Changing of the Gourds

“We are changing the rhythms of nature by which we have live our lives and planted our crops and written our poetry for the last 10,000 years” – B. McKibben

In this age of carbonated climate insecurity, all the more tear-jerking the joy when the seasons turn to show a recognisable face. We did have a summer after all, late and glorious for a’ that.  Yields per acreage are down, but not out, in many areas; in some they have held: nature is, as ever, more forgiving and generous than we have the right to expect. The beetroot and tomatoes have been fantastic in every way, and the high-rise sweetcorn have ripened, which didn’t seem highly likely a couple of months ago.

The golden cobs are, as we speak, being enthusiastically endorsed by Epping Forest’s grey squirrel population. This is not the result of any nature-inspired unexpected generosity on our part, only of our inferior wit. The tussle between human and rodent intelligences is one of gardening’s timeless spectacles. It is, variously, endlessly fascinating or rather tiresome, depending, frankly, on whether we’re winning or not. The rats have been driven out of the glasshouse, but this year the squirrels have won the Hundred Maize War. Fortunately, growing veg is, as Bradley Wiggins said of the Tour de France, “not the World Cup”: it comes around every year. Next season, there’ll be all to play for, and we hope to have the Jolly Green Giant on our side.

More joyfully, the shift from summer to autumn happened bang on the equinox, ancient textbook fashion, a cold wet front arriving just as night drew level with day. And this week, the changing of the gourds.

A seemless Hawkwood relay.

This is us at our best: Adam picked the last of the “Suyo Long” cucumbers on Tuesday afternoon. Mary’s team cleared to compost their wrinkly plant remains on Wednesday morning, and after lunch Dean and Steven planted brassica salads in their wake. These snake-like cucumbers have been our rising stars: they come with a flavour subtle and surprisingly sweet, in a range of comical shapes and sizes. Slow food restaurants and farm stall customers have preferred them to our mainstay “ridge” type. Its trump card, though, is that it is one of a precious few vegetables that you can not only eat, but also drink (in Pimm’s) and wear (as scarves, necklaces, bracelets). Build a shelter out of them and that’s all your basic needs sorted.

As the last of these versatile reptiles lies coiled on the farm stall, I see Dean stand back from its compatriot replacement, Oriental Mustard, as Ed passes by carrying the first of another Eastern-East End delight, a crate of “Uchiki Kuri” pumpkin, freshly picked from the Entrance Field. It dawns on me that there could be few more fitting events to mark the autumn equinox: the cucumber, which gives us moon-like discs of liquid cool to balance thirsty summers, is eclipsed by its cucurbit sister, the fiery red squash, whose bright globes warm our hearts and bellies into the winter.

The earth has turned. For one more year, we can live our lives, plant our crops, write our poetry. Amen.

Gardening Leave

The community market garden offers the grower the possibility of tearing themselves away during the main season, safe in the knowledge that the collective will keep things tended. It’s a variation on the support structures that are natural in “traditional” farming communities. In Chiapas, every farmer does a month long stint in the militia, defending the autonomous Zapatista villages from state and para-state attacks, trusting their neighbours to take care of their land. In Tuscany, Italy, people in the same area continue the tradition of getting together to assist each other with the grape vendemmia [harvest] and the raccolta [collection] of olives.

This is where I’ve been, not to help with either event, but to help myself to wayside figs and herbs, and any spillings of wisdom I can glean from Tuscan horticultural and culinary culture.

The “happy serendipity”, as Collin Tudge calls it, is that the best food in the world is the most nutritious, and the most ecological. This is peasant food: plant-based, crafted with passion from the grain of the environment and climate. In Tuscany, the peasant fare triangulates with stunning landscape and ancient history: a holy trinity that so may tourist pilgrimages seek to touch and be touched by.

Within this holy trinity is another: the grape, the olive and the wheat: the ancestors of Tuscan life and the building blocks of their world-famous cuisine. The former two have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for 8,000 years, and carry that weight of ancestral memory. As do the indigenous herbs – rosemary, marjoram, thyme. More recent introductions, such as garlic, basil, tomatoes, zuchinni; have received subsequent sanctification. In a place where food is accurately regarded as the source of life, so somehow sacred: these are vegetable gods.

This plant mysticism still has roots because it remains of the people. With the partial exception of wheat, they are all prepared fresh from garden plants. The key vegetables are grown in back gardens and farm corners; along with vines and olives which, whilst grown on plantation-scale, also have their local mills and presses for production that is small-scale, or, as they say, “misura d’umo” – to the measure of humans.

All this doesn’t necessarily make Tuscany a better place, a better society: only in some ways. At the least, it should compel any self-respecting British citizen returning from a jolly out there, to consider what they are bringing to, and taking from, the shrine at this Harvest Festival time.

Plants such as cabbage, parsnips, celery and broad beans go back to the earliest of gardens on these isles, yet are sometimes regarded with disdain rather than reverence. Earlier still, gatherings of green leaves – saladings – would have played a vital role in the diet of the first Britons, and some of the contents of our mixed salad bags, such as burnet, sorrel, watercress, mint, chard – would have been instantly recognisable to them. Later generations of Britons have brought tomatoes, runner beans, corn, occra, gourds, transplanting a crop menu as rich and intricate in its breadth as traditional peasant societies’ are in their depth.

The cornerstones of the UK diet, namely the grains, are now the preserve of highly mechanised farms. But there is a human-scale exception: the humble potato. The tuber is a complete food, easily grown, preserved and prepared at home and in the community. From chips to saag alloo; mash to colcannon; roasties to gnochi: these hidden treasures run a seam through so much of the rich UK food tapestry today.

Back at Hawkwood, it is three weeks since we cut back the blighted foliage, and a dozen or so people will this week come together to do their stint (literally: the term originated with potato pickers) in the Entrance Field and the packhouse.

As we’re picking in the Field, we’ll look across at the kales, the closest relatives of our indigenous wild cabbage: “Pentland Brigg”, a stalwart of Scottish crofters; and the latterly popular “Nero di Toscano” – Tuscan Black. Above the wise old celery are saladings of chicory and Lolla Rossa, and the golden jewels of pumpkin flowers still unfolding. Our Italian-inspired friends at Table 7 Bistro love these delicacies, but I’m still not sure what to do with them. Maybe I’ll make that a Late Summer Resolution. Maybe someone here has an idea. Maybe la dolce vita isn’t so far from this burnt, oily valley as it might at first glance seem.

Fire Power

Though the Indian summer, or its mirage, stretches to the horizon, still the world has tilted us into autumn. The light is decidedly shorter and lower, and its emotional quality is altered. And radicchio doesn’t lie: like litmus it tints deeper in direct proportion to the deepening night temperatures. Right now on the Entrance Field, these chicory leaves are torn between summer green and the scarlet shades that give “Orchidea Rossa”, “Rossa di Treviso” and “Grumolo Rossa” their names.

In the garden,  the tide has changed. Adam – our Mister Versatile, having played in every position this season, from apprentice grower to box scheme logistics to network development worker – put it well this week when he said “it’s too late to do anything now”. Anything, that is, but look, exhale, weed. Things are now growing by themselves, or not at all. The summer crops cannot be induced to grow more, nor replanted if they don’t. It’s time to delight in the joys and admit the defeats: after weeks of carefully pruning blighted potato foliage, now we cut it to the ground, cut our losses; the twice resown slug-ridden French bean bed will give us one bean if that: we can only look forward to healthy field beans in the not-too-distant; on the bright side, we have fabulous beetroot, tomatoes, and, just lately, chilli peppers.

What better plant to carry the flame of the summer into the cold dark days? In spring the glasshouse is full of seedlings, for us and for plant sales, but when these fly to greener pastures, the sand-lined staging becomes Hot Pepper Beach, swarming with sunbathing containerised capsicums. It seems to be a happy timeshare arrangement: they fruit OK in pots.

As resorts go, it’s pretty international: we have “Bolivian Rainbow”, a multicoloured specimen I picked up in Andalucia at the start of the year; “Serrano”, “Habanero” and “Jalapeno”, from the chilli cultural capital, Mexico; Scotch Bonnet “Safi” from the Caribbean, “Soverato” from farmers resisting land expropriation in the Susa Valley, Italy; Jim’s Long Cayenne from Australia;  and the Yankee “Ring of Fire”. And going into the vegeboxes last week were the mild, large, orange-red torpedos of “Hungarian Hot Wax”.

Ah, the magnificent Magyars. Hungary is the first, arguably the only, European culture to welcome the chilli plant and make it their own, so much so that Paprika, as they know it, is their national cuisines’s totem. How this came to be is disputed: The Turks are widely credited with introducing it when they ruled Hungary as part of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

However, an indigenous folktale turns that story on its head: Once a beautiful Hungarian girl was out walking in the fields near where she lived, which was close to a Turkish barracks. She was abducted and imprisoned in the local harem. The Turks, like the Mayans before them, knew of the pepper’s aphrodisiac qualities, so they spiked their food and that of the harem girls with chillies of the paprika variety. The girl desperately missed her freedom, and her boyfriend, and one day discovered a secret passage to the outside world.  She escaped, was reunited with her lover, but had to return to the harem to avoid punishment. Before doing so, she slipped him some capsicum seeds she had pocketed inside. Soon after, pepper plants started growing all over the countryside. The resistance fighters were fortified and fired up by their new spicey diet, so much so that they fought the Turks out of the territory.

Whether this is how it happened or not, this myth tells of an important historical process: that of the oppressed taking something of the oppressor’s, and turning it against them. Like the use of liberal and Christian ideas is struggles against racism and colonialism; or using social media to question and expose global capitalism. There is a further salutary lesson in it: while we suffer daily for the greed of a few millionaires, we need only see that we can all be, as Mary here would say, chillionaires. Time to get fired up!