FOOD FOR THE TABLE
(first published in Kitchen Garden magazine, May 2008).
I have been growing food for the table from allotments and small kitchen gardens on and off since the mid 1970s. Two years ago I embarked on a project to achieve self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables, taking on two allotments in the village of Haslingfield in South Cambridgeshire. Experienced growers will tell you that food self-sufficiency is always a ‘work in progress,’ dependent on factors which are often beyond your control, such as the weather or the presence of crop diseases and the ongoing battle with animals and pests.
Also, there is the long lead in time. The key factor here is the condition of the land you take on. I was offered a couple of disused and overgrown plots at the rear of the site, covered with thick weeds and grasses, bramble, some small blackthorn trees and a large mound of earth that required leveling. I took on two because the plots are small (10 by 15 metres). Two years and three months later I can say that the plots are finally coming into full production.
There is a big difference between having an allotment as a pleasurable leisure activity, which supplements you weekly shopping, and getting to the point where you can rely on your plot to put food on the table, week-in, week-out, all year round. It’s not something to be contemplated unless you are committed to the idea and have sufficient time.
The important point when striving for food self-sufficiency is that you are first and foremost a producer, engaged in a continuous year round cycle of activity. The final act of consumption, of putting food on the table, depends on actions taken months, possibly a year before. This requires careful planning and a strategy.
The first and obvious point is to ensure year-round availability so that as the summer crops are exhausted slower growing autumn and winter crops are coming to the point of harvest. This requires year long planting schemes to ensure there is sufficient space for all the crops you need to grow and proper crop rotation.
From this follows the need to embrace seasonality in your cooking so that maximum use is made of your crops. In the summer months you will be eating more salads, stir fries and risottos, lighter soups and steamed summer vegetables. In the winter, you will be eating thicker vegetable soups and casseroles using root vegetables and brassicas.
Whilst your cookery skills must be adapted to make the most of what is available, the growing of more versatile vegetables allows for variety. So for example, courgettes and marrows can be steamed, sautéed or stuffed, they can be used as the basis for soups and vegetable casseroles. Beetroot (a delicious soup) and red cabbage can be eaten hot as side vegetables or pickled for long-term use. Leeks are not only a valuable winter substitute for onions but also make excellent soup and interesting starters, either steamed then cooled in a vinaigrette, or served hot with a white sauce.
It’s all a question of getting the greatest possible value out of what you grow. With this in mind, never throw away any part of the plant that can be eaten. The tougher outer leaves of cabbages are retained for soups; the green leaves of brussel sprouts and broccoli are steamed and eaten as a side vegetable. Make sure to grow pumpkins and squashes, which store well and are extremely versatile, both in sweet and savoury dishes. In our house pumpkins are used to make pies, steam puddings and cakes; for soups; they are baked in the oven with the roast or with root vegetables and provide an ingredient in marmalade and chutney!
A further point is to think about the staple ingredients of your larder, the building blocks of your recipes: potatoes, carrots, over-wintering and main crop onions, garlic and celery, herbs and spices, such as coriander. I always make sure to sow both swiss chard and perpetual spinach; easy to grow and abundant croppers you can rely upon through much of the winter.
Food storage and preservation
You need also to have in place the various methods of food preservation and storage to deal with the inevitable supply gluts. It is easy to be caught out by the sheer volume of produce coming off the plot in August and September. Crops such as cauliflower and calabrese will easily bolt and go to seed if left too long in the ground.
My approach is to cook a mixture of surplus summer vegetables such as courgettes and beans (or whatever is available) together with onions, herbs, garlic and tomatoes (fresh or tinned) and then freeze in smaller quantities for later use, when winter crops are running out. This type of mixed vegetable casserole can be used as the basis for a variety of meals by the addition of meat or spices.
Another aspect of food-self-sufficiency is seed preservation, which reduces both your reliance on seed companies and the cost of the whole operation. The easy seeds to preserve for next year are the larger varieties such as beans, squashes and pumpkins, although you may well get hybridisation with the latter two. The seeds of spices such as coriander are very easy to harvest and re-use. The problem with small seed is that you may have to wait until the second year for seed production and it’s difficult to handle. With all self-collected seed eventually there may be some fall off in productivity, in which case you will have to go back to buying new seed. F1 hybrid varieties cannot be preserved for future use. The collecting, drying and preservation of seeds is an area where you gradually build expertise through trial and error. I am still it the beginning of the learning curve!
With regard to fruit, again, the key is to provide a continual harvest from spring through to autumn and lay down sufficient preserves – chutneys, jams, jellies and coulis (an unset jelly) – for later use. From my garden and the fruits grown on the allotment I start with rhubarb in the spring, move on to gooseberries, black, red and white currents in June, strawberries in July, czar plums in mid-August, then greengages, tayberries and loganberries into September. Finally, I have damsons, apples and late cropping raspberries through to November. Whatever cannot be eaten fresh, stored or preserved is frozen in the form of compotes and purees and I also use surplus fruit and vegetables to make wine; beginning with parsnip in February then gooseberry in June and plum in September.
Your Domestic Economy
The whole point of the operation is to make food cultivation, preparation and preservation an integrated ‘domestic economy.’ It only really works if you make it a way of life. A final thought, food self-sufficiency is also about what you can harvest freely from the hedgerow and open woodland. When out walking I always take a bag or container for ‘gathering’ and have a variety of routes with sources of wild fruit at different times of the year.