During the endless sequence of lockdowns over the past two years one of our biggest challenges was feeding ourselves. Being dropped by supermarkets was far from unusual in the early days. After years of weekly deliveries from Waitrose we discovered that just when we needed them most we were sidelined by the sharp elbowed who hogged all the delivery slots at the very time we were being advised to avoid busy public places like supermarkets. It took months to persuade them that we fitted all the criteria that would classify us as vulnerable. Eventually deliveries were restored but the relationship had been irrevocably damaged. During that time our sons helped us out, the students on the same landing offered to do shopping for us on day one of the lockdown, and we managed to get bulk supplies of some of the most important staples. A local baker who had been one of our middle son’s apprentices let me have a 25K bag of flour, I got a kilo of dried yeast on the internet and doubled down on the sourdough. We grow our own vegetables so there was a supply line already in place. During that time all trust in the system broke down and we began to explore some of the alternatives. We established contact with a local flour mill and ever since we’ve been able to source far better quality organic flour than we were ever able to get from the supermarkets. We explored local butchers shops and found a newsagent who was always happy to sell milk. The farmers market closed for a long while but when it started up again we discovered we could buy almost anything we needed there. It turned out that we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of queues and can’t be arsed assistants at the instore pharmacy in the supermarket because a local small pharmacy was marvellous for advice (and even flu jabs) when the local GP’s became virtually unavailable. We discovered some of the farm shops in the area and gradually figured out which suppliers were the real deal and whose expensive niche products were overpriced novelties. One key moment was when a local farm started to sell fresh low temperature pasteurised milk from a slot machine at the market. We bought five glass bottles and since we began we’ve had better milk and stopped sending about five plastic bottles to landfill every week. Of course there’s the additional environmental benefit because most of these shops are within walking distance. In fact I’d say without any hesitation that the crisis was, for us, just the nudge we needed to take local food from an aspiration to a behaviour. When, this Christmas, the deliveries from Waitrose were, once again, all taken by 2.00 am on the day that online orders opened, without a moment’s thought took our business to the local outlets who had looked after us for 2 years, and we enjoyed better quality than we’ve had for years even though our total spend was no greater. Although it still makes sense to have some things delivered by the supermarket, they have too often failed to deliver on ubiquitous commodity products like milk; but it no longer matters to us because we can get almost anything we need locally from traders who recognise us. In the process we’ve discovered a whole network of local artisan producers whose products are of better quality by an order of magnitude than the mass produced supermarket imitations.
Does it cost more? Well yes, although you’d have to qualify that by saying that when we buy really good quality food we eat rather less of it. Our cheese consumption has gone down dramatically because I no longer hack off lumps of commercial block Cheddar as snacks. Our meat consumption has decreased significantly now because we buy smaller quantities – leaving our expenditure roughly the same.
The key to the significance of all this is that the changes in our shopping and eating habits didn’t come from abstract principles; they were almost forced on us by the inadequacies of the existing food supply system. So much of what we read and hear in the media comes across as constant nagging from some supposed moral high ground, but what if we approached it from the more practical point of view, which is to say that local food chains work better; they’re far more secure and they provide better food PLUS they entail all the environmental and health benefits we aspire to.
It’s pretty well understood now that much of the resistance to the kind of environmental measures we know we have to accept is down to fear – fear of change and fear of losing the things we’ve come to rely on. Maybe there’s a role here for what I call ‘frinstances’. Being much less vocal on the oughts of our environmental campaigns but turning up the volume of the ‘is’ of better and more reliable local food chains. I usually run a mile from business jargon; but one statement has stuck in my mind for years now. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It couldn’t be more true. Here we are trying to change a whole entrenched culture and all we seem to do is throw strategy after strategy at it with a generous side order of statistics and threats. Maybe it’s time to give up nagging and start singing?
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 had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.
So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.
You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.
On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.
As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.