Ten hours on the stove

Writing yesterday about turnips I recalled in the middle of the night that North Americans might know them as rutabaga and there’s also an ongoing argument between England and Scotland between swedes and turnips – so in an attempt to disambiguate this tricky topic I’ll say that as far as I’m concerned the turnips that we grow are either Milan Purple Tops (which have purple tops) or Tokyo Cross F1, which was the one I was writing about yesterday. As Winston Churchill once said, we’re distinct nations divided by a shared language. As for swedes they’re fabulous in Cornish pasties but pretty grim unless they’re mashed with carrots and more butter and pepper than is good for you. Please don’t ask about mangel wurzels.

Anyway, it was supposed to rain all day today so I’d pretty much settled on doing some batch cooking to restore our depleted stores. It’s the closest I get to restaurant cooking in sheer quantity and over the course of the day I cooked around two and a half kilos of ragu, a couple of litres of concentrated chicken stock that came as a sideline to a very large chicken that I poached and which will provide soup, stock and meat for five or six meals – oh and a quiche Lorraine to which I added a pound of spinach because we picked the last leaves off the plants in the polytunnel which are beginning to bolt. What with last night’s rhubarb, lettuce, chervil, rocket, asparagus, radishes and turnips we’ve vanquished the hungry gap, and my mind has turned again to cooking.

Growing, cooking, and eating belong together; there’s no doubt. If I speak about these three in rather sacramental – even religious – terms it’s because together they act as a profound matrix, glue if you prefer, for all that we do. I can’t wait until we’re allowed to invite friends to eat with us again when this pandemic has abated.

When Madame and me were first married we used to drink at a pub called the Greyhound which was notable for the fact that the couple who were the tenants, hated one another with a venomous passion and would exchange insults between the lounge bar and the public bar which were their respective redoubts. It was worth going just to make notes on the endlessly inventive wind-ups that they concocted for one another. The other thing it was worth going for (the beer was rubbish but the pub was close and the only one that hadn’t been taken over by the Hooray Henrys) – was the arrival at precisely nine thirty each evening of Signor Rossi. The moment service finished at his restaurant he would cross the road in his apron and drink a couple of pints. The thing is, we could never have afforded to eat in his place but if you could manage to sit next to him and bathe in the perfume of his apron it was almost as good, A packet of crisps and a pickled egg could taste as good as a three course Italian some nights when he anointed them with the smell of his kitchen. I dare to claim that when I finally finished cooking today, my apron smelt like Signor Rossi’s.

As an entirely self-taught cook, I had very little to go on except the lists of ingredients and the smell of Signor Rossi. I had to figure out the bit in between for myself. It’s been a joy! – and nowadays my two chef sons teach me the tricks I wish I’d known fifty years ago. Tonight we’ve got 27 meals worth of food about to go in the freezer to cover us for a couple of field trips in the campervan, but mostly so we can work long days on the allotment getting everything into the ground, and have something nice to eat when we get back.

But I haven’t stopped reading – as if! I’ve just started “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard. It’s fascinating to read them in parallel because it brings out the poignancy of the conflict between Native Americans and the settlers who displaced them. They each tell their story from a different perspective although they are both scientists separated by generations from the original offence. The third book isn’t much more than a pamphlet entitled “Start to Identify Composite Flowers” by Faith Anstey, but she’s obviously a gifted teacher and I learned things I hadn’t previously known from the top of page one, so it makes up for its brevity by being extremely useful and a good deal lighter to carry around than the Book of Stace which weighs in at two and a half pounds and twelve hundred and fifty pages – even printed on bible thickness paper, which befits its status in the botanical heavens.

Home on the range


Well, sort of – although this isn’t home, rather a borrowed kitchen in the summer where we cooked some great food for all the family. However, the range – or the stove is a wonderful place of retreat when everything is going to hell in a handcart, and that certainly seems to be the case in the UK where we, or the government, have managed to create an extra crisis as if environmental extinctions and global heating weren’t bad enough. We’re poised on the edge of withdrawing from the EU in pursuit of some bizarre dream that we can relocate in another age.  Even a member of our family (fortunately not one we have to see very much of) opined yesterday that it would be lovely to go back to the 60’s.  ‘Be careful what you wish for’, I thought, as I tried not to bite the end off my tongue.

It all adds up to a terribly depressing and stressful time as we are being lured into a distraction robbery by a bunch of people I would gladly introduce to some of the unregulated dark and satanic mills I’ve had the misfortune to work in. BUT – it is what it is, and we may yet escape from the gimlet eyed brexit evangelicals.  Tomorrow will tell.

So today was supposed to be a bit of R & R after a very busy week and my first thought was to do some drawing, but that idea soon wilted like a warm lettuce as he “what’s the point” feeling swept over me.  There were jobs lining up on the list so in the end we went to the garden centre and bought the first seeds for the 2020 season, and ordered some more on the internet.  Preparing for the spring does, at least, inject a bit of joy into the procedings and thereafter I tied myself to the cooker and cooked as if my life depended on it. I quite enjoy batch cooking and so I did 6Kg of ragu to be portioned up for the freezer, I roasted a chicken, flaked the meat off and made stock, I made tomato soup with yet another batch of fruit, drank copious expressos and forgot that we have virtually no freezer space – that’s the problem with displacement activity, it always seems to displace the most important bit of the brain.

One aspect of the difficulty with getting on with drawing is the fact that we’ve just been to an exhibition of the Bath Society of Botanical Artists. In fact we’ve been twice and I’ll probably find an excuse to go again.  My teacher has a piece in, and she’s also recently published a book which I bought. She (Julia Trickey – “Botanical Artistry”, Two Rivers Press) is inspiring and daunting, and she’s a great teacher.  When I look at my work after having seen some of the work on display, I know I’ve got a million miles to go.  My last big project ended in hundreds of preparatory drawings and photos but collapsed in the face of the challenge.  Being the kind of person I am, (I hate failing), one of the purchases in the garden centre was a single hyacinth bulb which, when it flowers, will enable me to complete the project and move on. You can’t wait for inspiration to call, it has to be willpower plus technique, I’m not Michelangelo!

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