I think we’re mostly agreed that growing as much of our own food as possible in a garden or allotment is a Good Thing – not least because there’s normally a shop somewhere close to make up the inevitable deficiencies. But it’s the very existence of these backup strategies that mark the profound difference between elective and subsistence food production. This unremarkable thought came into my head after re-watching Bruce Parry’s four part documentary on the people who live on and near the Arctic Circle. Filmed ten years ago (nothing’s improved) they’re all on the BBC’s iPlayer at the moment. A series of sequences that could have been designed to provoke the social media – hunting caribou and whales for instance – framed the fact that in subsistence cultures there are always powerful cultural forces that prevent taking more than people need. The hunting season provides not just food, but draws the whole community together; sharing the work and the produce against the inevitable shortage season that follows.
Coming back to the allotment, it also reminded me of the way in which feast and famine are an inevitable feature for us as well. Our society manages this in the worst way possible by combining extractive agriculture with wastage. We produce more than we could possibly eat and then throw the surplus away when it passes its best before date – millions of tons of food every year. If we aspire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem; drying, smoking, fermenting , bottling and freezing should be as fundamental to the allotment as they are to the most off-grid Canadian or Alaskan.
Yesterday at the Potwell Inn, a few bottles of elderflower cordial became a metaphor and a cause of something close to joy. Snatched from the laws of entropy we gave these flowers another year of life. Sunshine, nectar, the scents of spring -bottled with a minimum of effort, and there to comfort us in November and remind us that in addition to the mindfulness of the moment it often cheers us up to recall the seasonal cycle.
To paraphrase Pam Corbin’s invaluable River Cottage Handbook “Preserves” , July is the month that the wooden spoon and the preserving pan come off the kitchen shelf. However hard we try to plan for successional crops to ease the problem of gluts and shortages; nature is generous – often more generous than we need her to be. Of course there are other, smaller appetites to feed because birds, small mammals and insects are all members of the family. Even rats – and I say this hesitantly – are part of the family. We wage continuous war on them on the allotment and this year it was made much worse by the shutdown of the cafes and restaurants on whose waste bins they normally feed. Faced with famine they did exactly what we’d have done and moved on to the compost heaps and rubbish bins of the suburbs. I struggle to trap them because they’re extremely wily and learn fast; and when occasionally I succeed, or watch them scurrying around I can’t help admiring their sleek grey/brown coats. It’s a paradox but it’s one I can comfortably live with.
Most of our produce comes by the bucketful when we only want enough for a meal, and so preserving the surplus is essential. We look forward to making jams and preserves, pickles and chutneys (Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has a recipe for what he calls “glutney” – an adaptable recipe for whatever’s glowering at you from the kitchen table. However, what’s pickled still needs to be eaten up within a certain time frame and it’s both easy and expensive to turn your surplus of fruit and veg into another surplus of unwanted preserves. Last year I cleared out the garage and there were jams there that had crystallised and whose original fruit was no longer identifiable. Once again, the ancient subsistence communities are ahead of us, because built in to their food culture is the practice of sharing. Since all of our sons are cooking and gardening in their own right, for a time we got into the daft habit of sharing our surplus preserves as gifts. We’ve now learned that it’s best to share what’s actually needed – a surplus flows into a shortage and the problem is solved – and of course the family is an infinitely extendable notion.
So, looking back at the many times I’ve written about this it seems that we should promote a food culture which embraces the whole cycle from sowing to composting through cooking, eating, preserving, sharing and hopefully a bit of community celebration as well. Not just slow food but perhaps slow living – extending the food culture into time itself, leaving plenty of it for savouring the whole process.
Of course this involves re-learning a multitude of lost skills and changing the priorities of a culture that’s lost its teeth to industrial food; but every part of that journey is the most enormous fun and deeply rewarding. Just because you’ve spotted a neglected surplus somewhere it doesn’t mean you have to set up a business to exploit it. Maybe a bit of community-enhancing sharing would be a better idea in the long run.