I intended to write a piece today about the pleasures of browsing the little treats on the allotment. Strawberries are the most obvious one; the moment they ripen we eat them straight off the plants so they never make it home. But there are others too. The picture on the left is of the impressively large seeds of Sweet Cicely which taste marvellous straight off the plant. It’s one of those plants that contain natural sweeteners, and we usually put some flowers, leaves or seeds into the rhubarb while it’s cooking. It adds a useful amount of sweetness and a delicious aniseed flavour. Foraging on the allotment is a great way of putting some of the plants we normally call weeds to good use. Nettles, dandelions, Good King Henry are all good to eat when young and the pot marigolds make good skin cream as well as the flowers being edible. Nasturtiums to can be pressed into service to brighten up a salad.
But that’s on the allotment where we’re sure what it is we’re eating. Beyond the safety of the allotment there are a multitude of temptations, some of which can even kill us if we’re not entirely sure of the species. I was reminded of this yesterday on our riverside walk when I spotted this beauty growing out of the steel piles that were driven into the river bed to contain the regular floods. It took a moment to realize that it was hemlock water dropwort, the seeds of which must have insinuated themselves into a crack in the wall during one of those floods. Normally it grows in swathes on the banks of streams and rivers – mainly in the West Country. I think it’s beautiful when in flower; like a starburst of white; but it’s a killer if you should eat any part of it.
Compared with the flowers of sweet Cicely on the right, they can look quite similar to a beginner.
The carrot family, as it’s now known, used to be called the umbellifers because of the distinctive flower heads, but the family name was changed because there are lots of unrelated species that also have umbels – think of elderflower which is almost ready to pick now for cordials. The carrot family has some of our most useful food plants as well as some very nasty country cousins and, as a family they need to be treated with respect by foragers. They’re not always easy to identify, but usually leaves, height, season, local plant lists which you can download for every area of the UK from the BSBI, and habitat give us a good start. Just as not all dandelions are really dandelions at all, so there are wild edible carrot family members like Alexanders or Herb Gerard (which I’ve still never eaten because I’m still wary). Like fungus hunting, learning from a skilled guide – i.e. not me – is a useful investment.
Meanwhile back on the allotment things are quite literally hotting up with the weather closer to June averages and the polytunnel full. We’ve seen the tomatoes starting to set fruit, and there are peppers and chillies all fattening up already. Today we treated most of the beds with slug killing nematodes and there’s barely a square foot of empty ground. We try to avoid the worst of the heat by skipping breakfast and watering as early as possible – good for the plants and the waistline too. Plants are afoot for another field trip to catch up with some old (plant) friends on the West Coast so it’s all hands to the pumps at the Potwell Inn.
If ever you needed a demonstration of the extravagant dynamism of nature this is it. This cluster of figs didn’t exist a fortnight ago but yesterday we noticed them in all their come and get me beauty; pristine, glossy and crowned by leaves so new that if they were lambs they’d be jumping for joy. I quickly run out of superlatives for these young fruits, not least because if they make it to full ripeness they’ll be the stars of any table. I didn’t really like figs until we went to Corsica where they grow wild and ripen properly in the fierce summer sun, and there I discovered how good they can be. I brought the taste for them back with me and, although I wouldn’t go quite so far with a metaphor as D H Lawrence, there’s enough about a well ripened home grown fig to make them a fleeting treat in the autumn – so long as you can pick the precise moment to pick them, which is about thirty minutes before the flies get there.
But there’s another reason for stopping to look, because these figs are squatters; vagrants escaped from the mother tree about twenty yards away and completely self-sufficient. Where we have to grow most of our crops, these we can forage because they’ve set up home in the demilitarized zone between our allotment and our neighbour’s so they don’t really belong to either of us. Neither, incidentally, are they fed, mulched or primped in any way. The only principle adopted for pruning them is to keep the path between us clear; so there is no counting of buds or consideration of shape. We just hack them back to the point where a wheelbarrow can pass. As they approach ripeness we feign even-handedness about picking them, but we still mutter darkly when more distant neighbours are spotted giving them a squeeze as they pass. I once spotted the most brazen grazer of all slipping away with two carrier bags full of ripe figs from the mother tree – an act of larceny he excused because the tree was planted thirty years ago by a long deceased friend. There’s a PhD to be written on the ethics of the allotment site. Occam could sharpen his razor on the distinction between a single bay leaf, picked for some stock or the complete removal of all the fixtures and fittings on an abandoned plot. We’d all agree that there is a distinction to be made but we’d probably place it just a little way beyond our own secret removals.
But how can we be so pleased with our little horticultural triumphs which involve hours of work and no little expense, when this fig demonstrates its independence so beautifully. I’m not a permaculturalist, mainly because the cost of making it universal would be depopulation on a huge, even monstrous scale; but that doesn’t mean that I’m not deeply interested in those resources that the earth provides and which we neglect as we stuff ourselves with rich processed food to the detriment of our health and the entire ecosystem. I read last night that the leaves of red valerian – Centranthus ruber – are delicious in salads. Aside from the fact that one of our sons is horribly allergic to it, I’d never thought of eating it because however botanically sophisticated I may have become as I grow older, I still instinctively divide plants into ‘food’ and ‘weeds’ and I suspect my mother placed border guards in my head to warn me off inviting strangers into the kitchen. Recently I laughed heartily at a seed catalogue offering couch grass for money, in spite of the fat that I readily rub an ointment containing its roots into my skin when I get small patches of eczema. That said, maybe I should start a rumour that the figs are escaped from a deadly plant breeding experiment aimed at quietly exterminating Italian waiters.
Today it’s been raining again so I redeemed the shining hour by making bread and baking another Dundee cake. Life at the Potwell Inn is ever challenging and so today we turned the mattress on the bed and put some clean sheets on; such is the nature of the ordinary – you have to wrestle a blessing out of it