Friday, 23 October 2015

The Bloody Ploughman returns to Penkhull- actually it probably never left.

'People get used to me suddenly shouting stop the car! whenever I spot something,' I'm standing in the large and surprisingly modern kitchen of Penkhull village hall talking to Jayne Fayre, a quietly competent woman with an interest in 'feral foods.'

These, she tells me are the fruit and vegetable varieties that have fallen out of favour in the decades since the supermarkets persuaded us that all apples have to look like the sort of thing Snow White gets fed by the wicked witch in fairy stories. They still exist in hidden corners, on the edge of town in the places people rush past in their cars on the way to somewhere else.

Places, Jayne tells me, like Sideway on the edge of Stoke, between the council incinerator and the Britannia Stadium, where she recently discovered fifteen apple trees, each one a different variety, growing a few feet away from the busy A 500.

The thing that has brought us both to Penkhull on a chilly Monday evening is the rare apple discovered in an until recently secret location in the village.

It is, she tells me, the product of someone grafting together a Bloody Ploughman and a type of French crab apple first brought to these shores by the chef to Henry VIII. The tree had gone undiscovered, largely thanks to being shrouded with ivy, on a piece of land off Trent Valley Road belonging to Western Power Distribution that was home to a pig farm some one hundred and fifty years ago.

The tree is in remarkably good condition given its age, and the fact that at some stage in its history someone took a hefty chunk out of it with an axe, the crown needs to be dropped, Ms Fayre says and the ivy wants cutting back, but it could be good for another century and a half.

Last year apples from the tree were used to make cider for the village's new years wassail and there are plans to brew up another batch for 2016. It should be an interesting taste experience for the discerning drinker since the small, dark red and unevenly shaped apples have a flavour all of their own; sharp and yet also sweet.

Later that evening the residents association discuss how the Penkhull apple could be part of a 'tree strategy' for the village, it will certainly feature in the 'feral foods audit' for the city being prepared by Jayne Fayre in partnership with Keele university. There is talk of selling cuttings for people to plant in their gardens and using the produce to make cakes and more cider for thirsty morris dancers.

I don't doubt that this and more will happen, Penkhull is a 'go ahead' sort of place. A village that has staged its own pantomime almost every Christmas since the thirties, puts on a mystery play every summer and is home to a brass band and a ukulele orchestra.

What stuck in my mind and is still there days later as I write this is the phrase 'feral foods', or rather the idea behind the term.

We have access to a stable supply of food that would have been the envy of even our recent ancestors and yet we are astonishingly poorly fed. Open your newspaper on any given day of the week and you will be met by a parade of stories about children (and not a few adults besides) growing obese on a diet stuffed with salt, sugar and chemical additives.

You will also be reminded of the growing politicisation of food, in a country with pretensions to be seated near if not at the top table of world powers there are food banks in every town and teachers worry about their students coming to school hungry.

Somewhere along the line we have lost touch with the value of food, with what it should mean as a part of our culture. Television presents it as an element of the lifestyle porn by which we are so obsessed; the right wing media uses it as a stick to beat parents struggling to raise a family on the minimum wage because they haven't the money or time to cook from scratch.

Like those 'feral' apple trees the idea that food is something that nurtures the body and the soul by bringing people together has been overgrown by the strangling ivy of hypocrisy and prejudice.

The audit of 'feral foods' being carried out by Ms Fayre is, I'm glad to say, more than just an academic exercise. When we met on Monday night she told me that her real passion was for using growing and cooking food to help people on low incomes regain control of their loves and a sense of purpose.

Perhaps the 'Penkhull apple', that unlikely splicing of the Bloody Ploughman and the crab apple brought over by the cook to a king famous for his feasting could be part of that process. Reminding people that apples don't have to be perfectly red and round whilst tasting like wet cotton wool.

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