Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

A stranger on the allotment causes great consternation

I was just settling down to planting out some leeks for the winter when Helen came across with disturbing news. She had been poking about – although that’s not quite how she put it – on a disused plot when she had discovered what she thought might be Japanese Knotweed growing. This would be exceptionally bad news because it’s an incredibly difficult plant to eradicate without dousing the entire site with several tons of agent orange and keeping it under armed guard for six months. The treacherous thought passed through my head – look on the bright side it might be Himalayan Balsam which is almost as invasive but has prettier flowers. So we trekked across to the offending plot and had a look. Thankfully at this point she hadn’t rung the council, although she had mentioned it to the site rep. Anyway, whatever it was it wasn’t either of the nasty plants but I had no idea at all what it was, so I took some photos and promised I’d have a go at identifying it. Later on I had a scout around on the internet and discovered that it’s a golden kiwi vine – Actinidia chinensis. It’s a big and energetic looking plant so we’ll see if it bears any fruit this year; but people plant the wackiest things on their allotments and then when they leave, the next tenants often dig them up for fear that they’re weeds. We’ve seen many mature plants destroyed by newcomers who think they need to cluster bomb their plot and start again. Sometimes it’s a good idea to wait and see for the first year. Our vines and one of the white currants are both incredibly productive and neither of them cost us a penny apart from a bit of work. The same goes for the Lord Lambourne apple that was quickly escaping its espalier form from neglect when we took it on, but after a couple of hard prunings it’s looking the part once again and producing dozens of delicious apples for us.

Anyway, my forensic adventure revealed another useful neglected resource – a rampant patch of post flowering borage, which is a marvellous addition to a compost heap. So later I popped back and took a cut. It’ll grow back and flower again this summer with ease, and so we’ll share the spoils with the bees.

This is another of those transitional times on the allotment when we’re busy taking spent crops out and replanting the beds immediately. I harvested the last of the first earlies, around 28lbs of new potatoes. There’s just one more bed to clear because we like to get them safely out of the ground before the risk of blight. So spuds out and leeks in – that’s what I was in the middle of doing when helen shipped up. They’re lovely looking plants this year so we’re optimistic about a good crop. The peas, on the other hand, have been not been good. They came late and rather erratically and so the pea moth was able to invade before we got to eat them. There were a few pounds but nothing to get excited about – so, sadly, they’ll be coming up tomorrow if the rain lets up, and we’ll get something else planted in there.

One crop that’s totally reliable is the courgette. There are only two of us and we usually have far more than we need. To be honest it’s never been one of my favourite vegetables but growing them turns them into a wholly new treat. Often I sauté them and give them a splash of lemon juice just before serving them – maybe with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Lemon lifts the flavour in a way that salt never can, so it’s a perfect substitute. Another favourite way is to cut the courgettes in lengthways slices, dip them in beaten egg and flour and then fry them. OK it’s a bit of a faff, but then you alternate layers of courgette with pieces of mozzarella cheese and good, rich (home made) tomato sauce, pop in some hard boiled eggs and top it with bread crumbs and bake in the oven. It’s a recipe I got from Patence Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a weed” – look for zucchini al forno. We cook it with aubergine as well. Finally I’m trying something new today; you might best think of it as an Italian antipasti – courgettes , fried golden brown and then marinaded with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint leaves. They’re maturing in the fridge right now.

And on the subject of tomato sauce, we make litres of it every year, along with passata; treating the passata as a base ingredient which almost always needs turning into something else – like proper tomato sauce. I must have been in a hurry last year because while I was checking the stocks today I found about 10 litres of very thin passata and so I tipped four bottles into a pan and I’m reducing it with a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic and a big lump of butter. It’ll sit there simmering very very slowly until I can almost stand a spoon up in it, and then I’ll put on a pan of boiling water for the pasta.

The crops are coming off the plot so fast that it’s a job to keep up; but after a four hour stint on the allotment this morning we unloaded the trug and everything looked so beautiful my tiredness evaporated and I went back to the stove hungry and almost singing. Just occasionally you can feel a bit stale – especially being as confined as we’ve been for months – but the constant changes on the allotment adds enough texture to our lives to keep us upbeat.

And finally, I’ve bought a new hand lens; a 20x achromatic job with LED and UV illumination built in. I was so pleased with its capacity to reveal the smaller parts of grasses I put it around my neck on its lanyard today and tucked it inside my T shirt. When I got home and changed out of my overalls I noticed a strange swelling under my T shirt, around my navel. My God! I thought I’ve got a hernia ….. but it was just the hand lens. No wonder Helen was looking askance at me this morning.

Aaaargh – more tomatoes!

IMG_6158We planted more tomatoes this season and we knew that judgement day would come sooner or later and they would need to be processed into winter stores.  Today was that day and I spent most of it on the stove when I wasn’t cranking our small but perfectly formed passata machine. The good news and the bad news this year was that the cherry tomato crop failed completely with the blight so I was excused the drying. It’s a shame really because dried tomatoes keep well (as long as they’re completely dried) and they’re a great thing to have in the store to give a touch of acidity and sweetness in other dishes. As for the rest, I processed another 25 lbs of ripe tomatoes today and turned it into 3 litres of passata and four and a half litres of pasta sauce. The passata is indispensible as a base for all sorts of other sauces. Back on the allotment there are at least as many still to go, plus a big batch for chutney as well. Much as we love tomatoes, they can be a struggle to keep up with at this time of year.

While I was cooking the tomatoes Madame was sowing our first batch of indoor basil – we’ve still got quite a bit growing on the allotment but the first sign of frost will see it  off. The other herbal revelation this year has been French tarragon which seems to thrive on our plot and is wonderful (the French always knew this) with chicken.

The rain hardly let up all day so we spent most of our time indoors but I’ve got a couple of new books to read and spent a lot of time pondering on Spinoza at the stove.  I was very touched by Greta Thunberg’s  speech at the UN, and we even sat down to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference during the afternoon.  I liked a lot of what we heard but I find the constant emphasis on new technology to solve the related problems of extinction and global heating far wide of the mark.  We’ve relied far too much on keeping on doing the wrong thing by hoping some new technology turns up to help clean up the mess. There was no mention of farm subsidies either. We need to stop making the mess now.

After a long break mostly away, we’ve got the Potwell Inn kefir and sourdough production line running sweetly and so here’s a photo of breakfast – the smoothies are a great way of using our frozen spinach cubes.

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Tomato festival

Yesterday was a bit wet, but the tomatoes seem unbothered and we needed to get them processed as quickly as possible so I was up at the allotment to pick them before breakfast and it was pretty much lunchtime before I managed to grab a bite to eat. Last year we invested in an inexpensive hand cranked passata machine and it really helps when you’ve got a lot of tomatoes to deal with. We don’t bother to skin them, just rinse them off to get rid of dust and insect leavings, and then chop them into pieces. Then we pass them through the machine, returning the residue  around four times to get the last bit of flesh out. Today’s batch of tomatoes weighed around 10Kg and made up 9 litres of finished sauce – it’s a Marcella Hazan recipe, very simple, just simmered for a couple of hours with six peeled and halved onions and 500g butter. Last year we experimented with bottling some of the produce because our freezer is too small to freeze all the tomato sauce and passata  we need for the next year. The bottled sauces were incredibly useful and kept well in a dark cupboard, in fact we finished up the last bottle a couple of weeks ago. Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte are two of my favourite writers on Italian food.

Any allotmenteer will know that you can get tempted to grow all sorts of things that turn out to be somewhere down the list of useful or favourite vegetables. We’ve discovered that good stock, fresh herbs, and prepared sauces like pesto and straight tomato are a tremendous ‘go-to’ resource on busy days and so we give some priority and growing space to them in the planning stage.

I love this time of year.  With a bit of luck we’ll be harvesting the seaweed in a short while, and thinking about charging the hotbed with a new load of fresh manure ready to beat the winter cold. So it’s not just the things that we’ve grown ourselves, there are all sorts of freebies in the hedgerows, not least the sloes and this year I think we’ll make some rose-hip syrup too. The storecupboards are slowly filling up with preserves, jams and pickles – it’s a very comfortable feeling as the nights get colder and longer.

Winter is civil engineering time and there are still a number of jobs to do like plumbing all the water tanks together and covering the compost heap.  It’s also a time for reflection on the last season.  We’ve already decided to move the strawberry bed into a more accessible place, and reposition a number of gooseberries and blackcurrants to give them more breathing space and light. Today I cut off the last of the maincrop potato haulms and covered the rows with black plastic until we’re ready to dig them. There was weeding and clearing away dead leaves to catch up with after our time away, but nothing much to worry about. We came home with boxes of veg to keep us going for 10 days.

We’re going to have a bit of a bash to increase our repertoire of vegetarian dishes, and decrease our meat consumption which, to be honest, has been declining anyway because we can’t afford the kind of meat we’d prefer to eat and I’d rather do without than support intensive farming with all its impact on the earth. No philosophy today, you may be pleased to see, but just the sense of profound thanksgiving for the gifts the allotment brings to us with very little credit to us or our skills.

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