Jan 09 2009

Enter 2009

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“Mr Jones was strongly anti-pig”
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Despite the love and laughter of family and friends over Christmas and New Year I find myself entering 2009 with a certain gloom and trepidation that I have rarely, if ever, experienced at this time of year. Usually, with the dark days of November and December behind me, I find the first snowdrop, watch with anticipation the fat expectant ewes, and, walking over crisp sunny hills, my thoughts turn optimistically to an early spring.
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This year I am confused. On the one hand I am dogged by despair. War rages in the Gaza Strip, famine and disease is left unaddressed in Zimbabwe and all over Africa. In the US and Britain businesses and banks are going bust, people are losing jobs and homes. We are being urged to spend our way out of debt, and, by increasing our debts save the economy. How mad is that, or have I missed something somewhere?

And yet and yet at the same time I feel a strange niggle of hope for, well, maybe, perhaps a tiny hint of something changing, values shifting, ideas being challenged? .Just recently I detect a subtle change creeping in the use of words in the media. Words I haven’t seen for years are creeping back, words like love, kindness, friendship, caring, compassion, altruism or am I just caught in a trap of wishful thinking?

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was searching for some photographs for a friend when I came upon an old tatty photo album of my mothers, stuffed unceremoniously into the back of a bookshelf. There were indeed a few of the sought after old pictures but as I turned the pages out fell a copy of :-
Picture Post, May 3rd 1941: Morning After the Blitz, 3d.
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My morning disappeared as I read my way from front to back. Fascinating war time adverts for every sort of remedy, letters from readers, some touching, some furious. And then there were the photographs of devastation that was London. The account by Louis MacNeice is so moving, his walk through the wreckage the next morning fired by the sense of defiance, sharp humour and survival of men and women caught in the midst of it. But it was the photographs that really moved me. I grew up in London in the aftermath of World War 2. The bombs had stopped just before I was born, so had the guns and the air raids but London was ravaged, full of ruins, smog and desolation. Here were the pictures of how it happened when it happened and, to my horror, they were no different to the pictures of the Gaza Strip in my paper today. Hospitals destroyed, homes wrecked, people wounded, people standing in the street in despair, people coping, helping, clearing. What have we learned? Why is it still happening?
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Riveted, I turned the pages mesmerised by each article, until I reached the back; the farming page, written by none other than Anne Scott-James. “”Does Backyard farming Pay?” she asks.
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Mr Jones a “London businessman” started his smallholding after the outbreak of war and is keen to share his experience with Ann Scott-James. He says “If you want to be totally self-supporting in the matter of milk and eggs you need 20 acres of land. Remember, you need not only grazing land, but land for growing the feed”…food stuff may not be available with rationing and it is no good buying animals you cannot feed. On 20 acres, he says, you can keep 2 cows, a calf or two, 50 poultry and a horse for ploughing. Five of your 20 acres will be grazed upon, ten reserved for hay, four under a cereal crop, and one under root crops.

He goes on to explain in detail, the yield from each crop, feeding instructions for livestock, indeed every detail of smallholding. If you have a mere 2 acres then your approach will be different. Geese are good as are hens and goats. “Mr Jones is strongly anti-pig”, says Ms Scott-James, “all the time you keep it, it is eating voraciously…”
Everything you need to know to get you started is here on one back page of Picture Post 1941together with wonderful photographs of Mr Jones in action.
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I had to smile. As waiting lists for allotments grow and credit-crunched home owners are urged to grow their own, here is advice of sixty eight years ago which stands up, oh, so well right now! Indeed it has a lot in common with how we have been farming here in this valley, unfashionably, for the last eighteen years!lambs-450.jpg
And Thomas Tusser’s advice wasn’t so bad either in 1557 with his “500 Points of Good Husbandry”.
Well, Ok, we do have 1964 Dexter tractor and an old ‘70’s Lamborghini instead of a horse. Well donkeys don’t plough so well, or maybe I simply haven’t tried hard enough to teach them!
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How is it that as the post war years of prosperity have gone rolling by we have not only, by and large, lost many of these skills but the respect for those who still have them? Could it be that my funny little optimistic niggle is about a return of respect and a revaluing of these disappearing skills?

And that brings me naturally, as you may guess to the question of food. Will old fashioned straight forward food creep back onto menus too? Will we be spared a jus with everything, raspberry vinegar and sauce, sorry, jus underneath. Please may we have a properly cooked straightforward plate of locally and ethically produced, seasonal food? It must be the dreary dark days of January but no sooner had I finished Picture Post than I was shuffling through my 1964 box file of recipes from my student days of cooking.
Oh my, what’s this: Boiled Cod and Egg Sauce, oh no, memories of childhood! This sounds a little better; Cod Dimitri. Bake the fish and serve with a white sauce, anchovies and parsled potatoes. Not so bad!

Cauliflower Mornay, blanched cauliflower finished in the oven or under the grill with white sauce and grated cheese merits two cards. It is an incredibly complicated affair. The milk for the sauce is first infused with peppercorns, a blade of mace and sliced onion. The cauliflower is broken into sprigs, well washed in those pre hydroponics days; vegetables still touched real soil in 1964 and needed washing! Then it is boiled, so I say, for an incredible 12-15 minutes. Don’t do it!

What did I say about straightforward food? On go the instructions; “Butter a pudding basin. Arrange sprigs in basin, stalks inwards so as to completely fill basin, seasoning between the layers. Dot with butter and press down lightly. Now turn it out onto a fire proof dish, cover with the prepared sauce made with the infused milk. Cover with breadcrumbs and grated cheese and brown in a hot oven for 12-15 minutes. Was it Shirley Conran who said life’s too short to stuff a mushroom…..?But now I find delicious Gougere, and this next one sounds good………

Veal and Ham Pie, a rare and delicious thing these days.
Despite giving quantities there are no instructions for making the required 8oz of flaky pastry, so these days, best just buy it ready made! You can improve the ready made stuff by rolling out twice and adding more butter between the layers to make it a bit flakier.

Now here are my 1964 student instructions for the pie: are you ready!
Cut 1 ½ lbs of shoulder or pie veal into pieces 1-1/2 inches square….sorry nothing metric then…. Cut 4oz ham or gammon rasher into thin strips. If gammon is used remove the rind and rust (!?) cut in strips and blanche. Arrange meat, ham and 3 quartered hard boiled eggs, a desert spoon of finely chopped onion and the same of parsley, in layers till a pie dish is filled and doming slightly. Pour in enough stock to fill dish three parts full. Cover with pastry. Knock up edges; make a small hole in centre of pie. Decorate with pastry leaves and brush with a little beaten egg containing a pinch of salt.
Put pie to cook at Reg 7/ 425F for approx. 30 mins.
Then wrap pie in double sheet of wet greaseproof paper; replace in oven and lower temperature to Reg4/350F. Continue cooking for 1hour or until meat is tender when tested with a thin skewer. Serve hot or cold. If cold add more stock to filling through hole in crust.

It is a delicious pie but maybe these instructions demonstrate why so many of us have lost the will to cook!! Now, without doubt, I would gently cook the veal and gammon filing first. Then assemble the pie with the eggs etc and simply put it in the oven long enough to cook the pastry; none of this wet greaseproof palaver.

Happy New Year!
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