Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

Daily bread!

IMG_4819Here at the Potwell Inn I bake sourdough bread about three times a week during the winter when the timetable of starting the sponge first thing in the morning fits best of all with our timetable, although we might have to slow the final rise down a bit (24 hours later) if we need to be at the allotment early. That’s more of a problem in the summer when it’s warm all night, and so I bake a little less often. Regularly baking bread  soaks into the warp and weft of kitchen life and becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

Although dough thrives on a bit of neglect, it also demands attention to detail.  My recipe has evolved over the years since I first tried it, but it’s unforgiving of mistakes. On Christmas Eve I was in a rush and added a bit too much salt, for instance. Salt really inhibits the dough, and although the loaf was OK there was an undertone in the flavour that diminished its appeal. Getting the right hydration can cause problems too if you don’t pay attention.  Different flours take up different amounts of water and so you can only know if it’s right by the texture of the dough. All the books say the dough should be as soft as you can manage but if you try to make bread with a dough that’s just that bit too soft, when it comes out of the banneton it will flatten out like a cowpat. I try to adjust it so it’s just – but only just – sticking to the table but pulls off easily with the aid of a scraper. If it’s too easy to knead – ie too stiff – it will be easier to handle but it won’t be able to rise to its full glory. There are other tricks I play but that’s not really what I want to write about today.

Because there’s always something else going on. Ten minutes kneading can become a meditation, with the everyday mind quietened by the purposeful movements of the arms, hands and body.  I remember reading once that religiously inclined French people would make the sign of the cross over the new loaf before cutting it. For all the visits we’ve made to France – which is a determinedly atheist country for the most part – I’ve never once seen that action, but it stuck in my mind because it suggested that, religious or not, the new loaf should be treated with special respect because it provides so much of what we need. It feeds us in the process of baking and it feeds all equally in the eating. Flour, water, salt, and a little oil along with the ferment which is a kind of gift because you can’t make it, only accept it as a gift. If I can shamelessly steal a religious concept, baking bread is a sacramental activity because the loaf becomes:

The ‘outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace”.

Which, if you think about it could equally apply to any number of activities like growing an allotment, cooking, brewing beer, writing to a friend or even darning a torn sweater!  Did you know that the familiar phrase “daily bread” is the best that all the scholars have managed in 2000 years when they attempted to translate the little Greek word ‘epiousios’?  I like to drag it out of retirement in our weary culture and translate it as relating to the things we really need in order to flourish, bread being among them but also the almost spiritual practice of making it and sharing it with friends and loved ones. It’s being fully human, there on a plate in front of you.