Black Country Allotment Society

I’ve been aware of circadian rhythms this past week. Given that it’s suddenly now dark before 5pm (precisely when did this happen?), all the summer routines are gone, forgotten. Dinner is early. Waking up is late. I’m getting through tealights so quickly we’ll have to do a special trip to Ikea to stock up. Hell, I’ve even been craving sprouts (but only if they’re roasted. That’s the key to a good sprout).

So there’s not been much allotmenting, just a lot of….sitting. I am good at sitting, it’s all that yoga (i.e. to relax is not lazy, but essential if one is to feel part of the wider universe. Got to love those yogis). But if one is going to be in hibernation from November to March, some decent reading material is needed.

Happily, the postman brought such an item the other week, a brown box filled with beautifully presented essays and musings on the allotments of the Black Country. It’s the work of Susie Parr, a writer who has been working with Multistory, a community arts organisation based over in West Brom.


The box of delights

Susie spent two years popping in and out of Black Country allotments, making friends with the tenants, researching the history of allotments and, by the sounds of it, getting completely lost driving around Sandwell (easily done).

She discovered a rich cast of characters on her travels. I particularly enjoyed reading about Alison, who I think must be in her 60s. Alison never chucks anything away. Yoghurt pots become seedling nurseries, an old bucket serves as an amplifier for the radio, and she makes her own storage heaters though, frustratingly, I am not told how.

Alison uses a pencil to punch marks into used tin cans, making every-weather plant labels. On one label, she has engraved a poem:

The kiss of the sun for pardon

The song of the bird for mirth

One is closer to God in the garden

Than anywhere else on earth

2014-11-11 11.07.29

Snapshot of the mend-and-make-do plant labels

Sandwell and the Black Country are just down the road from us but in many ways they are a world away. It’s not true to say that this area is post-industrial – the Black Country remains industrial. It’s a hive of industry. Whilst our patch of land in Harborne is overlooked by massive houses owned by surgeons and solicitors, plots just 1 or 2 miles away in the Black Country are surrounded by tight terraced housing, warehouses and nondescript industrial buildings. Some things have changed though: I loved this shot of haymaking, date not given but I’d surmise it’s early 20th century.

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

I got the sense from Susie Parr’s introduction that she hadn’t expected to find such a thriving scene of gardeners in the Black Country. If I’ve learnt anything from living here, it’s to not judge by appearances. Even in the most unpromising of areas, there are gems to be found.

You can read more about the Black Country Allotment Society project at

Full disclosure: My friend and former colleague Kate works for Multistory and sent me a free copy of the Black Country Allotment Society publication to read. I was under no obligation to blog.

Taste of the Stratford Road (just not for me)

I will very soon stop going on about being robbed, I promise. Just not yet. This time last week I was meant to be hanging out working with my chums at Sampad South Asian Arts as they led a workshop at Al Faisals, one of the founding restaurants of Birmingham’s balti triangle. I couldn’t make it as we had locks to change, banks to speak to, I had a bad head and all the rest of it, so I forgo the opportunity to cook proper naan bread and kebab.

A few days later some pictures dropped into my Inbox from Katie, Sampad’s very capable project manager. And for the first time I felt something approaching anger at the robbers who stopped me joining in this fun. Just look at these naans!


Al Faisal’s tandor and table naan

I like it when working life and personal interest meet. Sampad were at Al Faisals as part of their My Route  project, which is gathering the social history of Birmingham’s Stratford Road from Balsall Heath down to Hall Green. It’s an area that has always attracted an immigrant population, from East Europeans to Irish in the post-war period, to Pakistani and – now – Somalis.

Birmingham’s balti triangle grew up from this wave of immigration, a condensed area in Balsall Heath and Sparkhill full of curry houses, kebab shops, boutiques selling salwar kameez and as much bling as a girl could ever need.

The lucky workshop participants learnt how to make a chicken and vegetable curry and received a masterclass on spices, how to use them and when to add them (you need to temper whole spices, but ground ones will burn).

Most impressively, they got up close to the tandoor. This charcoal fuelled burner is the essence of Kashmiri food.


Cooking kebab over the open charcoal flame


Ready ground spices

In an area full of Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi cooking, Al Faisals stands out as one of the best. I didn’t make the workshop but maybe there will be more soon… with the social history, the food, the bling, working on My Route doesn’t feel much like work.

Full disclosure: I receive payment from Sampad for working on their My Route project but am under no obligation to blog about it.

Interesting food….in Bearwood?

I did a detour this morning to Bearwood,  a suburb of Brum which is just down the road from us but to which I never have much reason to visit. I’d heard rumours of a food festival, organised by Bearwood Pantry.

I’ve admired these ladies from afar for some while: fed up with not being able to get decent fresh produce in the city, they set up a co-op of their own, buying in bulk from farmers in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire and splitting the costs between themselves.

When faced with the prospect of moving to Birmingham I remember wailing to a friend, ‘but what will I eat?!’. She quite rightly gave me a metaphorical slap, but the point remains. If you want proper fresh produce that is still muddy, and you don’t have space or time to grown your own, or can’t afford/refuse to spend a fortune on box schemes, where on earth do you go? The only real options are the supermarkets or the Bullring market, which is indeed cheap, but a bit of a trek if you just want a leek or two.

So the Bearwood Pantry was born and has now become a ‘thing’. Their food festival today seemed great fun and, most importantly, totally affordable. I picked up some slabs of chocolate and organic milk, barely a few quid between them. Children were scoffing down homemade falafel whilst older ladies bought up giant hunks of bread; there were dirty carrots, lamb pies and red velvet cakes for Hallowe’en.

All in a church hall in Bearwood. Surely this is people power at its best.

Food bingo

As I write, the waves are rolling onto an inlet beach, the sun reflecting onto thousands of flecks of silver. Every two minutes the view changes as the tide ventures in, clouds change form, the light angles in new ways. I’m still working – that bit always seems a constant – but doing it with a new view. It makes a difference.

Cornwall means three things to me: wild landscape, art and food. Food bingo to be precise.

But first, the art. We visited the Barbara Hepworth Museum yesterday in St Ives, her studio and garden left pretty much as it was when she died in the 1970s. This woman raised four children (including triplets) whilst creating a new language in sculpture. The official Tate biography doesn’t give any insight into how on earth that was managed. How did she have the space, the mental space, to work? A mystery. Official keepers of art, in my experience, love talking about language and form but rarely give an insight into the personal, the everyday life lived. For years this side of things was written off as ‘domestic’ and ‘female’. But how can you truly understand someone’s work without getting under the skin of their daily domestic experience?


Hepworth carvings, work in progress, never finished


The studio


The garden


Despite not being an artist I’ve always longed for a studio. A place to read and think and create. And where better to have one than in southern Cornwall, enclosed by this wild and Pagan landscape and the feeling of being somewhere slightly ‘other’.

Plus there is no chance of ever going hungry here. And so we move to food bingo. Currently there are ten things to tick off:

1. Pasty

2. Cream tea

3. Ice cream

4. Fudge

5. Beer

6. Steak

7. Crab / seafood

8. Fish and chips

9. Pork wrapped in pastry (that’s Matt’s not mine)

10. Fizz

Thus far we’ve crossed off pasty, chips, cream tea, beer. Though I cheated on my pasty and had a – gasp – vegetarian one. Made with ricotta. Outrageous (I couldn’t fault it though).

Cornwall Food Bingo is a long upward struggle. I am at a disadvantage, my capacity for eating at a seriously lower level than Matt’s. But I’ll give it a go. Four down, six to go.

Time out needed

I’ve not written in a week. Other things get in the way – work, house (I’ve discovered that it is very possible to fall out with a kitten when she draws blood and then tips water over the laptop), work. For both of us, work.

Now that the summer is past the need to make that daily pilgrimage to the greenhouse has instantly vanished. I see now that it was a good regimen for the home-based worker, a reason to step away from the computer and get some air.

So today’s (brief) visit to the allotment was the first for a week. Allotmenting now needs a different approach, a different motivation. After the glut we move from harvesting to maintenance. Things are going over, the cosmos gone to seed, the squash dying back, the borlottis still ripening whilst foliage turns wilted and brown. A few tomatoes remain but they are nibbled and pale.

It all needs digging up, manuring, tidying, cleaning. Housework involving soil. But not now, not yet. First, time out is needed; an autumn restorative measure. Next stop Cornwall.

Bunking off

We bunked off yesterday. Technically, when you are your own boss (which we both are) there is no such thing as bunking off. However the lot of the self-employed is that we take significantly less holiday than the wage slaves. So – to Derbyshire. Or to be precise, Chatsworth Farm Shop.

I am my father’s daughter and therefore stocked up on shin of beef and lamb for the freezer. Matt – against all odds – turned down the chance of purchasing pork wrapped in pastry; I have no idea what has happened to him.

2014-08-15 15.39.50

It’s not obvious but there are about 30 or so deer in this picture – at the back.

2014-08-15 15.35.38

My summer residence

Endesor – the village at Chatsworth – was our other destination. The architecture here is traditional and Victorian, with the highly decorative wood and stone work of a style that can actually be found all over Birmingham. It’s just in much better state of repair here, most of the buildings G1 and G2 listed. The Peaks tourist board say this:

“The 6th Duke of Devonshire moved the original village to the present site, because it spoilt his view from Chatsworth House. When re-building, he chose to have every house built to a different design, virtually one of each from the pattern book offered by his architects.”

Oh the joy of being a landowner.

2014-08-15 16.03.49

Edensor church

Anyway the point of mentioning this is because on our wanders I spotted a wild hop. It was massive, growing up another tree so probably 10 or 15 ft tall, and significantly bushier than I might have imagined. Seems that Matt’s hops have still got a way to go.

2014-08-15 16.22.01

Wild hop

Birmingham Beer Bash

On Saturday, despite a pounding headache that was threatening to escape the body through my right eyeball, Matt and I went to the Birmingham Beer Bash at The Bond, Digbeth.

The aim was to learn about food and beer matching, with fine dining produced by Epi restaurant (it occurs to me now that they are named after Epicurus) and beer from Compass, a micro-brewery based in Oxfordshire.

Wine and food matching is a reasonably straight-forward art, or so it is to me now after years of practice. But beer and food is a different matter. When I wonder why, I suspect that it’s partly because the topic hasn’t been researched to the n-th degree in the manner than wine has. Plus also beer remains – compared to wine – a labelling free-for-all. I remember the legalities of what has to be included on wine labels in an effort to protect the consumer, yet the beer manufacturer has slightly more free reign.

Either way, food and beer is a vaguely new art/science and with the recent surge of micro-breweries producing seriously interesting beer, one that is set to become hot hot hot. Beer sat in the doldrums for much of the late 20th century but now it’s been picked up again, with food-interested smaller producers creating interesting small-release brews. To summarise, we had:

– Pork scratchings and quail scotch eggs, matched with a German-style Pilsner (good)

– Ham hock terrine, matched with Torp, a rich copper colour and medium weight (good)

– Cauliflower cooked all chefy (poached, roasted, blended, you name it), with The Kings Shipment (good) and Isis Pale (bad – too bitter).

– Monkfish with brown shrimp and sea vegetables, matched with Symposium, a lighter beer infused with lemon and ginger. I didn’t get any ginger, but the acidity and fine flavour (no bitterness) was an outstanding combination.

– Flank steak slow braised and then finished on the grill, with carrot top puree (a revelation) and beetroot. Offered with Baltic Night, a seriously black ale, and Berry, infused with raspberries. Neither of these were doing it for me.

– Chocolate terrine and raspberries with was AMAZING – basically just a custard set with dark chocolate. Allegedly good with Berry but by this time my head was killing me.

Conclusions…Beer can be a great addition to the food-drink matching repertoire, but you have to be careful about the bitterness, which to me threatened to overwhelm some of the dishes (I’m a wine drinker so my palate is different to others). On the plus side – it’s cheaper than wine, served in smaller quantities so you can open more bottles, and the vast differentiation between styles is ripe for experimentation.

Will no doubt revisit this subject again.

2014-07-26 20.20.09


2014-07-26 23.09.28

The Bond looking all pretty

Greens, work, yoga, greens

The thing about having a full life is that days can go by when things get neglected. Yoga class on Sunday and since then have been immersed again in Hindu philosophies – visited old yoga teacher Annette yesterday to update her on the course, she of course throws in talk of the kleishas and various other things that I have not even considered. 

Aside from a library of books about the Sutras, I come away with about a kilo of gooseberries, plucked from her prickly bush in a garden set under the Malvern Hills.

Good job, as today’s trip to allotment shows me that our baby bush has been completely stripped by the birds. Bizarrely they have ignored the final summer raspberries in favour of under-ripe green acid bombs.

Greens doing well now, pick a trug-full to cook down for freezing. And the courgettes have started to come to life – glut imminent.

On Monday, took a visit to the Stratford Road with sampad as ‘research’ for their My Route project. Most shops are shut as it’s Ramadam, so we lunch at the Soulful Bakery in Balsall Heath – Lebanese home cooking. I take the £5 plate, with aubergine baked with minced lamb and tomato; chicken with potatoes in a yellow lemony light sauce; chicken kofta and spiced rice. The stars though are the pasties – bread dough, I think enriched with olive oil, encasing a frugal filling of chopped greens, onions and what I think is chilli (deep purple rather than red, like beets). The small pizzas also memorable, topped with same green mix and also flecks of home-made feta, drier and crumblier than the shop bought version. Pasties are about 65p, the pizzas less than £2.

For supper today, veg plot curry:

Dice 1 aubergine and bake in oven with splash of sunflower oil until soft

Soften 1 red onion in butter and oil, add garlic, grated ginger, diced red chill. Add in teaspoon of cumin seeds, half teaspoon each of turmeric and group coriander, and pinch curry leaves. Add diced kohl rabi (Mother’s garden) and 1 chopped tomato, with splash of water until soft-ish.

Near end, added podded broad beans, the aubergine, handful of the cooked and chopped greens, warm through. Finish with more butter and garam masala.

Served with rice, yoghurt and pickles.