Thanksgiving

photo

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.

Manchester bounty

A nice day out

Maps for a day out

On Sunday we went out. We abandoned the weeding, watering, sowing and digging and instead had a happy series of visits around the Lincolnshire Fens and Wolds.

First a brief stop at Sibsey Trader Windmill, one of several working windmills in the area. I love them so much for so many reasons: old technology still working today, locally produced flour, handsome landmarks in this flat country. Our very own Heckington Windmill has been out of action for a couple of years, but the restored sails go back on this summer; I can’t wait.

We collected lunchtime sandwiches from the mill tea rooms, then we were off into the Wolds, to the village of Candlesby and a specialist herb nursery. We came away happy, with sage, lemon thyme, rosemary, black peppermint, sorrel and mace. A kind friend brought tarragon, fennel, hyssop, dill and lovage to my birthday last month and so the newly-built herb bed will soon be full.

Next stop, Strawberry Fields near Stickford in the fens where owner Pam kindly showed us around the fields of organic vegetables she supplies to retailers all over the country, including the lovely Unicorn Grocery, back where we used to live. So, any Manchester friends reading this, if you buy your veg from Unicorn, chances are you have eaten Strawberry Fields’ produce. On a quiet and sunny Sunday the scene was idyllic: acres of luscious green plants stretching away under a huge sky. A row of scarecrows, looking like workers busy hoeing, were a reminder of the hard slog that goes into growing this good food.

Our last visit of the day was in the fens still but with a view of hills, near the village of East Keal where the Wolds begin to rise out of the flatlands. We were meeting some piglets, one of whom we will eat later in the year when she has grown up. We talked to their owners about pig breeds* and pork and smallholding as we watched the piglets scoffing their dinner. They were cute and fun; and I am going to find it strange eating an animal that I have met in person, as it were. But if I eat meat, I’d rather know that the animals were well looked after while they were alive. And so it goes on, the debate between my vegetarian ‘good angel’ and my demon inner-carnivore.

Flour, herbs, lettuces, bacon: and all in the spring sunshine. What a nice day.

Piglets

* These are Oxford Sandy and Blacks. For more info see this Rare Breeds Survival Trust fact sheet.

Food and friendship revisited

This time last year, when we were leaving, I spent a lot of time looking back over my time in Manchester. I don’t keep a diary, but my nearest thing to one is my cookery notebook, as described in this, my second blog post, Of food, feasts and friendship.

The party I talked of there was our last in our Manchester house, but we didn’t do the cooking as we were packing up to move. Friends brought the food, which was nice, but strangely this means that I haven’t written it down in the notebook. I know what we ate at our first Manchester party on 22nd December 1990, but I can’t remember for sure the date of our leaving party in December 2012 (or was it still November?).

Recently I have heard of the death of a friend’s mother and a friend’s father, both very striking people in very different ways; and also people I’ve not seen for many, many years. It is only this evening, in another retrospective session with the notebooks, that I find I cooked for both of them in 1981. Is this an odd way to commemorate people?

I can’t help but look back, to Manchester and beyond, as the anniversary of our moving approaches. When I was doing the same this time last year- and trying to imagine myself in the new life to come – I said that I wouldn’t miss Manchester the city, but I would miss my friends. And that has turned out to be exactly right.

Sugar, spice, memory

Mortar with spices

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.

Woodlands Organic Farm

We went on a farm walk at Woodlands Organic Farm the other day. I’ve mentioned them a couple of times before – the people we were getting a veg box from before we had our own food from the garden (Vegetable Stories and On my bike).

Woodlands is in the fens near Boston, a mixed farm growing vegetables and raising livestock. We saw cattle, chickens, pigs and turkeys – all good fun. Partner’s big interest is vegetables and luckily we were allowed to wander off to the market garden and admire the serried ranks of lettuces and polytunnels full of peppers and tomatoes.

I love cattle. My childhood bedroom faced onto a field of cows, so close that on summer nights I fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of them munching grass, comforting as waves breaking on a shore.

I like these young Lincoln Red cattle, so glossy, energetic and curious as they are; I wish they didn’t exist only so we could eat them. I probably should be vegetarian – but I’m not.

I find much to bemoan in how our food is produced, in the challenges faced by farmers and especially by those who want to farm organically, sustainably, humanely. So a day like this one, seeing an organic farm in the flesh, as it were, was cheering and inspiring.

And our lunchtime soup was nice too.

Vegetable Stories no 2

I am at the kitchen window, looking out on the garden as I tear the fat stalks from a glossy sinkful of chard leaves. Baby carrots and cavalo navone (a buttery Italian turnip, highly recommended) are stewing with oil and honey. Steam from the new potatoes rattles the saucepan lid and makes me think of James Watt watching his mother’s kettle and inventing the steam engine.

For the first time most of this evening’s meal comes from the garden. It’s been thin pickings from this new plot compared to recent years when by July we would have been feasting on allotment produce.

My mouth waters in anticipation of the earthy taste of chard and sweet carrots. I love eating things so soon after they come out of the ground or off the plant.

And as I stand there, something flips me back to a much younger self. It’s London in the early 80s and there I am, head over heels in love with the markets like Pimlico’s Warwick Way and Soho’s Berwick Street. I smile a little ruefully at my smugness in knowing the good places to buy food; but it’s nice to remember that child-like pride and pleasure in negotiating the stalls and heaps of produce, coming home with just what I wanted, lovely fresh things crying out to be cooked.

Back then the idea of growing anything other than a few herbs in pots never crossed my mind. I’ve got to know a different way of living, but colours, textures, tastes, the excitement of food are all the same. And at 53, with my hands in a sink full of green leaves, inside I feel just like myself at 23.

Except of course, back then I thought I’d always live in London…

Early morning beans

At the farmers’ market

Friends from Manchester will remember that we used to buy our meat from the farmers’ markets in Piccadilly and Chorlton, most of it from brilliant Savin Hill Farm in the Lyth Valley in Cumbria. Other favourites were Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire at Piccadilly and Winter Tarn Organic Farm at Chorlton Green.

We miss them, but are happy to have another farmers’ market on the doorstep – once a month at Sleaford, the town five miles away from Heckington. The above photos are of stalls I visited there this morning. This being a farming area, the stallholders are almost all from Lincolnshire; producers at the Manchester market travel from as far as the north of Cumbria. Talking to farmers reminds me just how hard they work to produce food for the rest of us to eat.

Mount Pleasant Windmill (see first picture) is one of several working windmills in the county – along with our own local one (Heckington Windmill); I think they are brilliant, amazing things to have around us here.

Not surprisingly, I heard several jokes today about ‘only beef here.’ No one selling horse though; ostrich, but not horse.