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!