Ten days ago (or a hundred years as it seems) we were shivering in the wind and rain in the western fells and lamenting the onset of autumn, but it seems the weather had different ideas and so here we are – still a little less north and just as west – enjoying what may turn out to be the last few days of the oddest season I can remember. Since the beginning of the year the seasons have switched on and off, occasionally in the wrong order, and kept us allotmenteers guessing. The settled order of the seasons has been torn up by climate change which leaves us wondering how bad this could get. The answer of course is – even worse than this. It’s hard when we’re offered these balmy days both very early and very late in the season not simply to embrace them and be thankful, but the inexorable warming isn’t just providing us with a few extra sunbathing days, it’s melting the ice cap, melting glaciers and raising the sea level whilst heating the sea and generating huge destructive storms. I’ve only been in the path of an oncoming tide once, when a spring tide corresponded with a big melt of snow and a strong wind blowing the surge up the river Avon in Bristol. We were living right next to the river and as the water topped the walls it came across the road towards our house making a sound I’ll never forget. We didn’t get much sleep that night until the tide turned and took the flood away.
But today the farmers were out baling the straw, and with a couple of days left before the rain returns, they’ll be ready for the winter. The last peaks of the Snowdon range that form a natural boundary to the Lleyn peninsula were standing clear in the blue skies. We walked along the clifftop and below us an abundance of birds were sunning themselves on the rocks – it’s a little paradise here when the wind drops and the sun shines. Much of the time it can be pretty rough. Near to where we’re staying there are a number of coves you can climb down to, all empty of humans apart from us.
Any spare tme I’ve had this week has been spent clearing gigabytes of junk off my long-suffering laptop which is ten years old now and I need to keep it going as long as I can. I hate the tedium of messing about with computers but, on the other hand, I completely rely on everything functioning seamlessly in order to be able to concentrate on writing – so routine maintenance is a necessary evil. But art will out, and aside from a few photos of the view I grabbed a closeup of the dried remains of a wild carrot which must have provided the model for an old style lobster creel – I’ll add it to the list of drawings I’ll attempt in the long winter evenings.
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!
As 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.
I’ve written quite a bit already about the ethos of Heligan, but there’s something else I want to explore, and that’s the need for proper celebration in our lives. Now I know that “proper” is a weasel word that usually means ‘the way I think it ought to be done’, but there’s more to it than trying to force my own sense of ‘the way things should be’ on to everyone else. Many years ago we had one of those extraordinary autumn seasons when the blackberries were so prolific that we picked forty pounds, which we took back to my parents house without having any idea what to do with them. What I remember most clearly from the occasion was the overwhelming urge to give thanks for the generosity of the uncultivated hedges. Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration”
Two things worth remembering by every allotmenteer who is thinking of taking five days away on however worthy a cause. Firstly the weather doesn’t read the forecast and secondly, the allotment doesn’t care about your diary. So when we got back from the Lost Gardens – (it’s a rather chunky title, I think I’ll just refer to them as ‘Heligan’ in future) – so when we got back from Heligan, the allotment had seen the first touch of frost almost a month early. There was no real damage done, just a few damaged leaves on the french beans but a warning nonetheless. Continue reading “Autumn jobs for the cupboard”
So what would the “take home” message from Heligan be. I’m not sure that I care for the impression the expression gives – as if all the love and care and experience we encountered in our five days there could be pre-digested and regurgitated into a sentence like philosophical bird vomit. But we definitely found things we wanted to remember and try for ourselves when we got back to the allotments, and here are some of them: Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan II”
Even as I write this there’s a bit of an inward groan – it’s so, well …. everyday. There’s very little breathless excitement about allotmenteering, after all a potato is just a potato and you’d need to be a bit of a propeller head to get excited about the minutiae of varieties. But that’s just the way it is – you need to keep on keeping on. Continue reading “Autumn jobs on the allotment”
I can’t remember when I ate my first wild mushroom – it was probably as a child, when we ate at my grandparents’ cottage, or rather smallholding, in the Chilterns. Because of her childhood my mother knew and talked about wild mushrooms but so far as I remember never picked any. The first I’m ever sure I picked were on the playing field at Beechfield House, then part of Bath Academy of Art. It was nearly 50 years ago and I blagged a job as assistant groundsman during the summer vacation. Continue reading “Something about flavour”
Date: 16 August 2018 at 19:41:38 BST
Weather: 16°C Mostly Sunny
Suddenly it’s nearly autumn and the kitchen is calling to me.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. Continue reading “Christmas incoming”
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.