Brussels Policy

This year, The Hawkwood midwinter feast featured – not Hawkwood potatoes, after this year’s spud failure, but our very own Brussels Sprouts. The bed of Brussels have been rising pine-like under the mesh on the Entrance Field all year mainly for this moment, at the request of Sophie, the then Volunteer Coordinator. Briefly stocking the stall and box scheme has been a merry spin-off. At the outset, I warned her that picking frozen sprouts with freezing hands is one of the most feared tasks in market gardening. The cold snap has turned mild though, and the snap of the buttons being plucked off the stalks is strangely, deeply, satisfying: like the pop of a cork out of a bottle. Jo rustled them into “Sprout Surpise”, and with them fed the fifty, alongside roasted roots, braised red cabbage, nut roast, onion gravy.

Christmas, Yule, Winter Solstice, Midwinter, Crimble, Xmas: call it what you must, think of it what you will: at the very least, it is a time when the population receive tidings of seasonal produce. Not always received graciously, it must be said:  the Bird, parsnips, even mince pies, are eagerly anticipated then rapidly despised: but the greatest ambivelence seems to be reserved for “Britain’s most hated vegetable”, the Brussels Sprout.

It is regarded as an essential part of the midwinter feast, yet denigrated as much as the cracker jokes. There are those of us that love sprouts, and those that regard them as horribly windy, soggy, bitter: sprouts divide the nation, like Marmite; and the issue of Europe. I even speculate as to whether, in some folks’ minds, there is a link between Brussels the EU HQ, and its eponymous mini cabbage…

The history of the Brussels Sprout is reassuringly uncertain, but it does seem certain they arose in Belgium, where the earliest records of cultivation exist,  though good cultivars have since been developed in Britain. Of course, most of the fayre swerved up at the traditional British Christmas roast will not, ultimately,  have originated on this isle: even the stalwart potato, parsnip, swede are, at root, introductions. This has to be cause for celebration: we are a mongrel race, the weird result of wave follows wave of immigrants; refugees; invaders; captures;  mixers; adaptors: in plants, as in people.

May your Christmas plates be steeped in tradition, and diversity and may they embody the give-and-take of rich cultural cross-pollination. At its best, that’s what this festival; this country; this Europe is: a place of sharing, a displacing of austerity.

Happy Solstice. And may all your vegetables be cooked right.

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Whiter Shade of Kale

Last week I strode up the Entrance Field to Poets Corner: the scene had changed utterly. The earth had grown a snow-crust, pinked by the low red sun’s minor rise in the south east. London lay down, cold and desolated, its thin air sharp as a blade. As the herbaceous world and the animal kingdom shrink away, what’s left is washed into stark relief: daily desire lines of rook and muntjac get a publishing deal in pages of snow; Yates’ Meadow, the green hill far away that spends its whole time peeping over at our naked veg, is finally exposed by the raising of the hornbeam curtain; the evergreen kales and Brussels stay static under fine-woven crop covers, yet loom more than ever.

The kales are at their best now. The freeze has put a freeze on slug attack, brought some sugars out to balance the bitterness, and as we pick our way up the stem, the leaves get ever younger and tender, with reduced stalk and, in the case of Pentland Brig, more frills. Yesterday Adam and I picked it, frost-decorated: a picture greetings card from the distant North.

For over two thousand years, kale has been cultivated to be picked in weather like this, and much more brutal. It’s extreme hardiness made it the winter green choice of, amongst others, the Scottish crofters, who spent their winters kale yards from sickness. The kale yards were areas close to the homestead, where dry stone walls sheltered the leaves from the arctic winds just enough to provide for humans and their sheep and cattle: an early example of “protected cropping” on these isles.

By the time protected cropping reached its zenith in the high-tech “Sea of Glass” across our Lea Valley, the low-tech crofters had been all but wiped out. First, they brought the Enclosures, steadily driving the English peasant from the land; then, they came for the crofters, in a much quicker, more violent chain of events called the Highland Clearances, in the 18th/ 19th century.  Now, but traces of the kale yards and tatty fields can be made out in the eery quiet of the glens: the heather, it is said, grows lusher on these enriched patches.

No final defeats. A few crofters managed to hang on to their patch of ground: still more retained some of their culture and history. And “what they could not kill, went on to organise”: at the end of the 20th century, crofters and their allies began taking on the power of the lairds, winning back land and rights for their communities, eventually forcing land reform legislation through the new Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Crofting Federation are a bit of a beacon, then, for communities taking back control of their food system, and its mode of production – the earth. They are the only UK Members of Via Campesina, the global organisation of peasants and small farmers.

Whisper it in the wind: the crofters may soon be joined in Via Campesina by another UK group: an alliance of human-scale producers currently plotting behind garden sheds. If Via Campesina UK needs an emblem, they could do worse than the fluttering leaf of a certain winter brassica. When the going gets tough…

Holes

It was bound to fall. The broadleaves’ autumn display has been extra rich, and run for weeks, but just one big gust can be enough to bring the decoration down, just in time for December’s artificial decorations to go up.

Lower key, as the leaves settle into the soil, is the release of the annual Hawkwood Plants & Produce Review. Uncelebrated, but not without highlights: for example, for the second year running, our heritage tomatoes are our most successful cash crop, pound-for-metre. Cash is dirty, and like soil, one of the vital oils that keep our crazy idealistic venture going: the others being people power and fair trade caffeine.

This week, the frosts penetrating the glasshouse means the tomatoes’ swansong: after almost six months of cropping. But salad, our staple, will carry on regardless. Constantly changing but always there, for stall customers, restaurants and box scheme members, our mixed salad leaves are the only rival to tomatoes in terms of their impact. Not that all the feedback has been glowing: most commonly, people express disquiet at the high proportion of herbal, hot or bitter flavours present. This is something we will try to address in our planning for next year, but as ever it’s a fine balance: if we were to exclude all “strong” leaves,it wouldn’t be the same fragrant bag of tricks. The impossible dream remains the perfect blend that will just about please everyone: a lightly dressed nirvana where strong and mild flavours, soft and crunchy textures, are in total harmony to everyone’s delight and satisfaction. An apparently utopian aim, yet according to Hannah, “we’re getting there”.

The perfect blend  is as elusive as utopia, because of the surprising unfathomability of people. Take mustard, for example: we grow “Giant Red” and “Green In Snow”, and they grow best through the winter. Mel, our herbalist in residence, notes that this season co-incides with when we most need the warming effect of mustard. Given this, and the fact that Roast Beef & Mustard is one of Britain’s few prized culinary gifts to the world, it’s surprising how many folk round here aren’t that keen on mustard in leaf form.

We’re still picking some lovely mustard leaves; and  lambs and miners lettuce; endive and salad rocket, are especially vibrant now, abiding whilst change and decay in all around we see. The once great – always great – tomato plants join the chillies on the compost heap, and attention shifts from growing plants to the dormant season’s tasks: woody plants, repairing, and laying the land. Last week’s task list had a strong wintry taste: path laying, bed filling, gravel shifting, single digging.

Basically, Simone and I observed, we spent a day either making holes, or filling them in. After all the rich complexities of nurturing vegetables, funny it takes a year to remember that there are few things in this earthly existence more satisfying than making holes, filling in holes being one of them.

Making holes and filling them in during dark recessions is, of course, the detractors’ parody of Keynesian economics. But at the real risk of getting tangled up in allegory, and depending on where the holes are and what for, it’s not a bad way to run a winter garden.