Hoop house, polytunnel …. it depends where you live.

Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.

……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence

I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….

Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.

Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.

Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.

John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.

We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.

As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.

Hey Pesto!

I suppose we could count this as the aftermath (to use a grazing term) of the first harvest of the 2021 season. All through the winter months we keep one of the propagators going and fill it with basil plants. As long as it’s grown in a good mixture of soil, compost and vermiculite and fed well – we use liquid seaweed extract – plus being kept at around 23C with at least 12 hours of artificial daylight it thrives and keeps us with a constant supply of fresh basil throughout the winter. Most of the time we just harvest a few leaves, but yesterday we took a lot – around 150 grammes to make a big batch of pesto. Very soon we’ll need the propagators for first sowings of chillies and tomatoes and so we’re in the transition time before we can move it to the greenhouse and then the polytunnel for fresh pickings through the summer and autumn.

Pesto freezes really well. We make a big batch and roll it in silicone paper to make a sausage. Then it goes into the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up so it can be sliced into individually wrapped helpings and returned to the freezer where it seems to last for ages without losing flavour.

Here at the Potwell Inn we always have some kind of stock in the fridge, with pesto and tomato sauce in the freezer. We also bottle and preserve tomatoes in the autumn so there is always passata and tomato sauce in the store cupboard. Any one of them can be used on its own (if we can’t be bothered to prepare anything complicated), or as an ingredient in a bit of a performance number.

Pesto couldn’t be easier to make in bulk – Jamie Oliver does a good recipe – and although the ingredients look a bit expensive a very small amount goes a long way. Last night we just cooked some wholemeal spaghetti and stirred in some pesto. It just isn’t possible to buy supermarket sauces half as good as the ones you can make, and aside from using it straight, pesto makes an amazing addition dropped into a pan of soup, or just stirred into the bowl .

A very straightforward tomato sauce is equally good with a bowl of pasta and a grating of parmesan. It was Auguste Escoffier who said “faites simple” – keep it simple, although you wouldn’t think so to see some of his recipes. Nonetheless the simplest food often feels like an event. Yesterday the pesto with pasta was just lovely, and the fact that we’d grown and harvested the basil ourselves earlier in the day added an additional sense of value to it. Yesterday it was a mixture of two varieties – classico and neapolitan but there are many more to try.

I know I like to bang on about growing, cooking and eating together in sacramental terms but that’s the way it feels. Reducing food to nothing more than fuel and calories is as mad as reducing everything we do to profit and loss. We’re waiting to walk into town to get our first covid vaccinations in the next hour. Somehow this seems almost portentous, although until we get our second doses and wait for a week or two we won’t be entirely safe. But it does feel like some sort of turning point. There’s a sourdough loaf in the oven at the moment, smelling glorious; we haven’t needed to buy bread since last March, and that in itself feels like an achievement. The pandemic hasn’t passed us by entirely because one of our extended family died in the early stages of the outbreak and the constant sense of threat has never really left us. I wonder what the long term effects of all this will be, but it’s only a matter of an hour before we can dare to think ‘where next?’ and I can only feel the most profound sense of gratitude to the greatly undervalued people who’ve transcended the stupidity and mismanagement of our government to bring us safely to this moment.

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

An unexpected excitement

A spur of the moment walk into the city centre tonight took us past Pulteney Bridge where the arches and surrounding street lights were reflected beautifully in the water. The river level has fallen over the past few days and the icebergs of detergent foam have now gone as the flood ease and the terraces of the weir reappear. The streets were all but empty on this last night of meteorological autumn. We traversed the centre passing quietly through all the usual tourist hotspots, knowing that this was probably our last chance to do so before the bars and restaurants reopen and the shops, about to be licenced to stay open as long as they wish, flood the air and the winter nights with their desperate appeals for last minute customers.

It feels almost unpatriotic to admit it, but we’ve enjoyed the quiet city; and during the first and more closely observed lockdown in the warm spring weather we often walked at dusk through empty car parks, and crossed streets that would normally be like the river in spate; an impassable flood of visitors tumbling down Milsom Street towards Southgate.

This afternoon, in a moment of pure serendipity just one unsolicited remark in a news feed dropped a moment of excitement into my mind. The article in question mentioned the Mendip Way – a long distance footpath that I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought about walking. But I love Mendip – I have done since I was a teenager and went caving there. After a quick peep I could see that the path takes a winding route West from Uphill on the Bristol Channel to Frome at the Eastern edge of the Mendip Hills – about fifty miles in all.

When I was working in South Gloucestershire I devised a forty mile pilgrimage from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn, across the fields wherever possible. We walked it every year, a small group of seven or eight of us and took a couple of days to complete it. It was a kind of re-enactment of the journey that the monks at Malmesbury Abbey would have made to my little parish church overlooking the River Severn which was a part of their huge land holding. One of these days I’ll tell the story of the murdered monk, killed for the chalice he was carrying, and the story of St Arilda and her fateful meeting with Muncius, a Roman soldier – just two of the events we commemorated as we walked. Coincidentally, both murders were marked by springs, running red once a year, as if with blood. Actually it’s algae but …. we visited both sites just in case.

The longest walk I’ve ever done was a 200 miler across France with my son, between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors on the route of the Camino. It was springtime and as we walked across the Aubrac Hills we were caught up in the transhumance of cattle up to the high mountain pastures – it was an extraordinary sight accompanied by village parties that seemed to go on for days.

I love long distance walks, but haven’t had much of a chance to indulge them recently so I was overjoyed when I hesitantly mentioned the idea of splitting the Mendip Way into small sections to Madame and she jumped at the idea. Within about a minute I’d ordered up the maps and my head is full of thoughts of connecting up some of our favourite places in one long walk. I camped at Uphill as a teenager, and Madame spent most of her holidays with an aunt in Frome. In between we know and have visited most of the places on the route but never in the way that a long distance walk can illuminate them. Your sense of terrain changes profoundly when you get it under your feet, and it will be wonderful to unite the Somerset Levels with High Mendip, crossing Crookes Peak and possibly even stopping for lunch at the Hunters Lodge Inn in Priddy; walking down Ebbor Gorge again.

And of course the natural history across such a walk will be astounding – I’m already packing my kit in my head. Oh glory! it feels like this enervating, never ending confinement is lifting at last.