Bath looked exceptionally beautiful today. The long slow decline of summer vitality in the trees and plants finally issues in this great finale as the last of the lifegiving sugars are drawn down to winter roots, and the brief days of impressionistic colour give way to winter sculpture. It feels like a kind of relief; like standing at the graveside of the season, or perhaps better – a rowdy wake – after a long rage against the dying of the light. And that’s enough poetry for now!
On the allotment we watched the strange behaviour of three magpies who were working together to harass a rat that was beginning to look pretty rattled by the experience. It’s not something we’ve ever seen before and, dare I say? it was good to see that the ubiquitous rats have at least one predator species aside from foxes and cats. We also know that there are peregrines buzzards, kestrels and red kites occasionally in the locality but their quarry seems to be the (plentiful) pigeons for the peregrines, and smaller rodents for the rest. Our rats are absolute porkers, fed on the fat of the leftovers mistakenly put into compost heaps and the fallen grain from bird feeders.
Stuck in a southwesterly atlantic airflow, the skies have been bringing pulses of heavy rain all week and there have been floods across the country. Our son had to make a long detour to escape flooded roads after his half term holiday up in Snowdonia; and in up Cumbria two of the lakes have been temporarily joined into one by floodwater. A perfect metaphor for the beginning of the COP26 climate conference. It just doesn’t seem that the will is there at governmental level to address the threat properly – I hope I’m wrong but I fear for the worst.
After what seemed like a week of full-on cooking we took a break today and dropped in on Toppings – a local independent bookshop that’s just moved into a much larger premises that used to be the Friends Meeting House. In honour of the opening they were handing out glasses of free fizzy and while we could see no sign of what used to be a good natural history section, Madame found for me the newly published biography of an artist, John Craxton, who we were both interested in; and then when we got home I clicked on what’s been a five year search for a biography of John Minton that was only available secondhand at just under £300 – and found two copies going for £20. Christmas has come early! However we also dropped in at the farmers’ market in search of a particular cheddar cheese and drew a blank. The stallholder only appears infrequently, but whenever he does I buy a small piece of his locally made Cheddar cheese because the flavour reminds me so strongly of the way cheese used to taste in my childhood – you know, wrapped in cotton scrim the threads of which you sometimes had to peel off; rich and ripe like apples and autumn. Flavours are always difficult to describe but supermarket cheese tends, these days, to be awarded a number where one means you’d be better off eating the bag it came in, and five is so artificially fierce it takes the skin off the back of your throat. It’s not about strength at all, as far as I’m concerned, it’s about depth – which is very different and relates to all sorts of factors that could never be reproduced in a factory. Scientific cheesemakers are very clever, with their temperature, pH measurements, artificial rennet and atmospherically controlled warehouses; but there are so many other factors, and you’re reduced to using slippery terms like terroir that are commonly employed as a way of inflating the price. To quote Michael Pollan once again, “you are what you eat, eats” – and the depth of flavour of cheese relates to the grass that the source of the milk – be it cow, sheep or goat – is fed on; what season it is and whether the milk was taken in the evening, the morning or mixed together. One of the nicest goats cheeses I ever ate was while I was walking in the Aubrac Hills in France with my middle son, and we stopped off at the farmhouse where it was made. We ate it with a penknife surrounded by the sounds of the herd.
Not being a cheesemaker, and lacking the funds to taste everything I like the look of, I can’t say with any authority what constitutes good or bad except by using the ordinary everyday common senses that come with being human. No experts needed, just a few treasured memories and the willingness to trust your own judgement.