Placating the gods of mortality?

 

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Not another dead leaf?” you may well ask, and I will admit to having a bit of  thing about them – because a leaf can be stunningly beautiful even if it did once belong to a red cabbage rather than a Japanese Acer in an arboretum. I get my pleasures where I can.  The fact that it looks a bit like the back of my hand on a bad day is neither here nor there because the gods of mortality are strictly neutral as to species.

This is one I just have to paint for its sheer delicacy, for the way it expresses the temporality and fragility of all living things and for its exquisite colours.

The world is a better place for this one dead cabbage leaf.

But isn’t it rather morbid to reflect on these things?  Christmas is coming and we’ll all have a jolly time and …..

One of my earliest memories is of making Christmas puddings with my mother – or at least my sister and me would watch while my mother, red faced, would mix the ingredients and give us our turn so we could make a Christmas wish, and then lower the pudding bowls  – covered in cotton torn from old sheets and tied around with string – and lowered into the wash boiler suspended from the copper stick. The copper stick outlasted the old boiler by several decades because it was still used to extract boiling washing from the super up-to-date twin tub washing machine. Everybody had a copper stick in those days, and I have a vague memory that our next door neighbour “Aunty Doreen” was fond of threatening us with hers.  Unlike most old boilers, though, ours never found its way into the garden and a new life containing a rampant mint plant. But my memory includes the reckless danger of lighting the gas ring under the boiler; of smelling the wet cotton and watching the steam condensing on the kitchen window for hours on end.

All of which may, or may not explain why making Christmas puddings is nine parts ritual to one part recipe; but I always feel that I’m channelling my mother when I do it. There’s an element of defiance in holding a feast when everything looks as if it’s finished, done for. The same goes for painting dead leaves, or for that matter writing a blog. It’s always an act of defiance, a two fingered salute to the gods of mortality and entropy.  We shall have our feast and celebrate all this unnecessary beauty for the sheer joy of it. No I don’t think we’re placating any gods, although it would please me enormously if we were annoying the gods of the economy, the gods of greed and selfishness, the gods of eternal growth and prosperity and especially the gods of industrial farming, along with all the other liars.

‘Seeing the world in a grain of sand’ is a bit of a stretch for me most of the time, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of it in a leaf, and it was leaves that occupied most of my morning.  As it got light I looked out of the window across the green and I could see leaves, scuttering along in the wind, piling up in drifts.  “Good” I thought – “There’ll be leaves up at the allotment” – and there were: several tons of them dropped off by the parks department. But don’t for a moment assume that allotmenteers are a peace loving equitable bunch of people who love nothing more than sharing.  The terrible truth is we only share our surpluses and not our shortages. The leaf season only lasts a few weeks and I just happened to be first on the scene this morning so I had to drop everything and haul leaves back because I knew that within hours our narrow eyed neighbours would be competing for every last leaf. Speed is essential and over the years I’ve evolved a rapid system using a 1.5 cubic metre woven sack.  It holds just the right number of leaves – probably four or possibly even five barrow loads – just a bit more than I can comfortably lift – but I’m prepared to be very uncomfortable when there’s free mulch about.  By the time our bin was full, pressed down and covered there were three more people working on the heap – like locusts we were – maintaining the pretence of neighbourliness all the while. More leaves will arrive, no doubt, and there are more than enough to go around but we’ve got this year’s supply secured – result!

Meanwhile, the slow process of cooking the puddings went on all day. We don’t have a pan nearly big enough to cook four puddings at once, and so I’ve been doing them one at a time in the pressure cooker. Each one takes two hours in total, so the whole operation still takes eight hours, but I can set the hob to turn itself off automatically so we can leave each one cooking without supervision. The flat is full of Christmas smells and there’s something quite nice about closing the shutters when it gets dark – earlier every day.

The wine we made last year went down the drain today. It was fun to make, but it tasted rubbish and it was taking up a lot of space.

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Stowaway found in the cupboard

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This wouldn’t happen in our son’s kitchen because he’s a a professional chef and I’m only a cook. He does cheffy stuff like fridge labelling whereas I usually apply the ‘hairy or smelly’ test to unexpected finds – it all comes from decades of being skint, and making do, and, maybe – subliminal memories of wartime rationing. I was born after the war but I can remember playing shops with my sister and using the redundant ration books as money.

This Christmas pud was not hairy and neither did it smell, but I know for a fact it must be at least five years old because I haven’t made Christmas puds since we came to Bath. The reason it’s survived at the back of the cupboard all this time is that it’s a two pounder and far too big even when the whole family is together. So this year I’m only making one pounders, and Madame and me will eat one whenever it takes our fancy, but probably not at Christmas when we’re all far too full. So out it went this morning and then we set off on a 40  mile round trip to put the new battery in the campervan.  It was all planned out like a military campaign and so the job was done in next to no time with no electrical  sparks and without losing the radio and security codes.  The biggest problem was getting some jump leads close enough to the van to maintain the power while I swapped the batteries.

What a deadly boring paragraph, I’m thinking, except the feeling of satisfaction when the old beast roared into life is beyond pleasure.  Now we can go away for a couple of nights and visit friends, paddle the kayak or just sit and read.

Back home later I weighed out flour, muscovado sugar, eggs and cake stuff; beat it senseless with my hand mixer which is miraculously good at not splitting the mixture when I put the eggs in, measured, folded and drew greaseproof and brown paper (well, wallpaper actually) and finished it all off by hand – which is all I can do now since the second hand Kenwood burst into flames last Christmas after 25 years of efficient cake making. Now it’s (the cake not the Kenwood) – in the oven and any minute the fragrance will fill the flat.  As soon as I’ve done the washing up I’ll weigh out the ingredients for the puddings and cook them tomorrow when they’ve stood all night soaking up the Guinness, rum and barley wine. This is all monstrously stupid behaviour given that I’ve only just managed to get my blood glucose readings back to normal by completely changing my diet and foregoing any alcohol at all, and so only I’ll be eating tiny portions.  But there’s a big plus side to all this, which is feeling fit enough to cope with Spaffer Johnson’s brexit nonsense without wanting to throw myself off a raised bed.

Earnest negotiations have begun concerning next year’s seed order.  Ask any allotmenteer if their allotment is big enough when the spring comes, and we’ll all say we need more space.  This is because we’d love to be able to grow the whole catalogue.  Reality, however, means that we can only grow a certain amount, and next year we’ll be obliged to grow less potatoes because we’ve lost the borrowed 50 square metres loaned by our neighbour.  That’s OK though, because we’ll never be able to eat all we’ve grown this year. The issue arose when we were talking about where to relocate the chamomile plants. We cracked it by deciding to treat them more as a crop, and give them the situation and sunshine they need to keep us in flowers all summer. The same goes for the calendula which we can use in a home made skin cream. In fact I’ve been checking out which medicinal herbs are growing wild around the site and it’s surprising how many there are.  Luckily many of the companion plants are ‘dual purpose’, having medicinal applications as well as insect attractant/repellant properties, not to mention tasting good too.

Tomorrow we begin moving fruit bushes, strawberries and shrubs into new locations.  We’ve already decided to grow many of the companion plants in moveable tubs so they can be deployed where they’re most needed.  All this, remember is happening on 250 square metres of allotment, not RHS Wisley, so it’s entirely do-able. When the children left home I found myself still cooking for five (plus unexpected friends) for months. We can grow a great deal of what we need at the Potwell Inn, but we’re still learning how to moderate our sowing – I’ve just finished drying enough chilllies to keep us going for years.

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Yesterday we tried our third Jamie Oliver veggie recipe in a week.  I loved it but Madame wasn’t so keen and thought the halloumi was tasteless. I slept well enough last night after manually adjusting the kitchen clock but bizarrely I kept waking up to check whether my phone had reset itself, and then I woke at my normal ‘body clock’ time and had to force myself to stay in bed another hour.