I’ve written quite a bit already about the ethos of Heligan, but there’s something else I want to explore, and that’s the need for proper celebration in our lives. Now I know that “proper” is a weasel word that usually means ‘the way I think it ought to be done’, but there’s more to it than trying to force my own sense of ‘the way things should be’ on to everyone else. Many years ago we had one of those extraordinary autumn seasons when the blackberries were so prolific that we picked forty pounds, which we took back to my parents house without having any idea what to do with them. What I remember most clearly from the occasion was the overwhelming urge to give thanks for the generosity of the uncultivated hedges. What we did with them was another story altogether because out of that generosity we made absolutely the worst blackberry chutney ever; heaps and piles of it – a thick purple sludge bereft of flavour but containing an impressive number of pips. Somewhere in that recollection is an improving story that I hardly need to spell out.
The point really is that we seem to have mislaid that strange need for thanksgiving. In evolutionary terms it makes sense to be thankful because a time of reflection on what went well and what went badly is a help in living beyond next winter if – and only if – it issues in changed behaviour. But what if the sense of plenty is so ingrained in us that we no longer consider the source of all that generosity. The supermarkets are always open and the essentials of life are always available in a quantity and variety that would have amazed our grandparents. But earlier this year when we were assailed by “the beast from the East” which truthfully was not much more than a bit of bad weather we weren’t expecting, the supermarkets stalled and soon fell apart. In the centre of Bath milk quickly ran out. There was little bread, no vegetables were harvested and so the shelves rapidly emptied, queues formed at the counters and I heard people abusing the hapless staff who had been instructed not to sell more than one loaf to each customer. We discovered that even in this land of plenty, we are only a step or a storm away from hunger. Food security is a fantasy sustained by thousands of lorries and a logistical system that’s only a keystroke away from breaking. Nothing to celebrate there.
But we were lucky enough to be able to attend one of the harvest celebrations at Heligan and we had the most lovely time. The evening was a thanksgiving for the harvest that had taken place less than 200 yards away in the productive garden and on the farm. And so we feasted in the company of the gardeners and farmers who had tended it and with maybe fifty other people many of whom had never met one another before but shared a common passion. A tiny temporary community formed itself for two hours and then dispersed energised by what we had shared, not just the food but the conviction that our common enterprise was of great importance .
That’s why we’re allotmenteers, because there’s something in the synergy of growing, harvesting, cooking and sharing that allows us to flourish as human beings – even though there are many mistakes and disasters on the way. Storm, blight, drought and carrot fly are just the parameters within which we live and work but there is no greater feeling of satisfaction when, after all the digging and tending, you eat the produce of the shared enterprise between the allotmenteer and the soil that makes it possible.
And here’s my harvest photograph of two of quite a number of huge and undeniably phallic Tromba d’Albegna squashes with which it’s difficult to pose without a rather silly grin. They store for months, taste lovely and all the seeds are at the fat end so you’ve got a yard of seedless winter squash that roasts beautifully – but make sure you leave the skin on. It feels tough but cooks soft and it’s where all the flavour lives.