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.

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