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.

Adelina – tell me your secret, please?

Midsummer is almost with us, and the food is coming off the allotment at speed now, and so the centre of action is moving back to the kitchen, egged on by Madame’s Mediterranean moment . I sometimes wonder what’s the point of growing all this lovely food without eating it? I’ve never understood why some allotmenteers seem to enjoy the growing more than the eating, and when I see a broad bean muscling its way out of the pod like a bodybuilder’s biceps I think what a waste! – and don’t try to kid me they’re next year’s seed, for goodness sake you have to eat some of them surely?

So yesterday after the perfume was ordered for Madame and tranquility was restored, we settled on a mushroom risotto with some asparagus off the allotment and a couple of pan fried duck breasts. My mind immediately turned to leftovers and the mention of the Montalbano series prompted me to think about making some arancini – which was a good idea because I don’t sleep very well on these long warm nights so I was up at six and baking.

I have made arancini before but it wasn’t always a great success because once, when I made them small and dropped them into a deep fat fryer, they all exploded! So today I made them much larger – tangerine size. They’re awfully easy to do – you make a half, make a dent in it and drop in a teaspoon of mozzarella and them put the ‘top’ on and form them in your hands like a small scotch egg. Then you roll them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and today I fried them in an inch of oil, turning them constantly – thereby avoiding explosions. We had them cold for lunch, with dollops of the fierce aioli I made yesterday. I’m quite sure the fictional detective would protest loudly because Adelina’s are a bit more of a performance; filled with a meat ragu in which the beef must absolutely not be minced or food processed but reverently chopped with a sharp mezzaluna; and somehow she manages to work some bechamel in too. Plus they’re the proper Sicilian conical shape. But – hey – life’s too short and one day when I’ve got all the ingredients to hand I might give them a try. They’re meant to be simple street food, not a Michelin workout.

When there are the freshest ingredients coming into the kitchen, cooking becomes an intense, contemplative pleasure; evoking memories of places we’ve visited and meals we’ve eaten. There does seem to be a strong link between cooking and the sense of belonging. Montalbano has the greatest difficulty in deciding between a weekend with Livia and the chance to scoff Adelina’s arancini. The arancini win, needless to say.

“A good restaurant is an extension of home cooking, without that restaurant taste that makes people feel full to the eyebrows. There is also that wonderful French kitchen maxim, rien se perd : it’s a wise restaurateur who never cooks a dish without having a plan for it if it’s not eaten. Never buy anything in bulk. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a use for it, whether it’s good or not.”

George Perry Smith

There’s something else about leftovers that came to mind today as I was cooking, and that’s the way that George Perry Smith who almost single handedly rescued restaurant cooking from its cordon bleu chains after the war, and trained some of today’s best – if not best known – chefs, (working as he did in the shadow of food rationing), would never waste any food. He was famous for the way he used leftovers creatively. Apparently the menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath which he owned and in which he cooked had this sentence printed on it: –“Oddly enough, we are interested at least as much in doing our job well, that is to give you pleasure, as in making money out of it.”

When Madame talked me into making aioli on Monday, my first thoughts turned to bouillabaisse and other French fish stews. But actually, the gold standard fish soup for me was the one that Stephen Markwick produced almost every day in Bristol. We only ate it once in his Corn Street restaurant (when someone else was paying) but we frequently had it at the little bistro called Culinaria that he ran in Redland, later on. Stephen Markwick, and Joyce Molyneux both trained with George Perry Smith. Out middle son trained with Markwick as a commis chef and joined the succession of influence. He remembers when once he dropped an egg on the floor of the kitchen and Stephen threatened to dock the cost from his wages. But Markwick’s fish soup was made from the simplest ingredients, all of which you could buy in any local fishmonger. There were no rare and bony Mediterranean fish, no rascasse or unobtainable rarities, but I’d kill for a bowl of it any day and even now whenever I see fish soup on a menu I have to try it because I know it will immediately show the measure of the kitchen and the chefs who work in it.

Just as a Tai Chi teacher will advertise the lineage of their own teachers, so too chefs all come from somewhere if they’re any good. You’ve only got to look at a recipe by – say – Simon Hopkinson and you can feel his friendship with Elizabeth David. It was her books, almost certainly, that George Perry Smith learned from, he never trained formally himself. His pupils and the younger chefs that they influenced have been rather eclipsed by younger and showier media personalities who’ve often become wealthy and left the cooking to others.

So I’m profoundly grateful to the writers and cooks who gave me so much more than recipes; they gave me whole cultures, and when I’m in the kitchen they’re all in there with me – the cooks and the cultures; a whole world in a pan.

Season of mists and mellow wastefulness

 

EFFECTSDon’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste.  There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife.  Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky.  Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).

In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would  clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted.  On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his.  It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.

The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself.  I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers!  However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.

But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning.  Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council.  Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing.  Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile.  All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.

While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow.  We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.

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