Shopping mindfully – does it cost a fortune?

We’ve been creeping up on this decision for many months now, and because we’re quite passionate about shopping sustainably and locally, it seems like a good time to have a look at the pros and cons. In truth the decision to seriously cut back on supermarket shopping was forced on us as our weekly delivery became more and more random. Substitutions became the rule rather than the exception; the supermarket started to charge for deliveries and since we were largely shopping organic anyway the step up to local was less of a hike than it might otherwise have been. However there’s no doubt that sourcing as much of our food locally involves a hefty premium. Our son also pointed out to me – very sensibly – that for many working families there’s neither the money or the time to commit to the kind of shopping that we’ve tried to initiate for ourselves. Cooking all our food from scratch is a luxury that very few people have and I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who just can’t stretch to it. We treat the allotment almost like a job but when the lockdown eased we noticed that many keen and new allotmenteers simply couldn’t put the hours in any more. We know what that feels like having both worked full time (I mean 60+ hours a week), for decades. Now we’re retired we can do it and although it won’t save the earth we’re pleased to do our bit.

Let’s look at some specifics. If you’re not a vegetarian and you enjoy chicken, you could probably buy a small roasting bird for around £3.50. You certainly wouldn’t like to see the horrific conditions it had spent its entire life under and so you could go for an organic one at roughly twice the price. Such a small bird would probably feed two generously and produce a reasonable stock afterwards. Buying a larger bird makes much more sense because you can do so much more with it. A large, free range organic bird is going to cost something like £12 – £14; again twice the price of the value range bird. Both types, however, will have been filled with the maximum amount of water and, in the most egregious cases, chemicals – to “improve the customer experience” .

If you love the River Wye as much as we do, you may have seen that the water in some parts has become so loaded with nitrate and phosphates it’s become eutrophic – dead in plain English – almost certainly caused by intensive free range organic industrial chicken producers on the banks of the river – precisely the premium products that supermarkets sell. So at this point you’ve got two perfectly sensible choices – firstly to abandon chicken (probably all meat eating) out of respect for the environment – OR to eat much less of it but source it locally from farms you know, or have researched. A large chicken from a local organic and free range farm – dry plucked – cost us £22 last week – and yes I had to stifle a gasp when the butcher told me the price. However, when roasted there was no shrinkage; it genuinely tasted like the chickens we had as an occasional treat as children, and it served us for four meals as well as providing enough stock and pickings to make two days worth of soup and to flavour another dish of pommes boulangere. Looked at in that way we think we can afford to buy a chicken maybe once a month instead of once a week as we have in the past. We’ve now tried three local butchers offering high spec free range and organic meat and the same kind of markup in cost but also in flavour applies. A joint of free range Gloucester Old Spot pork belly will instantly demonstrate the reason that cheap supermarket pork will never develop a proper crisp crackling – the added water makes the skin irredeemably soggy and wet.

I have the greatest respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat on ethical grounds but vegetarians and vegans also have to think through the production processes because in organic, all that glisters is not gold. We haven’t quite reached the scandalous excesses of the organic industry in the US, but with the present regime in power here, it’s only a matter of time. As I read recently, it’s not so much the why, but the how of farming that needs to determine our choices. Since we’ve always been hard up, we’ve always managed on the cheapest cuts and avoided high priced follies like fillet steak. The question “can I afford it?” applies as much to the production as to consumption. If the outcome of eating any meat at all is to destroy the environment – and I think there are very powerful arguments to counter that view – but if it were so, then we’d have to turn to high spec, organic and local vegetables, grains and pulses. Turning to cheap imports of industrially chemicalized soya going into industrially processed food would simply compound the problem.

The same kind of argument applies to many of the other staples of our diet. We can easily source good eggs that sit up in the pan, full cream milk that’s three or four days fresher and makes the best kefir ever because it’s pasteurised slowly at much lower temperatures and isn’t homogenised. We’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful local cheeses that are so well flavoured you only need a half the quantity to cook with. Welsh rarebit or plain cheese on toast cooked with Westcombe Cheddar is a revelation. We have local flour mills and several market gardens who deliver by bicycle! and we have one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country within easy walking distance. We’ve even got a local organic cooperative that sells all the dry goods and cleaning materials. I’ve already written enough about the meat. So I’ll answer my own question – does it cost a fortune – with this reply. Either way round it either costs the earth or costs the consumer a a bit more – you choose!

But there’s another positive to local sourcing – you get to know (and are able to ask questions of) the producers. Our farmers’ market is a stable (no pun intended) community of stallholders and more often than not you’re talking to the producer, or a member of their family. When did you last do that in a supermarket? In the last two weeks I’ve had conversations with two of the best cheesemakers in Europe the second of whom told me yesterday that the cheese I’d just bought, (Merry Wyfe), had won the top prize in an international competition only last Saturday. The regular trip to the market is quite a bit more expensive but the food is better for us and better for the earth, and it’s fun to stand and chat – we never haggle! – and the range of foods is tremendous – Go weep Waitrose when you see the edible fungi. Oh and the supermarket bill is much smaller – maybe 50%.

So how can we afford this on our pensions? Well we make other sacrifices, for instance we rarely – maybe once a year – eat out and our holidays are home brewed in our 12 year old campervan apart from by the generosity of friends who let us use their cottage in Snowdonia from time to time. I think we’ve been to the pub once in the last 2 years. A period of sobriety is as good for the bank balance as it is for the liver. I used to brew our own beer but I’m afraid we enjoyed drinking it too much. We’re a family of chefs and cooks who love growing, cooking and eating together, and a wander around the market is a timely reminder that we’re not the only people who choose to live this way and we could be a powerful voice for change if we organised like the French farmers do!

The stallholders aren’t rich, they could almost all make more money doing something less demanding; but they’re passionate about what they make and sell and, even more importantly, they’re the vanguard movement of local sustainable living. If we didn’t have them there we’d have to invent them. They’ve had a marvellous opportunity to extend their off farm sales during the past 2 years of covid and they are the spearhead of a movement to undo some of the damage done by industrial farming – but only as long as we support them – even just now and again for special occasions; but better still on a regular basis that gives them the confidence to grow their businesses.

And finally, if you don’t live in Bath, and none of these structures exist where you live – there could never be a better time to start some of them.

Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

Just for a moment it seemed as if we we could be pushing at an open door

Nuff said!

When I saw a piece in Farmers Weekly declaring Jeremy Clarkson as the 2021 champion of farmers I thought to myself – well the lunatics really have taken over the asylum! I tried to kid myself it was a bit of postmodern irony but – well no. I guess if you wanted to appoint an ambassador who could rise above the facts and blame everyone except himself for making a miniscule profit in spite of the subsidies – and do it while pouring insults and bile over tree huggers and vegans he’s definitely be your man. I know it’s only entertainment, but out here in the real world there does seem to be something of a cultural sea change going on in the more thoughtful parts of the farming community. The talk on the street is that public money will, in the future be attached to public goods, and that means paying more than lip service to the soil and the environment.

So Madame and me have been looking around at some of the local farmers who are heading in the same direction as us and today we revisited this farm which ticks most of the boxes, that’s to say they’re doing the things on the signboard – broadly regenerative farming – and they’re marketing direct to the local community. Less food miles, more emphasis on building up good soil. They don’t appear to call themselves organic but there are many farmers – particularly in the US – who want to go beyond the rather lax standards of “official” organics. Too many loopholes and exceptions which you can see for yourself if you search on the internet for the official organic specifications. Best of all they seem to be making a living which, if you’re a farmer who’s interested in dipping a toe in the regenerative waters, is going to be important. After all, if you’re at all interested in building your soil you’re surely not going to be inundating it with persistent chemicals.

So that was a cheerful early start to the day; and then we turned to the allotment and while Madame sowed spinach and lettuce for the winter I mixed a barrow load of potting compost, filled fifty pots (all recycled from previous lives) and planted out the overwintering garlic using the best cloves from last season. They’ve all gone into what was supposed to be the new strawberry bed, which was conceived and built before we thought about getting a polytunnel, but we’ve used it this year to grow the some of the alliums because it’s so easy to hoop and net. If you like, it’s an overlong cold frame. Garlic needs a period of cold before it will start into growth and so this is the perfect place for it to begin its journey. Later on in the spring the young plants will be planted out into a much larger bed. The strawberries are in their luxury quarters in the polytunnel as the young offsets develop ready for their first season. This time we’ll devise some kind of narrow hanging bed that can be suspended in such a way it doesn’t rob too much light from the base level which is half full already with winter delights.

We’re so busy at the moment we seem to be living on bread and soup; but we talked about the pleasures of this season today and we agreed that it’s lovely that we’ve made a strong start to next year’s season already with time in hand before the bad weather sets in.

As it happens the travelling fishmonger was outside the farm shop and he’d got masses of fish straight up from Newlyn. We bought enough fish to feed a small army, including some locally (just up the River Severn) smoked kippers – I assumed the herrings must have made a longer journey. Anyway we had a late breakfast of kippers and fresh sourdough bread with mugs of tea. Very traditional!

We are the undeserving guests at the feast

Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:

So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.

Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”

All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.

Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.

A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.

However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.

It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.

I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.

But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?

The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.

It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.

We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.

Sunset over Ramsey Island, Wales

Maybe get the right tools first??

If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.

A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.

Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!

Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).

Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns

So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:

Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.

  • According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
  • According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
  • According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
  • Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
  • Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
  • A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.

All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.

I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.

On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!

So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.

As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Hardening of the oughteries

Taken yesterday in Gorran Haven – who or what is “boy jowan” and is there a future for them?

The title of this post is a borrowing from Frank Lake, the inventor of Clinical Theology which has pretty much disappeared these days, but back in the day was a force for good in its attempt to make a marriage between theology and healing. Nowadays it looks like a forced marriage that was bound to fail; but this term – hardening of the oughteries – perfectly sums up for me, the danger of committing the ultimate ethical error of confusing ought with is.

On Thursday when I last posted, we were preparing for unseasonably strong winds down here in Cornwall in the far South West. An hour or so after I pressed the send button, an HM Coastguard vehicle turned up on the campsite , warning that the weather forecast had underestimated the strength of the storm that was about to make landfall, and the predicted 60 mph gusts were more likely to be up to 80 mph.

The campsite owner toured the site warning us that force ten – storm force winds – were about to arrive and giving us the option to leave ASAP if we were worried. A small convoy left the site within a couple of hours and we battened down – veterans of fifty years of western coastal camping during which we’ve lost three tents. This time we were in a campervan, it’s true, but the rest of the family were all in tents. At the height of the storm people were clinging to their tents to try to save them. Around twenty five people slept in a community room on the site while their tents were smashed by ferocious gusts of wind. In the van – broadside on to the winds – we rocked on the suspension as brief periods of silence were followed by explosive gusts slamming us.By the morning, half of the campers who’d elected to sit it out had lost their tents. It was the biggest storm we’ve ever encountered; pretty scary to see what nature is capable of throwing at us as the climate emergency advances.

All of which brings me to the oughteries. For us, and for millions of others, the link between the climate emergency and our wasteful, greedy and polluting way of life is so obvious we can splutter with rage at those who don’tor won’t – get it; and playing at being the cock that crows on the dunghill is a curiously self-regarding way of trying to change things. Hardening of the oughteries is that state of mind that abuses a kind of of self regarding personal virtue in order to detach ourselves from responsibility. When we suffer the extremes of the climate emergency there’s no virtue in claiming that we weren’t responsible because we walk everywhere and recycle plastic. Waiting for the opportunity to say “I told you so” overlooks the critical point that the climate emergency overwhelmingly affects places and people we have never met; the poorest of people generally speaking; and the kind of people who have no alternative but to become migrants and refugees in order to escape famine and wars funded by the wealthiest parts of the world and often proxy wars over scarce natural resources.

As we drove down here we took a short cut off the A30 towards St Austell and to my great surprise we passed a lithium mine. The mad rush to promote electric cars to lessen atmospheric pollution seems to ignore the obvious capacity of lithium mines to create their own unique pollution hazards. In this county which has been so hard hit by de-industrialisation and the collapse of tin and copper mining; it will be hard to say that thousands of new jobs mining lithium should be turned away. The Cornish inshore fishermen are only now realising that their dreams for a Brexit powered goldrush were a cynical con trick. I don’t want to be saying “I told you so” to any of these people, and neither do I want any of them to have to sell their houses and move away as the only option for a better future, away from the insecurity and exploitative jobs on offer in hospitality and cleaning for out of county second homers.

The ostrich approach is to believe that we can carry on the way we have and hope that the technological seventh cavalry will come galloping over the hill to save us with giant machines capable of removing gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our polluted air. Of course it’s blindingly obvious that there are no free lunches to be had in combating climate change and big machines demand big energy to run them; setting us on a mind numbing treadmill that demands more and more energy in order to extract the pollution caused by extracting and using more and more energy.

Hardening of the oughteries simply polarizes the debate and delays any prospect of change – always to the advantage of of the biggest winners; the international corporations who stand to lose most when we finally come to our senses. Less really is more; it’s hardly a new idea but so far as I can see it’s the only viable alternative to our present course. The visionaries need to do more than shout at the cynics and so-called realists. We need to model an alternative future with every means at our disposal. It’s nothing less than a paradigm shift that we’ll need, as we watch the dream of never ending growth and progress collapse; and nothing could be a greater dereliction of responsibility to turn away and shout “I told you so” at the victims.

Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

This may sound a little eccentric but ….

Just now the border surrounding the asparagus bed is looking as if it might take over – it certainly needs a dramatic thinning, but there is some method in the madness because we need to harvest a lot of calendula flowers to make cream, and calendula is also reputed to deter asparagus beetle. Allotments are peculiar places inasmuch as they can be plagued by pests that spread through the site from one plot to another. If every plot holder controlled their pests, preferably organically, they’d be less invasive. On our plot we’ve been overwhelmed this year with blackfly, which got going several weeks before the ladybirds(ladybugs) bred fast enough to limit their numbers. So we picked out the broad bean growing tips and harvested ladybirds wherever we found them so we could relocate them on an instant banquet. I’ve no idea whether it worked but eventually the blackfly were diminished and we’ve just finished harvesting a reasonable crop. What with the awful spring weather it felt like we were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but a few of the neighbours simply uprooted their beans and composted them. We’ve had allium leaf miner destroy our leeks for three consecutive years – it’s rife across the site – and so this year we’ve grown all the alliums – garlic, onions and leeks – under fine insect mesh in an attempt to keep the bugs out. We’ve also netted the carrot family in the same way; it doesn’t look so nice but if it protects the crops without any chemicals then it’s a good idea.

Asparagus beetle is another one. For three years – as soon as we allowed the fern to grow at the end of the season – the beetles moved in. Dozens of voracious little grubs would chomp their way through the fern, weakening some of the plants enough to kill them. It became a daily task to sort slowly through the bed, squashing every grub we could find between thumb and finger. We found it was the most effective deterrent, but each day there would be a new hatch and so it was hard work. We sprayed once or twice with organic pyrethrum, but it can only be done under perfect conditions early in the morning because it’s a broad spectrum insecticide and could kill friends as easily as foes. It’s also very expensive and so we kept on with the daily slaughter by hand.

This year we thought we’d try growing a border of calendula around the bed to repel beetles and it seems to be working. Madame has only picked off half a dozen grubs this week, and the fronds are looking sound – capable of feeding the roots for next year. However the vigorous marigolds are shading the asparagus plants nearer the edges so we need to take the flowers for drying and then thin the border dramatically. So far it’s one up for the companion planting.

I wanted also to mention a new (another one!) book which would be of more interest to UK and Northern European gardeners because it’s about garden wildlife. Titled “Guide to Garden Wildlife” it’s illustrated beautifully by Richard Lewington with the birds illustrated by his brother Ian. This season’s foray into deliberate wildlife gardening has forced us to pay a lot more attention to what’s flying around, wandering and crawling around, swimming around and tunnelling underneath the allotment. A single, portable, illustrated field guide ticks an awful lot of boxes since we are now so often confronted with an insect whose name we don’t know. Wildlife gardening removes the convenient (and deadly) division of living things into crops and enemies. The netting and companion planting that we’re experimenting with all flow from the desire to combine the protection of our crops with increasing the diversity and health of the birds and insects on the plot.

Here’s a typical decision we’ve had to make. Until we put in a pond I’d never heard of iris sawfly, but they’ve moved in with a vengeance – fat and juicy little grubs chewing off the leaves. For us they’re a nuisance – more of a cosmetic nuisance it has to be said; but for a hungry bird, or for one of the many other insect predators it’s a meal. So we put up with the knackered leaves and hope that the dragonflies, water boatmen and many other creatures enjoy a meal at the expense of a little patience on our part. Once we’ve accepted that we’re just another predator in the great wheel of nature, then the way we garden becomes a profoundly moral issue. We take what we need, discourage dangerous pests as far as we can and let the rest thrive.

The book has enthused me enough to try to identify more of the species of bee and fly that look rather like one another. Hoverflies, for instance, are a big group with very different lifestyles and we want to move beyond bumble bees and butterflies. Even moths, I wonder recklessly, could be worth a go. It would be pure pleasure of course but more than that I’d urge you to get hold of a copy and read Ken Thompson’s marvellous introduction. His take on wildlife gardening is pretty radical because he refuses to get drawn into a sterile argument about what’s wild and what’s not. Words like wild and natural muddy the waters to no useful end. The sad fact is that gardens are a tremendous, and sometimes the only species rich environments left in a highly populated country, practising industrial farming and building more and more concrete infrastructure. If any moronic cash strapped local council wants to turn an allotment into a car park or (another) profitable housing development for the elderly wealthy, and believe me they often do, then it will be essential to have to hand detailed records of the allotment’s natural history and biodiversity.

We’ve had a trail cam for ages, but we’ve never dared deploy it on the allotment for fear of it being stolen or vandalised – sadly it’s a problem for almost all allotmenteers. But now we’ve got a purpose built padlocked steel box which should stop almost anything except a pre-prepared theft using tools. We’ve known about the wildlife that we share the plot with through seeing what they do. Badgers, for instance, have an amazing capacity for judging the sweetness of sweetcorn and unless you protect it, it will be stolen the day before you were going to pick it. There are rumours of small deer and of course we see the rats and the flying nuisances, mostly pigeons. Mostly though, we see the tracks and the sign but not the animals themselves. But now we’ve captured some lovely video of a fox sitting and cleaning itself right in front of the camera; a curious magpie almost tapping the box (it must have glistened) and a great sequence of a fat rat, nose twitching searching for our broad beans. Rats love the beans and occasionally we find a whole pile of empty pods. This one, however, was out of luck and it jumped over the boards into a cleared bed.

However, watching 30 seconds of video for a short glimpse of a fox is pretty boring and so I’m trying to teach myself video editing so that I can publish the best bits here. I may be some time!

The road to hell is paved with good inventions

Who’d have thought it? Computer controlled automatic flood relief gates; plastic fishing lines; damming up valleys to flood them and secure water supplies; steam engines – even bicycles; each one of them a technological step forwards. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes asking the right question is harder than you’d think because common sense – as we like to describe it – gets in the way, and what ought to be a very simple question gets very difficult. “What direction does time move in?” – we’d mostly agree that it moves forwards, except on Friday afternoons. Our mobiles, wrist watches, TV and radio are perfectly clear that time moves forward in intervals that are measurable down to 10, 20, 1000 decimal places. Sub atomic particle physicists are a bit less dogmatic and would probably answer “it depends – but for all practical purposes it moves forwards in a straight line. ‘That’s progress’, we say, ‘moving: forwards into a better future’.

So let’s accept that for all practical purposes time moves forwards in a straight line; but does that mean that we who own watches and mobiles and watch TV are also moving in a straight line? and if it does – where’s the straight line heading? and this is where the argument gets a bit muddy because the commonsensical answer would be that we’re collectively moving forwards towards a better society and individually moving forwards to a better life. Except we’re not. As my old sociology lecturer Sid Harris would have said – “Where’s the evidence, David?” and, looking around at the present state of the earth I’d say that the evidence for a bigger, brighter and more prosperous future is pretty thin. When science, technology and politics wrapped themselves in evolutionary theory they made a fatal error. History has no telos, to borrow a Greek idea, it’s not bound by an invisible guiding hand, and Progress – in the grand rhetorical sense beloved of politicians, is just another package of merchandised snake oil.

The aha! moment

I was pondering this, here at my laptop, when my son phoned – as he often does on his way home from work, and so we had one of our conversations and he challenged me to set out my problem about time. “There’s a logical flaw” he said, and I’ll paraphrase the rest of his reply. The ancient Greeks knew that the future was always, must always be an unknowable fog of possibilities, and so when we take a walk we have to look forwards to avoid walking under a bus, but when we think about the future we necessarily walk into it backwards. All our knowledge; all our certainties and experiences are behind us in time. The Greeks and Mesopotamians understood this three thousand years ago and the present day Maori people know it now.

To describe a person or a movement as forward looking is assumed to be a compliment but all too often, so-called forward looking leaders combine a wilful march into the unknown with a blithe refusal to attend to the only real data we have – which is all in the past.

There’s a true story that I really love which illustrates this perfectly. An engineering worker lost a finger in an industrial accident and this precipitated an enquiry by a government inspector. When the man was interviewed at work after he had recovered, the inspector asked him to describe exactly what had happened. The man explained that he had put his finger into a hole in the machine and then – to demonstrate precisely what had happened, he stuck another finger through the same hole. Need I continue?

To cherish the hope that another – as yet uninvented slice of technology or science will rescue us from the unexpected consequences of the last lot, is – let’s be kind – rather silly!

Walking backwards into the future

If we were to accept the ancient Greek view of time, what would the implications be for the future of the earth? At the moment it feels as if we’re ploughing on heedlessly into chaos and disaster under the influence of a broken model of so-called progress. But we have thousands, tens of thousands of years of human experience to draw upon. The past isn’t just dry as dust history about people who weren’t as clever as us. It’s a laboratory , a library, a treasury of human insight; of ideas, of technologies, of spiritualities, of memories, of different modes of being fully human in story, drama, music and song.

Here at the Potwell Inn, when the wind blows from the north east we can hear the chimes of a church clock marking the quarters and hours. Time marches on but it doesn’t feel like a straight line. Our lived experience of time is mostly cyclical; of anniversaries and birthdays, lunar months, solstices, seasons and equinoxes. We live in a precious, never to be repeated and wholly unimagined moment that we share with the whole of creation. The meal we ate yesterday evening amounted to nothing more than the vegetables we’d harvested during the day. I baked bread. We worked quietly on the allotment, weeding, planting out, moving nets in drizzly rain. Walking backwards into the future we celebrated each moment.

The Tao is like a well:

Used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu. Chapter 4, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

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