Heaven is kitchen shaped

Thankfully, glass milk bottles are at last popping up in Bath!

More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.

Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.

As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.

I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.

Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.

And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.

Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas

Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.

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.

Nothing stays the same

I’ve shown this photo before – it was taken in the garden of the farm cottage we rented when we were at art school in Wiltshire almost 50 years ago. Just a few weeks later someone left the gate unlatched and it was completely trashed by pigs. We never really managed to get it up and running again – the disappointment was too much. Gardening can be like that; you have to ride out the failures and accept that you have to combine stoicism and gratitude in almost equal measure. Now we only have the internet to tell us how the farm has fared over the years, but a small mixed dairy farm will have been sailing against a headwind and it may have gone the way of so many others. All we know for sure is that the farmhouse is used as an upmarket B & B.

But we did soon get other gardens going, several in tiny backyards, two of them in allotments and the last in a much more challenging garden of around 1/3 acre; all the while learning more – so the allotment represents the latest expression of what we’ve discovered and, now we’re retired and can give all our time to it, is probably the best we’ve ever managed.

Right now, in the teeth of the Covid 19 pandemic, the internet is alive with allotmenteering and I couldn’t be more pleased, so long as the long delays with seed merchants and the difficulty of getting garden sundries don’t put newcomers off before they’ve started.  My inbox has seen a lot of seed offers from companies I’ve never heard of, and there are going to be sharks out there who’ve bought up stocks of seed that may be near the end of their storage life, or not good quality. My advice is to stay with the reputable merchants even if it means waiting a bit longer. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to coax life out of dud plants.

That said, you only have to take a walk up to our allotment site to see a huge influx of newcomers wielding spades – possibly for the first time. The thirty-somethings are getting it and I hope that local councils are including new allotment sites in their local plans to meet the demand. It would be sensible on every level to make many more plots available; well managed allotments are incredibly productive environmentally helpful and healthy. Now’s the time for a big push, and that should include strategies for teaching basic skills.  There are some things that are best taught one-to-one or in a small group – common weed recognition is one of them. I’m always banging on about mentoring because this generation often can’t fall back on childhood experience with parents and grandparents.  There are great teachers out there in books and on websites, but growing is a very local activity and slavishly following dates suggested by someone who lives 200 miles north or south of you, or even in a different country, can be tricky.

However – what I want to think about this morning is not the techniques, not bigger or better or any of those things, but the bigger picture – the gestalt of growing, because growing, cooking, eating, to take the three most obvious topics, don’t exist in a vacuum but they belong with one another.  Separating them out into distinct disciplines misses the point and diminishes everything. Even global terms like self sufficiency reduce our activities to the selfish pursuit of stuff. If, for example, you read Patience Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a Weed” you can begin to understand how growing, cooking, eating and sharing are deeply embedded in a whole culture. Buying a ready made tomato pasta sauce from the supermarket doesn’t make you an Italian, however hard the advertisers try to kid you it will. I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” leaning against a library stack one summer afternoon that changed the direction of my life.  It wasn’t the recipes for glazes that attracted me, it was the integration of so many things I was interested in within a lived life.

Some cookery writers – like Elizabeth David, Anna del Conte, Jane Grigson and Dorothy Hartley and Marcella Hazan situate their recipes within their whole complex cultures – the gestalt – to go back to that useful word. Somewhere along the line we missed the connection between cultures, lived experiences that include growing and distributing food, as well as cooking and eating it.  To reduce the experience of food to a brief set of neurological responses in the palate is just bizarre. Restaurant and supermarket food are the souvenir shops of any sort of real food culture which, to make any sense at all, has – like any great adventure – to begin where you are.

But at this moment I’m wondering whether to describe a food moment  – like the one at the Potwell Inn last night – isn’t just another piece of internet grandstanding – “look at me, so handsome, young, and clever (????) doing what only I can do and boasting about it.”  Yesterday we spent the day on the allotment and, because of the lockdown and the bleak food outlook this year, I cleared and dug the last available patch of land on the plot. It was always a difficult and weed infested patch, right on top of what we think is an underground stream, and so it’s been covered with a pile of palettes on which we grew potatoes in bags and pots of mint. But it’s very sheltered and sunny – and we need somewhere to grow peppers, hardier chillies, aubergines and bush tomatoes this year. It took most of the day but it’s finished and ready to use – dug, composted, fed and broken into a fine tilth.  Two years under weed control mat had done most of the work for me.

So back home, too tired to be bothered to cook much and mindful of eking out the food supply for as long as possible we turned to the store cupboard in which there are about six litres of bottled sauce labeled “Hazan number one”. The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan’s “The essentials of Italian Cooking” and its one of seven recipes for tomato sauce. There were two half used packs of linguini in the cupboard – pasta has become impossible to find, but mercifully I discovered a 1 kg bag of pasta flour in the cupboard yesterday, and there were four pots of basil growing in the kitchen window. There was parmesan in the fridge, so we were away.  The tomatoes were our own from last year, and we have bottles of sauces and passata stored, so it was very much a meal made out of what was there – “clanger pudding” in Potwell Inn speak.

And it was so good we wanted to sing. It wasn’t the recipe, or the ingredients or any one marketable thing that made it beautiful – it was everything. The allotment, the earth, the sunshine and the neighbours, the kitchen and its equipment collected over the decades, the scent of basil growing, the plates chosen by us and even the table we ate at.  It was each other and our shared history and our adventures in Europe that we can’t afford any more – it was the gestalt.  Did it matter that Italians would have eaten it with different pasta? was it a bad case of cultural misappropriation? – oh do get a life! It was what humans do best when we get it right – being human. 

When in doubt – cook!

Well it took a bit of time to get going, but we spent the day with our family – sons, partners and grandchildren to celebrate a seventh birthday with Sunday lunch, birthday cake and presents; junior membership of the RSPB, inexpensive binoculars, a microscope; you get the picture – no pressure whatever.  Our son (not the proud dad one), who’s a bit of a prankster in these matters, had to be persuaded to drop the idea of a (pregnant) rabbit or a mixed pair of African snails, but there’s always another year!  No one ever quite captures the quiet joy of getting along together or the dubious pleasures of  “here comes the farmer” accompanied by screams of pleasure and “again Grandad”. Families don’t always work, and ours has had its share of ups and downs, but when fair family weather comes along it’s worth celebrating.

Home again in the relative silence of the flat, I weighed out the tomatoes we picked yesterday ready for another big batch – probably 10 litres of what we call “Hazan number one” – a sauce so good you could eat it without the pasta. Just now that might be a relief because we’ve had pasta for supper three nights on the trot, testing out freezable recipes for rainy days. I’d love to increase our repertoire to a dozen sauces because they can be used to beef up vegetarian recipes without the beef.  Pru Leith does an excellent vegetable stock in her “Vegetable Bible”, and I’m slowly being convinced that the move towards eating less meat doesn’t in any way mean sacrificing rich flavours.

Then, the nuclear option for cheering myself up – I started a sourdough loaf that will be ready to bake in just over 24 hours. The sight and smell of a newly baked loaf is one of the most cheering sights in the world – simple but life enhancing. If they knew how good this feels they’d tax it or make it illegal.

Do feel free to pass on the message!

 

These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday

 

However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.

IMG_5117Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts.  We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it.  Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.

Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.

IMG_5120But there was no basil yet.  We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies.  Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots.  It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator.  So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.

Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress.  The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia  (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!

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