A Ballad to Salad

This week, we again find ourselves in the finals of the Urban Food Awards, run by SUSTAIN’s Jellied Eel, the essential journal of ethical eating. A change of format this year sees the award categories based on product, so there’s recognition for the best cheese, sausage, beer, bread; whilst growers’ interest will be focused on the “London Leaves” contest.
In recent years, we have seen the emergence of the mixed leaf salad as a concept and a product, from supermarkets to farmers’ markets, from gourmet restaurants to pub grub. This new thing is, as is often the tradition with new things, in essence bone-creekingly old. The earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, grazed on a range of edible leaves: for the earliest Britons, these would have included wild celery, chervil and cresses. As we shifted from hunter-gatherer to cultivation, salads were among the first cultivated plants: here, beet leaves and sorrel would have been key parts of the diet, whilst Romans later introduced lettuce and endive.

Renaissance gardeners developed new varieties of salad, and in the seventeenth centurythe herbalist Culpepper made much of the health virtues of “salading” plants. John Evelyn, one of our earliest garden writers, wrote Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in 1699, committing to the posterity of print the oral tradition of the cottage garden, a cornucopia of plants intermingled, with no sharp distinctions between ornamental, vegetable and medicinal, neither in the garden nor on the plate.
It’s unclear to me at what point the decisive shift from saladings came. What can be said for certain is that, by the 1970s, one particular salad combination had become utterly dominant. This is, of course the trio of crisphead lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Note that the latter two items are not leaves but fruit, and form the basis of Lea Valley glasshouse production from before the War to the present. Note also that, whilst this three-piece band may well be considered a classic, their period of hegemonic power coincides with the relegation of salad from a dish in its own right, to a side, treated by many as a garnish to be left uneaten.

Hawkwood's hand-crafted salad mix, september 2015

Hawkwood’s hand-crafted salad mix, september 2015

Turn and face the strange: I believe London, our increasingly unfair city, does right now happen to be one of the most exciting places in the country for salad, though I do realise that using “exciting” and “salad” in the same sentence may seem a little contradictory, even to those this side of  the Garnish brigade. That’s why, whoever wins this week, to paraphrase the football pundit’s cliché, “at the end of the day, salad growing’s the winner”.
Whoever wins, Growing Communities, one of the other nominees, deserve much of the credit for London’s salad growing renaissance. When I arrived there at the turn of the millennia, salad leaves were already recognised as their key product, in terms of impact if not land area. I assisted Brian Holden, to whom the salad bag was so much a vindication of permaculture gardening; and was encouraged and directed by (appropriately enough) Director, Julie Brown. Her application of the permaculture concept of zoning to food production, posited, amongst other common sense things, that urban growers could and should concentrate, first and foremost, on highly-perishable, highly intensive salads and leaves, whilst the right place for bulky field veg is, naturally enough, the hulking fields of the “rural hinterland”.
This schema, the “Growing Communities Model” of legend, prompted, in 2014, a reorganisation of the GC’s Urban Market Gardens, so that they grew almost entirely salad leaves. This required me to devise a salad rotation, to seek out new leaves to fill that rotation, and trial and error a range of approaches to cut-and-come-again, successional sowing and relay cropping. Almost as breathtaking as such horticultural jargon were the advances in techniques and blend recipes. When Hawkwood happened, I tried to take all the learning up the Lea and continue to push on there, where our 89 varieties of leaf and 42 edible flowers that made up the mix last year, only tells half the story. Meanwhile, Sara; Paul; Sophie; the Patchwork Farmers and the committed volunteers, have made GC salad a firm fixture in their box scheme and many shops in and around Stoke Newington, and last year scooped a national Soil Association award.
Spreading like wild rocket, now all community gardens that have an enterprise element, and many that don’t – from Sutton to Acton, from Crouch Hill to Enfield – have drawn inspiration from these East End pioneers, or from a broader zeitgeist, and developed their own methods and mixes which, arising from their particular soils and situations, have resulted in salads the same but different, all as unique as the boroughs they grow out of.

London Rocket. September 04 2015 Photos: Martin Slavin

London Rocket. September 04 2015 Photos: Martin Slavin

Here at Hawkwood, we welcome in the autumn equinox , and the winter leaves: the chicories, mustards, baby kales, begin to replace some of the softer summer offerings. Our range and proportion of different types has stabilised since the early exuberant days of experiment and discovery, though there’s always another trial or tweak: Sculpit and Caucasian Spinach here, an extra bed of watercress there. Our salad bags span the entire history of salads, from the Chervil and Celery leaf of prehistory, through the Romans and renaissance plants: the endive and rocket, to recent introductions such as Texel Greens and Shungiku. From the well-known lettuce to cult classics like sorrel and corn salad. From “exotic” novelties like ice lettuce and ceylon spinach to London peculiars like Walthamstow Yellow Cress, London Rocket and Amaranth “Tower Hamlets”. It’s a vegetable item, then, that is broad, deep, rich, deep and dynamic. Salad days need never end again.

Tomato Catch-Up

As citizens (or perhaps subjects, but that’s for another constitutional debate) in a post-industrial society, the Agrarian Age may seem many steps removed. Yet so much of our culture and institutions are steeped in it, as evidenced by everyday phrases such as “one bad apple ruins the barrel” and “she knows her onions”; to idiosyncracies like the twice yearly moving of the clock; to fundamental foundations, like the great midwinter feast and rest-up now known as Christmas.

Some might say such cultural resonances are the tip of an oak tree: that Homo sapiens are creatures of the Earth, and are drawn, as if by a force, to encounter the natural world even though it is no longer “necessary” or profitable to do so. When we speak of staying somewhere “nice”, that quality of niceness is so often bound up with a sense of closeness to nature. Conversely, the increasing incidences of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and the now recognised condition Nature Deficit Disorder, highlight what can go wrong when that tie is sorely frayed. It’s worth mentioning that people do go a bit lunar-tic on full moons, and this is borne out by NHS hospital and police crime statistics. Worth mentioning, that is, not because it adds much to this discussion, but because it’s one of those facts that seem quite amusing until you realise it basically means people getting hurt. Ouch…

September’s a funny one in this regard (that is, unfortunately, funny in a peculiar rather than a ha-ha way, but fortunately in a harmless, not unfortunate way). Even as schooling became universal and compulsory, there was no point trying to impose it in the summer, when many children were needed to help bring in the harvest. Even at the great dawn of the Comprehensive system, thousands of children in East London spent their late summer holidays picking hops in Kent.

For me, Back to School meant the end of summer, of freedom and boundless days, and a return to the strict discipline of walls and clock. As a grower, the situation is slightly reversed. The summer is a vital and magical time, the scarce months into which our entire year’s efforts are largely funnelled. It’s also manic, hard, and embroidered with impossible deadlines. We are simultaneously playing a number of spinning games of Catch Up: with the weeds, the gluts, the watering, the pest and disease, and the beautiful social processes inherent in operating as a workers’ cooperative; and falling behind in every damn one of them. Come September, we’re finally getting even. It’s not that we’ve got any better, but that everything else, other than the aforementioned beautiful processes, is slowing down. The bar has been lowered or, in that adage from Amenity Horticulture, the playing field levelled.

Our tomatoes have been great this year, truly. 2015’s rainbow nation of heritage varieties runs as follows: Carter’s Golden Sunrise, Golden Queen, Schimmeg Cregg, Green Zebra (the Washington-bred cultivar which, for the second year running, won our lunch time Tomato Taste test), Tiger Tom, Darby Striped, Mirabelle Blanche, Paul Robeson, Black Russian and triallists Ivory Egg and Weisse Schonheit. That’s eleven squad members in what is becoming a more or less settled, high-performing for team for us, after many seasons of trial and fun. Those who have been enjoying them Here (at lunches and off the Farm Stall); There (through our box scheme and market stalls) and Everywhere (Hornbeam Café, Walthamstow; Opera Tavern, Covent Garden; Three Colts, Buckhurst Hill), are probably at least agnostic to the idea that Too Many Tomatoes can exist. But on top of everything else, and Daylight Saving Hours or not, there have been sometimes barely the hours in the day, or the outlets in our phonebook, or the superlatives or swear words, for when we scale up the Three Peaks of tomatoes, cucumbers and beetroot.

This week, the supersonic speed of growth and ripening is gently easing with the diminishing light and temperatures. Full sized specimens no longer appear overnight. We have the measure of the crops and we know we have homes for them. We have caught the dropping fruit.
Then there’s the weeds. Plant plant plant, until midsummer that’s much of what we do. We are, after all, a Plant Nursery. Plants in, and only in the last three weeks have we managed to devote the dandelion’s share of our time to dealing with all the plants-in-the-wrong-place. Last week, as we were getting around to tackling knee-high nettles in the Old Kitchen Garden, Martin, our photographer in residence and former jobbing gardener, commented, “you’re like me, ideas above your station”, meaning with weed issues like this you’re probably trying to manage too much land.

Olly cleans up the salad beets, West Bank Salad Terrace. August 21

Olly cleans up the salad beets, West Bank Salad Terrace. August 21

Yes and perhaps no. The Old Kitchen Garden brassicas have now been weeded, and are looking pretty “clean”, as is the West Bank Salad Terrace, which a few weeks ago would have been best described as “overgrown” only if you’re trying to be polite. Cornelia is not that polite about it, but she has been instrumental this year in keeping the most aggressive weeds in check. Now we are catching up. And for the next couple of months, we’ll go through all the vegetable beds with a fine trowel. Sowing, Planting, harvesting, pruning, blanching, supporting, feeding and all the other seasonal joys will now provide the punctuation rather than the prose in the Gardeners’ Diary. It’s quite normal for us to begin and end the season with hardly a weed in sight. In between those tidal marks, the wildflowers often run riot: troubling sometimes, but maybe not the worst way to run an ecological growing system…

The Old Kitchen Garden, August 28

The Old Kitchen Garden, August 28

…An ecological growing system which, right now, weeds or no weeds, looks splendid in the golden light and misty morning dews of late summer. On the Entrance Field, runner beans dress our rustic arches handsomely, the squashes run to the hills and back again, spilling brass balls in their scramble. Borlotti beans, chicory, raspberries and apples are seeping to sunset pink. The feared “Salad Gap” – the sparse transition from summer to winter leaves – lasted only a week: a mere hiccup, a real triumph. Meanwhile, on the Old Kitchen Garden, the Year of the Brassicas: all the beds and green manure undersowings have been weeded; the winter radish thinned. Last Tuesday, the great harvest commenced: Vi, Gary, Robert, Jae and Jess uprooting the first of a thousand kohl rabis. I root around beneath the prose and punctuation for some poetry, and the last prophetic lines of Betjeman’s “Slough”:
“The cabbages are coming now,
The earth exhales.”