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.