More borlotti

A year ago last September I wrote a very short piece on harvesting borlotti beans . To be honest it wasn’t Proust, but I think a link must have been posted on someone else’s site because that single post has had more views than anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe it’s just one reader who’s developed a pathological interest in that posting, or perhaps it’s lots of people wondering to do with their beans, but whatever it is, the keyword ‘borlotti’ seems to have some magic effect on the stats.

And so just over a year later, and in the great cycle of allotment life, we’ve just picked the beans again. This year we were so overwhelmed with other good things to eat that we left the borlotti on the vines to ripen and dry, so we’ll have a supply during the winter. They’re relatively easy to grow in the UK, but like most legumes they’re big feeders and they need regular watering. Growing beans for storage always seems a bit of a risk because the difference between a basket of beans in their pods and the resulting pile of shelled beans can seem like a poor return on time and space. The good news is that when you soak them overnight they double in size; you never need that many in a single meal, and they’re such a wonderfully flavoured source of nutrients – especially their protein and fibre levels. A meal with beans needs little extra carb rich ‘padding’.

But the bean harvest always coincides with a kind of equinoctial shift of consciousness in the kitchen. As the salad crops diminish, the roots and winter veg step up to the table with their very different flavours and qualities. Even having eschewed potatoes in our diet (William Cobbett would have approved!) there’s not much that beats roasted roots, even if they need cautious portioning. The default winter diet is more suitable for a peasant working out in all weathers than someone who spends their time in front of a screen, and that’s fine by us because we’re allotment peasants in any case. The compost reached 60C this week; but only as a result of regular turning, and since a full bin weighs about a ton, I claim my Fitbit Peasant’s badge.

So here we are with the last of the abundant tomato harvest bottled in various forms; in passata, sauces, and oven dried in oil. It’s a full time job. There are jams and preserves – the bottled figs look irresistible – and yesterday I preserved the last of the aubergines in olive oil. There are chillies fermenting away in the larder but no pickles or chutneys this year because we haven’t finished the last lot. The good news is that they go on improving for several years before the decline sets in and you wonder what on earth they might have been. Does this sound like a man on a diet? My word, the temptation is killing me!

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – I’m eternally grateful to my grumpy teachers for punishing me by making me memorise Shakespeare and loads of poems. Any apparent literacy in my past life has flowed from my disruptive schooldays. So thanks Mr Keats, and you were right – the mellow fruitfulness extends to my mind too and this is the season when I love standing at the stove, dreaming up dishes I once read about and conjuring memories of great evenings.

The new harvest of borlotti necessitated eating up the last of the stored dried beans and my greedy mind turned to a cassoulet. There was no confit duck in the Potwell Inn larder, so I used fresh duck legs and added some of my favourite confit spices – some allspice, mace and juniper all add a bit of winter warmth. It’s there in the oven now, beans, pancetta, a bit of chorizo and half a bottle of opened passata from the fridge, and the usual onions, celery, carrots and lots of garlic – cooking for about eight hours at just over 100C – I can’t wait: it makes approaching winter seem almost tolerable.

But it’s also the time of year when I start lusting after bits of kitchen equipment – this year it’s a new sauté pan. Before we retired we invested in a set of heavyweight pans but they had a non stick finish which, by now, is showing signs of breaking down – even though we only use plastic and wood implements. But I have a big 3 ply stainless roasting tin and it’s both heavy and bombproof and, amazingly, so hard it’s possible to use metal tools (carefully). After five years the working surface is as good as new, and releases burnt on and caramelized gunk with just a stiff brush. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation and I’ve googled ‘3 ply stainless sauté pan’ so often that now it’s almost the only annoying pop-up advertisement on my laptop. In the twisted logic of the panstruck cook, I tell myself that it’s inevitable I’ll get it in the end – so why not now, this very minute, you know it makes sense ……. and even more terrifying I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that it would see me out. Probably when Madame hits me over the head with it for being extravagant!

Meanwhile as the 10,000 calorie supper gathers strength in the oven, we’ve forsworn anything except half a kipper and green tea until supper time by which time we’ll be fainting. We know how to suffer for our art at the Potwell Inn.

It’s rude to boast – but really …..

Time for some soup

Let’s be honest, some of our produce isn’t going to win any prizes, but the fact that it tastes so good and we know it’s proper organic rather than ‘organish’ means we don’t want to waste a single leaf. Today we harvested celery, carrots, beetroot and a load of herbs.  We even discovered a hyssop plant that we’d given up on, quietly thriving under the French tarragon. As the allotment matures, we get lots of those kinds of surprises – like the coriander and caraway that are growing away vigorously after self-seeding. Marigolds and nasturtiums are just as bad, but does it really matter? There’s space for everything and we can always dig up and move, or just cut down anything that’s in the wrong place, because we know we’ll be growing them every year in any case. The key is recognising the plants when they’re still in the seedling stage, an operation that’s greatly helped by the fact that most herb seedlings smell just like their parent plants from very early on – and of course when spring comes along they’ll be up and running without any intervention on our part.

Last night I was browsing in a catalogue of medicinal herbs and I was greatly amused by seeing “Dactylis glomerata” seeds on sale for £2.50. The English name is cock’s foot, and the thought of buying seeds for such a common weed never occurred to me.  On the other hand I could probably put a few clumps up on ebay – I could even throw a bonus offer of “goutweed” in for the real enthusiasts – as long as they don’t plant it anywhere near our plot.

Today was one of those greasy days where it never quite rains and yet it never really stops either. Misty dampness clotted the sky with grey and we pretty much had the whole site to ourselves.  So it was mostly pruning for me – cutting the autumn raspberries back hard and pruning the grape vine, while Madame sowed seeds and weeded. The greenhouse is almost full with autumn sown vegetables and outside the overwintering garlic and shallots are all now planted in their beds. There’s a risk of a particularly late spring leaving these premature sowings leggy and poor after too long under cover, but it’s always worth having a go. The compost heap has risen to 30C so there’s lots of action there and I’ll probably turn it as soon as the temperature starts to drop; and even the leaf bay feels warm to the hand – it’s amazing how much good gardening gets done without any work on our part.

IMG_6313At home the summer window boxes are all inside now  and we’ll be taking cuttings for next year. Tomorrow looks set to be wet from the outset. Before we left this morning, I sorted out a corner of my room because we’ve decided to have a ‘drawing day’. I aim to spend an hour or so doing the colour swatches tonight so that I can begin the first draft paintings tomorrow. It’s fascinating to see how different “daylight” lamps can be from one manufacturer to another. I prefer to work with quite high light levels to bring out all the subtleties of colour, and for very fine work I use a big desk magnifier, so you can see three distinct ‘daylight colour’ sets on my desk, and I have to negotiate my way through the various options.