Bath, England, United Kingdom Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 7:41 pm BST 16°C Mostly Sunny
Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. In the spring, there are days of hope as the sun breaks through and then nights of frost that remind you that winter’s not done with yet, and in late summer my mind resonates with the shrinking hours of daylight and applies itself, like a squirrel, to preparing for the winter. It’s a favourite season and yet the harvest touches my melancholic soul every year by modulating from the major to the minor key. Jams, pickles and preserves become the centre of focus and I’m drawn to the kitchen. The fruits and vegetables that are coming off the allotment each day are almost overwhelming in their richness and numbers and finding ways of cooking or keeping them becomes an obsession. But there are only two of us and my deepest atavistic urges are to feed a family of five, or eight or ten. Today I thought of Christmas for the first time even though we’ve not finished sowing for autumn. It’s raining as I write this, and we’ve had plenty of rain in the last week. We longed for rain yet when it arrives like the Seventh Cavalry to rescue the besieged vegetables I think that somehow, if we could have just one more glorious day, I’d find the energy to go on watering. Never satisfied! I can hear my mother saying it.
In the Guardian this morning there was a piece about the way our culture is rapidly losing its cooking skills. The writer cited Jane Grigson’s “English Cooking” and wrote that it doesn’t contain any recipe or instruction for making pastry because she didn’t think it worthwhile wasting print on something so well understood it needed no explanation. The proofs of the article apparently came back with innumerable queries and questions from young subeditors who had no idea of the basic skills. Our three sons are all good cooks and two of them are professional chefs, but their various partners over the years have seemed suspicious of the very idea of cooking from scratch – as if it were a sign of domestic servitude.
In another piece yesterday George Monbiot explored the reasons behind the epidemic of obesity and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in our overstretched, overstressed lives, the food culture that embodied so much more than food has been systematically eroded – quite deliberately – by the food processing industry, and the results are as depressing as the results of any other kind of addiction. We have simply moved from one form of servitude to another, and the much cited ever increasing life expectancy has turned out to be yet another fraud. We’re sadder and sicker and lonelier than ever.
On the radio yesterday there was a piece on a new computer game craze, discussing whether it was a good or a bad thing for children. By all accounts it’s borderline addictive with children forsaking almost anything else including face-to-face contact with other children in order to play for hours. As a retired parent I don’t have much trouble deciding that children spending hours slaughtering even virtual people is a bad idea. One young woman working in the billion pound industry even ventured that to deny your children access to these games would ruin their carer prospects. Well, in Mandy Rice Davis’ phrase, she would say that wouldn’t she.
Do all these things tie in together? Is it just the usual self indulgent longing for the past that always afflicts old people like me? I can’t help thinking that these disappearing cultural values and their associated skills are as important as they ever were, and somehow we need to hold on to them for the future when they will be needed by another generation.
Today we cleared half of the sweetcorn away and I prepped the second cold frame with SylvaGrow as planned. But I’m getting cold feet about sowing carrots there as we’re so far behind and I really can’t see them coming to anything. It would be more sensible to postpone the experiment and fill the frames with stuff we really know we can grow, some spring onions for instance and winter lettuce. We’ve grown so many lettuce and salad leaves this year but the supply we’ve created outstrips our appetite so much it feels wasteful. I’m not that keen on green salad leaves and frankly some of them taste bitter. So that’s a matter for further discussion. But we picked lovely beetroot grown in coir pellets and simply planted in. I think we can call that experiment a complete success, We also picked runner beans, radishes and cucumbers, and had an improvised tasting of the chillies. The apache chillies are very hot indeed, and the pearls quite tasty and mild. The Jalapeño I picked wasn’t really ripe enough to do justice to its eventual flavour and heat.
We’ve reached the tipping point in the year when at last we’re clearing ground faster than we can plant it. Charles Dowding’s book on winter veg arrived today and it’s clear we’ve missed the boat on quite a number of opportunities. Next season we’ll do it better. In the evening I cooked a flan with the calbrese we picked yesterday. The plants are doing well and will give us some good meals. We had shopped for wholemeal flour to make pastry and I made some tonight. It’s very hard going and I almost abandoned it while I was rolling it out as it splits so easily and has next to no plasticity, like working with porcelain or perhaps heavily grogged crank mixture. But with a bit of cursing, persistence and some running repairs glued in with egg white it all came together in the end and tasted delicious.
But the last word on the day belongs to the Sweet Cicily which Stella discovered growing once again. For such a frail plant with a history of abuse and neglect, not to mention being felled twice by slugs, it just keeps coming back. Like Robert Bruce’s spider it never gives up – an inspiring end to a slightly melancholic day.