Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….

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.

I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.

Benign neglect makes the best sourdough

Isn’t that a trixie photo? – artisanal looking sourdough bathed in summer light with a geranium filled window box in the background. It has all the authentic marks of the dreaded Lifestyle Blog; aspirational; sensitive; Laura Ashley.

If this was a mind map there would be two lines emerging from the photo. The first would take you to a box that explained that this was the loaf that flew close to the wind. We were almost out of bread yesterday and I’d forgotten to start the batter the previous night – it’s a bedtime job at the Potwell Inn. So I started it early yesterday morning, wondering how the new timetable would work out. Around two in the afternoon I added the main body of flour with the salt and a little oil; left it for twenty minutes and kneaded it. Then, just before we went to bed, I knocked it back and put it in the banneton overnight, knowing that if it was too warm in the kitchen it would flow over the sides and ruin. But when I woke, the domed top had just risen a centimeter higher than the edge and the banneton was full. Nice one! So into the oven and in half an hour it was done – full steam, 240C for ten minutes and 180C for twenty minutes more.

I think we tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our input into breadmaking. I’ve been making bread for sixty years if you count my first teenage attempt with cake flour and dried yeast (not a show stopper). If I’ve emerged with one lesson it’s not to worry too much and to stop fiddling about. I know the magazines are full of arcane advice about making sourdough but really, it needs no leylinesand no magic incantations and you can make it with pretty well any flour that you can lay your hands on. Some work better than others – I’ve never successfully made 100% wholemeal sourdough – it’s always reminded me of the Grant Loaf that was fashionable in the sixties; heavy as lead and about as much fun as a Methodist prayer meeting. The choice of ingredients for bread is more of an ethical decision.

what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog?

Dave Pole, The Potwell Inn

But the second line on my mind-map would lead to the question – what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog? Well firstly, life is not a bowl of cherries, or indeed strawberries because we didn’t have any cherries on the allotment – and a certain degree of dullness is to be expected in life, so as Socrates might have said if he hadn’t been forced to drink hemlock for the crime of not being dull at all – suck it up, it’s good for you!

Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s

Naomi Klein – “This changes everything”

The other reason that it’s important to write about everyday life, as we try to live it at the Potwell Inn, is that it’s essential to oppose shroud waving politicians and their puppeteers with the truth that we can live rich and rewarding lives without neurotic consumption. We can live the very richest of lives, enjoy the best of food and remain sane, healthy, connected and spiritually alive with surprisingly little by way of material wealth. If I had any ambition at all for the Potwell Inn blog it would be to try to convey, through thinking aloud about our lives here, that saving the earth by changing our way of life, isn’t about deprivation and self-denial at all. It’s essential to explode the myth that we can only live fulfilled lives by becoming indentured slaves to consumption.

And I also think there’s an important distinction between showing off and inspiring others to give it a go too. The underlying reason for getting so evangelistic about it is that I’m not convinced that people will change their lives because we present them with any more, or any new, facts about the global ecological disaster that’s unfolding. The scene in the New York diner in “When Harry met Sally” when the woman on the next table says – ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a brilliantly funny way of expressing an important aspect of the human personality. We’re far more likely to adopt new behaviours when we’ve seen them modelled in some way. I know that growing vegetables hardly competes in terms of arousal, but my point is that the deepest ways of teaching and learning always focus on modelling the new behaviour – or to get slightly more philosophical about it, virtues are habits.

So let’s be honest about it, the Potwell Inn is a rather subversive school of virtues, the virtues that are being destroyed by our present way of life; and baking a loaf of bread or growing garlic (which I’m coming on to) has very little to do with nutritional values and everything to do with human thriving.

This is the row of garlic we planted in the autumn – it’s a variety of softneck garlic called Early Purple Wight – and it’s done well in this exceptional spring, although it needed a lot of watering. Garlic dislikes being waterlogged and being dry in equal measure, so finding the sweet spot in the middle is tricky. So far, so horticultural: but lifting the first bulb is a big moment, and when a crop does well, as this one did, there’s an unmatchable sense of occasion. Madame took the bulb and peeled back the first outer layer to see what we had and the most wonderful fragrance filled the air, and then,when we got it home we peeled it properly and the whole flat suddenly smelled like Southern France. It went straight into a red wine marinade, of course.

The first bowl of strawberries straight from the allotment, the crust of a sourdough loaf still warm from the oven and spread with butter and home made marmalade; a glass of the elderflower cordial we made last week; the first new potato – sweet and waxy; lettuce so crisp you can snap it; sugar snap peas straight from the vine and eaten raw; these are so much more than simply food – although they are simple food.

Our lives are all the richer when, rather than grabbing what we can from the earth like thieves, we live sacramentally; when growing and eating food becomes the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace to borrow a phrase from an old Christian catechism, and if that sounds a bit religious I’d say that my non-theistic borrowing is very far from heretical.

If the environmental movement is to achieve our aims, we have to move the game from endlessly rehearsing scary facts and data and stop shouting at people and start modelling great human lives. If rewilding the earth is to become an act rather than an aspiration we have to adopt another borrowing from faith language – the idea that virtuous lives are caught and not taught.

This is a cornflower – an almost extinct vagrant driven from its natural habitat by our agricultural greed and surviving on occasional handouts from local authorities who enjoy a bit of greenwashing as long as its cheap. It’s eking out an existence on the riverbank here in Bath until someone complains about the weeds and orders in the strimmers. Meanwhile we can exult in its quite unnecessary extravagance and perfection while they refill the mowers with petrol. That’s what’s got to change.

Cornflower

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

Keeping going

IMG_20200321_214235

As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.

Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash.  If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.

Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream.  Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it.  I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.

And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves.  We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives.  The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels.  Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen.  It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.

My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.

Be safe.