Shelling the borlotti

It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!

The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.

We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.

Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.

Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.

Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.

What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.

Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.

Three sisters, free strawberries and a bit about sourdough

Finally all the elements of the the experimental three sisters planting are in place. In the centre there’s a winter squash called Crown Prince which is a great keeper and big enough to feed the whole family. Around the squash are Painted Mountain corn, and growing up through the greenery are the borlotti beans. How it will grow is anyone’s guess. Breaking with tradition slightly, the elements were all sown and brought on separately and then planted up together as soon as they looked strong enough to cope with the competition. Being a bit belt and braces about it we’re using a patch of ground we’ve never grown anything in before and we’ve got more of each of the elements growing separately around the garden, so whatever happens we can rely on some sort of harvest. I really hope that the three sisters planting will work out well because it’s such an efficient use of space, but we’ll see and I promise I’ll report back as the season goes on.

The polytunnel strawberries are finished now and have started to throw runners, and so we’ll be pegging the runners into small pots tomorrow and increasing the stock for free. I’ve done it many times before and it’s an amazingly easy and profitable way to go for a bigger crop. The six plants of Malling Centenary were a very cheap, end of season offer and with the usual TLC we’ll have had a small crop this season and as many as a couple of dozen plants to share between the tunnel and an outdoor bed next year; and that makes competition for space greater than ever.

I had built a raised strawberry bed during the winter but the plants I ordered never materialised and the bed has been commandeered for a crop of leeks and onions because it’s so easy to cover with hoops and insect mesh. The allotment is a picture at the moment – our little outpost of paradise – and for the first time we’ve got a small supply of cut flowers to bring back to the flat. We’ve even got three varieties of lavender growing – I’m not sure how that happened – like most addicts we can’t pass a plant sale.

As for sourdough, I wanted to write a little bit about the relationship between the starter and the dough. When I first made a sourdough starter more than ten years ago I experimented with a number of different flours and followed a number of different routines. It quickly emerged that the leader in every respect was no more complicated than a batter of water and dark rye flour – no added apples or anything like that – left on the windowsill and neglected until it started to froth up. My only concession to faffery was to use bottled water rather than the heavily chlorinated tap water we had at the time, but since the first few months I’ve just used tap water which has made no difference at all.

So my starter was born and raised on dark rye flour and since then I’ve tried many different mixtures of wholemeal and white organic flour to make the loaves. My everyday bread recipe changes a little almost every time I bake it.

However, during the lockdown the rye flour was unobtainable because so many people started making their own bread. The millers simply couldn’t scale up their operation fast enough. So I used wholemeal wheat flour to feed the starter for some months until the dark rye became available again and it worked reasonably well – if rather slowly. When I finally started feeding with dark rye once again, the starter almost shouted “thanks mate” – bubbling away on a new lease of life. So I wondered what would happen to proving times if I added just about 100g of dark rye to the loaf recipe. What happened is that the proving time in the banneton is reduced by as four or five hours; the bread lasts longer and is altogether livelier with good structure. Unlike most bakers I don’t go for the open textured loaves full of holes because Madame doesn’t like the way the butter on her toast runs down her sleeve when the bread is properly French! The French texture is easy enough to achieve if you add a proportion of softer (lower protein) flour to the mix, but it doesn’t keep as well.

So that’s it for today

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?