybe I should get counselling some time.

And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn School whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning seductively against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.

Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner is in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There’s nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience has closed down and there are one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it ain’t. But the sea is as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We try the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seems to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Says there’s meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which is dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It’s responding to the potential of everyday life practices. We can see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there’s a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we go away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that the exhibition was on, so maybe we missed something.

Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there’s a load of freight attached to buying these shellfish. This is not fish fingers we’re after here, it’s a piece of conspicuous consumption. I don’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this is, or how I’ve got to cook them. I’ve got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick, and in any case there’s only the two of us so there’s no need to be even secretly embarrassed.

So we got to the fish shop. It’s like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later? The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the workers that jiggered and jollied in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’s never seen it in swordfish.

I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, meaningfully pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties?? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.

“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”

He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Stella, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. We had a bag of whitebait.

I was loosing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box. We returned to our rented cottage.

I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.

These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.

Then there was the learning experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the wholly fresh and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops – the kind I think they sometimes call noisettes in France.

I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and cooked the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.

Bit of a rough night!

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We were certainly kept awake last night – the wind was blowing a hoolie from the North East and there were frequent wintry showers of hail and sleet hammering on the roof – and I spent a lot of time enjoying the fact that I was lying in bed and not out there on a ferry somewhere in those big seas.

Lots of time for reflection then, not least because we know that the temperature on the allotment has dropped low enough to finish off the beans, the tomatoes and the last cucumber.  Such chillies as are left will have to be ripened indoors now. I always find the autumn a sombre time anyway, and when the allotment is cleared it always seems like a sad place.

However, we talked about it as the sun rose outside and we realized we’ve got more in the ground and growing than ever before at this time of year. Brassicas from Cima di Rapa (turnip tops with attitude) to Brussels Sprouts, carrots, parsnips, swedes, Swiss Chard, Spinach, garlic (5 varieties) and shallots.  Onion sets are good to go, Broad Beans and overwintering peas are about to be sown.  The cupboards and the freezer are full and the wine is about to be bottled. The good times are just around the corner!

How to make a crab sandwich

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Yesterday we made a spur of the moment decision to stay in North Wales for a couple more days rather than rush home to rescue the runner beans.  We were up here in the spring when the ‘beast from the East’ felled our early sowings, but we were ready for the challenge because we’d already got a spare set propagated.  This time the forecast is for temperatures just above freezing in Bath – so we may or may not get away with it, but in any case this is the time of year when we strip back almost all of the summer season’s tender plants and get down to winter jobs.  In fact we’re up here still eating our own fresh runner beans, French beans and tomatoes.

With an extra three days to play with, my thoughts turned immediately towards getting some crabs. It’s incredibly difficut to buy fresh fish at the seaside these days.  I was talking to a fellow allotmenteer in Cornwall a few weeks ago and he told me he’d quizzed the local supermarket about whether they sourced their fish from Newlyn.  Oh yes, they assured him, but it has to go to their central depot before being shipped back again to the place where it was caught!

We have a couple of sources of fresh crabs up here but we decided to try one we’ve not been to before, and after a depressing drive past a massive dairy farm surrounded by fields of drab, chemical fuelled uniformity and devoid of any wildflowers; with every gateway barred by notices warning us to keep out from this biosecure bovine lock-in, we found the place we were looking for at the end of a narrow lane. They had no crabs, only frozen crabmeat and there was no prospect of getting more in because they’d missed the tide and what with the strong winds ……

On then another five miles to Rhiw where there is a house at the side of the road with a roughly painted sign outside the door. Put all thoughts of cosy cottages away, this house is a 1950’s style new build, fully equipped with Crittall windows.  We’ve bought delicious crabs there before and so we pulled up and I tapped on the door. Yes there were crabs, and they were in a fridge in the garage, freshly caught and cooked. Ten minutes later after after an impromptu seminar on how to sex crabs and the best way to judge them (weigh them in your hand) and whether the meat tastes better in some seasons than others I felt like a crab expert and when the economy collapses after Brexit I’m going to set myself up as a consultant crab sexer. Anyway I bought two lovely hen crabs at £6 the pair and we drove back after stopping at the local Spar shop to get some cider and some wholemeal bread.

By this time it was a bit late for lunch so we went for a walk down the coast path. Last year, on September 4th, I counted 37 plants actually in flower on the same stretch of coast path. Now, in late October and with a fierce north easterly wind there were only very few survivors.  IMG_4654We did however find a nice clump of Rock Samphire down near a little cove where we watched a female seal playing with her cub for about half an hour – close inshore – it was enchanting. We also put up a snipe who waited until we were almost upon it before it shot into the air like a clay from a trap.  All the usual cast of gulls, shags, crows, jackdaws and chough were either sitting on rocks looking out across the slate grey Irish Sea, sporting ecstatically in the updraught from the cliff or congregating noisily in the fields behind. A tough looking ram sporting a fetching harness of blue raddle had been about his tupping with enthusiasm if the sheeps’ behinds were anything to go by, but he was taking a break and grazing contentedly with the others.  We found a solitary field mushroom whose neighbours had been trodden into the grass, and when we were thoroughly cold we walked back.

So after all those hours of careful preparation here’s how to make a crab sandwich. You need, apart from the crabs, a small hammer (or a wooden rolling pin works well).  You need a skewer or a sharp pointed kitchen knife, a large piece of newspaper to collect the bits and a bowl to put the meat in – that’s it. I always break all the claws off first and get the meat out of them first because that’s the most boring bit and I like to get it out of the way. The technique is to twist and pull. If you need to, give the claws a gentle whack to crack them, you don’t want to be eating bits of shell. If you’re lucky you can gently pull some of the meat out with your fingers but if not you prise it out with the little knife.  When all the claws/legs are done you’ll have a surprising amount of white meat if you’ve chosen your crabs well. Next comes the bit where you prise the main shell apart. It can be a bit of a struggle, but it will almost always come apart if you apply enough firm pressure.  Inside you’ll see some greyish green feathery looking things – these are the ‘dead mens’ fingers’ and you wouldn’t even eat them for a dare so chuck them out and get on with extracting as much meat as you can. The red meat is the gloopy bit, and that’s where a lot of the flavour is, so don’t be squeamish – get it out into the bowl.  Then mix it all gently together with a fork and add some black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Butter some brown bread and heap on as much crab as you dare and then slap another slice of bread on top. Pour youself a glass of cider and and eat the sandwich with the filling running down your chin in the most disgusting way. If you want to spoil it completely you could make a salad with exhausted lettuce, lumps of red onion and slices of red pepper, but you can get that in a pub any day for about £15 a shot.

Preparation time 6 hours, cooking time zero, eating time –  five exultant minutes!

 

 

Small crisis at the Potwell Inn

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This both is and is not a photograph of the Potwell Inn. Let’s just say that the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw are very close to my heart. Rhiw is pronounced a bit like the sound a buzzard makes when it’s circling in the sky. Welsh is a very beautiful language! Notice the chestnut fence which is so economically constructed, and notice also how quiet it is, presided over by the spirits of the Keating sisters and their mother. There are some places, some hills, some groves, even the smallest of things, that can function as portals if you’re paying attention. What floored me on our very first visit to the Plas was the stove in the kitchen.  It was a paraffin powered stove complete with an oven, each burner having its own primus style pump; the exact stove that my grandparents had in their cottage in the Chilterns. I can only have been four or five years old, but I have the clearest memory of having it drilled into me that the stove was dangerous and that I should never ever touch it. Continue reading “Small crisis at the Potwell Inn”

Potwell Inn staff outing to Snowdonia

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The great thing about the Potwell Inn is because it’s imaginary it’s always very close to wherever you are; and so organising a staff outing was a relatively straightforward business – mostly working out what to do, and shelling out a substantial amount of cash for the fare.  It seemed to Madame and me that life is more than RS Thomas, Elsi Eldridge, the Keating sisters, gardening and searching out almost extinct apple varieties, so we decided on a steam train ride from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.

Gwynedd’s county town, home to Wales’s most famous castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mighty Caernarfon Castle commands the lion’s share of attention, but the town’s narrow streets and stylishly redeveloped waterfront also merit a visit. The castle, built in the 13th century by Edward I as a royal palace and military fortress, was at the core of a medieval walled town.

Thus reads the publicity blurb on the Visit Snowdonia website, and it goes on to stake a claim for the town’s historic importance.

More of that in a moment, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”  goes the saying, and this posting is really about play because I don’t think we do enough playing and it’s having a terrible impact on our health and on our inner lives – and, further, it’s not long before what’s crippling our inner lives is also damaging the whole culture too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since I’m reading an excellent book by Peter Marren, called “Chasing the Ghost” I’m including a single line from the book, describing a naturalist friend hunting for a flower:-

“[Chris} has the thoughtful, slightly quizzical expression of a dedicated naturalist. If a Bedfordshire flower had eyes, it is that look of intense curiosity that it would see, as the hand lens descends.”

We tend to think of play as being a bit mindless, but the opposite is true. Real play is intensely mindful and focused, whilst all the time being wholly open to the wonder of the unexpected. Real play demands that we put to one side “the way we do things round here” – an excellent shorthand description of culture I once read – and open ourselves wide to the possibility of being someone else in a different world. Field botany, achaeology, drawing, gardening and cooking are among hundreds of ways of playing that are gradually being eroded by our Gradgrind society – and the results are everywhere to be seen

And when it comes to playing there’s not much to beat a 25 mile ride through Snowdonia on a proper steam train. Everyone’s playing! obviously me, playing at being about seven years old again lurking around the engine waiting for a burst of steam and hanging out of the window (strictly forbidden) to feel the smuts and grit in my face. But everyone else seemed to be at it as well; the driver and fireman were properly dressed up and were having the best game of all, especially when the vacuum failed in a narrow cutting and applied the bIMG_4604rakes – then we were all playing. The driver was playing the resourceful hero walking back down the line, and we were all playing being abandoned in the mountains.  The conductor was playing at raising our spirits with her announcements while the fault was fixed. Of course it was fixed, but when we pulled into the next station there were a small group of people having the time of their lives playing at being engineers and having manly conversations in their hi-vis jackets while a shed was unlocked and a mysterious component was found and seemed to make everyone happy again. And all that didn’t even begin to describe the bliss of rattling and clanking up the climb towards Snowdon with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails in all the twists and turns. And then there was the silence.

The steam hissed, someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop – only the name

P1080703At the very first stop, Edward Thomas’s poem came flooding back to me, it was almost overwhelming, and it occured to me that no-one whose life had not begun in the steam age would quite understand the poem because these days, the station name-board would be accompanied by the loud thrumming of the diesel engines under your seat. Real unexpected silence was the best teacher of that poem anyone could hope for – a truly magic moment!

And it’s impossible to describe the mountains adequately even though I know the area fairly well. The reason is that – unlike a map – the mountains change shape with every yard the train heaves upwards towards the summit. You realize how partial your understanding of any landscape must be until you’ve got it under your feet. I know very well what Tryfan looks like on a map, and even as I climb up it, but I don’t even know  what it looks like from the Glyders or indeed from almost any other distant aspect. That majestic and slightly menacing outline may well look quite benign from some viewpoints but I don’t know that because I haven’t got the ground under my feet properly. I’m just not local enough.

But agricultural policy in the UK has been decided for years by people who haven’t got the landscape under their feet at all.  All this landscape and all its beauty has been compromised by farming policies decided largely by politicians and unelected boards 280 miles away and more; compromised by ignorance and greed and little understanding of a whole way of life that doesn’t fit into a homogenised culture. Am I sounding a bit William Cobbett here? The name on the cinema lets the cat out of the bag because deep down I think the politicians in London still see Wales as a colony. First you attack the language and then you take everything you can.

It turns out that Caernarfon is probably best seen from Angelsey because it gets seedier the closer you are. We only had an hour and I was on the lookout for the bookshops I’d googled up but the only two I saw were W H Smith and another that seemed to specialise in Welsh language books. Yelp boasted nine bookshops but we walked around the castle and the pretty bits in about ten minutes and the other seven must have disappeared. There was a pub called the Black Boy Inn with a sign that would make you blush for shame at the lack of irony or self-awareness, and just up the road a cafe that offered sausage and mash with onion gravy in a giant yorkshire pudding, with several rather depressed individuals eating something else. Somewhere near the waterfront was a large statue of David Lloyd George who’s ubiquitous in these parts (there’s a museum in Llanystumdwy). I kicked myself when we got back for not paying more attention to the modelling of the trousers to see whether the sculptor had managed to make any covert reference to the member for Caernarfon which was, by all accounts, wielded to great effect.  The bingo hall just about sums it all up.

What can you say about Caernarfon? It seems to have lost its raison d’etre. Stone, slate and coal are no longer shipped out to the world, hill farming is on its knees and the only industry (if you discount doing up second homes and holiday lets) would be tourism. It’s a sad and lost place that reminded me a bit of Milford Haven; and as we were walking around I was thinking of H G Wells’ Mr Polly walking on the beach at Fishbourne and saying “Beastly silly hole of a place”. You could imagine the vast majority of young people with any vision at all having to leave the area and move to one of the larger cities.

But enough mournful introspection.  The authorities are working hard to make things better and they’re spending £2.5 million on a new terminus for the Welsh Highlands Railway – right in the centre of town, and the Potwell Inn works outing still had the journey back to Porthmadoc to look forward to. And for once the summit of Snowdon was not wreathed in cloud and we even saw the little steam train making its way up to the top. I’ve got mixed feelings about that one.  Whose bright idea was it to build a railway line up there of all places?

And back to Porthmadog we went with our company of day trippers, picking up walkers and adventurers as we went  – imagine the fun of flagging down a whole steam train on a request stop.  Finally we passed the Moelwyn Hills as we approached Porthmadog.  Many years ago we went on a weekend working party on the Ffestiniog Railway which was then more of a dream than a reality. There was some serious playing going on there, not least with seemingly vast amouts of explosive used to blast a new link that had been broken by the construction Tanygrisiau Hydro Electric Power Station. It was winter and we got a bit bored and so we climbed Moelwyn Bach, the smaller of the two mountains, in deep snow and in our wellies. P1060355Deeply irresponsible I know, and we got properly told off by the ‘grown ups’ when we got back but they were a strange lot – they believed in the railway as fervently as they might have believed in the Second Coming. It was all too serious for us and we finally disgraced ourselves by crashing a truck. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of us. Now, decades later it’s easier to give them credit for their single-mindedness in building the railway. They were absolute pioneers and achieved their railway line in the teeth of a thousand difficulties. I wonder what the original volunteers think, now that the railway is a successful commercial enterprise. Knowing when to let go and allow the second and third generations take over is a real challenge, but only today it was announced that the slate region of Gwynnedd which includes the Ffestiniog Railway is to be nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site which, if it comes off, may bring even more visitors to the area. Something needs to replace the lost industries but it will create yet more stress on the culture and landscape if it’s not managed carefully and locally.

So back into Porthmadog with the sun going down and the last train from Ffestiniog steaming on the far side of the station. As staff outings go it was pretty good – no-one got drunk, started a fight or got locked in the toilet.  I think we might do it again next year.

How to discourage a hungry Gastropod

A lively exchange of emails after my last posting with my good friends and Potwell Inn regulars Kate and Nick who run a smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Apart from establishing that they do have a Goose Arse apple tree on their patch, Kate was telling me about an experiment they are planning using birch tar to discourage the slugs and snails that are a constant problem on their allotment patch.

This year they were using sheeps’ wool which had some deterrent effect, Kate says.  They’ve got mountains of the stuff because the economics of sheep farming are frightening. Last year it cost £70 for shearing them and they made £3.81 for the wool. They’ve never made more than 50% of the shearing cost on the wool, and last year’s is stacked up in the barn with little hope of a return except by composting and digging it in to the bean trenches. The pictures show how Kate is experimenting with it as a means of slug control, but whichever way you look at it the hours and the expense of lambing, day to day feeding, abattoir fees, vet’s fees, and fencing can only represent a very poor return on investment. They do it because they love it but the hill farmers are almost all gone now because, in reality, you can’t do it without subsidising it yourself by working. I know buying woollen shirts won’t change the world, but it’s a great example of the way that our countryside is being deformed by our shopping habits.

Anyway, during the winter Nick will be attempting to make some birch tar from their plentiful supply of trees.  Over the years they’ve replanted hundreds of the native trees that would once have formed much of the landscape and they’re beginning to come to the point where some of the less long-lived can be harvested. Apparently the birch tar is waterproof, and when mixed with vaseline it can be smeared on fences (or perhaps raised bed boards) where it is effective for some weeks. This year we used nematodes on some of the beds, but it’s very expensive and in any case in such a dry season we didn’t have any real problems.  We also use ferrous phosphate when we’re forced to but none of us like – or can afford – any sort of chemicals, even when they’re approved for organic systems, but we have agreed to give the tar a try on our allotment. Kate wonders whether it would be better known if it really worked, but the licensing regulations are so stacked in favour of big pharma, smaller companies will never have the money or the facilities to test them to meet the regulations and so they’ll linger on as folk remedies. If it deterred foxes, badgers, rats, pigeons, cabbage white butterflies, carrot and onion flies and human browsers too it would definitely be a winner!