Mindful gardening.

Honeybee feeding on Marjoram

We were eating lunch today whilst listening to the Food Programme on BBC radio. We’d missed the beginning but it didn’t take long to realize that the theme of mindfulness was everywhere apparent but nowhere expressed directly. Among the contributors was Tom Calver, a local cheesemaker who turns up every two weeks at the local farmers’ market. His stall couldn’t be less ostentatious – a trestle table with a large round of Westcombe Cheddar, another of Duckett’s Caerphilly – also made by him – and some ricotta. You’d have to ask just to find out the maker’s name, because there’s not even a sign. The first time I tasted Westcombe Cheddar I was transported back to my childhood, where we’d never set eyes on industrial cheese because my mother hated the flavour. Our cheese came with cotton scrim still clinging to the rind. Of course there are other fine handmade and raw milk Cheddars around, but Westcombe remains my absolute favourite. Naturally it costs much more than Cathedral City but over the months we’ve discovered it goes much further because it’s not a food that you snack on whilst passing the fridge. It’s definitely a sit down to savour kind of cheese – down to the last scrap of rind.

Many months ago we resolved to buy locally wherever possible and all our milk now comes from Tytherington Farm in Frome which offers a delicious low temperature pasteurised milk from a vending machine in Green Park Station – where the Saturday market takes place. We’ve also found (at last) a butcher there who sells high welfare organic meat from off the farm. Kimbers sell the best Gloucester Old Spot pork you’ve ever tasted and their lamb is produced by their son in law. You can buy fungi of every delightful variety; organic vegetables and so it goes on. The list is impressive. Combined with the vegetables we grow on the allotment we eat better and healthier food than you could buy in most restaurants; and so long as we’re careful we can live within our budget. It just means reducing the amounts of these expensive foods, principally by eating meat much less often.

Of course there’s an argument to be had for cutting out meat, dairy and eggs altogether; an argument that I don’t want to get into here except to say that to claim that all milk, eggs and meat production are equally polluting is to fly in the face of the evidence. How food is produced is crucially important to any discussion about the impact of farming on the environment so we need to move away from false arguments that treat the impact of small mixed farms as being identical to that of enormous industrial feedlots.

Tom Calver made the really interesting comment that cheesemaking can be quite boring if you don’t relish paying minute attention to each part of the process from pasture and herd management through the natural processes of cheesemaking right through to promoting and distributing the finished product. In fact every single contributor to the programme was making the same point. It’s complete dedication to every part of the process that makes the difference between food as a commodity and food as a joyful cultural celebration.

So to get back to today’s lunch at the Potwell Inn, there were new potatoes, peas and French beans all picked or dug this morning ; and beetroot harvested yesterday. None of them had travelled more than a quarter of a mile. We also had cold breast of lamb, rolled and stuffed that has lasted us a week, which was driven up to the market from Frome – all of 20 miles away. If you’ve never eaten peas harvested and then steamed for a couple of minutes, then you’ve never eaten peas. We grow a tall variety called “Show Perfection” by Robinsons and also a better known variety called “Alderman”. They’re big, fat and incredibly sweet.

In previous years our peas have been badly afflicted by Pea Moth but this year, although we’ve lost a few pods, has been quite different. In fact so far as pests are concerned we’ve had one of the best seasons ever. With all deference to the impossibility of any valid controlled trial, our hunch is that the transformation of the allotment from straight rows and bare earth to messy and a bit wild has brought in a host of insects – they’re everywhere. All the agonised discussions about pollinators ignore another huge advantage of getting the insects in. Many of them aren’t much use for pollinating but they’re ferocious predators. Some of the tiny wasp-like hoverflies and their kind like nothing more than to lay their eggs inside their hosts; eggs which hatch into maggots and ….. well I leave the rest to your imagination. So perhaps one of the advantages of our kind of organic messy wildlife gardening is that prey and predators are locked in a grisly battle that keeps us all happy. Even the Blackbirds join in the fun by eating the slug eggs around the path edges. When plants get attacked we leave them in the ground so the attack is confined – one lettuce in a group, for instance.

The borders are all planted with herbs and known pollinator attractors, and where herbs like Lovage and Fennel have flowered and set seed, we leave them in place. The sunflowers perform the same function and so the birds soon figure out where the food is. A rough and unscientific survey conducted from a deckchair suggests that wild Marjoram is one of our most popular nectar plants. This year we’ve seen the largest variety of insects, butterflies and moths, spiders, hoverflies, damselflies and dragonflies ever. But the key question is – “does all this attention on wildlife diminish the overall yield from the allotment?” and the answer is an unequivocal no!

There’s no scorched earth and no bare earth anywhere to be seen on the allotment. The 100% ground cover shades the earth and helps keep it moist, even in a heatwave such as we’re experiencing at the moment. It provides food and cover for a toad, and any number of small mammals from mice, through rats, to foxes, badgers and a ginger cat. We know this because there’s a trail cam that we move around the allotment to see what’s happening at night. The mindfulness demanded of cheese makers and brewers applies equally to us on the allotment. It might look a bit messy but we’re constantly monitoring the crops and the pests to see how things are going along. Some of our allotment neighbours might think that our obsessive attention to detail is a bit much and whilst we respect their right to take a fortnight off now and again, each and every setback through – for instance – too much or too little water accumulates and produces smaller weaker plants, smaller crops and higher pest attacks.

So let’s add the notion of mindful gardening to the equally important idea of messy gardening. My mother used to say “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. That’s a lovely way to describe gardening. Like music, the beauty is inescapably created by alternation of sound with silence, of mindfulness with activity, and – at the end – a profound sense of gratitude for the thing created. It’s very hard to experience that gratitude for a lump of industrial processed cheese or a packet of frozen peas. It’s always worth the wait for the real thing!

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Smoked Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett’s Caerphilly and at the front, Westcombe Cheddar.

This is a bit of a catch up post for a multitude of reasons which would have to include the loss of British summer time, dark nights and 36 more days to be endured before the winter solstice gives us something to celebrate. I find it impossible to write when the black dog pays a visit and so there have been a few weeks now when it’s been hard to turn on the laptop. Madame and me have talked a lot about it and we came to the conclusion that spending almost two years on our own much of the time is at the heart of the problem. All of the groups and societies we belong to have effectively shut down; so no lectures, talks, classes and field trips; no galleries or markets and very few human interactions. The real world has shrunk to a first floor flat and the allotment – and it hasn’t been good for us – and then, just for pudding we have to live in a corrupted and feeble democracy; the obvious failure of COP 26 to honestly address the issues; and the inflationary effects of brexit.

These black dog episodes always come to a climax and so, having had flu jabs and covid booster doses we (truthfully Madame) decided to confront the beast head on and do something about it. That something really amounted to getting out and rejoining the human race; and so a week ago we went to the Saturday Market; raced around looking for a particular cheese – of which much more later – and scuttled home like anxious mice. Why does going to the shops feel like an act of defiance, I wonder? – or perhaps it’s the hordes of unmasked people who seem not to have noticed that there are still 1000 victims a week dying from covid.

The Potwell Inn strategy also included trips to the recently expanded and independent Toppings bookshop – which ought to be sufficient reason for coming to Bath because it’s huge! we reinstated the daily 5 mile riverside walk and re-joined the gym. If the gym sounds a bit unlikely, well sorry, but ever since I took myself into a gym for the first time 20 years ago I’ve loved it. There’s no finer antidote to the black dog than forcing yourself to achieve hard targets, and while Madame swims I prefer to occupy the rowing machines in a quiet corner away from the grunters, and row a 10K in as near to a wholly unachievable 50 minutes as I can get. Yesterday, on my first row since lockdown began, I would have struggled to do it in 60 but it was so good to be back. As any endurance athletes will know, there’s a moment in a long and hard workout where there’s a sudden release of endorphins into the bloodstream – so much so that in my running days I used to call one particular part of a run up Nightingale Valley in Clifton Gorge, the Lord’s prayer moment; so predictable was the rush. My knees are too shot for that malarkey these days!

And then Madame, who has taken charge of the re-entry programme, dragged us back to the bookshop where the strangest series of coincidences began to unfold. I should say that any Jungians would say they’re synchronicities – which sounds a bit more portentous. On our first visit last weekend they were still awaiting the arrival of some bookshelves, they said, and so we rather galloped around, avoiding the freeloaders with their gratis fizzy – searching for the natural history section which wasn’t there. After a quick email we discovered that the promised bookshelves might take a week or two. I said well, we’ll pop back when it’s quieter anyway. So yesterday we popped back. I’m a terrible impulse buyer of books. I know it and so I’ve learned to pick the book up, put it down and walk away and see if the magnetic field draws me back for a second or third time (depending on the price of the impulse). This was a two visit temptation called “A cheesemonger’s history of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer. Madame, who had been looking elsewhere, spotted it under my arm and said ‘oh I saw that one, I was going to get it for you‘ – which I took as her permission to lash out.

Now I love cheese more than is probably good for my heart, which needs no additional provocations from me. I took the book home and read the first third before bedtime; learning a great deal more than I’ve ever known about my favourite food. Fast forwarding to this morning, we went back to the Saturday market in search of the anonymous cheese stall that sells the best cheddar I’ve ever eaten – it reminds me of the way it used to taste before pasteurised block cheeses dominated the market. The stall only shows up irregularly – well, first and third Saturdays we discovered today. There doesn’t seem to be any sign advertising the company or the names of the cheeses – you just have to ask. So I’m there in the queue, and when my turn comes I buy a big piece of the favourite and smaller ones of a smoked cheese and a Caerphilly which also reminded me of the best Caerphilly I’ve ever tasted and which our grocer in Clifton told me was a “failure” that he’d bought cheaply because it wasn’t crumbly enough to qualify as a proper Caerphilly. The Caerphilly I bought today was exactly that experimental failure from thirty years ago, and it’s still just as delicious. So with my cup overflowing already I asked the young woman on the stall where the cheeses are made. “Westcombe Farm” she said, and a small explosion went off in my head. I’d just accidentally bought two of the finest unpasteurised cheeses on the market – not because of any prior knowledge or fawning write ups in foodie magazines, but simply because they tasted so good. The Potwell Inn tastebuds were vindicated! At that moment the maker himself – Tom Calver – turned up on the stall and I was reduced to a pitiful state of wordless admiration. Enough! you cry and I hear you.

The final synchronicity came as we feasted eclectically on the bits of cheese, porchetta, arancini and Indian street food we’d bought at the market. Life doesn’t get much better. I was (intolerable rudely) googling an article on Westcombe Cheddar when I had to ask Madame “who do you think is Tom Calver’s partner?” – “go on” –” It’s your hairdresser!” Drum roll for Mr Jung please.

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