Organish? – not all turtle soup and silver spoons

Found on the green yesterday – bluet?

Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.

Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.

There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!

We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.

Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.

More about rats

I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing.  They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt.  I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others. 

So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen.  It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps.  You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings.  We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost.  They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard.  55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off. 

I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste.  Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents.  Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again.  We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike.  Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments? 

And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run.  One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them? 

What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too. 

Fermenting in all its glorious anarchy

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As I was writing yesterday I promised to have a go at listing some of the books I’ve been most helped and influenced by in developing the Potwell Inn. It’s not in any sense exhaustive and I’m perfectly sure there will be many excellent books left out because I didn’t bump into them, but they’ve all been helpful and inspiring and that’s the measure I apply to all things.  Does an art exhibition make me want to draw or paint? If it does, I’d say it was a good one.

So I’m starting with the picture of a (well past its prime) sprouting broccoli leaf that I plucked from the compost heap in desperation, one Saturday morning, because I had to take something to paint to a botanical painting short-course. It took me a couple of weeks to finish the painting during which time I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m only using it here because it illustrates perfectly the theme of all the books I’m talking about – rotting.  Given a quick swill and shoved into a pot with salt this leaf could have been, would have been sauerkraut. There’s no secret ingredient or technique that could have added anything to the fact that this leaf is being totally leafish in spontaneously returning itself to its component parts in the great botanical breakers yard we call compost.  Fermenting merely inserts ourselves into that process and adds an extra stage, that’s to say, eating it.

So to begin at the beginning, Michael Pollan is one of my favourite food writers and his book “Cooked” has a wonderful section on fermenting in all its bacterial glory. The whole book is an inspiration but today I’m talking about fermentation and this book is a must-read as far as I’m concerned2017-09-23 17.31.00

Pollan pays tribute to Sandor Katz who’s written a number of books, but the one I’ve got here in the Potwell Inn Library is entitled “The Art of Fermentation” and it’s good.  What more do I need to say? I’ve tried several of the recipes and what I discovered is what he would have told me to my face if I’d been to one of his workshops – please yourself – make what you enjoy eating.  This book covers every possible kind of fermentation including pickles, kefir, sourdough and alcohol as well as kimchi and several ferments whose products smell like a dead sheep in a ditch but taste better with the windows open.

What happens when all this knowledge and expertise is taken up by a chef whose restaurant is so beloved by wealthy foodies that you need a two year wait and an Oscar to get a booking? Well you get “The Noma Guide to Fermentation”, one of my Christmas presents so I haven’t yet had time to do much more than give it a quick read. It’s a beautifully printed book, but somehow it loses something of the frontier spirit in its obsessive control of the process. Vacuum pumps, Ph meters and temperature controlled cabinets aren’t my style, and in any case the Potwell Inn has only limited space and appetite to indulge an appetite for lacto plum-skin chips. Nonetheless no writer can expect to exercise the same control over their readers as they do over their recipes, and in that spirit I’ll plunder the book shamelessly for any ideas that take my fancy in the kitchen. I’d recommend it in any case for its enthusiasm and, if you like to cook to impress in a laboratory, it’s definitely for you.

More down to earth in every way is Diana Henry’s book “Salt Sugar Smoke” which deals with fermentation along with the other methods of preservation and does so on a smaller scale.  Of three ways of fermenting cucumbers we tried this year, hers was closest to what we were hoping for. Kylee Newton, in her book “The Modern Preserver” has a few fermenting ideas but if you’re only interested in fermenting you wouldn’t want to buy the whole book.

Finally I got hold of a rather quirky but pioneer oriented book called “Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning”.  It’s a compilation of recipes by a group that calls itself ‘the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante’. If I say that one of the recipes for sauerkraut demands 55lbs of cabbage you’ll see that this book is compiled by residents of “la France profonde” – or at least profonde enough to deter anyone from popping out to the shops without a tractor and a VHF radio. But I like it very much and, once again and in the spirit of glorious anarchy that we hope characterizes the Potwell Inn as it once inspired the Whole Earth Catalogue, it’s well worth buying for the ‘between the lines’ wisdom it contains.

I haven’t written much about sourdough because it’s such a densely populated field it probably needs a section to itself – although, if you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you’ll know I’m a bit sceptical about much of the advice on the topic that I’ve seen. So just to finish, some pictures – taken over the course of last season – of the kind of fermenting that was going on at the Potwell Inn.

 

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