Chilli Sufficiency

Contrary to what some people might expect, neither I nor my erstwhile colleagues at OrganicLea have every aspired to self-sufficiency as an objective or philosophy. Ecology, and any sort of humanity, is so much about beneficial relationships. Many would like to grow more of their own food, but if that is at the expense of sharing and exchanging food with others, then the net sum of experiences may be impoverished, rather than enriched.

Which is why I’m happy as a potato in mud to be a community market gardener: happier to grow ten kilos of salad and send it off to our box scheme, in order to get back one bag of salad and the chance to appreciate the wonderful organic carrots and onions grown by our campaneros in East Anglia, in the vegebox. It seems to me that’s it’s neither consumerist dependency or self-sufficiency but self-reliance, that balance of autonomy and collectivity, that remains the hopeful path. And this does not deny the pleasure of sometimes doing it all yourself.

Early on in my horticultural journey, a member of the 1 in 12 Club’s Peasants Collective  in  Bradford explained  away their disproportionate swathes of garlic as “something you can be self-sufficient in”. This crop remains a good tip for any gardener who wants to experience the  uniques satisfaction of a year-round supply from their own patch of earth. Culinary herbs, such as sage and rosemary, need only a plant or two to fulfill that role. As we dug out the remaining potatoes from the field on Friday I reflected that our modest spud bed has comfortably yielded enough for the average annual requirements of three Brits, or ten people in China. (But only one month’s supply for the average Irish peasant in the nineteenth century!)

If, as we do, you have a bit of protection, then for that hit of self-sufficiency, it’s all about chillies. My favourite remains “Ring Of Fire”, a cultivar that guarantees reliability without compromise – these are HOT chillies, as was testified by the very sparingly excavated bowls of pepper paste left on the tables at our World Food  Day Feast last week. These filled my doggy jar which, even accounting for the distinct possibility of a year of prodigious curry making, should keep me going until 2011’s thin fruits are ripe for the picking.

Most of their brethren are on the glasshouse staging, drying sizzlingly, or still ripening on the plants. The plan is to string these fully dried peppers into “edible decorations”,to add their joyful red glow and hearty warmth to the midwinter festivities of, hopefully, hundreds of average, and less average, British households. This , I think, will be sufficient.

Catching Some Sun

It’s at precisely the point at which autumn’s consolations of vivid colour begin to appear that I become prepared to accept that the game’s up: the growing season is all but over, all but a dream.

Here at Hawkwood, the Sumach and American Hawthorn are the first to slip into the shades of sunset; the leaves of our subtropical guests – squashes, melons, basil – are shrinking to ashen without such joyful ceremony; my spirits could go either way.

It’s a good time to be enjoying beetroot, I think. We’re growing “Bulls Blood” and “Golden Detroit”, both names accurately reflecting the hues of root and branch, and reflecting the proud tree leaves before The Fall. I’m pleased to say that the local appetite for this generally underrated vegetable has been such that we will have little or no need to elaborate on winter storage for them. However, no authentic seasonal food project is worth its salted cabbage without making some attempt to keep summer’s abundance through the lean months of winter.

The leeks, kale and winter salads will stand out stoically in the ground. We’ll squeeze the last drops of sunshine out to dry the chilli peppers and cure the squash skins, so that both can hibernate until awakened by the fire of the cooking pot. At the Hornbeam café last week, my friend Ida was demonstrating traditional Italian methods of preservation – passata for tomatoes and sott’olio for vegetables such as French beans, courgettes, aubergines and mushrooms. At our Open Day last week Hornbeam chef Juannan led a team cutting a sizeable swathe through our basil jungle, making as much pesto as we had jam jars. Most have sold straight away, and to be honest I’m not sure how many jars will see in the winter, if the rate at which I have consumed mine is anything approaching average.

We are pasteurizing fresh pressed apple juice; making cyder vinegar; Marlene is no doubt racking up the chutneys as we speak; whilst my wine rack is brimming over with summer homebrew and my celery sauerkraut micro-project is surely heart-warmingly optimistic, if nothing else. Like nothing else, those jars and bottles of captured summer bring comfort as we head downhill, totems of a season not wasted but relished lingeringly. First, make things last.