In The Pumpkin Hour

Last week, you could hear the deer rutting in the twilight; in Friday’s twilight, our piece of valley echoed to the hollow toll of the post driver, piling chestnut stakes through the vineyard. The Last Post rang out, then silence: as if sounding in the Pumpkin Hour.

For this week around Hallowe’en, the pumpkin attains the too-rare status of nationally celebrated vegetable icon. For true veg lovers, this is a double-edged carving knife: of those hundreds of thousands of Jack-O-Lanterns that will be chiseled out for Bewitching Night, most will pass to the other side without being first consumed by human beings. Those of us that do cook our grinning idols come All Saints will know that they may make good soupers, but have none of the versatility, flavour, texture or sweetness of a fine winter squash.

Our compromise position at Hawkwood is to grow “Uchiki Kuri”, a good keeper with a rich honey taste and a dense, melting sweet potato texture; but  big enough and orange enough to stand guard by the window without inviting ridicule from neighbours and zombies. That’s what might happen if you employed our green-skinned, chestnut-nectared “Buttercup”, or the “Sweet Dumpling”, which look and cook up  like a three-way cross between sweetcorn, round courgettes and, yes indeed, dumplings. Squash fans (let’s call them “Squashers” to differentiate them from supporters of indoor racquet sports) will enjoy these Vit B rich carb bombs for what they are, deep into the dark times, but they are decidedly not the heroes of the Pumpkin Hour.

The stipulation that vegetable lanterns must be watery, amber and as big as footballs is, though, a relatively recent, transatlantic ruling. Originally, as reported in last week’s Local Food News (OrganicLea’s exclusive journal) , the Celtic festival of Samhain, festival of remembrance, was marked by, amongst other peculiar practices, the turning of turnips and Swedes into glowing skulls, to denote the presence of ancestors. The tradition was taken to the Americas by Irish and Scottish migrants and refugees, and adapted to the indigenous Cucurbits which, let’s face it, provide a bolder medium for scary sculpting. Then they came back to haunt us.

If it’s hard to imagine a world in which Swedes and turnips replace squash, try imagining a world in which they replace potatotes as the chief staple vegetable. Yet this world was Blighty before the “New World”. Furthermore, turnip production was a staple job, as immortalized in the traditional Somerset folk song: “And zum delights in haymakin’ and a vew be vond of mowin’/ But of all the jobs that I like best, gi’e ae the turnit hoeing”.

So far from fashion has turnips’  fall been, that they are now not far off being lumped with the (brilliant but misunderstood) likes of Kohl Rabi and Jerusalem Artichokes in the “novel vegetable” ghetto.

At Hawkwood, we try to keep the turnip lamps burning, though the heavy clay is a mischief for root crops. In the last few days Jonny and Mary have returned from the glasshouse with a bounty of Turnip Tops. Latterly rebranded “Namenia” to suit modern sensibilities, Turnip Tops – leaves of  Brassica rapa subsp. rapa – is what they are. In autumn and winter, they – alongside endive, chard, Bulls Blood, miners lettuce – provide that vital mildness to balance the rising hot and bitter flavours of our winter salad leaves. That mildness carries an unusual flavour that most people appreciate but find hard to describe: best described, I find, as, “turnipey”.

The salad has slipped through the late summer gap, and we now have good dense stands, inside and out, red and green and going home, that should see us, and all of our kin, ‘til Christmas.

So right now, we’re all about salad and squash. Happy All Hallows: The Pumpkin Hour; Time of the Turnip.

Pretty Deliciously Autumnal

When next you hear someone talk about the need to intensify food production to meet increasing requirements, bear in mind that all studies, experience and common sense have it that the most intensive mode of growing is the very small-scale: subsistence and peasant production. Community gardening, meanwhile, is highest in intensity of energy, information and relationships that are fed in, and harvested.

For the community market gardener, this can be intensely challenging. For example, many a crop is lovingly raised and set out here in response to a request from the wider community, but life, especially in London, can speed faster than the seasons’ pace. Chefs who have enthusiastically pledged to “take all the [basil/ celery/ Good King Henry/ salad leaves] you’ve got” when we are drawing up our planting plans, aren’t always hanging around when we return triumphantly brandishing the green stuff. Granted, nine months might seem like a long time to process an order, but hey, we don’t make the laws of nature.

Last week we finally rotavated in the bed of St. John’s Wort that an herbalist had asked us to grow, shortly before they fled to the (admittedly herbier) pastures of the West Country. Gradualy, sadly, you become more cautious towards such suggestions. But when Eleanor from Pretty Delicious (www.prettydelicious.org) showed up at the start of the year, she found a soft spot.

Whilst at Growing Communities, I studied the work of Joy Larkcom, and decided that every bag of mixed salad leaves hence should, by rights, contain a free edible flower. At OrganicLea, we rigidly pursue this dogma, albeit sometimes stretching the definitions of “edible”, “free”, and, on occasion, “flower”. The yellow buds of prickly gorse are harvested at quite a cost to the poor pickers, and don’t taste that great, but tell me what other petals can you find in February? In the main season though, there’s viola, nasturtium, shungiku, marigold and oyster plant, causing nothing but delight all round. I regard floral garnish as the signature of a really fresh, handmade salad, as well as adding a splash of vivid colour and their own unique nutritional and medicinal properties to the mix. In the garden, these flowers are vital, for our pest management, and also for our souls. As the Lawrence Strikers first put it, “give us bread, but give us roses”.

Eleanor has taken the edible flowers concept a step further, dealing in scrumptious bouquets. We’ve been stunned at the displays she’s conjured up from our motley assortment of flowering herbs, bolting vegetables, companion plants and green manures. Each posy is sold with a card detailing imaginative recipes for the blossoms once they have cheered the dining table for a while.

As we approach our Produce Review and Planning Process for 02013, I’m looking forward to increasing and diversifying the floral tribute to Pretty Delicious. As autumn draws in though, I’ve gleaned one further, unexpected yield from this connection. In midsummer, everything and everyone wants to flower. By late summer you have to look a bit harder. Last week, before Eleanor’s Saturday stall at the Hornbeam Centre – flanking our veg stand – where had all the flowers gone? Garland chrysanthemum, mint, chive, borage, oregano: gone to seed heads every one.

Commencing picking veg with this in mind, my eyes were opened to the utter beauty and audacity of the late flowering – and fruiting – plants that are still out there: calendula, clover, alfalfa, ice plant, chamomile, hedge mustard, yarrow, shiso; rosehip, crab apple, hawthorn, blackberry, chilli: all ornamental and tasty. All to cherish, yet last year I barely gave them a second glance. Excitedly, I rushed to give Hannah regular updates on the latest botanical discoveries.

Funny how things that start off sweet can quickly become nauseating. Double chocolate cake, say; or, I guess, scruffy men bursting into your office at random intervals and barking the common names of herbs at you. We soon agreed I should instead commit my findings to a written list. This I’ve done: our full mid-October menu of edible floristry products is simultaneously a chronicle that might prove half-decent reference material in years to come; and right now it makes for uplifting reading just as Jack Frost stalks the valley again.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, said William Morris of Walthamstow, and I like to think he thought of the garden as part of the house. So should we all.

The Comforts of Celery

Saint Celery’s is here! This esoteric festival, reported on these pages in May 2011,has arrived later than usual this year. In April, the first five pale leaflets – little hands of the Devil’s Vegetable – groped out from the trays of Hawkwood’s home recipe seed mix. Through the season, the leer of the celery beds grew greener and fuller across the Entrance Field, and now we cut them, and tickle them around East London, arousing passion and suspicion wherever they go.

We left it late this year, hoping, after the slow start, for a last ditch stalk-swell. As is so often the case, what we’ve gained in size we’ve lost in good looks, as leaf spot, leaf miner and bare old age come to discolour the leaf. Yet the ribs stand firm. Unlike other plantings, we never worried for this bogside vegetable in the months of waterlogging. So much at home is it on our heavy drop of reclaimed marshland, it has attained a totemic status here at Hawkwood, where for a period a year – this one – it eclipses the basil as the overpowering Flavour of the Month.

Paricluarly flavoursome in soups and stocks, I have been enjoying it in combination with potatoes this last fortnight. More Poignantly perhaps, as this year the stores of humble spud will not outlast the stands of green celery as long as we are accustomed to.

Our first early spuds barley cropped, and our maincrop, the fantastically flavoured “Arran Victory”, yielded a marketable, storeable yield of a mere 5 kilo, after the slim pickings had slug and wireworm damaged tubers graded out into the “Team Veg” shelf for Hawkwood workers. In a good year we would have expected to bring in that amount hundredfold, enough to stock the farm stall into spring . We are not an isolated case. This year, the wet early summer has meant the majority of UK potato seed either weren’t planted at all, rotted in the ground, were devoured by slugs, or suffered the blight. Our rural partners, Hughes Organics, are issuing dire warning s of potato shortages.

The supermarkets will, as ever, trample on whoever, wherever, to ensure continuity. For community food systems like ours, the lack of our perennially totemic staple will provide a sore test of creativity and resilience. Hannah, OrganicLea’s new Produce Coordinator, is already facing up to this challenge, working out where we might stockpile, and where we can confidently endorse palatable substitutes – anything from pumpkins, to swede, to turnips, to parsnips, to artichokes, to occa, all depending on the recipe – for box scheme members substitution.

Somehow we’ll get by. Our greedy business leaders might leave us to rot, but they daren’t let us starve: that’s for export. Even in the darkest times, there will always be the next seasonal saviour to come through and enliven, enrich, nourish our meals: that, after all, is what vegetables do. There will be salsify, sprouts, beetroot, leeks, winter squash in 57 varieties. Let us eat kale. And for now, praises be to St. Celery.