Lord Muck's Blog

Scything: Poldark-style

May 4, 2015

At last a bit of rain! So I was off to the orchard plot on my allotment to scythe the rapidly growing grass under the fruit trees. Some damp on the grass works a treat and my two handled scythe from Simon Fairley of Tinkers Bubble cuts through the new growth like a knife through butter in these conditions.

But  before I’d even reached the plot and commenced scything, two fellow allotmenteers had accosted me and made jokes about my resemblance to Aidan Turner (not) and his scything in ‘Poldark’. So controversial! Not everybody agreed with his style which certainly looked more like hacking at the grass than scything as I understand or practice it and debates have raged in media ranging from the ‘Daily Telegraph’ (see link)  and  Patrick Gore-Langton in the ‘Daily Express’ to the News Quiz.

As for me.. well the scything was going just fine until the rain came down again with about a third done. So its the shirt-on Ross Poldark  look-alike(ish) up on the plot again later in the week.

Organic farming in China: reliable, safe food

February 27, 2015

China may be associated with large-scale, commercial agriculture, but on my trip there in 2014 I was delighted to discover that ‘Bio Farm’ in Shanghai is bucking that trend. Founder Jane Tsao (pictured) IMG_3857 set up this small farm in the eastern suburbs of the city in 2004, and it gained organic certification a year later. She now employs about 60 staff and together they grow a range of fruit and vegetables including salad crops, tomatoes, spinach, water melon, figs, strawberries and peaches. The farm manages to stay economically viable by selling its produce to high-end restaurants in Shanghai. This is combined with a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme with approximately 400 subscribers.

Bio Farm is linked to Garden Organic though the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), and it uses a range of its educational materials. The team run a ‘grow your own’ education programme and a ‘Bio Farmers Kitchen’, where CSA members and farmers can prepare and cook their food. The day that I visited, its volunteers were preparing open up the farm for a ‘tomato day’ to encourage more visitors.

Jane sees plenty of room for growth in the organic sector in China. “It’s a rather elite niche at the moment,” she says. “But we love and need reliable, safe food in China and we are proof it can work right here in Shanghai.” The biggest problem Bio farm faces is development pressure. This five-acre patch of greenery is right beside a main road and surrounded by factories, offices and suburban housing. Local developers are already arguing that the farm is an inefficient use of space.

This post first appeared as an article in The Organic Way no 213  Spring 2015

Growing and eating: book ‘picks’ of 2014

December 31, 2014

Jans Ondaatje Rolls ‘The Bloomsbury Cookbook’ (Thames and Hudson) is as much social history as cookbook. The ‘Bloomsberries’ may  have been the foodies of their day, but were profoundly ignorant of all aspects of food production and preparation. The book combines food related paintings, prose and gossip, with recipes, to provide a very human portrait of this much studied Group.

From a very different perspective and taking a much longer historical sweep, Margaret Willes in ‘The gardens of the British working class’ (Yale University Press) focuses more on the struggles of creating a ‘blessed plot’ from cottage gardens and allotments. She brings it to life through the words of  people such as Joseph Turrill, small time market gardener and diarist who was a neighbour of Lady Ottoline Morrell in Garsington. A horticultural history of the people who latterly were employed as the cooks and gardeners to the intellectuals.

This post  first appeared as an article in The Guardian ‘readers books of the year 2014’,  on 27 December 2014.

Heritage seeds and backyard self sufficiency

December 22, 2014

It was so wet and gloomy that an  afternoon invitation to see HRH Prince Charles open the new Heritage Seeds Kitchen Garden at Le Manoir aux Quats Saisons  a few weeks ago was potentially something of a mixed blessing. In the event the mud won out and the guests were confined to quarters – or Quats as it seems to be known locally – the drawing room of the Le Manoir. His Maj toured with an excited Raymond Blanc (‘RB’ to the staff), Anne Keenan the garden designer, David Love Cameron the head gardener and of course Garden Organic’s CEO, James Campbell. Quite enough, once the security guys had done a once over to check for anything untoward, to turn the place into a fairly accurate replica of the Somme. Especially after the formal planting of an apple tree to commemorate the visit. It turned out to be an F1 hybrid – not very organic, so someone will have to slip out and buy a replacement when nobody important is looking. Much more salubrious chatting in front of the log fire to Garden Organic’s Vice President’s Susan Hampshire and Thelma Barlow (from Coronation Street) both of whom are real gardening experts and organic growing enthusiasts.

Eventually the royal party pitched up, shaking the rain from the  coats and umbrellas and joined us for tea. When having tea with royalty what to talk about? ‘Have you come far?’ No, that is what they supposedly ask us. Well we have corresponded about keeping chickens in the garden in the past – something which has led to Garden Organic’s Hens@home project (see my blog post of 8 April 2014) so I tried my luck. Bingo, the Royal face lit up and soon the conversation was not only about hen keeping but the merits of  keeping a pig in the back garden as well. Great way to reduce food waste he assured me. Don’t tell DEFRA! Perhaps the ‘black spider’ already has.

And what was the tea like you ask? What you got was great – how could it be otherwise at Le Manoir,  but there was so little that I’m sure the hens, let alone any piggy waiting patiently outside for any scraps, died of starvation years ago.

All muck and (English) Magic

November 4, 2014

In one of those strange conjunctions of life, this morning I  said goodbye to 18 books, pamphlets and letters by William Morris for  Jeremy Deller’s (he of the ‘English Magic’ exhibition currently on in Margate) latest exhibition, on William Morris and Andy Warhol to open at Modern Art Oxford on 6 December and then received my annual load of muck from local farmer Paul, on the allotment. All muck and (English) Magic… sort of …  in the space of an hour.










Here are the pictures to prove it.

In search of the Oxford sausage

October 23, 2014

Researching my book on the social and cultural history of Oxford’s Cowley Road through food, is turning up some  great stories. Not least that of the ‘Oxford sausage’. From medieval times on, Oxford was well placed in the centre of southern England as an agricultural centre. Animals were driven to the city from as far away as Bristol for slaughter and it became something of a meat processing centre. The Oxford sausage, made from a pork and veal recipe was invented in the 18C by a Mrs Dorothy Spreadbury. By the late 19C it had become very well known, not least by being popularised my Mrs Beeton in her book ‘Household management’ published in 1861 where she refers to it as her ‘ideal sausage’.  The recipe doesn’t appear as the Oxford sausage in later editions, so I thought I would  reclaim it for Oxford by reconstructing it.
Mrs Beeton used veal in her recipe so I suggest that  lamb be substituted. Traditionally it was considered to be a ‘breakfast sausage’ and is notably spicy. The recipe doesn’t need skins because of the of beef suet which stiffens it. Roll it in flour instead before frying. So here is the ‘modern version’ ie without veal.

The Oxford sausage
1lb good quality lean pork, such as shoulder
1lb lean lamb
1lb beef suet
½ lb breadcrumbs
The rind of ½ a lemon finely grated
Grating of nutmeg or mace
6 fresh sage leaves
½ teaspoon of dried marjoram
1 teaspoon of savoury herbs to hand
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop the pork, lamb and suet finely together. Add the breadcrumbs and lemon peel and a grating of nutmeg. Wash and chop the sage leaves finely add these with the remaining ingredients to the sausage mix and when thoroughly mixed roll into sausages, cut to desired lengths and roll in flour.
Fry with other breakfast fare such as tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs, as desired.

By the end of the  19C century  this humble breakfast sausage had been transformed into the ‘Royal Oxford sausage’. The Piggott’s sausage factory where they were made and  its associated abattoir  were established in the 1880’s in Denmark St, off Cowley Road and local photographer and early Oxford publicist, Henry Taunt retells of an Oxford Alderman giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee who made reference to ‘Oxford manufacturers’.
‘Alderman’ asked one of the Hon members ‘have you any manufactures at Oxford?’’ Oh yes sir’ said the alderman ‘we have two, parsons and sausages!’
It seems that local people were less forgiving and regularly complained of the smell, but the factory and abattoir remained open until 1937.

Organic squash and errant crayfish at Le Manoir

September 3, 2014

I don’t think I have perched a glass of champagne on a compost bin before. But I did today on a visit to the organic vegetable garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons at Great Milton outside Oxford. The occasion was a tour of the vegetable  gardens led by their star gardener David Love Cameron (who spoke at the Garden Organic AGM in May)  and garden designer  Anne Keenan, for a group of Garden Organic’s major donors and Trustees. It was a warm September afternoon, ideal for a garden tour – a fact that I noticed as I cycled out from Oxford, hoping to do the trip in 45 minutes and finding it took 55, including getting lost in Great Milton. Unfortunately I’m not such a regular visitor to Le Manoir that I could find my way unerringly and needed directions from three young people sitting on a bench on the village green.

What fun it was as we were shown the vegetables, the poly tunnels and greenhouses, the areas planted up for the dinner table and those mainly planted up for visitors to look at, to demonstrate the success of an organic kitchen garden in action. IMG_5127Quinoa, amaranth, chard, pumpkins and squashes, beans, the herbs,  tomatoes, peppers, chillies, a huge range of Japanese salad crops, and much more besides, including of course the composting systems… leaf mould, wormery, bin system. IMG_5150The garden has it quirks. There isn’t much in the way of flowers as companion planting, a fact remarked upon by some of our party. Over tea and that champagne, one of the gardeners explained that  ‘Mr Blanc is a bit of a purist. He doesn’t like flowers in the vegetable garden…’.  Yes there are signs of  Mr Blanc’s  unique stamp all over it. Admiring the large  pond  by the main house with lilies and bird sculptures, something that has been there since the 15c to raise fish in, one of the gardeners explained that crayfish were introduced not so long ago… by Mr Blanc himself. Unfortunately they were the wrong sort, not the innocent English variety but the far more aggressive American species. An accident, and one with consequences. They rapidly  burrowed through the pond lining and into the stone walls. The pond drained away alarmingly and an urgent cull was launched. Nearly all have been caught  and no doubt served with a great flourish in the nearby dining room, but a few remain. Thank goodness it  a French man  and not  a member of staff, who  mistook American for British.

Cowley Road’s Excelsior Cafe closes after 53 years

August 1, 2014

I am writing a book on the social and cultural history of the Cowley Road area of east Oxford  – publication due October 2015 with Signal Books. As part of the research I am interviewing all those people who have been so central to Cowley Road becoming such a centre for anyone interested in food and  how it has evolved since the early 20C. The arrival of Asian shops and restaurants, the rise of the wholefood movement (and fairtrade) the role of Mediterranean and Eastern European food outlets as well as east Oxford being a site of production – orchards, allotments, smallholdings,Excelsior cafe community gardens, foraging – as well as consumption.

One of my first visits was to the Excelsior Cafe, a landmark on Cowley Road for as long as anyone can remember. Andreas Koumi is the proprietor and in my interview with him last month I discovered that he had opened it in 1961.

Andreas outside the Exelsior
Andreas outside the Exelsior

Its image is fairly down market – cheap and cheerful all day breakfasts, tea and coffee and a clientele who are often on the margins of society, even by Cowley Road standards. Andreas always has time to talk and my interview with him over coffee ranged from where he got his supplies from – the coffee is all ground by him using only organic beans, something of a surprise to Cowley Road coffee buffs who have always spurned his premises, to famous regulars including Rick Stein when he was a student at Oxford in the 1960’s, and the origin of his ‘specials’ menu.  moussaka on the menuBeing Greek Cypriot in origin, Andreas generally  has moussaka on the menu. What is his secret recipe?  Its the Rick Stein connection. He uses a version of the great man’s recipe.

Last week I popped in for a coffee and Andres took me aside. ‘I’m packing it in’ he said. ‘I’m 80 and its time to stop.’ ‘When?’ I  asked. ‘The end of the month’.  Today I went and bought a card for him. I got to the cafe and there was a hand-written sign  on the door saying that it was closed. Too late, I thought. But no, the door was ajar and I went in. There he was on his own surveying the cafe  for the last time  – and he was leaving it exactly as he had it for all those years. His son Evripides, was standing by the door. Andreas and I  had a few words and I gave him the card. ‘You can’t chat for long’ he told us, ‘His wife is waiting for him in the car’. And with that I watched as he locked the door for the final time and walked down the Cowley Road to the waiting car and retirement.

‘Plant this movie’: Hollywood stardust and urban agriculture

July 8, 2014

Its really great to see a project that been ages in the making come to fruition. A bit like the first apples off an apple tree grown from seed. Several years ago I helped fund (in fact I’m an Executive Producer) a young film maker, Karney Hatch  who had a great idea – a documentary on urban agriculture worldwide. Well now its errr, hatched. From Cuba to Shanghai, the USA to the UK the documentary is a moving portrayal of the successes and challenges of the urban agriculture movement and its premiere is now scheduled, for the Portland Film Festival from 26 August.

Karney has managed to team up with Hollywood star Daryl Hannah (she of Blade Runner, Kill Bill, Wall Street, Steel Magnolia and other movie blockbusters fame) who is also a really committed environmental campaigner who was arrested outside the White House in February 2013 protesting against the Keystone pipeline and once spent three weeks tied to a walnut tree on an urban farm in south  LA which was threatened with redevelopment.

Karney has released a short trailer which you can watch  here.  Lets hope it too turns into another blockbuster with that touch of stardust!

Celtic mysteries and standing stones at Brigit’s Garden

May 7, 2014

Its a while since I’ve been to Ireland, but I took a 60th birthday trip  at the end of April. Its home  to  my  mothers side of  the family (Hegarty, Co. Cork) so it always feels like a bit of a homecoming. The Irish are earthy, but on the whole not great gardeners. Staying in Co Galway and enjoying glorious weather in Commemara and out on Aran, it was the ideal time for  touch of garden exploration.

Craggy Island Tourist Office
Craggy Island Tourist Office

The Craggy Island Tourist Office were most helpful and we found ourselves at Brigit’s Garden on the edge of Connmemara about 15 miles out of Galway. Part visitor attraction part spiritual retreat, yes the two do mix, they do a roaring trade in the American ‘Spiritual Tourism’ market, it is certainly a garden like no other. St Brigit was the 6th Century Abbess of Kildare and the name means ‘exalted one’.  She has three representation in the Irish tradition, as patron saint of midwifery/fertility, of poetry and of the forge (iron-smithing). Quite a multi-tasker.

The gardens, which are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, are based around the Celtic cycles of the year with four gardens representing the Celtic festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa. Anyone who has read my book ‘Spilling the beans’ will know all about these of course. Centred around a roundhouse used for everything from weddings to meditation, the gardens are absolutely stunning.  This is not  a garden in the English tradition of Hidcote or Great Dixter, but something uniquely Irish with a grass mound earth mother in Samhain, ‘a sleeping woman representing the earth in its winter rest’, a sculpture of the three faces of St Bridgit in the Imbolc sunken garden, a grassy circle  for dancing in, enclosed by standing stones,  in Lughnasa and most extraordinary of all,  a remarkable set of  gigantic granite standing stones marking  a processional way to an ancient throne  made of 5,000 year old  bog oak and yew. The standing stones look like they could have been there for thousands of years. In fact low loaders and large diggers brought them in and erected them just a decade ago.IMG_2941

If it all sound a bit New Age, it proves that context is all, because the gardens and the surrounding nature trail stretch over an 11 hectare  site  which is  imbued with  a strong sense of the mystic and the Celtic. It is not far from Loch Corrib and the area is mainly limestone, but glacial eskers wind their way across the landscape, including the site. A ring fort surrounded by ancient hedges is within the site and the trail includes some remarkable collections of  plants and trees including right beside each other  a mature ash, oak and a gigantic goat willow, all long preceding the construction of the garden. These natural features have been skillfully combined  and enhanced with newly created wild spaces such as a ‘lochan’ (small loch), an esker wood and meadow and sculptures and points of interets such as a ‘dream shelter’ and the largest sundial in Ireland (pictured). IMG_2953The love of the natural,  the wild and the spiritual are well served, but so too are more prosaic tastes in the cafe, shop and visitors centre. Ireland’s equivilent (roughly) of Prue Leith, Georgina Campbell  recommends the food and the gift shop is stocked with an  impressively expensive range of goods, doubtless aimed at visitors from Southern California (or south Dublin).

None of this would have happened without the energy and commitment of founder Jenny Beale, who slightly ruefully told me that the years of planning and construction (she is pictured in the 10th anniversary time line driving one of the diggers in the early construction days) had been the most fun and  that worries about visitor numbers, (the crash of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ less than three years after is opening  didn’t help long term  financial sustainability)  wedding bookings and resolving car parking problems, had slightly taken the gloss off the excitement and the sense of a spiritual adventure of the early days. For Lord and Lady Muck though, none of that mattered as we plunged into the unexpected delights  of a cornucopia of Celtic mysticism and horticultural experimentation.