Orion’s spell

Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.

Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.

Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.

So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.

However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?

Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.

Here we go!

It’s always the same. The seed order goes in some time in December – that’s the sensible list. At that point we congratulate ourselves on being supremely organised whilst during the next weeks we order one or two extras. Then a sunny day in February offers a tantalizing glimpse of spring and we consult the diaries and decide that Valentine’s day is perfect for sowing the tomatoes and chillies; spark up the propagators, sow seeds and then comes a flurry of doubt in case we’ve missed something out – a chink opens in the flimsy armour and voila! we seem to have ordered some outrageous outliers. Melon? ….. why not? A few more lavender plants – not just ordinary ones, the scour the catalogue types, oh and bee plants – we can never have too many bee plants. In the mind’s eye the allotment must resemble Chatsworth by now because there’s not a chance of finding enough space to plant them all out.

It’s been a harsh winter for all sorts of non allotment reasons with record breaking rainfall as well, but suddenly we notice an extra hour of daylight – a precious gift. The first tomatoes have germinated, there are daffodils about to blossom on the allotment hedge and some lovely miniature irises in the spring window boxes. There’s a barely contained excitement in the air fuelled by the tiniest glimpse of the sun.

So when’s the last frost date? the little voice in my head asks. I whisper May 14th. What! May 14th …. Are you completely crazy? That’s two months away!

The mere thought of spring is intoxicating and we’re ready to drink a full crate of it. It’s a year today since we last spent a day on the Malverns with our son from Birmingham – the photos came up today and made me feel sad. We haven’t seen our grandchildren face to face since the summer and our other two boys have had to socially distance, so the closest we’ve been to them is in the car park. We’re not allowed to walk in the Mendips, go on field trips or take the campervan out, so the allotment is having to fill the empty emotional spaces in our lives.

And it does more or less do the job. We get up in the morning full of plans and with things to do, and we decorate the gaps with imaginary melons. In our heads the allotment will be the Garden of Eden come July – and although it won’t quite get there, it won’t be far off.

Hello 2021

I had a bit of a comments discussion with one of the Potwell Inn regulars yesterday, concerning what she called ‘covid fatigue’, and then someone else joined in – in the way that these spontaneous conversations pop up – you know, cold wet day outside (at least for us, ‘though not in her part of the US) and we chewed over the awfulness of it all for a bit and agreed that constant bad news and bad politics is sapping our energy. We were, all three, leaning in a virtually socially distanced way, on the imaginary bar, lamenting jobs not done and feeling a bit lethargic.

And later as I wandered around the flat, picking things up and putting them down again and sharing the umpteenth cup of green tea with Madame, I noticed – or rather paid proper attention to the fact that we’ve got one heated and one unheated propagator going, with basil, coriander, winter hardy lettuce and parsley all germinated, and the overwintering broad bean seed (Aquadulce Claudia) had just arrived in the post and we’d managed to clear most of the allotment for the winter crops. As often happens, it seems, our lethargy had been rather upstaged by our seasonal autopilot. I wrote a couple of days ago about linear versus cyclical time, and there’s no doubt that for farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners it’s a no-contest. The rhythms of the annual cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and clearing get embedded in our minds and sink, like chi energy into our fingers.

So it was off to the computer for me, and I spent most of the daylight hours watching the rain running down the windows, and renewing the growing plan for the coming season. By the magic of the software, a single click can transfer last year’s plan to 2021 and (provided you’ve put the dates in properly) clear the beds in another click and declare that the game is on once again. Of course virtual allotmenteering is a good deal less physical than the real thing, but at least you get a big red warning when your rotations go awry – which warnings you’re free to ignore because allotments on 250 square metres are not so easy to rotate as a 400 acre farm.

The next challenge was to match our physical seed store with the virtual one, and that’s always a bit of an eye opener. If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays. This is advice we never take ourselves, of course, so the result of this disobedience is the annual search for out of date seeds. Yes, the second most important bit of information on the seed packet is the bit we most frequently cut off and discard – the ‘sow by’ date. Seeds, like gardeners, only stay viable for a time. If you only wanted to grow poppies you could probably bulk buy as a teenager and carry on sowing them until they cart you off; but there are other more sensitive seeds that are only viable for a year, some that need a rest in the fridge before they’ll germinate and some that won’t germinate unless they’re resting in daylight.

If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays.

I used to work on a radio station in which, posted in huge letters over the desk, was the legend “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. I asked someone what it meant and he answered(testily) ‘read the manual!’. Seed packets seduce with their photos but disappoint if you don’t read the small print. Every single word.

All of which failure to take our own advice leads every autumn to the clear out of un-viable seed, and we’re ruthless because you can lose a whole crop if you miss the optimum sowing time. So any packet with a missing date goes out regardless of whether it’s got seeds in it. There’s a picture (top right) of yesterday’s haul above, and if you were to examine the contents you’d discover that 80% of them were garden centre impulse buys.

Next comes the seed order; so last year’s order is reprinted as a starter, and then we go through it to remove some things we didn’t like and add some that might do better. Then we check the box(es) of seeds against what we want to grow and eventually – after a lot of argy bargy and a sheaf of notes – I get to type out the definitive seed order for – in this case – 2021, along with suppliers etc. We shall, as ever, almost certainly ignore the list as soon as we leave the virtual world and set foot on the dirt!

But it all filled a rainy day and we spent a few hours together around the table enjoying the prospect of the Promised Land in all its unrealised potential. The allotment will never look better than it does in October, inside our heads, and suddenly we realised as we sat down later that we’d crossed the Rubicon, notwithstanding covid fatigue and all the provocations. We’d strayed over the border into 20121 without intending to and it felt very good.

This morning the sun is shining as Storm Alex slowly passes, leaving floods and damage everywhere but our refurbished water stores brimming. Last season (dare I say that now?) was a huge challenge, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. We couldn’t get new seed so we had to busk it. We couldn’t buy most of the sundries we rely on and at times we felt terribly isolated from our friends and family. Our government seemed incapable of seriously addressing the challenges and even today we have no idea how this will all turn out, but that’s all linear time. The fact is, in spite of everything we grew food, adapted, changed our whole diet to fit our circumstances and stayed better friends than ever! Nil carborundum we say, and carpe diem too, but we usually say it in some form of English as we exercise the inheritance of resilience and resourcefulness. that our parents and grandparents passed on, along with the time to plant potatoes. It’s OK to be human too.

Stowaway found in the cupboard

IMG_6277

This wouldn’t happen in our son’s kitchen because he’s a a professional chef and I’m only a cook. He does cheffy stuff like fridge labelling whereas I usually apply the ‘hairy or smelly’ test to unexpected finds – it all comes from decades of being skint, and making do, and, maybe – subliminal memories of wartime rationing. I was born after the war but I can remember playing shops with my sister and using the redundant ration books as money.

This Christmas pud was not hairy and neither did it smell, but I know for a fact it must be at least five years old because I haven’t made Christmas puds since we came to Bath. The reason it’s survived at the back of the cupboard all this time is that it’s a two pounder and far too big even when the whole family is together. So this year I’m only making one pounders, and Madame and me will eat one whenever it takes our fancy, but probably not at Christmas when we’re all far too full. So out it went this morning and then we set off on a 40  mile round trip to put the new battery in the campervan.  It was all planned out like a military campaign and so the job was done in next to no time with no electrical  sparks and without losing the radio and security codes.  The biggest problem was getting some jump leads close enough to the van to maintain the power while I swapped the batteries.

What a deadly boring paragraph, I’m thinking, except the feeling of satisfaction when the old beast roared into life is beyond pleasure.  Now we can go away for a couple of nights and visit friends, paddle the kayak or just sit and read.

Back home later I weighed out flour, muscovado sugar, eggs and cake stuff; beat it senseless with my hand mixer which is miraculously good at not splitting the mixture when I put the eggs in, measured, folded and drew greaseproof and brown paper (well, wallpaper actually) and finished it all off by hand – which is all I can do now since the second hand Kenwood burst into flames last Christmas after 25 years of efficient cake making. Now it’s (the cake not the Kenwood) – in the oven and any minute the fragrance will fill the flat.  As soon as I’ve done the washing up I’ll weigh out the ingredients for the puddings and cook them tomorrow when they’ve stood all night soaking up the Guinness, rum and barley wine. This is all monstrously stupid behaviour given that I’ve only just managed to get my blood glucose readings back to normal by completely changing my diet and foregoing any alcohol at all, and so only I’ll be eating tiny portions.  But there’s a big plus side to all this, which is feeling fit enough to cope with Spaffer Johnson’s brexit nonsense without wanting to throw myself off a raised bed.

Earnest negotiations have begun concerning next year’s seed order.  Ask any allotmenteer if their allotment is big enough when the spring comes, and we’ll all say we need more space.  This is because we’d love to be able to grow the whole catalogue.  Reality, however, means that we can only grow a certain amount, and next year we’ll be obliged to grow less potatoes because we’ve lost the borrowed 50 square metres loaned by our neighbour.  That’s OK though, because we’ll never be able to eat all we’ve grown this year. The issue arose when we were talking about where to relocate the chamomile plants. We cracked it by deciding to treat them more as a crop, and give them the situation and sunshine they need to keep us in flowers all summer. The same goes for the calendula which we can use in a home made skin cream. In fact I’ve been checking out which medicinal herbs are growing wild around the site and it’s surprising how many there are.  Luckily many of the companion plants are ‘dual purpose’, having medicinal applications as well as insect attractant/repellant properties, not to mention tasting good too.

Tomorrow we begin moving fruit bushes, strawberries and shrubs into new locations.  We’ve already decided to grow many of the companion plants in moveable tubs so they can be deployed where they’re most needed.  All this, remember is happening on 250 square metres of allotment, not RHS Wisley, so it’s entirely do-able. When the children left home I found myself still cooking for five (plus unexpected friends) for months. We can grow a great deal of what we need at the Potwell Inn, but we’re still learning how to moderate our sowing – I’ve just finished drying enough chilllies to keep us going for years.

IMG_6276.jpg

Yesterday we tried our third Jamie Oliver veggie recipe in a week.  I loved it but Madame wasn’t so keen and thought the halloumi was tasteless. I slept well enough last night after manually adjusting the kitchen clock but bizarrely I kept waking up to check whether my phone had reset itself, and then I woke at my normal ‘body clock’ time and had to force myself to stay in bed another hour.

 

The Princes Motto

IMG_6261.jpg

These kales always remind me of the Princes Motto – an excellent pub to the south of Bristol and known by the locals as the ‘ich dien’. Bristolians have a gift for shortening names, and you’d expect the abbreviation to be ‘the Princes’ but for some reason the locals lapse into German and recall a rather bloody episode which resulted in the Black Prince getting his feathers – so to speak.   We used to meet up there for lunch occasionally when Madame worked at the research station and it was there we once spotted a couple in the layby just down the road.  All we could see, apart from the violent rocking motion of the Mini, was a voluminous tricel skirt which seemed to be simultaneously shielding and expediting the action.  They were probably gymnasts, we concluded, and parked somewhere else, desperately hoping that they would appear – crumpled and red faced – in the pub later. Sadly they didn’t, and left us forever wondering who they were.

IMG_6260Anyway, amusing memories aside, these kales are now standing on the allotment with the purple sprouting broccoli, some beetroot and leeks, celery, celeriac as the last mature vegetables of the season as we hunker down for winter. All except a few pounds of fresh tomatoes have been processed frozen and stored, along with squashes, potatoes and the inevitable pickles, chutneys, jams and sauces. The other beds are becoming a seasonal blank canvas on which we shall dream the plot next season.

There’s plenty to eat for the time being, but casting back my mind a century or so, most cottagers would have lived an increasingly thin existence as winter progressed, and remember the so-called hungry gap isn’t in January or February it’s in later spring when the weather is much improved but the veg crops are yet to grow. If they were lucky and thrifty there might have been a fattened pig and a few hens, with flour and malt in store for bread and beer, but compared with our present diet, immeasurably poorer. When compared with their lot, at best we’re playing at self-sufficiency. Of course we’re very proud of what we achieve, and in terms of quality and flavour, and bearing in mind the impact these tiny oases of good practice have, allotmenteering can’t be faulted as a positive move, but it’s not nearly enough.

I’ve mentioned before the way we’re exploring vegetarian cooking and of course we’re aware of the impact of intensive farming on the environment. Probably two in three of our main meals are now vegetarian. I think we’ve both ‘gone off’ meat a bit because we can’t actually afford to eat meat of the kind of quality and welfare standards we’d wish. This morning I asked myself the question – do the media paint a false picture of the countryside? – after all, when did you last see a contributor to the BBC flagship “Countryfile” programme proudly loading up their sprayer with poisonous chemicals and saying with a satisfied smile that they’d increased their profits by 20% by eliminating the insect competition? “Last year”  – you might correctly say, except that in the clip I watched we were invited to wonder at the sheer size of the computerised behemoth without once hearing about what it was doing!

TV programmes tend to focus on ‘proper’ farmers on small farms with lots of calves and cuddly lambs. They call it ‘welly telly’ and focus on artisan gin producers or cheesemakers, pole lathe turners and hand crafted clothes-peg whittlers at the expense of telling us what’s really going on. Who wants to watch a programme about intensive pig fattening or feed lots for gigantic methane belching beef cattle? Even as we walk around the supermarket we’re conned by photos of gnarled looking tweed suited country folk who are supposed to ‘represent’ the products. Obviously that doesn’t include the legions of zero-hours contract workers who do the actual work of picking and packing. We should try to be more aware of the real state of play in our food system and ignore the subtle  ‘greenwashing’ that hides the reality. I cheer myself up with the fact that research has shown allotments to be ten times more productive than farms when they’re turned over to food production.

Back at the Potwell Inn the garlic arrived today and we were surprised to see that the bulbs of the same variety were easily twice the size of last year’s. It was probably down to the summer heat and dry weather in 2018 but we were also disappointed with the small size of the resulting crop.  Here’s hoping for better things next season – we planted them out this morning. Tomorrow we’ve got to clean a pile of root trainers and get the broad beans sown, along with the Douce Provence peas. It seems ridiculous but it’s really worth getting the seed order in as early as possible. We’ve often been disappointed at the quality of seed when we’ve ordered very late and, of course, you run the risk of not being able to obtain the varieties you want. We’re almost through prepping the beds, and the contents of the spent hotbed made an excellent contribution to levelling and raising other beds on the plot. The biggest job remaining is clearing out the fruit cage and moving things around.

We learned today that we’re losing the extra 50 square meters we’ve borrowed for two seasons because our neighbour can’t affort to pay the £9 clean air zone charge on his little campervan every time he comes down, so he’s moving to another site. An unintended consequence I’m sure, but he’s fallen victim to broad brush policies.  Speaking of which, the incinerator is generating more steam than smoke and it’s only used once a year to dispose of the most noxious weeds which, if we took them to the civic amenity site would be burned anyway – but not near Bath. We try not to let the perfect drive out the good.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: