Thursday, 29 April 2010

Do you believe in dog?

I found out the other day that my contribution to global warming is much greater than I realized. I was minding my own business having a nurse take blood from my arm as part of a drugs trial. Anyway she says to me ' i will be back in a minute, I just have to give this sample to the courier he's waiting outside to take it to Gatwick'. Part of me thought ' I cant give up the drugs trial so i might as well forget the whole green thing as i will always be part of this project that relies on flights to Geneva'. It got me thinking about how much we rely on the pharmaceutical industry and how that relies on oil.

What is my inevitable positive response? Well I have invented a new therapy that does not rely on oil ( I should say that i may have invented it or i may have been told about it and forgotten that it was someone elses idea).

All you need is a dog. Preferably your own or one that you can borrow for a while without the owner wondering where it is. Get yourself in a comfortable position and snuggle the dog into you so you can feel him breathing. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the dogs breathing. Ideally you can feel the breath on your skin (with our dog is it better if you cannot smell the breath). While you are doing this note the feeling of his fur and the weight of his body against yours. Simple! Gradually become aware of the room again and try to keep the feeling of relaxation with you as you go about your daily life and coping with the evil look from the other dog you own who did not get the same quality time with you.

Vote Brown

After much deliberation i have made my decision - I am voting brown. By that i mean whichever party can reassure me that chocolate supplies will not be disrupted in the oil crunch. But seriously ( and chocolate is surely as serious issue and not just for women) this is a picture of the lovely fairtrade brownies that are made by a man at the rethink centre on Magdalen Road and sold by Annas farm stores further up the road. This is life as we know it in Sewell village. Do you want the area where you live to be like a village? Ask me how.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

What colour are you?

All this talk of party politics has made me wonder if I dare be seen with any particular colour near me without people wondering if it MEANS anything. Of course GREEN is a natural leaning but this being a non-political blog I thought I would mention RAINBOWS. This year I am undertaking a massive art project called 'knit with pride' which will see the making of a mammoth woolly that will be hung from the city hall balcony during Norwich pride in July. We are encouraging everyone who supports the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to knit a square to be knitted into a giant rainbow scarf. Of course the project is environmentally sound, using spare wool and local groups getting together to knit. This picture is a mixture of reskilling transitioners, knitters, the LGBT community and someone who happens to live upstairs from the wool shop where we held it.

You can get spare wool from Annas farms stores and if you want to find out more visit
While you are having fun and supporting the LGBT community you will be learning a skill that is needed in a sustainable future where we dont buy all our clothes from Primark.

Happy knitting

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Food Factory

Last year our ricketty old conservatory was a veritable food factory. I had three varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions, peppers and all manner of herbs growing in profusion.

It was a huge success - the tomatoes lasted us all through the summer, though they never stayed on the vines long enough to have enough for a salad - the girls would eat them as soon as the first hint of red appeared! The cucumbers were the best though - I didn't really expect them to do anything much, but the fruits we got were so good, so different from shop ones, almost perfumed in the intensity of the flavour.
This year, things aren't looking so hopeful. The lettuce has done well, and the squash. The single bean that G planted at playgroup is already shooting up. But the tomatoes have stubbornly refused to even sprout, and I'm doubtful of the cucumbers. So, my food factory is looking a bit puny at the moment. I'm not too put out as Dad has promised to plant some veg for us in his garden, so we should have plenty of home-grown produce (plus eggs now that he has six gorgeous brown hens).
But it's not the same as the fun of growing your own. So, although I'm still determined to sprout a few more things (very much inspired by last week's photoblog entries), I'm keeping my eye out for the date of the TN Allotment Plant Swap, some time towards the end of May. I may not have any seedlings to swap, so, remembering how someone from Sustainable Bungay talked about swapping jam, I'm thinking what else I can offer.
I wonder how many home-made jam tarts I would need to swap for some tomato plants!

Monday, 26 April 2010

I went down to London last week for a course. We lived in London for just over ten years, but left about six years ago, when we decided that if we were going to have a family, we'd prefer to raise our children somewhere a bit less frantic.

The tube was pretty much how I remembered it - people crammed shoulder to shoulder, in some cases, face to face, like cliched sardines. I stood, uncomfortably, with my fellow commuters, ipod glued to my ears, trying not to catch anyone's eye.

When I emerged, blinking in the sunshine of Chancery Lane, I was amazed to see so many cyclists. I remembered London as being full of traffic, with only brave or crazy cycle-couriers weaving in and out of the cars, vans and lorries, risking death to deliver a package on time. But here were ordinary people, commuters, men, women, old and young on cycles of all descriptions Some on sporty racing bikes, some on old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg bikes, others on trail bikes or those strange-looking ones that look a bit like bob-sleds where you're almost lying down.

And blow me, when they hit a red light, if they didn't start talking to each other. And laughing. Strangers saying good morning. Sharing a joke. Good God above! What's going on? This isn't the London I remember. If strangers start talking to each other, why, anything could happen!

I've never ridden a bike on an English road, but recently I acquired a bike, and I'm planning to get it serviced and give it a whirl. I'm nervous about traffic in Norwich (for some reason drivers here don't seem to know where their indicators are!) but if people can cycle in the biggest, baddest city of all, surely I can do it here. And judging from what I saw last week in London, it could be good for more than just my health!

Picture from Cycling

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Kids Stuff

It’s a well known fact that kids like stuff.

Long suffering parents know that there’s a whole industry based on helping kids part mums and dads from their hard-earned cash.

I read a newspaper article a while back by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in which he said that children nowadays have too many distractions, and that makes them prone to boredom as they never learn to entertain themselves. Boris suggested was children should be given a cardboard box and left to their own devices… Typical “eeh, when I were a lad” comments, I thought. What a load of rubbish…


We had to buy some new car seats for the girls, which came in big cardboard boxes, so I thought I’d make some castles out of them, but the girls got there before me, and have spent the last two days making caves, tunnels, houses for their dollies and a whole host of other things.

OK, it would be silly to suggest that cardboard boxes are likely to permanently replace Barbie, High School Musical, and other assorted distractions, but it was a reminder that imagination is in itself a powerful toy. And certainly costs less money, and generates less waste!

consumer_kids_jacket1 And for readers with children, who worry about the constant pressure to buy more stuff, I wholeheartedly recommend “Consumer Kids” by Ed Mayo.

Not just a shock-exposé, but a useful self-help guide. Available from all good bookshops, and Norwich Millennium Library.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

What's for dinner this week?

Like Elena, I started out living in a flat without a garden, and then when I moved, like Jane, I had a city garden for a year. Then I bought a quarter acre garden. (There's also a house in the garden that I live in.) It worked. Thanks to the previous owners for planting 5 fruit trees and various people giving me soft fruits (including the raspberries that suckered from the neighbours) I have twelve months of fruit. I also have at least 10 months of vegetables and hope to make that twelve as well by 2012 at the latest. I'm only starting on the carbohydrates, and protein will take longer still. So, what's for dinner this week?




winter purslane


salad burnet

and quick, eat the kale, because it's starting to bloom. Fortunately, the flowers are edible too.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Small beginnings

This aubretia, beloved of bees, is cascading out of a tub. The tub was, until a week ago, my only garden. I sulked and complained and moaned about not having a garden. I contemplated buying a house just to get a garden. And then I did something about it.
I screwed up my courage and knocked on a neighbour's door. She's an older woman, and used to tend her garden daily, but she doesn't get out so much now. I explained that I would love a garden, but I don't have one. Was there any chance I could borrow hers?
She looked a little baffled, I have to admit, but she happily agreed that I could borrow her garden.

So now I do have a garden. My neighbours have a habit of complaining about gardens that don't 'fit in', so I can't garden it as organically and permaculturally as I'd like. Old carpet and tyres are most certainly out of the question if I stand any chance of keeping this garden. So I've gone in and cleared all the poor old wildweeds that were growing there happily, except a patch of forget-me-nots that I've kept because I love them, and a patch of some sort of purple flowers the bees seem to like. And now my garden looks like this:

Books telling me how, a list telling me what, and a plan to help me work out where. I haven't a clue what I'm doing, but I'm very excited. Strawberries, herbs, radishes, lettuces. Cavolo nero, nasturtiums, spring onions. Seven metres long by two metres wide to fit them all in. The roses and geraniums already there to plant around. The space on the left that's mostly shaded, a home for spinach and tender salads; the tiny scrap of south facing wall on the right, just enough to squeeze in a tomato.

So far I've planted an edible flower border of marigolds and violas, and the strawberry patch that I could resist no longer. Tomato plants are growing big and strong on my windowsill. Next I shall sow the seeds I've already got; then it's all on hold until my birthday, when I hope to find some garden centre vouchers among my presents.

So, this photo of an anemone sums up my garden well. It's full of promise, about to spring into life. It's slightly intimidating to look at, and any number of things could stop it flowering. And behind it are the long shadows of the memories I have of my grandparent's garden, where I'm sure my desire to grow and nurture plants was born.

I can't wait to see what happens.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

City garden

My city centre garden is tiny. It’s south-facing, very sheltered and a tranquil spot that the garden birds love to visit. Although it’s only 4 x 4 metres, there’s room for some fruit and veg. There’s a little veggie patch, where I’ve got some overwintering salad leaves, some garlic, parsley and a few seedlings. Very experimentally, I'm trying some chickpeas in this patch. Towards the back of the garden there’s a fig tree, and on the left a gage plum. I’ve also got a cheapie little greenhouse, but I’m struggling with it – plants fry in there, so I need to find out how to manage it better.

My next-door neighbours have built a huge conservatory, which turns out to be a good thing for me. It’s a warm west-facing brick wall and I’ve planted another gage plum and two pears in pots against the wall. Like John, I buy all my fruit trees from Read’s nursery.

My pride and joy is my apricot tree, which last year produced lots of fruit. Unfortunately, there is not a single flower this year. It normally flowers very early, at the end of February, without any need for protection. The cold winter must have wiped out all the flower buds. Other fruit trees are doing exceptionally well this year, but I should have protected my apricot…

I have a tiny west-facing paved area at the front of the house (sorry, no pic), where I have planted three apple trees, a local Robin pear, a morello cherry and a quince. Time will tell, but I think I’m being optimistic with the quince – it needs a lot of space. The apples and the cherry are fine; the pear should do well too, as it’s a small tree.

I’ve tried to grow bee-friendly plants wherever I can, so there are winter and summer flowers to take them through the seasons. Across our shared pathway, there is an enormous horse-chestnut tree, so it’s too shady to grow food.

Instead, in this tiny woodland patch, I’ve planted some snakeshead fritillaries and I’m thrilled to see that they are thriving.

As a Transitioner, I’m increasingly interested in growing food but I’m running out of space at home. My latest patch of garden is an allotment strip at the Grow our Own community scheme, and of course the TN allotment. I’m growing lots of things on windowsills – tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines and so on. They will be ready to go out soon. I shan’t risk putting them out until I’ve checked the mulberry tree in the art school courtyard. According to John Evelyn it’s safe to put tender plants out when the mulberry leaves appear; he’s right - there was an ancient mulberry tree at my childhood home and it only put out its huge leaves when all the frosts had gone. Not long to wait now.

Pix: Back garden; plum and pear trees; apricot tree last summer; snakeshead fritillaries; allotment

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Wild In The Garden

Like John, I spent all day Sunday planting, potting and pottering. Our garden is mostly wild with pockets of cultivation. This herb wheelbarrow has sage, rosemary, salad burnet, lemon balm, lady's mantle and hops among other things. I'll pop some morning glories in later to climb up the box tree.

The short photo journey below starts inside with saved seeds in a shoe box, seedlings and cuttings (here a peppermint destined for transition friends), goes out to the primrose path and lemon balm by the fence, visits alchemilla (lady's mantle) with her morning dew then ventures out to daisy world, dandelions and henbits, cleavers and ribwort plantain before ending with horsetail in the morning sun.

Most of these plants are used as traditional medicines and I also enjoy them as they are, where they are, when they are.

Saved seeds in a shoebox

Seedlings and cuttings

Peppermint cutting

Primrose path

Lemon balm, dandelion, ivy

Alchemilla with morning dew

Daisy world

Dandelion flowers

henbits, yucca, box

ribwort plantain and cleavers

male horsetails in the morning sun

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

My Garden

At this time of year my garden is in transition from cold, weed infested mounds of earth into rows of tasty, organic vegetables. This year I have added a lean to greenhouse and the radishes and tomatoes are enjoying basking in the sunshine. I have a peach tree and a fig from the excellent Reads nursery (near Loddon) and I am looking forward to eating my home produced fruits. The greenhouse is built against a thick brick wall that is designed to act as a heat store to keep the night frosts at bay – the other side is a lean to shed made from a recycled summer house. I have made a rubble filled trench down the middle of the greenhouse (covered with paving slabs) and will be rigging up some solar powered fans to blow hot air into the trench as a further heat store.


The garden is also in transition from the unproductive area of grass that existed when I bought the house to something that will provide as much of our food as possible. Each year I add some more growing space and there is less grass to cut – but all work and no play would be dull so there is still enough lawn for a game of lawn darts or croquet, though the moles don’t seem to understand the finer points of croquet. The earth looks a funny colour in this pic because I have spread the sawdust from cutting firewood to improve the clay soil.


Last year’s addition was this row of fruit tress that are fan trained along a path in order to fit more into the available space – the spring blossom is also very pretty. There are strawberry plants in the bed below the trees. I get a real pleasure from growing my own food and I also know that it is all organic. Last year I discovered Environ mesh and for the first time did not have to share my carrots with the fly larvae – we are still eating some carrots that we froze in December.

DSC00864Future plans include replacing some of the leylandi hedge with nut bearing trees and a hibernation mound for my toad friends that spend the summer in the two ponds – and eat the slugs!

So the garden very much reflects my views on Transition – take lots of small steps towards a bigger goal - do the hard work but leave space for some fun.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Nettle soup

So at the end of our second topic week on The Industrial Food System, our attention is turning towards the green world that is still in our hands. Next week we're going to do a photoblog on "What's Happening in My Garden" - about all seedlings and blossoming trees, new leaves in windowboxes, allotments coming to life, the whole Spring thing.

What's happening in amongst the flowers and veg are a lot of what gardeners call weeds and medicine plant people call herbs. One of these bold fellows is the nettle plant, famous as a tonic and cure-all, especially for the urinary tract and a terrific source of iron and other minerals. And for all forgaging cooks as a superb ingredient for soup or substitute for spinach.

Last week at our Strangers' Circle we started our get-together as always with a feast of home-cooked food: Angie's onion pakoras. William's egg salad with new lettuce from the Mangreen polytunnel, Elena's carrot and cumin soup, Mark's spelt rolls, my cherry-plum and rhubarb compotes . . . . and house nettle soup. Our low-carbon supper set us up so we could get down to draw up our first order as a Transition wholefood co-op - a real community exercise! We had all kinds of debates on the merits of poppy seeds, whether we should choose raisins or sultanas, what colour lentils. Some things we were unanimous about - extra virgin olive oil, fairtrade brown basmati rice, local bread flour . . . Tully did the figures on his laptop, Elena held sway over the catalogue, Mark made tea, Naomi and I negotiated kilos of gluten-free pasta. Oh, and we laughed a lot.

So if you want a kick-start an evening nettle soup is an energetic way to go. The plants are good until June when they start flowering. Nettles are best now however when small and young. Just pick the tops and strip leaves. Cook like spinach with almost no water. Then chop and add to whatever you like. Egg dishes are lovely with nettles, but nothing quite beats nettle soup. Here is my recipe (adapted from the classic text on wild food by the great nature writer Richard Mabey).

Several potatoes, diced
4 good handfuls nettles
1 onion. chopped
Strong veg stock (I like to add celeriac, fresh thyme, lots of leek)
Butter or olive oil
Several leaves of wild garlic
Creme fraiche (optional)
Black pepper, sea salt and nutmeg

Sweat the onion in a large saucepan. Add diced potatoes for a few minutes. Add stock and cook for twenty or so minutes. Rinse and sort nettles. Cook for a few minutes until soft, then add to soup for the last five minutes. Season and serve with creme fraiche and strips of wild garlic (from your local wild space or garden!) Richard Mabey instructs to squash the soup with the back of a spoon or puree, but I like the chunks.

The kind of soup that just keeps getting better. Bon appetit!

Photo: picking nettle from the Spring Tonic Walk 09, by Helen Simpson Slapp

Friday, 16 April 2010

One man's meat...

Is it ever ok to eat meat? I do think it is ok, if we never allow ourselves to stray into supporting intensive farming. I won’t repeat the arguments against eating meat – that is a matter for individuals to decide. For those of us who do want to eat meat, there is some encouraging news in today’s EDP. There’s a piece in the business section – farming – about opening a new abattoir in Eye, just 25 miles from Norwich. You might not think it’s good news, but it is. It’s returning to small-scale local production.

It’s all part of reversing the dreadful trends shown in Food Inc, which revealed that across the whole of the United States there are only nineteen slaughterhouses. One of the worst of many horrific scenes in that film was the handling of pigs – so distressing that I’m not even going to attempt to describe it. 2000 pigs slaughtered every hour in the largest slaughterhouse in America, probably the world.

If we are going to eat meat, we have to demand decent treatment for livestock. Well, I do, anyway – so I ask a lot of searching questions about how far animals have travelled to slaughter and how they were reared. All of Tesco’s meat, as far as I know, is slaughtered in a central processing plant in the Midlands. Waitrose has regional plants, but not very many. Local independent butchers might – or might not – use local facilities, depending on whether they buy the meat in from a mass producer or deal direct with farmers.

When I was growing up, the local butchers in our Essex village had a slaughterhouse attached to the shop; they would slaughter a couple of cows or pigs at a time and the animals never knew a thing. They had travelled no more than a mile or two from their farm. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describes exactly the same sort of procedure in his excellent River Cottage Meat Book. I think this is the honest way to go on: insist on compassionate treatment all the way along, which includes a normal outdoor life and a stress-free end; then treat the meat with respect too, wasting none of it.

So, for those of us who do want to carry on eating meat (you too, John!) ask some probing questions. Good butchers locally will give you the right answer. Choose native breeds of animal. (The longhorn cattle in my photo are a hardy native breed that spends all of its time outside. They take longer to mature than intensively reared animals fed on goodness knows what, so they are relatively expensive.) Be moderate in how much meat you buy and be willing to buy the cheaper cuts for stews rather than steaks from time to time. Pay a fair price for high quality. And after that, when you get it home, make the most of it. Everything but the squeak…

Photo: Longhorn cattle and other native breeds in Norwich livestock market

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Unholy Cow

Ten years ago I gave up eating meat and nine years ago milk and cheese. Originally I gave them up because I no longer wanted blood on my hands every time I went shopping. Now I don’t eat these things for different reasons, planetary reasons, climate change and peak oil reasons, because of the funeral pyres of mad cows that burned as the millenium turned, because the effluence of factory farms seeps into the rivers and causes acid rain, because the livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the whole world’s transport, because the 55 billion farmed animals that were killed last year do not include all the wild creatures killed in the razed forests of the earth, in our own land so people can shoot and dine grandly on game. Because the cows whom we once considered holy, who succoured us with their galactic connection, whose noble forms adorn the caves of our archaic memory, are being used as milk machines and thrown to the dogs without a second throught. And something of ourselves, of our true humanity, goes with them as they stumble to the slaughterhouse door each year.

Last year I stood beside a cow on a small family organic farm. She was about to give birth to her 18th calf. Some conventional dairy cows don’t last more than three lactations. They are so exhausted, so depleted providing the nation with its tea and cornflake milk, with its multi-flavoured yoghurts and pizza cheese that they collapse. Their bodies like those of their just-born male calves are turned into pet food. Scientists are working on “designing” a cow that can provide so much milk it will need constant milking. There are plans, Jane tells me, for a superdairy in Linconshire where 8000 cows will be incarcerated for their short lives and never see a meadow.

Here are some stats: a piece of land that can feed 2 people on meat can feed 10 on maize, 24 on grains and 61 on soya. 70% of the grain grown in East Anglia is for animal feed. While the EU is considering putting genetically-engineered seed into the agricultural fields of Europe because of an imagined future food shortage we need to take stock of exactly what we eat and make some clear decisions. We need to watch documentaries like Food, Inc., read any number of good books that put the industrial food machine into perspective: Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label and Eat Your Heart Out, Colin Tudge’s Feeding People Is Easy, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Nation.

And then we need to engage with life in a way that demands full consciousness, with the kind of attention and perseverance that Jon and Chris have already documented this week. We have to radically change what we eat.

Like millions of people in Britain I was brought up eating sliced white loaves and all the horrors of convenience food – fishfingers, baked beans, packeted puddings, sweets, heavily pesticided vegetables and fruit. My mother was a good cook but she was a 50’s housewife and bought the whole Kenwood mixer dream. Like thousands of others I rebelled against my upbringing and went my own way in the kitchen. I spent my early working life in markets in my own city and abroad, collecting recipes, talking to fishermen and cooks and threw a lot of parties, each with a theme. One was featured on a television documentary programme called The Good Life. In between the interviews with me in an apron cutting up pigeons and trailing great swatches of ivy down a white-tableclothed table, full of silver candlesticks, are excerpts of Fellini’s film about decadent modern Rome, La Dolce Vita.

When I gave up meat a whole world dropped away. My obsession with food stopped. The parties stopped. I switched my attention. Standing in a borrowed kitchen at the end of my travelling years, I read a book by Colin Spencer, the vegetarian food writer and I “woke up” to the horrors of the slaughterhouse. That day I went out into the English countryside and stood by a herd of dairy cows:

“Hello fellows,” I say softly as I approach them, and they gaze at me with their dark liquid eyes, with their implacable flanks, and then continue their business. They do not move away.

I lean on the gate and pause in the mysterious presence of the great beasts, in a moment of their endless time. The gentle afternoon extends itself through the rolling land. A red kite swings overhead. I breathe out with the soft breeze and feel myself take flight and soar over the hills and tumuli of southern Oxfordshire, over the Chiltern Hills, over Wittenham Clumps, the vale of the White Horse, passing by its rounded forms and curves, following the shining dark river Thames like a giant snake running through the land. I feel in this moment exultant. The land and sky shimmer together, gold and blue, and at once all the constraints upon the country, the neat and tidy gardens, mown lawns, cropped and bordered fields, roadsides, clipped hedges, burst out of their constriction, like so many snapping fasteners of a dress, revealing the real beauty of the place that lies beneath - a country full of light and blue air, like a young woman walking and singing, lightness in her step, intense, intelligent, her dancing dress the colour of the glowing sun. In that moment of liberation, some forgotten part remembered itself in me; I was incarnating, taking form, as my feet found their place on the soft green turf, as I stood beside the cows, as we stood together in our mysterious creaturehoods, present on this island.*

It was the moment I landed on my own native turf.

Sometimes you give up something without expectation of return, and then life gives you something you never imagined. When I gave up eating cows I stopped writing about stuff and started to write about my encounters with the earth (The Earth Dreaming Bank, 52 Flowers That Shook My World). But no matter how well a book is written, it’s not experience. No-one can tell you what it feels like to be kin with the animals, to be light enough inside to feel the presence and vibration of plants and trees, how it is when the creatures of the ocean come to you in your dreams, to know, even when the world is crashing about your ears, that the earth holds you beloved. As you walk across the hills, down the lane, now covered in wild plum blossom.

But I can tell you it was worth giving up shopping for, all that fancy cooking and party-throwing, those fleeting pleasures of a world that when you place your attention on it is neither dolce nor vita.

(*from “Wild Plums” - 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth)

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


The family were less than impressed!

“Those carrots you bought were rubbish," they said. "We'd better not go shopping there again”

Actually, "those carrots" weren't rubbish at all, but the reaction of my family told me a lot about how we view shopping for vegetables. I'd bought the carrots from a well-known local shop, along with mushrooms, apples, sausages, onions and some cheese.

I'd taken the girls there on the way back from ballet one Saturday a few weeks ago. As I’m at work all day during the week, I don’t often get to do the family shopping, so it was a bit of an outing, and I was curious to try a different shopping experience. Most of the fresh food on sale seemed genuinely local, mostly from Norfolk, and what wasn’t seemed to be mainly from East Anglia. The prices were reasonable and so was the choice. I was pretty impressed.

And what happened next was this. We ate the sausages for lunch, made apple crumble with the apples, cooked the mushrooms that evening with some garlic... and put the carrots in the fridge and forgot all about them. When we found them again a few days later, they’d gone a bit brown and mushy. No-one was prepared to eat them so, I'm ashamed to say, we fed them to the slugs.

We’re so used to supermarket shopping now that we tend to see our vegetables only in terms of shiny scrubbed items in clean plastic bags, graded for a uniform size and shape, and packed in a “protective atmosphere” with a best before date that means we know we can eat them when we want and not have to worry too much about them going off. And they are absolutely, 100% always available to us, regardless of the time of day, day of the week or season of the year. We’ve been educated to believe that this is what veg is like.

But if we want to support a move to more local produce, sold in local shops, we're going to have to do more than just change our shopping habits, we're also going to have to change our mindsets. If you grow your own veg, you know that each carrot you pull up isn't going to look exactly the same as its neighbour. Why should we expect the veg we buy to be any different? And it may mean that we have to buy things nearer to the time that we know we're goint to use them, because maybe without all that scrubbing and protective-atmosphere going on, they just ain't going to last as long.

But I really believe it's worth it, so I'm not going to give up on the local shops, even if I have to be a bit sneaky about it for a while until I can prove the case. Because I'm convinced that if we'd cooked and eaten those infamous carrots sooner, they'd have been delicious.

How can I be so sure?

Because everything else we'd bought that day had tasted absolutely amazing. And the verdict on that had been unanimous!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Our Daily Bread

Ever since childhood I have been an activist of one form or another. After a while I thought I got the hang of it, but every now and then some jolt seems to happen, or something comes along to cause a major re-assessment.... or you simply get into trouble ( ah hah!).

In transition work we love to have a go at supermarkets and chains - they seem to stand for everything about the 'business as usual' model after all. But how have they become such an integral part of our lives, to the point that they are now responsible for 80% of our food supply?

Here I am having a brief look at a food staple - bread - as a symbol of the modern food industry.

Bread has been made by pretty much the same method for centuries - until something revolutionary happened in 1961 ( and I don't mean the onset of men growing their hair long). The introduction of the Chorleywood Bread Process meant that a new variety of loaf began, very quickly, to dominate the supermarket shelves. The process did away with the time-consuming process of kneading and proving, and allows the dough to be produced in a few minutes with the aid of high speed mixers, high temperatures, and chemical improving agents. These 'loaves' contain large amounts of water ( latest count about 45%), and 'flour treatment agents' to help retain the water and retain the shape of the loaf. Perfect for supermarkets. With me so far?

In the late 1970s I was associated with a group which exposed some of this stuff. We uncovered more and more.... like: the reason why the flour millers ( by now the same company as the bread manufacturers) liked to make white flour, was because they could make a nice profitable side-line by taking out the bran and wheatgerm from the flour to sell as animal feed. Some brown bread was made - by spraying the white dough with caramel.

Here's a well preserved copy of our leaflet -

And this is where the trouble started.... or at least it did with the accompanying booklet. One of our named and shamed companies, Associated British Foods (makers of Hovis amongst other things) took out a Writ for Libel against our group.

For us this was a rather obtuse kind of accolade. It reminds me now of something that wonderful journalist John Pilger said:
"The only stories you can believe ( from big corporations and governments) are the ones which are officially denied."

So back to the present. In recent times, there has been a welcome renaissance of real bread and artisan bakers. Even supermarkets have responded with in-store bakeries - although most of these are neither 'in store' nor a 'bakery', partially cooked dough being brought in and then crisped and browned on site. There's nothing like the smell of bread to entice more use of that credit card.

What's all this saying? I guess I could have chosen potatoes, or meat, or any number of vegetables - they have all been dealt with in a similar way by the food industry and supermarkets to produce convenient foods and maximise profitability ( its much more profitable to sell 'potato waffles' than it is to sell potatoes).

I love food and I love cooking it and sharing it with friends. The philosopher Epicurus recommended that we should never eat alone, as to eat alone is to " live the life of a lion or a wolf". I do actually eat alone quite a lot - a circumstance of my lifestyle - but I have ceased roaming the aisles of supermarkets as I once did. On the odd occasion when I find myself in one with a friend, I am faintly disturbed by the experience. I am not sure whether it is the assault on my senses... the whirring sound of those long banks of refrigerators or the sight of those bright lights over the fish counter competing with all that ice and refrigeration... I much prefer the sound of the thud of fresh potatoes dropping in my bag at the local greengrocer, the chat I have with the owner about the latest festival he went to, and the feel of the loose coriander leaves I buy ( a snip at 23p). Oh yes....and that wholemeal loaf..........perhaps I am a romantic kind of activist ? Chris Hull

Sunday, 11 April 2010

When Persephone Goes Upstairs

There's a moment when it happens. You wake up and the sun is rising, blazing through misty fields. The sky is blue and the whole world has burst out of its winter coat. There are flowers everywhere: primroses, violets, speedwell, chickweed, daffodils. The hedgerows are wearing cherry-plum dresses, the train tracks carpeted with purple henbit. It's a hive of activity.

But it's not just the flowers that are coming out. Last week at our Sustainable Bungay Green Cakes and Tea at the Three Willows Cafe, I went to speak with the two beekeepers of the Bungay Community Bees project, Elinor and Gemma, who are starting up two community owned hives this spring.

There I met a fellow plant person, Rose, who introduced me to her marvellous nature blog about the Waveney valley A Walk on the Wild Side. Later, I read my old friend Adrienne Campbell's Transition blog 100 Monkeys and was moved by her impeccable warrior spirit as she and her fellow campaigners lost the battle against Tescos but at the same time managed to start up a local produce market in their Transition town of Lewes:

I'm not sad, she wrote. Little by little, this creative, collaborative parallel public infrastructure is forming, not just through the Transition movement but in many, many different individual and collective ways, quietly, gently, persistently, beautifully.

Yesterday I went to see Christine in Norwich and we sat on her roof terrace, talking about Transition Norwich (which she began almost three years ago now) and about all the different people and phases the initiative has gone through in its initiatory phase. And the bees hummed in and out of the peach blossom in the dwarf orchard she has up there among city rooftops. And in all these meetings it felt calm, peaceful, harmonious, in a way that our lives in Transition have not always been.

When I was teaching the children about bees at Catton Grove we put our heads together and made a humming sound. Then we walked Indian-file down the corridor and out into the March sunshine. We hung our bees made of larch cones and golden wool in the schoolyard trees and danced a huge figure of eight across the asphalt, laughing.

When Persephone picked the narcissus flower she fell into Hades and was only allowed to return to Earth in the spring. This was the first myth I learned at my own primary school many years ago. I have learned however from life that this is not the whole story. The classic tales never talk about her return only her fall. But underneath this Greek myth you can find fragments of another (Minoan) one, from a time when female beings danced in honour of the bees and the sun. When the patriarchal Greeks overtook the female world they covered this dancing floor with an architectural prison and called it a labyrinth. When Rhea saw what civilisation and agriculture (Demeter) were doing to the wild earth, she sent her granddaughter down into Hades to rectify the balance.

Sometimes when I go and lie above the bones of my ancestors among the wild dancing daffodils, bees humming all around me, I remember that dance I used to do with my bee-loving sisters and I feel that another world is possible. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing, wrote the writer and activist, Arundhati Roy.

Quietly, gently, persistently, beautifully.

Above: among the wild daffodils at the tumulus; Mark crossing the alder bridge en route to the tumulus.