Marmalade, damson ketchup and dodgy arguments fill my days

In don’t usually write in the kitchen but there’s no option because I’m reducing some damson ketchup in a pan that’s incredibly prone to burning. Yesterday it was the great marmalade re-boiling after it failed to set on Wednesday. That was entirely my own fault because conned into three for two deal at the supermarket I ended up making – or rather not making – 27 lbs of marmalade in one batch. This is not something I’d recommend because it was far too much to cook in one pan and I finished up like a man dancing on hot coals – racing, thermal probe in hand, between one pan and the other which diluted my attention to detail. I love my thermometer because 104.5C is a number that feels pleasingly precise. However boiling marmalade – I would have known if I’d thought about it – always displays a variety of temperatures depending on how recently I stirred the pan, and which part of the pan I plunged it into. Normally – i.e. with an acceptably sized batch – I would check the set with a cold saucer.

I knew something was wrong even while I was filling the jars. It was all too liquid for my liking but sometimes when you’re tired it’s easier to rise above the facts and so it all went out to the chilly hallway last night and when I checked early in the morning it was almost as liquid as when it went in. I must have undershot the setting point by at least 4C. Nothing for it, then, than to laboriously scrape the whole lot out of its jars; wash and dry them all with their lids and then do the job properly. One cold night later, they’re perfectly good and properly set after removing at least a couple of pints of excess water during the second boiling.

The damson ketchup was down to Madame who pretty much used the last remaining couple of spoonfuls on her scrambled egg this morning, and reminded me that we had some bags of damsons in the freezer. The bait was dangled and I took it! Damsons are, what my mother used to call a bit of a beezer when it comes to removing the stones, but once they’ve been frozen you can much more easily remove the stones with a squeeze between thumb and finger. The stick blender that we got ten or more years ago as a £5 special offer, has become one of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen. It’s much better for soups and purees than the Magimix which is so old now, the bowl is held together with black gaffer tape to prevent it spraying hot liquid out through the cracks.

And so here I am, eyes watering as the vinegar evaporates, and waiting for the sauce to reach just the right consistency for getting it out of the bottle without resorting to skewers and long spoons. It’s really worth the effort, this sauce. When I first saw the (Delia Smith) recipe I thought it was a bit counterintuitive, but you can always measure the success of a recipe by the speed it gets eaten. Cornish pasties, for instance, go Premier League with a splash of it. And so there it is, bubbling away quietly on the stove behind me while I meditate on whether jamming, chutney and sauce making and pickling come under the heading of cooking, or ritual.

I write the distinction down because (due to the generosity of the Chelsea Green Publishing Co’s Christmas discount) I’ve come across a writer I’d never heard of. His name is – or rather was – David Fleming and somehow he seemed to have been writing about about sixty odd years of my life experiences. I fell first on the shorter book – assembled from the much larger dictionary, which I also bought. I would, by the way, nominate Chelsea Green as my personal publisher of the year because I’ve read so many of their books and learned so much from them. Anyway the shorter book is called “Surviving the Future” and my experience of reading it was rather like meeting a complete stranger at a party and getting on so well with them you’re finishing their sentences after an hour. However – and here’s the catch – what if that compelling new acquaintance suddenly, and out of the blue, makes a shocking remark. In this instance it was a quotation from Roger Scruton a profoundly irritating right wing philosopher who said this:

….. Mass immigration of people who actually don’t identify with the surrounding community would take [the local culture] away, and of course that is a problem we’re all facing.

Roger Scruton on Any Questions – BBC Radio 4, 2006.

Where to start? The Potwell Inn – even though it’s an entirely fictional conceit – has a context. It’s in the City of Bath, UK and we’re about as polyglot a community as you could ever hope to live in. I won’t even try to list the nationalities of our neighbours because it would be a long and tedious retelling of a marvellous cultural mix. Do we feel in the least diluted by the fact we can buy and eat ingredients from, let’s say, a dozen cultures all within walking distance? No! Is language so very much of a barrier? No! Do I want to regress to the kind of fantasy sovereignty dreamed of by brexiters? Not on your nelly! Our immigrant neighbours add immeasurably to the richness of life here and we love having them around. Nuff said then?

Here’s the thing. If a book is 98% full of brilliant and insightful material but quotes one wholly unacceptable philosopher (I use that word loosely) – should I stop reading? Well I think not; but before I join the adoring band of followers I’ll certainly want to read the rest of the book with my critical faculties turned on, because one thing I am completely sure of is that as the climate catastrophe builds, we’re going to accept responsibility for our role in it and that will mean welcoming many more immigrants. I for one will be pleased to share my recipe for damson ketchup with anyone that can teach me how to make falafel without them exploding in the oil!

Actually I do think of jamming, pickling and preserving as an annual ritual that holds the year together. Solstice and equinox, seasons and carnivals have their place too, and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I could have mentioned similarly upsetting quotations about hunting but Madame thinks that would be opening a wholly unnecessary battle. The fact is, not all traditions, rituals and so-called ways of life should be taken forward into the future. We need to choose which bits of the old ways we need for a very different kind of future from the last two hundred years of extractive extravagance. Going back to the good old days (which were never that good anyway) won’t be on the menu.

Three pints of damson ketchup cooling down. The glass of wine is not a prop – or perhaps it is!

Organish? – not all turtle soup and silver spoons

Found on the green yesterday – bluet?

Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.

Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.

There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!

We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.

Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.

More about rats

I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing.  They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt.  I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others. 

So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen.  It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps.  You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings.  We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost.  They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard.  55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off. 

I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste.  Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents.  Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again.  We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike.  Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments? 

And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run.  One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them? 

What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too. 

Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

Maybe get the right tools first??

If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.

A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.

Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!

Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).

Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns

So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:

Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.

  • According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
  • According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
  • According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
  • Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
  • Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
  • A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.

All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.

I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.

On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!

So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.

As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

Dig for Victory – seriously!

Granny aged around 19 – working on the farm in Winterbourne during the war

Madame has sorted through her vast collection of family photos and found a picture we both remembered. Somewhere – in our memory at least – there was a picture of her mother in full Land Army gear, holding a bull (she would undoubtedly have cracked a joke or two about his considerable gifts). And here she is, and judging by her polished shoes it’s a special occasion; perhaps a show.

What brought this to mind – as always – was the merging of several tributaries of thought during the day. It’s hardly surprising that one of them was the publication of the latest IPCC report on climate change which, judging by the summaries, is every bit as scary as we anticipated. A second thread related to fashion which, if our daughter in law is anything to go by, is going full retro in headscarf and dungarees. The final tributary was steamy windows, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

Here in the UK it’s National Allotments Week – we almost made it on to the telly but our chance of fame was scuppered when the producer found an allotmenteer closer to the studios. But the demand for allotments is huge, and many of the new allotmenteers are young; relatively inexperienced and full of ideas. It’s brilliant and I couldn’t be more pleased. The biggest problem is that twenty years ago it looked as if the movement was on its last legs. Local authorities – always strapped for cash – started to sell them off. At the time it looked like a good idea – we always need new houses. But now we not only need them all back – not a chance! – we need many more. The IPCC report really sharpens the need to move rapidly towards local and sustainable food chains and allotments could form a part of this while offering cheaper, healthier and vastly more vitamin rich food plus building closer relationships with the natural world. I’ve written before that this seems like an ideal time for local authorities to explore the possibility of leasing land from local farmers and landowners so that we can move towards the food system that sustained major cities in the past. Just to read about the productivity of 19th century Parisian market gardens makes your eyes water. It was all based on the ready availability of horse manure at the time; but now in the 21st century we have a chance to explore some of the new (mostly rediscovered) techniques like mob grazing to drive up productivity on allotments and smallholdings without resorting to chemicals.

The huge interest in allotments and the straws in the wind hinted at by changing fashions suggests that this is a cultural change that’s already under way. Well run allotments are six to eight times more productive than farms – that’s a fact; and the savings in food miles plus the gains in engagement with nature and healthy (hard) exercise make this a no brainer.

The Land Army connection came through thinking how the “Dig for Victory” wartime campaign captured the hearts of millions of new gardeners and helped us to survive the depredations of wartime rationing. If you asked my Mother in Law whether she enjoyed herself in the Land Army she would have answered with an unequivocal yes and then told a few risque stories about the goings on when work was finished.

As for steamy windows, well today the forecast was for rain early, clearing mid morning. We waited until just before midday and went up to harvest tomatoes from the polytunnel and do some urgent weeding. Madame had the inside job and I was sorting the noxious weeds from the goodies; the weeds to go in the direction of wailing and gnashing of teeth (autumn bonfire) and the beneficent to the warmth and comfort of the compost bins as the virtuous end to a virtuous life.

It rained – as they say – biblically and I felt it penetrate the Barbour, the woollen shirt and finally the T shirt until I was wet to the skin. In fact the only part of me that was dry was my socks. My bib and brace overall was so wet, the legs reflected the iron grey skies above, and my oilskin hat dripped water down my face as I worked. Ironically it was rather lovely out there in the elements; refusing to be daunted by a bit of weather.

Several hours later we were home and surrounded by drying waterproofs and clothes – such that the windows steamed up in a way that was deeply reminiscent of my childhood. The floor and table were heaped with tomatoes and other vegetables awaiting the preserving pan. The flat was full of cooking smells; aubergine, tomato, onion and garlic and today there were middle eastern spices – cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and pimenton. It was one of those afternoons when the past and the future seemed to fill the present with memories and plans. A flow moment gathered and I thought – “We can do it!” We can repay the generosity of the earth and begin to repair the damage without the sacrifice of any of the things that really matter.

The IPCC report is bound to make millions of us ask ourselves – “what can we do?” The powerful corporations and their politicians may well try to keep us fearful so they can steer us in the direction of more and more profitable technological fixes; but if this really is a paradigm shift, and I think it is, then however bumpy the ride gets the change will happen. I was reading a speech by Gary Snyder a couple of days ago and he was talking about the wisdom passed on by grandparents. But he extended the thought by saying that these days and for many young people, the libraries are our grandparents.

Did I mention the other day – that the ancient Greek view was that we can’t possibly see into the future – but we can walk confidently into it because we can see what worked in the past – before the damage began – with 20:20 vision. Researched and field tested across the whole earth and passed on by grandparents, and in libraries.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

News from La La land

To be honest, the last several days of silence on the blog are best accounted for by the feeling that I might be inhabiting a parallel dystopian universe where words have ceased to have any meaning at all – or at any rate they can mean anything you want them to mean. Even a simple blog like this one, about being human; growing things; cooking them; sharing them and struggling to find the Tao – has to use the selfsame words that make up the lies and distortions promoted by politicians and the dark money that keeps them in luxury. So in order to harness a simple idea like freedom, I need to pick the word up with a long stick and boil it in bleach for a couple of hours just to get the contamination off.

I don’t want to go on too much but when Bayer promote their new form of Roundup as being “glyphosate free” – they seem rather coy about admitting that the principal active ingredient is now vinegar, which you can buy at a fraction of the price at your local supermarket and, like its carcinogenic namesake, doesn’t kill pernicious perennial weeds either. Just for the record there is no evidence that the Potwell Inn tomatoes have any trace whatever of kryptonite and they are 100% natural. As it happens, most deadly nightshade berries are 100% natural and organic so that’s nice. “There is no evidence” is a favourite weapon of the lobbyists who spend billions making sure that the gathering of any evidence (especially the damaging kind) is discouraged.

This week the sun has, at last, started to shine again and through the wonders of AI my phone has started to taunt me with photographs of previous adventures in Europe (remember that?). So as we toted watering cans around the allotment my mind was driving down to southeast France where farmers seem to down tools in July and spend the next two months getting drunk and chasing bulls around the streets. I was so overwhelmed by memories of our visits to Uzès that I felt compelled to go out and buy a Panama hat, shake the moths out of my linen suit and drag Madame on a five mike walk around Bath pretending to be tourists. I’ve always resisted the Panama but as I approach 75 I think I’ve earned the right to be as silly as I like; and so I’ve shaved my designer stubble off and I’m growing my hair back until I can’t stand it any more. Sadly my attempt to provoke the neighbours on the allotment resulted in a single response – “you look very summery today”.

As we sweated it out with the watering yesterday morning, I realized that growing even a small proportion of our food demands a great deal of commitment. When we watch celebrity gardeners on TV, gliding effortlessly between rows of designer veg it doesn’t really convey the backache that hand weeding gives us (it works better than overpriced vinegar by the way), and it misses out the hours we spend constructing and dismantling windbreaks; clearing snow, digging emergency drains, turning compost and humping things like planks and paving stones around. The TV pundits never mention their failed crops and the incredible surpluses that courgette plants produce every year. Neither do they explain how they manage their impressive gardens without small armies of unpaid interns and helpers. I’ve tried telling the allotment that I’d like a couple of weeks off (I mean for a rest, not for making a new TV series) but it appears not to understand. Far from being a kind of restful interlude, it’s this time of year that harvesting and freezing soft fruit takes over, while the abundance of other crops means I’m constantly wondering what can be preserved and what needs to be cooked right now. The upside, of course, is that we can eat the freshest conceivable vegetables, bursting with flavour and goodness – no I mean really bursting – not the kind of PR bursting with flavour that refers to flaccid and exhausted, intensively grown lettuces driven a thousand miles from their impoverished lives under plastic.

As the photo shows we’ve also started harvesting the calendula flowers and drying them in the sun before extracting a golden essence from them in almond oil. Calendula cream really works and it’s so easy to make it’s plain daft to spend a fortune on tiny tubes of the stuff.

The trail cam has been a blessing, and we’re getting a much better idea of our many visitors, including a couple of different foxes, rats, magpies and a ginger cat who turns out to be a lethal predator of birds. I’ll put some shots up as soon as I’ve found a video editing application that allows me to do simple things without being inundated with ads. One of the unexpected outcomes of our move towards wildlife friendly gardening has been a loss of control – which has turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. The wild plants and animals can’t be divided any more into friends and foes. We’re trying to leave things alone when unexpected volunteers pop up; so the carefully planned crops sometimes have to share their space with an interesting looking “weed”.

Some of the night shots from the trail cam show the presence of hundreds of small moths which it would be fun to identify, except it would be difficult to install a light trap that didn’t draw attention to itself – making it vulnerable to theft. We solved the problem with the trail cam by mounting it inside a padlocked steel box, and although it’s set almost at ground level we can often identify the human visitors to the allotment from their shoes!

Anyways here’s a short video of one visitor you’ll certainly recognise!

The glory (as well as the devil) – is in the detail

Sorry to use the same photo twice, but as I was making our second batch of elderflower cordial last night I was having a think about the way our prior understanding frames our perception of nature. The tree from which we harvested all our elderflowers this week, is an ornamental cultivar – that’s to say it’s got an extra name; not just Sambucus nigra but Sambucus Nigra “Guincho Purple”; which makes it – let’s be frank – not wild. Strangely in some circles the appellation “wild” confers an extra patina of grace. The tree is extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that one day when I was up at the allotment working I came across a fashion photographer plus assistants surrounding a model clad in the most expensive clothes including a purple leather coat that exactly reflected the colour of the flowers. As I passed the team of a dozen or so people, they parted to let me through and someone asked me in a faintly imperious (lord of the manor to peasant) tone, whether there were any lavatories on the allotments. “No” – I said – but offered the loan of a bucket if the need should be urgent. My offer was not taken up.

So – wild being necessarily good; does the fact that we picked our elderflowers from this effete suburban tree make the resulting cordial taste less authentic? Don’t be silly – it tastes every bit as good and looks superb in sparkling water and I’m planning to make an exotic dessert using the cordial, some prosecco and a couple of leaves of gelatine.

“Wild” and “cultivated” have become a bit of a battleground recently. Wild salmon, for instance, might well be wild in one sense, but if they’re unsustainably fished by industrial trawlers they might not be such a good thing. Almost every vegetable we grow is a cultivar of some sort; carefully cross bred to achieve a particular style of plant. Brussels sprouts for instance have had much of their traditional bitterness bred out of them. But there is one sense in which the closer a vegetable is to its origin, the more robust it’s likely to be. Robust, but not necessarily high yielding. The devil is always in the detail.

I once worked in a satellite radio station back in the wild west days, and over the mixing desk was a large notice saying – “In the event of equipment failure please RTFM”. I asked one of the technical people what it meant and he responded (I’ll paraphrase) -“Read the manual”. I guess it’s our ultimate responsibility to pay attention to the details and make a decision based on the fullest possible information. My much missed friend Don Streatfield always refused to label his honey as “organic” on the grounds that bees foraged wide and far and there was no way you could guarantee that they hadn’t been feeding on chemically treated flowers. The price premium – for him – didn’t justify a barefaced lie.

If I were to describe our elderflower cordial as ‘natural’ I’d be wondering if beet sugar – which I used because I couldn’t find any cane sugar – is as ‘natural as any other. Beet sugar is, after all, produced here but cane sugar has to be shipped around the world. It’s no wonder we throw up our hands and take the easiest course of action.

The glorious aspect of detail comes from a different perspective. Sitting on my desk is a small microscope and pretty well wherever I go I take a hand lens. Passing a very ordinary looking weed and stopping to look more closely often reveals a wonderland of unseen insects and inner structures of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Close attention to details – and especially in reading, close attention to the text – is a marvellous way of getting to know things we don’t understand. Who’d have thought, for instance, that growing wildflowers and digging a pond on the allotment would introduce a whole range of pests I’ve never seen before. In the photograph is the grub of an iris sawfly. We never had any such thing until we dug the pond and planted irises around the edge and now we do. We left them there, of course, because hopefully they’ll provide a meal for a hungry predator.

Another surprise came yesterday as we walked along the river. I was looking at a patch of brambles and wondering if it was going to be a good year for blackberries, when I spotted a leaf that looked completely wrong. Following the peculiar leaf back to the stem I discovered the most blackberry looking prickles you could hope for. So a quick search told me that this was a close relative of the blackberry – not a native so probably a garden escape – known in the US as a dewberry. A new plant I/D for no better reason than paying close attention to a weedy wall in an industrial area of Bath.

Hen party season is back with a vengeance here. Walking down the river a noisy boatload of bride plus friends were enjoying a male striptease dancer, cavorting in a thong on the deck. Two boat dwellers in a total drunken pickle were attempting to swim in the river so the police and an ambulance had been called out. Back home we settled for a sandwich because we were too tired to eat, and looking out we saw four addicts scoring and then injecting themselves – just across from the Potwell Inn. Then one of them lifted up his shirt and another knelt in front of him and tenderly injected whatever it was straight into his belly. Life’s rich tapestry you might say. These young men weren’t disturbing anyone while they destroyed their own lives; but they aren’t getting the help and support they need either.

People ask where we live sometimes and we say “Bath”. “Oh – Baath!” they say, imputing a social class far above where we live. They don’t know the half of it. After a noisy and vitriolic battle to reduce traffic in the city because of our illegal pollution levels, a much weakened Clean Air Zone was introduced a few months ago, pretty well confining its ambitions to pedestrianising the most popular tourist areas. The car lobby had worked day and night to win exemptions for all and sundry and so when the first set of traffic data was released last week we discovered that our traffic had decreased by just about 1%. The devil was in the detail as always, and I guess the majority of readers barely pushed past the triumphalist headline. One of the leading lights of the campaign to cut pollution has been sidelined by her party and has now resigned and joined the Greens. The last thing I want to do is alarm anybody, but is there a hole in the hull of this magnificent ship of state?

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