Heaven is kitchen shaped

Thankfully, glass milk bottles are at last popping up in Bath!

More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.

Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.

As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.

I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.

Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.

And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.

Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas

Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.

An unlikely start to the day

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Last week – in response to an editorial in the Farmers Weekly I fired off an email to the editor. The only reason I even saw his piece is that the Google software has obviously picked up my interest in farming matters and consequently sends me targeted material.  I suppose I should get excited about this but I don’t  – I know it’s happening and the blog subtitle in which I describe myself as a sceptic just about sums it up.  I spend so much of my life closely  examining the teeth of gift horses that I probably qualify as an equine dentist.

Anyway, this morning to my absolute amazement I had an email back from Farmers Weekly acknowledging that I had a point (about knee jerk hostility to environmental targets) and saying they were hoping to print it this week.  That will be a matter of amazement to the farmers who know me, which makes it all the more enjoyable! Then I had an email from a friend who reads the blog offering some flour if we could find a way of delivering it within the lockdown rules. My imagination immediately led me to somewhere like Checkpoint Charlie – perhaps one of the bridges that crosses the Avon in Bath, with a few armed police at either end – Churchill Bridge seems vaguely appropriate. All we need is a grey and rainy morning and a Sainsbury’s bag and we’re on.

Today, though, my random news feed seemed to focus on Dorset stories – so the algorithm is good but not that good, and I was probably the sole reader of an obscure web-based local news service that was carrying a horrible story about the threatened shutdown of all the Weymouth Allotments, which was all being provoked by a local resident who must have lived close enough to the site to record all the comings and goings  of cars and their occupants, and even how long they each stayed. He – it must have been a he, surely, was incandescent with rage at the fact that some of the allotmenteers stayed for several hours and even sat down in the sunshine.  Another had a bonfire and burned grass mowings – now there’s a feat!

Now I’m not one to judge another human being too harshly but this amount of frothing does seem a little – well, pathological – don’t you think? Our site has clear rules about bonfires – i.e. not after April 1st, and so that can be easily enforced, except that the story has spread like a wine stain to include the ‘fact’ that the local fire brigade had been called out – surely not to a pile of grass mowings, I’d think they were impossible to ignite unless it was under a rain of sparks from an axe being ground somewhere nearby? As for sitting quietly in the sunshine on your own allotment it’s hard to think of any activity less likely to cause public harm.  So I put it down to a quiet day for local news, and good luck to the allotmenteers of Weymouth – just stick to the rules peeps.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the final delivery of food arrived from Waitrose who have declined to offer any more delivery slots until the middle of July, and so we are simultaneously urged not to leave the safety of our home while driven by necessity to queue up for hours to buy food. My Dad used to buy a copy of Soviet Weekly from a member of the local Communist Party who was one of his drinking buddies that  he didn’t want to upset.  It was most useful for lining the cat litter tray but utterly useless for lighting fires as it was printed on entirely non combustible paper. It was full of stories of heroism and success which, I imagine, would have been news to the people who were actually living in Russia at the time.  I get much the same feeling about our own media and sometimes I’m grabbed by the thought that actually no-one knows what on earth is going on but we’re staying loyal because …….. well, what’s the alternative?   My only memory of those photos is that there were lots of big tractors – which is a circuitous link back to this morning’s email from Farmers Weekly.

This afternoon we saw the sun emerge and we worked quietly, drank tea and observed the fact that everywhere things are growing. There were an abundance of insects and a few butterflies enjoying the garden, and Madame found an appreciative caterpillar on the chard. So I couldn’t resist the rather wintry looking photo of a spider’s web catching the sun.  The plant in the picture is our prodigiously productive grape vine planted many years ago by one of a group of Italian restaurant workers who all had plots on the site.  The last of them died only a few weeks ago and an energetic Eastern European woman has brought his old plot back to life. We’re as polyglot a gang of allotmenteers as ever; and hooray for that small stand against the darkness.

Let me out! Hold me in …..

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Clearly this rhubarb plant on our neighbour’s allotment can’t wait to escape its forcing pot – and for some utterly obscure reason it brought to mind the memory of a walled garden I once visited. The trigger was finishing the gravel boards the very last 25 feet of our own plot – mostly out of sight behind the shed and the greenhouse – but it seems more important than I expected. Edges, borders and paths have an important role in defining spaces and ours had always been open on this one edge. The boundary I put in today wasn’t very big, in fact it was sunk almost to ground level after I’d begun to infill the path with wood chip. But when I sat down in our newly created little quiet area between the shed and the greenhouse I suddenly – and for the first time – felt enclosed, held by the space. I was quite unprepared for the significance of the moment, and having just walked past the rhubarb in the picture I was transported back to one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen.

The Oxshott Pottery is no longer there.  I visited it with a party from art school in around 1971.  We came off a busy suburban street through a rather gothic looking ‘arts and crafts’ sort of door and into a strange tropical jungle surrounded by a tall redbrick wall.  The paths had been cleverly designed to make the garden feel much bigger than it really was.  There was a sound of flowing water and massive Gunnera plants with a multitude of smaller plants whose names I wouldn’t have known at the time. We were there to see the pottery and meet Rosemary and Denise Wren but I think Rosemary was the person to show us around.  I was totally lost to the garden – for almost fifty years it’s stayed in my mind; quiet – almost serene and enclosed, protected from the surrounding busy roads.

You never ‘own’ an allotment – there’s a long agreement with about ten pages of infractions for which you can be thrown off, evicted. You’re not allowed a fence although it’s permissible to grow plants along the boundary.  The dates between which bonfires are allowed are written into the agreement as is the maximum permitted height of trees (fruit, not ornamental) for which permission must always be sought. You’re surrounded by plots that are kept or neglected through different visions of what an allotment might be; a place to sit and contemplate, a place to grow medicinal herbs, a place where nothing but vegetables grow, a place where weeds are tolerated and another where they’re persecuted mercilessly.  There are experienced and inexperienced gardeners.  Our site has about as mixed a bunch of people as you’d ever find, all of us exploring our inner peasant.

The sun shone today and there were a number of new allotmenteers about.  I think the Parks Department have had their annual purge and our new neighbours were beginning to appear.  I passed a man in his thirties who was advancing on his new but rather weedy plot carrying an armful of cardboard with a look on his face that he might have worn for dragging an elk back to the cave. Photos were being taken, plans made and compost heaps filled with weeds that just love a change of scene.

It’s not difficult in such an ephemeral environment to lose any sense of personal space, any sense of belonging. For me, completing the low wooden boundary achieved it.  At last there’s an inside and an outside – not a wall or a fence but a line that describes an inside – what’s ours, however temporarily, and an outside that belongs to everyone else. Like all gardeners, we regard our plot as parents regard their children – beautiful and almost perfect notwithstanding the many faults that other parents see in them. Who’d have thought that banging in a few pegs and screwing on three or four rough cut boards could have such a profound effect?