Mind The Gap

People accustomed to eating seasonally are at least familiar with the term “Hungry Gap” – that period in early summer where last year’s stores run bare before the new season crops are ready to bring in. The term refers to the “staples”: potatoes, carrots, onions, apples: but the vast majority of our fruit and veg has its season, and, conversely, its own “gap”.

Small scale growers like us have begun to master the art of all-year-round salad leaves, as the public begins to welcome this fresh handout of winter vitamins. This is done by gradually replacing ageing lettuce, mibuna etc. throughout the spring and summer, thus ensuring a steady supply of an ever evolving mix. This is fairly straight forward, or rather would be if I was more organised, but the winter salads are a bit trickier.

You see, in the UK there is a growing season, and therefore a growing gap. Put simple and starkly, nothing bothers to grow much for a good five months of the year. The key to providing winter salads then, is to have all plants well established by October to enable light cropping in the coming dark months. Plant too early, and they try to run to flower before the dormant season; too late, and they remain tiny seedlings, sitting there helplessly as the blizzards descend. What this means is that, at this time of year, most of the leaves have to be replanted in one fell swoop rather than gradual succession, then we have to wait a month for them to get to harvesting size.This, my friends, is the Salad Gap, and we are slap bang in the middle of it.

This is not to say there are absolutely no leaves to be had: we’ve been scraping together a motley assortment to meet our regular commitments, but I can’t pretend, as I normally do, that they represent a crafted blend of well-balanced flavours, textures and colour. So last week, with a cry of “let them eat tomatoes and cucumbers!”, we sent no salad bags to the stall or box scheme.

There has been a small outcry over this, so we’ll be sending salad gap bags to the stall this week, only I’d advise people to “cut” them with a head of lettuce, and perhaps a dressing sweetened with honey or maple syrup. By the end of September normal salad service should be resumed , with the host of delightful winter leaves – miners lettuce, corn salad, endive, chicory, baby kale, rucola rocket – to provide some sort of crisp consolation in the dying days.

That Glut Feeling

It’s the days of gluts. On allotments up and down the country, courgettes and bolting lettuces are being chucked onto compost heaps, or desperately thrust at relatives and into jam jars.

It might be argued that a skilled grower should be able to plan their planting and cropping schedules so as to avoid that heart sinking feeling, of nurturing plants to their prime only to realise that no one is expecting them. But it seems that the most experienced, acclaimed organic growers are every bit as gluttonous as the rest of us. One thing we all learn is that, what with all the weather and pestilence out there, it really makes sense to sow much more than you plan to reap. Bad things sometimes happen. The good news is, they often don’t.

Our main glut right now is basil. It needed some persuading to get growing in the glasshouse ground in early May, but it’s now a sight and smell to behold. With their brilliant green, glossy, convex leaves, the stand of bushes have a discernible aura; and when they’re picked for the stall on Friday the crushing of stems releases their incense throughout the building: close your eyes and you could imagine yourself in a kind of food-worshippers temple. Open them again.

However, the basil is looking so great partly because we’re not pruning it back as hard as we need to, to prolong the leafy stage of its life. Fortunately, there is the “Ethical Eats” network of food businesses, brought together by SUSTAIN, the alliance for better food and farming. A call out to them yielded a healthy response rate. As a result, for the first time Hawkwood produce is being traded outside of Waltham Forest and the Lea Valley bioregion – to Hackney’s Happy Kitchen; Islington’s The Alma; and Camden’s Mana restaurant. Not only has this ensured that one of the finest “Sweet Genovese” beds in London does not go to waste (though at least recycling nutrients via the compost heap means it’s never a total waste), it has also provided an opportunity to meet three more independent caterers who share our passion for good food, in its widest sense, and who we may develop a longer term mutually beneficial relationship with.

So, for all the worry, gluts have this social function too: for us, as for all the allotmenteers, they’re an opportunity to branch out, share, make friends – to forge community.