Mr Motivator, Mrs Rotavator

He has a chic designer unitard, I have sloppy, floppy, threadbare pants. He has a matching hat, I don’t. He has a co-ordinating bum bag, I have a 15-year-old rucksack with a 14-year-old banana assimilated into the fabric, it doesn’t smell too good, I don’t smell too good. He’s Mr Motivator, I’m Mrs Rotavator.

In lockdown Britain we’re having to get our exercise as best we can, with online becoming the new norm. The inspirational Mr Motivator, real name Derrick Evans, was all over our TV screens in the 1990s with a keep fit slot on GMTV breakfast TV. He’s been asked to come back to take part in BBC1’s Healthcheck TV to help us through this coronavirus crisis hopefully fitter, both physically and mentally.

M is 67, but looks and acts a lot younger, he’s also a very nice guy indeed. Many years ago he came to an Ageing Well event I’d organised aimed at keeping older people active. He turned up wearing a snazzy shell suit and a big smile, carrying a ghetto blaster and set to work motivating and charming us all.

His lockdown workout takes what are now everyday themes, such as standing in supermarket queues two metres apart, leaning on shopping trolleys, juggling toilet rolls, and bending over and grabbing the last bag of flour and holding it aloft’ alternating arms. They make a fun routine with added lycra.

My daily #staysafe exercise requires special kit, you can’t wear just anything to do Anne’s Allotment Workout. There’s the aforementioned threadbare pants and non-matching, equally threadbare hoodie and the cap to keep the flies away and prevent glare from my whiter than Dulux’s Brilliant White arms.

It starts with a warm-up, a five-minute walk to the allotment, socially distancing, hopping on and off the pavement and doing a twirl in the middle of the empty road even when there’s no-one around, because I can.

There’s a few hill reps as I head down the slope and then I’m into the routine, Radio 6 Music trickling from my tiny DAB radio. My current workout has a definite core strength focus, forking, digging, bending, planting, the falling over is optional, though in my case obligatory.

I’m getting so good at this, what with all the practice and all, that I’ve named myself after my new piece of kit and plan to market myself as a kind of dress-down personal fitness coach, with added vegetables.

The manual rotavator looks like a set of cowboy spurs on a pole. They make a satisfying jangling noise as they hit the soil and I move them backwards and forwards to break up the heavy soil. I am Mrs Rotavator™ . Thanks to this new piece of kit, I may even have abs of steel, or if not steel, some other metal, possibly lead, they certainly feel like that.

While I trip lightly to the allotment, I practically crawl back, that’s some workout.The jangling is soon drowned out by my heavy breathing and occasional exclamation to the assembled crowds of wood pigeons, crows, robins, deer, badgers, fox and the allotment cat, all waiting for me to unearth something they might eat. I dug up an egg the other day, a hen’s egg, fully intact and buried by the fox for later. I reburied it, you don’t take the fox’s egg, he may poo on your potatoes.

Yes, I think Mrs Rotavator™ could have legs, maybe I could market it as new kind of workout for those fortunate enough to have gardens and allotments. It’ll be an intense activity for the summer months followed by a harvest of fresh veg and fruit to be enjoyed while balancing something alcoholic on those abs of steel. Working on my business plan as we speak….

Locked down, fell down

Virtual coffee

Down on the muddy allotment there’s a couple of small indentations, oh all right then, medium-sized indentations, that match my bottom. There’s a very good reason for that, they were made by my bottom.

I’m dobbing myself in, in the interests of comedy because we could all do with a laugh at the moment. No human saw it happen, there was the Fantastic Mr Fox, who sniggered and the allotment blackbird, who was hoping I’d unearth a few juicy worms. He was disappointed, I squashed them.

There’s a band of clay under the slightly less claggy soil, which for most of the winter has been covered with several centimetres of water and, more recently, frogspawn. I did contemplate growing watercress, or cranberries to save myself a lot of hard work, but I’d already bought the seed potatoes and they were happily chitting, waiting for their nice new earthy home. Earthy, not muddy, so I’d need to get to work on that soil. Noel is forbidden from digging, by me. He’s kicked the Bastard Cancer up the arse, but there’s still a lot of healing to do following the surgery and serious gnarly digging isn’t on the list of approved activities. Fortunately programming is on the list, he does love to program.

Doing the allotment thing is, thankfully, a permitted activity under our current coronavirus lockdown. There’s lot of social distancing, unless you count the fox and the blackbird who come up close and personal, and if you fall, no-one sees you.

As I dug, I sank, no worries, I thought I’ll just lift my feet, the water would fill my footprints giving the frogspawn a new home and digging would be done. But no, it wouldn’t give, right up to the point that it did give and that’s how I left my bum print in the mud. Mr Fox laughed, the blackbird laughed, a squashed worm is better than no worm at all, I laughed.

We’re all going to need laughs over the coming weeks and months. Meeting friends is now virtual, having coffee with them is virtual, sharing a beer with them is virtual. Digging on the other hand, that’s real. And the bum marks on the allotment, yep, they’re real too.

Stay safe everyone.

One-Leg Jam

One-Leg-Jam

There’s a new exclusive jam in town and it’s shaping up to be the Queen of Conserves, the Sovereign of Spreads, the Kaiser of Flavour. Lovingly made with blackberries, handpicked at first light to the sound of the dawn chorus, then masterfully mixed with the finest sugar, lemon juice and a knob of butter. And the piece de resistance? I did it standing on one leg.

I’m not very good at admitting to myself or anyone else that I may have an injury. That only happens to proper athletes and those who do lots of training. I am neither, but I have a sore leg, actually it’s very sore and has got to the point where I need to do something about it.

It all started with a calf strain, and not even on a run, I hadn’t even earned it, FFS! We were heading over to the allotment to water around yet again during this long, hot summer we’ve had, and my calf just went ping, but not pop. I fell over, according to Noel it was a good impersonation of an Italian midfielder, I think he was trying to take my mind off being on the ground. The allotment went unwatered that day.

You do soldier on, though, and after a visit to the physio and a rest, it felt like I was all systems go. There were races to run, I’m relied on to bring up the rear. And there’s the goal I’ve set myself for next year, to run an ultra marathon. Who has time to be injured?

However, pain is a good indicator that something should cease. Move it and it hurts? Well stop moving it, then!  So it was off to the physio again, paying for more pain, but coming away with clear instructions to rest, stay off the running, cycling (as if) or even harvesting potatoes and not stand on it for more than 20 minutes to give it a chance to mend. Just ten days while I have an x-ray and a blood test. Ten days? I’ll turn into a statue!

I inherited the fidget gene from my dad, can’t sit still or just hang around, I need to be moving, or at the very least, faffing. There was a wheelbarrow load of blackberries to make into jam and being a Yorkshire lass, I couldn’t let them go to waste.

Jam-making is easy, you just have to be on your feet while it reaches 104C, then funnel it into sterilised jars, maybe an hour in total. Not long to stand on one leg, and it could add that little je ne sais quoi to the jam. After all, where else can you get One-Leg Jam? It’ll be a limited edition. I may patent it. It will certainly be entered in the village show this weekend, though I’ll get Noel to carry it.

Snozzcumbers

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Sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. The thrill, the anticipation, the excitement, getting there rather than being there. Because sometimes the destination, or the end result, is a disappointment, or as in the case of cucamelons, a bitter disappointment.

It’s National Allotments Week, the time of year when we allotmenteers show off the fruits and veg of our labour, more importantly, we get to harvest it and eat it. It seems so long ago that I was poring over the seed catalogue in front of the roaring fire, musing over the summer to come. Little did I suspect that it would be a long time in coming and not before a cold, rainy spring.

I’ve been writing a monthly column on my allotment year for the West Leeds Dispatch and looking back, it’s hard to believe that the sun-baked soil with cracks that seem to go all the way down to Australia, was a quagmire so waterlogged that I couldn’t plant anything until late May, then it was a flurry of weeding and digging before ever any planting could take place.

But I had the hope and expectation of good things to come, an exciting journey down Vegetable Road. I’d chosen the staple crops, potatoes, onions, cabbage, peas and beans, but also had a hankering for something a little more exotic. The picture of the tiny cucamelons seduced me, looking like beautiful little mini watermelons, the catalogue promised a crunchy bite of cool cucumber with a hint of lime. The catalogue lied. I’d planted the flat seeds edge-on as recommended on the packet so they wouldn’t rot, nurturing them in the greenhouse, lovingly planting them outside, whispering encouragement, picking them up off the greenhouse floor after they’d been knocked over by the cats, I think the cats were trying to tell me something. I should have listened.

In my enthusiasm for the exotic, I gifted cucamelon plants to my friends, I don’t think they are my friends any more. I even took some of the fruit to the kids at the playscheme I’m volunteering at, I understand the parents want a word with me.

Noel can eat anything except black pudding and andouillette, a kind of French poo sausage. He’s made of strong stuff, but took one bite of the cucamelon and pronounced it a snozzcumber and refused to eat any more, which is a shame, as we have quite a few. So it’s the end of the road for the cucamelons. Thank goodness for chutney.

Can you dig it?

allotmentAnne

It’s the time of year when I always leave the allotment a couple of inches taller than when I arrived. The layer of compressed mud and clay clinging to my shoes doesn’t fall off until the next time I put them on. Obviously there’s no question of me actually cleaning them, the very idea.

Year four as an allotmenteer and I still feel like a complete novice. The purple-sprouting broccoli which grew so tall and promised to keep us well-stocked with these tasty brassicas throughout the winter was sacrificed to the Wood Pigeon God after I failed to cover the plants with netting.  Who knew those big birds could do so much nibbling? Actually, it seems, everyone else on the allotments apart from me and the new people who hadn’t managed to plant anything at all. Fortunately I’m not a total ingenue, we still have sprouts and cabbage, as well as the potatoes harvested in the autumn. And if you want to talk raspberries, I’m your woman, the freezer’s full of them.

Currently the ground can only be described as dull, brown and sticky, with occasional puddles. Everything is dormant, apart from a few hardy weeds and a cheeky dandelion which had the audacity to flower, I soon sorted that out. All I can do is dig in readiness for planting and that’s when the fun really starts. Seeds have been ordered and potatoes and onion sets are at the ready, but not too ready.  Some folk plant their onions in the autumn, that would require having cleared all the old stuff out and preparing the ground well in advance, another allotment lesson, everything is long-term!

Winter isn’t anything like over yet, there’s cold to come and those seeds will just have to stay in their colourful packets. In the meantime, allotmenteering is hard work and fun in equal measure and there’s lots of mud, a bit like running, but I don’t get as far.

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

 

ChutneyCollage

Four steps to chutney

 

Not that I’d want to shoo summer away, but let’s face it, we’ve had pretty rubbish weather. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. Thank goodness our native(ish) allotment crops know what to expect with British pseudo-summers.

Cara and Maris Piper, the potatoes, are now cosy in their black bin, harvested ahead of the blight, which had swept through the allotment. We also have a freezer full of home-made oven chips, thanks to Noel, who, for some reason doesn’t want to use the title King of the Potato Peeler which while accurate, isn’t the profile he aspires to on Twitter.

There are so many apples, they are weighing down the branches and falling on the heads of passing allotmenteers, not that that’s funny at all. Not even a little bit.  The onions have resisted bolting and are hanging in the greenhouse, plaited, ready to adorn the neck of any passing beret-wearing French cyclist.

Still basking in the glory of being crowned Jam Queen at the village show with my award-winning™ pink-tinted gooseberry conserve, yes for some reason the green berries turn pink in the jam-making process, I thought I might as well have a go at chutney. There may be an award in it, possibly a medal. I do like a good bit of bling.

The Empire-expanding Brits brought chutney from the Indian sub-continent and adapted it to our tastes – and our colder-weather harvests. Being from Yorkshire and not wanting to see anything go to waste, under the ‘waste not, want not’ banner, or hit anyone else on the head, I gathered up the apples and set to work.

As well as apples, the recipe called for onions, which I unplaited, spices, which I confess I had to buy from one of those new-fangled shops, along with sultanas, vinegar and sugar. As it simmered for a couple of hours, the house was filled with the aroma of spices, it smelled like Christmas, all warm and inviting. Something to savour during the cold, dark days, a reminder of the summer harvests. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait at least a couple of months before we can open the jars as it takes that long for the flavours to mature. Fortunately there are enough apples to feed the village and the passing French cyclists with tarte tartin. And it’ll soon be time to make the Christmas cakes. Yes, it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

chutney5

One potato, two potato, three potato, four – million!

Potato

It seems like an age ago that the little, wizened seed potatoes with their weird white sprouts and spooky rootlets were carried down to the allotment in their cosy egg-box homes and planted in the cold, dark soil.

That couple of dozen of the ugly little lumps were left to their own devices and the Calverley elements. Though after last year’s potato paucity, I was taking no chances and offered a prayer to the weather gods and made a ceremonial sacrifice of one of their number to Blighty, the Blight Destroyer, which involved robes, candles, chanting and a sharp spade.

It’s year three of our allotment, and it’s fair to say lessons continue to be learned. Who knew that dwarf beans weren’t just small beans, but small plants and didn’t need a splendid wigwam of two-metre-high canes with artistically-arranged strings? And what were the odds of pigeons pecking the tops of everything that wasn’t covered? And just how much damage could a badger do to a seed bed?

With my artist’s head on, I’m telling anyone who’s prepared to listen without bursting into hysterical laughter that the wigwam is a feature in the allotment, adding balance, depth and sound, with the breeze making gentle hissing sound through the string. The pecked leaves are fractals, each unique, yet ephemeral. The neat rows of seedlings re-distributed by the digging badger are a metaphor for the world of 2017, unpredictability and chaos, yet still with hope that something will grow somewhere……No-one has believed me so far.

As the potatoes sent up their stalk, leaves, flowers and faux tomatoes, yes, potato fruits are like tomatoes, though not to be eaten, the rest of the allotment burst into life. The broad beans just keep on giving, the strawberries were fantastic fresh and live on as jam, and the second harvest of golden raspberries is nearly ready. Broccoli, sprouts and cabbage are on their way, beetroot and onions keep on giving. The dwarf beans are disappointingly small.

Fun though the rest are to harvest, the most rewarding of all is definitely the humble potato. In the intervening months, those wizened seed potatoes had cast off their scruffy jackets and transformed into not just one, but dozens, possibly millions, of potatoes. I claim a little artistic licence here. It’s not like onions, where you plant a little mini onion and it grows to be a bigger onion, potatoes multiply like Hydra’s heads. In goes the fork, our come the potatoes, it’s so fantastic that I have to exclaim and chuckle with every potato I unearth. Noel tends to wear noise-cancelling headphones at potato harvest time.

And there we have it, two piles of potatoes, one perfect, the other with feature holes and other insect nibblings. But never fear, the perfect ones go into our magic black keeping bin for consumption right through the winter, which if the current weather is anything to go by, starts next week. The holey ones become chips for freezing, slices for Lyonnaise, little cubes for roasting, or just mash. Happy, happy days.