Country cousins

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One of the things I’m missing greatly during this lockdown is the chance to go for a botanical mooch around Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park, and one of the plants I won’t be seeing this year is the goat’s beard – Tragopogon pratensis – otherwise known as “Jack go to bed at noon” – whose name comes from the way the flower closes up at around midday. It’s hardly a rarity but I really like it and look forward to meeting up in a hay field most years, but not this one it seems.

However our allotment neighbour is growing its posh cousin, salsify  – Tragopogon porrifolius – and it has exactly the same lazy habit of turning in at lunchtime. The flower is a rather grand episcopal purple in contrast to its country cousin, sometimes known as ‘meadow salsify’, which has yellow flowers. By coincidence, both plants crop up in Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” when she is writing about edible weeds. Nowadays it would be illegal to forage here for wild plants in the way Gray describes it on Naxos, but she writes that foragers there only take a small portion of the root in order to leave the plant to recover for another year.

This brings to mind one of the arguments used to defend the enclosure of common land, on the grounds that – according to ‘the tragedy of the commons’ – greedy peasants act against the good of the whole community by taking more than their share. Not on Naxos, they don’t, and if anyone gets a bit greedy there’s tremendous community pressure to put things right. In the UK, similarly, the so-called tragedy of the commons remained a bit of a Daily Mail fantasy in the style of – brazen foreign peasants steal our birthright – because a whole common law tradition would be invoked against any offenders. Isn’t it true that they’re always greedy peasants that spoil the arcadian bliss, and the only remedy is for the wealthy landowners to enclose the land and take it all for themselves?

Anyway, salsify and goat’s beard both get a mention in Patience Gray; Geoffrey Grigson’s “Englishman’s Flora” and in almost all the herbals for their astringent and blood cleansing properties. Our neighbour’s small crop on the other hand was a bit disappointing with forked roots that were impossible to peel and a rather woody texture. Mrs Grieve in her 1921 “Modern Herbal” says it doesn’t grow well on stony clay soils (like ours) and doesn’t like manure.  Culpeper says it’s not as good as Scorzonera, another exotic  Victorian favourite that’s having a bit of a revival at the moment in the seed catalogues.

So there you have it. If it’s a bit of springtime blood cleansing you’re after, the more unapproachably bitter the food is the more good it does you. I once worked with twin brothers who would eat raw onions for lunch in the same way I might eat an apple.  They were as fit as fleas, but afternoon conversations were best avoided. But not all of Patience Gray’s advice should be taken as canonical.  I’ve got some misgivings about sea squill, or sea onions, that crop up in all the herbals and yet seem quite dangerous, also  local (Greek) hyacinths – and as for eating foxgloves (“but only the yellow ones”), that seems more like a downright suicidal spring tonic.  It’s true that in this country during famines and food shortages people would eat the roots of lords and ladies – Arum maculatum – but only after careful preparation and instruction from a long line of grandmothers who no longer exist to keep us out of trouble.  It’s a mercy that most foraging handbooks are full of warnings about being able confidently to identify the quarry, but another one I see often is alexanders, which may be the country cousin of celery but which also looks a bit like some of the more lethal members of the carrot family and I can vouch for the fact that in Pembrokeshire at least they can be found growing within yards of one another.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, and on the subject of subtle differences in flavour, I’ve baked quite a few loaves with the bag of standard bakers flour, and it works well with yeast bread and in sourdough alike, but somehow lacks the flavour of the organic flour I normally use.  Certainly the sourdough starter seems to dislike being fed with white flour and there’s a distinct swing from its usual apple flavour when fed with organic rye towards a more vinegary acetic acid smell. All the breads benefit from a bit of my dwindling supply of spelt flour.

Flavours are tricky to describe, but with bread – as with the rhubarb flavoured with sweet cicely – there’s an indefinable richness as if a whole bunch of new instruments have joined the orchestra.  Growing, cooking and eating your own food is an education.

A weaponless archer on the green and frost imminent.

Of course there are compensations for living in a flat during the lockdown. Aside from the fact that we have the allotment, there are two quite different vistas from the windows on the north and south sides of the building. From my study window I look out on the backs of a row of Georgian buildings; they’re mostly flats but there are Airbnb lettings and a burger takeaway too. Down in the car park we can see who’s in and who’s out. On warm summer evenings there are often improvised shibeens among the students and hen parties; and standing down in the yard we can often pick up the aroma of Caribbean cooking from our neighbour’s house.  It’s a typical city kind of landscape; yesterday a pair of gulls were mating on the rooftop opposite – more noise to come no doubt. In more normal times a stream of cars and buses grind noisily down the road beyond.

IMG_20200413_141957We sleep at the back, and last night the shutters kept blowing open as the northeast wind  increased, moaning and snuffling at the gap in the window. The shutters have never done that before and the first time it happened was an eerie experience – they didn’t swing open with a crash, they creaked open – quite noisily – and light flooded into the bedroom. The security lights in the yard are so sensitive they’re triggered by the least mote of dust and so at night they’re on pretty much all the time. That doesn’t trouble me any more than the extractor fan on the burger bar that goes on until three – they’re the comforting sounds of being at home.  Very (very) occasionally a tawny owl joins in the fun, and gulls seem to do gullish murmerings at any hour of the night. But the unexpectedness of the shutters creaking open in the wind  did wake me up – it was all very ghost train.

Out at the front, on the green this morning it was quiet. Normally it would be populated by gossiping dog walkers, joggers and cyclists on their way to work but today it was quite empty apart from a lone young man in the centre doing what I initially thought was a variant of Tai Chi. I was fascinated by the way he seemed to take possession of the space – it’s a bit of an amphitheatre, which is why it’s so good for people-watching. The wind continued unabated and young leaves were straining at their attachments.  Even in the relatively short grass I could see ripples of energy travelling across in what seemed to be the opposite direction to the wind.

The young man’s practice was both gathered and fierce.   One lone dog walker appeared and seemed to be implicitly directed to take a distant loop around him, even the dog gave him a wide berth.  There were very slow movements as he seemed to rotate, taking in a 360 degree view of his position, and then there were positions that suggested drawing a bow, followed by a flicking of the wrists and fingers that projected a tangible energy outwards. Sometimes you get the feeling that there’s a degree of grandstanding going on with these outdoor exercisers, but not here.  I stood there watching him, pretty much transfixed, for half an hour before he walked slowly back to his building entrance leaving  me with a hundred unanswered questions. I must try to find out what he was up to.

Meanwhile the forecast is for frost over the next two nights and so we went up to the allotment to wrap in fleece anything that might be susceptible. Gardening is always something of a gamble and going for very early crops always runs the risk of a wipeout by a late frost – the rewards on the other hand are considerable and we usually take a risk but keep some reserves in the warm, just in case. The last recorded frost for our area is May 6th and on one occasion we were truly burned for a frivolous attempt to get the first runner beans on the site by a frost on that date. However, we were able to replace the brown and shrivelled ones with healthy replacements from the greenhouse (much to the amazement of our neighbours) and all was well in the end. I set the last two supports for the cordon tomatoes in place, but they won’t be needed for another month yet.  The allotment now looks like the setting for a zombie movie –

Back at the Potwell Inn I’ve been continuing with Patience Gray, and here’s a couple of quotations from the introduction to “Fasting and Feasting”  that may explain why I hold her writing in such high esteem.

Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.  When Providence supplies the means, the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect.  The fact that every crop is of a short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving part of it for future use. It also leads to periods of fasting and periods of feasting, which represent the extremes of the artist’s situation as well as the Greek Orthodox approach to food and the Catholic insistence on fasting, now abandoned.

Patience Gray lived in Tuscany, Catalonia, Naxos and Puglia with the sculptor Norman Monnens who, rather like Madame, is never named in the book but referred to as “the sculptor.  She was herself an artist in jewellery as well as one of the finest food writers (and spiritual guides) of her generation.

Rescued by Patience Gray!

Good Friday is supposed to be the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK – which is a slightly dodgy proposition because the date can vary by about five weeks between March 20th and April 23rd if I’ve got my golden numbers right (you’ll have to look that one up!). Ours have been in for a couple of weeks but we cover them in fleece because the emerging leaves are liable to be nipped by a late frost. A short frost doesn’t necessarily kill them but it certainly sets them back. Early potatoes are a treat and they’re a better bet than main crops because they’re out of the ground before the blight season.

I have tremendously warm memories of childhood Good Fridays. It was a bank holiday – one important reason why the long Easter weekend was, for many people, the beginning of the new season’s gardening. The earth is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer and there’s a four day long weekend. All the best religious festivals relate in some way or another to seasons or big life events and Easter is no exception; the fundamentalists will deny it, of course but that’s the general way of it. And in any case planting a potato is, from my point of view, a spiritual act; an act of trust in the power of nature to produce food out of dirt. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Your handful of Good Friday earth was present at the beginning of the universe;  its smallest particles have shared in the inventory of all created things since then and will continue in their vagrant journeys until the end of time.

But this isn’t an ordinary Easter – for a start the churches are closed because there’s a pandemic, or is it a plague? I woke up thinking of my brother in law who became one of the statistics a few days ago, another number on a spreadsheet.  I woke up knowing that there will be no proper funeral, no prayers, no gathering or best clothes or meeting people we haven’t seen for years.  No nervous laughter outside the crematorium, no stories and catch-ups, no space where tears are allowed and impossible dreams of meeting again are permitted. No compassion; just disease control. social distancing and efficiency. Somehow it feels all wrong, it leaves our grieving rudderless and incomplete, we need a proper goodbye.

There’s a name for all this but I don’t know whether I dare type it. Idolatry sounds like such a religious word as if were owned by a Strict and Particular Baptist sect (yes they really do exist!) – but it’s a perfectly simple and non religious idea.  If you worship (and that means not much more than if you make it your highest guiding priority) – so if you worship something that’s only a part of the whole you’re committing the sin of idolatry, and bad things always follow.

Idolatry isn’t something that exists only within religion then. I’d say that the worship of money, power, profit, technology, even of nature or human beauty is dangerous and wrong because it takes a tiny part of what it means to be human, sets it up on a pedestal and demands that we all worship it. All too soon the world we live in becomes distorted and things start to go wrong. Species extinctions, genocides, climate catastrophe are the symptoms of idolatry because they measure life and diversity through a powerful but very narrow ideology.

“Without worship you shrink” – that’s a quotation from Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”  and it’s true.  But we need to situate our principal human values within the whole and not the partial. We need to ditch the partial gods altogether and build a belief in the interrelatedness of all living and material things because we are all made of the same stuff. Of course it will be culturally inflected worship, but we surely can list some of its general qualities  –  there are loads of lists out there. Our basic problem began at the moment we evolved the belief that our human selves are somehow separate from the rest of the created world –  the grand-daddy of all idolatries – and that’s the point at which this post shouted at me – give me some space won’t you!

IMG_20200410_170856I started writing it on Thursday and hit a brick wall, but now I’ve deleted a great chunk of what I initially wrote because I think I got lost in the memory of my old friend Eddie’s dad. It was his garden I was thinking of when I wrote about planting potatoes on Good Friday. It was the smell of his garden, the murmuring of his pigeons in the loft at the top of the steep slope and seeing him, in my memory, bent over his spade and puffing on his pipe as he dug. And in the way that these things work, there was the perfume of wallflowers in there somewhere too.

I was cross; so cross at what’s going on that I wanted someone to shout at; to blame them, to accuse them for the situation we’re in. But I also wanted a way out of my sense of paralysis. I suspect I’m far from unusual in the progression of my moods  during this crisis.  At the start, I was all action; gathering up all that we needed and putting our survival plans into operation. That was almost the fun bit; but then after a month of lock in (we were early adopters) next there was an awful ennui – a great yawning what’s the point? – and that’s where I was all weekend until Patience Gray came to my rescue with “Honey from a weed”.

IMG_20200412_171609It’s not a cookery book it’s a peculiar, almost spiritual, classic about being human.  In particular it’s a book about being human with very few material possessions but within the rich culture of the southern mediterranean. We’ve worked hard all weekend – I was driving vine supports nearly a metre into the ground in the hot sun.  We watered, sowed and transplanted and magically, Madame said this evening as we ate our supper – “Do you know. I think we’ve eaten better than ever since the lockdown began”.  Our supper was a flan made with our own broccoli spears picked this morning, our own asparagus, radishes and salad leaves.  There was fresh bread cooling down, made with the new sack of flour. We’ve feasted on what we had around us and it’s been a revelation. Of course there are staples we rely on – we’re absolutely not self-sufficient – but every day we have eaten food we’ve grown, cooked, preserved and stored.  I reckon we’ve got through 13 litres of home cooked tomato sauce, for instance, over the winter months.

The governance of this country may be shambolic but there’s no point in driving myself half mad with recriminations.  We survive – that’s all that matters, and if I never saw another newspaper or listened to another news broadcast I’d survive – probably happier than ever. There will always be cheats, liars and chancers and in the way of things some of them will probably be running the country.  As long as we’ve got some dirt to tend we’ll be OK.   

Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

Salted runner beans anyone?

img_4877I never for a single moment thought I would be writing this, but last summer, on the basis of no more than a mention in a biography, we salted some runner beans just to see what would happen. Here at the Potwell Inn we read a lot of books  – I mean a lot of them – and among them was the new biography of Patience Gray entitled Fasting and Feasting written by Adan Federman – and so when, in a passing remark, her son Philip said he actually preferred the taste of salted beans to their fresh counterparts, we were unable to resist.

On July 15th we were in the midst of a glut of beans, but all of our attempts to freeze them in the previous season had met with failure.  The result was always slimy and flavourless whether we blanched then first or just froze them in freezer bags or, indeed froze them in vacuum packs. Honestly, there was nothing to lose.

Patience Gray, if you haven’t read “Honey from a Weed” was one of the greatest and least remembered cookery writers of the 20th century, originally outselling even Elizabeth David. In mid-life she moved to Puglia in Southern Italy and lived, with her sculptor husband Norman Mommens and they lived as frugally as the local peasants lived, all the while collecting much more than recipes.  Her book is an exploration of a whole way of life and you really should read it.

So in July we salted a couple of pounds of beans and shoved them at the back of the larder. Until today.  I was cooking meat balls and feeling uninspired when suddenly the beans came to mind.  We’re a bit short of preserving jars and so I thought we’d try them and if they were no good we could throw them away and use the jar for something else.

So as per instructions in another book I rinsed them and soaked them in fresh water for a couple of hours and then cooked them (without salt) for ten minutes.  So what was the result?  Well they were not as good as fresh beans but – and this is important – if we were marooned, as they were, both in the UK during the War or in Puglia during the winter, then they would be more than acceptable.  I was amazed at the fact that they had kept their colour and texture and tasted, if not exactly as fresh beans would, they tasted good enough in a different way.

So there we are – a successful experiment at preserving without using the freezer.  From many points of view it makes sense and we shall certainly revisit the technique next season.  As for books, we’re both avid readers and collectors of books and I was wondering if there would be any mileage in adding a new category to the Potwell Inn site?  How about “The Potwell Inn Library”? – a chance to list and even review some of the books that have been most help to us on the allotment, in the kitchen or at just being human. Keep an eye open.

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