Mindful gardening.

Honeybee feeding on Marjoram

We were eating lunch today whilst listening to the Food Programme on BBC radio. We’d missed the beginning but it didn’t take long to realize that the theme of mindfulness was everywhere apparent but nowhere expressed directly. Among the contributors was Tom Calver, a local cheesemaker who turns up every two weeks at the local farmers’ market. His stall couldn’t be less ostentatious – a trestle table with a large round of Westcombe Cheddar, another of Duckett’s Caerphilly – also made by him – and some ricotta. You’d have to ask just to find out the maker’s name, because there’s not even a sign. The first time I tasted Westcombe Cheddar I was transported back to my childhood, where we’d never set eyes on industrial cheese because my mother hated the flavour. Our cheese came with cotton scrim still clinging to the rind. Of course there are other fine handmade and raw milk Cheddars around, but Westcombe remains my absolute favourite. Naturally it costs much more than Cathedral City but over the months we’ve discovered it goes much further because it’s not a food that you snack on whilst passing the fridge. It’s definitely a sit down to savour kind of cheese – down to the last scrap of rind.

Many months ago we resolved to buy locally wherever possible and all our milk now comes from Tytherington Farm in Frome which offers a delicious low temperature pasteurised milk from a vending machine in Green Park Station – where the Saturday market takes place. We’ve also found (at last) a butcher there who sells high welfare organic meat from off the farm. Kimbers sell the best Gloucester Old Spot pork you’ve ever tasted and their lamb is produced by their son in law. You can buy fungi of every delightful variety; organic vegetables and so it goes on. The list is impressive. Combined with the vegetables we grow on the allotment we eat better and healthier food than you could buy in most restaurants; and so long as we’re careful we can live within our budget. It just means reducing the amounts of these expensive foods, principally by eating meat much less often.

Of course there’s an argument to be had for cutting out meat, dairy and eggs altogether; an argument that I don’t want to get into here except to say that to claim that all milk, eggs and meat production are equally polluting is to fly in the face of the evidence. How food is produced is crucially important to any discussion about the impact of farming on the environment so we need to move away from false arguments that treat the impact of small mixed farms as being identical to that of enormous industrial feedlots.

Tom Calver made the really interesting comment that cheesemaking can be quite boring if you don’t relish paying minute attention to each part of the process from pasture and herd management through the natural processes of cheesemaking right through to promoting and distributing the finished product. In fact every single contributor to the programme was making the same point. It’s complete dedication to every part of the process that makes the difference between food as a commodity and food as a joyful cultural celebration.

So to get back to today’s lunch at the Potwell Inn, there were new potatoes, peas and French beans all picked or dug this morning ; and beetroot harvested yesterday. None of them had travelled more than a quarter of a mile. We also had cold breast of lamb, rolled and stuffed that has lasted us a week, which was driven up to the market from Frome – all of 20 miles away. If you’ve never eaten peas harvested and then steamed for a couple of minutes, then you’ve never eaten peas. We grow a tall variety called “Show Perfection” by Robinsons and also a better known variety called “Alderman”. They’re big, fat and incredibly sweet.

In previous years our peas have been badly afflicted by Pea Moth but this year, although we’ve lost a few pods, has been quite different. In fact so far as pests are concerned we’ve had one of the best seasons ever. With all deference to the impossibility of any valid controlled trial, our hunch is that the transformation of the allotment from straight rows and bare earth to messy and a bit wild has brought in a host of insects – they’re everywhere. All the agonised discussions about pollinators ignore another huge advantage of getting the insects in. Many of them aren’t much use for pollinating but they’re ferocious predators. Some of the tiny wasp-like hoverflies and their kind like nothing more than to lay their eggs inside their hosts; eggs which hatch into maggots and ….. well I leave the rest to your imagination. So perhaps one of the advantages of our kind of organic messy wildlife gardening is that prey and predators are locked in a grisly battle that keeps us all happy. Even the Blackbirds join in the fun by eating the slug eggs around the path edges. When plants get attacked we leave them in the ground so the attack is confined – one lettuce in a group, for instance.

The borders are all planted with herbs and known pollinator attractors, and where herbs like Lovage and Fennel have flowered and set seed, we leave them in place. The sunflowers perform the same function and so the birds soon figure out where the food is. A rough and unscientific survey conducted from a deckchair suggests that wild Marjoram is one of our most popular nectar plants. This year we’ve seen the largest variety of insects, butterflies and moths, spiders, hoverflies, damselflies and dragonflies ever. But the key question is – “does all this attention on wildlife diminish the overall yield from the allotment?” and the answer is an unequivocal no!

There’s no scorched earth and no bare earth anywhere to be seen on the allotment. The 100% ground cover shades the earth and helps keep it moist, even in a heatwave such as we’re experiencing at the moment. It provides food and cover for a toad, and any number of small mammals from mice, through rats, to foxes, badgers and a ginger cat. We know this because there’s a trail cam that we move around the allotment to see what’s happening at night. The mindfulness demanded of cheese makers and brewers applies equally to us on the allotment. It might look a bit messy but we’re constantly monitoring the crops and the pests to see how things are going along. Some of our allotment neighbours might think that our obsessive attention to detail is a bit much and whilst we respect their right to take a fortnight off now and again, each and every setback through – for instance – too much or too little water accumulates and produces smaller weaker plants, smaller crops and higher pest attacks.

So let’s add the notion of mindful gardening to the equally important idea of messy gardening. My mother used to say “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. That’s a lovely way to describe gardening. Like music, the beauty is inescapably created by alternation of sound with silence, of mindfulness with activity, and – at the end – a profound sense of gratitude for the thing created. It’s very hard to experience that gratitude for a lump of industrial processed cheese or a packet of frozen peas. It’s always worth the wait for the real thing!

Feel the pulse

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I know I’ve been a bit remiss over the last few days, but things are hotting up on the allotment and – because the evenings are lighter – we tend to forget the time and arrive back at the flat late, leaving an unholy rush to get food organised.  But the beds are looking good and the broad beans have survived the latest storm with another on the way.  The hotbed is now full and has gained 6C over the past 48 hours, so now it’s capped with soil it will romp away. The infrastructure jobs like moving and plumbing the water butts are at last looking possible.  There’s a whole list of things to do, but at least we’re not chafing at home.

We are, however, chafing a bit up at the allotment because the annual challenge of seed compost has made its appearance and we’re unable to agree on what to do.  It really is difficult to find well made peat free seed composts.  We use coir modules for many things, but there are some vegetables that need to be pricked out.  We’ve experimented with SylvaGrow and it’s not the best for seed sowing.  We use it for many other purposes but we’ve not been successful with some.  Home made peat free compost – unless we buy in all the ingredients – uses soil and compost that haven’t been sterilised and so could in theory lead to damping off and other fungal problems. I’m sure a solution will eventually be found but it’s been a headache.

But I was browsing this morning, thinking about borlotti beans – which we really like.  I was musing on whether we really do need to move towards synthetic or manufactured proteins as we decrease our meat consumption.  A very little bit of research showed that the kind of pulses we can grow easily in the UK – like borlotti beans, lentil, dried peas and so on – are packed with protein and rich in no end of other important vitamins and minerals.  This is important because the preferred route for many in the food industry is to grow and almost always import soya and high protein wheat to use as a feedstock, not just for animals but for manufactured foods as well.   So it seems a perfectly possible and well  tolerated way forward for all of us to eat less meat and more pulses – not only are they rich in protein and nutrients but they’re also high in fibre – that’s got to be a double whammy and the best thing of all is it locks out the industrial food manufacturers. From what I can discover this makes a perfect diet for vegetarians and vegans.  No need for tofu and Quorn, and fake burgers and bacon; no need for spirulina products to be allowed to flood the market.

This, of course can only address the climate and species crises if at the same time there’s a total change of heart over farming policy and the subsidy system. For decades farmers have been paid to remove hedges, invest less in labour and more in machinery, and increase productivity at the expense of both soil and wildlife habitat. by dousing the land in poisons. I was completely taken aback this morning when I turned up an opinion  piece by George Monbiot, written in 2010, in which he accepted that his previous position of advocating universal veganism is, or rather was wrong and that the way forward could be to allow some meat production in small and ethically run farms and smallholdings. Now to be fair he seems to have changed his mind since, but surely there is room for a less polarised discussion on meat production with a view to contributing to a solution to the present crisis.

All power to vegetarians and vegans for pointing out the ethical issues in meat (and fish) eating; but it remains an ethical choice and not a pantechnicon solution to be imposed at the expense of many thousands of jobs and without any guarantee of success. There’s no reason we couldn’t bear down on the cruel treatment of animals, and the reopening of many more (properly supervised) local slaughterhouses would make a big difference. We need to support local initiatives through the way we buy food. We used to keep chickens in our orchard some years ago, and although I never enjoyed killing them I got myself trained to kill them quickly and humanely by a local butcher. It’s not an act to be undertaken lightly or thoughtlessly but I believe it was an ethically justifiable thing to do.  We gave up because foxes took to raiding in the daytime and trust me – they don’t kill chickens quickly or humanely at all. If you find the very thought of this disgusting or appalling then I’m sorry.  I respect your principled stance as I hope you will accept mine.

There are other – many other – actions we’ll need to take, but the key point is that we can do it locally and sustainably and without relying on food manufacturers and agribusiness to feed us. The only green thing about the green revolution were the countless people who swallowed the lie.  Bring on the lentils!

 

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!

 

How do you make a turnip exciting?

IMG_4675Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed.  Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’.  Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can.  So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest  across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses?  I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.

But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:

Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.

 

That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner.  So no thanks.  Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.

IMG_4678Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine.  One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.

So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown  a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible.  Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly.  So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.

It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?”  I’ll have to think about that one.

Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg.  The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view.  And if that all sounds  bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!

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