The flavour is in the ingredients not the recipe.

We were sitting in bed this morning and Madame was reading out recipes to me from the newspaper. Every ingredient, it seemed, had one or two adjectives attached to it – I’m growing used to it but I do tend to froth at the mouth at the word – “succulent” which always grates terribly – I’ll be the judge of that, I think. Many recipes have got twice or three times as many adjectives as they do actual ingredients, rather like those desperately silly restaurant menus that offer ‘trios’ of sausages or cheese – which always make me wonder whether they can play any Bach. But then she read out a recipe that included some “Isle of Wight tomatoes” and I thought to myself – if they were picked on Friday and get to the supermarket some time mid-week you’d do better to wait a week or two and gather some you’d grown yourself. That way they’d taste far better than the most expensive tomato that had just been on a long journey and badly needed a shower and a rest.

Sincerity is the key – said Sam Goldwyn – once you’ve learned to fake it you’re made

Which is going to taste better – an apple that looks like the real deal but which has been sprayed fifteen times and stored in an artificially cooled and nitrogen enriched atmosphere for weeks or even months, and then driven, flown or shipped for hundreds of miles? or – a rather knobbly one with bad skin, that you’ve just picked off the tree and in which the hydrostatic pressure is so great it squirts delicious sweet juice at you if you indent it with your thumbnail? I hope the answer to that question was the local option.

Food, (I’m not talking about manufactured food here) is, by its very nature, seasonal, and seasonal vegetables always taste best when they’re straight off the vine or out of the ground. The instinctive response to this is to claim that you would need to be wealthy to enjoy food in its prime all the time. This is only true up to a point. Asparagus from Peru, for instance, may taste reasonably good but if you could see the cloud of pollution that accompanies it it might not be quite so palatable.

But there is a way to eat the finest food every day without being wealthy – but there are a couple of restrictions we have to embrace first of all. The first of these is that seasons are brief, and the second is that growing your own food is hard work. However allotments are wonderful value for money – our 250 square metres costs about £2.50 a week and is thought to be large enough to feed a family of four throughout the year – it’s a standard plot. Brief seasons mean that we can only eat asparagus for about a month, but my word – it’s the best asparagus you’ve ever tasted.

So there are the exotic vegetables like peppers, chillies and aubergines which we’ve grown successfully but they need a lot of TLC and sunshine. But today’s star is the early potato – we grew two varieties this year, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York. Shop bought new potatoes are very expensive and often disappointing – even the ever reliable Jersey Royals have diminished in flavour over the past couple of years since they started to worry about the salt build up from composted seaweed. I have a childhood memory of the first earlies in the year – my dad and my grandfather were totally loyal to Arran Pilots – and their flavour is imprinted in my memory. All vegetables that are sweet when fresh deteriorate rapidly when picked, because the natural sugars that we prize so much turn to starch – same number of calories but not the same flavour at all.

Every time we start eating the new season potatoes I want to eat them completely simply – maybe a bit of butter but they’re ruined by strongly flavoured sauces. We dig them while they’re small and steam them for 15 minutes or even less. In fact many home grown veg are at their best when you pass them by the stove but barely warm them through. Broad beans are in season and they’re almost better raw than cooked and carrots need the tiniest steaming. These are intense but fleeting pleasures. If you’re rich I suppose you can always buy the freshest ingredients but I’ll guarantee that you won’t eat fresher vegetables than the ones you grow yourself. Not in a four Michelin starred restaurant and not even if you’re a Duke or a media mogul.

And some treats are almost free. We started our third batch of elderflower cordial today – and this time we raided a pink flowered variety for fifty of its saucer shaped flowers. Their perfume was overwhelming and they’re on the stove now infusing with lemon, lime and orange zest. Money can’t buy that intensity of flavour – it’s like drinking summer from a glass and the pink flowers yield a very pretty cordial. Here are the flowers waiting to be steeped overnight.

Elderflower

I can’t say that making the first batch of elderflower cordial was one of those wonderful spontaneous moments – it wasn’t – it’s been planned really carefully because the best flowers need to be picked in the sunshine and just as they’re opening from the bud stage and so weather forecasts played a big part in the decision to pick the first lot yesterday. Here in lockdown there’s another factor because we’re surrounded by competitors with the same idea. Even then, there are other factors.  Elderflowers can be fragrantly (flagrantly?) evocative of lazy summer days or they can smell like tomcat marking which is an acquired taste. So out we whizzed on to the secret harvesting site in full view of several hundred flats, wielding a trug and two pairs of scissors.  It’s difficult to be furtive when you’re carrying a trug. By the time we got home the front of my hat was bright yellow with pollen and we had something over fifty flower heads.

IMG_20200510_213339After much zesting and squeezing of lemons and oranges the mixture was submerged in boiling water to rest for 24 hours while it absorbed all the flavour.  This morning the straining began and it’s been quite vexing because the flowers are so full of pollen they’re clogging the linen jelly bag.  I think we’ll have to accept that this first batch is going to contain a lot of pollen which – after all – tends to settle out when the bottles are left standing.

The next challenge is finding enough clean and empty clip top bottles.  Normally if we were short I’d pop along the road and buy some more; but this year we have to be self-sufficient.  Cleaning, scrubbing and sterilising takes a while, and finding useable rubber washers, hidden all over the kitchen takes ages too. So that’s a job for later this evening.

Once all the preparations were done we went for a walk along the canal and discovered that there are areas where the rewilding project is working beautifully. After an initial burst of (often inappropriate) wildflower meadow seed a couple of years ago, the local botanical bullies took over last year and I’d thought that it was all over for the rarer species; but the native wildflowers are nothing if not resilient and so this morning, parts of the riverside were groaning with interesting plants which have – at last – been left unmolested by the strimmers. I just love the feeling of greeting old friends like the greater celandine and the burdocks as well as a lovely stand of vipers bugloss which must have come from the re-seeding because I’ve never seen it there before, but which has obviously found a small site greatly to its liking. It was so lovely to walk alongside the river and then the canal with almost shoulder high plants – as if we were walking in a country lane.  Ragged robin, lady’s smock, green alkanet, wall valerian, cow parsley, winter hellebore pretending to be coltsfoot.  Don’t ever dismiss them as ‘weeds’! I don’t think the towpath was ever more beautiful – or quieter.

And so to the allotment where we needed to make preparation for a threatened frost, and once again – hopefully for the last time this season – the plot looks like a Christo sculpture. We should see the night time temperatures rise consistently above 10C in about a week’s time, and then we can really start to get the plants out into their final positions.

 

Rainy day job – minus rain

It’s like being stood-up.  The Potwell Inn allotment would be completely parched if it weren’t for the hand watering, and we’ve been quivering with excitment at the prospect of a week’s decent rain – supposedly beginning today. So we woke early, sniffed the air like badgers emerging from their holt, but there was none of what my promiscuous reading revealed last week as – “petrichor” – the smell of rain on hot earth. Plenty of other smells around though, not least from the kitchen which smelt almost Corsican first thing.  In fact the whole flat is infused with the scent of basil – which we grow a continuous supply of – tomato plants waiting for a break in the heat, and elderflowers. If you chucked in a couple of mouldy melons we’d be back on Cap Corse.

Three hours later at around noon, it started at last, thank goodness, but the weather chart shows the weather front moving northwards with us right on the edge. No downpours here, sadly.

So the principal work of the morning was turning the infusion of elderflower, oranges and lemons into elderflower cordial. I salute those who’ve absorbed the lore of collecting the flowers and managed to find a nanosecond when all the necessities line up like bullet points in a presentation. We just pick when we can.  The last batch was made from the ordinary common and/or garden version of elderflower, the weed. This time we spotted a heavily laden tree on the allotment and picked an organic cotton bag full.  Actually it was a plastic bag but the organic cottton sounds less likely to excite our friends, one of whom noisily unpacked my (first time in six months) plastic in a crowded supermarket while upbraiding me for destroying the earth.  A small crowd looked on while she left the unpacked bag on the side, presumably to be thrown into landfill anyway.  Two days later an organic cotton bag arrived in the post and my humiliation was complete.

Anyway this tree was the most delightful mixture of purple leaves and pink flowers.  Last year I stumbled on a fashion shoot in front of the very tree I’m writing about. The model, who was very pretty, was dressed in such similar colours – purple and pink – that she looked rather like the cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing in front of the blossoms.  She was surrounded by an impausibly large number of assistants, dressers, people holding large reflectors and photographers with their retinue.  One of the throng asked me where the toilets were and I was delighted to be able to offer her our bucket, which she refused.

The pink blossoms smelt quite as good as the mongrel white ones and so we picked and infused them for 24 hours.  The only difference in the way I produced the cordial was to bring the sugary mixture to 80C rather than boiling it which I think destroyed some of the flavour. The results (with a bottle of the first batch for comparison) looked lovely and tasted excellent.

As I write, the rain has stopped again but we’ll stick with plan A and go to get vine-eyes from the garden centre. More later.

June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy

 

Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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