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.

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