Time for some soup

Let’s be honest, some of our produce isn’t going to win any prizes, but the fact that it tastes so good and we know it’s proper organic rather than ‘organish’ means we don’t want to waste a single leaf. Today we harvested celery, carrots, beetroot and a load of herbs.  We even discovered a hyssop plant that we’d given up on, quietly thriving under the French tarragon. As the allotment matures, we get lots of those kinds of surprises – like the coriander and caraway that are growing away vigorously after self-seeding. Marigolds and nasturtiums are just as bad, but does it really matter? There’s space for everything and we can always dig up and move, or just cut down anything that’s in the wrong place, because we know we’ll be growing them every year in any case. The key is recognising the plants when they’re still in the seedling stage, an operation that’s greatly helped by the fact that most herb seedlings smell just like their parent plants from very early on – and of course when spring comes along they’ll be up and running without any intervention on our part.

Last night I was browsing in a catalogue of medicinal herbs and I was greatly amused by seeing “Dactylis glomerata” seeds on sale for £2.50. The English name is cock’s foot, and the thought of buying seeds for such a common weed never occurred to me.  On the other hand I could probably put a few clumps up on ebay – I could even throw a bonus offer of “goutweed” in for the real enthusiasts – as long as they don’t plant it anywhere near our plot.

Today was one of those greasy days where it never quite rains and yet it never really stops either. Misty dampness clotted the sky with grey and we pretty much had the whole site to ourselves.  So it was mostly pruning for me – cutting the autumn raspberries back hard and pruning the grape vine, while Madame sowed seeds and weeded. The greenhouse is almost full with autumn sown vegetables and outside the overwintering garlic and shallots are all now planted in their beds. There’s a risk of a particularly late spring leaving these premature sowings leggy and poor after too long under cover, but it’s always worth having a go. The compost heap has risen to 30C so there’s lots of action there and I’ll probably turn it as soon as the temperature starts to drop; and even the leaf bay feels warm to the hand – it’s amazing how much good gardening gets done without any work on our part.

IMG_6313At home the summer window boxes are all inside now  and we’ll be taking cuttings for next year. Tomorrow looks set to be wet from the outset. Before we left this morning, I sorted out a corner of my room because we’ve decided to have a ‘drawing day’. I aim to spend an hour or so doing the colour swatches tonight so that I can begin the first draft paintings tomorrow. It’s fascinating to see how different “daylight” lamps can be from one manufacturer to another. I prefer to work with quite high light levels to bring out all the subtleties of colour, and for very fine work I use a big desk magnifier, so you can see three distinct ‘daylight colour’ sets on my desk, and I have to negotiate my way through the various options.

This is beautiful – really!

IMG_5954The last time I actually studied biology I was 13 years old and determined to drop the subject as soon as I could.  I don’t know quite why, it was probably to do with the teachers we had.  The biology teacher was very young and we were a pretty unruly class, given to asking silly questions that were certain to make him blush – he blushed easily. His nemesis was – let’s call her Jolene – who was reputed to be a great comfort to the sixth form boys and therefore an object of awe to the rest of us. Jolene collected detentions like most of us collect loyalty stamps, and one day she discovered how easy it was to escape confinement by lifting up her dress and showing our biology teacher her knickers. Word got around and the class descended into anarchy. Being a bit of a geek, I thought I’d be better off doing physics so I defected to the subject that had an inspirational teacher known by us all as Jinks, whose lessons were never less than exciting and often featured electric shocks and explosions, and that’s one of those odd bifurcations in the road that sent me off in another direction than the subject of the little diagram above while I still knew next to nothing about biology.  Until this week.

So sixty years later I’ve developed an interest in herbal medicine, largely through growing things on the allotment. Like an annoying child, my mind always functions by asking an endless regression of ‘whys?’ and so I thought I should investigate some biochemistry – which is down there with brain surgery on my list of least understood subjects. So I bought a copy of ‘Medical Herbalism’ by David Hoffmann in the hope of some enlightenment. There is one sentence near the beginning of the book that gave me the energy to carry on because it said – in relation to the incomprehensible formulae and diagrams – don’t worry too much about them, they’re just a schematic way of expressing molecules that don’t look anything like them.  

‘That’ll do for me’, I thought, I’m good at using myths and metaphors as ways of understanding real-life events that elude description any other way. So to cut to the really exciting insight it’s nothing more than a biological commonplace if you’ve been immersed in the field but to me, whose last experience of scientific biology was cutting up a potato while thinking about Jolene, it came as a revelation.

It’s all very simple really.  We are – as smart arsed scientists in the media like to say – a carbon lifeform. I’d never really thought what an awe inspiring fact that is until  I started to look at some of those beautiful metaphors like the one at the top of the page. They really are so simple it’s ridiculous.  Every living thing, every plant cell, every green patch behind the sink, the birds, the bees and Jolene too while we’re on the subject, is made from a ridiculous lego kit  comprising a very limited palette of atoms whose properties allow them to engage with one another in such complex forms it leaves you breathless. My head is flooding with ‘hows?’ and ‘whys?’ but the fact is that everything that has ever lived, or might come to life in the future is built from the same simple components.

Plants, it turns out, having the leisure of evolutionary time at their disposal, are perfectly adept at creating massively complex molecules, some of which are essential to our human lives but which we are unable to create ourselves. We are, to an extent, made out of plants.  “You are what you eat” turns out to be true in a less grandstanding sense than it’s usually employed. Our familiar compound Serotonin whose diagram is at the top of the page, can be largely synthesised by plants with the sort of ingredients available in every plant’s larder.

A question arises from this. What happens to all those molecular spare parts when we, or any other life form, return to the ground? Do they maintain their integrity as useful spare parts? And so is normal soil – I’m talking about healthy soil that’s not been drenched in pesticides and herbicides – full of these spare parts, and is that something to do with soil health? Is my compost heap a breakers yard for complex molecules? I have no idea what the answer to that might be but I’d like to think it was true.

I’ve come out of the brainblast with very little more understanding of the detail but a much bigger idea of the unity of all life.  I mean, our sympathy, our love, our study of nature is not predicated on some lofty and detached platform from which we can study the earth as a neutral observer.  We are the earth, we’re made of exactly the same stuff which is just organised in a different, more complex way. When we abuse and mistreat the earth we are self-harming. Isn’t that awful? Self harming!

Anyway, enough for the time being.  We’re going to be away for a week in a place that’s 25 miles from the nearest shop, with no radio, TV or internet and no phone signal, while our son minds the Potwell Inn bar and waters the plants.. Are we looking forward to it?  Hell yes!

More pictures on today’s crops below.  The pumpkin is for the grandchildren at Hallowe’en – if I can still carry it. The boring picture with the black plastic is a reminder that if you’re leaving ground empty, even for a while, it’s best to cover it.  The black plastic is waterproof membrane bought from a builder’s supplier about eight years ago and it’s been in continuus use ever since.

 

 

The allotment, a recipe, some history, a bit about medicinal herbs and even a bit about bread! No botany.

IMG_5752

Enough botany for now, then – it’s back to ‘real’ life, sweating it out at 30C on the allotment and then bizarrely cooking supper in the oven, raising the temperature in the kitchen to about 40C, ‘nothing’ for my two chef sons, I can hear them saying, but plenty hot enough for me.  We went up at 8.30am in the hope that we could get things done in the cool part of the day, but 2 hours later we were still at it when Madame got the vapours and went on strike under the umbrella. It’s great having the umbrella on the allotment but despite its size it seems only to provide shade for one. I think I’m going to invent a pivotable sail to attach to the shed so we can move it around with the sun.

This year we’ve followed the advice of James Wong in his book about growing for flavour.  He says that chillies get hotter if they’re subjected to stress, and so it seems mollycoddling them with with auto watering last year may have prevented them from reaching their full potential. This year they’ve been watered only when almost dried out and they’ve loved it.  Last year’s F1 Apache chillies were so mild I could pick them off the plant and eat them.  I did the same thing today and they almost blew my head off – I was left scampering around the allotment looking for something cold to drink. So I’ve managed to grow successfully all five varieties including the Scotch Bonnet type which around the top of the Scoville scale, but I shan’t be randomly picking them!

Last Friday’s rain was a decent soaking and when I dug the shallots today the earth was quite moist.  A couple of haulm’s worth of Arran Pilot potatoes were looking good and plump.

Back home with a trug full of fresh veg I cooked an old favourite dish – Carbonnade Nîmoise a very simple French dish which would have been cooked in a cooling bread oven back in the day, and makes a very small amount of lamb go a long way.  Garlic, carrots potatoes and fresh herbs all dug and picked this morning and baked in the oven with some olive oil, a couple of slices of bacon, a glass of wine and a dollop of reduced stock from the fridge. It’s impossible to overcook it, sealed in an extra foil cover under the lid. The star of the show is usually the potatoes which seem to soak up all the flavours, and if it’s cooked right it’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon.

More good new too on the allotment.  I was starting to clear the 50 square metres of loaned land, on which we grew potatoes this year,  and our neighbour said he was happy to continue the loan for another season, so we decided on the spot that we would overwinter our broad beans there this autumn.  To be honest we grew far too many spuds this year but we pay our neighbour in kind for the loan and he takes a share of the produce from his piece of land – it works very well.

And although the field botany phase has ended, there’s still all the typing up to do.  I usually make a sortable list in Word so I can eliminate any duplicates and do a final check on any doubtfuls. Luckily I have a contact in the Bath Nats who is willing to cast an eye over any dubious identifications and we’ll be seeing him on Thursday anyway because he’s running a workshop on identifying Rumex spp – yes I’m a complete propeller head!

On another tack, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been sharpening my skills in identifying plants with medicinal uses. That’s raised some very interesting ethical issues, for instance I found dozens of Betony plants on the clifftop at St Davids, but nothing would induce me to pick them because there just aren’t enough, and there are many medicinal plants that are in danger of being foraged into extinction, sometimes for money. I mentioned in a previous posting how I watched in horror when, on a fungus foray, I saw a young woman (known to me) pick every single Ragged Parasol fungus in a stand of a couple of dozen – far more than any family could reasonably eat. In fact foraging is becoming something of a menace in places.  I know there are many medicinal herbs we can grow on the allotment and some – couch root, dandelions and nettles, for instance, are so prolific that it’s perfectly OK to take a regular cut.  I’m trying to make a list of sustainably available plants in our immediate area and, trust me, I shan’t be publishing their whereabouts. However the vast quantities of these plants that are being processed and added to everything from cough mixture to cosmetics makes you wonder how sustainable or ethical the supply line is.  There’s no real compulsion to monitor it – for instance I was greatly shocked to read on the Plantlife website that even the supply of licorice is under threat.  We know it can be (or was) at least grown in Pontefract and presumably could be grown again – a nice little niche income for a farm with the right soil conditions.

This has been a bit of a mixed bag of a posting but, in my defence, I haven’t mentioned sourdough, mainly because we bake less in the summer.  While we were away Madame was reading about farm life on Ramsey Island and in those days (the 1940’s) ‘mother’ would bake 30 loaves a week in a paraffin fuelled oven. The same book had many photos of the family, and it was clear that the grandson of the family is still farming in the area – in fact he was the one with the brilliant sheepdogs – and the image of his grandfather. A photo of the flock of sheep is at the top of the post.

If you’re interested in following up on the sustainability of medicinal plants I found this paper – but be warned, it’s mind bogglingly thorough!

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_med_plants.pdf