Final Friday

Today I am not making soup, nor is my wife. Neither of us is buying soup either. This is unusual. It's what Trent and I usually get stuck into in the middle of a busy day - in a pan, heat on while you wash your hands or whatever, and you're into eating without any arsing about. But for the first time in 17 months there'll be no Trent on Monday.

Trent is flying off to the States on Wed, back to live where he loves the mix of vines and nearby skiing. It's a sod. The place has come to love him as much as he loves the place.



I'm not sure I ever wrote about how he came to be part of things here. I probably did, but so what: I'll do it again, none of you were paying attention anyway. I was sitting at my desk, happy at having so many interesting things on the go but anxious that I didn't have enough time to dedicate to outside stuff. There is only one of me and I tend to spread it too thinly. I knew I had to have some help. I also know I'm fairly unsociable - the thought of someone being here every week falls somewhere below wearing Brillo pad underwear on my list of things to do. I sat up in my chair, pressed 'send and receive' one last time on the email, and one dropped in the inbox. From Trent. He was working in a local vineyard and had a couple of days a week free; was I interested?

He came round, didn't seem like an axe murderer so he started straightaway and has been coming here every week since.



This last few months, since he decided to go back to the States, every angle of coersion has failed. Hoping that if he realised how much he was appreciated he might change his mind I've tried compliments, persuasion, incentives, talking up the good times, appealed to loose gardeners both male and female to offer themselves to him, but no joy. Even my 5 year old daughter wailing "I don't want Trent to go" through teary eyes couldn't move him. A while back I gave up trying and let him have a quiet last couple of months here.

The last couple of weeks have been about loose ends, clean slates and picking up some tips. The fruit cage is done, the barn cleared of rubbish and tidied, a couple of frameworks erected for apricot fans and I took an hour or two to wander around the vines with Trent picking up any last minute transfer of expertise I could.



After the success of our first foray into moving pictures, I decided to record our walk amongst the leafless vines, partly as it would give me one last chance to give him grief while committing it to celluloid and partly to try to record some of the more intricate aspects of pruning vines which aren't yet established. I would've included the film a part of this post but the video recorder is currently drying by the fire. I left it outside for 24 hours, during which time it snowed quite heavily. Time will tell if my final moments of abusing Trent while he is in my employ will make it to a wider audience.



We didn't get on to some things: it's been freezing for days so no chance to cut down the dried Jerusalem artichoke stems and lift the tubers beneath, nor get the fork under the knobbly oca, nor to plant the young swamp cypress.



In the polytunnel the yacon is safe (I hope) from the harsh frosts - a couple are even flowering, which is rare for England. Next to them a few plants, a quince among them, that we couldn't get the spade into the soil to dig holes for. Early spring it is then.



Most of Friday morning was spent shovelling shit. Horseshit. The stables over the river has plenty - it's a nuisance to them and gold for here so we took 7 trailer loads. Half already composted, much of which we shovelled into steaming doughnuts around the mulberries, apricots and apples. The fresher poo sits in four large heaps, already warming up as decomposition kicks in.

I hadn't bothered with soup as we were going to stop early and go for lunch. To the cafe for their rather special pastrami, gherkin and mustard mayonnaise sandwiches. Even Trent (who is normally tediously-begrudging when it comes to acknowledging the good of anything that is done famously well in the States) finds it impossible to deny their majesty. But it started him on one of his repeating rants: to Trent, a sandwich should be composed of two 3-inch thick mattresses of bread, separated by a further 3 inches of numerous and multicoloured fillings. The more fillings the better. Clearly this is all wrong. In the interests of international relations I let him live. In the interests of furthering his education, I assured him that the perfect sandwich should never have bread so thick and that the fillings should number three, maximum. He refused to be enlightened, I slipped a bag of crack into his luggage.



17 months isn't long to leave a mark, but a lot seems to have happened in that time. We raised a couple of pigs and took them to slaughter somewhat circuitously; 1500 vines were replaced; the vineyard reinvigorated; we dug up dozens of dead olives, apricots and almonds; we planted a new quince orchard, almond orchard, Japanese plum orchard and a perry pear orchard; many hundreds of windbreak plants went in; the huge fun of the Autumn Malvern Show where he not only did everything and more that was asked, he made an impression on everybody involved; we dug the first yacon we've had here; we built the base of the bread oven; and he showed me his cock and balls.

So while I sit on the train to the Garden Media Awards on Wednesday, Trent will be heading over the Atlantic. He's coming back in May for a visit, by which time the autumn olive vodka* should be in rather pleasing order. He'll be made very welcome.





* having sunk to the bottom when added to the vodka, the autumn olive fruits rose to the top of the bottle on day 2, why, I've no idea.

One for the road

Autumn olive (aka Eleaeagnus umbellata).

Pick the fruit in early November for the fruit to ripen and half fill a bottle with the berries. Pour in an inch or two of sugar and fill to the top with vodka. A few inches of fennel top would be perfect if you've got some to hand. I didn't.

Invert the bottle as many days as you remember to and decant into another container to get the fruit out after 3 months. It'll be delicious immediately but leave it a least a year and it'll be incredible.




Works equally well with sloes, mulberries, grated quince...

Two more chalked off

I'm not a particularly nice person. There are thousands of people, inanimate objects, films, items of clothing, tv programs, haircuts, football players, words, shops and bands which are subject to my wide ranging and longlasting bile. Here are a few, randomly selected: Hazel Blears, salad serving spoons, Manhunter, snoods, middle partings, Frank Lampard (Jnr, but not Snr), shedload, Starbucks, Manic Street Preachers. I am rarely happier than when sat ranting in front of Question Time, screaming at the radio as Robbie Savage ruins the once-fine 606 or grimacing at the internet reading that Pulp are to reform. It makes my day to have so many dislikes. I have become defined by them.

It wasn't always like this. I was a nice young man once. As a teenager I would spend every waking moment (ie around 9 hours a day) playing, traveling to see and enthusing about this or that band. When How Soon Is Now?* was released it felt like the world had been evolving entirely with that moment in mind. I now realise how ridiculous that was: There is A Light That Never Goes Out was of course still to come.



But for every new dawn of music that you had to tell the world about there were a hundred Larry Letdowns. For every Smiths, there was a Wolfgang Press, a Tricky or a Felt who's brilliant first burst was never repeated, the magical flame never relit. Too late - I'd already told everyone they were incredible based on that single irresistable shock of energy that welled up when I heard it.

A year after the brilliant first album Magic New Discovery Band had almost always gone from bright and essential to making some flabby follow up with an orchestra, wearing skinny ties and country waistcoats and you're left to deal with everyone reminding you that you told them they were the Second Coming**.

One of the best gigs I had been to at the time was Lenny Kravitz (stop giggling at the back, you heard me right). It may well have been his first gig in England. I had been helping a friend renovate his parents house in France in winter and early spring and his first album came out. Bizarre that his full-on Bill Withers-meets-White Album valviness could sound so fresh and alive but it really did. Back in England and working in a kitchen for the summer, a minibus of us drove up to Bristol, to a small venue called the Victoria Rooms. I think it's still there but it may well have changed. It was my birthday, 1990. It's fair to say that cider may have been taken, other combustibles may also have been enjoyed. I was in the company of people with names like Slob, Basher, Tricky Mickey, Oaksey and Jumbo - one of whom was a master with a shower attachment, a handful of uncooked chick peas, his backside and a wok.



Maybe it was the cider, maybe it was the summer heat, maybe it was the birthday happiness, it almost certainly wasn't the chickpeas, but Lenny Kravitz was amazing. I know it sounds preposterous, I'm blushing typing it, but he was. Magic band, he full of energy and leanness. That album hardly left the stereo that summer. Then look what happened: the bastard turned into a Led Zeppelin tribute band, just like the Stone Roses did.

So experience has taught me it is safer to rant and gristle about those loathsome things in life than extol the seemingly magnificent.

Looking back, the signs were there early on. Even in my serene, positive early years Michelle from Eastenders stirred up irrational bile. Everytime she appeared I'd be thrown onto a turbulent sea of venom and obscenity. No idea why. Slowly a catalogue of insufferables formed. Gradually they overtook the 'likes'. This was fine. Us men are simple folk - we can build up an identity equally well from either the sum of the things we like or the things we dislike. It may seem perfectly reasonable to ask us to do it from a rational combination of the two but it really isn't.

I've become deeply attached to the things I loath. You may, in a month of Sundays, convince me that this isn't poetry, that this isn't genius, that here isn't a person born to do exactly what they are doing...but you'll be entering a whole other league of trickiness to get me to uncurl my white-knuckled fingers from around the throat of one of my deeply-held loathings .

But in recent years I noticed that more and more of my incandescent dislikes were being picked off by a God intent on taking everything that defined me away. I wrote about this five and half years ago. Van Morrison could never have held a light to Jim to the 15 year old me and then I heard Astral Weeks. The truly awful Bette Midler*** produced the single quote that both Jane Perrone and (via Jane's blog) I found summed up the magic of compost.

"My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first heap." Bette Midler, 'Los Angeles "Compost Queen"', Los Angeles Times, May 1996

I had to entertain the ghastly prospect that perhaps underneath that repellent body of work (Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Wind Beneath My Wings) heaven forbid there was a person not without the odd redeeming feature. I still find that hard to type.

I remember consciously, clearly saying to myself one school half term when I was maybe 12 that if I ever got into watching televised golf something could have gone fundamentally, seriously wrong. My dislike of golf was exacerated by Sam Torrance. He took up with actress Suzanne Danielle. She was one of my first pre-teenage crushes and she was previously hooked up with Patrick Mower (a sort of boil-in-the-bag Oliver Tobias). Patrick Mower was in one of my favourite childhood programmes, Whodunnit?, where the studio guests had to deduce the culprit of some crime or other based on their interrogations of the various participants. By double association Patrick Mower was ace; by running off with Suzanne Danielle (therefore making Patrick Mower unhappy) and playing golf Sam Torrance was doubly awful. I now love little better than watching the Ryder Cup in front of a roaring fire, whisky in one hand listening to perhaps the finest spots summarizer of any sport, Sam Torrance, tell it how it is.

I can see that these about-faces may sound like harmless incidentals to many of you but for me these prejudices felt as genuinely immovable as my preference for wearing the right shoes on the right feet.

I mention this because two more bags that are strapped to the Buckaroo that is Me have been jettisoned recently: I bought a Mac; I started using Facebook.



I've had a PC since 1995. For 15 years Mac users have given me great pleasure. Here Mac user, I would say hilariously - would you like to buy a car that's slow, got a rubbish engine and it'll cost you twice as much as a good one but on the upside it has got a nice paint job? It didn't help that if you had a Mac it appeared compulsory that you wore only retro clothes, you lived in Brighton for a while (and boy, didn't we have to hear about it), you amusingly pronounce Battersea 'Battersia', you had pink Converse Allstars, everything kitsch must be worshipped, your car was shit but you wouldn't get rid of it, everything was an installation, if Terry Pratchett wasn't God then Douglas Adams was, and it was illegal for you to like any band once they become famous unless it's someone so screamingly 'over there' like the Spice Girls. Not that I'm saying these things are necessarily bad you understand...but the ensemble is a painful one.

So why did I get one? Almost certainly because I've morphed into a version of the terrible arse I describe above. In mitigation, my PC was reaching its elastic limit, full, no longer capable of expanding to meet the increasing needs of the many softwares required of it, and like any machine, after a while it had just gotten tired of co-operating. It needed replacing. I could've gone for another PC but during it's life span my work has changed...much less of the old landscape consultancy work and more writing. Crucially, more photography.

As well as this blog I've taken the photos for the two books I've had published and for the next one (River Cottage Handbook: Fruit, published next spring), as well as some of those in the monthly articles I have in English Garden magazine, where Jason Ingram takes the rest. He's a fine photographer and a fine man. I can say that as I know he's got better things to do than read this nonsense. He made the PC-to-Mac hop a couple of years ago and was one of the few people I could ask about why getting a Mac would be sensible who didn't just answer 'because I just love em'. For once it made sense: most of the software I now use was designed to work in a Mac environment so it works more efficiently, more in tune with what I'm doing. I won't go into the technicals, but it made sense to swap. Are Macs amazing? This one seems perfectly lovely but where's the hashtag?! I'm now saving up for my manbag and off to have my haircut into a Hoxton fin.



Facebook has always got my goat, whereas Twitter I love. Twitter is creative, linking people and ideas, and making things happen that wouldn't have otherwise. Of the 1000-odd followers I have on Twitter I guess I knew half a dozen personally before I started using Twitter. These are new voices and ears. More than a handful have become close real-world friends I'd no sooner be without than crumpets in winter. It has cost me too many minutes idling away when I ought to be doing something else, but it's given me endless laughs, days in the sun at events I otherwise wouldn't have been at, I've read brilliant writing I almost certainly wouldn't have known about and enjoyed many days of very pleasantly paying work. It is outward facing, creative and joins dots between people and ideas - everything Facebook isn't.

So why am I using Facebook? I got badgered by a few people, suggesting I should have an Otter Farm page, that it was almost a dereliction of my keenness to get Otter Farm out there. I had a look, and like the car crash you want to turn away from I looked again. It's everything I thought it would be: nauseatingly tedious, full of a succession of mini-brags and attention-seeking dramaqueening...but, and this really hurts to admit, it's not only that. It's put me back in touch with old friends I haven't seen for a much as twenty years, with old friends I haven't seen or twenty months and even a few idiots I saw last week. It's shit and it's quite good too. Oh there I go again, a balanced view....now I'm pissing myself off.

There is another element to all this though: I've become so fascinated by the galloping distruction of my dislikes that where once I would've run away from (say) watching rugby league, I find I'm actively investigating whether there isn't some gem I've previously missed. I don't automatically turn off the TV when Fiona Bruce starts reading the news anymore.

I'm worried I'm in danger of coming over all reasonable.



So what's left to hang on to? Have I any dislikes that are immune from threat? Will I start to find Michael Gove interesting? Will Jarvis Cock one day regain the last two letters of his surname in this house? Must I get used to a future in which Patrick Kielty makes me laugh? Is James Blunt destined to become more than rhyming slang in my mind? Will I dig up all these edibles for some hydrangeas or whatever those ornamental plants are called?

Lord knows...I can only hope that whoever it is upstairs will leave me in peace, with just a few of my dislikes and a sliver of dignity intact.



* Originally as the B-side to 'William, It Was Really Nothing', pop trivia fans

** Talking of which, there must be a gazillion thirtysomethings there out there feeling bilious every time they hear the Stone Roses second album, although let's be fair, the first album was a whole load of fillers bookended by two decent songs

*** I notice that Bette Midler has more than a passing resemblance to Renee Zellwigger****...and I wonder whether this seemingly random dislike-pairing is driven by their mutual lack of eyes

**** I think I may have spelt her name wrong but I can't even bear to google it in case a picture of her appears on my screen and sets me off

Two little pigs

Today was an early start - our two pigs, Daisy and Alice, were due at the abattoir. They're both boys and although my 5 year old daughter had been relieved of her innocence enough to know that those comically oversized backwheels make Alice and Daisy both boys, she didn't care - she'd decided they were Daisy and Alice.



I've written enough about eating meat when I hadn't for 17 or so years, so I shalln't repeat previous tediums but even though I don't get wobbly chinned and wet cheeked about it as I did taking our first pig, Peter, to the abattoir, I still find it difficult. And I'm happy that I do.

Taking them is all about calm. No big noises, nothing out of the ordinary, getting the trailer in place early so they get used to it.

It was just getting light when Trent and I opened the gate of their pen so they could walk up the lowered back of the trailer. Getting them to go in is all about acting like you don't mind if they get in or not. No tension, a bucket with a little food in, all carrot and no stick. You usually get a few refusals where they get part way in and get nervous of the newness and back out. It can take 1 minute or 3 hours.



They looked, they edged in but they weren't going all the way in. They lazed around, sitting down flat with their arses towards the trailer. Time was running out - we had to get them there by 8AM - by now it was already 8AM and the abattoir is 30 minutes drive away. With so many animals going through this small family run abattoir, especially at this time of year in the run up to Christmas, if you miss your time it can be hard to find an accommodating slot.

Talking of which, while I was on the phone to the abattoir finding out what time was the latest-latest we could arrive, Daisy had decided he was in the mood for a little luvvin. With Alice lying down he took his chance to go for the piggyback, finding Alice's rump a perfectly reasonable surface on which to generate a little friction. Evidently Alice afforded Daisy sufficient purchase to deliver a rather relaxing moment. This wasn't good - it's normally too much mud on the pig's skin you need to watch out for when going to the abattoir, not a generous smattering of jizz. Trent and I looked at each other, wondering which of us would have to (ahem) come up with a solution to the problem. Happily, if some what revoltingly, Daisy decided to rid us of that worry by breakfasting on his own expellant, somewhat over-enthusiastically it ought to be said. Alice retained an expression of disinterest (sadly familiar to Trent) throughout.

Daisy sat down by Alice. Alice got up, Daisy followed, and both, after a few last refusals, ambled into the trailer. We shut the door and drove.



Driving to the abattoir is a nervous business, and I'm never chatty while doing it. I'm anxious until they're dropped off. I'm certain something bad will happen; it never has, but I'm sure it will every time. This time I was nervous about one of the tyres - a bit balder than it might be. There's also the prospect of having to reverse a Land Rover with a trailer around a bend and into a reasonably tight unloading area in front of a bunch of crusty farmers - which always feels like I'm being asked to parade at a photoshoot wearing only a velour posing pouch.

As usual, almost at the abattoir, I missed the turn and, as usual, I told myself 'It's BEFORE the fir tree, not after it' for next time. As usual, I turned into the pub car park to allow us to turn and head back to the turn off. As I came out of the car park I felt a lurch in the back and noticed the roof of the trailer was lifting a little. I'd slowed at the first lurch and stopped sharpish but it was too late: the roof was properly lifted up. Trent and I exchanged expletives as we rushed out of the car. As we stopped one of the pigs had scuttled out. One of the corners of the roof was fixed to the base with heavy duty cable ties...it seems that the bolt further up that side of the trailer had sheared off and the cable ties had snapped as Daisy and Alice pushed up on the roof. Perhaps Alice had relit Daisy's fire, maybe it was Alice's turn for a little executive relief or perhaps they were just arsing around having a bit of last minute amusement. Either way, their combined strength warped the roof enough for Alice to clamber out. Luckily we'd just stopped as she did. I should mention, we were on a busy main road at rush hour.



Alice was lying down in the road. As we got out of the car we both thought she'd hurt her leg as we could see red, but she was perfectly happy - by some fluke there was a single red apple in the road right where she was lying down and it seemed to have grabbed her attention. Trent went to her; I wrestled with the roof trying to stop the other big beast of a pig getting out of a trailer it had every intention of getting out of. Trent stopped the traffic his way, I mine. We looked at each other. We were part relieved - if the roof was going to do this then thank heavens it was when we were driving at 15mph and not 50mph as we were for much of the journey; part befuddlement - what were we going to do now? Open the door to the trailer to try and get Alice back in and Daisy would try to bolt for it, but with traffic heading back both ways for hundreds of yards there wasn't much time for pondering.

'What shall we do?' I asked. 'Buggered if I know' came the reply. Looking back, I should've just unhitched the trailer and driven off to a cafe, leaving Trent to sort it out....employers prerogative and all that...but I'm too kind for my own good and I spoil my American friend, and so I didn't.

While we discussed the possibilities, Alice got up and casually ambled to the side of the road, up the pavement and into someone's front garden. Trent was right with him but when a pig wants to go somewhere and you're by a main road and that 'somewhere' isn't the main road, you let them go.



A man ran towards us through the stationary traffic. I guessed a commuter, pissed off at being held up by a man holding together a part-dismantled trailer, a Land Rover and an American following an inquisitive pig. Before I had time to wonder whether to puff myself up and try to look mean in the hope that he'd pick on Trent or stand in such a way as to emphasise that I wore glasses and maybe wasn't likely to trouble 2012's powerlifting judges in the hope that he'd pick on Trent, it became apparent that he was rushing to help, a bucket of pig feed in his hand, and (I hoped) a sensible idea about what we might do.

Miraculously he'd just left the abattoir and he had a trailer. By now more than a little peckish (she hadn't eaten her mid-road apple) Alice fairly helpfully almost waltzed into the new trailer, which perhaps indicates that it was Daisy, after all, who was looking for Round Two of love-wrestling in our trailer. Off went Alice to the abattoir in the new trailer, leaving me to drive the Land Rover (cmon, it is my car) and Trent to run along behind, trying to keep the roof on and the ever-lively Daisy from escaping. I tried to drive at 6mph (hazards flashing) but a combination of anxiety to get safely to the abattoir half a mile away and get out of the ever-extending line of traffic behind us meant I crept up once or twice. Trent managed to make his feelings known even through the traffic noise and closed windows. I think he may really have been projecting, angry with himself at his own lack of fitness but I didn't say anything, you know how touchy some people can be.




We made it. We dropped them off. They trotted out of their trailers as if nothing had happened and happily, due to our lateness, there were no crusty farmers to entertain with my trailer reversing.

We were both hungry. We hit the River Cottage Canteen on the way back for sausage baps (is there no limit to our insensitivity) and coffee. We'd got away with one for sure. It could've been much much worse. Breakfasted, we headed back to the car to find a ticket for having parked a trailer in the car park.

Driving back is always the same - the conversation starts, the radio can go on, but by the time I get back to the farm I've always forgotten that they're not here anymore.


While writing this I was listening to Van Morrison - Warm Love, Television - Friction and John Grant - Sigourney Weaver and some even worse stuff.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D