Monday, 28 June 2010

Norfolk Road Allotment Open Day

Oh to be retired and to spend the rest of your days scratching around a small plot of land, digging a bit here, planting a bit there. Weeding, sitting, pondering, chatting, building, reading, watering, sleeping. Aways doing a bit but essentially taking life easy, just simply going with the ebb and flow of the seasons. Sounds blissful doesn't it? And that's how most of the chaps down my allotment have got it sewn up. No wonder I feel bitter towards them sometimes. Not only do I have to contend with their banter, wry smiles and raised eyebrows, they mock me with their gloriously immaculate plots which are testimony to a decidedly pedestrian approach to allotmenteering. Why can't I have it that way? Why does it always seem like such hard work? Why can't I sit in a shed all day with the radio on and a copy of The Sun for company?*

My visits down to the allotment always seem to be frenetic you see. It starts with spending five minutes or so negotiating the padlock at the gate, sweating and spitting blood because the thing is so damn stiff (I swear one day I am going to break the damn key). I'll then dash down the path, give a quick salutation to my neighbour who is always there rain or shine and whose name I am still unsure of (Dave? Alan? Bill?) and then I'll jump onto our plot and proceed to wrestle with the hosepipe. Tangles get untangled, kinks get straightened out and off I rush to the water tap. Invariably, I'll trip over a lump of wood that's been stuck in the ground to remind me that once upon a time I planted something there, many moons ago. Brushing myself down, I'll plug in and turn on the tap and run back to the hose to give everything as thorough a drenching as possible in the quickest time possible. With crops such as sweetcorn and cabbages, this is no bad thing as the plants are quite hardy and can take a battering from a high pressure jet. Yet when you swing the gun around and aim it at the gooseberry bushes, nothing prepares you for that dull thud in your stomach as your precious goosegogs go blasting off into the air, knowing that they had at least another month to go. After spending a brief moment, crouched on the floor with my head in my hands, I'll just sigh, pick up the gun and carry on regardless because I'm on a tight schedule. And besides, there's always next year. Once that is done, I may have time to scoot around and try to haul up some weeds, usually firmly entrenched due to said liberal watering technique. It's no small wonder to see the old boys watering plants individually from a can I can tell you that. I might manage an extra 20 minutes or so, ripping and tearing up chickweed and nettles (often getting stung in the process) but a glance at the watch usually sends me scuttling back up the path. I'll wave goodbye to Dave/Alan/Bill who has barely moved from the spot and off I'll go to get ready for work or to go to the shops or run off on some other errand. When I get to the top, back to the gate, I'll often turn around and shake my fist at those still left, utterly green that they have the whole day ahead of them to potter around and do nothing.

And that's what it all stems down to really, I am jealous of the ol' buggers. In the past and on the very few occasions that I have written about the allotment, I have alluded that the silver haired brigade down there are a miserable, sarcastic bunch. But after going to our open day last Saturday and having had a good old chat with some of them, I came away feeling slightly guilty of my contempt. Sure some of them are a bunch of Meldrews but by and large, underneath those sun bleached overalls and weather beaten furrowed brows, beats a warm heart and a friendly smile. Over a polystyrene cup of tea, it was quite refreshing to actually speak to some of the faces that in years previous would only offer a curt nod. The big topic was the late frost in mid-May that destroyed so many of the potato crops. Tim in future was going to start growing his spuds in those great big sand bags that builders merchants use in an effort to protect his and Danny had conceded that he hadn't planted his potatoes deep enough. I plumped up and said that with great pride that our tatos had seemed to escape the 'great burn', probably because we had dug deep trenches and mounded the earth fairly high. "Yeah" Danny winked and said, "and to think that we were taking the piss out of you at the time. You do like a spud though don't you, you've sunk enough in your plot to feed an army". In return, I had to concede that this was also true but that was my Dad for you who shares the plot with me. He loves his spuds and does the lion's share of work, so what the hell he deserves them.

We didn't stay down there too long that afternoon as the weather was fierce and having taken the children with us, we wanted to keep the damage limitation under control. To the plots and fruit and vegetables within them of course, not the twins, they are a law unto themselves but I was able to take some random photos which follow. The main point in principle though was that in the four years or so that we've had the plot, this was the first time that I got a real sense of community down at Norfolk Road allotment. I suspect it's been there all along but I've always got my head down in a busy effort to crack on in that one day of the week that I decide to get down there. From now on, I'm going to try the little and often approach like my fellow allotmenteers and chat more often with them too. I might not be retired and modern life is rubbish at times so it might not always be possible but I am going to give it a go. And one day I might just find out what Dave/Alan/Bill's name really is.

Onions drying in the sun

Frames to shield from deadly frost

Fruit cage

Erm pretty silhouetted plants (prize for what it's called)


A pretty potato flower

The Scarecrow's Girlfriend "Hilda"

Quiet spot #1

Quiet spot #2

Our plot

*It would help if I actually had a shed

Thursday, 24 June 2010

NomNomNom 2010

So after a slightly fraught couple of days, we're in, we made it, we are NomNomNom finalists, Cinderella shall go to the ball. The Food Urchin is proud and happy.

But what the blinking 'ell is NomNomNom and why have you already started with the hysterics I hear you say? Well NNN (as it shall be known for the rest of the post) is a cooking competition for bloggers, photographers and food lovers in general who must team up in pairs and do battle in a sweaty kitchen. The main aim is to prepare a simple, sustainable, and seasonal three course meal in 2 and half hours but we are also required to capture our efforts on camera or video. Their tag line is "It's like Masterchef but for bloggers". Last year's NNN competition looked like great fun which is why I was so eager to get involved with this one. Unfortunately my competitiveness may get the better of me, I'll be sure to clash fish slices and throw salt into my opponents eyes I tell you, give NNN a gladitorial edge you know. Anything for the greater glory, to be pronounced supreme winner. But as for what happens on the day itself (World Cup final incidently) well we shall see. We could get our bums spanked and I might have to eat my hat.

However, it all very nearly didn't happen. Two Essex brothers let me down man. I won't name and shame (Dan and Gary) as they had perfectly reasonable excuses for not being able to jump on board so no hard feelings chaps (you bastards) but thank god for Rachel, the Catalan Queen for stepping in at the last minute. I was away last week in Devon, the deadline for entry was looming and I was still desperately trying to sort out a cooking partner. Lovely part of the world Devon but I wish the yokels would do something some more wireless connections down there. Those country lanes could do with being widened too. Anyway, after some missed calls, telephone table tennis and frantic typing of messages before the reception on my iPhone dipped out, Rachel and I were able to formulate a killer menu. Mostly from her own ideas. But still we got it sorted and nabbed a spot. I look forward to working with you on July 11th Rachel, even though I can barely understand a word you say as you slip effortlessly from Glaswegian to Spanish. If I do step out of line at any point during the competition, do feel free to slap me.

One last thing, if you are unfamilar with the concept of NomNomNom, then go here for an explanation or just have a look at this chap who I spotted chowing down on the vomit comet* a while ago. Look at him go!


*vomit comet = last train home from London Fenchurch Street out to the depths of Essex

Monday, 21 June 2010

I'm The Firestarter, Twisted Firestarter

What am I doing? What. Am. I. Doing? These were the words that kept running through my head as I began to slowly and tortuously pick my way through a morass of roots, sweat dripping from my brow. I had been digging for a good couple of hours and hit a brick wall. These vines, these twisted sinews, these thick gnarled organs of a pear tree long gone where just everywhere. I hacked and hacked but they just held steadfast, deflecting the blows from my spade. My strength began to sap and I nearly started crying. "Why?!!" I screamed. "Why in fucking God's name did I ever fucking agree to do this?!" But then as I slumped to the ground, falling back with my legs dangling over a 6 inch precipice, bum getting wet, a little voice whispered in my ear and oh so quietly said "Because it was your idea you silly little prick". And so began my journey into the nightmarish world of pit barbecuing.

Actually, it wasn't all that bad really and the journey had begun months ago with a jibe and a proud boast to counter it. After receiving over 30 different meals from 30 different people as part of my side project 'Where's My Pork Chop?' some of the oiks started to demand when would they get a taste of my cooking. I could have kept quiet, let the kerfuffle die down and get on with the happy business of having bloggers and other ne'er do wells cook for me but I took the bait and thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to try out an Imu (or a Hawaiian underground oven to you and me). Besides I did have plans to say thank you to everyone who has taken part and ever since reading about it in my favourite cookbook, The Gastronaut, I've been wanting to do one. So I thought, what the hell, let's get everyone over and have a party.

The concept is quite simple. Dig a big hole in the ground in your back garden if you have one, fill it with wood, set it on fire and keep that fire fed with more wood for a couple of hours. After a period when everything is roaring hot, add some other materials to the pit that will absorb the heat such as a steel RSJ that has been chopped into pieces with an angle grinder and some heatproof bricks. Keep feeding with wood. Then after two more hours, take a lamb, pig, cow etc that has had a happy life and has been humanely dispatched, season, rub olive oil and herbs all over, stuff with vegetables, wrap in wet cotton sheets, place in a cage-like receptacle* that's been covered with foil. You then carry the lot down to the pit, place receptacle in the ground on the searing hot coals, cover with soil, leave for 9 hours or so, dig back out and enjoy some amazingly tender meat. See simples.

OK so it's not quite as simple as that, there is some serious planning involved and I would suggest that if you ever get the mad urge to have a go then do refer to Stefan Gates' neat, precise, step-by-step instructions in the book. But as my ol' mate Bob used to say "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley" and after some reflection on the whole event, I would just like to add a few provisos of my own.

1. Choose your site carefully

Forgive me for the rush of profanity at the start of the post but seriously, when I started digging and stumbled upon the roots from the pear tree that we had chopped down a couple of months previous, I landed in my own personal hell. Yes, you are perfectly entitled to say "whadyaexpect!" but having yanked a fair old stump with root system intact from out of the ground, I really didn't expect to find that many more. I was wrong. However, it wasn't only the roots that drove me to tears but also the clay soil which was heavy and sticky. At one point I really started to worry thinking that I wouldn't get the pit dug and started considering a spit roast rather than an underground oven. Luckily I persevered, more out of fear of failure than anything else and managed to rip, saw and bludgeon any stragglers left behind, leaving clear just a bed of London clay to get through. All in all, I'd say that the pit which I dug to 1 metre depth took me 8 hours. So like I said, choose your site carefully and as Gates advises, bring in some friends to help.

2. Make sure you have a fridge big enough.

For the Imu, I decided on cooking a whole lamb and sourced it through a marvelous early bird called Mark. The party was to be held on a Saturday so Mark delivered a17 kilo beast the day before and by all accounts, he found my place not via the use of sat nav but with the help of a huge crab that he thrust at me before hauling out the lamb from the boot of his car. You could say that Mark has a surreal sense of humour but the scene that followed may well have caused Dali to raise an eyebrow or two. As I carried the carcass into the kitchen, the children were full of curious excitement and demanded to know what Daddy was doing. I told them that Daddy was holding a lamb (which we named Mfannwy in honor of its Welsh heritage) and immediately they decided they wanted to give it a cuddle. Which I let them do. I tell you, watching my children hug a plastic wrapped cadaver is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen and to this day I am not sure if I should have let them. But still it's kinda educational. I then set about getting the fridge ready, taking out the shelves and whatnot. I probably could have left it on the kitchen counter for the day and it would have been fine but I was scared that the cats would make off with it. Of course, Myfannwy was just a little too big for the fridge, her dainty ankles just kept sliding out so I decided to saw them off. Telling my children that Mfannwy's feet were too big as I buzzed away with a hacksaw (thoroughly cleaned of course) also felt odd but I managed to get her in and the door shut. Some people might not be up to this gruesome task so I reiterate, make sure you have a fridge big enough.

I do have to add just one more funny episode to this part. When I was prepping the lamb and getting it wrapped up in the wet sheets that would essentially help steam it, my son piped up that the lamb was going to sleep. I replied "yes son, Mfannwy is asleep and has been for some time, look she has no head". I think this was lost on my little boy somewhat but it sent me into hysterics.

3. Honestly, seriously, consider your site carefully, I mean it.

Yes, we're going back over old ground here but there is something bigger at stake here than whinging over a couple of malingering roots. Like your house for instance. Gates states that you should really be careful as the fire will be ferocious so make sure it is well away from any other combustible materials. I ignored this at very nearly my peril. My dear old Dad turned up at 6 in the morning to help me get things started, we shifted the gazebo over to one side that had been covering the pit keeping it dry and then set about lighting the instant lighting charcoal bags that I had placed in positions beneath the bone dry wood. The fire looked very pretty at first as all fires do. Flames do have an amazingly hypnotic effect which I believe is ingrained into our psyche, a reminder of our past as cavemen. So my Dad and I were standing there, just grinning inanely before suddenly whoosh, the fires of hell were unleashed. We looked each other and then looked at the gazebo that stood just inches away and then looked at the fence panel that had already started to smoulder and then looked back at each other. I wouldn't say that we panicked as such but there was definitely a sense of extreme urgency to our reaction. God knows what was going through my wife's mind as she peered out the kitchen window and saw her husband and father-in-law running around like headless chickens in the garden, ripping a gazebo down and running around with a hose, water spraying everywhere. She was obviously pretty concerned as she screamed "what the fuck are you doing?!" I could only do that reassuring pause in front her, hold my hands up and reply "don't worry darling, it's all under control" before running off like a loon. In all fairness we did get things under control quite quickly but I repeat, seriously, if you are ever going to have a crack at an Imu, dig your hole well away from any type of fence. And definitely put that gazebo down first.

As cooking experiments go, this was certainly one of the best things I have ever done and without trying to blow my trumpet too much, I have to say that Myfannwy was the best lamb that I have ever tasted. Actually, if I were ever to do it again, I might not add so much rosemary as the oh so tender meat was a tad over fragrant in some places. And I would wrap it up more carefully too, when we hoisted the lamb out, Myfannywy's legs fell to the ground. But still I was very happy that those who came along enjoyed it. Thanks again and please keep feeding me. I might just feed you all again, one day.

You can also find some brilliant posts on the event here and here.

Myfannwy minus her dainty little feet

Look Daddy the lamb is sleeping!

A cage like receptacle

Bone dry

Ah pretty, pretty fire


Cutting the RSJ's

Don't mention the fire

Night night Myfannwy

Myfannwy cooked good 'n' proper #1 (photo from Meemalee's Kitchen)

Myfannwy cooked good 'n' proper #2 (photo from Food Stories)

* You can find these cage-like receptacles in most supermarket carparks. We collected ours under the cover of darkness using balaclavas and a transit van.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

And In Other News.....

Being the prolific sort of blogger that I am, I suppose some of you readers have been wondering where I have been? Well Mum, I have indeed been very busy over the last few weeks but don't worry I will be shedding some light on recent food related shennanigans and revealing all soon. Unless something else comes along and diverts my attention of course. Oh look there's some jaffa cakes in my coat pocket, yahoo!......

In all seriousness, I do have to give you some important updates. Firstly, you may remember a few weeks ago that I ran a t-shirt competition asking people to leave stories of their worst breakfast in order to win an erm t-shirt. And caused a riotous uproar for modelling said t-shirt in my boxers. Opinion was divided on this particular marketing move with some commentators asking that I please cover up for the sake of human decency and with some applauding my bravery to expose my milky thighs on the Internet. Barry from Hartlepool was very complimentary but I decided not to publish his comments. I decided to censor the picture in the end with a kindle of kittens as the boxers were getting in the way of the objective. And also because Barry's requests were getting more and more risque by the day. But how did the competition go and who the hell won? Well I am pleased to announce that the t-shirt went to a chap named @bapSHOUT. Why he wants to shout at baps is any one's business but his worst brekkie of cold kebab was selected at random so hoorah, he got the t-shirt! I have to say though that his tale was one of the more crap comments left by people (sorry Chris!). By contrast, Eatlikeagirl's tale of preparing a breakfast as a wee child was very endearing, Kavey of KaveyEats was very long but entertaining and Maison Cupcake gave us all a stark warning that you should never, ever eat an Asda breakfast. The best story though didn't actually get published on that post which is a real shame. Like a lot of bloggers do, I announced the competition on Facebook and an old college friend left a comment that the worst breakfast she ever had was whilst flying. As she was trying to get through the plastic miniature offerings of bacon and eggs, she noticed that the passenger next to her (unrelated) was urinating into a sick bag and put her right off her beans. Fantastic story and would have been a worthy winner if only she had commented on the actual blog. Next time please Sarah, next time.

In other news, it grieves me to announce that the little project in which I intended to dine on a rout of Brians has gone off the rails. At the risk of suggesting that I have been outwitted by a bunch of snails, I do have to put my hands up and say "I've been outwitted by a bunch of frigging snails!" because the bastards have all escaped. I must admit I am pretty baffled as security measures were pretty tight or at least I thought they were. The 20 snails that I had collected from my garden had been locked up in a large tupperware box wrapped tightly with a couple of layers clingfilm (with airholes punched in). For the first week, whilst going through the purging and then feeding process, they all seemed rather happy, munching their way through a diet of rosemary and rolled oats. Everyday I checked on them, I'd clean the box of purged matter, give them fresh food and water, re-wrap the box and go about my business. The Brians then started to behave in an odd manner. I would pop down to the shed in the morning where their prison was situated and find them all dangling upside down on the clingfilm roof, causing it to sag slightly. Paying no real attention, I would simply go through the usual clean up process and place the box back on the shelf. Then one morning, I came down and found the box empty with clingfilm sunk in the middle and a large hole gaping to one side. With their collective weight, the Brians had stormed the bastile and vanished without a trace. In just a few days, they had accomplished something that took Andy Dufresne years to do!

I have not lost sight of my goal to farm and eat my own snails. I've collected a whole bunch of recipes, mainly Spanish, to experiment with for gawds sake. I will go ahead and do it. In fact I plan to hunt some more down tonight and get them locked up good and proper (I have bought another tupperware box with secure lid - which shall be punctured with holes of course). The main thing that is troubling me now is that snails may possibly have a higher intelligence of some sort, well far far greater than we have ever given them anyhow. What are the ethical implications for hunting and eating such creatures? Is it right or is it wrong? Do snails know the meaning of life? Or am I just being stupid?