Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

Thieves, rust and moth

I think we’re mostly agreed that growing as much of our own food as possible in a garden or allotment is a Good Thing – not least because there’s normally a shop somewhere close to make up the inevitable deficiencies. But it’s the very existence of these backup strategies that mark the profound difference between elective and subsistence food production. This unremarkable thought came into my head after re-watching Bruce Parry’s four part documentary on the people who live on and near the Arctic Circle. Filmed ten years ago (nothing’s improved) they’re all on the BBC’s iPlayer at the moment. A series of sequences that could have been designed to provoke the social media – hunting caribou and whales for instance – framed the fact that in subsistence cultures there are always powerful cultural forces that prevent taking more than people need. The hunting season provides not just food, but draws the whole community together; sharing the work and the produce against the inevitable shortage season that follows.

Coming back to the allotment, it also reminded me of the way in which feast and famine are an inevitable feature for us as well. Our society manages this in the worst way possible by combining extractive agriculture with wastage. We produce more than we could possibly eat and then throw the surplus away when it passes its best before date – millions of tons of food every year. If we aspire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem; drying, smoking, fermenting , bottling and freezing should be as fundamental to the allotment as they are to the most off-grid Canadian or Alaskan.

Yesterday at the Potwell Inn, a few bottles of elderflower cordial became a metaphor and a cause of something close to joy. Snatched from the laws of entropy we gave these flowers another year of life. Sunshine, nectar, the scents of spring -bottled with a minimum of effort, and there to comfort us in November and remind us that in addition to the mindfulness of the moment it often cheers us up to recall the seasonal cycle.

To paraphrase Pam Corbin’s invaluable River Cottage Handbook “Preserves” , July is the month that the wooden spoon and the preserving pan come off the kitchen shelf. However hard we try to plan for successional crops to ease the problem of gluts and shortages; nature is generous – often more generous than we need her to be. Of course there are other, smaller appetites to feed because birds, small mammals and insects are all members of the family. Even rats – and I say this hesitantly – are part of the family. We wage continuous war on them on the allotment and this year it was made much worse by the shutdown of the cafes and restaurants on whose waste bins they normally feed. Faced with famine they did exactly what we’d have done and moved on to the compost heaps and rubbish bins of the suburbs. I struggle to trap them because they’re extremely wily and learn fast; and when occasionally I succeed, or watch them scurrying around I can’t help admiring their sleek grey/brown coats. It’s a paradox but it’s one I can comfortably live with.

Most of our produce comes by the bucketful when we only want enough for a meal, and so preserving the surplus is essential. We look forward to making jams and preserves, pickles and chutneys (Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has a recipe for what he calls “glutney” – an adaptable recipe for whatever’s glowering at you from the kitchen table. However, what’s pickled still needs to be eaten up within a certain time frame and it’s both easy and expensive to turn your surplus of fruit and veg into another surplus of unwanted preserves. Last year I cleared out the garage and there were jams there that had crystallised and whose original fruit was no longer identifiable. Once again, the ancient subsistence communities are ahead of us, because built in to their food culture is the practice of sharing. Since all of our sons are cooking and gardening in their own right, for a time we got into the daft habit of sharing our surplus preserves as gifts. We’ve now learned that it’s best to share what’s actually needed – a surplus flows into a shortage and the problem is solved – and of course the family is an infinitely extendable notion.

So, looking back at the many times I’ve written about this it seems that we should promote a food culture which embraces the whole cycle from sowing to composting through cooking, eating, preserving, sharing and hopefully a bit of community celebration as well. Not just slow food but perhaps slow living – extending the food culture into time itself, leaving plenty of it for savouring the whole process.

Of course this involves re-learning a multitude of lost skills and changing the priorities of a culture that’s lost its teeth to industrial food; but every part of that journey is the most enormous fun and deeply rewarding. Just because you’ve spotted a neglected surplus somewhere it doesn’t mean you have to set up a business to exploit it. Maybe a bit of community-enhancing sharing would be a better idea in the long run.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!