VegeBoxing Day

VegeBoxing Day falls on the Wednesday before Christmas, when members of OrganicLea’s vegebox scheme – and no doubt other box schemers across the land – receive a bumper midwinter edition. The idea is to: a) deck the reused carrier bags with high value festive treats, and b) stocking-fill them with two weeks’ worth of groceries, so that our farmers and packers can rest merry too. Hawkwood’s contributions to the parcel this year are: chilli garlands, salad and potatoes.

We are very pleased with how the chilli decorations have turned out. Sarah’s design balances the furious red of the “Ring Of Fire” peppers with the calming green of noble bay leaves, and they look right cosy hanging up in the kitchen or on the tree. William Morris, local lad and pioneer of the Arts & Crafts movement, famously declared: “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” , and I think he will be nodding his beard approvingly at the way these spicy mobiles marry beauty and utility.

We have been steadily munching away at the abundance of salad we inherited from the age of the sun. Some has been lost to the shockingly hard frosts, and what survives cannot be expected to regrow in temperatures that can barely pick themselves up from ground zero. So those receiving our mixed salad leaves are getting a rare, and – for the moment at least – finite, product. I have begun dancing for a mild spell in January so we can at least keep up our weekly salad commitment to Table 7 restaurant: it’s in the lap of the gods now.

The potatoes are “Arran Victory”, the oldest surviving cultivar of the great Isle of Arran stable, dating back to 1918. So far we’ve kept these lilac-skinned pearls in Chingford, for the exclusive enjoyment of  Hawkwood workers and Farm Stall customers. But, it being the season of giving, and this spud being “probably the best roasting potato ever”, according to Tamar Organics, it’s time we shared with the wider community. Its exceptionally high dry matter is one reason for its great roasting characteristics, also making it an acclaimed masher. However, its poor blight resistance mean that it has become an example of  “how potatoes used to taste”, and that reason we to will take a break from it next year. But I hope to be able to grow this gourmet tuber every now and then for as long as I live.

There is a minor Scottish theme emerging this winter, with the harvesting of the “Pentland Brig” kale in the Entrance Field last week. As the name suggests, this cultivar originates in the Pentland mountains near Edinburgh. When I’m working with it I can’t help thinking of the “kale yards”, the walled gardens tended by Scottish crofters where greens, and especially kale, were cultivated to provide a booster of essential trace elements to meals based on the field grown tatties and neeps.The Highland Clearances – a particularly fast and violent version of the Enclosures – put paid to much of crofting culture and its kale yards. It is said, though, that on the Highland moors today you can still make out where the crofters’ well-manured tattie and brassica patches were: the heather grows thickest there.

Equally, I am hoping our crops will grow thickest on the site of Hawkwood manor’s Victorian kitchen garden. We identified the area through historic maps and soil tests, and after much digging – even through the snow! – we have planted one hundred early rhubarb plants in the deep crisp and even. Already the crowns buds, in which  February’s “champagne” stalks are latent, are starting to green up in anticipation of spring. The real activity is below the surface, but visible swellings above the parapet are a vital symbol of hope in these times.

Winter Visitors

Not long ago, as  winter was  just beginning to grip, we were honoured to receive our first visit from Lizzie and Grahame Hughes,  crucial pieces in the OrganicLea jigsaw. Intensively growing on one acre of East Anglia under glass, they were members and employees of Eostre Organics, an organic  growers’ cooperative.

For around a decade, Eostre appeared to embody what a genuinely alternative food system might just look like: a member-owned business, pooling produce – including that of sister European co-ops – for marketing direct via market stalls or through community-based enterprises in London, their most significant local market.

Eostre were there in 2006,  to help us respond to local demand for a regular, reliable supply of honest good food, by launching our weekly market stall. The stall goes from strength to strength, and now the box scheme, and whilst both have done wonders when it comes to stimulating food production from within the little Edens of East London, the operations rest on the span and volume of produce from the broad lands beyond.

Like so many small fishes is the murky financial pond, Eostre went under in 2008, but out of the ashes rose Hughes Organics, Grahame and Lizzie working with a core of ex-Eostre growers, ensuring that those London communities continued to access decent organic veg. Despite hard times and disappointments, the Hugheses stay true to the ideal of  “calling into being”  grassroots independents: small change rather than big chains. It is a pleasure to be part of a simple, mutually beneficial relationship that bridges the rural- urban chasm. And not just because it allowed me to hear Grahame’s thoughts on watercress cultivation.

Another recent visitor, to everywhere on this island, has been Jack Frost, rendering much produce unharvestable for the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, some of Hughes’ mates had the foresight to pull stuff out of the ground when it was soft and the veg hard, rather than vice versa, so our members still got great produce. With temperatures down to -6 minus six here, some of the salads have had the limits of their hardiness sorely, sorely tested. But with the thaw this week, the “Pentland Brig” kale looked as unbowed and finely textured as ever; as triumphant as I felt.

Through the freeze we continued to harvest salad, and especially rocket, from under the glass. The difference this bit of protection can make at this time of year is stark, and another reminder of what an incredible resource we have here at Hawkwood. With the ground fleeced in snow, there has been a lot of indoor work, moving staging around to expose more areas for tough concrete breaking, for the soft opening up to soil.  Keep moving else you freeze hard.