The flavour is in the ingredients not the recipe.

We were sitting in bed this morning and Madame was reading out recipes to me from the newspaper. Every ingredient, it seemed, had one or two adjectives attached to it – I’m growing used to it but I do tend to froth at the mouth at the word – “succulent” which always grates terribly – I’ll be the judge of that, I think. Many recipes have got twice or three times as many adjectives as they do actual ingredients, rather like those desperately silly restaurant menus that offer ‘trios’ of sausages or cheese – which always make me wonder whether they can play any Bach. But then she read out a recipe that included some “Isle of Wight tomatoes” and I thought to myself – if they were picked on Friday and get to the supermarket some time mid-week you’d do better to wait a week or two and gather some you’d grown yourself. That way they’d taste far better than the most expensive tomato that had just been on a long journey and badly needed a shower and a rest.

Sincerity is the key – said Sam Goldwyn – once you’ve learned to fake it you’re made

Which is going to taste better – an apple that looks like the real deal but which has been sprayed fifteen times and stored in an artificially cooled and nitrogen enriched atmosphere for weeks or even months, and then driven, flown or shipped for hundreds of miles? or – a rather knobbly one with bad skin, that you’ve just picked off the tree and in which the hydrostatic pressure is so great it squirts delicious sweet juice at you if you indent it with your thumbnail? I hope the answer to that question was the local option.

Food, (I’m not talking about manufactured food here) is, by its very nature, seasonal, and seasonal vegetables always taste best when they’re straight off the vine or out of the ground. The instinctive response to this is to claim that you would need to be wealthy to enjoy food in its prime all the time. This is only true up to a point. Asparagus from Peru, for instance, may taste reasonably good but if you could see the cloud of pollution that accompanies it it might not be quite so palatable.

But there is a way to eat the finest food every day without being wealthy – but there are a couple of restrictions we have to embrace first of all. The first of these is that seasons are brief, and the second is that growing your own food is hard work. However allotments are wonderful value for money – our 250 square metres costs about £2.50 a week and is thought to be large enough to feed a family of four throughout the year – it’s a standard plot. Brief seasons mean that we can only eat asparagus for about a month, but my word – it’s the best asparagus you’ve ever tasted.

So there are the exotic vegetables like peppers, chillies and aubergines which we’ve grown successfully but they need a lot of TLC and sunshine. But today’s star is the early potato – we grew two varieties this year, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York. Shop bought new potatoes are very expensive and often disappointing – even the ever reliable Jersey Royals have diminished in flavour over the past couple of years since they started to worry about the salt build up from composted seaweed. I have a childhood memory of the first earlies in the year – my dad and my grandfather were totally loyal to Arran Pilots – and their flavour is imprinted in my memory. All vegetables that are sweet when fresh deteriorate rapidly when picked, because the natural sugars that we prize so much turn to starch – same number of calories but not the same flavour at all.

Every time we start eating the new season potatoes I want to eat them completely simply – maybe a bit of butter but they’re ruined by strongly flavoured sauces. We dig them while they’re small and steam them for 15 minutes or even less. In fact many home grown veg are at their best when you pass them by the stove but barely warm them through. Broad beans are in season and they’re almost better raw than cooked and carrots need the tiniest steaming. These are intense but fleeting pleasures. If you’re rich I suppose you can always buy the freshest ingredients but I’ll guarantee that you won’t eat fresher vegetables than the ones you grow yourself. Not in a four Michelin starred restaurant and not even if you’re a Duke or a media mogul.

And some treats are almost free. We started our third batch of elderflower cordial today – and this time we raided a pink flowered variety for fifty of its saucer shaped flowers. Their perfume was overwhelming and they’re on the stove now infusing with lemon, lime and orange zest. Money can’t buy that intensity of flavour – it’s like drinking summer from a glass and the pink flowers yield a very pretty cordial. Here are the flowers waiting to be steeped overnight.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

IMG_20200425_172820

No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.

 

In flour again.

Much gratitude to my son for arranging it, and his mate the baker who, between them, came up with a 16 Kg bag of bread flour that should see us through the lockdown. It’s perched on a chair in the hallway at the moment but I’ll get it into a food bin first thing tomorrow because flour gets infested with tiny moth caterpillars incredibly quickly.  Baking with a new flour is always a bit of an adventure until you’ve baked a few loaves because they all behave quite differently.  My old mate Dick England who had his own flour mill up in Berkeley on Severnside, always reckoned to leave the new wheat to ripen for a while before it was fit to mill and make bread with. It’s strange how even potatoes have their seasons as well.  The man who ran the Regal fish and chip shop in Hotwells would shut down for several weeks as the new season main crops came in because he didn’t think they were good to make chips from.

So new flour and new adventures demanded a celebration and I made a Dundee cake for our tea breaks on the allotment. It was hot today and we worked for around five hours setting up  a new bed for the peas.  We’re growing a traditional variety called Alderman which we tried last year.  In our haste to be greener than thou, last year we tried to grow them on jute nets, but they were so prolific and heavy they just tore the nets down – so this year they’re going to be grown up sheep wire attached to some strong poles. While I was doing the civil engineering bit, Madame was busy sowing and potting up – it’s a very busy time of the year both on the allotment and at home where we made a start on replacing the spring window boxes with their summer equivalents. They’ll be mainly geraniums this year because the garden centres are all shut and we won’t be able to buy ridiculously expensive bedding plants to supplement our own.

The asparagus bed is so nearly there, it’s frustrating, but the early spears were deformed by the cold nights so we’re hoping that a spell of warm nights will give us our first proper feed. Our son went off to get some beer for the beer traps.  Slugs are a menace and at least we send them off happy.  Last year’s very unscientific experiment seemed to indicate that they’re real ale buffs – they much preferred the expensive brews to my cheap stuff from Aldi.  Tonight Jo dropped off four cans of bitter for a pound.  I’m not optimistic. We sent our best numbers off with Marston’s Pedigree Ale but it cost about tenpence a slug.

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60.  Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious.  Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.

The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.

The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.

Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us.  We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.

George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.

I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash.  He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK.  The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Taking a longer view

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

Here are some photos of the allotment as it is today.  It hasn’t aways been like this This blog began as a private journal that I kept for three years after I retired. Sadly – or gladly – the software I was using (Day One) and which I loved, upgraded automatically one night and suddenly the various bits of my computer setup would no longer talk to one another and, after fruitlessly complaining, and receiving a rather lofty and patronising response – “you should buy a better computer” – I dipped out and moved to WordPress. Good move!

Anyway, what that means is that I can refer back to the previous three years of the allotment and today I made what may be an interesting discovery.  It started after a conversation with Madame about whether our broad beans really are early this year.  I won’t go into a blow by blow commentary except to say that in spite of some very different weather over the past three seasons it seems that the earliest date of cropping hasn’t changed all that much.  I wonder if the real impact of the weather has been to affect the quality and quantity of the crop.  In the second year of the allotment – with more ‘normal’ weather we had a great crop. Last year the first pickings of the overwintered Aquadulce Claudia broad beans came at roughly the same time but were very poor. This year we’ve had an easier time but I’m sure we won’t beat our previous date of first picking and we’ll have a much better crop.

We allotmenteers tend to use earliness as a measure of success, but I reckon we’d do better to measure the crop.  One of the big concerns about climate change is that the varieties we grow will not cope with changed climatic conditions, and maybe the symptoms won’t be failure to grow at all, but greatly reduced crops.

IMG_5151So we’ve had a lovely week, the water troughs have been turned on, and everything seems to be growing merrily but one experiment seems to have reached a conclusion.  The carrot on the left was part of an experiment to test two types of compost, a new carrot variety, and to see if the carrot roots would penetrate a soil pan. Just to take the last test first, it’s clear that this carrot at least has fattened up in the layer of compost but hasn’t penetrated the soil pan at all.  I guess the root just wasn’t strong enough – so point taken (unintentional pun) – and this isn’t a refutation of the no-dig method at all, but it doesn’t work miracles. The soil structure will still need easing and improving before ‘no-dig’ will work properly, and yes I’m well aware of the dangers of confirmation bias! IMG_5153

But there was a piece of extra good news and that was that we cut the first four spears of asparagus today.  It’s a bed that’s only had one season but the first spears have been emerging for a couple of weeks.  We’ve been agonising about whether to cut any spears this year, but today I thought “it’s right at the beginning of the season, why not take a few spears?” So I did, I cut just four and presented them to Madame at supper time. So – honest truth –  the very first spear to emerge wasn’t terribly good, but ranked by age they got better and better. Oh my goodness that was a great moment.  The chillies and peppers have all been moved from the propagators to the south facing windows in the kitchen.. Tomorrow we’ll sow the tomatoes and cucumbers.

One further thought.  Is the light in the spring and autumn actually brighter than the light in high summer? The sun is moving away from its closest proximity, but it has a very special quality at this time of the year.  For me the effect is almost emotional, I can smell and taste the change of season and it’s lovely.

 

At last, the seaweed.

IMG_4681I think it was Samuel (Dr) Johnson who once said that every project bears within itself the possibility of failure.  If you wait until all possible objections have been met then you’ll never do whatever it is that’s in your mind. So piling a load of seaweed on to the asparagus bed could be construed as a bit risky were it not for the fact that we’ve seen it done at the Lost Gardens of Heligan without any obvious ill effects. Their bed, mind you, are about fifty times bigger than ours.

Today, having cut back this season’s growth and carefully hand weeded, I opened the very large sack of seaweed we brought back from North Wales and cautiously spread the first forkful on the bed. The smell was pretty awesome (to steal a phrase from WordPress) and there was a lively crew of sandhoppers and flies wondering how they’d managed to travel 220 miles from the beach they regarded as home; but it’s on now and I’m experiencing a strange feeling of satisfaction.  Whether the promised benefits of trace elements and soil conditioning along with a little salt and sand actually make a difference we shall see in six months time.  On the allotment the balance has now tilted in favour of next season. Over half has been cleared, manured and covered, and the depressing signs of wilting and decayed leaves have been consigned to the compost where a quite wonderful number of brandling have been busy breeding all summer.

Madame meanwhile was planting up the spring window boxes for the flat, and clearing out the greenhouse of pots and growbags.  The spent remains of the bags and pots have all gone back on to the beds, more as soil conditioner than food.  Two mysteries were also resolved during the morning. The reason that one of the water butts was never refilling from the greenhouse roof turned out to be no more complicated than the fact that I’d turned off the wrong tap; and the second mystery – why was there a section of the tomatoes that always needed watering in spite of the soaker hose , turned out to be no more complicated than a kink in the pipe. I solved both problems with one poorly aimed jab of the fork, when the water sprayed into my face.

Lost Gardens of Heligan IV: seaweed

2018-10-03 12.20.33OK so this is going to be the last Heligan posting, but we were intrigued to see (and to smell) some tons of raw seaweed being used as a mulch – as the photo shows – on the asparagus beds, but on the allium beds as well. Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan IV: seaweed”