The Anxious Potager

Ramsons in our garden

Last year, during first lockdown, grumpy husband planted some wild garlic. I’d been banging on about how much I miss it, being an expat Lancastrian, and how when I was a kid you could gather buckets of the stuff from practically anywhere between Bolton and Ramsbottom where it grows in pungent profusion in cloughs and shady glades. It’s so widespread in Lancashire, places are even named after it. Like the aforementioned Ramsbottom, which according to my gran (who knew loads about this sort of thing) was named not after the nether-regions of male sheep, but for the masses of wild garlic growing there, or ramsons, as we say in a Lancy twang. Grumpy husband’s a proper bread-head, who bakes sourdough every week, and baguettes and pizza bases so when I told him you can make pizza toppings and flavour your bread with ramsons and that they’re totally delicious made into pesto and served on sourdough, he planted some under the walnut tree in the leaf and branch cover to see if it would ‘take’ in the dappled light. There’s been miles more rain here on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens in recent years, and as ramsons love damp as well as shady places, it seemed like a good bet.

Fast forward a year, and it’s done quite well. So last Thursday, on publication day for my memoir-in-flash, when I was feeling a potent mixture of excitement, anxiety, exposure and pride (the kind that comes before a fall my worry-warting thoughts were thinking) I absented myself from everything to do with writing and attempted ramson and walnut pesto. To be fair I’d never actually tried ramson pesto in my youth because pesto hadn’t made it to 1970s Bolton, but I had seen a recipe in cyberspace. So, as we still had a few walnuts left over from last year’s glut, I reasoned project pesto would feed three birds with one metaphorical peanut: use up some walnuts, do what I sort-of promised grumpy husband a year ago and act as a distraction/avoidance from the emotional maelstrom of publication day. This is what I did.

  1. Picked 30g ramson leaves (you could do this in miles bigger batches if you live in Ramsbottom but I didn’t want to stress the first year plants by taking too many leaves),
  2. Whizzed up 50g shelled and toasted walnuts with the juice of half a lemon. I just used a hand whizzer, not a fancy food processor or anything, then drizzled in some local rape seed oil still whizzing until it looked like pesto consistency.
  3. Halved the mixture and added 15g of parmesan to one batch and 10g yeast flakes to the other, (to make vegan and veggie pesto). I then seasoned with salt and pepper, and voila!

Here’s a picture of a wee bit of pesto popped onto a slice of sourdough for your visual delectation. Wish you could smell and taste it because it really is very pungent and delicious. After I took this photo, I sterilised a repurposed jam jar were I reckon the pesto will store for several weeks kept in the fridge. Grumpy husband was well impressed and enthused that it was one of my best garden preservations ever. Next year, if the ramsons have spread like they do up north, I’ll make bigger batches and see if it freezes okay.

I’ve always found preserving what we grow and forage for, calming and rewarding, which is just as well, as pickling, jamming, freezing and drying are a really important part of making the most of a potager garden like ours, where gluts and dearths are continual. Last year in early summer, for example, when the sour cherries were ready to pick, for a brief moment, cherries were everything. We had poached cherries on porridge, glistening red cherry compote on toast, tart and zingy sour cherry summer pudding, cherry buns, cherry bread, cherry couscous salad. Then suddenly we reached cherry saturation and never wanted to see another sour cherry again let alone put one in our mouths. We decided to leave the rest to the birds. But as weeks went by and summer tipped into autumn and we stuffed our faces with everything blackberry, the remembered cherries wove a wistful memory, and after Christmas, when we were sick and tired of wintry things, we found ourselves nostalgic for the sharp tang of early summer. If only I’d dried or frozen some of the wonderful cherries, I thought, or made them into long-lasting jams, or jellies or gin. A valuable lesson for this year coming (though the birds will still get their share.) And there it is – right there – why it’s mindfully positive , growing and preserving your own – it makes you think about the future not in an anxious, everything-is-bound-to-go-wrong kind of way, but in a what-can-we-do-to-make-the-most-of-it-next-time sort of way, a future where you learn from mistakes, not avoid them.

It makes me think about more existential things too, not just the positivity of impermanent things but the fickle nature of transiency too. Like publication day for The Naming of Bones. Unlike the cherries, that will never come back, and as I write this three days later, I’m wondering what on earth I was worried about, because, of course nothing bad happened. In fact I’ve been floored by the support from the wonderful on-line flash community. I’m so grateful to everyone who Tweeted and sent messages of support, and who bought the book, and my wonderful writer buddies too, who over the last couple of weeks in particular have provided such incredible support and wisdom. I so need to remember that if my novella that’s currently longlisted with Reflex Press makes it out into the world. But anxiety is a phantom shapeshifter, that gives not one hoot for fact or logical reasoning, that’s built from imaginings and inner whisperings that echo awful nightmares that will never come to pass, most like, that clag you in a non-existent miasma that you can’t see through, so the reality beyond it disappears. And it’s physical too, a physical dread like stone butterflies in your stomach.

It’s the on-line launch of The Naming of Bones tomorrow evening, something I’ve longed for for ages, something that really should be just a moment of joy, but even today when I’m excited and anxious in equal measures, the anxiety is rising. I wish I could simply look forward to it, especially having just harvested a bumper crop of positivity the day after publication. I keep telling myself I’ve got brilliant back up from writing buds who won’t mind if things go wrong, and that all round superstar and wonderful human being Gaynor Jones is overseeing the actual event. But anxiety is a shadow that needs neither form nor light to cast it, which is why I’m writing this, I suppose, using writing like I always do nowadays as distraction, as exorcism, as therapy, and because there’s something powerful about un-secreting fear, about calling it out and naming it. Thanks so much for listening anyone who is, because I feel a bit better now. Going to bake myself into staying in this moment, by harvesting and cooking the rhubarb.

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