Buttering parsnips

I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.

Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.

Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.

It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.

If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.

And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.

Hi ho, hi ho ……

IMG_20191119_141743There’s nothing quite as irritating as being stopped in your tracks in the middle of a job for lack of something really stupid – like the right screwdriver bit: unlike these scaffolders who seem to be immaculately clad for their job – I think they thought I was a secret health and safety inspector – hence the strange looks.

In the true spirit of the moment yesterday, I got as far as driving in the wooden supports, cutting the path lining boards to length and I was quite sure the job was, so to speak, in the bag. In the bag, that is, until I attempted to drive in the first securing screw.  These were quite large because they are to be part of a load bearing structure, holding the water tanks. A quick scout through the toolbox yielded the battery drill – fully charged, and two new packets of screws.  However the only screwdriver bit I could find, apart from a large number of completely knackered ones, was a size too small, that’s to say for the technically minded a PZ2 rather than a PZ3. The difference when you’re trying to power in a large three inch screw is fundamental.

A wiser man would have stepped back and thought of something else to do, but I am not one such. And so with Darwinian inflexibility I set to, knowing in my heart of hearts that this was a lost cause.  After 20 minutes of fruitless swearing and a great number of steel fragments, the first shuttering board resembled a hedgehog with broken, bent and headless screws decorating the first fixing point.

Eventually I gave up, long after I should have, and resolved to get the correct driver bit today,  and this involved a trip to the local Screwfix.  I always enjoy a trip there because my passion for lists extends into catalogues of every kind, but particularly artists’ materials and tools of any sort. After a happy hour on the laptop I knew more about screw types than I had ever known and the order was transmitted from the laptop to the stores where I was already imagining ranks of firmer chisels, jack planes and slaters’ rippers wrapped in greased paper. I have a vivid but hopelessly outdated imagination.

At the stores, and surrounded by excessively manly men wearing holsters and pencils behind their ears (the pencils that is!), I sheepishly handed over the collection note to a girl who wanted to be somewhere else – anywhere but at work. Modesty prevented me from narrowing my eyes and saying “it’s the PZ3 I’m after – you know the biggest one …. for driving in the biggest screws …. ” I could already see myself stepping back from the completed job – but it was raining.  It’s always raining these days. And so I frittered the day away cooking and making stock and by the time I finished I’d forgotten to cook anything we could actually eat today – so it’s jacket potatoes again.

I once scrounged a superbike off a friend and took it for a ride around the village.  The sheer acceleration was thrilling but quite terrifying and I so hoped that someone who knew me would wave in a friendly manner so I could look in the mirror and see them staring after me in awe and admiration. The village was entirely empty; as empty as it might have been if the television was running a royal wedding on one channel and the Wimbledon men’s’ finals on the other. I fear my moment with the PZ3 screwdriver will be much the same, but I’ll put my best bib and brace on and saunter down through the allotments with my toolbox as if I know what I’m doing.  Somebody’s bound to notice ……

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