Maybe get the right tools first??

If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.

A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.

Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!

Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).

Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns

So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:

Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.

  • According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
  • According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
  • According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
  • Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
  • Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
  • A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.

All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.

I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.

On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!

So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.

A bit of wonder

So this isn’t anything special, as photos go – it was a bit of a studio set-up (if my desk counts as a studio) with a lightbox background and a bit of fill from a lamp and taken on a Pixel 3 phone camera.

Warts and all, then, this picture of a couple of globe artichokes from the allotment, with a fair bit of insect frass and whitefly remains thrown in to add gritty realism. These plants were among our first imports to the allotment but we value them far more for their architectural beauty than for their food content, Sure they taste good, but you’d need to harvest a whole row for a decent feed, and the wastage would be truly shocking. For us they’re a great boundary plant, being horribly prickly and tremendous insect attractors in addition to being stunning to look at. The true harvest is in Madame’s room where they have been the subject of many drawings and paintings over the years.

I’m really interested in the rather messy conjunction between the natural, the aesthetic and the spiritual ‘frames’ within which we try to understand the sense of wonder which grips us, if we’re lucky enough, when we pause to contemplate something as simple as an artichoke, or a dragonfly or even the tiniest detail of a plant. I remember one memorable walk I shared during a pilgrimage with a friend who’d spent most of his life buying and selling grain. It was the day I learned the way to identify cereal crops early in the year, simply by examining their leaves. The day that I first heard the terms ‘ligule’ and ‘auricle’ not from a naturalist but a salesman, and I remember the sense of excitement, approaching awe, at the way the natural world somehow makes sense if you know, or are taught, how to look.

That sense of awe transforms our inner lives in a way that little else can. We can read disturbing stories illustrated with statistics about the state of the earth and push them to the back of our minds, and yet when we try to describe matters of the most profound importance to us we instinctively reach for the imagery of nature.

Our days are like the grass;

We flourish like a flower of the field;

when the wind goes over it, it is gone

and its place will know it no more.

Psalm 103

I’ve long since lost my copy of Raymond Williams’ book “Keywords” but I can remember that he wrote at length on the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds the word natural. I can understand perfectly well – intellectually – that we are a part of nature and I could write at length about the way that changing our understanding of our place as a part of the whole creation is a prerequisite for our return to wholeness, but nothing quite expresses the fragility of life than to observe the brief life of a flower. Nothing quite expresses our grief better than the memory of the wind passing over moorland grass in winter. Our lives are measured in seasons, our passions in roses, our personalities in creatures – we are tigers and sloths, owls and larks, rats and cats. So much of our interior lives is furnished with natural imagery it’s amazing that we treat the natural world as badly as we do; but without being the least religious about it I can understand the way that the fictional story of Adam and Eve embraces the profound sense that we have, through our perverse belief that we are the sole purpose of creation, been cast out from paradise. The story isn’t about sex – it never was – it was about getting too big for our boots. But that’s not a soapbox I want to climb on right now. Religion has done so much damage to the creation myths they’re no longer useable.

Natural history stands as a kind of bridge between nature and science. It’s driven to science by wonder and fascination. But human language is also saturated with natural history and, as I’ve already said, furnishes our sense of the numinous with images from the natural world. So the inner language we use when we think about the global environmental crisis is bound to be expressed in ways that some scientists and almost all economists and politicians would rather dismiss. Talk of God or Gaia or even nature can’t be measured in degrees centigrade or gross domestic product; you can’t quantify wonder and it would be difficult to bring paintings, drawings, poems and drama; music and all the variety of human artifacts as evidence because in thinking about the global crisis we are both the accusers and the accused. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, described human beings as “glorious ruins”

A recent piece in The Ecologist magazine takes a well known paper by Jem Bendell to task for using bad science to back up a cataclysmic view of climate change which, the authors say, is more likely to lead to fear and paralysis than action to stem catastrophic climate change. Within the article there’s a section that deserves repeating –

One reason for its popularity is that Deep Adaptation does a couple of things effectively that other works do not. First, it talks in stark emotional terms about something that is undoubtedly very scary. It does not shy away from describing feelings that all people concerned with the climate crisis feel on a regular basis.

This emotional expression is something that scientific writing and reporting rarely employs, as scientists strive for detached objectivity in presenting facts. While frank discussion of the psychological and emotional impacts of the climate crisis is sorely needed, it must still be a discussion grounded in reality. “

Thomas Nicholas
 Galen Hall
 Colleen Schmidt
 | 15th July 2020

I absolutely agree with that whole sentiment – bad science is a curse , but as long as science, creative language and spirituality continue to eye each other suspiciously and refuse to engage seriously with each others strengths, we’ll never be able to muster the forces we really need to change the world. All great paradigm changes need their novelists and poets and their spiritual leaders as well as their chemists, engineers and sociologists.

The mid nineteenth century was fortunate to have Joseph Rowntree to highlight the horrors of the industrial revolution, Charles Dickens to bring them to the attention of a huge public, Joseph Bazalgette to build the sewers that ended cholera epidemics, Charles Booth to take Christian spirituality to the poorest areas in the country and Charles Darwin finally to put us in our place, not as the purpose, the telos of creation but as a rather gloriously interesting part of it. I could add many more; what about Marx for instance? We’d have to have a space for write-ins, and I can’t imagine them getting on very well, but that’s not the point.

There’s a lovely interview with James Lovelock in the Guardian today in which he speaks about the divisions between scientific orthodoxies as being every bit as damaging to science (and the earth) as sectarian religious disputes.

I realize my argument could easily be parodied as a kind of hippy dippy “why can’t we all be nice to each other?” indulgence, but I’m totally serious. Couldn’t our headlong rush into environmental catastrophe be said to be in need of redemption without invoking the whole ghastly apparatus of religious belief? It makes perfect sense to me that if you want someone to end their self-destructive behaviour you have to present a more powerful image of a possible future for them (that’s the bit that artists and writers are best at) and you also have to embrace some means of relieving the burden of guilt about past behaviour (that’s the spiritual) before you can help them over the threshold into a new lifestyle, that must necessarily be guided by the best science we have. Why try to invent an entirely new way of leading that process when we have all the tools we need at hand?

We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

The updated version was first used in the comic strip “Pogo,” by Walt Kelly, in the 1960s and referred to the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War.

Sometimes, eating out of the cupboard can be a revelation.

In fact the photo – of a prickly sow thistle on the allotment today – has nothing whatever to do with my subject – except perhaps to say that just as weeds have their unique beauty. (this one looks to me like a dragon landing on the earth to me), so too can meals made from leftovers.

Or not exactly leftovers. Yesterday I mentioned that I was reducing four bottles of stored passata to a thick tomato sauce. With this year’s tomatoes ripening on the vines we really need to clear the cupboard, and we have a whole case of passata stored amongst the pencils and paper in Madame’s studio. If you’ve got a good memory you’ll remember that our favourite recipe is labelled Hazan number one. It’s the go-to recipe for tomato sauce at the Potwell Inn. It’s in Marcella Hazan’s book “The essentials of classic Italian Cooking”– as simple as could be, but devastatingly good. At its most basic it’s tomatoes passed three or four times through the passata machine, a dollop of butter and a few onions. We grow around 60 lbs of tomatoes a year and they’re all made into sauce and passata for stores. Last night I modified it a bit and threw in some of this season’s green garlic and – right at the end – a handful of basil.

When I first tasted it I thought I’d blown the sauce completely. It had a real acidity, and initially I thought I’d over salted it but it was done and we would eat it anyway. On with a large pan of water, then, and some linguini and then I united the sauce with the pasta and – well, it was stunningly rich; like a D Major chord played by a full symphony orchestra. We ate in silence and licked the bowl clean. Too rich off the spoon, it was extraordinary on the pasta.

So that was the first third of the pan of sauce. Today I made a goulash – just an ordinary one but instead of using the usual tinned tomatoes I added the second third of yesterday’s sauce. Once again the transformation was complete. The usual notes were modulated and there were sevenths, ninths and thirteenths, and so again we ate greedily- this lockdown is turning us into a pair of porkers! Sorry, by the way, for the musical metaphors but they’re the only ones that come close to flavours.

Tomorrow the last third is going into the zucchini al forno recipe from Patience Grey. I’ve never properly appreciated the tomatoes as functioning like a stock. We make stock all the time and we freeze blocks of it because running out is a bit of a catastrophe. When they work they’re there but not there – they liberate and accentuate all the other flavours without dominating themselves. The flat is stuffed with bottles, preserving jars and jam jars all waiting to be used over the next few weeks. Our sugar purchasing during these summer months is almost embarrassing, but the eating of it is spread out over a whole year and in any case quite a lot of the produce is given away.

I feel sad for people who don’t, or can’t cook. For me, the stove is a marvellous place and eating our own produce is almost sacramental in the way it binds together the collaboration with the natural world on the allotment and brings it to our table as we share and eat together. That’s been one of the worst aspects of the lockdown for us – we haven’t been able to share food with our family and friends. Slowly, though, we’re inching back towards a different kind of life where perhaps we’ll be able to address the pressing problems that we, as a whole worldwide culture, have created for ourselves and the earth.

A stranger on the allotment causes great consternation

I was just settling down to planting out some leeks for the winter when Helen came across with disturbing news. She had been poking about – although that’s not quite how she put it – on a disused plot when she had discovered what she thought might be Japanese Knotweed growing. This would be exceptionally bad news because it’s an incredibly difficult plant to eradicate without dousing the entire site with several tons of agent orange and keeping it under armed guard for six months. The treacherous thought passed through my head – look on the bright side it might be Himalayan Balsam which is almost as invasive but has prettier flowers. So we trekked across to the offending plot and had a look. Thankfully at this point she hadn’t rung the council, although she had mentioned it to the site rep. Anyway, whatever it was it wasn’t either of the nasty plants but I had no idea at all what it was, so I took some photos and promised I’d have a go at identifying it. Later on I had a scout around on the internet and discovered that it’s a golden kiwi vine – Actinidia chinensis. It’s a big and energetic looking plant so we’ll see if it bears any fruit this year; but people plant the wackiest things on their allotments and then when they leave, the next tenants often dig them up for fear that they’re weeds. We’ve seen many mature plants destroyed by newcomers who think they need to cluster bomb their plot and start again. Sometimes it’s a good idea to wait and see for the first year. Our vines and one of the white currants are both incredibly productive and neither of them cost us a penny apart from a bit of work. The same goes for the Lord Lambourne apple that was quickly escaping its espalier form from neglect when we took it on, but after a couple of hard prunings it’s looking the part once again and producing dozens of delicious apples for us.

Anyway, my forensic adventure revealed another useful neglected resource – a rampant patch of post flowering borage, which is a marvellous addition to a compost heap. So later I popped back and took a cut. It’ll grow back and flower again this summer with ease, and so we’ll share the spoils with the bees.

This is another of those transitional times on the allotment when we’re busy taking spent crops out and replanting the beds immediately. I harvested the last of the first earlies, around 28lbs of new potatoes. There’s just one more bed to clear because we like to get them safely out of the ground before the risk of blight. So spuds out and leeks in – that’s what I was in the middle of doing when helen shipped up. They’re lovely looking plants this year so we’re optimistic about a good crop. The peas, on the other hand, have been not been good. They came late and rather erratically and so the pea moth was able to invade before we got to eat them. There were a few pounds but nothing to get excited about – so, sadly, they’ll be coming up tomorrow if the rain lets up, and we’ll get something else planted in there.

One crop that’s totally reliable is the courgette. There are only two of us and we usually have far more than we need. To be honest it’s never been one of my favourite vegetables but growing them turns them into a wholly new treat. Often I sauté them and give them a splash of lemon juice just before serving them – maybe with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Lemon lifts the flavour in a way that salt never can, so it’s a perfect substitute. Another favourite way is to cut the courgettes in lengthways slices, dip them in beaten egg and flour and then fry them. OK it’s a bit of a faff, but then you alternate layers of courgette with pieces of mozzarella cheese and good, rich (home made) tomato sauce, pop in some hard boiled eggs and top it with bread crumbs and bake in the oven. It’s a recipe I got from Patence Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a weed” – look for zucchini al forno. We cook it with aubergine as well. Finally I’m trying something new today; you might best think of it as an Italian antipasti – courgettes , fried golden brown and then marinaded with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint leaves. They’re maturing in the fridge right now.

And on the subject of tomato sauce, we make litres of it every year, along with passata; treating the passata as a base ingredient which almost always needs turning into something else – like proper tomato sauce. I must have been in a hurry last year because while I was checking the stocks today I found about 10 litres of very thin passata and so I tipped four bottles into a pan and I’m reducing it with a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic and a big lump of butter. It’ll sit there simmering very very slowly until I can almost stand a spoon up in it, and then I’ll put on a pan of boiling water for the pasta.

The crops are coming off the plot so fast that it’s a job to keep up; but after a four hour stint on the allotment this morning we unloaded the trug and everything looked so beautiful my tiredness evaporated and I went back to the stove hungry and almost singing. Just occasionally you can feel a bit stale – especially being as confined as we’ve been for months – but the constant changes on the allotment adds enough texture to our lives to keep us upbeat.

And finally, I’ve bought a new hand lens; a 20x achromatic job with LED and UV illumination built in. I was so pleased with its capacity to reveal the smaller parts of grasses I put it around my neck on its lanyard today and tucked it inside my T shirt. When I got home and changed out of my overalls I noticed a strange swelling under my T shirt, around my navel. My God! I thought I’ve got a hernia ….. but it was just the hand lens. No wonder Helen was looking askance at me this morning.