Pick of the Pickles

I’ve just returned from my summer travels. I say this matter-of-factly, yet it has been some ten years since I took a week’s break during this, the height of the season. But so profficient have the Hawkwood team, and its “Plants & Production” nucleus of Gary, Vi, Aimee, Jonny, Mary and Hannah become, that I have quite run out of excuses for loitering around the garden all summer, becoming a bit of a nuisance. Adam, along with former apprentice Asia, and Hannah leigh Mackie (of Growing Communities and Stepney City Farm notoriety) stepped in charitably, to take me on pilgrimage…

…Or picklegrimage, as we quickly dubbed it. The mission  was simple, yet daring:  a visit to the Podlaskie  region of Poland, taking tasting notes on the array of ways in which various vegetables are traditionally preserved in the “Wild East”. I imagine if I was a plumber, and themed my holidays around the study of, say, Andorran elbow joints, friends and family would pull me aside for a few stern but fair words in my shell-like. Somehow though, I’m allowed to get away with these vegetable-driven capers.

Thus, in the absence of any such rational advice, we cycled and grazed our way through many manifestations of stilled cabbage; onion; patty pan; courgette; mushrooms; shallots; carrot; pepper; garlic; chilli; beetroot; and of course Ogorke, the gherkin: Poland’s premier pickle. True gherkins in fact remain largely the preserve of African and Caribbean cuisine, whilst the European version are almost always pickled small ridge cucumbers. Not that this worried us: too immersed were we in debates as to the ideal balance between sweet, sour and salty; crunchy and juicey; vinegar versus lacto-fermentation;  the relative virtues of fresh “fizzy” and mellow aged versions; and the range of herbs and spices to aid the process and add the necessary bite.

The vitality of the pickling culture was evidenced in the shops, stalls, dining tables, and, naturally, in the fields and gardens. In the latter, cucumbers, dill and horseradish were as ubiquitous as staple potatoes. In the former, carved into the ubiquitous potatoes and the blue-to-green herds of cabbage, stood  slices of garden: handmade and mixed planted. As in other areas of Europe with more equitable land distribution than ours, the twine between allotment and farm, between peasant and commercial production, holds.

With the notable exceptions of our apple pressing and annual Green Tomato Chutney Day, produce leaves Hawkwood ultra-fresh, rather than processed in any way, so learning from the picklegrimage will be applied in the domestic sphere, and join the raft of future project dreams.

More immediately, I return to sunflowers that have put on a few feet in my absence, green peppers that have jumped red, and cucumbers in a totally new light. We eschew the “glasshouse” types so beloved of our Upper Lea Valley neighbours: they’re too straight, a bit bland and, I’ll be honest, a bit difficult to grow. Instead, we go for the rugged and flavoursome: “Marketmore”, a fat English ridge standard that would look perfectly at home in a Polish country garden or pickle jar; and the slender reptillian “Soyu Long” that, by contrast, sticks out a mile. They do however taste great and remind us that cue culture extends way beyond our land mass. And noone has yet contested Aimee’s hypothesis that this cultivar are the  actual “snozzcumbers” cited in Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant.

Red spider mite also has a particular penchant for cucumbers, and this tiny insect  was taking its toll on many of the Podlaskie plants. At Hawkwood, it’s the one thing that hasn’t moved much: the growers here have clearly been conscientiously damping down to slow its spread.  It’s to these efforts I’ll rejoin. And, knowing that the crop has a month’s swan song before giving way to the winter brassicas; and in the absence of major pickling operations, I’ll seek, in the mind’s brine, other sure ways of savouring the glow of these great green gods.

Golden Detroit

“Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?” Martha & the Vandellas, Dancing In The Street (1964)

“Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide, whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution” – MC5, Kick Out The Jams (1969)

Our is a food growing garden, but nevertheless a garden, and I like to think that there are a few aesthetic  touches the visiting ornamental gardener might appreciate. For instance, if you look down across the Entrance Field from just shy of Poet’s  Corner, you’ll see plenty of flowers bursting amidst the vegetable foliage, and the odd nod to the “architectural” in the form of dappled sunflowers and tall Tuscan Kale. Peach trees embroider the glittering  glasshouse walls  in their tight-patterned fans; the green manure beds, now blooming in blues and mauves, have something of the Jekyllean herbaceous border about them come high summer; and the rows of annual crops spring up not in straight lines but sinuous curves hugging the contours, so that, in my more fanciful moments –  and a bit of fancy is surely forgivable in August – I see the beetroot set out in their tricolour blocks as a kind of naturalistic potager.

The ever dependable beets, like everything else at Hawkwood, emerge in a stable but ever evolving range of cultivars. The tricolour consists of the deepest red – “Bull’s Blood”, or this year’s trial “Cylindra”, buttressed by the lighter “Barbietola di Chioggia” on  the one flank and “Golden Detroit” on the other. Chioggia, also known as “candy beetroot” as its striking pink and white stripes resemble rock candy when sliced horizontally , comes of course from the town of Chiogggia, in Italy. The same place also gifted us “Marina di Chioggia” squash and “Catalogna Gigante di Chiggia” chicory.  Such gastronomic generosity is not unusual in the Veneto province, a veritable hot bed of market gardening, where many of the vegetables now common or garden throughout Europe were initially bred and nurtured. It is to this region that I have been wistfully plotting a horticultural pilgrimage for some time, and I am looking forward to seeing Chioggia, a town apparently dominated by canals, much like Venice, or perhaps more exotically, Birmingham.

The strawberry blonde Golden Detroit is not just eye candy: flavourwise it is all high notes, without the tannic, earthy tones of traditional red varieties: a kind of summer cider to the Russian Stout of borscht. Whilst Veneto may have a rich history of vegetable breeding in the round, when it comes to beetroot varieties Detroit, USA is some sort of epicentre. Alongside our Golden, we are growing “White Detroit” this year, and other seed catalogue regulars include “Detroit Crimson Globe”; “Detroit 2 Bolivar”; “Perfected Detroit”; “Detroit Dark Red Medium Top”; and “Detroit-243”. It seems these are all lines bred from the still –available “Detroit Dark Red”, introduced in 1892 by the Motor City’s PM Ferry Seed Company.

Sugar beet too has been grown extensively in the fields of Michigan state for many years, and is a close relative of table beet. So close that Christopher Stocks, in Forgotten Fruits, asks us to regard beetroot as a hero in the fight to abolish slavery, as beets were bred to offer a viable alternative source of sucrose to the cane plantations at the heart of the slave trade. Later, Detroit danced to different beats: Motown, the MC5 and the movements they soundtracked all lifting us closer to racial equality.

Nowadays, Detroit is that rare phenomeom: a shrinking city. Since the decline of the car industry, the population has dropped from 1.8 million to 700,000. This poses all kinds of problems for those remaining, but also some opportunities. Many residents have taken to growing food in the empty “lots”, organically sprouting an estimated two thousand productive gardens.  Town planners have had to embrace the space, and drawn up plans for “blue-green corridors” through the city. It may be not so fanciful to see in Detroit the possibility that, from the crises of capitalism, might emerge healthy, sustainable eco-cities. In which case discs ofbeautiful beetroot, whatever their colour, will once again play a bit part in progressive social change.