Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Culture vultures escape Brexit dread.

 

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael”

Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible.  For example, and ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible.  A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure – in addition to its difficulties – that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

Wendell Berry, “Faustian economics”

Yesterday the rain continued and looks set to keep us off the allotment for some time, so we were pleased to be off to Shaftesbury to spend the night with friends.  My phone tells me that I spend at least an hour a day gazing at it, and yesterday I probably spent more because we were away from the laptop where I can easily spend hours at a stretch.  Is that shocking? Well, the phone is my newspaper, my letter box and my principle research tool when I’m away from the books, and yesterday I took a series of peeps at the World Organic News website that collates all sorts of useful material from around the world.

But I found myself getting restless about the blogs where people have an abundance of land.  Just imagine the privilege (and responsibility) of working several acres organically and never having to make either/or choices about what can be grown. If the work of tilling that we do is significant for turning the world away from its wasteful and destuctive habits, does that mean that having more land is more powerful than having almost none? My head says “of course not” but the heart says “hell yes! – if I owned all the land in the country/world, I could turn things around in a decade”.

So I want to wave the flag for small plots. Our 250 square metres gives us a lot of healthy pleasure and good food. If we had some factor – say ten – times as much, it might be more fun for us and it would certainly give us a surplus to sell.  But what if we argued for, say a hundred times the acreage of allotment land to be made available but kept the standard size at the traditional 250 square metres – enough to feed, (it was said), a family of four. That could mean a hundred families (however you want to construe the word) engaged with the earth and benefiting from from the exercise and the food.

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As we drove back from Shaftesbury today we passed an organic farm – my guess is that it extended along about 2 miles of the road. Terrific stuff!  I was thinking, but then I saw two enormous tractors parked in one of the access roads, and I wondered what was happening to the fragile soil habitat in this beautiful Wiltshire downland. No doubt there are huge benefits to be gained from the efficient organic farming of large amounts of land but that’s only when you count financial benefits above societal and cultural benefits.

In this time of crisis (the word derives from the Greek crino – to choose), simple questions about “what factors should we add to the financial in order to come to a concept that genuinely constitutes “profit” need to be thought about and answered.

Anyway, apart from that we managed to fit in three galleries with one opening night and a convivial meal with friends. I love it when an exhibition forces me to think seriously, and the two artists exhibiting at Hauser and Wirth in Bruton have sent me home full of questions. If you look carefully enough you’ll see three musicians playing in the background of the Berlinde De Bruyckere works.  They were improvising using the works as inspiration. It was beatiful.  The other exhibition was by Takesada Matsutani and again forced me to think hard about the way we make aesthetic decisions. While we were there we spotted Charles Hazlewood, the conductor, it’s a good place for people spotting!

Then later we went to Messums Wiltshire where we were welcomed to have a look around even as they were setting up two new exhibitions – how unusual is that?  next we went to the opening night of a show at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre and met two of the founders of “Common Ground”, Sue Clifford and Angela King who set the charity up with the late Roger Deakin (read his books, they’re tremendous).  They were celebrating the decision of Shaftesbury Council to put in a bid to buy back the piece of land called “The Wilderness” in the town.

So by the time we’d done all that we didn’t eat until late but we ate too much and drank too much and went to bed exhausted and stirred up.  It’s the only way to be!

Reading Wendell berry

_1080659I guess we’ve all got a list of writers we know we ought to read but somehow never get round to it. For me, it’s all too often someone I’m slightly frightened to read because I’m a bit afraid I’ll be overwhelmed, and Wendell Berry fell firmly into that category. Some of the most influential books I’ve read came to me accidentally, before I’d been able to think of a reason not to read them. Wendell Berry was one of those slightly terrifying characters who wore dungarees and represented all the stuff I felt most uneasy about in America and so I steered a wide course around him whilst all the while trying to find a way of living that he could have helped me with if only I’d not been so stubborn. Continue reading “Reading Wendell berry”

Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan

_1080653There’s a reason for changing the usual name of these gardens.  We’ve just got back from 5 days in Cornwall which we spent entirely in exploring the gardens – they’re that good. We first visited in the summer with some of our family including the three grandchildren.  They raced around having fun and doing what happy children do and we would not begrudge them a single moment of that mad ecstatic reception of a new place -in truth I wish we could all recover it for ourselves. But there was much more than novelty and ‘visitor experience’ going on there, and that was what we spent last week exploring. So this posting may well turn into several as I turn the days over in my mind. Continue reading “Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan”

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