Of Mice And Then Some

“For nitrates are not the land…and…carbon is not the man…he is much, much more; and the land is much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his ploughpoint for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its elements”                                                                                                – John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath

As Hawkwood reaches  the end of its Local Food Fund Sustaining Change Sustaining Impact grant, we can rest assured that it’s been a fairly high impact year. Our volunteering and training programmes go from strength to strength, supporting a close community of growers and grocers and seeding skilled-up community gardeners across the spires and shires and even over the high seas: we are playing a micro-role in a community food movement whose radical ideals are naturalising, and may soon become natural.

By contrast, in the garden here, the natural seems to have highest impact when it appears somehow manipulated; exotic; introduced. The plants that have most stood out this year have been the high-rise sunflowers; the range, volume and, it has to be conceded, size of our super squash crop; the sparkling frostedness of the ice lettuce; the Great Zing of the Green Zebra tomatoes; and, rivalling all of these, the cape gooseberries have captured, and held to ransom, the imaginations of most people that have glanced into the glasshouse this summer.

Even at plantlet stage, their unfamiliar shapes were drawing many a curious squint. Now, whilst the rest of the vertical veg lose their leaves, they form a dense green, three metre high, hedge that crowds out the glasshouse door and the propagation tables. Harvesting them has become a favoured pastime here: with their velvety foliage, going to pick them is venturing into a soft-play jungle to gather golden lamps.

Neither is the eating experience “normal”: a laced parchment of the calyx [or “cape” as I like to call it, though the cape of its forename refers to the South African land mass where it first achieved commercial renown. My Zimababwean grower friend Sara knows them simply as “gooseberries”, resulting in a hilarious misunderstanding involving us and the hard hairy ones] is peeled back to the round sweetie, a sugary melon flavour with the crunch of a pear and the Vitamin C punch of an orange. Most commonly seen as a garnish on “posh” cakes or in petits fours, our box scheme members have been having them as a regular treat in the fruit bags since August.

Physalis peruviana syn. edulis, to give it the name which reduces the risk of confusion, is a nightshade, so takes up space that might otherwise be occupied by tomatoes in the crop rotation. There are question marks as to whether it makes total commercial sense to grow them in preference, but these are entirely unnecessary given the economic miracle of our heavy cropping heritage tomatoes: obviously  it makes precious little, but the luxury and beauty of the community market garden is that it serves many senses. Our financial enterprise is part of a many elements, a bigger picture wherein social impact is a legitimate currency.

Visitors and harvesters are not the only ones to have been enjoying these edible Chinese Lanterns lately. Our farm mice have been too and, right now, after some difficult times with rodents of varying sizes and cuteness credits, we have struck a temporary entente cordiale. For one thing, they are consuming the entire, mouse family size, berries:  a welcome divergence from that infuriating habit pests have of taking small nibbles out of everything. As a result they are barely making a dent in the crop, and there’s plenty for all of us. Furthermore, the tomatoes and, most importantly, the early broad bean seed (something they destroyed in its entirety, inside and out, last year) have got away Scot free. A close inspection of one of their resting places, by the leaf mould sieve, reveals that they seem to be supplementing their fruitarian diet with little else but the kernels of calendula seeds. Happy days.

My worldview is not so utopian as to assume that we have reached a panacea in our relationship with the “wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie”. But whilst many of our “best laid schemes…Gang aft agley”, it’s also true that many a radical plan comes together. Through the storms; the broken branches; the flood years and the drought years; the wrath;  on the shores of Cape Gooseberry, mice and humans kneel on the earth.

Hunters And Gatherers

Our last Open Day was two weeks, but  a whole season ago. On a still, warm day, Marco welcomed and pressed the gathering grapes as the audience pressed in;  Vi worked wonders on the winter plant stall; whilst inside the building the “World of Chillies” workshop spun round again.

This year, it featured a live hot pepper sauce making demonstration from condiment queen, Mamma V; Hannah and Hannah taking on the Pepper Medic role, circulating tasters followed by bread/ sugar/ milk pain relief; and three flavours of chilli vodka. The 2013 chilli collection was also deeper and broader, with eighteen cultivars spanning four different species and every continent on the planet, bar Antarctica.

Asia is headed up by the infamously ferocious “Naga”; Europe the sweet heat of “Romanian Yellow”; Sub Saharan Africa has “Bird’s Eye” aka. “African Devil”; Australasia,  the  great expanse of “Capsicum Joe’s Long Cayenne”; and the Americas – the very birthplace and first stomping ground of the capsicum – give us “Bolivian Rainbow”, “Ring Of Fire” (USA) and Mexico’s searing “Habanero”.

There are some shocking omissions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and China have no representation, despite chillies playing a zinging role in their respective cuisinés.  But I have confidence this will be remedied in time, with organic precision: for every “Orange Scotch Bonnet” (Caribbean) or “Hungarian Hot Wax” obtained from commercial seed companies, there is a “Rose” (Portugal) or “Little Girls’ Fingers” (Brazil) that has been passed to us by hand: someone has, on their travels, found a particular pepper playing a pivotal role in the provincial gardening or cooking culture. They have then brought back the seeds, or fruit containing them, to Hawkwood, where we’ve grown them on, more than not with success, and true-to-type.

There are resonances here of the “Plant Hunters”, those celebrated botanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who travelled with early British expeditions to “uncontacted” countries. I hope there are some crucial differences too. Exciting as their adventures may have been, these men, such Joseph Banks in Australasia and Robert Fortune in China, played key roles in the British Empire’s exploitative mission: plundering plants as an economic resource; using them to force open markets and destroy local economies with their export plantations. Everywhere they landed, they acted as if they owned the place, regardless of who was already there, living on the land. Plants, men, and ultimately the land itself were taken without asking, and with violence where any objection was raised.

The narrow worldview that enabled such behaviour is epitomised by the fact that few plants from that era retain the roots of a local name: instead, they are christened with the self-important legends of that boys’ club of botanists who happened to be strutting around the place at the time: so now we have Banksias, Bouganvillias, and Camelias in their dubious honour.

True, they were brave and excellent botanists, and merely men of their Age. Of course, that period of plant hunting and colonialism, married with our moderate island climate, gave us a rich diversity of garden and countryside that we now take for granted, that helped British gardens and gardening become truly great. It’s hard to imagine Hawkwood, for example, without the liberation of spread and colour afforded by nasturtium and cucurbit.

But the subsequent implosion of the Empire has sounded that, whilst we may celebrate the ends, the means didn’t have to be like that. In London today, the essences of the world’s cooking and growing styles are shared, in restaurants, neighbourhoods and allotments, with something approaching a mutual respect and equality. Our chilli collection begins with an interest in, and consideration  for, the lands and cultures from which the little fruit burst forth. Albeit we are in a privileged position to be able to embark on travels and specimen collecting,  I see it as a plant gathering from the grassroots rather than plant hunting from the turret: a better place, I reckon, for a garden to spring from.

Now, after the Spring, the Fall; of leaves, rain and celsius. We look ahead to plant hunting of different sorts: burrowing through the soil for roots and tubers – potatoes, artichokes, oca, winter radish – where once great flags of foliage flew; the scouring of the borough for unpicked apples and pears for our Scrumping project, crescendoing in Walthamstow’s Apple Day this Saturday gone; and later, after the Produce Review is through and the night is burying us, the search through the seed catalogues, for home favourites and unchartered territories.

A journey ahead: for now, time to stand firm and take in the autumn blaze: the brilliance of both  chilli fruit and of broadleaved trees.