I had little time for cooking last night, after a long afternoon of weeding while partner struggled manfully with putting up a new chicken run.
But our soup and salad meal included celeriac, chard, carrots, lettuce, potatoes and apples, all from the garden, plus pears from a neighbour’s tree. There could have been cobnuts too, if I’d had time to shell them. And the basketful of peppers and tomatoes, pictured above, is still untouched, demanding my attention today.
I know, I know that all this bounty does not come by magic, but after weeks and months of sowing and tending by partner (mostly) and weeding by self (mostly). But at this point in the year, when there is just so much and it is so good, it seems like a miracle, like manna from heaven.
And when I look at the enormous tomato plants, the weighty fruit hanging from them, and remember the tiny seeds they came from, I am amazed, as every year, by the magic that turns one into the other; by nature’s conjuring trick that gives us all this food. It is one of those moments when this lifelong atheist craves religion; I would like there to be someone to thank for the magic and the bounty.
Well a blog is not church, but here I am saying thank you nevertheless. All this food is amazing and I love it. Below is a picture from three years ago, taken in our Manchester kitchen, with bounty from our allotment there. I’ve been looking at pictures (see the Facebook page) from past years, remembering friends and fellow plot-holders, loving it as the start of a journey which brought me here.
I need a break from grinding all these spices. In the mortar are peppercorns, allspice and juniper, along with lots of salt and a little saltpetre or potassium nitrate (the stuff that keeps salted meat pink instead of grey and also makes gunpowder).
I am making Spiced Salt Beef for a lunch party at the end of the month (see After the party for its last appearance). The beef has been sitting quietly in brown sugar for two days while we were off gallivanting at a friend’s 60th birthday down south. Now it will sit ten days longer in the salt and spices before I cook it.
In Manchester days beef for this dish came from our friends at Savin Hill Farm who come all the way from Cumbria to the Farmers’ Markets in Manchester. Now the beef is from lovely Bassingthorpe Beef. Going to collect it is my favourite sort of journey, through little villages, on winding, muddy, country roads.
I bought this mortar, an old chemist’s one, more than thirty years ago when I was still a student, for £12 from a junk shop on Walton Street in Oxford. It was one of the first pieces of cooking equipment I bought for myself and I thought it was cool beyond belief. I still love it.
The pestle broke some years ago. This wooden replacement was made for me by a fellow plotholder at Southern Allotments, back in Manchester. I think all he asked in exchange was some eggs from the chickens we used to keep there. I was, and still am very grateful!
I also love the Elizabeth David cookery book propped up at the back of the picture (Spices, Salts & Aromatics in the English Kitchen). This copy is the one I had in the year I bought the mortar and pestle; the year when a friend scribbled ‘very excellent good times,’ in the margin, beside the recipe for pork baked with oranges. Not all my student days were good, but times in that year, that house, cooking and sharing food with friends, yes, excellent they were indeed.
We spent yesterday out with the Heckington Gardening Club on a visit to Red Hill Nature Reserve, in the Wolds, the hilly bit of Lincolnshire. We had a walk and a talk with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable man from Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. I think he would have gone on finding new wildflower species for us to look at until well into the summer evening, if we had had the energy to follow him.
I loved seeing wild plants that I recognise from their cultivated relatives that live in gardens and allotments; and all the different grasses, their swaying, seedy heads like a mist over the surface of the meadow where we walked. But it was hard not to feel sad about the species that are being lost, here and all over the world, and the knowledge that disappears with them. Now just have to work out which small bit of the garden can be turned into a wildflower meadow…
Lots of birdsong and butterflies as well – lovely. Pictures not mine today, but partner’s, for which he has my thanks.
They are everywhere I look in the garden, the daffodils; gold, primrose and white, tossing their heads in the wind, as they do.
I’ve written more about the leylandii hedge than about the rest of the garden, which is lovely. It is a great treat to have inherited so many flowers: there have been snowdrops, hellebores and primroses, then the daffodils, and tulips on the way. And with the warmer weather, at last, there are all sorts of perennials starting to emerge from patches of dead stalks and bare earth; aquilegia and foxgloves, among my favourite flowers, are appearing in all sorts of unexpected places.
I have a few cut-and-come-again seedlings in the conservatory. They look so fresh and green that I want to eat them now, but they are still only babies. Meanwhile I try not to check the length of the rhubarb coming up outside more than every couple of days. Soon, soon it will be big enough to cut.
Yesterday I potted on all the soft fruit cuttings I took from the bushes at our Manchester allotment (a small act of faith, made long ago, before our move was really on the cards). I am pleased to have something here from that patch of ground that my partner put so much into over seven or eight years.
Today I am going to sow beetroot and carrots. And partner is thinking of putting early potatoes in some messy ground where the polytunnel will go later. Feels very daring to be doing such normal things for the time of year. More acts of faith and commitment to this, our new piece of earth.
Is spring sprung at last?
A vegetable box arrived bright and early this morning from Woodlands Organic Farm at Kirton, in the fens near Boston. When still back in Manchester, I asked famous Unicorn Grocery about their Lincolnshire suppliers (of whom there are quite a few, this being the vegetable basket of England). They put me on to friendly Pam, from Strawberry Fields farm and she told me about Woodlands.
I’ve never done the veg box thing because in the years that box schemes have really taken off, we (or rather partner) have been growing our own. The vegetables look very nice (especially the fine cauliflower), but I’ve been eating off an allotment, very seasonally and very locally, for so long that I am disconcerted by red pepper and courgettes in January.
I have a strange urge to hide them; so into a soup they go. Also in the pot are onions, a red chilli and squash, all grown on our old plot at Southern Allotments. The squash (pictured above) is a beautiful Crown Prince, grown from seeds given us by a kind friend who also has an allotment.
Crown Prince, with its lovely grey-green, ridged skin, reminds me of a pale green teapot I bought many years ago – contemporary English pottery but with a celadon glaze and very Chinese look about it. I wonder if it is only coincidence that the squash looks like my teapot, or if perhaps some long-ago Chinese potter was inspired by a squash.
Also into the soup I put a couple of bay leaves from a tree which came with me from my Brixton garden nearly 23 years ago. So absurdly pleasing that it has flourished in its pot through all the Manchester years and is here with me in this new place: my continuity girl.
Yesterday morning when we woke up the garden was covered in snow. It has been melting fast today but still looks pretty. Birds look hungry – which box are the bird feeders in? This is the back of the garage where the current vegetable garden is (we will be expanding it). Leeks in the snow remind me again of past winters on our allotment back in Manchester. I hope the people who have our plot now are eating the leeks we left behind.
breathing ice for air,
stalks bleached bone white,
earth hard as iron.
below, seeds dream of life,
until light’s return.
doorway of the year, two-faced,
where past meets future,
death meets birth
and like a mother,
out of darkness light returns.
I won’t be making a habit of putting poems on here, as I write very few, but decided to take the risk of putting up this one which came back to my mind when thinking about winter, the dead time of the year, the turn of the year and so on.
The words first came into my head while walking on Chorlton meadows in the early days of January 2010. It was the first of those very cold winters and we had temperatures of minus 18 in Manchester. The ground was hard as iron and all colour bleached from the landscape – beautiful, but bleak indeed for birds and animals looking for food and shelter.
I remember we were going down to our allotment twice each day because the water for the chickens kept freezing over. Each morning it was hard work opening the big metal gates at the site and trying to unlock frozen padlocks; and I used to think how crazy we were to be keeping chickens as a hobby at an allotment, pretending to be smallholders. And then I used to think how much I would like to live in the country so I could have the chickens in the back garden.
At the same time it was magical to be there early in the morning in all that cold and quiet; seeing if anyone else had been down and left footprints on the snowy paths; finding a spider’s web strung on the allotment gates, jewelled with ice.
And I was thinking of my mother when I wrote the poem as her birthday is in January.