Friday, 16 July 2010

The Vegetable Patch

Occasionally, I really do wonder why I go to the bother of growing my own vegetables. I wonder why I invest all this time and all this anxiety and I wonder if the final result is worth it.

I think about my vegetable patch an awful lot. It takes up space in my brain that might well be given over to other things, to other more useful things. But then, if I didn’t have my vegetable patch, if I covered it in Tarmac and stuck a Swingball in the middle I think that I’d worry that there wasn’t a vegetable patch there instead.

I started growing my own vegetables because we moved to a house where there was space to do so. But then again, I think part of the appeal of this house was that there was room in the garden for a potential vegetable patch. It’s all so very confusing.

My father grew vegetables. Lots of them, and he would huff and puff about growing his vegetables, every year without fail. And my mother, sister and I would feign wonder at the handful of runner beans or potatoes or spinach, which would appear throughout the summer months in the old trug.

Some of my earliest boyhood memories involve tray upon tray of shallots drying out in rows in our London garden. I remember the allium smell and the parchment-paper feel of their skins. I remember Dad, in his special gardening smock and special gardening Chelsea boots, and I remember him helping me to sow radish seeds in heavy London clay. And they grew well those radishes, in the clay, in amongst the turds of neighbouring cats. I have never successfully grown a radish – the easiest of all vegetables to grow – since then.

As a teenager, if my parents went away during the summer, I would be instructed to water the vegetables, to look after them. I hated this, because I was a teenage boy and I was more interested in kissing girls and smoking fags. Teenage boys also hate being told what to do by their parents. I did water Dad’s vegetables though, because I think I knew how important they were to him and I knew how much effort he had put into producing them. And somewhere, deep beneath my zits and raging hormones, I enjoyed seeing the garden grow.

Like my father used to, I now huff and puff over matters horticultural, although unlike him I can dig a trench for my runner beans in a matter of minutes. Dad’s bean trench would take him days to dig and prepare. A spade and a half deep, a layer of well-rotted horse shit, a layer of shredded damp newspaper (the Daily Telegraph for preference), a fine layer of blood fish and bone, and repeat.

And now, as an adult, with a vegetable plot of my own, I worry about the seeds I have sown. I worry about my vegetables from the day that they sprout from the ground until the moment they safely reach my kitchen. I worry that insects or animals will eat them before I do, I worry that unseasonal weather will kill and maim them, I worry about ghastly and terminal vegetable diseases invading my tiny little corner of England and killing it stone dead. Surely, surely, this can’t be good for the soul.
But it is worth it. For all the anxiety, for all the heartache, for all the sweat and tears and foul fucking language that is vented over my garden, it is ultimately so very, very good for the soul. Yes, there will be casualties, yes there will be disease, but when a seed that you have sown and nurtured and loved, survives all that is thrown at it and develops into a proud adult vegetable, well, that’s a very fine thing indeed.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Price & Sons: A Night at the Bakery

They are jobs, like any other I suppose, but from an observer’s point of view I’ve always found the notion of night work extremely romantic. I’m not talking prostitution or working in the canning factory here, but butchery, bakery and candle-stick makery; and the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order; and all that sort of stuff. When in London I would occasionally enjoy a foray to the meat market at Smithfields, a little jaunt up river to Billingsgate, a mooch round New Covent Garden, and always followed by a pint of Guinness and a fry-up at 7.00 am, just as the markets were closing and the pen-pushers were on their way to work.

At 2.30 in the morning I have never seen sleepy old Ludlow sleepier. The moon is setting behind the hills, and the only sound in the town square comes from the growling guts of Peter Cook’s old Citroen as he pulls up outside the bakery. Peter is the head baker here at Price & Sons. He owns it with his wife and his sister-in-law, and this is where proper bread is made. Proper good bread, made from scratch, with passion, every day, week in, week out. The sort of bread that makes visiting Londoners squeal with delight and then wonder if they’ve been given too much change. The sort of bread that makes Ludlow a good place to be, and Peter a very good man to know.

Inside, Adrian has been here since one o’ clock and has fired up the enormous ovens and is hard at work already. Rolling, shaping, proving, stacking, rolling, shaping, proving, stacking. Adrian is a big bulky fellow, but the way he works the balls of dough, one under each huge hand, two at a time, is almost balletic. Adrian laughs at anything and makes award-winning pork pies in his spare time. You can’t not like a bloke like Adrian.

The smell in the bakery already is splendid. Warm, yeasty, bready, and this is before anything has gone in the oven. Peter tells me that he doesn’t notice the smell any more, unless he comes in on his day off, and then he gets it. Bottle this smell, pop it in your house, and you’d easily get thrice what you paid for it.

Peter sets to work and introduces me to the “Bitch”. The Bitch is the starter, the natural, yeasty leaven that makes the good bread really good bread. The Bitch smells strong and vinegary and she makes popping, breathing sounds that tell us she is alive and well. This is the starter that yesterday started the dough for Peter’s famous sourdough loaves and his pain au levain. This is the starter that has been starting the bread at Price’s for at least four years. Some bakeries have starters that have been alive for considerably longer than this, but most ‘bakers’ wouldn’t know a proper starter if they woke up in bed with one. Bread made from a Bitch like this isn’t rushed. It can’t be, it won’t be. Nature will not allow it. In fact, it was so warm last week that nature would not allow this bread to be made at all. A pain for Peter and the boys, but on the other hand this is why (to a large extent I think) at Price’s they bake using these methods. If nature won’t allow it, it won’t happen. End of, so they’ll make something else instead. Try explaining that to the people at Gregg’s.

At three o’ clock, and half an hour late, Jimbo saunters in. “Terrible traffic”, he says, “a total fucking nightmare”. I get the feeling Peter and Adrian have heard this half-arsed excuse before, but we all laugh before Jimbo confides, “Nah, slept through the fucking alarm clock again.”

The first of many cups of tea appear as momentum slowly picks up in the increasingly warm bakehouse. The atmosphere is similar to that in a restaurant kitchen but without the mania. Men go about their skilled work with diligence, occasionally punctuated by banter, laughter, and (from Jimbo’s corner) swearing.

It is wonderful work to watch too. These blokes are craftsmen and they work like the most oleaginous of well-oiled machines. Throughout the night, I watch closely but am amazed at the way things just happen. One minute there are twenty empty pretty little cloth-lined bannetons on a shelf, the next they are in the proving cupboard, full of lively dough (helped along by that wonderful starter) and studded with olives and pumpkin seeds.

Now, it mustn’t go unsaid, that whilst Peter bakes many of these so-called “speciality” breads - and bakes them better than anyone I know – that he also runs a bakery that serves the good people of Ludlow. The (and I wish I could come up with something better here) bread and butter of Price’s business is the white bloomers, the granary loaves, the cakes, buns, treacle tarts, rolls, and cakes. These are all made with the same care, the same good flour, and the same good ingredients as all the fancy stuff. Nothing in this sweltering bakery at stupid-o’-clock in the morning is overlooked. And this is a wonderful thing.

By six ‘o clock the ovens are now at full tilt. The noise is immense as doors slam open, loaves are slid in on the old worn bakers’ peel, other loaves are brought out with smoking oven gloves, and old blackened tins are slammed out and oiled down for the next day. A fleet of trolleys are lined up in the alley linking the bakery to the shop and these are now steadily filled, the loaves making an audible crackle as they start to cool.

At seven o’ clock some of the shop girls arrive so that they can get to work filling the shelves and making the sandwiches for lunch. Peter’s wife Deborah comes in with a forgotten order for a spelt loaf for a customer. A small curse and Peter gets back to it. More cups of tea and now one of Jimbo’s Chelsea buns. This is one of the most staggering breakfasts I’ve ever had. Earlier in the morning I tell him that I had enjoyed a particularly excellent Chelsea from a rival baker in town this week, and the gauntlet had been laid down. “You won’t taste better than mine”, he says with confidence. He’s right, I won’t.

The white sourdough loaves now are taken out of the oven, cracking and sighing as they meet the relatively cool air of the bakehouse. On to the trolley, and into the shop. One of the last jobs of the day is to make a huge pizza which will be sliced up for the college students who will come from across the square at lunchtime. This could be an afterthought, but this is Price’s, so it isn’t. Again the same care, the same good flour, and the same good ingredients. The hungry students in the midst of their summer exams may not be bothered about what goes into their lunch, but Peter is, and that’s what really matters.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Green Cafe, Ludlow

The review below has been published on James Day's fantastic website I'm not going to post many reviews here, as there are plenty of restaurant critic bloggers around. I just think the Green Cafe is well worthy of a mention.

The Green Café

If during the soggy summer of 2008 you blinked, you may well have missed it. On a nondescript Ludlow street, in a nondescript Ludlow tearoom, something rather wonderful was going about its business, diligently and splendidly.

In this tearoom, during that drear summer, a certain Clive Davis plied his trade, and people that knew (and fortunately I was one of them) would flock there and enjoy some of the soundest and most honest cooking that Ludlow has ever known. We would flock there cautiously; for this tearoom was and indeed still is, situated in the part of Ludlow where on weekend nights (and that was when Clive was open) twee and tweed give way to vice and VD. But it was worth flocking – by heaven was it worth it – and when Clive’s residency came to an end how we missed the guy.

But, oh frabjous day! Clive is back in business, and this time he’s here to stay, at the Green Café in Ludlow’s twee ‘n’ tweedy Dinham.

Now, as an aside I would like to make it clear that Ludlow is not the gastronomic Mecca that hacks on the national press (and dreadfully, some in the local press) would still have us believe. Yes, there are some excellent butchers, bakers, and cheese shops. There are also two fantastic restaurants (Mr Underhill’s and La Becasse), but if you want to go out to eat, once a week, without feeling like your wallet has been violated, or that you’ve been to the pub, then there is nowhere in Ludlow apart from the Green Café that is worth bothering about. And that stinks. And it will make me unpopular. But it’s true, and anyone in these parts who cares about food ought to agree with me.

What Clive has done is simple – so, so simple: He has found a pretty place; put some pretty staff in it; got himself a talented (and pretty) sous chef; sourced the best ingredients he can get his clever paws on; not buggered the ingredients about; and created simple, good value, brilliant food. Consistently.

On my most recent visit I took Mr Pernickety. The menu is sexy, short and sensible, and changes every day. Two starters, four mains, one pud (a superb vanilla pannacotta with poached rhubarb on the day we went), and something for the sprogs. Nothing costs more than a tenner. Ingredients are seasonal, and mainly sourced locally. Clive doesn’t source his fish locally, because he used to be a fishmonger* and he isn’t stupid, so he gets a thrice-weekly delivery from day boats that fish out of Brixham.

On the day we went there was mackerel, which he filleted and fried, and he served it with some lightly pickled cucumber and a dollop of perky horseradish crème fraiche. And I had it for lunch, and it was staggering. The perfect dish for a sunny day. I can’t really say much more than that because it was what it was, just cooked with that lightness of touch and understanding of balance that Clive has. Each ingredient tasted proudly of itself but the spanking fresh mackerel still played the protagonist.

The veal in Mr P’s sandwich comes from happy baby cows reared just over the river on Earl Plymouth’s estate. Cooked to tender pinky loveliness, with a dollop of wobbly lemon and caper mayonnaise and a sprightly salad, this was probably the proudest sarnie in Shropshire. Oh, and it was seven quid. They make proper pasta at the Green Café too, and the ladies wot lunch on an adjacent table were making borderline When Harry Met Sally noises over their pappardelle with asparagus, parmesan and crème fraiche.

There are four good Italian wines - a lemony Sicilian white is cracking value at £16.00 – and plenty of local beers and cider. This is also the only place in Ludlow serving properly good coffee. Again, sad but true.

Service is smiley and knowledgeable but can become a trifle chaotic on particularly busy weekends. They get away with it, because it’s that kind of place.

At the moment the Green Café is only open during the day, but by the end of the summer Clive will be doing weekend nights. This is very exciting news indeed.

The Green Café at the Mill on the Green
Dinham Bridge

01584 879872

*The great Simon Hopkinson, in his book Week in Week Out writes; “Do talk to Clive. He will sell you the best fish you will ever eat.” When it comes to Clive’s fishy credentials, that’s enough said.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Letter to the Ludlow Advertiser

Dear Sir

Last Sunday, in a rare and uncharacteristic act of public-spirited goodwill, I put some of my treasured tomato plants up for adoption. It was a heart-rending thing to do, but due to a lack of space in my greenhouse I had no alternative option. I had already given a surplus away to my next-door neighbours and my mother, but there were still eighteen of these plants remaining.

I placed these plants in a large plastic box at the end of my road in Ludlow (for the purposes of karma and self-righteousness I kindly ask you to not publish my name and address) with a notice attached bearing the following inscription:

“We are baby tomato plants. Our Mummy & Daddy can’t look after us any more. Please take us home with you and give us lots of water and sunlight. Thank you.”

An hour later I stole discreetly and covertly to the end of my anonymous road and to my delight found that five of the eighteen plants had been adopted. I was thrilled in the knowledge that some kindly motorist or pedestrian had passed by and taken pity on these frightened but verdant little plants. All notion of performing a selfless act fled as I basked in the profound personal joy that can only come from giving.

Later that evening, still basking in the glow of self-satisfaction, I tiptoed back to the end of the road to find that all of the remaining plants had been adopted. You can Sir, I’m sure only begin to imagine my relief at this discovery. The knowledge that each of my baby plants had been taken into the bosom of new families only served to enhance my sense of selfish smugness.

To cut a long story short, the purpose of this letter is two-fold. Firstly, and most importantly I would like to heartily thank the voluntary foster parents of my vegetal progeny for saving these plants from a slow demise on the compost heap. May your plants bring you unbridled joy and an abundance of tomatoes. Secondly, I would like to ask that whoever adopted my rather useful plastic box in which the plants were contained, return it at their earliest convenience. It wasn’t included in the deal.

Yours faithfully

Henry Mackley

Monday, 24 May 2010

The Day I Killed a Chicken

The other day I killed one of our hens. She had been ill for some time with 'compacted crop’ and her gullet had swollen with sour undigested grain. We read all the books and we tried to make her better but we couldn’t, and we had agreed that we’d never take a chicken to the vet. So I killed her.

I always thought that emotionally it would be easy to kill a chicken, but it wasn’t. I’ve killed lots of animals before – rabbits, pigeons, pheasants, squirrels, and the like – and never enjoyed the process as such, but been satisfied in the knowledge that it was pest control, or that the victim of my trigger-pulling would be eaten. But the chicken wasn’t a pest, and we weren’t going to eat her. I wasn’t even sure if I was putting her out of her misery, as she didn’t seem particularly miserable.

I thought that I should wring her neck, as that’s how good poultrymen are supposed to do it. Hold her upside down, head between the fingers and give it a good yank. Easy. But I couldn’t do it. I wimped out. I didn’t want to pull too hard and take the head off, but more so I didn’t want to be too gentle and end up with a live chicken with a compacted crop and a sore neck. So I shot her. I shot her in the back of her tiny little head with a .22 air rifle. I held her between my feet and placed the barrel against her head and I pulled the trigger, and when I picked up the flapping twitching corpse by its feet, my hands were shaking and I had a small but discernable lump in my throat.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

I Heart the Compost Heap

The compost heap, when one gets it right, is a thing of utter tear-inducing wonderment. I got my heap wrong last year and it still lurks there, full of ants, rat shit, and doom. And I don’t know what to do with it. But the one I started this winter, back in the frozen old days of January, by fucking jeepers-creepers it’s a good ‘un.

I stoked her (for surely any seriously super heap is a “her”) in January with some greenish but woody bits and bobs from the garden. Live twiggy bits of holly and the like. For as any composterer knows, one needs air to flow happily and freely through the heap. The live twiggy bits ensure that this will happen.

Prior to that I placed chicken wire beneath her. This was to keep out the rats, the rats who made a base in the old heap. The old heap was next to where the hens live, so it was a nice, warm, smelly, and tasty HQ for them. They could snooze on the Bad Heap during daylight hours and in darkness, prey upon the leftover hen food. The fuckers.

This time it won’t happen because of the chicken wire that keeps out the rats. It’s a good heap, and rats hate a good heap*. Through frigid February and March I wait. I wait for my garden to grow, I wait for the weeds to grow, so that the heap can start working. There’s nothing** that a heap likes more than a few weeds.

In April we get some warmth. The seeds I have sown have sprouted but it goes cold and they go on hold. The grass grows and I mow, and I introduce the heap to her first layer…

…On a hot weekend in May I smell the heap. I put my hand in the heap and it feels warm. I put my trust in the heap. I even ask my mother-in-law, a compost-expert, to take a sniff of the heap.

A lot has changed since January. We have made a baby, I have lost a job. But the heap goes on and on and on.

The compost heap is working, even if I am not. I feed it and worry about it and perhaps this will do as a pre-runner to fatherhood.

*I don’t know if that’s actually true
** Well, some things, but we’ll get to that later