Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

High Summer overtakes the kitchen

IMG_5878There’s a smell  – or perhaps more mellifluously a perfume – for each season, and often it’s the perfume that gets you into the one that’s coming without your becoming aware of it.  Suddenly the kitchen is full of glugging and bubbling ferments, you’re scratching around on the top shelves looking for preserving jars and that packet of rubber seals you were sure you bought last year, or was it the year before that? Dill, garlic, basil above all, and the apple smell of the sourdough starter fill the air and the feeling of hunkering down becomes dominant. Six weeks after the solstice it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the evenings are drawing in.  Apart from weeding there’s not a lot to do on the allotment other than bringing home the vegetables but it’s still too hot to embark on the civil engineering projects that you’ve got lined up for the autumn and winter. After a prolonged dry period it’s raining on and off here and so the urgent need to water has gone.

I’m always astonished at the capacity of ferments to survive.  The kefir which we secreted at the coldest part of the fridge months ago came out yesterday smelling as fresh as it went in.  A quick swill under the tap to wash off the painfully sharp ferment from the grains and then some fresh milk and within hours it had warmed up and thickened as if it was last topped up yesterday. The sourdough starter needs a bit more attention but provided it’s fed weekly it will wait patiently until the urge to make bread overtakes me tonight and I start a new batter. The second batch of half sours is awaiting a clean jar and perhaps some fresh dill and a touch more sugar, but they’re crisp and still taste of gherkin. Madame is mass producing pesto for the winter and rolling it into long sausages which, after a couple of hours in the freezer, can be sliced into portions and returned to the freezer for later. Real instant food.

The Potwell Inn allotment is capable of throwing up all sorts of surprises, and this season the tender fruits and vegetables have done better outside than they did in the greenhouse.  The exception is the habanero chillies which really do need the heat, but the other chillies, the basil and the aubergines have all done better outside.  After decades of loathing I’ve finally made peace with ratatouille (as long as Madame cooks it) just in time for the usual surplus of courgettes. In France, or at least in the South East which we know better, the whole of August seems to be occupied by fêtes but here the rhythms of sowing, harvesting and feasting seem to have very largely disappeared, choked out by the vacuous plenty of ‘food as entertainment’  and flowing into the eutrophic ponds of our impoverished lives.

Today a new garden tool arrived in the post.  I’ve wanted a hori hori – a narrow Japanese combination of trowel and knife  – for ages, but it’s been a struggle to find one that wasn’t a foot long and looking like a lethal weapon of some sort. This one looks innocuous enough to carry in my bag without attracting attention to itself.  It’s really for digging bits of root, dandelion, burdock, horseradish – nothing rare – without digging out the whole plant. It was only a fraction of the price of some of the loftier artisanal products that boasted carbon or stainless steel forged blades and leather holsters, but I thought I could test the principle before lashing out on one to impress the neighbours.

I absolutely love the changing seasons apart from a couple of weeks between September and October when the declining daylight and the empty ground combine to make me feel listless and sad.  All my charges have been harvested and I get a bit rootless, but it’s never long, then, until my birthday and after that the sun rises a little earlier each day until the winter solstice.

 

Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.

 

Thinking space at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4384After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00.  When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.

IMG_4272It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough.  Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.

Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother.  We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.

Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth.  But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. IMG_4828Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.

My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged.  This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot.  Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun.  The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on.  It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.

Raspberry vinegar


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There was a time, not so long ago, when raspberry vinegar was dismissed – along with Abegail’s Party and prawn cocktail – as a relic of the seventies, best forgotten as soon as possible – however it’s swung back into fashion in the last few years. Here at the Potwell Inn it’s never gone out of fashion for the obvious reason that its very good. It’s mostly suggested as a component of vinaigrette, adding both fruit and sweetness to the dressing, but we use it in other ways as well. It’s especially good, for instance, in preserving small beetroots – the later thinnings – when they’re still smaller than a table tennis ball. I wouldn’t recommend it for long storge because the acidity is a bit low to be completely safe, but for a couple of weeks in the fridge during the summer it’s absolutely fine and you can still pickle the old football sized beetroot, sliced in paint-stripper strength pickling vinegar in late autumn. You can use any vinegar you like to steep the raspberries – we like organic cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar works just as well. There are so many recipes out there you can just choose the one you like but they’re all much of a muchness  Yesterday we cleared out the last 2.5Kg of frozen raspberries from the freezer and started steeping them in just under 1.5 Litres of cider vinegar. We’ll give them a stir now and again and after 4 or 5 days we strain it through a jelly bag and measure the quantity.  Then we’ll add 450g sugar for each 600ml of strained vinegar, boil it for 10 minutes and bottle it in sterile bottles.  It regularly features in our Christmas presents for the family (along with sloe gin) and they all return the bottles quite soon afterwards in the hope of a top-up.

But why were there 2.5 kilos of raspberries in the freezer anyway? I’m bound to wonder. It’s all too easy to use the freezer as storage for surpluses from the allotment you’ve no idea what to do with, and a bit of discipline with planting along with extra generosity along the way can stop the freezer being stuffed with deteriorating food. If there’s a general rule about food preservation it’s the fact that it only improves (pickles and chutneys especially) up to a point after which it goes downhill. Late last year I had the chastening experience of throwing away pounds of ancient and flavourless jams and preserves that we’d not had the sense to give away when they were still good to eat.

Aside from that, the chillies, peppers and aubergines are all sown and sitting in their propagators, and as soon as the hotbed has properly heated up I think we’re going to sow early salad crops.  Storm Eric has gone its destructive way and after today we look forwards to a couple of weeks of more settled weather when we can complete all the winter work on the allotment.  But today is a celebration day with the family – two birthdays and a meal together.

Salted runner beans anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stocktake reveals marmalade deficiency

IMG_4420It’s frosty and there’s a lingering mist over the city that suggests it’s going to be one of those bone-chilling days out there, so we’re not racing to get up to the allotment. As ever the post-Christmas fridge is stuffed with leftovers demanding attention and bits of overbuying are ticking away dangerously like timebombs. And that’s not all, because there are things – nameless things – in the storecupboard that should be thrown away.  Old and failed lactofermenting experiments like two of the three ways of preserving cucumbers should probably be given a respectful burial. Experiment number three, which was the least  – shall we say – purist, is the most successful by far and even gained the approval of our son’s Polish girlfriend, and so we’ll mark that recipe in Diana Hendry’s book on preserving. Sadly – much as I love Sandor Katz – the first version failed mainly on texture.  Cucumbers are prone to get rather slimy and soft in pickles, and when you add tough skin to the list of properties you can see that the poor unloved jar was going to lingeIMG_4249r in the cupboard to the end of time!  The second version was so salty you’d probably have to tell your doctor if you ate more than two. But then the upside of the clearout is that there are more 2 litre Kilner jars for sauerkraut and other experiments, and we’re trialing a new variety of pickling cucumber next season. We’ve yet to try the salted beans which were inspired by a remark in her biography by by Patience Gray’s son who said he actually preferred them to the fresh ones. I can hardly believe that’s possible but we’ve done a small batch anyway.

There’s one thing we’ve been waiting for January to make, and that’s marmalade.  We ran out in the spring because I mistakenly thought we’d got loads in a box in the garage. It turned out to be ten jars of rather aged plum chutney.  January is when the new crop of Seville oranges comes into the shops and I can hardly wait.  We did buy a jar of commercial marmalade but in the end we chucked it out after a few tries because it lacked bite.  Far too much sugar and low on fruit it was precisely what you get when you favour price over value.

IMG_0452The other thing that comes in January may not appear at all this year because cod stocks are always a bit fragile and the only kind to get is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But since I was a child I’ve always loved fresh cod roe. Most of it goes for smoking to make taramasalata As you see, the fresh stuff’s a bit in your face and it’s a faff to prepare because it needs poaching before you can do anything with it. But I love it – possibly all the more because it only appears for a brief season and often not at all so there’s no prospect of ever getting bored with it. But I’m probably among a dwindling number of people who will buy it.  It’s almost certainly one of those dishes like feijoada that can only be fully loved by those who’ve eaten it from childhood. But next Saturday I shall go to the farmers’ market where I know there’s a fishmonger who will have it if there’s any about. Poached and then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and fried, it’s really lovely with the cheapest white bread you can get and some tomato ketchup. It’s like being six again.

The fox puts in an appearance

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But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!

IMG_4666As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes.  It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well.  But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney.  So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed  straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends.  All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses.  That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.

Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared.  We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food.  We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.

Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it.  We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic.  It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.

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Autumn jobs for the cupboard

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Two things worth remembering by every allotmenteer who is thinking of taking five days away on however worthy a cause. Firstly the weather doesn’t read the forecast and secondly, the allotment doesn’t care about your diary.  So when we got back from the Lost Gardens – (it’s a rather chunky title, I think I’ll just refer to them as ‘Heligan’ in future) – so when we got back from Heligan, the allotment had seen the first touch of frost almost a month early.  There was no real damage done, just a few damaged leaves on the french beans but a warning nonetheless. Continue reading “Autumn jobs for the cupboard”

How hard can it be to make dill pickles?

2018-07-02 20.28.42The cucumbers did amazingly well this year. Last year we planted them amongst the tomatoes and they got swamped.  I think we had a very few and so the question of preserving them never came up.  But this year we ran the propagator and grew nearly everything from seed, under lights in the kitchen. For several months the whole flat looked like an overfurnished greenhouse but it resulted in many more young plants than we’ve ever grown before. In the end we gave many of them away but we still planted out half a dozen plants and they generated a surplus that just cried out to be preserved in some way. Continue reading “How hard can it be to make dill pickles?”