Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Johnny Appleseed’s true identity revealed

According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.

Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.

Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.

The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.

Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.

It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.

If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!

Food and farming joined

At the beginning of the sequence of covid and then brexit we saw the fragility of our food chain demonstrated in the most telling way by empty shelves in the supermarkets and perfectly good food rotting in lorries. At the time we resolved that we would switch our shopping towards high standard and locally produced organic food as soon as we could. It’s been a year but after a lot of research we’ve found an organic farm shop that’s only ten minutes drive away and sells fresh meat and fish too on Wednesdays. These all come from the immediate locality. The veg are not so local because there are a lot more livestock and dairy farms locally than there are market gardens, but then they’re all labelled with their place of origin and we grow a great proportion of our own veg in any case. There are two organic veg outlets five minutes walk from the flat. The fish come either from West Country inshore fisheries or further afield for the offshore catches. Staples like grains and beans can easily be found in Bath which has a strong alternative food tradition. Is it all more expensive? – honestly yes – but that’s because the hidden cost of intensive food production and distribution are never counted in the ticket price, (although still we pay through the nose in terms of poor health, environmental damage and pollution), and of course we still buy a significant amount of food in a supermarket that’s worker owned and demands high welfare standards from its suppliers. You can’t let the perfect drive out the good, as the saying goes, and to an extent the higher price is mitigated by the fact that we never willingly waste any of it. Our tiny food waste recycling bin is only emptied a couple of times a week at the very most and one of these days when funds permit we’ll try out bokashi composting and/or build a worm farm up at the allotment. What’s for sure is that eating is – or at least should be – as much an ethical issue for omnivores as it is for the most committed vegan.

But there I go sounding a bit worthy. The best news about shopping locally is the fact that it creates a lot of local jobs and you can have a conversation with a person who really cares about what they’re selling. Today we joined the queue for the fish van and overheard a conversation he was having with a customer about the way the Brixham trawler skippers were re-jigging their markets after brexit. Then, when our turn came he was delighted to tell us that our smoked mackerel – the darkest I’ve ever seen – were smoked in Arbroath, and the smoked haddock (OK I love smoked fish) was processed in Peterhead where this particular supplier would only smoke the largest fish. In the butchery no-one even raised an eyebrow when I asked about mutton, and the butcher told me they only occasionally get hogget. You’ve really never tasted lamb until you’ve eaten hogget – lamb in its second year. We were given a leg by a smallholding friend and it was simply the best flavoured lamb I’ve ever tasted. We even found out that they make all their own faggots; no-waste butchery on the very farm the animals are raised on, and the great thing about a proper butcher is that you can often buy the cheapest cuts at incredibly good prices. In the food section there’s even a refrigerated Jersey milk dispenser, and unless this sounds like a bit of a promo, we tried the sausages last week and neither of us particularly liked them. However there’s another local butcher on our river walk and he makes the best we’ve ever tasted. Ask yourself when was the last time that food shopping was this much fun?

As we left the shop we found this family of pigs with a whole paddock to themselves. The piglets were a little shy and scooted off behind the ark when they saw me, but it seems to me that if you’re going to eat meat at all it should be produced on farms like this and lead a naturally fulfilled life in the open air before being humanely slaughtered. Traditional mixed farming is certainly one part of a sustainable farming future; producing excellent food while returning fertility to the ground. I go back often to Michael Pollan’s excellent advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg!”

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