We savour the seasons, and from our Bird’s Eye Chilli view here at Hawkwood, we catch some of the intricacies of their turnings and twistings. On the black canvas of soil surfaces the hatching of the chickweed cock-crows Spring’s pale green dawn; whilst the splattering of worm casts like mushrooms murmur the mellow mulch of autumn. Yet there is a strong tendency to push everything to the two poles, the monoliths of Summer and Winter.
Most of our crops we refer to as belonging to either Summer or Winter, their resulting meals being light summer fayre or “winter warmers”; our clothing is similarly annotated. As if every movement is triangulated with the two ideals. By this measure, we are now Winter. The box scheme’s veg bags have already featured a substantial proportion of that season’s hearty menu – Leeks, Kale, Brussels Sprouts – and there are only a few residual summer crops left to clear from our beds and our minds. Basil, cucumber, potatoes, celery, all gone. Gone, to muted last rites of soft sighs and muttered gratitudes, in the short while before the new, hardier plants – endive, watercress, early peas, perpetual spinach – are relayed in. “Don’t mourn, organise”, said Joe Hill, and this is what we do. I dreamed I saw Jerusalem Artichokes last night.
Cavalo Nero, a kale as dark and long as a December night, is being brought down from the Old Kitchen Garden, by Eddy and Martin, in dense volumes now. In the Glasshouse recline the squash, having slipped from the Field and the jaws of the first frost. This week, our tricolour stand of beetroot will undergo its unusual metamorphosis from Summer to Winter food: pulled from the Entrance Field, shorn of their bright leaves and tucked into their cosy winter clamps, they somehow manage to beet around the binary: from tender bunches of superfood to robust roots for roasting.
Only the salad harvest continues, ever onwards to victory. Twice a week, all year round, bar our religious midwinter hibernation, salad bags stream out of our bit of the Lea Valley and into the wider Thames Basin. But there is a sweet sleight of hand, a trick or treat, to this feat. Since the Solstice, every week has seen us replace beds of Summer leaves [sic] with “Winter” ones. From July, the latter begin to infiltrate the mix, little by little, week by week, tweak by tweak. So that the change is almost indiscernible.
But by the time Gary, Vi and Susanna set to picking this week, the revolution was all but complete. A mix governed, in June, by the soft tones of lettuce and heady fragrance of basil, is now sharply in the gloved hand of mustards’ heat and chicory/ endive bitters. A precious few – wild rocket and chards chief among them – manage to swing with the swing.
My son Blake, in the sixth moon of his weaning, has taught me much about food and eating along the way. And that weaning is not just a chronological path between the diametric diets of liquid and solid. Right now, those of us who try to really eat, not merely consume, are in the midst of a gorgeous, nostalgic, sometimes sad, epic journey from one pinnacle to another, in time to turn around and head out home again. We are in the middle of a Big Wean. It’s called Autumn.