Think of your Sole

Fishing boats hauled up on Cadgwith beach – January 2022

A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.

Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.

And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.

So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!

Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.

But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.

But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.

Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Great Bread Race declared void as both contenders collapse

Surely, I thought to myself as I surveyed the ruins of the race; in the story of the tortoise and the hare the point of it all is that the tortoise wins, thereby providing invaluable material for ten thousand dreadful headteachers’ talks. But life and art are not quite the same thing and grim reality – like the brown rat – is never more than a metre away from any point on earth. Yesterday it visited the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Theoretically – and I realize that’s a dangerous word – theoretically, a bread baking contest between an industrial high protein flour whose proud boast is:

A smooth free flowing white flour that shall be free from hard lumps or foreign matter. The flour shall be free from any off taints or odours shall have a neutral cereal taste

  • and an organic, stoneground, off-white bread flour with impeccable UK sources and designed for long fermentations – ought – to be a no-brainer BUT – in the memorable phrase from my first ever ethics lecture – “You can’t make an ought into an is” – and that’s a fact!
  • I’ve developed a soft spot for the industrial flour during the months of the shortage when it was all I could get. Baked with Allinsons dried yeast it was reliable and always produced a useable white loaf, and with my sourdough starter it would make a serviceable and better than ‘neutral’ sourdough loaf. The problem came when my old supply of modestly adequate home baking yeast ran out and I bought some scarily fast professional bakers yeast. It was exactly like asking the two naughtiest boys in the class to sit together at the back. Isolated from one another they were both tolerable, but working together they become a nightmare of disruptive behavior. I’m absolutely not (lawyers’ demand) absolutely not accusing anyone of adulterating their products with steroids, or genetically modifying them using DNA from racing weasels but I have my suspicions.

So yesterday when we were in danger of running out of bread, I started a rapid white loaf which I ‘knew’ would be ready hours ahead of the organic sourdough I’d kicked off the previous morning. Usually the sourdough takes around 24 hours. But something was up. While the yeast bread raced ahead and doubled in size as I answered the phone, the sourdough batter had produced a couple of sulky bubbles and then sat still and mournful on the stovetop. It didn’t even smell right – a developing loaf has a distinct and rather lovely smell; sharp with apple notes as a hipster wine-taster might say.

So I had a bright idea to kick start – or rather re-start the sourdough by putting it in a cool steamy oven for an hour. The recovery was not spectacular and by this time the dough had absorbed a good deal of extra water.

People often say they don’t have time to bake bread and I always reply that it doesn’t take much active input, but you do need to be there at the critical moments. Yesterday my capacity to recognise a critical moment deserted me entirely. While the blimp metastasised and set up mini loaves all over the kitchen, the sourdough looked more dead than alive. However, in the boom and bust economy of the modern bakery, the white loaf – which looked marvellous in the tin had, in fact, blown and the moment it hit the fierce steamy heat of the oven, collapsed with heat stroke. My sweat lashed face was etched with disappointment! (And if that doesn’t get me into Pseuds Corner there’s no justice in the world). [my superego is telling me that there’s no justice in the world].

All my hopes were vested in the Shipton Mill loaf by this time, but it was cowering at the bottom of the banneton like an orphan sheep. So I did what all good farmers do and moved it to the cool oven, not sadly an Aga, but the Neff which was still cooling down from the Beast. After 36 hours the orphan loaf was creeping up to within an inch of the banneton top, but its steam immersion had given it a cracked surface through which I could see some very slack dough, and I wanted to go to bed anyway so I slammed it into the oven where it immediately pancaked. Half an hour later it was all over. I had managed to waste an entire day making two terrible loaves, one of which I hope will be sponsored by our dentist given its capacity to break teeth. He usually sponsors Easter eggs in schools but with the schools all closed by the pandemic he’ll have a bit of money left in his ‘income generation’ account.

So what’s the best flour, then? The 11.5% protein in the white flour is really too strong to make the best sourdough bread, and in any case I’d rather use organic flour. The specifications for the organic Shipton Mill flour come as close to my ideal as possible but after a dozen loaves I’m still finding it a bit temperamental. I think it works best when the starter is really fired up. My starter yesterday hadn’t been fed for a couple of days. With many bread flours that wouldn’t matter too much but maybe this one needs all conditions to be ‘just so’ to give its best results. Equally we left the kitchen window open during the time the batter was fermenting – perhaps the slightly lower temperature – maybe a cold draught – hampered the fermentation. Or perhaps the organic bread was just sulking because it was sitting on the stove next to a non organic loaf with steroid rage. Or – and I hadn’t thought of this – maybe the Potwell Inn lucky layline has moved …. heaven forfend!

Meanwhile, and at the risk of sounding dreadfully old fashioned, may I recommend Elizabeth David’s magisterial book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” published in 1977 which, in its quiet way, is packed with precisely the same wisdom that was rediscovered to great fanfare forty years later by artisan bakers – except in her book it’s backed up by extensive research and attributed sources! My copy is falling apart and the paper is turning yellow. Here and there it falls open to a heavily stained recipe. A few black and white line illustrations are all there is to go by, but it manages to encapsulate a whole baking culture stretching back into history. Wonderful stuff; but I wonder if, when writing her book, she had bad days too in the relatively small flat in which she lived and presumably tested her ideas. Last night I called upon her ghost for a word of comfort; she – sitting at the corner of a small table, glass of wine in hand and me – surveying the ruins of a no-brainer bet.

At Bath Farmers Market

One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market –  http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk –  and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available.  Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins.  Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?

In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go.  Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them.  Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price.  How can that be right?  In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.

%d bloggers like this: