Seals, field mice and borlotti beans

Ripe borlotti on the allotment

The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.

Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance. 

The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.

Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and  it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.

Ramsey Island at sunset

Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.

Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines.  The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?

On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.

Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived. 

However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.

The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.

More borlotti

A year ago last September I wrote a very short piece on harvesting borlotti beans . To be honest it wasn’t Proust, but I think a link must have been posted on someone else’s site because that single post has had more views than anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe it’s just one reader who’s developed a pathological interest in that posting, or perhaps it’s lots of people wondering to do with their beans, but whatever it is, the keyword ‘borlotti’ seems to have some magic effect on the stats.

And so just over a year later, and in the great cycle of allotment life, we’ve just picked the beans again. This year we were so overwhelmed with other good things to eat that we left the borlotti on the vines to ripen and dry, so we’ll have a supply during the winter. They’re relatively easy to grow in the UK, but like most legumes they’re big feeders and they need regular watering. Growing beans for storage always seems a bit of a risk because the difference between a basket of beans in their pods and the resulting pile of shelled beans can seem like a poor return on time and space. The good news is that when you soak them overnight they double in size; you never need that many in a single meal, and they’re such a wonderfully flavoured source of nutrients – especially their protein and fibre levels. A meal with beans needs little extra carb rich ‘padding’.

But the bean harvest always coincides with a kind of equinoctial shift of consciousness in the kitchen. As the salad crops diminish, the roots and winter veg step up to the table with their very different flavours and qualities. Even having eschewed potatoes in our diet (William Cobbett would have approved!) there’s not much that beats roasted roots, even if they need cautious portioning. The default winter diet is more suitable for a peasant working out in all weathers than someone who spends their time in front of a screen, and that’s fine by us because we’re allotment peasants in any case. The compost reached 60C this week; but only as a result of regular turning, and since a full bin weighs about a ton, I claim my Fitbit Peasant’s badge.

So here we are with the last of the abundant tomato harvest bottled in various forms; in passata, sauces, and oven dried in oil. It’s a full time job. There are jams and preserves – the bottled figs look irresistible – and yesterday I preserved the last of the aubergines in olive oil. There are chillies fermenting away in the larder but no pickles or chutneys this year because we haven’t finished the last lot. The good news is that they go on improving for several years before the decline sets in and you wonder what on earth they might have been. Does this sound like a man on a diet? My word, the temptation is killing me!

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – I’m eternally grateful to my grumpy teachers for punishing me by making me memorise Shakespeare and loads of poems. Any apparent literacy in my past life has flowed from my disruptive schooldays. So thanks Mr Keats, and you were right – the mellow fruitfulness extends to my mind too and this is the season when I love standing at the stove, dreaming up dishes I once read about and conjuring memories of great evenings.

The new harvest of borlotti necessitated eating up the last of the stored dried beans and my greedy mind turned to a cassoulet. There was no confit duck in the Potwell Inn larder, so I used fresh duck legs and added some of my favourite confit spices – some allspice, mace and juniper all add a bit of winter warmth. It’s there in the oven now, beans, pancetta, a bit of chorizo and half a bottle of opened passata from the fridge, and the usual onions, celery, carrots and lots of garlic – cooking for about eight hours at just over 100C – I can’t wait: it makes approaching winter seem almost tolerable.

But it’s also the time of year when I start lusting after bits of kitchen equipment – this year it’s a new sauté pan. Before we retired we invested in a set of heavyweight pans but they had a non stick finish which, by now, is showing signs of breaking down – even though we only use plastic and wood implements. But I have a big 3 ply stainless roasting tin and it’s both heavy and bombproof and, amazingly, so hard it’s possible to use metal tools (carefully). After five years the working surface is as good as new, and releases burnt on and caramelized gunk with just a stiff brush. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation and I’ve googled ‘3 ply stainless sauté pan’ so often that now it’s almost the only annoying pop-up advertisement on my laptop. In the twisted logic of the panstruck cook, I tell myself that it’s inevitable I’ll get it in the end – so why not now, this very minute, you know it makes sense ……. and even more terrifying I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that it would see me out. Probably when Madame hits me over the head with it for being extravagant!

Meanwhile as the 10,000 calorie supper gathers strength in the oven, we’ve forsworn anything except half a kipper and green tea until supper time by which time we’ll be fainting. We know how to suffer for our art at the Potwell Inn.

It’s rude to boast – but really …..

Borlotti beanfeast

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Not a huge crop, admittedly, but satisfying all the same and if you taste the beans in this semi-dry state you’ll soon know why it’s worth growing them yourself.  Last year we froze some so they could be dropped into soup without pre-soaking, but this year they’ll need soaking first simply because we waited for them to reach maximum size before picking them.

IMG_6250But it was Madame who picked these, because I was over in Bristol with two of the boys putting the glass into A’s recycled and free greenhouse. The careful preparation as we dismantled it from its original site in Bath really paid off. Every nut, bolt and clip was stored separately in boxes and we wrapped the panes of glass in fours in 50 metres of bubblewrap (which will be re-used as insulation).  The three of us made an amiable crew,  light work of the job and managed to complete the greenhouse with only one cracked pane – easily replacable.   It ought to  go without saying that there is real family life beyond the wild storms and mutual incomprehension of adolescence but I don’t see it much mentioned these days since we were instructed by our jailers to regard generation X as a bunch of snowflakes while they were told that we had stolen their inheritance. Well the truth is in our family at least we still love and respect one another, and the inheritance (such as it ever was) is in some offshore bank account, stolen in yet another distraction robbery by those who presume to lecture us on our morals. End of harrumph.

So as A contemplated the first sowings on his family’s new allotment, the Potwell Inn crew went up to ours and while Madame planted out spinach and weeded, I sorted out the compost heap.  One of the advantages of living in a block of flats is that the communal waste area provides an endless supply of cardboard, not to mention occasional window boxes and plant pots. The bonanza days are when a flat is re-let and then we get big corrugated carboard boxes – the worms’ favourite honeymoon hotel. All compost heaps need carbon and carboard is a great source. We’ve put hundreds of egg boxes in ours over the years, and I’ve never seen a single one in the resulting compost, they simply disappear.  So yesterday I took up a couple of huge thick boxes and sawed them up (much quicker and safer than a knife or by tearing them). At present the fragments are lying in an insulating heap on the top, to encourage the heap to heat up a bit, and then next time the heap is turned in a week or so, they’ll be a bit softer and easier to incorporatate into the green material.

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Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn, the winter supply of basil is coming along nicely in the propagator.  It’s right next to a window, casting a daylight glow into the street for twelve hours, and I’ve been expecting a visit from the community police  – but I guess they see the window boxes and conclude that we’re more lkely to be septuagenarian garden freaks than threats to the Queen’s peace – whatever that might be!

 

 

Let’s hear it for the borlotti bean!

_1080674Almost all my experience of eating haricot type beans has been from tins, and I’d grown into the lazy assumption that they were all much of a muchness – worthy, protein rich and both floury and tastless; the kind of food you eat to become a better person. When I’m in Potwell Inn mode it’s true that I sometimes dig into my deep wells of idleness and the lively sceptical mind silts up a bit.   It certainly silted up on the subject of growing pulses.  We tried Borlotti beans about 10 years ago and although they grew well, when we’d shelled them and put them in a Kilner jar looking awfully pretty, we had no real idea what to do with them, and so they languished in their role as kitchen eye-candy until one day I was blind baking some pastry and thought I’d do something useful with them as baking beans in a quiche tin. Later, in France, we spotted a pile of them in a market.  “At last,” I thought, “I’ll ask how you’re supposed to use them”.  The response was a Gallic shrug and “je ne sais pas” – end of culinary research.

Sooo ….:   all these years later (visualize little filmic cliché effect with spinning newspapers), we grew them this season.  I know why: it’s because over the past couple of decades our food culture has changed beyond measure. My memory of allotments – and now I’m thinking of Mr King, a retired miner, and  yes there was a huge coalfield in South Gloucestershire –  my memory comprises potatoes, cabbages, celery that smelt of coal soot and, of course, red flowered runner beans.  These days we love new ideas and new vegetable species and all our cookery books are filled with exotic ingredients that supermarkets are pleased to stock as long as we keep buying them. Borlotti beans are almost passé now and so (as in most things) we clung to the disappearing coat tails of fashion and grew some. Now, of course, there’s an abundance of contradictory advice everywhere you look, but we were able to establish that you can eat them fresh and green – in the manner of broad beans, or semi dry when they need about 40 minutes to cook, or fully dried where you have to soak and pre-cook them – all the faff that put me off them in the first place. We also discovered that you can freeze them successfully when they’re in stages 1 or 2. Actually distinguishing between stages 1 and 2 is a bit tricky because on a real plant (as opposed to Gardeners’ World on telly) beans ripen at different rates and in any case, who hasn’t delayed harvesting for just a couple of days to see if they’ll fatten up a bit more.  Think courgette to marrow.

So in our freezer is a large bag of frozen borlotti beans which I reached into because I was cooking a sausage casserole, and I could make it into a cassoulet in a matter of seconds and get loads of brownie points from Madame.

New para! It really deserves a new paragraph because the beans are something different and entirely better than any canned or dried borlotti I’ve ever eaten. They have flavour, and that was something of a revelation to us both. In fact they transformed the dish from boring old sausage casserole to proper cassoulet. So this year we’ll grow a whole lot more for the winter because although we’ve still got lots coming on, the potatoes won’t last until the end of January and we need to factor in feeding ourselves well over the hungry gap.

 

Harvesting the Borlotti beans

_1080629I thought about replacing this photo with one that was correctly exposed, but then I thought it had a rather Winslow Homer look about it that suited the topic quite well. I especially liked the newspaper background – I mean – just how wholesome can you get in a small first floor flat in the center of a city? But don’t worry I’m pretty normal most of the time!

The thing I wanted to write about is the flexibility of the borlotti bean.   Continue reading “Harvesting the Borlotti beans”

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”