A Dadaist loaf of bread?

Of which more later.

In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.

We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.

Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.

So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.

The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –

 “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil

Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia

When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.

Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.

Alleluia – proper frost at last

Yesterday gave us sunshine and frost, in fact proper winter weather set to at last for two or three days, so we put on our winter woollies, grabbed the walking sticks and binoculars and set off across the river to pay a return visit to the last field trip walk. It’s been so wet that everywhere we went there was water spurting from each tiny spring and there were times when we were skating almost as much as we were walking. Our first quarry was the heronry we spotted last time, but we were a little later starting off and by the time we got there the birds had – so to speak – flown.  There are plenty of garden ponds in Bath, but I suspect their first port of call would be the lake at Prior Park which is so full of signal crayfish that the dam has been eroded to the point where a £2,200,000 restoration project has begun.  Rumour has it that crayfish cakes have appeared on the menu in the cafe from time to time, as they try desperately to eliminate them.

But quite apart from the more unusual wildlife, I loved the frost encrusted plants, especially where the usually invisible hairs on the leaves had been highlighted by tiny crystals of frost. An absolute visual feast.

IMG_20200119_131236So no herons then, but it was such a lovely day it was good just to be out in it.  Bath lies in the valley of the river Avon and because the river takes a winding course through the southern end of the Cotswolds, it feels as if we’re completely surrounded by hills. This gives us our own microclimate and means that traffic pollution is sometimes trapped in the bowl of the landscape. On the plus side – so long as your knees are up to it – you can climb in almost any direction and enjoy fabulous views.  We contemplated walking up to the highline but decided instead to follow the Twin Tunnels cycle path back into the centre. The two tunnels in question once formed part of the Somerset and Dorset railway line, whose initials S & D were immediately dubbed the ‘slow and dirty’ line by the passengers. In fact the longer of the two tunnels, the Combe Down Tunnel is the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the country at just over a mile long.  It had no proper ventilation and so the train drivers would occasionally become unconscious as the steam trains laboured through, filling the tunnel with smoke and fumes. On one occasion the train ran out of control down the steep incline into Bath, killing the driver.

At the point we joined the route we could have turned left through the long tunnel, over the Midford Viaduct and on down to the Kennet and Avon canal, but yesterday we took the shorter Devonshire tunnel – a ten minute walk – and back down the old line to the city centre.  Quite apart from being a magnet for runners, walkers and cyclists, it’s a long narrow nature reserve as well and we shared the path with hundreds of others on foot and on bikes.  We’re incredibly fortunate to have such marvellous facilities here.

Frost is wonderful, well at least it is to us because we’ve got nothing too tender on the allotment.  Broad beans and garlic positively relish the cold and a quick check showed no serious problems at all.  We’re right at the bottom of a steep slope and so it’s a made to measure frost trap. The higher allotments get more sun and less cold, but we, on the other hand, are protected from the strongest winds and retain more moisture,  The key to gardening is to know your ground and respect its foibles and qualities and after four years we’re beginning to understand what we can and can’t grow. The robins now show up as soon as we appear, whether or not there will be any digging, and they sit no more than a couple of feet away keeping an eye on us.

The old hands always insist that the frost kills off pests, making it a good thing. Certainly it has an effect in breaking up clods of heavy clay but since we gave up digging that’s not really an issue for us,. As for whether it really kills insects I’ve no idea; you’d have thought that if overwintering pupae were all killed by the cold, the species would have become extinct through evolutionary pressures, but it’s just nice to have a change of key in the winter. Our biggest worry is whether the lavenders will survive.  The globe artichokes are still looking fine but they’ll surely die back after this cold spell.

The seasons are wonderful.  There are always intimations of what’s coming, alongside traces of what’s past and so it’s impossible to ignore the never ending flux of season and weather.  My mum – who was given to sunday school soundbites – would say ‘hope springs eternal in the hearts of the faithful’. It’s hard not to feel that some kind of nebulous and inexpressible faith in nature is what motivates gardeners everywhere. IMG_20200119_131945