How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

Eating beyond our means!

The Marie Antoinette moment
One of our own parsnips.

Two articles in the Guardian caught my attention this week. The first was tactfully entitled Replace animal farms with micro-organism tanks, say campaigners – advocating the rewilding of 75% of the earth’s farming land with trees and then growing most of our food in microbial factory farms known as “precision” fermentation. “Precision” like “technical” is like sticking a plastic filigree on a rotten argument. A Range Rover is both technical and full of precision engineering but it ain’t helping climate change. Two counter arguments spring immediately to mind. Firstly, to achieve this technical miracle you’d have to destroy millions of livelihoods and absolutely crush local food cultures the world over. Secondly you’d have to turn over the feeding of the world to corporations whose present behaviour does not encourage any optimism that these behemoths would pick up the tab for supporting the ruined and the poor. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s a real food hater’s charter that could have been designed by Bayer/Monsanto. A fruitful third line of attack might investigate the real costs of so-called rewilding. Rewilded land still needs maintenance and a great deal of human intervention. And maybe a fourth line of investigation could discover whether the majority of us think that there’s a bit of a way-in being promoted for the intensive forestry industry to become the green fuel supplier of choice. Long live Drax – probably best not. Then there’s the impact on biodiversity of forestry monoculture. This kind of thinking is the reductio ad absurdum of reductionist thinking.

The failure to distinguish between the climate impact of intensive animal feedlots and small mixed farms undermines any climate solutions derived from these dodgy figures. Yes I do understand that de-intensifying farming will impact food production but the argument for eating less meat is now pretty well established for all except Cargills who profit handsomely from shipping feed grain around the world. Sadly for us the era of cheap food is over because the true costs are hidden by using both the earth’s atmosphere and her surface as a dump. We are subsidising our own ultimate destruction if we carry on as we are – but that’s no excuse for campaigners on either side sticking their fingers in their ears and saying la la la to shut out any opposing arguments.

So what about the cost of living?

Another Guardian article on the rising cost of popular foods gave a list of the ten foods whose price has inflated most over the past couple of years. They are:

  • Heinz tomato ketchup sauce – top down 460g 53%
  • Dolmio lasagne sauce 470g 47%
  • Heinz classic cream of chicken soup 400g 46%
  • Dolmio bolognese original pasta sauce 500g 46%
  • Anchor spreadable butter tub 500g 45%
  • Heinz cream of tomato soup 400g 44%
  • Colman’s classic mint sauce 165g 44%
  • Colman’s horseradish sauce 136g 44%
  • Batchelors super noodles BBQ beef flavour 90g 43%
  • Hovis granary wholemeal 800g 43%

So here’s the rather dangerous Marie Antoinette moment. IF we are to campaign effectively for change we can’t be telling people who are already living on the edge that they should be eating cake. So very hesitantly I’ll say that of the ten items on the list, we at the Potwell Inn are already making our own much cheaper versions of nine. Butter, sadly, is beyond our reach. OK so we grow 90% of the tomatoes we use but that’s in a 15′ X 10′ polytunnel on the allotment. But there are other sources of cheap tomatoes – you can often buy them by the box from veg markets clearing out their old stock. Lasagne sauce – come on .. really? Dolmio and Batchelors produce ultra processed foods and bread is so easy to bake you’d never want to go back to the supermarket version. What’s needed is a little investment in tools and equipment; some time; a few fairly simple to learn skills and a bit of forward planning.

Of course this is me with sixty years of practice, but believe me when we started we hadn’t a clue. We’ve always been relatively hard up, especially with three sons to raise – so buying the equipment was never easy, but here’s a lesson you’ll soon learn – always buy the best equipment you can afford. Don’t be seduced by Damascus steel knives and all that blather- I’ve tried most of them; all the top German brands, but my go-to knives for the past ten or fifteen years have come from IKEA! – and keep them sharp. Raw ingredients – except for meat and fish are relatively inexpensive so never be afraid to fail. Failures are your best teachers so don’t wimp out, figure out what went wrong and do it better next time. Meat is expensive if you insist on buying the most expensive cuts – but the cheap cuts are the ones that butchers take home. A piece of slow cooked brisket or pork belly is often far better flavoured. Always buy the best quality meat you can afford – but not too often. The lives of £4.00 chickens don’t bear thinking about, so buy free range and organic infrequently and then you’ll be able to spread the meat over several days and after that, make your own stock. The Potwell Inn fridge is never without a litre or so of stock. It’s the ultimate culinary pixie dust and it’s unbelievably easy to make – I’ll put the method up if anyone’s interested.

Eating is – as I was quoting the other day – an agricultural act. It’s also a sacramental act. To cook for someone you love is the greatest honour, and that’s a lesson we learned from Sid Harris our unorthodox Jewish tutor who was a witness at our wedding. I wish we could teach more people to cook – we taught the boys and two of them are now professional chefs; in fact our youngest came third in a National Pizza Competition only yesterday, and his older brother was once a finalist in the Young Chef of the Year awards.

So do the two halves of this post join up in any way? Well, I think they’re deeply related because the future of the earth relies on an enormous cultural change that affects our food culture, the way we travel, and the way the majority of people earn their living. Less could really be more in this unfamiliar vision, but trying to pile all the blame on the others is never going to work. Nothing suits the corporate giants better than watching their opponents exhaust themselves by fighting each other. The new world order needs to meet what are often portrayed as unreasonable demands. More time, better working conditions, better health and social care, better and broader education and training and an earth sustaining agriculture and horticulture. We’re not fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our grandchildren. The only certainty in all this is that we can’t go on as we are.

Is botany nothing more than a science?

The Pilgrim church of St Maelrhys Church, Llanfaelrhys, near Aberdaron, Lleyn.

Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.

Well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!

The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

  • One pound plain flour
  • Quarter pound lard
  • A little salt
  • buttermilk

Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.

Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.

TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.

So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.

It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.

*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.

Beware false dawns

If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.

Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!

Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.

However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.

The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.

Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.

Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.

It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman

Here it is – just waiting for the skin!

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

A quiet start to the day in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins

I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.

A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?

Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Chef’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.

the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons

But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.

When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.

Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.

And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

– even a miss is something of a triumph

So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!

We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!

Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?

asparagus autumn Camino chillies climate change climate emergency composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany food security foraging Fungi garden pests global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown meditation no-dig pickling and preserving pilgrimage polytunnels preserving raised beds rats rewilding Sourdough species extinctions technology urban wildlife walking water storage weeds wildflower meadows William Cobbett

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