Orion’s spell

Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.

Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.

Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.

So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.

However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?

Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.

Orion’s dog nights

I can’t say that these days between the solstice and twelfth night are dog days because that description is reserved to the early weeks of August when everything is hot, sweaty and lethargic.  But the dog’s in there up to his shining teeth, on clear nights when you can see Orion’s belt and track to the left and there’s Sirius in all his shining brightness.

Orion was the first constellation I learned to identify for the entirely unworthy reason that my birthday being in December, my younger self took that as an invitation to party until term restarted in January – which meant that I spent a lot of excited and drunken nights wondering at the stars and what they might mean. Sirius was Orion’s hunting dog and so I feel bold to claim that these dog nights in December and January are the counterparts of their warm equivalents in summer; a time when not much work but a lot of wondering gets done.

However, work we must, whenever the weather clears for a few hours because when spring arrives in maybe three months, there will be no time for pondering and bed building. Neither will there be time to wonder what we should be growing and where the new compost bins need to go: we need to be ready.  We’ve more plants overwintering than ever this year, and today Madame planted out the last of the early broad beans while I got on with building another path and the base for the compost bins.  The first batch we planted last week have almost doubled in size already.  They’re Aquadulce Claudia so they’re perfectly capable of surviving the winter, and when we took them out of the greenhouse the roots were searching beyond the ends of the long Root-Trainers so they were more than ready to go. The peas too (Douce Provence) are doing well under their protective fleece, and the garlic, shallots and onions are well away, although it’s winter now. The allotment feels positive – as if it’s having a good time too.

I’m loathe to use any growing space for what might be thought of as a utility area, but I’ve become more conviced than ever that we need to up our game and we finally decided on three 4’X4′ bays in the middle of the plot and with a wide path beside it. We’ll treat compost just like any other crop and give it the best conditions and constituents we can so that our production will increase to meet our demand – less buying in and expense all round.

We also moved a rhubarb plant and two fennels that suddenly seemed as if they were in the wrong place.  This is a great time of the year for moving the furniture around – a couple of weeks ago we moved another rhubarb (Timperly early) and it’s already rewarded us with some new buds.

But these short days still feel like a holiday.  The seeds have all arrived, the heated propagators are cleaned and ready to go with the earliest sowings of chillies and with working time so limited we also need to take stock, take a big breath and prepare for next season. There’s much to celebrate and we’ve learned so much this season.  Every garden or allotment we’ve ever grown has had its own personality.  There are things it does easily and others it needs help with. Soil is as various as the people that till it, and our relationship with it grows and deepens like our relationship with each other.  On days like today the Potwell Inn merges imperceptibly with our real everyday lives and it feels good. The earth is very forgiving.

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