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.