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. 😆

Time, space and spirals

I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion. Paradise gardening.

Joe Hollis

Window dressing is quite an art form here and I love the displays that appear in the local boulangerie in particular, they are always so creative and colourful, such joyful expressions of the season. I’m thankful that there is currently no headlong rush into all things tinsel; in the windows of St P’s friendly little shops it is autumn leaves, nuts and berries, hedgehogs and squirrels that still capture the essence of the season so perfectly. The surrounding landscape is on fire with breathtaking autumnal colours and I am giving myself the time and space to revel in this transient beauty. Leaf fall is accelerating, the sun sinking a little lower every day. Soon it will all be gone. Time to enjoy it while we can.

When Roger asked me last Saturday what my plans were for the day, I smiled and said I was thinking about having a weekend for a change; this was a tongue in cheek reference to our farmer friend who grumbles that for him, it’s ‘never Saturday, always Monday.’ Looking at us from afar, I suppose others might say our life is the opposite of that – one big permanent weekend or holiday – and I will be honest, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for the fact that we no longer dance to the tune of paid employment, timetables and deadlines. However, we are still incredibly busy people, spending most of our time on outdoor projects; in fact, apart from the occasional essential shopping trip or a walk or bike ride somewhere together, we never actually stop to draw breath. Please don’t get me wrong: this is a lifestyle choice and I am not complaining about it one little bit. Like the quote at the top of this post, I don’t regard what we do here as ‘work’ when every day is filled with the possibility of being active, creative, productive and reflective without even leaving our patch. To open the door and know I can spend the entire day immersed in the beauty of our garden, whatever the weather or season, is the greatest luxury imaginable. Paradise indeed.

My reference to fancying a ‘weekend’ really means some time where I can ignore outside jobs for a while and turn my attention to a few other activities, some which perhaps otherwise feel like a bit of an indulgence. In modern society, lives can so often be starved of time but even in a more relaxed setting, I believe we still need time and space to ourselves to use however we wish; it is often cited that hunter-gatherer peoples have a greater amount of leisure time than any others and I think there’s a valuable lesson there for all of us. Also, when you think about it, it’s quite difficult to do nothing; I’m not great at sitting still so reading a book for hours or watching television (which we don’t have anyway) are not my thing, but they are still engaging the brain at some level. Even daydreaming requires a bit of effort!

So, how did I spend my real Saturday? I did a session of yoga; I read some blog posts and replied to comments from other people on my own post; I sewed tiny buttons on to a couple of baby jumpers I’d knitted and finished making a little hat to go with them; I made a batch of solid hand lotion to get my sore hands and feet through a winter of gardening; I collected, peeled, cored and chopped another vat of windfall apples and cooked them into compote and leather, while listening to a French podcast; I blended wool and silk on my hand carders to make rolags for spinning, then set up my wheel and started the first bobbin; I wrote postcards to our grandchildren and messaged a friend who wasn’t feeling great; I sorted and packed the last batches of seeds I had drying – coriander and nigella for the kitchen, basil for next year’s garden; I looked at the next unit of my permaculture course and turned a few articles into PDF files to put on the Kindle for bedtime reading. Thinking I’d done for the day, I then started making a crochet teddy from scraps to match the baby knitting. On reflection, I had a pretty productive and very enjoyable time without setting out with any specific intentions in mind and I think that’s a healthy and rewarding thing to do occasionally – to allow ourselves to just go with the flow, not setting any goals, abandoning all ideas of a must-do list and then seeing what happens!

The current unit of permaculture I’m studying is about forest gardening and I am certainly leaving plenty of time to immerse myself completely and absorb as much information as I can. It’s arguably one of the most important topics to consider and I know there will be a wealth of additional material to absorb and enjoy. I’ve long liked the idea of planting a food forest but my personal opinion is that it must be tempered to some extent. In Miraculous Abundance, Charles Hervé-Gruyer tells of an indigenous Amazonian family he lived with who kept no breakfast in the house because they could simply walk outside and find it every morning. What a wonderful thought, to be able to harvest everything we needed by simply wandering outside! However, let’s be realistic for a moment: far from living in an equatorial rainforest, we are in sub-maritime temperate northern France and here we are very much at the mercy of the seasons with fluctuating weather patterns and light levels. The idea of planting many more food-bearing trees and shrubs and extending the list of perennial food plants is very high on our to-do list but I would be loathe to give up on our annual crops as fresh, stored or preserved, they form such a key part of our diet.

Despite this being the ninth garden we’ve created together, in many ways the first year here has been as much a learning curve as ever. Even though we have gardened in this area before, there was no certainty at the outset what we could expect from this piece of land: it takes time to understand how factors such as aspect, prevailing winds, weather patterns and soil composition affect growing conditions. In the event, despite numerous less-than-ideal situations, we’re pleased with the overall harvest we have enjoyed and, as we move into the realms of winter vegetables, it’s still interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) worked. For instance, the Florence fennel has been very disappointing and that comes down to sowing times; it’s a tricky customer, needing to be planted relatively late so as to miss the worst of the summer heat but early enough to put on plenty of growth before the season has shifted too much. I was probably a week too late in sowing the seeds and my decision to cram them between patches of leafy beans and burly Savoy cabbages actually led to them being shaded rather too much. It’s no big deal, we are eating the small bulbs and foliage anyway but next year will require a rethink. Purple sprouting broccoli is an early spring staple and the plants are looking wonderfully healthy but I’m concerned about the possible effects of savage winter winds blasting in from the west, so Roger has used some of the hedge prunings to weave a protective hurdle; obviously, the hazel leaves will die back but I’m hoping it will be enough to at least break up the wind a bit or divert the worst of it away from the plants.

The Secret Garden was always going to be a bit of an experiment this year and I feel the results were a bit mixed. I certainly won’t be planting brassicas in there again, it was just too shady and they were hammered far more badly by weevils and caterpillars than those grown in more open sites. That said, a few ‘Thousandhead’ kale plants have rallied with lots of delicious fresh growth and there is still a carpet of New Zealand spinach to tuck into. What a good trooper it is. I’m also pleased to see patches of self-set rocket and land cress, I love it when the garden starts to grow itself. There will be more light next year once we’ve finished the hedging but I think this will be the best patch for things like salad crops and leafy greens and I’ll move the needier varieties out. There is still a decent picking of beetroot and they add a splash of rich colour to what we are calling our ‘Root Downs’ (as opposed to our ‘Green Ups’) – trays of mixed root veg like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, oca and Jerusalem artichokes, such lovely sweet and starchy treats. Gone are the days of summery basil, mint and coriander, these strong earthy flavours call for something more robust in the way of herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme or savoury. Toss in some onion chunks and fat, creamy garlic cloves, and we practically have a complete meal.

A simple ‘root up’ ready for the oven.

I’m happy to admit that brassica planting registered very high on the chaos scale this year, not helped by the fact I’m a lazy labeller. I knew I’d planted out some romanesco broccoli somewhere but lack of any obvious evidence suggested they’d been a casualty of the Weevil Wars. Imagine my delight, then, to discover three large heads hidden deep within the foliage this week, their fractal patterns the living embodiment of Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, the golden ratio that spins exquisite spirals in nature. They are astonishing things, I am happy to grow them simply to look at them – although they do happen to taste pretty amazing, too!

As the leaves fall and spaces open up in the garden once again, we have a chance to assess the changes we have made here so far and to make plans for other things we would like to do. We’ve recently planted a couple of young bigarreau cherry trees in the hope of increasing the harvest in years to come, and we plan to plant more fruit trees – plums are a must! – during the dormant period. I’ve found a good online nursery in Pays de la Loire and have started putting together an order for some of those plants which will add more edible options to our ‘food forest’: sea buckthorn, autumn olive, honey berry, goumi berry, goji berry, jostaberry, yellow raspberry and the like. I don’t want to order until the bare-rooted willows are available; Roger has started to dig the pond (despite us agreeing a mini-digger hire would be the sensible plan, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing it by hand!) and I want to create a ‘wild’ area between it and the veggie patch with a mass of willows and dogwoods to add a splash of winter colour. The willows I’m after are saule des vanniers in French, literally basket makers’ willow; I’ve always had a soft spot for baskets but have never made one myself so that’s an interesting project for the future, as well as using some withies to create other features around the garden. Some of the features we already have here have become more prominant as the dense green of summer growth fades away and bring a new perspective to the garden.

Log ‘seat’ framed by hazel and blackthorn.
Stone pyramid wildlife habitat . . .
. . . and a more temporary one made from hedge prunings.

Away from the garden, the 30-day yoga programme is going well. I’m sticking to my daily practice and really enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I started to feel a bit disappointed that the sessions come to an end far too quickly. I decided it was time to look for something else to add to my morning exercise and wondered if I could find a simple dance lesson or two. I’ve always loved dancing: contemporary dance was my thing as a teen (yep – footless tights, legwarmers, the whole Fame shebang 😆 ) but as an adult, my dancing exploits have been pretty much limited to a bit of a boogie at parties and weddings. I have mentioned before that after a rush of blood to the head, Roger and I signed up for salsa evening classes a few years ago and spent most of our time in fits of giggles as we tried to work out what on earth our feet should be doing. The tutor was unquestionably a very talented dancer but I had the impression he felt he’d drawn the short straw teaching a class of hapless beginners. He made a good fist of giving us a taste of different Latin American dance styles but for me it was all too fast and furious; we’d learn a new routine and would just get to the point where it actually felt like we were dancing then he would move us on to something new, often never to revisit anything. As soon as we were home, I would scribble down everything I could remember to help us practise but it ended up a complete jumble as there was too much to recall.

As a teacher, I am all too aware that learners need many things: clear instruction and demonstration, motivation, fun, repetition, time to practise and permission to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment but overload isn’t at all helpful. I would have loved just to focus on one routine each week so that at least we would have had twelve basic dances under our belt at the end of the term; as it was, we didn’t crack a single one. We persevered for another couple of terms without any real improvement so we put it down to experience and bowed out gracefully . . . but I’ve never lost my desire to do better. So, I was pleased to hit on the short video lessons by Oleg Astakhov, although I was highly sceptical about learning nine dances in twelve minutes: I’d be happy to suss one, to be honest! Mmm, it sounded like an interesting challenge, all the same and – all credit to the teaching – twelve minutes later I was indeed nine dances wiser. The best and most unexpected thing, though, was that suddenly everything clicked and fell into place, all the things I’d found so difficult in those dance classes suddenly became as clear as day.

I’ve always been an advocate of spiral (as opposed to linear) learning, the idea that we are not essentially programmed to learn anything first time round – or second or third, for that matter – and that it’s important to keep circling back to what we are trying to learn, perhaps in a broader or deeper sense, in a different context or from a new angle; sometimes, we don’t grasp something simply because we’re not ready to at that moment. Learning new dances is great brain gym, a brilliant workout for the mind as well as the body, and I’m suddenly having so much fun! I don’t suppose solo dancing will ever catch on but finding time and space to spend a few minutes getting my head (and feet) round waltz and polka, rumba and hustle, jive and jazz, not to mention mambo, merengue, bachata and cha cha is certainly keeping me out of mischief and making me smile! I’m not sure I’m ready for hip hop just yet but there may be a little zumba in the pipeline. Lifelong learning and laughing. I love it. 😊