In this year in which spring arrived at least a month later than usual, everything caught up well and harvesting has generally been early with bumper crops of most fruit and vegetables. Gardeners will now be dealing with the seasonal glut of courgettes and runner beans, but what does this mean to most people?
I am constantly being told that people can’t afford to eat real food. I have taught people of all income levels to cook, including children in care who, at the tender age of 16, were about to be launched into the world to fend for themselves and usually on benefits. So it is not without careful consideration that I give you my view that it is not true that they cannot afford to eat real food. There are certainly many obstacles, cookery knowledge being just one of them, and they will need to go against the normal system in order to eat well, but it can be done. I will come back to this subject many times over forthcoming articles, because today’s theme is not the entire answer, but let’s start with the relevance of a seasonal glut to most people.
If you are shopping in a supermarket you may have noticed that things like peaches are now being sold at “half price” or the dreaded “BOGOF”. This leads you to believe that the supermarket is somehow offering you a special deal, not that the cost to peaches has come down as the fruit reaches the peak of its season. The “normal” price will be shown so that you don’t get false expectations of what to pay in future. Leaving aside for today the question of value for money, because these peaches are still likely to be rock hard, let’s just consider the saving you have made. How much does your shopping bill vary from week to week, month to month?
Most people somehow seem to adjust their purchases so that they spend roughly the same each week, what they saved on the peaches they spent on something else. This goes against the traditional rhythm set by nature. Our ancestors would have been busily storing the surplus of today for the lean months ahead. We can take this quite literally, by buying when the price is low and preserving for the future, but now that food is imported from all over the world throughout the year, few people have any real sense that there will be lean times ahead for which they should be preparing. Less literally though, I recall a friend, who struggling to pay a mortgage that was originally meant to be shared between two, told me that he spent almost nothing on food throughout the summer. During this time he ate fruit and vegetables from his garden and pigeons or rabbits that he shot. It enabled him to put some money aside towards future mortgage payments.
Another example, this time from someone who doesn’t have his own garden but has learnt to benefit from the seasonal glut as a forager. His full-time employment is as a hairdresser, not the best paid occupation in the world, but foraging has become an absorbing hobby that also pays quite well. His foraging ground is the suburbs of Bristol, where he notes that most people remain oblivious to the rich produce around them. He has just harvested, with full permission, kilo upon kilo of wonderful cherries, which he sold to restaurants and also preserved in spirit. These cherries were growing on the edge of a golf course, but none of the golfers were in the least interested in them.
I had a similar experience myself whilst picking bilberries last weekend. It has been an excellent year for them and instead of picking just enough for one tart, I was able to freeze enough for another two. A couple of people stopped to ask what I was doing and were interested to taste the superior wild relative of the cultivated blueberry; but, as usual when I am out foraging, no-one else was picking in earnest. At one time at least half the village would have been involved in gathering this particular harvest, yet today, when The Castle Hotel in Taunton needs them to fulfil the traditional request of the visiting Australian cricket team, they have the devil’s own job to persuade anyone to pick them.
All this seems proof to me that wealth not poverty is the obstacle to enjoying real food today.
So let’s use this glut positively. Even if it is not exchanged for money, it might earn you some brownie points for the future. I have already been given fish in return for excess garden produce this year, but when I give it away my main motivation is to give others the opportunity to taste really fresh produce. It is reckoned that one of the main reasons why the standard of food in France and Italy has remained higher than in the UK is because there is still a sufficiently large proportion of people growing their own for almost everyone to encounter fresh food on a regular basis. Once you have tasted the real thing you are less likely to be fobbed off with the third rate produce that is sold in supermarkets.
So the increased interest in vegetable gardening can be nothing but a positive influence on developing a good food culture, I believe. But I should perhaps say that I am not, by any means, a natural gardener. I tend towards the “plant it and see” mentality, and eight or nine times out of ten, something wonderful emerges. When something doesn’t work I tend not to bother with it again, but the results of my “labours” are sufficient incentive to repeat the successes.
With the increased interest in vegetable gardening has come a resurgence in popularity for preserving. Hurrah! There are obviously quite a few people taking their glut seriously. For quite some time I was under the naïve misapprehension that shop bought preserves were so good it was not worth making your own. Whilst it is true that there is quite a thriving cottage industry in preserves don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. What started out as a sensible way of dealing with plenty in preparation for the harsh times ahead can be every bit as commercial as the rest of food production. Preserves made in genuinely small batches at home are likely to be fresher in colour and taste than that which has had to cook for longer because of the batch size. And it’s a year-round industry too. Even in the peak of home-grown produce many will choose to import their main ingredients from abroad because they are cheaper or more consistently available. Ironically many ingredients have already undergone one process of preserving as another solution is to use tinned or frozen ingredients for preserving. Many recipes, particularly from chefs, show a lack of understanding about the science that underpins successful preserving. If you can be in Somerset on 21st October, a cookery demonstration and lunch with preserving expert Vivien Lloyd will help get the essentials of preserving clear in your mind. Further details are below.
Meanwhile I hope that my own recipe for runner bean pickle would pass Vivien’s strict standards (she is a former World Marmalade Champion and a WI judge to boot). My runner bean pickle is what is known as a “mustard pickle” in the piccalilli style, although quite a bit quicker to make. As well as providing a vegetable accompaniment to winter cold meats it is my “secret” ingredient when making pheasant curry to use up another surplus ingredient – although this time in the depths of the winter.
I have no hesitation in recommending my bilberry tart recipe to you. It is an absolute winner, but first you must pick your bilberries. Lakeland has just started to sell the combs that used to be easily available here but in recent years I have found only when abroad. They make the job of picking so much easier. You will find bilberries only on moorland. In their absence you could substitute blueberries, but it is the bilberries that I think might get you hooked on foraging.
Here’s to plenty!
Preserving Orchard Fruit
Cookery demonstration and lunch at Lakewood, Blagdon on 21st October. Tickets £15 from Abigail Smith 01761 463366