Sour & Bitter

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I’ve recently been discovering the joys of putting things in barrels. If you put neutral grain spirit in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get whisky; it’s easy, really, despite all the mystery and romance piled around the subject. I suppose that’s the Celtic way. Now, neutral grain spirit isn’t very nice, while whisky, of course, is. It follows, then (I suppose), that if you put something nice in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get something better than whisky. To really test this theory, I guess I’d have to leave the something in the barrel for a good ten years; I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the patience. However, putting things in smaller barrels sort-of speeds the ageing process, or at least some aspects of it (surface area, don’t you know); to cut a long story short, I’ve put a bottle of Morris Gin in a small oak barrel. It’s been in there for two months now, and is starting to get some colour and good whiskiness from the wood. I’m going to leave it a couple more months, I think. My next project is to barrel-age two litres of mixed Negroni; I can only imagine that this will be extremely delicious.

None of this is very useful unless you intend to fill your house with barrels. It reminded me, though, that flavours can leak from unlikely places, and that alcohol is very good at capturing them. If you read a recipe requiring you to macerate oak twigs in wine, you would be surprised, though that is essentially what happens when you age the stuff in barrels. I have, in fact, a recipe somewhere for an oak-branch aquavit; “this sounds disgusting”, I thought, before the penny dropped. I’ve never actually tried this sort of reverse barrel-ageing, though. Silly, really, when we’ve got an oak right outside the kitchen. One reason alcohol is such a good medium for capturing these flavours is that unlike, say, water, it is capable of dissolving flavours from fats and oils; this is the principle behind ‘washed’ spirits, which have become a thing recently. This basically involves mixing a fat with booze and leaving it for a few days, then skimming the fat off. Easy! The first I heard of it was with bacon-fat bourbon (tastes like bourbon with bacon in it) but I was reminded of the technique recently by the olive oil-washed gin in Sardine’s dirty martini – a very fine aperitif cocktail. It so happened that at the same time I was looking for something to do with the cynar I had made. Cynar, if you’ve never had it, is an Italian bitter made chiefly of artichoke; it is truly, horrendously bitter – and I say this as a lover of Fernet Branca. Artichoke and olive oil, I thought – and so this drink was born. You may have heard it mentioned in passing on this Radio Four programme – I know the fig leaf wine was the star, but you can get the recipe there, so I thought I’d give you this.

ARTICHOKE SOUR

This takes ages and has several steps. Sorry!

CYNAR

about 20 artichoke leaves

a few angelica stalks

a bottle of vodka

Put everything in a jar and leave for at least a month, preferably two. Strain and bottle. Or buy some Cynar.

OLIVE OIL-WASHED GIN

a bottle of gin (I used Plymouth)

350g extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together in a big jar or bowl – something you can cover tightly. Leave for three days, whisking and re-covering every day, then put in the freezer overnight. Scoop off the solidified oil and strain the gin into a bottle.

SIMPLE SYRUP

equal weights of sugar and water

Boil together for five minutes, cool and bottle. Or buy some gomme.

LEMON JUICE

Juice some lemons. Or, yes, buy some pasteurised lemon juice in a squeezy lemon. You’ve got this far, though…

When you’d like to actually drink this, just mix equal quantities of everything. I assume you keep all of your booze in the freezer; if not, stir over ice. Enjoy! You’ve earned it.

Inglorious Bustards

There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and bosky wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which, broadly, we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated significantly, adapted itself around human settlement. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my back garden. The pig farms of Blythburgh have as much right to the land as Folkestone Warren.

Any radical conservation (if you’ll excuse the phrase), that is to say, any attempt to rebirth a truly wild British landscape, would require, ironically, a huge intervention, in the form of a vast holocaust. A near-total annihilation of the human population, not to mention of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, alpacas, horses, goats, elephants, wallabies, rheas, hares and so on, a final eradication of the mark of so-called civilisation from the map, would be followed by the reintroduction of wolves and of bears; the regular cull that our semi-wild deer population receives would be carried out more naturally. There are those who advocate for this, if not in such extreme terms – it is the logical conclusion of a certain strand of conservationism, but most people tread a more compromised path.

To return to total wildness, let’s say, is impossible or undesirable or both – what then? If you agree that we have some responsibility towards the rest of nature, to try and ensure we do as little harm as we can – well, it seems arbitrary to choose now or rather a rose-tinted recent past as the moment to conserve, but what else to do? Muddle along, I suppose. Even if we had the inclination to resurrect ecosystems past, we don’t have the ability or the knowledge. The culture in a pot of naturally fermented kimchi has still not been successfully modelled – imagine the complexity of the wild wood! So we tend to our garden, we manage and conserve, we farm the things we think are farmed, we hunt and forage the wild ones – and this, really, is the problem. Most of them are not wild.

The humane farming of animals for meat has taken huge strides in recent years. A loose coalition of chefs, farmers and consumers has made a huge positive change to animal welfare and to its importance in public discourse; everyone knows to at least pay lip service to happy hens, blissful cows, quietly ecstatic pigs. If there is still some distance to go, there is at least a general recognition that, quite apart from ethical issues, meat tastes better when it has spent its life outside, eaten a varied diet, had a gentle death. The quality of good meat in Britain now is really quite astonishing, and cooks both professional and amateur are right to insist on the good stuff; it is more expensive, but so it should be; it takes space and time to farm well, and these things cost money.

On the other hand, we have game. I have written a few times before about rabbit, and nothing’s changed since then; it is still, alongside pigeon, plentiful and generally healthy in its large feral populations, shot at by farmers as pest control. It is, I think, right to eat it for as long as these conditions attain. Although farmed in some places, the various types of deer which roam Britain are in a broadly similar situation – in the absence of their apex predators, they are regularly culled. I don’t especially like venison and, still treated as a meat of kings, it is pretty expensive, but I don’t have a problem with it; eat away!

Game birds (pigeon excepted) on the other hand, are very different. Most, like the rabbit, were introduced to be kept as a semi-wild food source, though lacking the rabbit’s capacity to breed, adaptability to various environments, and resilience to even horrific biological warfare, they need keeping, breeding and rearing as chicks, their environment heavily managed to the detriment of other species – all so they can be shot at. Are they wild or farmed? The huge pens called ‘grouse moors’ are kept solely for the benefit of these creatures. Foxes and stoats, which prey on them, are trapped and killed, as are hares, which can carry parasites harmful to grouse; the surface of the moor is burnt away. All of this, I think, is legal, but there are also many recorded instances of birds of prey trapped or poisoned, which is not. Higher ground is drained, to the detriment of lowland towns.

This is farming, free-range farming on a wastefully gigantic scale – but without the payoff. Where cows are herded into abattoirs one-by-one, unaware of the imminent blow of the bolt-gun, calmly led to euthanasia, semi-tame grouse and partridge and pheasants are released, hounded and flung into the air to be shot at, winged, dispatched, shoved into ‘the bag’. No wild meat should require such intervention; no farmed animal deserves such a death. Driven grouse shooting gives us the very worst of each world. The reason it is allowed to continue, of course, is that it is a hobby of the very rich, for whom nature is not red in tooth and claw but just another playground under their petulant command. It creates jobs, they cry, it is economically necessary – stop buying grouse, that cruelly half-farmed highland chicken, and it won’t be. Remember that when you cook with grouse, when you eat it, you are cooking not wild untrammelled nature but the discarded carrion of an aristocrat’s game.

 

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.

Not A Fig

One of the best things about growing your own food (or rather, working somewhere where someone does it for you) is that you get to use parts of the plants that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t even see. Pinched-out broad bean tops make a fine salad; artichoke leaves can be infused into cynar; rosemary flowers have a vagrant fragrance, more delicate by far than the bruising aromatics of the leaves. The basic rule, which seems very obvious once you realise it, is that all or most of the plant carries flavour. We usually use just the fruit, or the leaf, or the root, but the rest is full of untapped potential.

 

Of course, we have to exercise some restraint in this. Broad bean flowers are very good, but if you use them all you won’t get any broad beans – a bit of a waste of a plant. Leaves are less finite, but strip too many off and your tree will die. Luckily, in most cases you only need a few to bring a strong flavour to your recipe – in this case, your ice-cream. The leaves of fruit trees or bushes lend themselves very well to this. The bursting fragrance of fresh fruit is beautiful in a water- or buttermilk-ice, but the added acidity and liquid can be difficult to handle in a proper creamy ice-cream; the leaves give a lot of the former with none of the latter. You just need to plan a little in advance.

 

Although a lot of recipes for fig leaf ice-cream cook the leaves, I prefer not to. Broadly speaking, leaves of all kinds contain two strands of flavour. There are the oils and aromas particular to the plant itself, redolent of mintiness or blackcurrantness or whatever; then there is a more generic leafiness or grassiness, common to most greenery, which is in fact a defence mechanism against violence, and is brought out by physical insult or by heat. Sometimes, as in a chlorophyllic chimmichurri, you want this latter quality, which is why you smash the leaves in mortar or in magimix; more often, you don’t. In these cases, careful chopping or cold maceration are the way to go.

 

FIG LEAF ICE-CREAM

You’ll need, obviously, some fig leaves. We have a tree growing against the wall of the cafe, which is handy. Without this luxury, you’ll have to hunt one down. There’re a couple in the ground of Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m reliably informed there’s one in Vauxhall Park. Just don’t take too many.

300ml full-fat milk

4-5 fig leaves

300ml double cream

200g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

a pinch of salt

Scrunch or slap the leaves lightly, so they smell strongly of figs; put them in the milk and leave for two or three days, then squeeze them out and discard them. Add the milk to the cream in a saucepan.

Whisk together the sugar, yolks and salt (preferably in a free-standing mixer; it takes ages) until really fluffy and pale. A sort of wan lemon should be your guide, but it obviously depends on the eggs.

Meanwhile, scald the milk mix, and when the eggs are right, pour the hot liquid over them, still whisking, and then pour the lot back into the pan.

Heat very gently, stirring the whole time, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of whatever utensil you are using. If you overcook it, it will scramble, and you’ll have to start the whole three-day process all over again.

Decant into a container and cool completely, preferably overnight in the fridge, then churn in your ice-cream machine or whatever charmingly old-fashioned arrangement you have. Eat it now as a soft-serve or freeze overnight for a more traditional scoop. Some little biscuits would not go amiss.

Lights of My Life

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Excellent times at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Someone remarked that it was like seeing their bookshelves come to life, which seems apt; I chatted with Bee Wilson, Elisabeth Luard and Fergus Henderson, watched Claudia Roden, Jacob Kennedy and Jennifer McLagan, and added many more writers to my reading list; I met academics, fellow-travellers and stars of the future like Rebecca Johnson and Amanda Couch, who I watched perform a Mesopotamian-style liver divination – not something I ever thought I’d see.

It was, if not actually humbling, at least a signal honour to present a paper to such an illustrious and appreciative crowd, to have a space where I, as a non-academic with a semi-academic background and a wide range of interests, could come and be a part of the debate. The papers’ll be edited for online and physical publication before the end of the year, at which point I’ll put up my presentation, too; for now, since this kind of effusiveness doesn’t come naturally to me, here is a portrait of a pig.

Angel’s Kiss

In Oliver Rowe’s new and rather lovely work, a photo-less cookbook-diary-memoir called Food For All Seasons, which details the sometimes extreme locavorism that drives his cooking, he talks of the turn of the seasons as a sort of relentless force which moves entirely as it pleases; not a peaceful, steady wheel but a rollercoaster which gathers or loses speed and momentum according to the time of the year, the weather, and so on. The seasons, as he describes them, are a hard taskmaster, demanding constant vigilance and thorough organisation in order to get the most out of their bounty.They are now approaching full speed, as the year rolls into full summer and every week, it seems, brings a new crop; the other day, having just got used to the constant rain and chilly evenings, I was shocked when our grower brought up the first of the cucumbers. Spiny pickling varieties, some a dark alligator green and some a highlighter-yellow, I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, quite ready for them; luckily, the limited success of my miso project meant I had a spare crock, and in they went, with some wet garlic, fresh bay and fennel fronds for company. It’s so hot at the moment that they are nearly ready, three days later – everything moves faster in the summer, which is unfortunate, given that it is too hot in the kitchen to move above an amble.

With a combination of this and a slight change in technique, our pickled turnips are ready overnight, the mixed pickle only slightly longer. Ol’ Yeasty belches and swells swampily, and his doughy offspring rise like a dream. The downside is that experiments which could otherwise have been left happily to themselves for days on end require constant vigilance; if they don’t end up victims of their own bubbly tumescence, the fruit flies will probably get them. I understand why they target the rye sourdough, which is after all pretty much pure digestible food, but their particular love for drowning themselves in anything vinegary is baffling, and has led to the death of a poorly-wrapped maceration of cherries; luckily it also makes it easy to set traps for them. It’s lucky, then, that the concoctions of sugared wine and crushed fruit on the shelf above the bar are sealed in Kilner jars and well-wrapped in clingfilm; they would otherwise shortly become infested with tiny corpses.

Containing, variously, green walnuts, black cherries, and squished gooseberries, these infusions will become what the French, rather lovelily, call ‘window wines’, as they sit on a bright windowsill to mature in the sun, which streaks through them and turns shades of orange, green, and scarlet. Even if they taste disgusting, which seems rather unlikely, it would be worth making them just for this. I have, as is often the case, Diana Henry to thank for introducing me to these, which I have been meaning to make for ages. It’s just so hard not to eat cherries, especially when you are squashing the stones out of them and the juice splatters all over your hands and face. The cherry and the gooseberry should both be ready in a day or two, but the walnut, made, like Opies’ finest pickles, from the soft buds before they develop shells, is supposed to take two months. This is frustrating, but I suspect its taste – which I imagine is dark, spiced and woody – will sit better in the dark end of the year. Summer, on the other hand, was made for drinking cherry wine, in little glass beakers as the sun goes down across the hedgerows and the hills and the backs of the hot-bricked houses, as the first blue stars emerge.

Humblebrag

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It seems to have become the thing, when receiving an award, achieving some ambition long-worked-for or completely out of the blue, to declare yourself ‘humbled’. I’m not really sure what this means. I am humbled by the sublime majesty of the Adirondack peaks, the wild Atlantic, or the North Norfolk coast; I am humbled when I eat the food, say, of James Lowe or Stephen Harris, or read W.G Sebald or MFK Fisher, and realize I may never work with such simple grace. When, on the other hand, the restaurant at which I work is named the 80th best in the UK in a prestigious and well-respected list, I am far from bloody humbled. Why should I be? I am QUANTIFIABLY better than you – or at least most of you. I don’t know why it’s not considered acceptable to instead declare yourself ‘distended with drunken pride’, but there it is; etiquette, I suppose.

Another thing about which I find myself decidedly un-humble is that I have finally, two years after seriously starting, succeeded in making sourdough bread good enough – with that crust which crackles just-so as you squeeze it – to sell in the restaurant. Two years is just about as long as I’ve ever worked at anything (well, apart from my degree, but I’m not sure I count reading Jack London as work; he certainly wouldn’t have), so I consider this a justified result for my effort, which consisted largely of doing the same thing over and over again until I got good at it – the final step missing from all pastry and bread recipes – as well, of course, as stealing advice and techniques from whoever I could, including monks, Prussian princes, long-dead writers, and, on occasion, bakers.

As the adoption of these techniques, and the various pieces of equipment they require, which demands a certain amount of time, money, and practical experience, would form the bulk of any recipe, it would be largely pointless for me to write one down here; the only changes I have made from my last bread post, anyway, have been to adapt the flours, to add a secret improver, to alter the constituents of the starter, to make a wetter dough, and to change the equipment and therefore the process I use in almost every respect, so you might as well just follow that one.

I think, anyway, that it does’t much matter which recipe you follow. The important thing is to stick to one, and to stubbornly follow it again and again until the bread which comes out of the oven is perfect in every respect. Feel humble if you like, but it makes me feel alive.

Europa

I am a European cook. So many of my favourite cookery writers, constant inspirations in my professional life – Elizabeth David, Fergus Henderson, Diana Henry – in turn found inspiration in the food of continental Europe and used that inspiration to change British food very much for the better. Whenever I go abroad, ranging freely around Europe, it is largely to eat, collecting recipes and ingredients and imbibing a more general sense of a food culture that is still largely unmoderated by supermarkets – clear and direct.

I use European ingredients, such as Spanish olive oil; everybody does, including the Italians. It is the best – the ancient Romans used it too. There is much to be gained from the free movement of the best things. I use local ingredients too, of course; often extremely local, grown for us at work – from European seeds. Almost no-one uses exclusively local ingredients, though. If you are looking for quality  you might get Datterini tomatoes and blood oranges from Sicily, good French mushrooms and that lovely purple garlic, Spanish anchovies and chorizo; if you are cooking in quantity most of your ingredients – tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, salads – will come from the vast fields and polytunnels of Holland or Spain. Potatoes are usually British, but only because they’re so heavy that it works out cheaper. We don’t know what’s going to happen to these supply chains.

At the moment, with a farming industry that is heavily reliant on European labour and subsidies, we grow less than 60% of our own food; we don’t know what’s going to happen to that, either. If we grow more, prices will have to rise; if not, we keep on importing and shoulder the inevitable extra costs.

Like all good Europeans, I love to eat and cook with local, regional cheeses, of which Britain has a huge number and diversity, many of them protected and therefore rendered profitable by the EU PDO system, which also covers Yorkshire rhubarb, Jersey Royal potatoes and suchlike, defending these short-seasoned, high-quality products from the unscrupulous machinations of big business; these things might otherwise have disappeared or at least become bland and unreliable. We could, of course, legislate to protect these industries; we could equally end up like America, with sawdust in the Parmesan, calling piss Champagne.

Civilisations come together to feed people; the EU came together to feed people, to make sure that we grew and raised and caught enough food to go round. It hasn’t been an unmitigated success, but it has muddled along. Now, with some of the poorest people in Great Britannia starving to death, we have severed ourselves from that safety blanket and taken a step forward into the dark. We don’t know what is going to happen to our farms, to our fisheries, to the huge network which allows us to eat, to the people who grow and pick and prepare our food.

I am a European cook, and I am scared.

White Flannel Trousers

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I heard, the other day, of someone who doesn’t like strawberries. Not “could take them or leave them” or even “obviously they’re nice but I prefer raspberries”, you understand; actively dislikes them. Who knows what such a person might be capable of? I always preferred raspberries myself, as it happens. Easier to eat, which should count for something, and less likely, in my experience (which covers many of the PYOs and markets of East Kent) to disappoint than a strawberry, which, when bad (underripe, cold, et cetera) can serve more as a reminder of the essential purposelessness of life than as a berry, which, in fact, they are not. (Like everyone else, I have always assumed that strawberries are so-called because of the beds of straw they are coddled in; this is, apparently, also untrue). Still, if a bad strawberry has an upside it is that it reminds you that strawberries, when good, can be very good indeed; anyone who dislikes them is clearly under suspicion, but so is anyone who declares them their favourite fruit – at least past the age of eight. (Anyone who says their favourite fruit is tomato should be removed from your social circle).

People wax in all kinds of directions about the peach; there is something about stone fruit which inspires food writers to a sort of erotic prose-poetry, especially when it is dripping and ripe, with a barely-perceptible down fuzzing its clefts and its curves, but peaches in particular don’t do much for me. Sweet, yes, soft, yes, perfumed, sometimes… perhaps my taste for them has been ruined by peach-flavoured sweets, which are, more often than not, absolutely foul. Give me a greengage, with its taut skin snapping over its fleshy cells! Give me, actually, a cherry. Cherries are obviously the best fruit. They are bite-sized, with a stone small enough to suck and then spit out; they are red, as fruit should be (except greengages); they are delicious. There is a reason why things come with a cherry on top, and not, say, a nectarine. The best thing about cherries is that they can be sour. Dried sour cherries are a magnificent thing, good with lamb or chicken or pork or baked into a tart. I have never, I am sorry to say, had the pleasure of a fresh one, but it is only a matter of time, and besides, the potential for sourness inherent in even the sweetest of cherries (they need each other, you see; the sour ones pollinate the sweet ones) means that you can happily add your own. Anything with cherry in will benefit from a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, or, indeed, a huge amount.

If you are in possession of a quantity of cherries and some good, preferably live vinegar, then you can (once you have eaten about half of the former) pit and crush the one and pour the other over it, leave to macerate overnight or for longer, then strain, mix with enough honey or other sugar to make it palatably sweet, and then dilute with sparkling or plain water; this is a shrub, and very tasty it is too. I have incorporated this ‘recipe’ as it were by stealth partly because the quantities I use are precisely that vague (although I could have easily made them up, and no-one would be any the wiser) but mainly because it is not the sort of thing you have to think about making, and set out your ingredients carefully; you just mix some nice things together, and then you have something different but also nice. Fill your kitchen with nice things, among them ripe cherries.

 

Pickle Prayer

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Put your faith in salt and time

and trust that pickles will result;

Put your faith in time and salt.

 

Put your faith in time and salt –

Age gives heft to more than wine –

Put your faith in salt and time.

 

In time and salt put all your trust

– the salt and sour will keep it safe –

time and salt deserve your faith.

 

In time and salt put all your faith

discard the failures when you must

but keep your faith, and time, and trust.