Benign neglect makes the best sourdough

Isn’t that a trixie photo? – artisanal looking sourdough bathed in summer light with a geranium filled window box in the background. It has all the authentic marks of the dreaded Lifestyle Blog; aspirational; sensitive; Laura Ashley.

If this was a mind map there would be two lines emerging from the photo. The first would take you to a box that explained that this was the loaf that flew close to the wind. We were almost out of bread yesterday and I’d forgotten to start the batter the previous night – it’s a bedtime job at the Potwell Inn. So I started it early yesterday morning, wondering how the new timetable would work out. Around two in the afternoon I added the main body of flour with the salt and a little oil; left it for twenty minutes and kneaded it. Then, just before we went to bed, I knocked it back and put it in the banneton overnight, knowing that if it was too warm in the kitchen it would flow over the sides and ruin. But when I woke, the domed top had just risen a centimeter higher than the edge and the banneton was full. Nice one! So into the oven and in half an hour it was done – full steam, 240C for ten minutes and 180C for twenty minutes more.

I think we tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our input into breadmaking. I’ve been making bread for sixty years if you count my first teenage attempt with cake flour and dried yeast (not a show stopper). If I’ve emerged with one lesson it’s not to worry too much and to stop fiddling about. I know the magazines are full of arcane advice about making sourdough but really, it needs no leylinesand no magic incantations and you can make it with pretty well any flour that you can lay your hands on. Some work better than others – I’ve never successfully made 100% wholemeal sourdough – it’s always reminded me of the Grant Loaf that was fashionable in the sixties; heavy as lead and about as much fun as a Methodist prayer meeting. The choice of ingredients for bread is more of an ethical decision.

what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog?

Dave Pole, The Potwell Inn

But the second line on my mind-map would lead to the question – what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog? Well firstly, life is not a bowl of cherries, or indeed strawberries because we didn’t have any cherries on the allotment – and a certain degree of dullness is to be expected in life, so as Socrates might have said if he hadn’t been forced to drink hemlock for the crime of not being dull at all – suck it up, it’s good for you!

Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s

Naomi Klein – “This changes everything”

The other reason that it’s important to write about everyday life, as we try to live it at the Potwell Inn, is that it’s essential to oppose shroud waving politicians and their puppeteers with the truth that we can live rich and rewarding lives without neurotic consumption. We can live the very richest of lives, enjoy the best of food and remain sane, healthy, connected and spiritually alive with surprisingly little by way of material wealth. If I had any ambition at all for the Potwell Inn blog it would be to try to convey, through thinking aloud about our lives here, that saving the earth by changing our way of life, isn’t about deprivation and self-denial at all. It’s essential to explode the myth that we can only live fulfilled lives by becoming indentured slaves to consumption.

And I also think there’s an important distinction between showing off and inspiring others to give it a go too. The underlying reason for getting so evangelistic about it is that I’m not convinced that people will change their lives because we present them with any more, or any new, facts about the global ecological disaster that’s unfolding. The scene in the New York diner in “When Harry met Sally” when the woman on the next table says – ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a brilliantly funny way of expressing an important aspect of the human personality. We’re far more likely to adopt new behaviours when we’ve seen them modelled in some way. I know that growing vegetables hardly competes in terms of arousal, but my point is that the deepest ways of teaching and learning always focus on modelling the new behaviour – or to get slightly more philosophical about it, virtues are habits.

So let’s be honest about it, the Potwell Inn is a rather subversive school of virtues, the virtues that are being destroyed by our present way of life; and baking a loaf of bread or growing garlic (which I’m coming on to) has very little to do with nutritional values and everything to do with human thriving.

This is the row of garlic we planted in the autumn – it’s a variety of softneck garlic called Early Purple Wight – and it’s done well in this exceptional spring, although it needed a lot of watering. Garlic dislikes being waterlogged and being dry in equal measure, so finding the sweet spot in the middle is tricky. So far, so horticultural: but lifting the first bulb is a big moment, and when a crop does well, as this one did, there’s an unmatchable sense of occasion. Madame took the bulb and peeled back the first outer layer to see what we had and the most wonderful fragrance filled the air, and then,when we got it home we peeled it properly and the whole flat suddenly smelled like Southern France. It went straight into a red wine marinade, of course.

The first bowl of strawberries straight from the allotment, the crust of a sourdough loaf still warm from the oven and spread with butter and home made marmalade; a glass of the elderflower cordial we made last week; the first new potato – sweet and waxy; lettuce so crisp you can snap it; sugar snap peas straight from the vine and eaten raw; these are so much more than simply food – although they are simple food.

Our lives are all the richer when, rather than grabbing what we can from the earth like thieves, we live sacramentally; when growing and eating food becomes the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace to borrow a phrase from an old Christian catechism, and if that sounds a bit religious I’d say that my non-theistic borrowing is very far from heretical.

If the environmental movement is to achieve our aims, we have to move the game from endlessly rehearsing scary facts and data and stop shouting at people and start modelling great human lives. If rewilding the earth is to become an act rather than an aspiration we have to adopt another borrowing from faith language – the idea that virtuous lives are caught and not taught.

This is a cornflower – an almost extinct vagrant driven from its natural habitat by our agricultural greed and surviving on occasional handouts from local authorities who enjoy a bit of greenwashing as long as its cheap. It’s eking out an existence on the riverbank here in Bath until someone complains about the weeds and orders in the strimmers. Meanwhile we can exult in its quite unnecessary extravagance and perfection while they refill the mowers with petrol. That’s what’s got to change.

Cornflower

Losing my religion – 1

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My sourdough starter is happy. This is the kind of statement that drives philosophers crazy, but to me – and hopefully to you – it makes complete sense.  When dogs wag their tails, we say they’re happy too; inviting philosophical sceptics to raise their eyebrows and turn away.

For weeks, during this lockdown, I couldn’t get any rye flour – which is what my starter was ‘conceived’ in (sorry, that’s another one) and what it’s been fed on ever since – for years and years. For almost two months I was only able to feed it with refined white bread flour at first and wholemeal spelt flour later on.  The white flour was not a success.  the starter fizzed up for a few hours and then slowed right down and began to settle into a sludgy mess at the bottom and a dark liquid on top. It also smelt quite different. One of the distinguishing features of my starter is that it smells strongly of apples, but fed with white flour it began to smell vinegary. I should add that it still worked perfectly well but never quite felt the same. The spelt flour was better but still tended to settle out. But this week, back on the rye flour, the starter has begun to thrive again, bubbling away for several days without needing a feed and has also returned to its old apple smell. In short, it was happy.

Sourdough can be happy; plants – we gardeners all understand – can be happy and so can soil and even cattle.  I once saw a herd of local cattle which had been led up to the Aubrac hills in France, during the transhumance, and I swear they were happy too – smiling broadly in a contented sort of cowy way. The local cheeses – made by the farmers – were fabulous as well.

So there’s a conundrum here. We, in our careless linguistic way, ascribe feelings to dogs cats and cows. We stretch the concept to include plants, trees, butterflies, sourdough starters and even – if you’re into that sort of thing – rat tailed maggots and, in our careless sort of way we ascribe some form of consciousness to them. If rat tailed maggots can be happy they must have feelings and must, ergo, be conscious.  We gardeners and allotmenteers are always happy to see their hoverfly stage eating our pests. 

There’s a philosophical conundrum lurking in the middle of all this that’s pretty complex and it affects the whole way we look at the earth and creation.  If we say that only humans possess consciousness then it’s harder to make a moral or ethical case against exploiting another part of creation that (we believe) – doesn’t, because it only exists for our benefit. You see where this is leading – all human societies have their theoretical underpinning – call it common sense if you must – and the worst of this one is that it separates humans from the rest of creation. If you want to read a whole lot more about this I recommend Philip Goff’s book “Galileo’s Error”.

The takeaway point is that consciousness could be a fundamental quality of nature – from the tiniest subatomic event to the formidable consciousness of the human mind. The argument’s all there in the book, and it’s a bit disintegrating if, by that, you understand that we tend to lean on a whole set of assumptions to get through the day and when those assumptions are demolished, the simplest actions get more complicated. We think that trees, by our standards, lack consciousness – but they not only communicate with one another, they share sustenance – favouring immediate relatives, warn one another about pathogens and insect attacks over wide areas but – get this – they accomplish this by collaborating with fungi, using their network of microscopic threads as a kind of natural cable network. But, of course – if all of nature is talking but we stand aside, contemptuously refusing to join the conversation, we can’t hear what all nature is trying to tell us – that we are rapidly destroying ourselves. Tree hugging, it seems, is not so silly when the tree and its inhabitants are trying to warn us about the oncoming train.

All this, of course is a first draft.  It may be that it’s a quirk of my own nature that I’m always asking ‘why?’ but my scepticism isn’t one of those smart things I might say when I’m trying to impress, it’s hard wired into me – examining gift-horse teeth, examining the entrails of common sense and being generally annoying. Socrates, after all said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and it cost him his life.  I hope to get away with a few sleepless nights and a headache, but ‘because I say so’ has never got me to sign a direct debit form!

There’s much, much more I want to write but for the moment I need fresh air – and the allotment is perpetually thirsty. As for Naomi Klein, I can only read her in small doses because I find her so disturbing, but here’s a cheerful photo I took a couple of days ago in the centre of Bath. It’s a hoary plantain – not really rare, but let’s say unusual.  You might pass it by but it’s a tiny, inconspicuous gem – the only one among its cousins that’s pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Why’s that? I wonder.IMG_20200516_181322

 

When push comes to shove it’s all about parsnips (and other unglamorous stuff).

IMG_20191207_164441I know I can get very intense about all the politics and philosophy that swirl around us at the moment. I can even get cross with myself, and worry that I’m alienating the readers who’d rather be reading about cooking or the allotment; but I’ve also set my face against turning this journal – because that’s what it is – into a one dimensional thread focused on one particular aspect of our life at the (imaginary) Potwell Inn. There’s a Chinese saying, or is it a curse? -about living in interesting times and, like it or not – these are interesting times and I don’t much care for them.

And when we live in such interesting times, even the growing of parsnips can become a political statement or an act of defiance, and so the politics and the philosophy and joining some kind of counter culture are all entwined. Which means that although I could probably give some sensible advice about growing parsnips – like being patient while they germinate; only using new seed; making sure the soil is deep enough and so-on, the fact is, they get affected by carrot fly and other pests and the question of what to do about it is only simple if you’re happy with indiscriminately poisoning anything that might pose a remote threat. Allotmenteering is only simple if you go with the flow. If you don’t, you land up playing chess with a thousand pieces and  rules that can change overnight. I’m not trying to be off putting here, just noticing that without the comfort of what therapists call “splitting off”, the bowl of soup on your table can become a microcosm of the crisis.

I made parsnip soup today, for a friend who was dropping by to see us.  I made it a few weeks ago for another friend because I like parsnip soup – we grow them so  it’s ridiculously cheap and  easy to make and  (I think) people enjoy it. In the course of our conversation we got to talking about what our children were up to and it turns out that one of her children is doing very well working for one of the agrichemical giants, helping to sell insecticide delivery systems in the developing world. Curiously – or – as the Jungians would say ‘synchronously’ the last friend I made the soup for has spent so much time demonstrating outside one of their sites that she was invited in for a “conversation” with the managers. “Oh for goodness sake!” – I thought …… “this soup is getting too contentious”.

The fact is – there is no escape from the cultural, the philosophical and the ethical issues that beset us and so I’ve taken up the challenge of studying them and, because I’m a bit lost myself, I write about it and share my thoughts with you because (I assume) you must be interested in the same difficult questions. At the moment I’ve got loads of ideas swarming around in my mind. I don’t want (or need) to preach to the converted but I am very seriously committed to finding ways of communicating the positive things that would accompany a new green deal, to those who (have been encouraged to) bury their heads in the sand and who believe that nothing can be done.

What I’d like to do is sleep soundly without worrying, grow vegetables, search for plants and live in a culture rooted in the sense of community  with one another and with the whole of creation. In order to achieve that we need to make a huge cultural change. I was watching  a TV interview with Naomi Klein today and she put the central issue very concisely. We can’t choose between radical change and a quiet life.  If we do nothing there will be a catastrophe – and that surely is radical change; or – we can take charge of a radical agenda that will rescue the earth while preserving us from the menace of resurgent fascism. 

Better a dish of herbs where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred.