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.