In terms of vegetables, April is a transitional month. The very last of the winter vegetables begin to shoot, a signal to use them up quickly and get the ground prepared for summer crops. It will, of course, take some time for new plantings to reach an edible size and so we have the period known as “the hungry gap”.
The variations in climate dependent upon location are never more evident than at this time of year. I live at 650 feet above sea level on the north facing slope of the Mendip hills. Even a brief trip to the village 250 feet below provokes surprise at how much further advanced the season appears, but as the temperature is around 2°C warmer and sheltered by the hill it should not really come as a surprise. I experience brief pangs of envy every time I read that someone (usually in the South-East of the country) has just picked the first of something – wild garlic, asparagus, broad beans. Once a week I venture across to Wells on the southern foothills for the market. The temperature here is about 4°C higher than at home and so this is where I will obtain the first of any new produce.
The term “First Earlies” is used for new potatoes and they are eagerly awaited. So much so that I succumb to the temptation of imports from Majorca before the first British potatoes from Jersey and Cornwall appear. From around the second week in May I look for the delicious Pembrokeshire Earlies, our own potatoes having been in the ground barely a month by this time as we waited for the soil to warm sufficiently.
The first of any early season crops have always attracted a premium price. Whether they are genuinely better than what will come later is highly debatable, but it is the eagerness with which they are awaited that warrants the price if not the reputation.
In the past these early crops were a genuine example of terroir. For example, Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes, which gained EU Protected Name status in 2015, make the following points regarding growing conditions in their Product Specification:
It is the mild climate of Pembrokeshire which enables Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes to be grown and harvested early in the year, their short growing time and freshness producing a distinctive taste which has historically, and is currently, in strong demand. Pembrokeshire has the earliest and longest growing season in Wales.
Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes require warmth to ensure successful growth. Being situated in the westernmost point of Wales, on the west coast of the UK and being surrounded by the sea on three sides, Pembrokeshire is in a unique position to benefit from the warmth generated by the sea which is warmed by the North Atlantic Drift of The Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic Ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida. The current helps keep the western coast of Great Britain a couple of degrees warmer than the eastern side. As such, Pembrokeshire has a more equitable and milder climate than inland areas due to the sea having a cooling effect in summer and a warmer tendency in winter relative to the interior. The warming effect of the sea on the county helps the soil to warm earlier than other parts of the UK, facilitating growth. It also minimises the risk of frosts damaging the emerged crop. Pembrokeshire has the earliest growing season in Wales. The equitability of the climate is hugely beneficial to plant growth.
The earliest of these earlies have to be hand-harvested, both because their skins have not yet hardened and because the earliest usually come from steeply sloping sites where machine harvesting would not be possible. This mirrors the situation that used to exist in Jersey but where now the potatoes are more often grown on flat ground under polythene. Interestingly, in Jersey the protection relates to the variety Jersey Royal, which must be called International Kidney if grown outside of the island, whilst in Pembrokeshire any variety from a long list of registered varieties may be used. Terroir is clearly still critical here as this further extract from the Product Specification shows:
Dr Brian John notes in his book, The Geology of Pembrokeshire.
“…..The soils of Pembrokeshire are famous for their crops of early potatoes, particularly close to the coast…..
……The main distinguishing characteristic of the geology of Pembrokeshire is that it is made up of immensely old rocks. Most of the rocks of which the county is composed are more than 280 million years old, with no young rock, such as those seen in England, represented at all. The rocks of the North of the county are PreCambrian and Lower Palaeozoic (that is, more than 295 million years old), whereas the South of the county is made up rocks of the Upper Palaeozoic age (that is, less than 395 million years old but no more than 225 million years old)…..”
These ancient rocks and the distinct soils they generate help contribute to the uniqueness of Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes. Most Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes are grown in Red Sandstone soils on south facing land close to the coast. This land is inherently fertile, free working and free draining. The soils dry quickly and are also quick to warm up in the spring and Pembrokeshire has a lower risk of frost than elsewhere in inland Wales.
The third week in May usually heralds the transition to new season produce. My husband’s birthday falls during this week and I can normally obtain asparagus and strawberries for the occasion.
What both of these products have in common is that they are perennials rather than an annual crop. They are not killed off by winter frosts but merely dormant and so ready to burst into life as soon as temperatures rise and the days lengthen. The growing seasons for both have now been artificially lengthened, asparagus relatively innocuously so, mainly through the use of fleece to warm the soil. The first British asparagus this year was being sold to restaurants around the third week in March, a full month earlier than usual.
With strawberries growing methods have been significantly altered. The high southern slopes of Mendip, above the village of Cheddar, used to be famed for their early strawberries, whose favourable position on thin soil over limestone warmed up quickly. Such was their popularity that every inch of this ground was covered until it became diseased. Growing then moved onto the gentle slopes below the village and then to growbags at easy picking height in polytunnels. Terroir is totally irrelevant to them now – even the soil in the growbags is not British and they are now usually grown as an annual crop. It is a much more reliable income stream for the growers, but less environmentally friendly and certainly not a patch on the flavour of strawberries grown in open ground.
Seasonal manipulation can be even more extreme. I was astounded to receive a newsletter from a local community farm stating that the vegetable of the month in their delivery boxes was courgettes! These, it went on to state, were British grown in greenhouses heated to 18°C during the day and kept at a constant 16°C overnight. I don’t even want to eat a courgette in April, and certainly not one produced in this way.
Growing some perennial produce, e.g. rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, is one way to ensure you have something to pick before your annual crops get going. Harvesting from the wild is another important source as here too the plants are established and the first to spring into new life. An understanding of terroir is essential in knowing where to look when foraging. St George’s Mushrooms are so named because they usually make their appearance around St George’s Day on 23rd April. In the recent past I most often found them about a week to 10 days later, but this year I picked my first on 9th April, the earliest ever, beating last year’s, bang on St George’s Day, by a fortnight. Without any modern technology coming into the equation, I can only assume that this is an example of global warming.
As the summer progresses the early geographical differences become less pronounced. I have a friend living on Orkney and have visited her several times in May. Their daffodils are still flowering then and absolutely nothing is yet growing in the garden, but she assures me that it does catch up, and this I assume is owing to the incredible amount of daylight they see in the summer – in June it barely gets dark. Though I am sure that there are some things they can’t grow on Orkney just as there are some that I don’t bother with at 650 feet, it is all about understanding your particular terroir and what suits it. People too are the product of their environment. Whilst I may feel that twinge of envy for South-Eastern growing conditions at this time of year, I will later be happy to have our ever-present cooling breeze and lush greenery I’m sure!