There be Dragons

From the top, clockwise.

  • Emperor – Anax imperator
  • Large Red Damselfly – Pyrrhosoma nymphula
  • Broad Bodied Chaser – Libellula depressa
  • Golden Ringed Dragonfly – Cordulegaster boltonii (n.b. damage to left hindwing)

I wish I could claim that our most recent visitor – the Emperor dragonfly at the top – was encouraged to visit the allotment by the presence of the pond but it wasn’t; because we’ve been visited by these magnificent creatures every year since we took over the plots. What we can certainly take credit for is the threesome of Large Red damselflies, presumably two males and a female, who sorted their dispute out, allowing the female to mate with one of the males and lay her eggs in the pond while they were still joined. This morning there was another one resting on a conveniently placed cane over the water. As I’ve mentioned before, we now have dozens of ponds from baby baths to a proper 25 footer next door, not to mention the river barely 100 yards away, and several ponds around the Botanical Gardens which are fed by the same streams that dip underground and flow across the allotments – one of them under our plot. It must be dragonfly heaven. How could you not love these fabulous beasties? They’re voracious predators of smaller insects and probably constitute a decent meal for a hungry bird.

Ladybird eggs on the broad beans

On the Potwell Inn allotment, the broad beans have finally leapt into bloom and, being spring replants after most of the overwintering plants were killed off by the dreadful weather in March, they’re nice and soft and an easy target for blackfly. Mercifully the blackfly and the ladybirds have arrived at the same time and whilst pinching out the tops, Madame found a bunch of ladybird eggs – good news because the larvae are by far the more greedy predators. The white butterflies lay similar looking eggs, but they’re much larger and more elongated from memory.

Of course – (minus the blackfly) – the tops make a delicious meal long before the pods have filled. You can stir fry or steam them and they’re lovely. You could almost certainly eat them raw too, but we haven’t enjoyed them that way ourselves.

We’ve been full-on planting out, and we’re nearly at the end, but it’s been very warm and sunny so the transplants have needed mollycoddling to keep them going. One interesting discovery came with setting out the three sisters planting. We’re using the “Painted Mountain” variety for the sweetcorn, but we’re also growing an F1 hybrid for our ‘ordinary’ crop. We’ll take care to keep them as far apart as possible, but seed saving would never be a good idea on an allotment site because everyone is so close and growing every variety under the sun . What was very obvious that the trad. Painted Mountain are far more vigorous than the F1 hybrid – neatly denting one of their claims of superiority. Sadly the seeds cost about the same because here in the UK Painted Mountain is a bit harder to source. I’ve read one writer suggesting that she sows all three seeds (corn, squash and bean) at the same time but we haven’t tried that yet. We’ve started all three in root trainers; sowing the corn first to allow it to get away and avoid being choked out by the others. One day we’ll try simultaneous sowing but it’s a lot of ground to dedicate to an experiment.

Once everything is planted out we’ll be able to concentrate on weeding and watering (assuming this warm weather continues). The temperature variations in the polytunnel are enormous, but the plants seem to love it so long as they’ve got water. Finding time to combine writing, repairing the leaky skylight on the the campervan and gardening is quite challenging but the rewards are huge. It’s impossible to walk on to the allotment without wondering at the sheer energy of the earth and the plants in spring. Gardening can be a very time consuming activity and I feel sad that many of our first timers are getting overwhelmed by weeds. We always found it very difficult to manage a family and a large garden, when we were both working full time.

I hope it’s true – that there’s a fellowship of the borlotti bean.

Because I need cheering up at the moment and any mention of borlotti seems to excite a highly specialised but motivated group of readers; driving the numbers up in a very cheering way . Things have not gone to plan in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I must be one of very few people who have melted half a chopping board into a rather expensive pan; (you see the extent of the damage by examining the perfectly circular curve of the melt line – it’s the price of attention to detail – I could (unconvincingly) say. Anyone who’s ever been foolish enough to order scrambled eggs in a hotel will know that the chances of it being any good are less than poor. In fact almost any dish cooked with eggs: – I could mention mayonnaise, hollandaise, omelette, poached egg, fried egg – combines complete simplicity with fiendish elephant traps where expensive ingredients go straight from the pan into the bin.

Scrambled eggs ought to be simple enough – I always add a dash of milk to make them especially creamy – but they can go from bloom to blown in a second. For me they are only truly scrambled during that micro-moment when they are soft, glossy and light and before they turn dull and separate into bits of congealed protein in sauce grise. This calls for minute preparation – warm plate in the oven, smoked salmon ready (it’s Sunday breakfast!) and table laid. The downside is that I regularly forget to turn off the stove and replace the empty pan on to the hot surface in my eagerness to eat. Usually this is not a problem but today I also left the cutting board on top of the pan and it was only when I strolled back into the kitchen contentedly full, that I noticed the unmistakable (and familiar) smell of burning eggs but then noticed that the part of the cutting board that was above the pan had melted and filled the bottom of the pan with molten plastic. By the grace of God it was a non stick pan.

This one mishap wouldn’t normally throw me off course, but yesterday I produced the mother of all dog’s dinners by not checking the use-by date on a packet of borlotti beans. Sadly we used our entire supply of home grown beans up already – they’re just too good; soft, creamy and delicately flavoured. I knew we were about to run out so I’d reluctantly ordered a packet which I was sure I’d put into the kitchen cupboard. Sure, when I came to soak the beans overnight, they were there. But they didn’t look quite right. They were like Tollund Man compared with our home grown. Ours are plump, pink and purple these were very small, leathery looking and brown but ……. in they went to soak because I assumed that they would come right on the night. In the morning the soaking water had turned brown so I rinsed them and put them on to simmer. Normally this would take maybe 45 minutes but not so this batch. I suppose however long you boiled Tollund Man you wouldn’t get a fresh faced young model from a Newlyn School painting. After an hour and a half I could just about crush them, and foolishly I convinced myself that a couple or three hours in a cassoulet would beat them into submission.

Madame, generous as always, soldiered her way through a small plateful of crunchy nut cassoulet but did not ask for seconds. I thought that was brave of her. And this morning she surreptitiously went into the kitchen and checked the use-by date on the beans. They were five years out of date – well into their don’t even think about it stage. The in-date ones were there in the store cupboard unopened.

Nothing will dampen our enthusiasm for the borlotti and we’ll make sure we grow rather more this year so we don’t have to resort to eating the cremated remains of what is a truly lovely, protein rich and flavoursome bean.

But today we are dust and ashes after another disturbed night. The automatic gate on the car park has broken and so it’s permanently open and an invitation to all and sundry to have a poke around. At around 23.00 all hell broke out on the in-house WhatsApp group when one of our neighbours posted that they’d found a couple down there; he was searching the recycling bins for wine bottles while she was having a good old toke on a crack pipe. We often have overnighters down there because there’s a huge homelessness problem in Bath and it’s relatively safe and sheltered. So we all calmed down and went to bed and then, at four, the fox came by, howling, and once again I was away with the wild things.

On the plus side we’ve had our first vaccinations. Part of the reason for the disturbed night was that I was on high alert looking for untoward symptoms of any kind of reaction. What’s the difference between feeling a bit warm and having the beginnings of a fatal fever – imagination, that’s what! When we arrived at the centre – what was probably a rather swish dance hall about seventy years ago – we were welcomed by a multitude of lovely and courageous volunteers who ushered us past the questionnaires and thermometers. The first of them threw me when she said “I know you, I’m sure I know you.” – Middle aged, blue eyes, blond hair and a face mask weren’t helping my creaking memory at all. Then, even more disconcertingly she said “you won’t remember me but you buried both my parents – you were very kind to me.” Double funerals are vanishingly rare in my experience so at least that narrowed it down to two – both unforgettable; and in one of them the bereaved daughter had been part of the Greenwich Village/Andy Warhol scene, but she was tall and dark, and so that left only one candidate and I was sure it wasn’t her.

Of course by this time we’d been ushered down the production line and were being interrogated for the second time and injected with something that looked like strawberry smoothie. I was expecting some revelatory feeling of liberation to immerse me but nothing came, and so we walked back around to the front of the building so I could find my mystery woman. It emerged, when we spoke again, that I hadn’t buried her parents simultaneously but one at a time; several years apart, and I remembered her well; a free spirit who during her teenage years had regularly scandalised the village by being human.

This morning we went for a walk early, before the runners and cyclists and nordik walkers got there in their breathless crocodiles. The river was running frighteningly high. When it runs in its canalized walls it’s silent, but wherever it’s divided by bridge piers it forms into muscular waves; anatomical diagrams of deltoids and biceps and pectorals feeling at the walls and banks for any weakness like an absurdly powerful masseur. The three steps of Pulteney Weir have disappeared once again under the torrent. This winter it’s been every couple of weeks that we’ve seen the scary sight of floodwater. For goodness’ sake is anybody listening?