The hungry gap is officially over.

Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.

The rats have been busy

But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.

Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.

But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.

Pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age.

However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.

Broad beans

So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.

Split level gardening

Sweating it out over the preserves

There ought to be an easier way but there isn’t.  I can’t quote the absolute figure but I think it’s said that nationally we waste about 1/3 of our food. Given the vast amount of effort (plus chemicals and fertilizers and diesel transport) that goes into producing it, one fairly obvious way of cutting our carbon footprint would be to stop wasting it.

At the allotment level it’s easier, I know.  We recycle all our green waste plus our own paper and cardboard.  We also recycle other peoples’ cardboard from the basement skip, leaves from the local council and anything else we can get our hands on.  The one thing it’s really dificult to do is to maintain control over the quantity and timing of crops.  Gluts and shortages are a fact of allotment life, and so storage and planning always need to be attended to.  It’s the weather that gets in the way more often than not.  In these uncertain days of global heating, the weather has become more extreme and that has an immediate impact on how our crops grow.

So today – because it was raining – was an ideal time to catch up on our surpluses.  I spent most of the day in the kitchen, bits of leftover bread were dried and turned into breadcrumbs, I made six pounds of green pepper, green tomato and chilli relish, another seven litres of passata and there’s a big second batch of spiced red cabbage about to go into the oven. Tomorrow I’ll harvest all the Habanero chillies and dry them and then on Sunday if the weather holds I’ll lift the last two rows of maincrop potatoes (a bit late I know).

It’s hard work, much harder than wandering around to the supermarket, but the rewards are tremendous.  We know exactly what we’re eating and the quality is as good as we can make it, plus our winter stores are looking very healthy.  I can only suppose that our carbon footprint is lower than it would be if we bought everything in and sent all our waste to landfill. It’s not going to save the world but it would make a huge contribution if more people took it up – and judging by today’s “State of Nature” report the sooner we get on with it the better.

I was shocked by some of the BBC’s reporting on the issue. The World at One covered it by opting for a cosy discussion about action to save water voles and contrived to give the impression that everything is under control. The impact of farming and climate change was not mentioned at all.  Shame on them – is it any surprise that the audience, especially among young people, is dwindling.

So preserving, pickling, drying, freezing, fermenting are at the top of the agenda at the moment.  In one working day, all of the ingredients in yesterday’s photograph have been preserved for the winter – it’s almost magical that we can do this and it brings a great deal of pleasure.  I’ve always thought that cooking is very close to alchemy in the way that it transforms pretty basic things into really good things.  When I think about nature I want to include food in that thought, because none of this is possible without harnessing the extraordinary power of nature. It’s a demonstrable fact that understanding microorganisms and knowing the good from the bad is as much a kitchen skill as whipping up a sauce.

Incidentally I should thank carolee for the idea of cooking the relish – I’ll report back when it’s matured for a couple of weeks, but off the spoon it tasted great.

But it has to be said that allotmenteering and preserving, baking, brewing and cooking can be very hard work. Sometimes – like when it gets to nine o’clock at night – all I want to do is crash into a chair and fall asleep. It’s all a matter of what I call texture. Yesterday we spent some time in Bristol at the Royal West of England Academy open exhibition. I can’t say I was particularly lit up by what we saw, but it was a lovely break with two of our oldest friends., and tomorrow the rain is set to stop!