We’re flat out on the allotment at the moment and this is just a brief post to celebrate getting the tomatoes into the polytunnel. The Potwell Inn kitchen is very slowly being cleared of young plants as we keep an eye on the possibility of frost. After prepping the beds I emptied a whole 250 litre water butt over the dry beds, but I could probably have applied twice as much. It’s been another record breaking dry spring and so we were very glad to have 1700+ litres of stored water at our disposal.
Madame, working outside, spotted this spider – we think it was a Wolf spider – carrying her young around in a sac. These spiders are hunters rather than trappers, so they don’t weave webs.
The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.
So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.
During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.
The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.
And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.
All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.
Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney. I cannot look another tomato in the eye.
Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear. There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato. It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.
My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe. The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes. As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson. I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….
So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean? Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.
All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces. It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods. The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.
I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs. Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?
So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all. But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?
Yesterday was a bit wet, but the tomatoes seem unbothered and we needed to get them processed as quickly as possible so I was up at the allotment to pick them before breakfast and it was pretty much lunchtime before I managed to grab a bite to eat. Last year we invested in an inexpensive hand cranked passata machine and it really helps when you’ve got a lot of tomatoes to deal with. We don’t bother to skin them, just rinse them off to get rid of dust and insect leavings, and then chop them into pieces. Then we pass them through the machine, returning the residue around four times to get the last bit of flesh out. Today’s batch of tomatoes weighed around 10Kg and made up 9 litres of finished sauce – it’s a Marcella Hazan recipe, very simple, just simmered for a couple of hours with six peeled and halved onions and 500g butter. Last year we experimented with bottling some of the produce because our freezer is too small to freeze all the tomato sauce and passata we need for the next year. The bottled sauces were incredibly useful and kept well in a dark cupboard, in fact we finished up the last bottle a couple of weeks ago. Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte are two of my favourite writers on Italian food.
Any allotmenteer will know that you can get tempted to grow all sorts of things that turn out to be somewhere down the list of useful or favourite vegetables. We’ve discovered that good stock, fresh herbs, and prepared sauces like pesto and straight tomato are a tremendous ‘go-to’ resource on busy days and so we give some priority and growing space to them in the planning stage.
I love this time of year. With a bit of luck we’ll be harvesting the seaweed in a short while, and thinking about charging the hotbed with a new load of fresh manure ready to beat the winter cold. So it’s not just the things that we’ve grown ourselves, there are all sorts of freebies in the hedgerows, not least the sloes and this year I think we’ll make some rose-hip syrup too. The storecupboards are slowly filling up with preserves, jams and pickles – it’s a very comfortable feeling as the nights get colder and longer.
Winter is civil engineering time and there are still a number of jobs to do like plumbing all the water tanks together and covering the compost heap. It’s also a time for reflection on the last season. We’ve already decided to move the strawberry bed into a more accessible place, and reposition a number of gooseberries and blackcurrants to give them more breathing space and light. Today I cut off the last of the maincrop potato haulms and covered the rows with black plastic until we’re ready to dig them. There was weeding and clearing away dead leaves to catch up with after our time away, but nothing much to worry about. We came home with boxes of veg to keep us going for 10 days.
We’re going to have a bit of a bash to increase our repertoire of vegetarian dishes, and decrease our meat consumption which, to be honest, has been declining anyway because we can’t afford the kind of meat we’d prefer to eat and I’d rather do without than support intensive farming with all its impact on the earth. No philosophy today, you may be pleased to see, but just the sense of profound thanksgiving for the gifts the allotment brings to us with very little credit to us or our skills.