Suddenly we have surpluses to deal with – possibly due to the fact that we invested in grafted aubergine and tomato plants this year and they are strikingly vigorous and are both producing fruit at speed. I know that many gardeners avoid spending money on F1 hybrids and grow all their crops from seed, but seeds often decline in their ability to germinate quite quickly and some saved seed may be infected with diseases. Is it worth spending the extra on grafted plants and F1 hybrids? In my opinion, the blight resistant varieties of tomato and potato are worth their weight in gold – they really work. Every year on the allotment site there are gardeners who lose their entire crop when blight strikes. There’s no more depressing sight in the world. Our grafted plants are far more productive than the ones we grow from seed ourselves so we’ll continue to buy them. However they can arrive in a very sorry state when we’ve ordered online and sat for days in a warehouse, and so we prefer to buy them at a garden centre where we can see what we’re getting.
So this weekend it’s been raining and therefore a perfect time for batch cooking. I’ve made bramble jelly with the wild fruit we picked, and a couple of kilos of ripe tomatoes into the first batch of roasted tomato passata. This batch was so powerfully flavoured I bottled it in 250g jars – plenty for a pasta dish for two. The last job was to stuff eight aubergines with a middle-eastern flavoured lamb mixture. We’ll freeze them and get them out for a quick meal on a busy day.
I’ve written before about the pleasures of a full store cupboard; pleasures which are just as flavourful when delayed as they are the day they are made. Some things, of course, don’t store or freeze well and they’re the heart of the seasonal contribution to our meals. Tomatoes are so important that we produce three different sauces – unflavoured straight passata; Hazan number one – a beautifully flavoured passata/sauce with mild onion and indecent amounts of butter; and finally the roasted sauce which is a standby for any dish that needs a tablespoon of rocket fuel – umami on steroids. Most seasons we make enough to feed us throughout the year.
It’s been an uphill struggle to second guess the weather this year. The seasons have been badly affected by climate change and the unwillingness of politicians to address the coming crisis is a shameful betrayal. I was particularly struck by a droll remark by an ex Labour party supporter who adapted one of Blair’s catchphrases to: “Tough on hope; tough on the causes of hope”. Someone needs to show them that sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting la la la la la doesn’t amount to a strategy. Lowest common denominator politics is low and common and I can’t understand why anyone with more than ten brain cells would want to indulge in it in the face of the suffering that economic, climate and ecological destruction is causing already. Shame on them!
The title, “Well tempered household” is a steal from a gardening classic by Christopher Lloyd called “The Well Tempered Garden” – well worth reading even though he seems to think of a small garden being anything less than three acres. “Tempered” in the sense that he’s using it has nothing to do with bad tempers or good manners because it’s drawing on a process familiar to sword makers when steel is heated and cooled in order to make it less fragile, more ductile and altogether stronger. A well tempered garden in this sense is a garden that’s capable of withstanding the kinds of climatic surprises and shocks that we’re becoming all too familiar with.
So extending the metaphor to a whole household – like the Potwell Inn – seems not to be too far a stretch, at least to me. We’re not tidy, we’re frequently bad tempered but the Potwell Inn is a well tempered household because in amongst the joyful moments we’ve seen a few shocks and many stresses; we’ve endured scary times and sad times; we’ve frequently been hard up, and to borrow another idea from Nietzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I like to think that layer after layer of experience has been forged into the steel of our being, such that our resilience has made us strong.
Of course there are some shocks that experience can’t overcome. Yesterday we went to visit an old friend with Motor Neurone Disease and against all the odds we had a really lovely afternoon together. Any difficulties in listening to his failing voice were overcome, and – not for the first time – I felt the presence of a kind of luminosity which is not unusual among those who are approaching death. We left and drove back to Bath on a warm and sunny evening and I was overwhelmed by a sense of fullness as all my summer evenings were forged into one. It was an unexpected and extraordinary moment.
Back in the kitchen there were jobs to do, and so I kneaded the new batch of dough for the morning and set it into a banneton that I’ve only used a few times before. I don’t think I could ever write a full account of baking bread. It’s so embedded in my memory and my hands that hundreds of micro decisions contribute to the final loaf. There is a recipe stuck to the fridge, but it’s overwritten with so many amendments I rarely even look at it. But when the stars align and the starter, the batter and then the dough come right there’s a feeling that it’s going to be good. But there’s another feeling too because having the starter right, having the flour and then the loaf right are tokens of stability. Well tempered baking is a fundamental part of a well tempered household and so too is the allotment which brings us healthy food. Today we harvested tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, green beans and sweetcorn and Madame picked 2Kg of blackberries from the footpath. Today we’re winning the sweetcorn battle with the badgers six nil. Lunch was good.
The Pyrex bowl in which I’ve proved every loaf I’ve ever baked is so precious and replete with memories that it’s only ever hand-washed. I’m not sure I could cope with losing it. The sourdough starter is more than ten years old and always sulks when we go away and don’t feed it. Recently a couple of American neighbours were in the process of moving away and they entrusted a three generations old sourdough pancake batter to our care.
So yesterday evening we ate late, watched television far too late – binging on “Bear” series two – and then listened to some of the music again while we drank too much wine. The sound track is amazing. A short night, then, and up early with a thick head to bake the loaf.
As the produce floods in, I spend more and more time in the kitchen. Today there were the blackberries to be cooked and strained through a cotton twill bag to make jelly. Bramble jelly is one of the most fragrant of all the jellies, and it always feels like we’re eating summer when we have it. Then today I also made the first batch of roasted tomato passata which we use as a base for many meals throughout the year. I suppose all this is another instance of resilience; of the tempering process that keeps the household on track even during the toughest of times. Without our sack of flour, the bakers yeast and the sourdough starter and a cupboard full of preserved produce from the allotment we’d have felt very exposed, but as it was, our principal enemy was isolation.
Are we self-sufficient? Absolutely not; but are we well tempered and resilient? without doubt!
When we were at art school we usually got temporary Christmas jobs at the Post Office. While Madame sorted post I did a delivery round during the day and then at night I worked on Chippenham railway station, loading the mail trains with sorted mail. Every night we fought hand-to-hand with the guard who wanted to sort the mailbags as they came on to the van, whereas all we wanted to do was to get them on there and clear off to somewhere warm. We would stand on the platform with the bags loaded on to a trolley and then the moment the doors opened we would hurl them into the van so fast that the guard would be buried under the pile, cursing us furiously.
I was reminded of this because there comes a time, every season, when we realize that we need to prepare for the onslaught of produce which invariably ripens all at once but in an unpredictable order so – as has happened this year – the glut of aubergines has overtaken the courgettes and there’s no sign of any ripening tomatoes. Ideally we’d prefer them to ripen slowly but simultaneously so we could turn at least some of them into ratatouille which freezes pretty well. There are four – no – five alternatives as the crops come in. Eat them fresh; store them for a short period in the fridge but eat them before they go mouldy; freeze, bottle or preserve them in some way to last the winter; give them away to deserving neighbours who – if it’s courgettes – will secretly feed them into the recycling bin; or feel overwhelmed and give up even trying until they’re only fit for the compost heap. This has, for the third or fourth successive year, been a difficult season for growers. After months of drought I’m considering adding another 1000 litres of rain water storage – just in case. I checked the tanks today and it’s surprising how a day and a half of heavy rain can replenish them – but I need to build a sloping roof over the compost bins to increase the harvesting area.
There’s also the issue of jam jars and here, I confess to a rather silly obsession with uniformity. We have tall jam jars, shorter honey jars and then a whole collection of very lovely looking imported Italian ones in different shapes and sizes. The thought of bottling a single batch of jam in a variety of different jars would stop me in my tracks. However, we always make too much jam (and jellies, chutneys, pickles and preserves), so rather than chuck the elderly batches out I order another box of jars and then we preside over a large quantity of – say – strawberry jam of different vintages. Being human we eat the newest first and so the ancients gradually get paler and paler, possess less and less flavour and sometimes even the sugar begins to crystallize out. I once saw a jar of marmalade in a convent labeled as “King Charles the Martyr” – it rather put me off!
So every few years we have a cathartic clearout of the larder – which extends across three rooms and the garage and we spoon large volumes of anonymous gunk into the recycling bins so the jars can be reused. Washed and sterilized they gladden my obsessive heart as I ponder what to do with them next. So this week I’ve made redcurrant jelly – which we add to mint sauce and other sauces; and Tayberry jelly. The Tayberry is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry and eaten straight off the vines it’s very tart; but cooked and strained through a jelly bag the pips are all removed and it makes the kind of jelly that sells for nearly £10 a pot in a classy delicatessen. This Tayberry was only planted three years ago and it suddenly produced a decent crop of what a Greek scholar might describe as “wine dark” fruit (that should add at least a couple more quid to the value. So this year we’ve done 20lb marmalade, and about 10 lb each of damson, redcurrant and Tayberry, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the freezer waiting their turn. This is where the problem originates.
Then, the tomatoes will start to flow and they’re the backbone of the kitchen when it comes to sauces, ketchup and passata. The plan is to get all this done before September. Our Borlotti beans took us by surprise because I failed to read the packet or to remember that nano means dwarf. So ours are thriving at ground level, being towered over by a tall set of bamboo canes which they have no need of. Madame is suggesting we sow the proper variety underneath the canes and hope they make it. It’s a risk because dried borlotti are another kitchen staple.
This morning after sulking for a fortnight since our holiday during which it wasn’t fed – the sourdough starter finally gave it up and frothed energetically like an excited spaniel – so I started a loaf that I’ll bake tomorrow evening. 36 hours is a long fermentation but it allows the full flavour to develop. Life is good, but whether I’ll still be saying that after winding the passata machine for hours and hours is another thing. But when winter comes and if I’m feeling sorry for myself I just need to open the cupboards and look at all the food we’ve grown and I’ll cheer up!
I rather enjoyed dating the damson vodka “April Fools’ Day”. As spring advances, we feel the urgent need to do something useful with the produce which we abandoned to the freezers last autumn because we were tired and wanted a break. That’s the biggest danger with freezers. We chronically overproduce on the allotment and then use the freezers to hold the surpluses until we can think what to do with them. Consequently the 5 kilos of damsons were removed from cryogenic storage last week and were turned into 2 litres of damson vodka and 11 lbs of damson jam. The last couple of kilos will become damson ketchup early next week. They were a gift from a friend on Severnside who didn’t know what to do with them either. His tree is old and marvellously productive and ours is just two years old and may take 15 years to bear any serious quantities of fruit – by which time I’ll be 91 and possibly too wobbly to climb ladders! I seemed to have inherited from my mother some kind of Jungian shared trauma which impels me/us to bottle, pickle and jam at the mere sniff of a plum, ‘because we might need them one day’ .
Of course there is an upside to this. I curl my lip at recipes for instant pickles in the glossy supplements because they just taste like raw veg with vinegar on them. If you enjoy the feeling of your taste buds doing a Mexican wave inside your mouth then be my guest. I prefer to make chutneys and pickles, label them and pack them away somewhere so hidden they come as a complete and marvellous surprise 2 years later when we find them just coming into their prime. Plums, green tomatoes, mixed vegetables and damsons all make lovely chutney but our absolute favourite is a Delia Smith plum chutney called “Dower House Chutney”. Immediately after it’s made it tastes like paintstripper with chilli sauce, but after a couple of years at the back of a cupboard it’s the go-to for anything with cheese – dark, rounded and perfectly blended. The same goes for the ketchups ( we make all our own).
Damson jam is my favourite breakfast treat after marmalade. I don’t think we made any last year – at least we haven’t found it if we did! – and so it was a joy to have some again. Unlike pickles and chutneys, jam is ready to eat as soon as it’s cool. The vodka is blissful after dinner. The books say to strain the fruit off the vodka and sugar after six months, but once again we’ve sometimes left it for well over a year and extracted some of the almond flavour of the stones – giving a much more nuanced and darker taste. Sloe Gin, which we also make, needs a couple or three years to reach its state of grace so the vodka is an easy standby. The other couple of photos are of some bread and a lemon meringue pie that I was practicing for a family meal on Easter Sunday – (I’ve never made it before).
I haven’t written much about the allotment recently simply because the wettest March since records began was a bit of a deterrent. But a few brighter days have made it possible to almost complete the spring preparations whilst we eat spinach from the polytunnel and parsnips, leeks and parsley out of the ground. The potatoes are chitted ready to go in on Good Friday – that’s tomorrow – as per long British tradition. It’s a bit of a daft tradition because Good Friday – as does Easter Day – wanders around all over the calendar simply because solar and lunar calendars can never quite sync; so for the church festival and for allotmenteers we revert to the lunar calendar for planting potatoes. Kind of Steiner lite, you might say.
The broad beans are in, the asparagus is just shooting and the damson (our damson) is in flower. Gratifyingly, the fruiting buds on the apples are looking hearty and – this is down to Madame – beautifully pruned. So it’s all looking good for another season. As I finished bottling the jam the other day, Madame was musing whether we might be that last generation to have learned these skills. On the other hand, our middle son and his partner are keen cooks and gardeners (well he’s a chef, like number three). And post lockdown there are far more young people on the site – which is marvellous too.
There’s nothing like a day on the allotment, with the sun on your back. It can lift the heaviest gloom. For some fine weather gardeners being tempted out for the first time this year, the plots may look a bit overgrown and neglected but that’s just nature doing what nature always does – healing its wounds. Although most of the time we don’t dig but just cultivate the surface; some infestations like Couch, Bindweed or Creeping Thistle really do need to be dug out carefully. That can be hard work, but the robins will come and keep you company and a host of birds will visit the turned earth and eat some pests (so long as it’s an occasional digging and not an annual religious ritual). We think too highly of ourselves if we come to believe that the Earth depends upon us for her vitality. Quite the reverse is, in fact, true. It’s we who depend absolutely on the incredible generosity and healing power of the Earth.
And this isn’t the half of it. Its 7.00 pm and I’ve just finished processing the last of the tomatoes into 8 litres of passata. 10Kg of green tomatoes have gone to the freezer along with 10kg of damsons. We’ve already made shed-loads of roasted tomato passata and various chutneys so it’s been a great year. The Borlotti vines – as I mentioned a few days ago – simply rolled over in the heatwave; but the total yield of smaller beans was twice last year’s. We didn’t grow too much sweetcorn because the badger usually gets there first, but this year we erected a three layer fence around them and we’ve been eating them every day. More squashes – Uchiki Kuri and Crown Prince successfully completed the three sisters trio, although we didn’t try to grow them together after several years of trying. Apples are ripening – again a good year.
Our failures? Well the Calendula were a bit of a write off; the garlic bulbs were very small and the Courgettes and cucumbers seemed to hate the hot weather in spite of constant watering but the aubergines and melons sharing the polytunnel with basil and tomatoes loved it. The total yield of tomatoes was in the region of 150 lbs but we gave up counting . The wildflowers and herbs all benefited from the sunshine and, of course, the Mediterranean herbs loved the weather. The wildlife component was a complete success, with more pollinators and bees than ever before. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees and hoverflies were our constant companions and triggered the trailcam more than anything else. However we have filmed badgers, foxes, mice, domestic cats and rats – not to mention a roe deer one remarkable night. We’d love to set up a moth trap but sadly we’re so plagued by petty thefts we’d have to sit up all night with it.
So yes it’s been a wonderful year in spite of the weather; but it’s been a massive effort with watering, and then processing and storing. There’s always a bittersweet feeling as we complete harvesting for the year. It’s very early to be clearing beds but as ever the weather and the seasons have their own domain and we can only bend to their will.
What I miss, more than anything else, is the opportunity to share in thanksgiving. Obviously we can silently vocalise our thanks but there’s nothing like a public liturgy – which needn’t be at all overtly religious -but allows us to gather with our neighbours and say thanks. There’s a sense of glory in the air as we gather our crops together, but somehow our much talked about connection with nature has been ruptured over the past decades. Nature is something we all too often look at and admire passively at second hand. Eating a melon you’ve grown, warm from the sun is something else, and peeping into a store cupboard full to bursting with food for the winter and the hungry gap gives reason for hope even in a time of uncertainty and fear.
So I miss the giant marrows and the harvest loaf and the rejected apples, even with the rotten bits turned to the back out of sight. I miss the harvest festival where one of our wealthier congregation members once sorted through a pocketful of change and picked out the copper coins to put into the collection while the steward waited patiently. I miss the way that the unlikeliest people would turn up because they could see the point of it all, and I miss counting the hundreds of tins of food that were collected every year to be taken to a homeless charity and I miss roaring out the hymns that lurk somewhere deep in collective memory although we hardly share their feudal sentiments any more.
So the closest I can get to that public thanksgiving is here. As always I am utterly blown away and grateful – even joyful – because the harvest has come home – again – in spite of every obstacle thrown in its way.
Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.
The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.
So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!
But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.
That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.
The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.
I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.
The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.
Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.
Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.
During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwyn Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.
These beetroot are – by any stretch – absolute clonkers, and so by the prevailing standards of the day, and at over a pound in weight each, they should be consigned to the compost heap.
We all grow at least one crop every year that gets neglected in favour of its more glamorous cousins; and at the Potwell Inn there’s usually a row of neglected beetroot somewhere on the plot. These came from the polytunnel and were among the first plants we sowed while we were anxiously waiting for the weather to improve. The tunnel is surprisingly good for early and presumably late root crops like beetroot and turnip. With turnips I can see the point of harvesting them when they’re no bigger than golf balls, because they get both tough and fierce flavoured as they get bigger. Parsnips and beetroots on the other hand seem to improve with age. In fact a long slow growing period seems to me to deepen the flavor. For me a beetroot needs that round, deep, sweet and earthy flavour and the youngest ones just don’t cut it. However, pickled beetroot is – to my mind – an abomination; far too vinegary and with no subtlety. These however have been rubbed with a bit of oil and roasted at 180C for about an hour and a half and believe me they taste better than their tiny lathe turned cousins which exist more for show than anything else. So they were well worth the neglect, you might say – and are due to be grated and finished tomorrow as a relish with fresh horseradish and roasted tomatoes, and which will, I’d be prepared to bet, make the most wonderful accompaniment to smoked mackerel.
Vegetable shortages in the shops have made it difficult to find one or two things we haven’t grown this year, but which we need to top up our stores of home made piccalilli. So it’s all hands to the stove again as we replenish the winter stores and make ready for the autumn sowings. Hopefully the vegetables in the tunnel will all have been cleared by the end of the month. Long day today so that’s it. Bye for now.
This is the very first melon we’ve ever grown – largely – I should say, on account of the new polytunnel with its controllable warm environment in an unpredictable year. The packet of six seeds didn’t leave much room for failure but after a kick start in a warm propagator we choose the three most healthy looking plants and put them in at the end of the the tunnel nearest the door. We saw the variety recommended by a number of gardeners – most of them North American – but there was no problem getting seeds in the UK. We knew they’d be – well – midgets (the one in the photo is no more than 3″ across) and we had no great expectation of getting a crop at our first attempt but they’ve done well and this evening we had our first taste. The melon was fragrant; sweet, and with a flavour that’s so good it’s hard to describe. We’ve only allowed three fruits per plant to develop so it’s not going to be a feast – but wow. In Plato’s way of looking at it, we’d inadvertently eaten the actual melon of which all other melons are shadows on the wall. The ur melon. On our table and in our mouths. I must stop writing before I get creepy about it!
It’s a shame that Yotam Ottolenghi has used the title “Plenty” for his book because that’s exactly the word I’d most like to use of the allotment at the moment. Late July and August are always peculiar months because the spring crops have all been cleared and the first flush of growth is looking tired. There’s a slightly blown feeling at this time of year. For a start both weeds and pests present a big problem. Once the asparagus is harvested we have to constantly watch the growing fronds to keep them clear of the beetles – finger and thumb style I’m afraid. The bindweed becomes almost impossible wherever it’s managed to put out a few leaves in the previous weeks, and the first batch of flowers and flowering herbs need cutting back ruthlessly to encourage them to flower again. Fruit trees look a bit unkempt before their summer pruning and it’s easy to get fed up.
But on the plus side there are tomatoes and cucumbers in abundance and more runner beans than we can eat so the possibility of a pickling and chutney binge hoves into view. Piccalilli is a favourite with us. It gets used as a Christmas present for the boys, and it’s terribly handy for making surpluses last into winter. Green tomatoes and beetroots all get turned into relishes and chutneys, and cucumbers are pickled. Chillies are dried, with tomatoes and the tomatoes are also turned into sauces and stock jars to be added wherever the need arises later on. At this time of the year half the time is spent in the kitchen and the danger is that we don’t get to eat our own vegetables because we’re too busy or too tired. Even fermenting gets a bash although Madame often eyes the jars suspiciously – especially when ectoplasmic layers develop on the surface. I just think it’s a cultural thing. Most year we are plagued by a superabundance of courgettes but on the site as a whole the yields are poor this year. On the other hand we’ve harvested some lovely big aubergines.
But one of the big problems comes when a crop like red cabbage does especially well; because you get far too much to cope with. Luckily we have a scheme on the site to share surpluses with a local charity. Allotment sites are a bit like villages. They can be alarmingly insular and gossipy, but an awful lot of sharing and helping out goes on. Seeds, experience, tools and advice are shared and when we ask a neighbour to water the tunnel if we’re away then we can return the favour at another time – which reminds me there’s a loofah plant in the greenhouse that we were given and against the odds it’s thriving in a tiny pot but desperately needs a bigger berth.
But all work and no play etc. is a poor strategy so we’ve been taking advantage of any spare hours to go walking. Today we took a long loop around Batheaston and Bathampton following the river and the canal. On the road leading towards the George (good pub) I took three photographs within a couple of hundred yards as we crossed the bypass, the main railway line and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Here they are – three hundred years of history in a quarter of a mile. I forbear to mention the climate situation just this once except to mention that a goods train passed us pulling forty five large lorry containers; taking thousands of tons of freight off our polluted roads. Anyway; no lecture tonight – just the photo. You can draw your own conclusions.
But one other observation. It can’t be a surprise to learn that I love the wildflowers on the river and canalside. The succession is fascinating. Hedge Parsley gives way to hogweed and hemlock water dropwort in wet places too. But today there were the wonderful purple stalks of wild angelica as well. The balsams were in flower too – pestilential though they may be. And the trees have a particular density and sound that marks out the season quite as well as any picture. When it rains on trees in full leaf there’s a powerfully evocative smell and sound that doesn’t appear at any other time. If you were blindfold you’d know that only in summer that fleeting sound defines the season absolutely. As we walked through Bath today I spotted this house – the remains of a whole terrace that slipped down the hill with many casualties long ago. It was the density of the trees around it that reminded me of the rain sound.
It couldn’t be helped! With temperatures in the shade going above 30C again, the prospect of working on the allotment in full sun paled a little bit. So after watering early – it’s not easy to get up at 6.00 when you’ve hardly slept because of the heat – we retreated to the relative cool of the Potwell Inn and I settled down to a day at the stove.
It’s so important to do justice to the vegetables we spend so much effort on growing. Occasionally we wonder whether some of our fellow allotmenteers actually enjoy eating their produce when we see plants going to seed, but I guess their pleasure is in the growing. However we’re far too greedy to let anything slip through our fingers; in fact I’m not entirely sure whether cooking and eating actually preceded our love of growing things. It probably did. We both escaped from the monotony of five meals in rotation and post war rationing, and read cookery books as if they were soft porn – our fantasy lives inflamed with tales of roast garlic and tarragon. So from such weird beginnings the conjunction of growing, cooking, eating was the inevitable outcome.
Luckily we share the oddness with friends and allotment neighbours and yesterday our neighbour Monika gave us a handful of gherkins and promised to send her family recipes for sauerkraut and dill pickles. My previous experiments with cucumber have been mixed – in the sense that the British government has has mixed success. I remember helping to strain a five gallon barrel of cider vinegar with a friend and having the mother slide through my fingers like five pounds of finest ectoplasm. I’m sure it’s terribly good for the gut biome but it wasn’t a happy feeling and when all my fermented cucumbers went the same way last year I gave up.
However, another day another cucumber, and so we kicked off this pickling season with a non-fermented quick Scandinavian pickle with some fresh horseradish gathered from a neighbour who welcomes thieves because he can’t think how else to get rid of it. It won’t last long but wine vinegar shortcuts the lactic acid produced in fermentation.
Then it was an old stager from the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. Foods go in and out of fashion but we pay no attention to fads and if something tastes marvelous we keep on cooking it. So this one comprises halved red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, basil, capers, anchovies and good oil – roasted for about 40 minutes. And then this afternoon I made Tabbouleh using some of the tomatoes we’ve just started harvesting in the polytunnel. The difference in flavour between the home made – using freshly harvested tomatoes, mint and parsley with decent olive oil – and the shop bought version, is astonishing.
It’s midsummer and we’re living like kings. The autumn broccoli – confused by the weather – has started flowering already, but we’ve also got French beans and runner beans just beginning. The three sisters experiment is looking good. with the painted mountain corn plants in flower.
Today is so-called freedom day but we’re not celebrating because it’s a shambolic mess that’s wholly down to our government’s incompetence (I always give credit where it’s due!). Our beloved leader seems to have banked the future of the country on a seven horse accumulator bet and the first three horses have lost – but – like all gamblers he keeps on betting in the hope his luck will change. We’ll carry on carrying on at the Potwell Inn and enjoy the sunshine while it’s here but we won’t be out clubbing any time soon – Madame says never!
I think we’re mostly agreed that growing as much of our own food as possible in a garden or allotment is a Good Thing – not least because there’s normally a shop somewhere close to make up the inevitable deficiencies. But it’s the very existence of these backup strategies that mark the profound difference between elective and subsistence food production. This unremarkable thought came into my head after re-watching Bruce Parry’s four part documentary on the people who live on and near the Arctic Circle. Filmed ten years ago (nothing’s improved) they’re all on the BBC’s iPlayer at the moment. A series of sequences that could have been designed to provoke the social media – hunting caribou and whales for instance – framed the fact that in subsistence cultures there are always powerful cultural forces that prevent taking more than people need. The hunting season provides not just food, but draws the whole community together; sharing the work and the produce against the inevitable shortage season that follows.
Coming back to the allotment, it also reminded me of the way in which feast and famine are an inevitable feature for us as well. Our society manages this in the worst way possible by combining extractive agriculture with wastage. We produce more than we could possibly eat and then throw the surplus away when it passes its best before date – millions of tons of food every year. If we aspire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem; drying, smoking, fermenting , bottling and freezing should be as fundamental to the allotment as they are to the most off-grid Canadian or Alaskan.
Yesterday at the Potwell Inn, a few bottles of elderflower cordial became a metaphor and a cause of something close to joy. Snatched from the laws of entropy we gave these flowers another year of life. Sunshine, nectar, the scents of spring -bottled with a minimum of effort, and there to comfort us in November and remind us that in addition to the mindfulness of the moment it often cheers us up to recall the seasonal cycle.
To paraphrase Pam Corbin’s invaluable River Cottage Handbook “Preserves” , July is the month that the wooden spoon and the preserving pan come off the kitchen shelf. However hard we try to plan for successional crops to ease the problem of gluts and shortages; nature is generous – often more generous than we need her to be. Of course there are other, smaller appetites to feed because birds, small mammals and insects are all members of the family. Even rats – and I say this hesitantly – are part of the family. We wage continuous war on them on the allotment and this year it was made much worse by the shutdown of the cafes and restaurants on whose waste bins they normally feed. Faced with famine they did exactly what we’d have done and moved on to the compost heaps and rubbish bins of the suburbs. I struggle to trap them because they’re extremely wily and learn fast; and when occasionally I succeed, or watch them scurrying around I can’t help admiring their sleek grey/brown coats. It’s a paradox but it’s one I can comfortably live with.
Most of our produce comes by the bucketful when we only want enough for a meal, and so preserving the surplus is essential. We look forward to making jams and preserves, pickles and chutneys (Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has a recipe for what he calls “glutney” – an adaptable recipe for whatever’s glowering at you from the kitchen table. However, what’s pickled still needs to be eaten up within a certain time frame and it’s both easy and expensive to turn your surplus of fruit and veg into another surplus of unwanted preserves. Last year I cleared out the garage and there were jams there that had crystallised and whose original fruit was no longer identifiable. Once again, the ancient subsistence communities are ahead of us, because built in to their food culture is the practice of sharing. Since all of our sons are cooking and gardening in their own right, for a time we got into the daft habit of sharing our surplus preserves as gifts. We’ve now learned that it’s best to share what’s actually needed – a surplus flows into a shortage and the problem is solved – and of course the family is an infinitely extendable notion.
So, looking back at the many times I’ve written about this it seems that we should promote a food culture which embraces the whole cycle from sowing to composting through cooking, eating, preserving, sharing and hopefully a bit of community celebration as well. Not just slow food but perhaps slow living – extending the food culture into time itself, leaving plenty of it for savouring the whole process.
Of course this involves re-learning a multitude of lost skills and changing the priorities of a culture that’s lost its teeth to industrial food; but every part of that journey is the most enormous fun and deeply rewarding. Just because you’ve spotted a neglected surplus somewhere it doesn’t mean you have to set up a business to exploit it. Maybe a bit of community-enhancing sharing would be a better idea in the long run.