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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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Welcome to my new left hip joint!

Somebody wise once said that you’ve got to be strong to grow old – and how right he or she was. I’d also add: not just strong, but fit and determined, too. It further helps if you can draw on the resources of our wonderful National Health Service, to whose health I shall drink a real or imaginary glass of Prosecco or Cava every day – until my liver packs up. I went under the knife in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Kings Lynn on the morning of Sunday October 29th. Before the operation, the anaesthetist explained that I could opt for complete oblivion or a spinal anaesthetic, where I’d feel no pain, but I’d also be aware of what was going on around me. She went on to explain that the spinal block option meant a shorter and less ‘foggy’ period of grogginess after the operation. All of that made sense, and besides, I wanted to experience what was about to happen to me. It’s not every day that one has such a major operation.

Before the operation I asked one of the surgeons if I could have a look at the joint they were removing. I explained that as an archaeologist I had excavated dozens of skeletons and it wasn’t often that one gets given the chance to examine one’s own bones. He asked me what I was interested in and I said it was the ball joint at the head of the thigh bone, or femur. I’d dug lots of them and I wanted to see what mine looked like, and more particularly what the damage, which had showed up quite clearly on the X-ray photo, looked like, in the flesh, as it were. I think my request surprised him, but he smiled and said he’d see what he could do.

Then I was wheeled into the operating theatre and things became a little, but only a little, groggy. At one point I was aware that somebody was hammering something hard into something a bit softer. It sounded remarkably like the noise I make when I’m splitting wood with a metal wedge – or maybe hammering a chisel into a block of wood. It was as if they were hammering a tapering nail into my femur – which was more or less what they were doing, except that the tapering nail was my new prosthetic joint and the precise sound – the precision – of the tapping was important because the surgeon needed to extend my thigh bone by 10mm, to make good the wear-and-tear caused by the worn hip. So he mustn’t knock it in too far. In the event, he got it spot-on and I can now proudly report that both my legs are precisely the same length. Tap tap.

After the operation, the surgeon I’d approached earlier asked me if I still wanted to see the head of my femur. Although I was still a little groggy, I almost jumped off the bed. Yes please, I really did want to see it! He reached down into a small glass beaker or bowl and produced something that I immediately recognised for what it was, but I was surprised (a) because it was smaller than I’d expected and (b) because of its pale pinkish colour. I know it’s completely illogical, but I thought he was going to produce something yellowish brown – the colour of bones on archaeological sites. He brought it across to me and tapped the ball joint with the side of a pair of forceps and it made a soft, almost soggy sort of sound – like he was tapping the outside of an apple. He explained that the soft/soggy surface was a layer of cartilage that covered the bone and lubricated the joint. Then he turned the bone around and immediately I could see a small (little fingernail-sized) shiny area where the cartilage had worn through, exposing the shiny, pink, bone surface beneath. The surgeon tapped the worn area and it made a hard, sharp sound – just like bones on an excavation, when tapped with a trowel. When I saw that worn patch I could see why my hip had become so incredibly painful in the months leading up to the operation.

I seemed to recover quite quickly, although I did collapse the following day when my blood pressure suddenly dipped when I got out of bed. I got over that and things improved so that by Tuesday I had passed the stairs climbing test and was getting ready to be sent home. They then removed the catheter that had been inserted for the operation, and asked me to have a pee. They gave me water – lots of it – and I imagined Niagara Falls and pints of foaming bitter, but to no avail. Nothing flowed. Sahara not Niagara. I wasn’t allowed home. The next day I developed complications: diarrhoea, gastric wind, vomiting, followed by dehydration and low blood pressure. Horrible – and it lasted for four days. After ten days they let me out. I now do my physiotherapy exercises religiously three times a day and take long walks every morning and afternoon. I haven’t taken a pain relief pill for two weeks and although my guts are still recovering, the hip feels fine. In two days’ time I’ll see the surgeon who did the operation for my final check in Kings Lynn. The wound is healing well and I’m already feeling VASTLY improved. Frankly, he and his team worked a miracle and I’m so grateful to them. Long live the NHS!

One final, rather sad, memory. The other beds in the Orthopaedic ward were occupied by four men in their 70s and 80s. All had strong Norfolk accents and three had worked their lives on farms. One morning one man leant back on his pillows and said to nobody in particular: ‘Well, we was all fooled. Looks like nobody knew what was happening.’ ‘You’re right,’ somebody replied. A long silence followed this. I knew from earlier conversations that they’d all voted for Brexit and were starting to regret what they’d done. Let’s hope the NHS survives the inevitable chaos that must lie ahead. The Brexit split is very profound and deep and will take decades to repair: I bitterly regret the cold-blooded way the right-wing media duped honest people into destroying their children and grand-childrens’ future. And believe me, those elderly men had started to realise just what they had done. So sad. So very sad.

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The Magic of Flag Fen

A few days ago I came across a wonderful History Girls blog post about Flag Fen, which I’d very much like to share with the followers of my blog. Having been closely involved with Flag Fen since its discovery way back in 1982, it’s great to read a completely independent assessment of the place. And it would appear that Kath Langrish enjoyed her visit quite a lot. I love her infectious enthusiasm – something that seems to be in rather short supply in these troubled times. So read on, and if you haven’t yet visited, do make a New Year’s resolution to do so.

The Magic of Flag Fen – Katherine Langrish

Flag Fen

Around 1300 BC, a Bronze Age community living close to a rich wetland area near what is now Peterborough decided to build a massive wooden causeway leading from a point on dry land (now known as Fengate) across the marshy pools and waterways to a natural island about a kilometre out. The causeway was constructed as five long rows of tall sharpened stakes driven into the marsh, with a criss-cross of timbers and brushwood laid between them on which people could walk. It’s been estimated over 60,000 individual timbers were used to build the causeway, which followed the line of an earlier, Neolithic track – but the low-lying areas around the island were gradually becoming inundated. The site, known as Flag Fen, was discovered in 1982 by the archaeologist Francis Pryor (well known to fans of the popular archaeology show Time Team). Archaeological investigation has been going at Flag Fen ever since, and there is now a fascinating museum and visitor centre. I’ve long wanted to go there, and my wish came true one bright sunny day a few months ago.  Now read on…

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The Garden in Mid-Autumn, 2017

Mid-autumn is one of my favourite times of the year. By now we’ve shaken off the humid hot days of high summer and the garden starts to come alive with a new, physical, energy as winds and breezes start to pick up. Yes, I concede, there are the occasional intimations of approaching winter, but these merely serve to heighten my enjoyment of the present: make the most of it while you can. I always think of autumn as more informal than summer. It’s a time when you can sit back, say ‘Phew!’, and start clearing up the accumulating seed heads, leaves and debris. In summer, for some reason, I always religiously put my wheelbarrow and tools away in the shed at the end of the day; but not so in autumn, when somehow it seems OK to leave them out over-night – providing, that is, there’s no rain in the forecast. In autumn, I often stray away from the more formal parts of the garden and find quieter places where I can enjoy the deep shadows and once-luxuriant, but now slightly fading, plants around me. This year, with my left hip hurting so much, I’ve taken to sitting down quite a lot. In fact I sat on the seat shown in the next picture immediately after I took the photo. One or two people have been kind enough to ask if there’s any news about the hip replacement surgery. I phoned the surgeon’s secretary a month ago and she told me there were 15 people in the queue ahead of me and that I could expect to undergo surgery in early November. So that’s something.

Deep shade

Maisie and I are fairly conservative gardeners, inasmuch as we try not to take too many risks – especially if they involve financial expense! A few years ago we felled an old willow which wasn’t thriving and while I was able to log-up most of the branches and burn them in the house, the trunk had heartwood rot and was too much trouble to convert into firewood. So we decided to make one of the fashionable ‘stumperies’, which you can see, for example, at Highgrove or Biddulph Grange. There are even books and articles on how to construct them. But life’s too short to start ‘constructing’ a pile of old wood, so I dumped them in a heap, kicked them a few times and then stuck one or two plants in the ground around them. Over the following winter the Stumpery began to acquire a life of its own. Some wood mice took up residence, as did a hedgehog. Slugs loved the wet surfaces of the logs and the birds fed on them, covering everything with bird poo. One bird, and this was completely without our permission, poo-ed out the seed of a Formosan fuchsia (Leycesteria formosa), which promptly germinated. It was a tiny seedling, growing on the logs, last year and then, this summer, it decided to get going, and now looks splendid. We also planted a variegated ivy, which was also quite slow to start, but which loved the warm, wet summer and is now looking very decorative. I just hope it’s a variety that is frost hardy. Only time will tell.

Stumpery

The Stumpery aside, there is only one other set-piece mini-garden. The tiny sink garden consists of three of old stone or ceramic sinks set on a patch of paving in the Rose Garden. We’ve planted it with sundry succulents and Alpines and we stand pots around it, filled with with similar sorts of stuff. The main problem is the hardy geranium that fronts this little garden. It’s too tall, even after a good cutting-back in late summer, after the first and main flowering. We’re currently contemplating Euphorbia myrsinites, which grows very well with us, but I fear it might be a bit too vigorous. Can’t decide.

Sink garden

The previous three pictures were taken a few days after we opened the garden for the NGS in mid-September. It’s now approaching mid-October and the weather hasn’t improved much. It’s still quite cool, and although we haven’t yet had a frost – not even a ground frost – the grass is growing rapidly. I’m still having to mow the lawns every week and tomorrow I plan to cut the hay meadow with the farm tractor, because the grass is too long and rank to go into the winter. More to the point, it’s too long to allow the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries to flower, in the spring. The wet summer meant that the potato crop was depleted by blight, which has also hit the tomatoes, although the superb Italian cooking variety, San Marzano, doesn’t seem to be particularly prone. And we’ve had a HUGE crop! This photo shows a week’s production from the vegetable garden. The greenhouse plants were far less productive – so I don’t plan to do that again.

Tomatoes

The large pergola, which we call the Poop or Poop Deck, at the back of the house has been bare for about ten years. Five years ago we planted a wisteria, following the success of the same plant at the front of the house. It took three years to get established, as I now realise I had planted it too close to the house wall, where growing conditions were too dry. Eventually I realised this and emptied buckets of water on its roots throughout the summer of 2014. As a reward, in 2015 it sent out two long shoots which I trained up to the top of the pergola. Then in 2016 these sent out two further shoots which I managed to tie in about half way across the great expanse of roof. Last summer (2017) I assiduously tied-in the side-shoots from the two leading shoots and despite winds and rough weather, managed to keep most of them intact. The result is quie impressive: about three quarters of the Poop roof is now covered by at least one shoot. Next year these will send out their own side-shoots and with any luck that should complete the job.

Wisteria

When one plant takes possession of a space, in this case the Poop roof, others have to give way. In that instance it was the later autumn-flowering Clematis maximowicziana (now called c. terniflora). We were going to remove it entirely, but at the last minute relented and cut it back severely to half-way up one of the Poop’s supporting posts. It had to be cut back three or four times over the summer, but eventually gave up trying to reconquer the roof and decided, instead, to burst into flower, which it did a week ago. I took this photo yesterday and I have to confess it’s looking much, much better than ever it did up there, high above our heads.

Clematis

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Our Garden Opening for the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), 2017: the Final Reckoning

All the weather apps, not to mention Radio 4 and the morning programme on BBC-1 had predicted that the first day, Saturday 16th, would be showery and breezy. In the event, it was much better, with virtually no rain. Over supper, as is wont to happen in this digital age, some of us, myself included, I am ashamed to say, produced phones and iPads to check the BBC and Met Office weather apps for the following day, Sunday. And bliss! It would be bright and sunny, without so much as a hint of rain. So we drank another toast to the NGS – and stumbled off to bed, while Maisie slaved away at the sink, washing-up the wonderful meal she had cooked us all (I still feel guilty about that). The next day dawned bright and sunny. Birds were singing. Sheep were gently grazing the verdant paddocks. A pair of green woodpeckers were yaffling in the wood. I strolled out onto the Poop Deck where soon we would be serving teas, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of Madame Isaac Péreire (the rose, not the lady). Breakfast was delicious: our own eggs and dry-cured, smoked Lincolnshire bacon. I looked across to the Long Border which was gorgeous in its emerging autumnal hues. I knew people would have a lovely day with us and worried slightly that we might sell out of cake.

The Long Border looked more than usually gorgeous.

The Long Border looked more than usually gorgeous.

After a couple of hours getting things ready, it was time to welcome the first visitors. Some had come from quite far afield: Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. All had seen the weather apps and were confident of a dry, sunny day in the Fens. After a few welcoming words, I sent them on their way, rejoicing. And then The Wash decided to make itself felt. Over to the north-east a dark cloud began to grow. And grow. And grow. Then it burst, with a rumble of thunder. I dashed to the barn and retrieved a large umbrella we’d bought for the occasion, but hadn’t bothered to unpack, because the weather apps were so positive. Despite the downpour, people kept on arriving and everyone was very stoical and British about the clouds that were now growing for a second time. By the end of the day we’d had about a dozen showers and no less than 7mm of rain – which is a Hell of a lot by our, usually very dry, standards!

The Car Park in the meadow south of the house was beginning to fill-up when I took this picture.

The Car Park in the meadow south of the house was beginning to fill-up when I took this picture.

On the Friday before we opened for Day 1, I had decided we wouldn’t mow the meadow closely, partly because I didn’t want to lose so much grazing and also because I reckoned that chopped-up mowings would cause all sorts of problems, when wet. In the event we compromised by mowing the access and exit routes. That worked quite well and was a useful lesson for the future.

Mark Allen behind the tea table on Day 2, before the rain began. His customers seem delighted!

Mark Allen behind the tea table on Day 2, before the rain began. His customers seem delighted!

As anyone who has ever visited an NGS Open Garden knows, the garden is only part of the experience. The other, very English, component are teas, with home-made cakes. I thought the cakes were particularly toothsome. In fact I felt obliged to test each and every one of them: quality control is so important. This year our teas raised £232.50 for charity, which is no mean achievement, given the dire conditions. We also retrieved £158.80 from the donations bucket. Incidentally, those new £5 notes stick together when wet and are very hard to separate.

The Plant stall, before the rain struck. This year’s selection was twice the size of 2016 and plants sold very well indeed, thanks to Linda (in the barn, with her back to the camera), who did so much to assemble and sell them.

The Plant stall, before the rain struck. This year’s selection was twice the size of 2016 and plants sold very well indeed, thanks to Linda (in the barn, with her back to the camera), who did so much to assemble and sell them.

This year we moved the Plant Stall into the barn, which was just as well, given the heavy rain. Sales of plants raised £162.00 (£1 higher than in 2016!). Admissions (at £4 per person, children free) raised £586. So if you add everything together, we made a total of £1,139.30, and all for charity. That’s slightly down on last year (we had about 50 fewer visitors, but they spent slightly more per capita). I suspect local visitors, who were planning to come out and see us at teatime, stayed at home (and I can’t blame them) because the rain in the afternoon was terrible. So, despite the rain, it was a great weekend and I know for a fact that everyone, volunteer staff and visitors alike, had a splendid time. Everyone said they’d return next year, when we open on the same weekend. So mark your diary in advance: September 15th and 16th, 2018: NGS Open Garden, with lots of tea and cake!

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Ready for Day 2?

To be absolutely honest, I was really worried about today’s Open Garden. The weather forecast was dire: rain and winds. The lawn was wet-to-seriously-soggy and the barometric pressure wasn’t rising as fast as had been predicted. Frankly, the outlook was dire. Then eleven o’clock came and suddenly there were cars in the car park. The black clouds to the north were building and getting more menacing. But then something strange happened: it didn’t rain. Yes, there were a few spots, but nothing to worry about. By lunchtime there were people happily drinking cups of tea and munching on cake. In the end, we escaped any significant rain. PHEW!!! And the lawn has started to dry out, too.

Tomorrow the forecast is very much better: a possible shower around 1.00, but otherwise, it looks dry and very sunny in the afternoon. So the prospect is good and as the photo (taken this afternoon at 2.11) shows, the garden is looking wonderful. Everyone says the borders are much better than last year. So do please come if you can. And there’s plenty of tea and cake to be enjoyed by one and all. See you tomorrow!

2017-09-16 14.11.39

 

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Our Open Garden, September 16-17, 2017: Something to Look Forward To!

Please forgive the silence of August and no, I wasn’t lying on a beach somewhere exotic trying to nurture skin cancer. In actual fact, I was hard at work in two places: at my desk, trying to kick-start a book on the Fens (about which more later), or out in the garden hobbling about with one of my three sticks, attempting to keep on top of the grass, the weeds, the vegetable garden – or just luxuriant growth, in general. Incidentally, I’ve got three walking-sticks, because I’m always losing one or two of them – usually they’re left on straw bales, the garden tractor trailer, or under cabbages in the veg garden. Once they were locked in the chicken hutch overnight. They looked a bit lumpy and colourful the following morning. Sticky stuff, chicken poo! But the good news is that my hip replacement surgery is due in later September or October. So with luck, it’ll be farewell to sticks and hobbling. Fingers crossed, I’ll be mobile again in time for Christmas – thanks to our wonderful NHS.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

It has been a terrific growing year. We made the hay in early July and it was superb. I’m glad we didn’t do it any earlier, as many of our neighbours did, because some of our grasses come late and this year they were luxuriant. I think the sheep will feed well this winter.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

As we saw in an earlier blog post, early summer started well and the borders looked excellent. The first flowering of roses was good, but quite short, so Maisie was able to get on top of the summer pruning promptly. This has meant that the second coming of the roses has already started and promises to be superb when we’re open in mid-September. I can’t recall seeing so many flower buds forming. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there isn’t too much rain, as wet tends to damage old-fashioned roses. Already I’d have said the rose show this year is better than when we opened, on more or less the same weekend in mid-September, last year. Our other main feature in September are the Asters, which again, weren’t fully out last year, but are far more advanced this year: in fact some are already in flower. All in all, I think the borders are going to be looking superb, I really do. So, if you can, do try to come. Remember, every penny we raise goes to charity: we aren’t a charity ourselves and don’t charge for expenses or administration and we certainly don’t employ expensive publicists. But we want to do what we can to help.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

The National Gardens Scheme, who organise garden open days across the country, came up with a new idea for this year. It’s called Gardens and Health Week and it took place on August 12-20th. Our event was on the afternoon of the 17th, when a group of local carers came for a relaxing afternoon in the garden. I feel very strongly that people who care for others with long-term problems, such as dementia, deserve our thanks and our support, which is why we offered them the use of our garden during the NGS week. It was a great success, even though we were hit by a sudden and completely unexpected sharp rain shower, the moment they arrived. Cups of tea were rapidly brewed and the house was instantly full. Then as soon as the rain passed everyone spilled out onto the patio-like pergola at the back of the house, that we call ‘the poop deck’ – God knows why. The photo shows how the wisteria has suddenly started growing in earnest and now covers most of the pergola. It doesn’t yet provide much shade, but it certainly will next year. I have spent days tying it up: fiddly work, but worth it.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

And finally, visitors to the garden may well be savaged by our new Jack Russell puppy, Baldwin. He’s been adopted by Pen (our much larger 3 year-old Labrador x Border Collie bitch) and the two make a charming, if turbo-charged couple. They’ll be sure to welcome you. To find out more about the garden opening, click on this link: https://www.ngs.org.uk/?bf-garden=13908

Now I must stop and return to weeding the veg garden. Then I’ve got to cut edges and mow the lawn, trim the wisteria, dead-head the roses, tie-in the sweet peas, look for my sticks…

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Cutting the Mustard

And now for something completely different: a guest blog. It’s by Mrs. Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor, who is not writing about her favourite topics of ancient wood-working, gardens or our new puppy Baldwin (and there’ll be more about him in another post, shortly). Anyone who has stayed with us on the farm will know that Maisie is also an excellent cook with very strong views about the quality of ingredients. I think that comes across quite forcibly in what follows. And just for the benefit of our non-British readers, Waitrose is a food supermarket chain operated by the John Lewis Partnership. The J.L. Partnership is an enlightened company that is owned by the workforce, who are known as Partners. Both Maisie and I are great supporters of John Lewis’s who did, and still do, much to pioneer fair trading and support British farmers and farming. Anyhow, I hope that has whetted your appetites. Now read on – and I can promise: you won’t be disappointed!

Cutting the Mustard

By Maisie Taylor

For many years I have been of the opinion that Waitrose English Mustard is the best. To open a new jar and inhale sweet essence of mustardiness is to set taste buds aquiver and saliva glands squirting. It is actually wrong to say ‘is the best’ because a while ago it became ‘was the best’. The first inkling that something was wrong came when a new jar was opened and there was no quivering or squirting – just a mustardy smell. Initially there was no panic and my cold-ridden sinuses were blamed.

The perfect ham roll is made with a freshly baked, crusty white roll – the sort which are more or less bright orange on the outside, and which shatter when you take the bread knife to them. The butter must be salty, cold and slightly hard so that it doesn’t spread, so much as roll itself up in the soft white crumb. The ham should be purchased from a proper butcher and must have plenty of fat, which should be very white so that it contrasts yummily with the pink of the meat. It should be newly and thickly sliced and stuffed into the roll generously and not too neatly but only after English mustard has been enthusiastically spread over the bread and butter of both halves of the roll. The roll has to be squashed quite a bit before you can get it into your mouth. The crust should crackle and craze and the first mouthful should be a perfect balance of tough crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and enough mustard to almost, but only almost, make you sneeze. Waitrose English Mustard used to do the job every time.

As well as failing to make things quiver and squirt, the new jar tasted different: bland and slightly sweet. It was all very strange. The jar looked the same but could they have changed the recipe or was it that the taste buds had started deteriorating with the onset of old age? The level of mustard in the jar gradually went down but it didn’t taste any better and continued to be a disappointment.

A new jar! Perhaps this one would return to form… but no. The mustard was still bland, strangely sweet and not terribly English.

At this point something interesting happened.

Living in the country, I tend to keep a well-stocked larder and a full fridge. (‘But Darling, you live how far, 20 miles, from a Waitrose store? I’d heard there were pockets of deprivation in the countryside, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad!’). I have to admit I do occasionally uncover things at the back of the fridge which surprise me. Searching for a jar with something nice preserved in oil in it, I found myself travelling deeper and deeper into parts of the fridge that had seldom seen a human hand. Eventually, having abandoned the search and cramming everything back in, I discovered that I was left with not one, but two identical jars of Waitrose English Mustard.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

Not being a great believer in ‘use by’ dates, my first reaction was to unscrew the lid of the nearest one and sniff:

Kerpow! Perzang! Splurt!

Taste buds quivered! Saliva glands squirted! Wow!

My second reaction was to unscrew the lid of the second jar and sniff:

Sigh! Unexciting, slightly bland, mustardy smell.

My third reaction was to look at the use by dates on the lids. Bland mustardy smell is Apr 2017 (Oops, two months out of date – no wonder it wasn’t quite the thing.) The date on the Kerpow! jar lid is quite hard to read, as it is rather faint… could it possibly say Nov 2015? How embarrassing. That is not good even for me.

But wait! I whip the lid off Nov 2015 (as it will now be known) and inhale deeply. Wow, fabulous! – this should be illegal.

There must be a reason for the difference. The labels seem to be identical including the bar code but detailed analysis begins to reveal differences. Nov 2015 is described as ‘A traditional English mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’ Apr 2017 is described as ‘A [?] English Mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’

The nutrition table is very different on the two jars. April 2017 has more calories, less fat and nearly twice as much carbohydrate. Really? That seems a big difference. Sugars are even more startling. Per 100g, Nov 2015 has 8.9g carbohydrates of which 2.9g are sugars. This compares with 15.5g in Apr 2017 of which 13.3g are sugars. Presumably the rise in sugar needed to be balanced by the rise in salt – from 5.05g in November 2015 to 8.5g in April 2017.

And so to the ingredients:

Nov 2015 – Water, mustard flour (31%), salt, lemon juice from concentrate, mustard husk, ground turmeric.

Compare that with:

Apr 2017 – Water, mustard flour (22%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard bran (3%), turmeric, stabiliser xanthan.

So all is explained: 9% less mustard, added sugar and other stuff.

So what to have in my ham roll?

More rummaging, this time in the larder, produces a tin of Colman’s English Mustard Powder. It doesn’t seem to have a use by date – too faint to read? It can’t be that the tin dates from before ‘use by’ dates, because it has a plastic lid and not a tin one… Oops, sorry, I’ve found the best before date: 07/16. That’s clever. Almost half way between the two jars. The label on the tin has no list of ingredients and just says ‘mustard powder’ and suggests that the mustard should be made up ten minutes before use. Armed with an egg cup and a Mickey Mouse tea spoon I make up a quantity of mustard – just mustard powder (which I happen to know was grown in the Fens!) and cold water, as instructed. I leave it to stand while I assemble the roll, the butter and the ham. Then I press the crust, lift it slowly and bite. At last, the moment of truth…

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Chewy crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and – yes – is that a sneeze I feel coming on? Yes…? Yes…? No! Phew. Aah, but the taste:

Bliss! Perfection!

And now an afterthought. I’ve just returned from Waitrose in Peterborough, where I failed to find any Colman’s Mustard Powder. All they stocked was the new, bland, pre-made stuff in jars (although I’m pleased to say that they did have the indispensable mustard tubes, which are perfect for the picnic basket). But really: just prepared ‘condiment’ and no real mustard powder! All I can say is:

YOU’RE NOT CUTTING THE MUSTARD, WAITROSE: PLEASE DON’T LOSE THE PLOT!

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