Monday, 6 October 2008

Seasonal Food

Apple Harvest (for a lazy person)

Last weekend was apple weather: crisp, sunny and cool. As you can see, nature's bounty was laid out, blanket-like, for us -- and all we had to do was scoop it up. The girls and I gathered up great bowls of apples, which became numerous jars of applesauce, bags of sliced apples for the freezer, and a delicious apple and blackberry pie. If the blackberry foraging was slightly more difficult than the apple picking, only because of the arm-grazing bramble, it was equally unearned. Eating "seasonally" is certainly easier in some seasons than others.

Whilst a turnip has to be planted, and then dug up, and then somehow made palatable, an apple drops (literally, and literarily) into one's hand. How apt that it symbolizes temptation . . . or should I say knowledge. If only other bits of learning were so easily picked up and passed hand to hand.

The truth is, while I know a bit about cooking food, I am more or less ignorant when it comes to procuring food at its source. I can negotiate my way around a grocery store, sure, but give me a bit of earth and I'm scratching my head in pure befuddlement. For many years I've been content in my cluelessness, but just lately it has started to bother me. I'm sure it is partly due to a growing environmental awareness, which often borders on anxiety; and it may also be attributed to my specific English environment, in which it is common to trade plant cuttings and recipes for elderflower cordial. For many years now, I've been increasingly curious about the source of my food, and really this new urge to grow things is the natural extension -- or conclusion -- to that concern with origins. Growing your own food is a matter of simplicity versus complexity, and independence versus dependence. Who knows what will happen with pensions and Social Security? Just in case the all-you-can-eat buffets are gone for good, it may be best to have some real-life growing skills.

I'm not the only who thinks so, either. Foraging was the lead story in the Sunday Telegraph's Food section, and I've read in more than one place that keeping chickens is the nation's new favorite hobby. Colin, my gardener, reports that all of his "clients" are expanding their interests beyond herbaceous borders. One woman is putting in an orchard, with enough trees to supply the fruit needs of all of her family. Another man is buying up some wooded acres to graze poultry and pigs. As Colin and I reviewed the successes and failures of my family's first attempt at a vegetable patch, and made plans for next year's new and improved patch, I realized that I had made some mental switch: from frivolous experiment to rather more earnest project.
A wigwam of runner beans

Although I have only one growing season under my belt, I did indeed learn a few things. For instance, the runner bean is a most prolific plant. It is marvellous to watch it grow so quickly, and it has quite an attractive orange flower, but unless you are a great lover of the runner bean (which has a surprisingly coarse and "hairy" surface) two wigwams of them should suffice. We planted four wigwams, and that was at least two too many. Another thing that I learned from hard experience is that a slim and tasty courgette (zucchini to the Americans and Italians) will quickly turn into a bloated and watery marrow if neglected for a few days. I actually had no idea that courgettes and marrow were different versions of the same plant . . . or is that "fruit" of the plant? I'm not entirely sure that any Americans know this. I have a theory that the thrifty English "invented" the idea of the marrow -- and then came up with the idea to stuff it and call it deliberate. Americans persist in thinking that it is just an overgrown zucchini, and better fed to the hogs. On the subject of courgettes, I can also report that there will invariably be a correlation between the vegetable your children least like and the one that produces the most offspring.

The runner beans and the courgettes were our biggest successes -- although, as I have suggested, this was a mixed blessing. As for the rest, they were mostly failures. We had a few nice strawberries, but we weren't vigilant enough about picking them before they were taste-tested by creatures. The corn looked good, but we were pipped to the post by some marauding muntjac. The broccoli and cauliflower were devoured by caterpillars. The tomatoes and peppers never ripened. I'm not sure what happened to the broad beans. The carrots were a mixed success -- although they would have probably thrived if we had thinned them out properly. Unfortunately, we left them all bunched up -- and they never managed to attain their rightful length. Still, they were edible. The lettuce was a great success -- but we should have planted less, and staggered the plantings more. We had way too much of the stuff, and then it went all coarse and leggy. I'm not sure what happened to the cucumbers. We have two beautiful artichokes, still on their stalks, but only two. Although I carefully labelled each row of seeds, we had so much rain that I think we lost a few crops -- both in the ground and in my memory. Did we plant onions? I can't remember.

The blueberry vines didn't produce any fruit, but they are still alive -- so better luck next year? Speaking of next year: I think that I will focus first on what we really like to eat. Instead of all of these annual plants, which just have to be ripped out at the end of the season, I'm going for some of my favorite perennials: rhubarb and raspberries. I think that it would also help if we start planting earlier than May, and if we didn't go away for the better part of July and August. That last bit is crucial. There really isn't much point in growing your own food if you aren't there to eat it!

I've just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's inspiring book on a year of seasonal eating -- titled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- and it was truly illuminating on a wide variety of food subjects. Although I was hardly a grower on Kingsolver's scale, it did make me realize that serious vegetable growers don't leave their patch during the summer months! Part cultural critique, part memoir, and part field guide, Kingsolver's chronicle of the family farm made me a believer -- but it also made me a realist. I need a much bigger freezer, more equipment, more energy, and a more cooperative partner if I'm going to expand the family's agricultural holdings. Although I think that eating seasonally is a really sensible idea, I might (personally, you know) be better off with an organic veg box scheme. But even if we are starting small, I think we will persist in trying to grow things -- and then eat the things we grow.

Perhaps there is something atavistic about my sudden urge to grow edible things . . . after all, my paternal grandfather was a farm boy. Even later in life, when he lived in Fort Worth, he always kept an extensive garden in his back yard. I can remember him carefully tending his rows, and bringing in handfuls of vegetables for my grandmother to do something with. I can also remember him dripping with sweat from the hot Texas summer, and perhaps this explains why I didn't pick up any of his gardening skills. I was perfectly content to stay in the cool darkened rooms, either reading books or watching old Shirley Temple movies. It never occurred to me that I might learn something useful from that patch of dirt.

Now I regret that I was such an indolent, air-conditioning loving creature. Colin must think that I'm the most ignorant greenhorn that ever lived on this lane. One of the points that Kingsolver makes is that the knowledge about growing and preserving food has largely been lost in just two generations. Except for farming families, and they continue to shrink in number, many of us haven't got a clue. As I read the Little House on the Prairie books with my daughter, I am constantly struck by the fact that Ma and Pa are almost entirely self-sufficient. They buy coffee, cornmeal, flour and Christmas candy -- and that's about it. I'm having to play catch-up on all sorts of basic things that I should have already known, but hopefully my youngest daughter will grow up taking for granted the mysteries of growing vegetables and fruit.

While I'd never want to give up Waitrose, and yoke myself to the land, I hate to think that I would be the least useful person to have around if we all run out of petrol. And I can vouch for the fact that homemade applesauce tastes a lot better that the stuff that comes in the plastic pot.


Sarah Laurence said...

“Whilst?” It’s not just the gardening. Every post is getting more English, Bee. I’m enjoying the photos that go along with your blog, but it’s taking some getting used to, like when the NYT first started running color photos. Change is good if it is making you greener and well fed. Kingsolver’s book sounds interesting, but I miss her novels.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee my dear, welcome to the thrill and frustration of the gardening bug.

My father always had a garden. I took for granted that we always had fresh vegetables in the spring, summer, and fall. It wasn't until I started growing tomatoes on my first Houston balcony that I realized it wasn't as easy as it looked.

I have started many a garden in the spring only to despair over too much rain, not enough rain, insects, etc.....

In fact, if I were to truthfully give my self a grade as a gardener, I have to say I started out as an "F" student, and have worked my way up to a "C" student.

My dad is the type that would, when viewing an interesting plant in a public garden, break off a bit and take it home. A few weeks later, he would have multiple little plants happily growing in assorted pots on his porch.

Alas, in this case, the apple fell far from the trunk. I will however, keep planting, and for every zucchini plant that blooms but never sets fruit, for every tomato the the blackbirds get, and for every stalk of corn that never set an ear, I will plant another, and enjoy the harvest I do manage to get all the more for my failures.

Congratulation Bee, your one of us now.

You know I hear rhubarb grows well in your climate . . .

PS - what kind of apples are those? That is a prolific tree!

Anne said...

This post makes me all kind of happy. Hooray for gardening! I know (vicariously) that it can be frustrating, disappointing, and full of what seem like false starts. But I'm so glad that you've decided to stick with it! I think you'll be rewarded in the long run. The blueberries might take a year or two to get up and running (this is not unusual), and same with the raspberries when you put them in. Don't worry. Raspberries seem like wonderfully hardy things--they'll bear fruit if they get half a chance.

I suspect that your girls will wind up greatly appreciating the knowledge that you're sowing (pun intended) in them. They might not appreciate it yet, especially if their chores involve weeding and other garden work, but it's heartening to graduate into adulthood knowing how to grow a supper's worth of vegetables.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Ok, this post actually makes me want to go out and plant something (and I am NOT a gardener, only an admirer of plants).

I'd like to do a few containers next year, mainly things like poblano, tomatillo, and jalepeno. I can't seem to find them at any market.

Since moving to England, I've made the switch from pre-packaged to "from scratch" cooking. What a difference! I wonder if I would make the move to gardener if we hung around here a couple more years?

PS I've had my eye on those organic veggie boxes. If they come with recipes, I might give them a try. I like courgettes, by the way :-)

Anil P said...

A most interesting post.

Growing food on our own brings us closest to nature for, to get her to yield our food we must first get to know her well, possibly kicking off the beginning of a lifelong romance with our environment.

Add to it the fact that all that we end of learning as a result is not merely satisfying bt fulfilling as well.

Moreover it's a treat to see the plants grow.

Cindy said...

Welcome to the gardening world, one where despite all your best efforts, Mother Nature can really sock it to you at the last moment. Ok, I'm not meaning to put you off gardening, being an avid one myself, just stating the facts. Fact #2: it is soooo rewarding to make a meal consisting entirely of things you have grown. And to open a jar of YOUR tomato sauce in the dead of winter is pure joy and summer in a jar. Enjoy your foray into this wild and wonderful world of growing and don't let Mother Nature get you down.

Elizabeth said...

I quite agree that children don't like whatever veggie decides to be the most prolific.
In these soon to be austere (my favorite word) times, growing your own stuff will seem very morally pure.
As a child in the 1950's I grew up picking berries and raspberries and collecting eggs etc etc. - and I was definitely middle class.
Yes, you are becoming very English.
Is that good or bad?

Bee said...

Well, I've always liked the sound of "whilst." You know me: culturally, I like to cherrypick.
I did wonder if Kingsolver managed to write much during her year of seasonal eating. Between the planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving, I can't imagine where she found the time for much else.
Although she made me feel like the veriest worm, I admire her hugely!

Do you ever talk plants with your father? Do you get tips, or even cuttings, from him?
I can't wait to try some rhubarb. We're going to get started a lot earlier this year!
About the tree: I think they are Cox apples. That is just a guess, really -- based on my powers of observation. It is an old tree, though, so it could be a less well-known variety. The funny thing about the "harvest" is that they all ripened (and fell off) within a two-week period. I went out yesterday and there are just a few apples left.

My youngest daughter is really into the garden . . . and she actually did the lion's share of planting. She is in a Garden Club at school, so she actually knew more about what to do than I did! My oldest daughter could not care less . . . although she is fond of cooking.
Thanks for the encouraging words about the blueberries! I will let you know if something happens with them.
Please write about your parents' garden sometime. You occasionally allude to it, and I would love to know more.

I've been into growing herbs for a while now, but I've never thought about growing peppers!
I just ordered an organic veg box. Check out the Abel and Cole website . . . it DOES come with linked recipes.

I've always thought of myself as a "city" person . . . but it is gratifying to get my hands in the dirt a bit.

Our tomatoes were a big disappointment. We had LOADS of them, but then they never ripened. (The weather was really cold and wet all of August.) Your loving words about tomato sauce made me think of Kingsolver's book. You should read it: I think you would really like it!

Bee said...

Next year I'm going to remember to haul out the zucchini bread and chocolate zucchini cake recipes! My ratatouille failed to win them over!

I think that gardening and hedgerow foraging and footpaths are all examples of the really good English bits.

Alyson said...

Ha - I loved your observation about the correlation between what grows the most and what your kids like the least!

I too was inspired to run out and plant after reading this and I'm so far from a gardener that it's quite frightening! I think I would be the least useful person if we ran out of petrol.

Even though you have only one growing season under your belt, it sounds like you learned so much. I'm impressed!

Debski Beat said...


I'm not a good gardener, I can point very well at things and look sorrowfully at the gardeners that take care of our compound, for a cup of tea they will 'sort it'.

I am an avid shopper at the local organic shop and take a regular veggie and fruit box. For Xmas everyone will be receiving homemade jams, chutneys and terrines. From the local gamekeeper's kill etc I will be able to have a wonderful spread on that day. My poor hubby aka The Bearded One will get a hand knitted jumper, every day he looks at this item that he KNOWS he will have to wear on December 25th in front of all family and friends, the fear is palpable.

Yesterday I picked the last of the white roses for The Bearded One's desk, shockingly this morning, perhaps due to the sunshine we are having more buds have appeared.

What will you grow in winter Bee

Lucy said...

Funnily enough, my first experience of a delightful, productive, useful kitchen garden was that of my Aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania, when we visited in the mid 70s. They were always broke, but fed the 5000 every Sunday, largely from their backyard, including chickens and massive quantities of sweetcorn. Thinking about it, it was rather more like a French potager than anything I remember from England.

While I do like the idea, and sometimes the reality of gardening you can eat, it often seems like a very frustrating business, with a lot of waste and expense, and I sometimes wonder if the production of food isn't best left to the experts!

That said, we've had some good crops which have probably saved us a bit of money, and there is something good about cooking with what you have to hand. The advice on don't grow it if you're not going to eat it is good! But economies of scale are such that gluts are inevitable; we've often grown quite small amounts of things in raised beds, but I'm not sure that justifies the efforts invloved or the cost of the seed.

Serendipitous foraging and enjoying other people's surplus probably appeals more to my nature, like the apples falling off the tree. Compote really is good isn't it?

Anyway, that was a lovely, meandering, beautifully written post, as ever.

Bee said...

The way you worded that first paragraph: ah, yes! I do rather like someone "sorting" things, I have to admit.

My first organic fruit/veg box came today . . . and it will definitely force me to incorporate more fruit/veg into our diets (which is a good thing). BTW, poor little turnip is still on the kitchen counter . . . our joke!

I thoroughly admire your enterprising Xmas spirit! I don't know what your knitting is like, but I'm sure the Bearded One will be happy and proud to wear your handicrafts.

Not sure if I will grow anything this winter . . . but I will get some onions and rhubarb in for sure. I've got lots of herbs, too; didn't mention those.

It is supposed to freeze tonight! I wonder if it will burn the rose buds? (I've still got lots, too.)

I was just visiting yours . . . I don't know why, but I'm always pleased when that sort of blogging convergence happens. I wish that I had some chestnuts to hand, as I am making a stuffing for tonight's dinner. After looking at several recipes, I have decided to wing it.

I always like the way you "word" things, Lucy. As you can probably tell, I am a serendipitous forager in truth! (I'm wanting a walnut tree now.) Proper gardens actually generate too much food for a family of four -- and then there's the problem of wearying of the crop.

Bee said...

I just realized that I missed you out! Sorry!
I think that there must be a perfect starter plant for you out there. We will have to have a think about it! (And we have plenty of time, as the growing season in Conn. is pretty much over now.) BTW, are there apple trees near you?

Shauna said...

Oh, to play in the dirt!

Your post made me smile and think of being a little girl lost in the grape and bean vines, not minding the scratches from the blackberries.

Enjoy your time in that beautiful garden.

Jan said...

We have a large garden but many trees and therefore no particular place for growing veg...but This Has Got To Stop.
I hate losing trees but this cause can be forgiven..

Bee said...

My little girl is like that, too!

Trees are nice, too, but you've got to have a balance! I planted a new crabapple tree today.

Debski Beat said...


You are a very bad influence on me !

I have just plonked down a pile of rapidly becoming rare Pounds Sterling on some David Austin roses.

The Alnwick (old rose scent lovely pinky things)
William Shakespeare (old rose scent and burgundy-ish)
Jude The Obscure (prolific and creamy, heady scent)

In summer let us discuss how they came along shall we, in my usual way I will wave my hand like my mother in law (slightly Gloria Swanson wave with an Ethel Merman demenour ... true !) to the gardeners who will 'sort it'.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Oh yes, tons and tons of apple trees.

Nimble said...

Dear Bee,
Your gardening and austerity thinking are reminding me of the novel England, England by Julian Barnes. Have you read it? I would cautiously recommend it. There is one particularly gross plot element but I thought it did come round in a nice circle by the end. It’s a satire set in the near future. I think actual events may have overtaken it at this point. Most of the action of the book relies on the atmosphere of overweening capitalism of a few years ago. I find that there is a great wikipedia page on this novel,_England in case you decide you don’t want to read the book. Or you could read it after the book if you had a wonderful memory for that sort of thing.

Dick said...

The English have always been strong on the extreme gardening front. But it was the 'digging for victory' during the War that made it an entirely classless occupation - an early social leveller, in fact.

And, like Elizabeth, growing up in the '50s I remember joining the long lines of pickers down public hedgerows gathering blackberries. When I visited Russia in the early '90s I was struck by the numbers of families out in all weathers during the summer clearing the bushes.

I've never been a successful planter and harvester, although with extensive allotments just the other side of the spinney at the foot of our garden, I'm tempted to have another go. The more so, in fact, after reading this post, Bee!

Bee said...

It is never unwise to spend money on roses! I have five William Shakespeares and I promise that they give good value!

Our weekend friends brought me a new rose -- hooray! As it is a rambler, it has been planted in front of the chicken run.

And do you have any apple trees in your yard? Homemade applesauce is a delicious and very easy thing to make. You should try it out in the Joy class!

Yes, I can remember reading all about this book when it came out -- but I never got around to it. I will see if it shows up in the charity shop.

I've been thinking about Victory Gardens, in fact! We must rename them something more appropriate for our times. Perhaps your little girl would like to plant some seeds with you? It is such a magical thing, really.

Also, my curiousity is piqued about your Russian experiences!