Creative thinking

I love cabbage. We’ve been eating a range of varieties for many months and there are still plenty left in the ground, toughing it out through the worst of the weather to give us a reliable green vegetable in these cold, dark months. I love the sweet starchiness of parsnips, the bold earthiness of Jerusalem artichokes, the onion tang of leeks and the crisp leafiness of chard and kale but there is no doubt that at the moment, cabbage is king.

Despite this, if someone had told me that there would come a time when making sauerkraut would be a regular and enjoyable way of life, I’d have laughed my socks off. Roger has always liked it, I couldn’t bear it . . . but then, I’d never tried the proper homemade stuff. Encouraged by those who already knew how good it is and the gift of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Much More Veg recipe book, I gave it a go a couple of years ago and never looked back. It is such a simple process but one I find totally therapeutic and satisfying: wandering down to the patch to cut a cabbage, washing and shredding it, packing it into jars with sliced garlic, bay leaves and coriander seed and covering in brine, then waiting a couple of days for the magic of lacto-fermentation to begin, the fat bubbles of carbon dioxide rising up the jar like a miniature lava lamp. It’s a great way of preserving and produces a food that is wonderful for our gut health as well as being truly scrumptious; yes, I’m a complete convert! I do need to sort my timings out, though, as we’re both a bit disappointed if we finish a jar before the next one is ready . . .

Something I’ve been playing with in the garden this year is leaving plant roots in the ground after harvesting. I wrote in the summer about how incredibly successful this was with lettuce, the new growth of hearty, crisp plants meaning we were able to cut two decent-sized lettuce from each root and there was no need for more than two sowings. The drumhead cabbages we cut two or three months ago have proved to be every bit as enthusiastic, sending up a rosette of baby cabbages from their knobbly stumps, as many as half a dozen on some plants. They might not look that impressive, but each is every bit as tasty and edible as the original and they are ideal for turning into sauerkraut; it seems like we are enjoying a huge amount of good food from each single seed. This willingness to look at things from a new angle, to try to do things differently, to play with curiosity and exploration is a quality I think human beings will need more and more in the future as we grapple with the changes that are to come, possibly sooner rather than later.

These summer cabbages are now a patch of baby winter ones!

This approach fascinates me but I’m not even sure what its precise definition really is; I’m not usually lost for words but I’m struggling to nail this one. Creativity? Adaptability? Practical skills? Innovation? Flexibility? Resilience? A combination of all these and more rolled into one? It’s not just the ability to make things, mend things or repurpose things but also the willingness and confidence to respond to new and difficult circumstances in a positive way. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to come up with bright, shiny, new ideas, either – far from it, in fact, as the answers to many problems can lie in what was done or used in bygone times. There’s much talk about new technology being the way forward in tackling climate change (and I’m not pouring cold water on that idea) but I believe that many of the ‘old ways’ hold significant value and hope, too. One of the most enjoyable and interesting blogs I’m currently reading is all about bushcraft; now, I’m not planning to live as a wild woodswoman anytime soon or stitch buckskin moccasins or light the fire using a bow drill but how fascinating would the experience of learning and applying such ancient skills be? In these long, dark evenings by the fire, I’m never short of something to do as there’s always plenty of woolly business to hand but Roger is planning to arm himself with rope and string and spend time extending his repertoire of knot-tying skills and I think I’ll join in the fun; apart from being a great bit of brain gym, it’s an activity that could bring significant benefits to a wealth of our practical, outdoor activities.

The woodsman at work.

Anyway, for want of a single word that encapsulates all these ideas, I’m going to stick with ‘creativity’ because as much as anything, I’m a word nerd and I like its etymology. The English word ‘create’ comes from a root meaning ‘to grow’ and it’s a root shared by French, too, yielding one of my favourite sounding words croissance (growth); this is not to be confused with croissant (delicious breakfast pastry / crescent) although that’s the same word root, too! It is also related to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and this is why I think it’s the right word for me to choose because the farming metaphor is a good one: we plant seeds of ideas, nurture projects as they grow, practise skills, allow time for development, adapt to conditions and situations and finally – hopefully! – reap a harvest. I believe we all have this creativity within us and it’s definitely a characteristic to be cherished and celebrated.

Lacking plant pots in the spring, I made them from newspaper.

When reflecting upon the problems of surviving in an uncertain future, I think creativity is a key concept to consider. As a primary school teacher, I worked through several shifts in pedagogical thinking, approaches and new curricula, all of which saw a gradual shift towards a greater emphasis on developing children’s creativity, critical thinking skills and problem solving faculties; the problem was, these were still firmly entrenched in the joint straitjackets of an overloaded timetable and never-ending assessments and testing which served to stifle the very elements we were supposed to be encouraging! It was as if the Powers That Be couldn’t quite bring themselves to allow children (or teachers) the time, space and – above all – freedom to be truly creative, innovative and risk-takingly different. If I’m going to be completely cynical, I could argue that modern societies focused on economic growth don’t really want too much creativity flowing through their veins because if people could shift for themselves then they wouldn’t need to spend so much time buying goods and services from others. We are encouraged to become reliant on others to provide for our needs (and, in all honesty, it’s actually very hard to be completely self-sufficient); this might make our lives easier but it also makes us very vulnerable as the recent prolonged shortages of water and power following in the wake of Storm Arwen have shown. I’m not for one moment suggesting we crawl back into our caves or give up the true advantages that modern technology brings but I think a move towards getting back to basics would be very wise.

Stormy skies this week: an increasing trend for the future?

It’s an interesting (and worrying?) percentage -31% in this study – of British people who say they are not confident about preparing a complete meal without a recipe and I think that is such a shame, partly because feeding ourselves must surely be one of the most fundamental activities there is – and one that could become increasingly crucial in the face of climate change and global shifts in food production – but also because cooking can be such a pleasurable and rewarding experience. There is much debate over the reasons for this and I don’t want to go too far down that particular route here although it’s certainly an interesting topic to explore: are the causes social, economic, cultural, political, technological or a result of trends in parenting or education (or none or all of the above)? As an aside, I’d like to state for the record that the three so-called Millenials we raised can not only boil an egg with their eyes closed but also know precisely how to look after the hen that laid the thing in the first place. Oh, and how to turn chickens and eggs into amazing meals for many people, served up with fabulous dishes of homegrown or foraged fruit and vegetables. Please don’t believe everything you read about ‘Generation Hopeless’!

I’ve always made mincemeat and a Christmas pudding from scratch but for many years I stuck religiously to the same recipes (thank you, Delia!) because I was too busy to do anything else and ultimately because they worked. Recipes are useful things and certainly if you’re making something like a sponge cake or bread, it’s usually a pretty good idea to at least have some guidelines to follow in terms of quantities of ingredients and cooking temperatures and times. However, being pretty practised in those two recipes, I’ve had far more fun since I started veering off the tracks and doing my own thing. Perhaps courage and creativity go hand in hand, being brave enough to ask, ‘What if . . ?’ and then going for it? A few days ago, I found a recipe for a so-called ‘classic’ British Christmas pudding which contained only one kind of dried fruit (raisins) and one type of spice (nutmeg). Well, I’m sorry: it might turn out to look like the ‘perfect’ Christmas pud but doesn’t that seem incredibly dull and unimaginative for something that is supposed to be the crowning glory of the biggest meal of the year? When it came to making our own pudding, I used very much what we had to hand: how many recipes require us to dash out and buy special or extra ingredients when we might very well have perfectly good alternatives in the house already . . . and how often might that put people off cooking? Golden sultanas, plump dark raisins, Agen prunes, dried cranberries, homemade candied peel, our own apples and walnuts, half a dozen different spices, flour, breadcrumbs, eggs, melted butter and brown sugar all went into the mix until it looked vaguely right. I never put alcohol in mincemeat but I like a splash in the pudding and in the absence of the usual suggestions, I sloshed a bit of Talisker single malt whisky in (we don’t drink spirits, I have no idea how old that part-bottle is!). Well, what’s the worst that can happen? This is creativity and adaptability at it’s easiest and (I hope) tastiest, too.

Moving beyond cooking and personally, I think that planned obselence has an awful lot to answer for. How can we criticise someone for not being able to change a plug when electrical goods come with moulded ones these days or for not owning a screwdriver when manufacturers use weird-shaped screws or make their products deliberately non-fixable? In the world of fast fashion, who’s going to be bothered to sew on a button or stitch up a hole, yet alone replace a zip or turn collar and cuffs? Let’s be totally fair, when aisles and aisles of supermarket shelves groan under the weight of ready meals, how relevant is the ability to boil an egg, anyway? According to the study I quoted earlier, only 37% of people claimed to feel confident about changing a flat tyre (I’m assuming they meant on a car). Well, I know how to do it but when the need unfortunately arose a few months ago, I had to ask for help as the complex wheel locking system and garage-tightened wheel nuts which require a specialist tool rendered it physically impossible for me to manage alone. We are at the mercy of modern living and it’s not always very helpful.

A bike puncture is so much easier to deal with!

I’m not going to do my usual ‘Bah, humbug!’ thing this year but may I indulge in the tiniest seasonal rant? Pleeease? 😉 One of the things I’ve always loved about France is how very quiet and understated Christmas is: apart from the piles of fresh oysters, luxury chocolates and bottles of champagne in the shops and the occasional Christmas tree in front gardens hung with brightly-coloured foil bows, you’d be hard-pressed to know anything was going on. To be fair, that remains true of our very rural neck of the woods; except for the tasteful decorations in the boulangerie window and a few extra boxes of chocolates in the local supermarket, life here is just simply sliding gently from late autumn into early winter without any fuss or bother. What a difference elsewhere, though! Last week, we needed to venture further afield than usual to buy a new mattress ahead of Sam and Adrienne’s visit and neither of us could get home fast enough. It was like a feeding frenzy in the shops but one that reminded me more of sheep than sharks. What is it about Christmas that has people piling their bags and trolleys high with so much stuff and how much of it is truly needed? (In the same vein, why does a supposed ‘crisis’ drive people to stockpile toilet rolls?) How much of that Christmas food will even be eaten at all, yet alone with enjoyment and honour? I believe true generosity is a very beautiful human characteristic but since when did a piece of mass-produced tat grabbed from a supermarket shelf become a meaningful, loving gift?

Here’s another situation where surely a little creativity could go a long way. I don’t necessarily mean making gifts and the like as I realise for many people that is neither an option nor a pleasure, but perhaps there’s an argument for more lateral and original thinking rather than following the herd headlong into the chaotic and predictable consumer circus? I recently had a long telephone conversation with an old friend who I hadn’t seen or spoken to for several years and it was better than any bought gift, believe me. We took it in turns to talk and listen, catching up on news, putting the world to rights (ha, I wish!) and more than anything, laughing ourselves silly together; I was reminded why we had become friends in the first place and how that friendship endures, even if we are not in contact on a regular basis. I was left with such a wonderful feeling of warmth and well-being, that true cozy sense of hygge that no amount of mass-produced Christmas jumpers, snowflake-printed fleecy blankets or cinnamon-scented candles could ever create.

Returning to the ‘Woodland Ways’ bushcraft blog and I am fascinated by the series of articles about star lore. I can find north using Polaris and I recognise a few well-known constellations and stars but I must confess, I feel otherwise totally ignorant; it’s true I’ll probably never need to navigate by starlight, but for how many years have I stood beneath wide starry skies gazing upwards in awe and wonder without really knowing much about them? Well, I’m setting out to learn, working my way carefully through each article and building up a star map which I hope will become embedded in my memory; it’s just another way of looking at things from a new angle, an activity to challenge and develop my powers of observation and tickle some neural pathways into action. It’s also a refreshing way of embracing the season, spending time outdoors in the longest, darkest nights of the year – as long as nature is kind enough to grant me a few cloudless ones, of course! A cabbage-loving, knot-tying, recipe-dumping, star-gazing word nerd: mmm, a bit weird, maybe? Well, yes, I think I probably am ‘out there’ somewhere but at the end of the day it’s about embracing and loving life and all its possibilities, being mad enough to climb out of the box, take a few risks and do things a bit differently. One day, it might be a question of survival. For now, I’m just happy not to be a sheep. 😆