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with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders.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.

And finally, what to do with the leftover Seville oranges ..

The marmalade making left a few stragglers – so what about preserved oranges? We’re familiar with preserved lemons, but when I saw this recipe today I thought I’d give it a go.  It’s virtually the same as the recipe for lemons.  It was suggested that it needed 700g of salt but I couldn’t see any way of getting it in so I cut that bit back.  We’ve had runner beans, which have almost no natural acid, salted far less fiercely.  I also added bay leaves to the mix becuase I like them.  We’ll see in a couple of months – but I’m already thinking about smoked duck breast with some kind of sauce or relish made with preserved Seville oranges.  I hate wasting things so it was quite a relief to find a way of using up the surplus.  In the past I’ve made so much marmalade it’s started to crystallize before we get around to eating it, so this year I’ve been careful only to make sufficient until supplies come in again next January.

The scent of Seville oranges fills the Potwell Inn kitchen.

A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse.  I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors.  Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges.  By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.

The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels.  We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.

It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade.  Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance.  Normally!

It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools.  I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel  artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.

Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground.  Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.

Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise.  When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.

img_4840But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community.  He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane.  He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”

I feel better already!

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