OK so most of us would agree that living on pasta, marmalade and Cornish pasties would be a tiny bit unbalanced, but the pasties – which Madame made for supper this evening – have additional benefits. They only have 1.5oz of meat in each one – the rest is pastry, potato and swede. You don’t have to be working class or wear trainer bottoms to eat one, just the ability to get over yourself – PLUS – they are better at cheering you up than any prescription drug after a rainy day. Obviously the pesto is lovely as well, and the two photos are only there to show how to make a sausage which you put into the freezer for 2 hours before removing it and cutting it up into servings. Last night we had it with tagliatelle, crushed potatoes and steamed broccoli – positively life affirming! and finally the marmalade which is enough to get us through until next January – that’s 365 breakfasts and 365 slices of our own everyday sourdough toast – possibly 400 if you include the greed.
It has been raining all day again. Last night’s TV documentary on the Church of England’s cover up of the predatory bishop Peter Ball – who I knew slightly when he came to theological college as an occasional lecturer – depressed me beyond measure, not least because it was so entirely predictable. A church hierarchy that protects its reputation before it protects vulnerable people is utterly unworthy.
Dave Goulson’s book “The Jungle Garden” which I’ve been reading made me gnash my teeth as well, but this time in a good way. You’ll never eat a shiny Cox apple or a Spanish non-organic grape again.
……. and thank you so much for reading this blog. Yesterday I had my largest number of views ever – completely inexplicable!
Well, not quite hiding but certainly not going outside. The weather has been filthy and looks determined to get filthier and so Madame made a large batch of pesto and then we worked together prepping what should be around 30lbs of Seville orange marmalade by the time it’s finished.
We’ve been intending to make a stock batch of pesto for ages – partly because we’ve almost run out, (it freezes very well), but also because we need the propagators empty in order to get chillies going fairly soon. For the sake of convenience we combined the two types – ‘Bolloso Napolitano’ and ‘Classico’ – both from Franchi – because we had them ready to harvest, although I think I prefer the first more, it’s got a hint of aniseed somewhere. These plants were grown in a home made compost mixture combining 40 topsoil, 40 composted manure, 10 vermiculite and 10 Perlite. The seeds were germinated and kept at around 20 C until the plants were ready to harvest and they were grown under 12 hours daily of overhead artificial daylight. They were only watered from below and once they’d got their feet down we fed them regularly with dilute seaweed feed. We’ve previously tried growing them in compost only, but these have been the best plants we’ve ever produced and the pesto today was absolutely delicious. It’ll be rolled and part frozen, cut into individual portions and wrapped. One important point is to sow thinly and then thin again to stop the plants competing and exhausting themselves.
The marmalade reminded me (again) that it’s always good to read even a familiar recipe twice, because we’d peeled, deseeded and knife cut six pounds of peel into fine shreds before I realised that we were going to have to add 12 pints of water for the initial cooking. That brought it almost to the top of our biggest preserving pan with no room to add the sugar so we’re going to have to share the big batch between two pans. I made the same mistake last year and there was a discernible difference between the two batches – both were very nice but just different in texture and set. I also need to climb up to the top cupboard to make sure we’ve got enough jam jars. When we first moved here I bought what I thought would be a lifetime supply of screw top lids from a wholesaler, but I think we’ll have used them all up with this batch of marmalade.
Meanwhile storm Brendan has spared us the worst of the wind and rain because we’re sheltered here in the Avon valley, but we cancelled a proposed overnight stay in the Forest of Dean because the campervan can rock and roll a bit in high winds. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen baking for our grandson’s cake stall. I’ve bought a muffin mould especially, but I’ve never made a muffin in my life so it could all go terribly wrong.
My friend Rose has texted to say that she’s modelled her whole life on Flora Poste (see previous posts) and Emma Woodhouse. It would be churlish to comment!
After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs). The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands. We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out. I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles. We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.
The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps. We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.
Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think. I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.
The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.
The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy. Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.
And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year. They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.
I’m amazed that two Potwell Inn regulars have suggested their favourite marmalade recipes already, although the difference is more in the preparation than the ingredients. Mags emailed with her favourite approach and then today Rose suggested hers. The common factor was that they both involved cooking the fruit whole and then removing the pips and pulp. In Rose’s recipe – or rather Mrs Beeton’s – the pulp is returned to the pan without the chopped peel after cooking whole for 2 hours. The two hour cooking period is common to almost all the recipes I’ve seen. In Mag’s it’s returned in a muslin bag which makes it easier to remove than the Beeton recipe which needs straining. Again all recipes require the removal of the pips.
I’ve never cooked the fruit whole before but I have to say it simplified the whole job and made the peel much easier to slice finely. Apart from that, today I used golden granuated cane sugar because Madame (and me too) like the colour which doesn’t seem to affect the flavour noticeably. So far as setting is concerned I’ve been setting by temperature for the last couple of years because it’s more reliable for me. 104.5C Seems to do the trick for pretty well any jam, but if you prefer the wrinkle test (or you can use it better than me), I’m sure it’s just as good. Right at the end I chuck in a glass of whisky or brandy if there’s some in the cupboard. But I’m amazed that marmalade generates such recipe loyalty – I think we all know that almost whatever recipe you use it’s going to turn out better than the rather tasteless commercial product.
Beyond that we’re still recovering from the viruses but we whizzed across to the garden centre to get some seed sowing compost. While we were there I ‘accidentally’ bought some seeds for Bhut Jolokia chillies which can ripen to 1000,000+ Scoville units. It’s by far the hottest chilli we’ve ever tried to grow – Oh Joy! – and thanks for the emails.
It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.
In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.
In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be. A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature. Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing. Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.
The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago. She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel. She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.
A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse. I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors. Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges. By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.
The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels. We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.
It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade. Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance. Normally!
It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools. I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.
Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground. Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.
Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise. When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.
But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community. He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane. He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”
It’s frosty and there’s a lingering mist over the city that suggests it’s going to be one of those bone-chilling days out there, so we’re not racing to get up to the allotment. As ever the post-Christmas fridge is stuffed with leftovers demanding attention and bits of overbuying are ticking away dangerously like timebombs. And that’s not all, because there are things – nameless things – in the storecupboard that should be thrown away. Old and failed lactofermenting experiments like two of the three ways of preserving cucumbers should probably be given a respectful burial. Experiment number three, which was the least – shall we say – purist, is the most successful by far and even gained the approval of our son’s Polish girlfriend, and so we’ll mark that recipe in Diana Hendry’s book on preserving. Sadly – much as I love Sandor Katz – the first version failed mainly on texture. Cucumbers are prone to get rather slimy and soft in pickles, and when you add tough skin to the list of properties you can see that the poor unloved jar was going to linger in the cupboard to the end of time! The second version was so salty you’d probably have to tell your doctor if you ate more than two. But then the upside of the clearout is that there are more 2 litre Kilner jars for sauerkraut and other experiments, and we’re trialing a new variety of pickling cucumber next season. We’ve yet to try the salted beans which were inspired by a remark in her biography by by Patience Gray’s son who said he actually preferred them to the fresh ones. I can hardly believe that’s possible but we’ve done a small batch anyway.
There’s one thing we’ve been waiting for January to make, and that’s marmalade. We ran out in the spring because I mistakenly thought we’d got loads in a box in the garage. It turned out to be ten jars of rather aged plum chutney. January is when the new crop of Seville oranges comes into the shops and I can hardly wait. We did buy a jar of commercial marmalade but in the end we chucked it out after a few tries because it lacked bite. Far too much sugar and low on fruit it was precisely what you get when you favour price over value.
The other thing that comes in January may not appear at all this year because cod stocks are always a bit fragile and the only kind to get is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But since I was a child I’ve always loved fresh cod roe. Most of it goes for smoking to make taramasalata As you see, the fresh stuff’s a bit in your face and it’s a faff to prepare because it needs poaching before you can do anything with it. But I love it – possibly all the more because it only appears for a brief season and often not at all so there’s no prospect of ever getting bored with it. But I’m probably among a dwindling number of people who will buy it. It’s almost certainly one of those dishes like feijoada that can only be fully loved by those who’ve eaten it from childhood. But next Saturday I shall go to the farmers’ market where I know there’s a fishmonger who will have it if there’s any about. Poached and then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and fried, it’s really lovely with the cheapest white bread you can get and some tomato ketchup. It’s like being six again.