Buttering parsnips

I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.

Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.

Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.

It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.

If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.

And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.

At last, some sea.

Back on Lleyn after almost a year of pining. We were up at 5.00am but despite all our preparations we didn’t actually get away until 9.30 laden with food, cameras, trail cam, books and drawing equipment. It’s only 150 miles but it always takes about six hours, driving across country from South East to North West Wales, taking in the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian mountains and the Snowdon range on the way; and here we are facing the sunset across the Irish Sea.

And we missed the spring and the summer, so the thrift – briefly reignited by the setting sun – has withered and died back. The silverweed has been shriven by the fierce weather the sloes are small but ripening slowly and to the North an approaching cold front was heavy with broiling clouds, the colour of Payne’s Gray – a colour I love so much I’d be happy to spend an hour painting great swaths of it on watercolour paper. One or two brave field mushrooms were showing their button heads, but with the temperature dropping overnight I don’t think we’ll be having any of them for breakfast for the next few days. When they do come in numbers the flavour is so good you want to eat them on your knees.

Tonight we’ve set up the trail cam looking down the valley towards the sea. It’s thick with impenetrable thorns and a haven for wild birds. As we left the cottage a sparrowhawk flew low overhead, hunting down the length of the valley and as we walked back up from the sea a robin flitted invisibly from tree to tree, singing as if we were playing a game of tag. I’m hoping we’ll at least film a fox during the night, but we won’t get any good results until we’ve prospected the wood for animal tracks.

The only way is up

Many apologies for the long silence – 5 days is something of a record, almost Trappist on my part. We have been out and about doing the usual combination of walking, allotmenteering, grandparenting and so forth; but we’ve also been embracing a rather challenging fitness regime to shed the lockdown lard, so our walks have been both longer and quicker, and given that we live in Bath there’s no escaping some tough hills which are terribly character forming especially on an 800 calorie diet. I won’t bore myself, let alone you, by listing the sufferings mainly because it hasn’t been bad at all. We sleep like logs and always eat up everything on our very small plates.

So today we took ourselves up to the Skyline again, passing St Thomas a Beckett church on the way up, and later on from the top of the hill we could look down across Bath and see any number of towers and spires. I have very mixed feelings about churches. I remember being shocked, when we first went to France, to experience what a truly secular society felt like and yet it seems to me that we’re reaching the same kind of culture here in the UK by neglect. I always used to describe my own churches as “lost luggage offices” where people who were sometimes in great anguish could look for something quite intangible that they’d lost. The building itself seemed to do something very important but I never quite understood how it worked. I was just the keyholder. I would remind myself that Job’s friends were doing really well until they opened their mouths.

St Thomas a Beckett is a place I’ve never been inside. I’m fearful of churches now, fearful that they’ll smell musty and damp; fearful that some well meaning person will offer help and most of all, fearful of meeting my alter ego there. Silence is the only comfort. About ten years ago I was on a course at Canterbury Cathedral, and one evening after it was closed to the public and just getting dark, we were taken on a candlelit tour of the silent building. I think we all (it was a small group) – found the Great Silence when we came to St Thomas a Beckett’s tomb. On another occasion we (Madame and me, that is) went to Chartres with friends and against all my expectations of a kind of Disney/Blackpool experience, I was so powerfully moved that I took my shoes and socks off and walked with bare feet around the Cathedral for a couple of hours. The rest of our group went off for lunch and even in the midst of the crowds I found the Great Silence and I stayed alone.

I know it sounds a bit wacky but bare feet can channel that energy in a way that nothing else can. Because we don’t usually experience the world directly through our feet, it’s very hard to conceptualise what’s going on and it has to be taken on its own terms.

There’s something else that could be said about St Thomas and that’s the fact that he was prepared to make a stand. The capacity for confrontation should be counted as one of the virtues in my view.

But that’s enough of that because our walks haven’t been so focused that there wasn’t any time to stand and watch. Here’s a wasp, and this is the lovely thing about getting into nature because it’s not and ordinary wasp, the picnic spoiling type – although for all I know this one could be a demon when roused. But I noticed it nesting in quite the wrong place to be a common wasp – the rotten core of a felled tree. A quick look at the books when we got home and I discovered it’s called Vespula germanica – the German wasp – a bit bigger than the common wasp, and yes it does sting; so my courageous photo was made safer by the fact that only his bum was sticking out of the hole.

We’ve also spotted a kingfisher on the river bank a couple of times right next to a building site. Today we could hear some kind of raptors in the sky but couldn’t get a close enough glimpse of them to be sure what they were.The piercing peeeoo call, with two distinct ‘syllables’ sounded as if they could have been red kite, which I think have been spotted here; but it was impossible to be sure. However the robin was the winner with its sad, declining cadence. If robins sang in choirs they’d alway be in the minor key. Or perhaps it’s just the smell of autumn in the air getting into my imagination..

Just as we were leaving the Green and walking along the river bank I took a photo of the sun shining through the trees. Goodness knows why I found it so affecting but although I grumble about the loss of the summer, autumn is a season of great beauty and new beginnings – maybe it resonates better with my melancholic default. As I write I can smell another six litres of rich tomato sauce reducing on the stove. The allotment is so abundant at the moment that I could spend every day at the stove and feed the whole block.

The last days of summer (again)

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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.

_1080856But 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.

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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Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration

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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”

Autumn jobs for the cupboard

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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”

Lost Gardens of Heligan II

_1080673So 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”

Autumn jobs on the allotment

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”

Something about flavour

2018-09-05 17.59.40I 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”