Moving On

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I have  now started an online magazine.  Mainly about the place of food in culture and history, but also poetry, people and news.  Please follow us on http://www.modernsalt.co.uk

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travels with a bicycle in the drôme

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There is a liberation and independence to cycling alone for miles which is very particular.  Horse riding has similar elements but you are always mindful that you are sitting on another animal with opinions who, like all of us, will have good days and bad.  Both share a quick absorption in to the landscape so that things are perceived which flash past unremarked in a car.

the gateway to the elvish kingdom

the gateway to the elvish kingdom

When I arrived in London my bicycle was a part of me.  At a time when a car was an unimaginable luxury and transport was dirty and irregular it provided a passage to freedom, sailing over the Thames at 3am, pedalling furiously up Haverstock Hill to go to work, picnics by the river in Teddington.  Now London has more cyclists than ever, but their death rate is the only increasing road fatality and, to ride now needs something of the spirit of a gladiator.  Flowers remembering dead souls wilt on lampposts.  The tribes of pedallers press on, but for me it is not much of a pleasure.  There are lots of testosteroned young men, erroneously imagining that some sympathetic Charon, clad in lycra, will watch over them as they charge, full pelt into traffic, ignoring red lights.  There are the lovely folk of west London on pastel-coloured retro machines, who have seen far too much Julian Fellowes, fondly imagining that if they dress the part – tweed jackets, Liberty print frocks, old woolies, they are travelling down the Broad on their way to tea at Magdalen some time in the 1930s, not negotiating Hyde Park Corner today at 8 in the morning.  Tourists wobble the wrong way down one-way streets on Boris-bikes, obsessively filming themselves.  I always feel a ludicrous adrenalised sense of achievement when I cross London, glad to be alive, utterly wired, and wondering when it will be my turn to encounter the truck.

torrential rain and not even halfway.  rock in the background is the plateau of the vergers where the resistance finally got itself together

torrential rain and not even halfway. rock in the background is the plateau of the vercors where the resistance finally got itself together

 

This part of France is empty. Even in high summer there is hardly anyone here, but now you can cycle for 5 or 6 hours and meet nobody.  Yesterday I decided to go to Saint-Nazaire-leDésert because it’s just a great name.  Who was this dude, and why the desert?  Anyhoo, while my village is remote, Saint-N takes it to a new level of wilderness.  Huff and puff up a hill to pass through the rocks, which is the entrance to another landscape.  In summer it looks like Arizona, now, still green, it is just slightly alien.  Conical hills rise out of huge grey glaciers which look like the paws of some enormous saurus and the landscape is empty.  There are no villages to stop and refill the water bottle and get something to eat, you are completely alone.  Slightly frightening, but in a good way.

thick cloud rolling down from the mountains

thick cloud rolling down from the mountains, rain even heavier

 

It is so easy, for a woman of a certain age to have a very safe life.  Assuming physical and mental health, the coasting from children leaving home to entering one oneself is smooth and painless, odd potholes in the road but I have seen in others those 30-40 years slip seamlessly down.  Perhaps this new passion of mine is merely a bicyclical rattle before slumping in a heap to review payment options for the stair lift, I hope not.  What I love is the complete solitude, time to think, to sing badly.  At a time when strength often diminishes it is cheering to become stronger.  We are all, of course, tremendously independent and competent in the professional and domestic sphere, but to be physically self-reliant is a wonderful thing.   A day’s ride through empty France is a fleabite to those half my age who run up K2 or march across the Poles, but it is more of a stretch than lunch in a National Trust property.  We should not go gentle.

because it's there

because it’s there

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italy in london

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” 

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)

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I Camisa & Son in the 1970s

No big successful city is ever static, but London is currently in accelerated glittery metamorphosis.  Walk around the city and tiny mediaeval lanes have become fjords between shiny cliffs of glass and steel, their original inhabitants, printers, flower sellers, monks, have left no trace other than the name of the street.  The east end, grimy and ragged for years with each wave of impoverished immigration pulling itself up by grinding hard work and education and moving out has now become an end in itself.  French silk weavers, Russian Jews, Bengalis, all began the journey to English betterment here, and little signs remain, but now rickety damp rooms, with the ghost of TB lurking in the air have become desirable places to be, scrubbed back to their original Georgian simplicity, creating a residential gentility for the first time in the history of the area.

Westwards through Fleet Street, named after a tributary of the Thames, which was where newspapers were printed.  All gone, leaving the odd masthead on the side of a building, all the news fit to print is now Goldman Sachs.  Holborn, still a grimy thoroughfare, festooned with gentlemens’ clubs to which no gentlemen would dream of belonging, and then Soho.  Forever a shady area of poorly built houses, it has always been a haunt of people on the edge of society, whether through nationality, income or activity.  It was a favourite haunt of artists in the mid-twentieth century, rent was cheap, you could drink yourself into a stupor, imagining, in your gentle coma, that really you were as talented as Francis or Lucien.   Years pass, the liver discreetly decomposes and nothing really matters except the next drink.

Into this mid-20th century world came families from Europe, French, Spanish, Polish but predominantly Italian.  Sprouting all over the damp greyness of oily London streets like spring flowers.  London’s Little Italy had been established in the nineteenth century in Clerkenwell, but this was something new.

“In Soho, but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had.  There too Italian rice, Tuscan haricot beans, chick peas and brown lentils were beginning to come back.  In the rest of the country such commodities were all but unobtainable.  With southern vegetables such as aubergines, red and green peppers, fennel, the tiny marrows, called by the French courgettes and in Italy zucchine, much the same situation prevailed …”

Elizabeth David: Italian Food (1954)

Imagine Britain, a nation to whom, largely, pasta was maccheroni cheese or spaghetti hoops on toast, confronted with all this?  Full steam ahead, you would think.  But as Mrs David notes, in her introduction to the 1963 edition of her book, the huge difference is that “in London or Paris can be found … the best of everything which England or France produces.  In Italy the best fish is actually to be eaten on the coast, the finest Parmesan cheese in Parma, the tenderest beef in Tuscany, where the cattle are raised.  So the tourist, having arrived in Italy via Naples and there mistakenly ordered a beef steak which turns out to be a rather shrivelled slice of veal, will thereafter avoid bistecca so that when he visits Florence he will miss that remarkable bistecca alla fiorentina, a vast steak grilled over a wood fire, which, tender and aromatic, is a dish worth going some way to eat.”

And so, armed with poor quality tinned tomatoes, horrid mince and some dried oregano, the ignorant armies marched forward, spaghetti alla bolognese, pollo sopressa, that extraordinary cushion of tasteless pinky grey which, when punctured, issues a steaming jet of fat down your front.  Dishes which should be of extraordinary and subtle complexity became the staple of impoverished students, and the idea of focussing just on a piece of meat, or fish, or cheese was never entertained.  French food has jus, reduced and minutely adjusted, like a formula one engine, and British food had gravy, cornflour and caramel, gelatinous and anaesthetising.  All the basics for Italian cooking were available in the little shops in Old Compton Street but we had no clue what to do with them.

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But now, fast forward several decades.  Only two of the original food shops remain, Soho is largely now cleaned up, vice no longer dominated by chatty Maltese, but by taciturn Albanians, teeth, not hearts of gold.  Expiring leases mean rents have gone up beyond the reach of small family businesses.  Weary tourists, killing time before the Lloyd Webber matinee gawp at the gay bars.  But, along the pavements, in between the grotty shops, something stirs.  Little Italian cafes and restaurants.  They don’t serve spaghetti alla carbonara, there is no groin grinding with the metre high pepper mill, no tenor warbling on the sound system.  The recession in Italy and the movement of labour in Europe has meant that there are now around 120,000 Italians in London, only a few thousand below the French population, who are so numerous as to make London the sixth French city in terms of population size.  With volume and with education comes confidence.  Clean-tiled, utterly urban, no hanging herbs or sausages,  serving bruschetta, deep fried anchovies wrapped in sage leaves, little polpettini, fritto misto with the proper batter, but, but …..

Massimo Faccincani has worked in London for 12 years.  A professional chef, he now works some of the time in Camisa & Son, one of the remaining original grocers.  He has observed the metamorphosis of Italian food in London as creator, merchant and consumer.  He comes from the Veneto.  It is so hard for us I think to separate fiction and reality with Italy, it is everything England is not, in both a good and a bad way.  If you meet someone born in Portsmouth, do they close their eyes when they describe their grandmother’s cooking?  When talking to an Italian,  does the memory inspire them to do this, or is it that they are too polite not to do what is expected of them?  Massimo closes his eyes and describes gnocchi di malga, (butter cheese and sage).  I feel myself falling down an abyss of pleasure.  How much would I have to eat in order to look like a young Sophia Loren or a less tense Anna Magnani.  If I ate a metric tonne would I suddenly become a buxom young matriarch, strong forearms pounding tipo 00 while the sun blazed down outside and my extended family took part in a de Sica movie, without the misery.

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So, what about this Italian renaissance?  Hmm, Massimo is not signed up.  Firstly, unlike French haute cuisine, the food we think of as Italian is generally cooked by women, mothers, grandmothers.  They do it with pride and love (though surely even Italian mothers sometimes get fed up and long for a night off), it is unconnected to the changing times.  Food in London is, unfortunately, inextricably linked with fashion and consumerism.  Is it possible to imagine Corriere della Sera reporting on a Turin restaurant where the bill was E50,000 because four bankers ordered wines at E6000 a bottle.  Of course you can spend that much on wine in Italy, and, doubtless some people do, but there is a sense that you are enjoying something truly precious, scents and flavours from heaven, not glugging it back just because you can.  And so, just as the City tends to favour Japanese cuisine, the West End tends to Italian, it’s rustic, if you don’t understand it you think it’s simple, it perfectly fits the zeitgeist of this city where there is so much money, so many possibilities, that we crave simplicity.  But England runs through our veins, we  don’t have the same connection to the earth, our families have been small and nuclear for decades, we don’t, in general, grow up being cooked for by someone who knows what she is doing.  It becomes food from the head, not the heart.  Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not Italy.  As Massimo says, a superficial familiarity, a profound distance.

Is it a particularly Anglo-Saxon trait, this deference to food cultures other than our own, to re-create under our battleship skies food from another air, another language,  under another sun?  It is particularly futile in the case of Italian food which, in general, was traditionally cooked in a domestic environment by women.  I can look up how to cook Escoffier’s Supreme de Volaille a la Jeanette (an extreme example, but an enjoyable one) or any other pillar of classic French gastronomy, it will be exact in it’s instructions, rigorous in it’s reductions, unforgiving in its unvarying list of ingredients and, eventually, weary and besmirched, I have made it, a pale imitation of what comes out of a well-equipped professional kitchen.  By contrast there is no definitive spaghetti bolognese, as there is no definitive grandmother from Bologna.  I have always used Anna del Conte, oil, butter, pancetta and beef, full-fat milk added at the end.   No no no.  Massimo’s has a soffrito of onion and carrot, with a little celery and the meat is equally  pork, veal and beef, and some luganaga sausage.  There is no nutmeg, but there is oregano, there is no milk but, as with del Conte, there is wine, but this is burned off.  Who is right?  Why does it matter to us so much?   Let us stuff ourselves with bolognese, with ricotta, with all the irresistible fruits of the Boot, we remain prosaic, stolid and phlegmatic in our daily life, Italy is the stuff that dreams are made on.

“A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’

‘Is it a very nice smell?’ said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt. 

‘One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,’ was the retort; ‘one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!” 

E M Forster:  A Room with a View (1908)

with thanks to Massimo Faccincani and I Camisa and Son

(www.icamisa.co.uk)

this blog first appeared in In Search of Taste (www.incearchoftaste.com)

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food from home

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Living in sunless reaches under rain,

how do the exiles from enchanted isles

tend and sustain their rich nostalgic blaze

Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-1986)

The role of food in our lives is complex.  Survival, obviously,  pleasure, certainly.  If you have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, food becomes an expression of love, a demonstration of skill, sometimes a display of wealth.  I have always been interested in the role of food in memory which has to do with pleasure, but  the pleasure of happy memories rather than the immediate taste of the food.  For me the taste of a Lyons lemon cupcake, industrial icing clagging my jaws together and, with drone-like efficiency, finding every minor cavity, takes me back instantly to Sunday teatime, the smell of wax polish on the old mahogany table, the whiff of the dog under the chairs and the sheer achievement of having eaten enough tinned salmon sandwiches with a side salad of pickled beetroot and defeated lettuce to be allowed one.  Tunnocks teacakes have a similar role, though I note it’s less and less acceptable for a grown up to attack them from the top and eat down to the base which, as aficionados know, is the only way.

But the journey over a few decades of my own culture’s history is tiny compared to the enormous distance, culturally and climatically covered by immigrants to the UK.  The terrible stories of the Windrush passengers, filled with hope of a bright future and dumped, in summer clothes and sandals in a country which they had thought of as their own, quickly apprised by the natives that that was not the case at all.  No sun, no light, no heat, no comfort in the vast damp greyness of the place. Food takes on a role far greater than nourishment, it is a link to all that was good and all that was left behind.  In the 1960s and 70s nobody who was not from the Caribbean was interested in eating the food (unlike immigrants from India and Pakistan who had come specifically to open restaurants where, politely transfixed, they observed the British order “the hottest thing on the menu” which bore no resemblance at all to anything you would find in India.)  But now, in Caribbean food, just as in other cuisines in London, quality will out, and while the tumbleweed whistles round the flocked halls of the Khyber Pass, Jamaican food is out and proud.

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A revelation, certainly as it is done chez Earl who, with his wife Diane run a stall opposite the Old Vic in London.  It is reputedly the best jerk chicken in London.  By 11 in the morning a queue of about 30 is snaking round the park demonstrating a dedication to lunch that I’ve not seen outside France.  Smoke is billowing enthusiastically from the two wheel hubs which he uses as a base.  His customers are certainly the grandchildren of the Windrush generation, but they are also from mainland Europe, Africa and Britain.  Chicken, of course, but also jerk lamb, red bream stewed with onions, oxtail, rastaman coleslaw (no mayo), yams, sweet potato, callaloo and, of course, rice and peas, the “peas” being dried kidney beans which are boiled for about five hours in stock, before the rice is added.  And, to top it all, “dangerous” pickle.  The reason for this adjective is best left hanging in the imagination.

The glory that is London eating at the moment is much trumpeted, and it is true that we are currently blessed with some wonderful restaurants, at every price level, but for me, one of the great joys of this city is the endless cultural mix, and, to sit in the sun, opposite Lilian Baylis’s theatre, chatting with a group of Polish builders and eating jerk chicken is about as good as it gets.

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this article first appeared in In Search of Taste (www.insearchoftaste.com)

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squash (noun)

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There are foods which we eat because we like them, there are foods which we eat for ritual.  With the abandonment of seasonality ritualistic foods have less and less importance.  What is the significance of a turkey or goose when you can eat it in July, why would the first green asparagus have any impact when they are available in December.  But, of course, the foods we eat in season are the foods which are designed to match the weather we are going through – heavy roots, dark green brassicas to fill us with vitamin d and carbohydrates during the long cold dark, pale green plants to cleanse us in spring, and light water filled vegetables to hydrate and nourish when we need fewer calories in the heat.  Our animal husbandry used to mirror the seasons – the pig slaughtered in autumn to provide protein and fat during the winter, the baby lamb in the spring as a pagan offering to give thanks for the warming of the earth.  If you follow a cheese over the spring and summer, you will note that the flavour changes entirely from the light creaminess of May and June, to the dryer stronger cheese of autumn.  The discovery of the year for me was a yogurt made from raw sheep milk which was akin to eating clouds.  It ran out in late August, an abrupt reminder of how accustomed urban westerners are to having whatever they want whenever they want it.

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In North America in October pumpkins are everywhere.  Orange, yellow, white, black, a rather off-putting grey, they seem to adorn every front yard, every roadside, every market.  I cannot understand the economics of this, there seems to be about half a ton per Canadian here.  Even with all the soup, muffins and pies, and halloween, there must be a huge surplus – are they being channelled into providing power, fuelling the snowploughs that even now are limbering up for the white horror to come.  We now see butternut squash in Europe, and these huge orange spheres have come with the replacement of All Souls with Hollywood Halloween, but really we are complete amateurs on this front.

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Once upon a time a farmer planted a little seed in his garden, and after a while it sprouted and became a vine and bore many squashes. One day in October, when they were ripe, he picked one and took it to market. A grocerman bought and put it in his shop. That same morning, a little girl in a brown hat and blue dress, with a round face and snub nose, went and bought it for her mother. She lugged it home, cut it up, and boiled it in the big pot, mashed some of it with salt and butter, for dinner. And to the rest she added a pint of milk, two eggs, four spoons of sugar, nutmeg, and some crackers, put it in a deep dish, and baked it till it was brown and nice, and next day it was eaten by a family named March.

Little Women (Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888)

This book was such a part of my childhood, so much more exotic to me than the brutal class divisions and repressed homosexuality of Enid Blyton.  But what on earth did it mean?  Squash was a bright orange sugary liquid served on celebratory occasions, birthdays, Christmas, surviving another year.  It was also a verb applying to being in a tent on girl guide camp.  And that was it.  (This was before the 1980s when Masters of the Universe cascaded with manly sweat whacking balls at each other on the court.)  I looked it up and discovered it was a vegetable, akin to a marrow.  This was not getting any better, marrow was that huge ungainly thing, the size of a six-month old baby, which won prizes at the church fete and then had to be eaten, tasteless and watery, stuffed with apologetic grey mince.  There was no lightbulb moment.  Because I was in Europe.

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Squash was one of the three sisters of Native American agriculture, the others being maize and beans.  Each tribe had its own legends about the squash, including one in which a wise man is magicked away, leaving only his large bald head, which is why it is so good for you and makes you clever.  Squash flowers (which I guess are large fiori  di zucchini) featured prominently in the diet of the tribes of what are now the southern states of the US.

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I am often wrong-footed in the US.  The cliche of two cultures separated by a common language is daily thrust at you.  If the continent spoke cantonese we would not expect familiarity, but English and the constant exposure of images in film have lulled us into an illusion of understanding.   Here I am driving down Mulholland, I know exactly where I am,  look at the stars and stripes flying outside almost every house, this must be a right-wing republican town, someone asks me how I am, so I start to tell them, and so on.  The negative images we have digested with glee, sometimes equating it with a lack of sophistication, the horrendous gun laws, the terrifying disregard for the environment, the massive size of some of the citizens, but these are just aspects of a huge whole. You would expect little commonality in the lives of a Balkan farmer and a banker in Edinburgh, why should a monoculture exist on this continent?  But look for unity as opposed to homogeneity. A tiny thing, but an important ritual which seems to hold people together, not a reality show, not a war, just a meal.  The Thanksgiving dinner is the most extraordinary thing to a non-American, it is the transatlantic Marmite or gratton. How can they?  Turkey, fine. Green beans, fine.   Sweet potato puree (which I have had with marshmallow on top), pumpkin pie (very very sweet), cornbread and biscuits (both very sweet).  But this meal , much more than the Victorian Christmas which we now celebrate as the norm in England, is about memory and ritual, it uses the foods which the settlers were given by the natives, blending them into extant European dishes.  The Three Sisters, in modern dress, uniting the country they inhabited first.  The spirit of Patung Kachina, the Squash God,  lives on, his sad weeping drowned out by the cacophonous clamour of the city.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

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I have poked around and found the most wonderful book, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, the oral history of the Hidatsa tribe, who lived on the Great Plains,  recounted by Maxi’diwiac (BBW).  BBW was born around 1840 and died in the 1930s, and the book is a record of the agricultural practices of the tribe, in particular their planting of the Three Sisters.  How miraculous that such a piece of knowledge, preserved only orally, should still be available today.

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the seedtime and the harvest, our life, our health, our food

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Le petit épeautre (einkorn) has been grown around the Mediterranean for at least 10,000 years.  Triticum monococcum is thought to have originated in what is now Turkey and was the starch staple of all the civilisations around the Sea until the rise of the Roman Empire. It is a highly nutritious grain, rich in protein, phosphorus and magnesium.  But, with the advancing Eagle came hull-free wheat, hard and soft, which was easier to harvest, leaving more men free to march to the remote corners of imperium romanum and lay waste recalcitrant eaters of non-imperial grain.  (An early example of the availability of labour being more important than the health of the population, which runs through Victorian tracts on the urban poor, contemporary hand-wringing over obesity and diabetes and the efficient replacement, over much of SE Asia of red rice with white).  

Here the landscape does not lend itself to rolling fields of wheat.  You are lucky to find 2000 sq metres which are flat.  In general, the soil is poor, we have little rain and summers are very hot.  And so, for centuries, most wheat has been brought into the area, from other parts of France, and further away.  However, in the past 20 years there has been a strong movement here, more than any other part of France, to find sustainable ways of growing food, and of cultivating produce and animals which require as little chemical support as possible and which can flourish in the climate. Thus portly woolly sheep are nowhere to be seen, we have skinny almost fat free beasts who jump around in 35 degrees and whose flesh grows succulent on fragrant wild thyme and scrappy bits of grass. Our dairy animals are sheep and goats, you need to go north into the damper and cooler Vercors to find milk cows:  our trees are the traditional ones of the south, apricots, olives, figs, walnuts and almonds.  

For centuries, einkorn lay dormant. biding its time.  I am what I am.  I can wait.  And then, someone under a tree, had a Newtonian moment (though with an apricot not an apple).  And here we are.

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The farm of Pierre Vieille lies a few kilometres from the village of Cornillac.  The petit epautre which they grow, over three hectares, is the only one in Haute Provence to carry the IGP label (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indication_géographique_protégée) which is a European benchmark of quality and a tremendous acknowledgement of their commitment and work.  I have been invited to the harvest, which has been postponed because of the constant rain we have had.  We go to the fields at 0730 to make a final assessment, and it is agreed to return and cut in the afternoon.

One of the striking things about these fields is that, unlike untreated wheat, you do not see patches of poppies or cornflowers: they are pristine.  Surely you don’t spray it?  No, of course not.  Einkorn has a very very dense ground coverage, making it almost impossible for weeds to take root, and so the sowing/yield ratio is excellent.  Because of the very hard and prickly husk, the plant is not inviting to small mammals and birds so, in contrast to the harvesting of untreated wheat, an unplanned exodus of furry and feathered folk,  with considerable collateral damage, is not part of the deal.  

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At the appointed hour we sit, under a lime tree.  Like the coming of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you can hear and feel Jerome some time before he appears, like some terrible behemoth, up the path.  Looking at the vertiginous slopes of the field, and the lumbering mass of the machine, a happy outcome seems unlikely.  But, of course, it’s fine.  Rather like a huge seal waddling from rock to sea, or a portly Brazilian toddling to the dancefloor, the machine moves towards its element.  No more heaving and juddering, it’s away, poetry in motion.  The cutters at the front wave gracefully through 360 degrees to cut the einkorn, the grain stored in a tank,the chaff propelled out of the back.

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Guillaume has now appeared with the tractor and large bags.  The two machines move to a synchronised duet and the sack is filled with 800kg grain, which is then deposited on the trailer.  Da capo, until the field is cut.

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Le petit epautre can only be grown for one year out of three, next year they will plant a legume, to replace nutrients into the soil and then perhaps lavender.  But it has returned to be  part of the natural cycle again,  in its proper place, as unchanged and timeless as the landscape.

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with many thanks to Laurence Monlahuc and Guillaume Maillard (pictured) who run the Pierre Vieille farm, and their friend Jerome.  Thanks also to Vincent Clary of the Syndicat du petit epautre de Haute Provence.

http://www.pierrevieille.com

The farm, at the top of one of the most beautiful valleys in the Drome, offers camping and treks over the hills with donkeys.  It is one of the most magical places I know.

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There is some confusion (initially shared by me) about the translation of epautre.  By itself, it translates as spelt.  However, in France, there are three types of epautre, which translate as follows:

einkorn – petit épeautre (tritium monococcum)

emmer – épeautre amidonnier (tritium dicoccum)

spelt – grand épeautre (tritium spelta)

 

 

 

 

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nuts

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Walnut trees are everywhere as you move up the valley to the Hautes Alpes. Apples and pears are the main crop in the valley of the Durance, and they stand in regimented rows, health and safety hairnets to repel marauding birds, but the walnut will have none of this. It concedes to be planted in rows, but then it goes its own maverick way. Traditionally a symbol of masculinity and power, it still smacks of mystery in an era of science and accountability. Here it is said that you should never take your siesta under a walnut tree, you risk headaches, dizziness and even an encounter with Satan. The leaves and roots excrete juglon, a chemical which prevents the growth of damaging weeds around the base of the tree, so it is quite conceivable that the waking soul would feel nauseous and disoriented and even, in a purple haze, bump into Old Nick, doubtless himself rather grumpy at having failed to shift the Fruit of Knowledge from its careful packaging up the valley. In England, we have little truck with mystery:

A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree,
The more they’re beaten the better still they be.

Probably also with a foundation in botany (the tree, not the dog or the woman), it lacks the enticement of the French fable.

walnut in winter

trees in January

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and in late May

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and this morning

They begin the year with typical individualism. I used to think our tree was dead – it remained resolutely budless and silent when all the others were singing happily and waving flowers around. Then, almost overnight, the leaves unfurl. We are now in high summer, and the fruit is visible, though it’s still six weeks or so to harvest. The trees, as aloof now as ever, stand cool and dark, while cicadas and bees motor around the surrounding vegetation.

My neighbour has a behemoth of a mill, cast iron from the mid-19th century, and people still bring their walnuts to him to be ground. The oil is delicious, in a small glass, or poured over white cheese and bitter leaves. Wet walnuts are lovely but I prefer them a little drier – they are the leading light in so many dishes, with pomegranate molasses, in a salad with parsley, or with honey in baklava. In England, I love the Betjeman feel of coffee and walnut cake and here, this recipe, adapted from Richard Olney’s A Provencal Table fits perfectly:

4 oz butter, 8 oz sugar, 5 eggs, 1/2 lb shelled walnuts, pulversied but still coarse, 2fl oz grated carrot, 8 oz flour (this is one recipe where wholewheat or spelt flour works quite well, it adds to the texture)

Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in carrots and walnuts and gradually add flour.

Bake in lined tin for about 40’ at 180o.

Lovely by itself with a cup of tea in this corner of a foreign field, or, if you want to jazz it up, slice, spread with some rosewater labneh and serve with apricot puree. After which you will need to lie down. Be careful where you choose.

I could live in a walnut shell and feel like the king of the universe. The real problem is that I have bad dreams.

Hamlet (Wm Shakespeare)

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