Food, glorious food! – hope for a different future

Last year I twice (virtually) encountered Carolyn Steel, a visionary thinker who envisions us solving many of our (self-created) problems with food.

The first time I came across her was actually many years ago, when I read her book ‘Hungry City’, a fascinating exploration of how food shaped and continues to shape our cities.

The next time I came across her was much later, at a time when it was hard to find anything to feel hopeful about faced with three big crises (coronavirus, climate, and Brexit). She presented an episode of the BBC R4 food programme which looked at her proposal for Sitopia. Sitopia is a word she coined herself: it’s a play on the word Utopia – sitos is the Greek work for food; she proposes a country where food is at the heart of all policy making. It’s also the name of the book she recently published.

Not long afterwards she gave a keynote presentation at a conference on food and cities which I had a small part in helping with when Bath City Farm was also asked to give a presentation. I wasn’t able to take part at the time, but was delighted to be sent a link to watch online at a later date.

There’s a rather horrible political saying ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. However, of necessity we are now faced with three awful crises: the pandemic, the climate crisis, and now in the UK Brexit. We can sink or we can swim. My preference of course is to swim. We have to somehow seize the moment to create change for the better out of the crises. We have to start now.

Some of our local food producers responded magnificently to the coronacrisis by building almost from scratch a new and much shorter food chain. I’m thinking in particular of the cheesemaker where I buy my milk. When unexpectedly and suddenly they lost their usual market (when wholesalers supplying restaurants and caterers ceased to buy from them), they managed to build their small following of local people buying from them and also develop sales online. As a result they’ve been able to continue to make their excellent cheese from the organic milk from their farm, and they have expanded their farm cafe and shop. I think the cafe expansion was planned long before covid, but in the meantime they have had to rapidly rethink and change things as regulations have changed. There’s a lesson in there for all of us – it’s no good just mourning that things aren’t the same. Of course there’s a time and need for that, but in order to survive we have to reassess and change and adapt. Agility is no longer just the latest management buzz-word. It is essential.

Some of the cows that make the milk that makes the cheese

And if you want to indulge in some seriously good cheese, I can strongly recommend Bath Soft Cheese. I have no connection with them, I just like their cheese and their milk, and their farm. And I admire how they’ve adapted and adjusted to change.

Do listen to the programme if you feel in need of a dose of optimism. I asked for and received the book for Christmas, and I’ve just started reading it.

Posted in 2021, Farming, Food, Inspirations, Local food, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time and time again

I’ve written before about the importance of time as an essential, often unspoken, ingredient in food. There can be no better examples of this than when we make fermented foods or grow our own food.

I spent much of today making (or doing) food things that won’t be edible for some long time.

I’m nearing the end of the jar of red cabbage sauerkraut I made last January, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a large red cabbage at the Farmers’ Market and today I shredded and squashed it enough to be able to cram all 4lb or so into a large clip-top jar. It will sit in the kitchen for the first few days so I can ‘burp’ it every morning, and then will sit in the garage to quietly do it’s thing for a few weeks (at least).

Last week I bought a pack of 6 limes reduced to sell (heaven knows why, they were absolutely fine a week later when I got round to using them). The pack cost 85p. I cut them into 8ths, rubbed them in salt, and packed them into a jar. These will sit for months before I finally use them. They will be delicious cut up in salads.

I finished off the week before last’s batch of kombucha, so I bottled the batch I made last week, and began another batch. Making this is simply making a large pot of sweet tea and letting it cool down, then pouring it onto the scoby. And leaving it for a week or so to ferment.

I started a batch of bread (using the sourdough from the fridge), which won’t be baked until tomorrow of possibly the day after.

I cleaned out the hen house and gave them fresh bedding (scrap paper I shredded earlier this week). I topped up their food and water.

I cut down half the (autumn fruiting) raspberry canes. I’ll do the rest later this week. I started pruning the soft fruit bushes. None of them will bear fruit until late spring or summer. Time spent now will produce a yield later in the year. Some of that fruit will be frozen or bottled to enjoy next winter.

For lunch I had a salad I’d made earlier and added some of the preserved lemons I made last January.

The time we invest now will feed us in due course.

Posted in Allotment, Do what you can with what you have, Food, Growing, Local food, Reflections on life (and death), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lockdown 3 – reboot

Everything I read about how the coronacrisis is going confirms my belief that we’re in this for a lot longer than the PM would like to admit. My feeling is that this lockdown is going to take us through till Easter – not least of all because the UK government is putting most of its eggs in the vaccination basket, and the rollout will take a long time before lockdown can safely be relaxed.

So the question for all of us now, is how to get ourselves and others through this latest lockdown safely and with mental health intact. For those of us able to properly stay at home (financially, safely) looking after our mental health is crucial. This will mean different things for each of us – for example, I know that Malcolm finds not being able to travel far more of a deprivation than I do. I think I’m fortunate in being innately a bit of an introvert. I enjoy solitude, and have many things to do to keep me occupied and entertained. For me, and I’m sure for many others, the hardest thing is not being able to see those dearest and closest to me.

I especially feel for those who are living alone and struggling with that, and those who are working in front-line roles with all the emotional and physical distress that entails. So when I read that the most important thing we can do to support them is to stay home and have as little contact with others as possible, I feel impelled to comply.

I have put together a little list of things I’d like to achieve by the end of this lockdown. I’m setting it out here, in case it helps anyone else to find a sense of purpose through this time.

  • Reading – fiction: all the Smiley books by John le Carre; non-fiction: any of my books about food (plus other things I can find online, including podcasts and zoom presentations

My Christmas present to us
  • Making
    • pre Brexit I bought a bag of cotton yarn from Denmark. My plan is to use all of it to make a stock of dishcloths to sell to fundraiser for Bath City Farm. It cost me £59.40 altogether, including the postage. I’m interested to see how much money I can raise from that (which I’m considering my donation).
    • before lockdown I put out a request on our local freegle for yarn and fabric scraps to use to make things to sell for the farm. I had a heartwarming response, and now have several bags of yarn and one of some lovely fabric sitting in quarantine waiting for me to sort and use
    • Last year I raised almost £600 from my making; this year I’ve set myself the target of raising £500
  • Growing – oh dear. I’ve completely lost it with the allotment. It all went to pot back in the autumn when I got ill, and I haven’t had the heart to sort it out. I’ll aim to get back on top of things by the end of March. That should be good enough. And good enough is all that’s needed
  • Cooking – I’ll continue with all the things I already do, but I’d also like to see if I can expand my repertoire. Not sure how yet, but it will come to me. Or not
  • Reducing – I want to review what I’ve managed to achieve so far, and improve and adopt other areas where I can cut down on waste/consumption
  • Exercise – last year my lymphoedema leg got worse, which I think was partly due to not exercising frequently or consistently enough. So at the start of 2021 I set myself a 90 day challenge to do something reasonably vigorous for at least 1 hour each day. I’ve managed it so far – mainly brisk walking (not ambling as I have been previously). 11 days in, that feels good
  • Bird watching – this is a relatively new one for me. Being at home more and in the kitchen quite a bit has made me (us) much more aware of what a wide variety of birds there are in and around our garden. We’re fortunate in having a wonderful view at the back of our house including a row of very mature horse chestnut trees and several very large mature willows. Our back garden has a large twisted hazel, a cotoneaster tree, and a small pyracantha shrub. Our next door neighbour has a rowan tree outside their garden. I’ve gathered together some bird identification books and Malcolm has brought his binoculars down to the kitchen, and they are being well used. We now regularly see more birds than we ever realised come to the garden (though they rarely deign to use the feeders we’ve put out for them – I wonder why?)
A fieldfare on the cotoneaster

If you’re looking for something to cheer you up and you’ve enjoyed seeing Malcolm’s photos here, you might enjoy his 2021 challenge to himself: posting a photo a day on Instagram. You can find him there as @malcolmdodds. I’m also over there, as (unsurprisingly) @themagicjug

Posted in 2021, Allotment, Craft, Do what you can with what you have, Food, In the time of the virus, Nature, Reflections on life (and death), Uncategorized, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2021: how to get through it?

Continuing to count my blessings. Last year I chose as my ‘theme’ word enough How very appropriate that turned out to be. I found I did indeed have enough of everything, and much more than many.

I’ll get round to looking back on the year gone by, but for now I want to focus on the year we’ve moved on to. I’ve decided that focussing on enough was rewarding, so I’m going to continue that theme. Does that mean it wasn’t in fact enough?

In addition, this year I’m going to think about food. With all its connotations: food for the body; food for thought; where does it come from; what do we eat and why.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you won’t be surprised by my choice. Food has always interested me, and I enjoy growing, preparing and eating it. Especially eating it. When I reviewed my bookshelves as I was looking through them thinking about enough, I found I have a really large number of books about food. Recipe books. Books about food from different countries and cultures. Books about growing food. Books about food policy.

In the past few years I’ve managed to take part in a conference or workshop looking at food policy at least once. The one I was due to attend in 2020 didn’t happen, but instead I have managed to take in some online presentations and listen to some podcasts. I follow several key food policy figures on social media. I try to be thoughtful about what, where and how I buy food. I know from experience that food can make (and sadly break) communities.

In the past I’ve thought about embarking on some formal course of study about food policy, but I was waylaid when our granddaughter was born – given the choice, I will always choose to see her over almost anything else. Also, I have a fundamentally lazy streak, and I prefer to pick up and drop things at will. I’ve done the formal study thing, and right now I have no need of it.

My food story this week includes making marmalade (pretty much every other year); making kombucha (weekly); making yoghurt (every other week); and baking bread (weekly, using the starter I made in the in-between days of Christmas/New Year 2012/13). As well as making my fair share of the meals Malcolm and I eat together during the week, and shopping for that food.

On reflection, I see that our our days hang on the structure of when and what we eat. Breakfast. Coffee and a snack mid-morning. Lunch. Supper. And don’t get started on the whole debate about what we call our meals (lunch? dinner? tea? supper?).

I’m glad I thought to buy some marmalade oranges on Monday. I was spurred on to buy them as early as possible because I wondered if they would actually arrive here post-Brexit (Seville oranges, from Spain). And then on Monday night our latest lockdown was announced. Making marmalade will be good therapy in an increasingly bleak time.

This was the last batch I made, in January 2019. Looking forward to the meditative quality of slicing the peel

Posted in 2020 enough, 2021, Food, Reflections on life (and death), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hello 2021!

And a happy new year to you.

Although I can barely bring myself to say that out loud. With things being as they are, and people’s situations being as they are, the best I can hope for is that we end 2021 alive and in a better place than we begin it.

Such a strange feeling. I’m fortunate never to have had a life-threatening illness, so I’ve not personally felt so close-to-home that sense that any one of us could be dead in a fortnight. The nearest I’ve got to it was approaching my 40th birthday – my joy on reaching that milestone was huge. I had deeply internalised the feeling that I never would, based (with no good reason) on the fact that my dad died a few weeks short of his 40th birthday.

Back to now. Here in England, in lockdown mark 3. Let’s hope that this time the government does what they singularly failed to do in marks 1 and 2, which is to use the time constructively to ensure that we have a fully functioning track, trace and isolate system, that people have the support they need to enable them to be able to isolate if necessary (and to stick to the lockdown rules), and to ensure that the vaccine roll-out is swift and effective – with clear accurate and timely information about numbers actually achieved. All of which would seem like minor miracles after the unbelievable displays of incompetence and denial we’ve seen so far.

In the meantime, in the words of the wonderful Michael Rosen, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve to go through it.

(If you haven’t read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt yet, you really should). The good thing is, we’ll come out the other side.

Our job now, given that we are the very lucky ones with choices, is to find ways to get ourselves through and hopefully bring others along with us. At the very least, we can do everything in our power to keep ourselves healthy and well, to avoid passing on infection to anyone else and avoid additional pressure on the NHS.

For us this means:

  • Continuing the daily walks
  • Finding interesting things to do at home – more on this in due course
  • Offering support to others where its needed and where we can

If you’ve enjoyed Malcolm’s photos from our virtual coffee jaunts, you might enjoy following him on Instagram. One of his new projects for 2021 is to post daily through the year. A cornucopia of photographs reflecting his wide-ranging interests. You can find him on Instagram @malcolmdodds

My walk today: Kelston to Bath (about 4.5 miles)
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The in-between days

These days between Christmas and New Year have somehow always felt like bonus days, especially when we were still working but both managed to arrange to take holiday days on them. Christmas has always been a big family day; New Year time for the two of us (since the boys were old enough to celebrate it with their friends). The days between were extras – days when we’ve always arranged to meet up with friends for winter walks, to enjoy pottering around the house doing whatever took our fancy, days without shopping because there was always plenty already in the house to eat and drink.

This year they feel like some time to step back and reflect on the strangest of strange years we have ever experienced. I imagine many others doing the same.

Our Christmas was the smallest we’ve ever had. We were us two and an older family member who joined us for lunch, for the briefest time ever. It was the first time he’d been in our house this year – quite extraordinary. We reminisced Christmases past: those when we were guests in other people’s homes; those when we had a house full ourselves.

There is so much to reflect on this year, and so much still to come. I am not optimistic that 2021 will be an improvement on 2020 (though if the vaccine roll-out goes according to plan, that will be an immense relief).

Like most people we know, our plans for this year’s Christmas changed frequently and rapidly. At one point oldest son sent us their new plan, saying that it was ‘this week’s plan’. Ha! it barely lasted a day or two before it had to be changed again, and again. In the end the introduction of Tier 4 restrictions (rightly and too late, in my view) ensured that everyone stayed put apart from the person who joined us (from nearby). Subsequent plans were also changed as someone discovered that a person they’d worked with the previous week had tested positive, so they decided (sensibly) to self-isolate just in case.

So many times this year we’ve been thankful that neither of our mothers, who both lived in care homes at the end of their lives, lived to experience this. Neither would have been able to understand what was going on or make any sense of the restrictions and isolation they would have faced.

I always expected that this turn-of-the-year would be a difficult one: once it was determined that the UK would finally leave the EU on 31 December 2020, it was clear that whatever came next would be worse what went before. I never ever imagined that at the same time we would be in the throes of a global pandemic, so badly (mis)handled here that it’s hard to envisage an end to it.

I always knew and appreciated that I am among one of the most fortunate, with my home and my garden and my secure income and my supportive family and friends. This year has served to emphasise that and magnify it many fold. This year has been bad for many. I fear next year will be worse for them and many more. My determination to do what small things I can to help is not diminished.

And now, in these in-between days, I’m reflecting on the past year and forming plans for the next. What was achieved, what dropped by the wayside (and why). What was learnt, what was forgotten. What might happen next.

I love this jumper granddaughter has been lent – I’ve got an urge to recreate one for myself in 2021. I figure we’ll need all the cheerfulness we can find

Posted in 2020 enough, Community, Do what you can with what you have, Family, In the time of the virus, Reflections on life (and death), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chanukah – festival of light (and hope)

The essence of chanukah is that the oil for the eternal light in the temple that was enough to last just a few days miraculously lasted for a full 8 days and nights until there was a fresh supply. It’s something we’ve celebrated off and on (mostly off, if I’m honest) since our sons were old enough to participate – mainly because I wanted them to have at least a basic understanding of their Jewish heritage. When they were primary school age we celebrated with a few other mixed heritage families.

The middle one is the ‘shammash’, used to light all the other lights

This year though it has taken on a new level of meaning for me. Something about holding on to hope in the face of reality pointing in the other direction. The coincidence of chanukah falling at the same time as the end-game of the Brexit talks has been powerful. It has felt like the days have been a meditation on holding on to hope when there seemed little reason for any.

I can’t get candles for my chanukiah so I’m improvising (‘do what you can with what you have’)

I’m under no illusions. In the unlikely event that Boris Johnson gets any kind of a deal, it will be thin gruel indeed and little better than no deal at all. It will certainly make life even more difficult for people living in the UK, especially those already most disadvantaged. The millions who don’t currently have enough money to live on (ie buy food, pay their bills, pay for housing) will of course be hit hardest, and they will be joined by the many who will lose their jobs this year and next because of the dual crises of covid and Brexit. Both appallingly mishandled by our government, and Brexit an entirely self-inflicted blow. Am I angry? well actually, yes I am. Very.

Today I took part in a webinar to launch a report by the University of Bath and The Good Economy proposing that’anchor institutions’ in our city should take the lead in rebuilding Bath’s local economy in the wake of Brexit and covid19. There were some exciting and positive ideas shared, and real enthusiasm from some organisations that are potentially key to making this happen (University of Bath, Bath and NE Somerset Council, Royal United Hospital). I came away with some reasons for hope.

Another 3 nights of chanukah to go after tonight. There will be potato latkes* at the end. And doughnuts* some time too I think.

*fried foods are traditionally eaten to represent the oil. No Jewish festival is complete without eating something to represent something.

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Shifting the (metaphorical) deckchairs….

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting more and more concerned about the likely impact Brexit will have on us here in the UK. Even if a deal is agreed, it will be such a ‘hard’ Brexit that it will only very slightly soften the blows that ‘no deal’ with bring us. I find it impossible to understand such self-harm as a nation, especially coming as it does on top of the devastating and continuing impact of the pandemic.

What to do?

Well, there seems to be very little we can do as individuals. Those of us who can have gathered a small amount of supplies to reduce our demand at a time when all sorts of things are likely to be in short supply. Those who can’t will undoubtedly suffer most, and will need our support to help get them through.

So today I’ve done what I used to do in university days when I was having an ‘essay crisis’: I’ve shifted around most of the furniture in my room.

I have particular memories of deciding at midnight that the essay – barely started – that had to be handed in by 9am the next morning simply couldn’t be written until I’d rearranged all the furniture. Which I proceeded to do, until at 2am I saw sense and abandoned the furniture shifting to continue writing the essay – amidst chaos and mess. The essay was finished on time. The tidying took rather longer.

Yesterday I was sitting working on a knitting project that needs to be finished quickly when I suddenly realised that the sun was shining on a part of the room I didn’t use so much, whereas the two places I often sit were in deep shadow. I saw how it could be so much more pleasant if I just changed things around. Although I was itching to do it immediately, I managed to resist. This morning I was able to resist no longer (all the more so because the sun was shining so brightly), and I made the shift. I’m pleased with what I’ve done.

Sometimes focussing on the things that are easy to fix helps. A bit.

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A (mostly) rainy day

On the whole I’m not a great fan of being out in the rain, though of course as a gardener I welcome it wholeheartedly. But at some level I’m still the schoolchild who always enjoyed ‘indoor play’, often more than the usual outdoor play (maybe because it often meant I could curl up with a good book).

Today is no different. A wet day means a day of getting stuff done indoors – cleaning, tidying, admin. And then once all that is done, enjoying sitting with a hot cup of tea and working on one of the many current knitting projects. There’s something very comforting about being indoors, in the warm and dry, creating something new that someone will eventually enjoy using.

[And on the other hand, there’s no escaping the stark reminder of how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy all these things. Yesterday I read of a local Big Issue seller who was attacked and left unconscious near where the Farmers’ Market happens. He’s now in hospital, and there’s a fundraiser online to raise enough money to find proper housing for him when he comes out – he currently lives in a tent by the river. In a wealthy city like Bath]

This week I’ve had some heart-warming responses to my blog, which move me more than I can tell you. A friend from university days, who was reminded by my anniversary post of those times together (the Christmas when we both worked in the post office sorting office on alternate shifts – me nights, him days I think), and he generously offered to share his room with me. Someone I know from the farm who wants to buy some of the dishcloths I’ve been knitting. Another friend who just enjoys reading the day-to-day doings (or not doings) – we miss being able to see each other so very much, and the weekly phone calls help but aren’t the same.

It’s all about community.

Moving back to the mundane, tomorrow is the last council green bin collection until the end of January (garden waste), so I braved the cold (and found it was no longer raining) to collect the un-compostable bits from the garden and allotment (roots of perennial weeks, tough sweetcorn stalks and husks, prunings too woody to compost).

And then my daily walk before returning to the warm and dry to cook supper and sit knitting.

I count my blessings daily xx

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Delicate planning – the Christmas edition

Now we’re out of lockdown and formally into Tier 2, not a lot has changed, for us at any rate. We will still minimise our contact with others, especially indoors. We will continue to think carefully about any plans. We won’t be putting ourselves and others at avoidable risk. For the likes of us, the losses are a small price to pay to protect our own and others’ health.

We’ve started to plan who we’ll be seeing when over the holiday period. Quite a bit depends on others. As with any extended family, everyone has competing demands from different parts of their family network. Us probably less than most, as our parents are all dead now, and we have only one surviving older family member (who always comes first in our Christmas planning). So it mostly boils down to our children and their families. Some of them have had a particularly hard time of it this year, and our choice is to support them in putting the other side of their family first.

All of which adds up to a much quieter Christmas than usual, though we will still be seeing all of our immediate family. We will miss seeing our siblings and their families, but that will come and it’s far more important for us all to stay safe. We will without doubt enjoy the Christmas celebration we have, and look forward to other bigger celebrations in times to come. In the meantime, it looks like this year youngest son and his family will visit us for a few days, and we’ll especially enjoy having plenty of quality time with the little one.

And today, I’ve been to town and visited a couple of shops I’ve missed during lockdown. Doing my bit to support small local traders: heaven knows they need it now more than ever. I’ve stocked up on yarn from WoolBath, Laura’s lovely shop in the centre of Bath. This means I can now start on a couple more Christmas presents, plus a little something for dear friends a continent away who have just had twins. Plenty there to keep me happily occupied. I’ve also restocked my tea (from Gillards‘ stall in the Guildhall Market) without which knitting is of course impossible.

I love these little ‘parklets’ the council has installed in several places in the city centre – so much better than yet more parking spaces. This one was empty, but they do get used (especially for those takeaway coffees)

It’s beginning to feel quite wintery. I’ve taught myself to love winter as much as all the other seasons. Today I took the Christmas decorations out, and we’ll gradually put things up, a little each day. Lunch salads have moved into winter-mode: today it was red cabbage, carrot and celeriac, with some red cabbage sauerkraut I made back in January, some toasted seeds, dried fruit and cashews. All very quick to prepare and delicious to eat.

Something we’ve missed very much this year is being able to travel. My latest ploy is to read instead: currently cookery books around a country theme. At the moment it’s Denmark. I bought this book as a present for the two of us last Christmas, and it’s wonderfully evocative of a city we’ve come to love (and a country we’ve come to love). We have two other cookbooks by the same writer – all a good read, as well as having excellemt recipes (not least Malcolm’s cinnamon bun triumph).

I love how my knitting is matched with the table runner and mat – not deliberate, but I’m drawn to these colours in winter

And later this week, at long last, we’ll be able to catch up with granddaughter and hopefully kidnap her for a few hours – a pleasure for us and respite for her mum. I think her mum’s going to be mucking out the hens. I reckon d-i-l drew the short straw on that one.

I hope you’re getting through this as well as possible. See you soon I hope xx

Posted in Bath, Community, Do what you can with what you have, Family, In the time of the virus, Local, Reflections on life (and death), Travels, Uncategorized, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments