Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.

If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.

Rain allows play after a month of Sundays

After getting close to two months of confinement in the flat, with only daily visits to the allotment to leaven the monastic isolation, we were beginning to feel as if every day was Sunday – even more dangerously it was always the same Sunday! When the sun shone the young woman opposite would clamber precariously through her window over a precipitous 30′ drop to sit in sunshine on the roof of a kitchen extension, the professional rugby player – also opposite – would come out into the car park and skip for an hour at a time at such a speed you could hear the rope whistling. On the other side of the house we could watch 30 minutes of something like Tai Chi at just after nine in the morning, and after that it was just drunks, junkies and the deranged sitting around while large gannetrys of young men on expensive bicycles flew past, clad in the latest skin-tight Lycra. At times one of them would spot a sunbathing woman and the noise and speed of the peloton would increase significantly as they strained every impressive sinew over their imaginary Mont Ventoux, ignoring the 20mph signs.  One of our neighbours has told us that one of the several local drug dealers is now running his own homeless delivery round from a semi derelict narrow boat that’s just capable of puttering up and down the river. 

But yesterday it rained and after a quick trip to the almost deserted allotments Madame suggested risking a walk. The simple fact that a little walk demanded thought and planning just goes to show how agoraphobic we’re becoming during the lockdown.  Leaving the front door and turning right to go down to the river never seemed as transgressive as it did yesterday. Oncoming pedestrians were avoided as anxiously as large dogs on bits on string for leads – it was an entirely mutual avoidance.  I found myself scanning everyone (it didn’t amount to double figures in well over an hour) for signs of disease or even the least touch of grubbiness, and all the while I was rehearsing in my head the lecture our children would give us about taking unnecessary risks. Who knew that simple pleasures like going for a walk once in nearly seven weeks could drag along so much baggage, from public opprobrium against old people being outside, to the risk of being challenged by the police over the validity of our outing.  

After skirting along the river and meeting almost no-one, we went up to the canal, greeted by an expensively unwelcoming sign telling us to go away, but after about a quarter of a mile we dropped back down under the railway line and walked back into town. Our son had told us how deserted it’s become, with for sale notices everywhere and several retailers and restaurants boarded up; but it wasn’t that as much as the deserted silence of the key tourist sites.  The Abbey, the Roman Baths, the Spa and virtually all of the shops were closed.  The bus station was deserted apart from a man reaming his nose out thoroughly, oblivious of just how disgusting that suddenly seemed, and there were one or two street beggars drying out from the rain. The city seems to have lost its entire purpose. In the past we’d fantasised about life here without the tourists and hen parties, but this was proof that you should be careful what you pray for. The only activity we saw was building work.  They’re still building hundreds of flats for students in spite of the fact that the business model of the universities (we’ve got two) was a model of unsustainable growth, with grossly overpaid Vice Chancellors conducting sales campaigns all over the world to attract foreign students who were in any case becoming wary of living in our state sponsored hostile environment. Now we’ve won our first international competition in decades but sadly it’s for having almost the highest mortality rate for coronavirus!

So the good news was that spring has proceeded without us doing anything very much and all along the edge of Green Park was a magnificent display of borage and green alkanet in flower. On the river’s edge smoke was rising lazily from an improvised tarpaulin bender on the blocked off footpath. Of the floral interlopers that survived from the ‘wildflower mix’ sowing nearby, alongside the flood prevention scheme, the campions seem to be establishing a permanent place for themselves, but most of the others have been choked off by burly locals.

The fear is that the local economy may never recover.  Already there are too many independent traders closing down and the supermarkets have made more enemies than friends with their failure to sustain a rational service. The independents – from quirky stationers to pizza places, bookshops, deli’s, health food stores, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were what made Bath different.  Without the pubs, theatres and music venues; the art shop and the wool shop and the cheesemonger, a trip into town becomes ever less attractive, not just for us locals but also I’m sure for our hundreds of thousands of visitors. 

Weeks ago I mentioned Tim Lang’s new book on food security which was published almost on the same day as the system began to collapse. This has been a painful demonstration of the truth of his contention that we’re dangerously dependent o a handful of supermarket chains and their vulnerable supply lines. Local, local and more local, sustainable, environmentally safe and non intensive food production linked to local suppliers is better in every way than our present profit driven system. Of course local shopkeepers want to make a living, and one of the plusses these past months is the heroic contribution that independent corner shops have made – especially for old and vulnerable people who have no chance of help from supermarkets, but whose neighbours have proved beyond doubt that contrary to what Margaret Thatcher asserted there really is such a thing as society. 

Last week’s sunshine brought the elderflower to the brink of blossoming, and yesterday there were some in bloom. Now we need a dry day to collect the flowers, and then lemons and sugar to make cordial. I used every scrap of sugar making ‘allotment jam’ a couple of weeks ago so an expedition to find more is needed.  We just finished our last bottle of last year’s production so we need to be ready.

How do you make a turnip exciting?

IMG_4675Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed.  Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’.  Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can.  So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest  across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses?  I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.

But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:

Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.

 

That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner.  So no thanks.  Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.

IMG_4678Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine.  One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.

So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown  a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible.  Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly.  So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.

It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?”  I’ll have to think about that one.

Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg.  The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view.  And if that all sounds  bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!

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