Allotted Life.

pots

After a hard day spent digging potatoes and cropping various other fruit and vegetables in my allotment yesterday, I was thinking: how many current so-called quandaries can be answered with the word ‘allotments’? I came up with the following list:

Food prices are set to sore! Allotments.

People don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables! Allotments.

People don’t get enough exercise! Allotments.

People are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food they eat! Allotments.

People don’t take enough time to connect with nature! Allotments.

People don’t get involved in a community! Allotments.

What do we do with all the Brownfield sites? Allotments.

We need more green spaces! Allotments.

We don’t take enough time to quieten our minds and relax! Allotments.

 

It’s quite a good list isn’t it? And I’m sure there are more.

 

Now, I’m not a mad gardener. At least, I’m not a gardener, as such. I’m not even that great at motivating myself to get down to my allotment a lot of the time, as the various letters and phone calls from the allotment squad secretary will attest to. But my partner and I do, when we can, get down there eventually, and despite our patchy knowledge, always seem to do okay.

You can listen to Gardener’s Question Time all you want (if you can survive the stomach twisting tweeness of it all sometimes) – and you can fret about propagation, irrigation, irradiation and genetic modification, but generally, what it comes down to, is putting some seeds in some soil.

It’s quite amazing to see those few little seeds you sowed in pots in spring turn into this in summer (including the spuds above, and this is less than half of what we’ve had so far):

veggie

And actually, for part-time gardeners who don’t really know what we’re doing – this isn’t a bad hoard, and this isn’t our first of the season – we’ve already had a good bounty of rhubarb, onions, garlic and raspberries, and given friends and families bags of spuds, cabbage and the odd cucumber here and there (when I say the odd cucumber, that’s because I found out it was actually a marrow). We’ll have more potatoes than we need for the  rest of the year and beyond, and for a time, a load of lovely fresh fruit and veg.

But there are problems. As far as I can tell there are not enough allotments to go around, and there is a certain expectation of lifestyle attached to the idea of taking one on. And unfortunately some of this can be true, or at least reinforced by certain people who tend to involve themselves in organisational roles. I have, as I mentioned, been bothered a bit by the allotment squad, and in the past I have complained to the council who told me I should be spending 10 ½ hours a week on my plot! This was obviously slug poo. I spent nothing like that on it this year, and as the pictures above show, I still got a healthy return.

Also, I like the fact that members have the options of joining the committee and attending meetings and additional allotment activities (competitions, group days etc…), but I don’t want to feel inclined to do so myself. For me the ‘community’ bit is more that every once in a while, while you are tending your plot, someone may come over and ask you if you want a spare cabbage or something, and then, after pleasantries, go away again. But that’s just me. My plot doesn’t have a fence around it, none of them do in my allotment. I really want a fence. But that’s just me – I’m an optional socialite – I like the choice of solitude if that’s how I’m feeling.

The point is that allotments have become a bit of a hobby often seen as a retirement pastime and not part of our everyday lives. I guess that the scale of growing needed to actually sustain us all and replace intense farming may be unachievable in the current world set-up, but wouldn’t it be good to at least remind the commercial powers-that-be that we are still capable as a species of feeding ourselves every once in a while? Maybe make some demands on quality and price by generating our own competition? And as I demonstrated with the above list, be more healthy, more involved, more connected and more grounded as a result? I must add that I am not all of these things, but I am a little closer to each as a result of having an allotment.

It kind of makes you wonder why that’s not the case and why our government isn’t clambering over itself to encourage and increase this massively beneficial activity. Why we apparently prefer to stare at great big areas of unused dust and rubble behind barbed wire fences because some developer has bought the land and is keeping it fallow on the off chance they could become even more rich one day by selling it on to another developer with exactly the same idea.

You don’t need me to tell you that commercial interests are given more priority by governments than our individual health and wellbeing, but I just did anyway. You may disagree, but if you do, I would ask you to go and visit your local Tesco’s in the nearest out-of-town grey miserable retail park, and look at the clamour of grey miserable people hauling themselves over grey miserable concrete to go and buy processed yellow food, and tell me, honestly, could we not be doing a little better for ourselves?

And anyway, if you grow your own you get to say things like ‘look at the size of my cucumber!’ every once in a while, which makes it all worthwhile.

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The Napoli.

Continuing the theme a little from last week’s blog about Leek (see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/totally-leek/), today I am going to try my hand at restaurant critique, having finally visited Leek’s new pizzeria/bar, The Napoli (http://www.thenapoli.co.uk/)

As usual when I stray into a new area, I have to point out that I am not a food/restaurant critic, however, I do have a mouth, tongue and digestive system, and eyes and a brain, so I think I meet a good deal of the qualifications one actually needs to talk about such things, though I may be lacking a little in arrogance. In all honesty, I am a ‘food fan’ (who isn’t?), I enjoy food from all corners of the world, I like to try new things, I love the experience of new tastes and appetising presentation, and I like to cook a bit too. So I suppose I do have a little foodie inside me, I mean, I do watch Masterchef, so I must be almost as qualified as Greg Wallace.

I’ve known about the impending arrival of this new eatery for some time. As I’ve walked by on my way from/to various engagements in Leek I’ve peeked through the glass fronted old registry-office on the high-street, wondering what would be installed next (it had a brief stint as a local co-operative during 2012). As I saw various grey igloo looking elements being installed, and the familiar framework of a bar start to take shape, I was more than happy when I heard it was going to be an Italian with “one of them Pizza oven things” as the centre-piece and unique feature.

After patiently waiting for The Napoli to open, and then for some reason taking three weeks to find a suitable excuse to get up there for a meal, I can finally now report back  on my findings. I’m going to take this one step at a time, just like I did last night as I walked over with my family party of 6 to our 8pm booking.

As you enter, there are a few things that immediately draw your eye. Firstly, the huge pizza oven in the back-centre of the room. The chef’s around it are building and firing pizza’s for the already busy service underway, which at 8pm on a Wednesday night, shows great promise. Next my eyes float over the tops of heads to the large bookcase at the far end, stretching from window to partition, stacked with what looks like an interesting array of literary fun. I imagine that for a more casual day-time visit, this feature must make a relaxed lunch or coffee more engaging for those of us who like to read, but aside from that, it makes a great rustic feature as a backdrop. So from the bookcase the eyes pans left to right, back across the oven, to the bar and seating area by the street-side window. A few hand-pumps and stacked bottles hint at the promise of interesting beer, and the cosy corner looks inviting.

We get sat down pretty quickly, greeted politely and already expected. We are sat by the window, half of the party looking out, the other half looking back, with the pizza oven in their sight. It took me a while to realise why the eyes of those opposite me where slightly glazed and to the right of my eye-line: They were watching the fire, like men around a barbecue, fascinated by its dancing flames and glowing coals. This soon passed however as we settled down and our drinks orders were taken and menu’s delivered.

The menu’s were two sides of A4, nicely presented but more importantly, simple and not convoluted. We’ve all seen enough episodes of Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares to know that less is more, and it makes me more confident as a punter. So there is a choice of four pizza’s, about half a dozen main meals that are not pasta based, and about a half dozen that are pasta based. Nice, easy. There are also a selection of starters and side’s, so if you really wanted, you could construct a whole meal in the traditional Italian fashion of anti-pasta, meat course, salad course, pasta etc… but they options also allow for the more British, starter/main/dessert order of things. Also, nestled between the bookcases, a specials board offers a few tantalising additions that already have us talking.

“What’s Puttanesca?” we ask each other, on the off chance that one of my family members may have a secret and extensive knowledge of traditional Italian dishes.

After a quick word with ‘Mr Google’, we find the literal meaning is “Whore-style spaghetti”, hmmm, spaghetti whore. I’m sure this is lost in translation somewhat, and the important thing we find is that it is a salty, spicy pasta, usually made with olives and/or anchovies and chilli. The combination of which wins over my step-Dad.

Also on the specials board, ‘Tagliatelle Carbonara’. I discovered the joy of Carbonara not long ago when I finally bought myself a pasta maker in a frenzy of post-Masterchef kitchen ambition and managed somehow to make the most beautiful Carbonara with home-made Tagliatelle and had one of those “where have you been all my life?” moments. It seemed my brother shared the enthusiasm for this dish, so two more orders were in the bag.

Thankfully my partner went for the fungi-pizza option, so I knew I would be getting to try that out myself (not that I eat food from my partner’s plate or anything… (I do)). There was also a mushroom tart and ravioli ordered, and that was our main’s sorted.

For starter’s the cold-meat platter was popular, served with an olive oil-balsamic dip and fresh bread side. Two of us (including me) went for the chilli and garlic bruschetta, which had just the right heat of spice and crunchy fried texture. A garlic bread on a wonderfully thin base and a nice little portion of sautéed potatoes (with I guess rosemary/garlic) finished off the starter’s. From all accounts, all starters were well received and quickly demolished.

Not long after starters where cleared away, a good length of time to enjoy the after-glow of the first morsels and whet the appetite for the follow up, out came the mains. The Puttanesca kept my step Dad enthralled for every mouthful, which is a wonder for a man who favours curry above all else. The olive and spice must have done it for him. Mine and my Brother’s Carbonara was made with fantastic pasta, broad, thick and perfectly cooked. It’s hard to tell with dishes like this because they vary so much from region to region, country to country, as they travel and get adapted in cultures, but this was not a ‘runny’ Carbonara. The cream and egg had just about cooked around the pasta, making it more of a textured affair. Whether this is more traditional or a mistake I don’t know or care, because it tasted amazing.

I leapt in to rescue my girlfriend who was struggling to finish the plate sized, thin crispy pizza. The slices I had were amazing. I love pizza like that, thin base that both cracks upon biting and has a little give in the dough, a fresh tomato sauce, naturally sweet and soaked ever so gently into the base, and mozzarella and mushrooms to top the whole thing of, but not layered on in sickly slabs ‘USA’ style, just nicely balanced and each a feature in itself. Yes, next time I go, as lovely as the pasta was, I’m having one of them to myself, oh yes.

From what I was told, the ravioli and tart were also equally wonderful. So, after we finished our well-portioned mains (no belly-busting here, good balanced, taste-packed continental portions), we turned to the dessert menu.

Now, I knew about the dessert menu in advance, seeing as three quarters of it is provided by my good friends at ‘Miscos chocolates’ (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) whom I have rather a lot to do with, being as they are wonderful people who also just happen to make the tastiest luxury Belgian chocolates you will ever eat. Especially for the Napoli they have devised three desserts. First we have the ‘chocolate cake to end them all’… this really is a treat. A flour free, almost soufflé like chocolate cake that will turn cake-haters around and send cake-lovers to some near-transcendental state of being. It truly is a great bit of sticky, moist, deep chocolaty slice of heaven, and along with a bit of soft ice-cream, it is the perfect end.

But that’s not it! You also have the choice of two ganache-filled chocolate cups, served with a liquor of your choice. My brother and his girlfriend went for this option, and they marvelled as much at the sight of them as they did the taste. And finally, from the Misco options, Panna cotta, with a choice of a raspberry coulee or honey, Tuaca and Hazelnut topping. Now I tried these in the development stages, and I went from Panna cotta ignorance, to Panna cotta bliss. They are smooth, sweet and refreshing on the palette after all the other wonderful flavours of the evening. Again, all the deserts were balanced, neat portions, as they should be. I should mention there was also a range of ice-creams available.

So, after the desserts were thoroughly obliterated (not a crumb or fleck left on any plate I could see), we finished our drinks (some nice trad ale’s available, though the name of the brewery escapes me at the moment), our bill was sorted and we meandered off and away through Leek to finish off the night in the Roebuck for yet more nice trad ales, which I can say with certainty came from the brilliant Titanic brewery.

All in all, it was a great night, with great food, a great atmosphere and timely service. There may be a few little things that as the business matures will tighten up a little here and there (could do with a beer menu, maybe some complimentary olives and bread when you first arrive), but for a pretty busy service I think they did really well for a young business in its first month and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I’m going again, next week, this time with my former work colleagues, and this time, I’m having a pizza, all to myself.