Hey Pesto!

I suppose we could count this as the aftermath (to use a grazing term) of the first harvest of the 2021 season. All through the winter months we keep one of the propagators going and fill it with basil plants. As long as it’s grown in a good mixture of soil, compost and vermiculite and fed well – we use liquid seaweed extract – plus being kept at around 23C with at least 12 hours of artificial daylight it thrives and keeps us with a constant supply of fresh basil throughout the winter. Most of the time we just harvest a few leaves, but yesterday we took a lot – around 150 grammes to make a big batch of pesto. Very soon we’ll need the propagators for first sowings of chillies and tomatoes and so we’re in the transition time before we can move it to the greenhouse and then the polytunnel for fresh pickings through the summer and autumn.

Pesto freezes really well. We make a big batch and roll it in silicone paper to make a sausage. Then it goes into the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up so it can be sliced into individually wrapped helpings and returned to the freezer where it seems to last for ages without losing flavour.

Here at the Potwell Inn we always have some kind of stock in the fridge, with pesto and tomato sauce in the freezer. We also bottle and preserve tomatoes in the autumn so there is always passata and tomato sauce in the store cupboard. Any one of them can be used on its own (if we can’t be bothered to prepare anything complicated), or as an ingredient in a bit of a performance number.

Pesto couldn’t be easier to make in bulk – Jamie Oliver does a good recipe – and although the ingredients look a bit expensive a very small amount goes a long way. Last night we just cooked some wholemeal spaghetti and stirred in some pesto. It just isn’t possible to buy supermarket sauces half as good as the ones you can make, and aside from using it straight, pesto makes an amazing addition dropped into a pan of soup, or just stirred into the bowl .

A very straightforward tomato sauce is equally good with a bowl of pasta and a grating of parmesan. It was Auguste Escoffier who said “faites simple” – keep it simple, although you wouldn’t think so to see some of his recipes. Nonetheless the simplest food often feels like an event. Yesterday the pesto with pasta was just lovely, and the fact that we’d grown and harvested the basil ourselves earlier in the day added an additional sense of value to it. Yesterday it was a mixture of two varieties – classico and neapolitan but there are many more to try.

I know I like to bang on about growing, cooking and eating together in sacramental terms but that’s the way it feels. Reducing food to nothing more than fuel and calories is as mad as reducing everything we do to profit and loss. We’re waiting to walk into town to get our first covid vaccinations in the next hour. Somehow this seems almost portentous, although until we get our second doses and wait for a week or two we won’t be entirely safe. But it does feel like some sort of turning point. There’s a sourdough loaf in the oven at the moment, smelling glorious; we haven’t needed to buy bread since last March, and that in itself feels like an achievement. The pandemic hasn’t passed us by entirely because one of our extended family died in the early stages of the outbreak and the constant sense of threat has never really left us. I wonder what the long term effects of all this will be, but it’s only a matter of an hour before we can dare to think ‘where next?’ and I can only feel the most profound sense of gratitude to the greatly undervalued people who’ve transcended the stupidity and mismanagement of our government to bring us safely to this moment.

Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Tomato festival

Yesterday was a bit wet, but the tomatoes seem unbothered and we needed to get them processed as quickly as possible so I was up at the allotment to pick them before breakfast and it was pretty much lunchtime before I managed to grab a bite to eat. Last year we invested in an inexpensive hand cranked passata machine and it really helps when you’ve got a lot of tomatoes to deal with. We don’t bother to skin them, just rinse them off to get rid of dust and insect leavings, and then chop them into pieces. Then we pass them through the machine, returning the residue  around four times to get the last bit of flesh out. Today’s batch of tomatoes weighed around 10Kg and made up 9 litres of finished sauce – it’s a Marcella Hazan recipe, very simple, just simmered for a couple of hours with six peeled and halved onions and 500g butter. Last year we experimented with bottling some of the produce because our freezer is too small to freeze all the tomato sauce and passata  we need for the next year. The bottled sauces were incredibly useful and kept well in a dark cupboard, in fact we finished up the last bottle a couple of weeks ago. Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte are two of my favourite writers on Italian food.

Any allotmenteer will know that you can get tempted to grow all sorts of things that turn out to be somewhere down the list of useful or favourite vegetables. We’ve discovered that good stock, fresh herbs, and prepared sauces like pesto and straight tomato are a tremendous ‘go-to’ resource on busy days and so we give some priority and growing space to them in the planning stage.

I love this time of year.  With a bit of luck we’ll be harvesting the seaweed in a short while, and thinking about charging the hotbed with a new load of fresh manure ready to beat the winter cold. So it’s not just the things that we’ve grown ourselves, there are all sorts of freebies in the hedgerows, not least the sloes and this year I think we’ll make some rose-hip syrup too. The storecupboards are slowly filling up with preserves, jams and pickles – it’s a very comfortable feeling as the nights get colder and longer.

Winter is civil engineering time and there are still a number of jobs to do like plumbing all the water tanks together and covering the compost heap.  It’s also a time for reflection on the last season.  We’ve already decided to move the strawberry bed into a more accessible place, and reposition a number of gooseberries and blackcurrants to give them more breathing space and light. Today I cut off the last of the maincrop potato haulms and covered the rows with black plastic until we’re ready to dig them. There was weeding and clearing away dead leaves to catch up with after our time away, but nothing much to worry about. We came home with boxes of veg to keep us going for 10 days.

We’re going to have a bit of a bash to increase our repertoire of vegetarian dishes, and decrease our meat consumption which, to be honest, has been declining anyway because we can’t afford the kind of meat we’d prefer to eat and I’d rather do without than support intensive farming with all its impact on the earth. No philosophy today, you may be pleased to see, but just the sense of profound thanksgiving for the gifts the allotment brings to us with very little credit to us or our skills.