Spring has arrived and with it my Airbnb guests. I had my first ever visitors from Vietnam earlier this week, business student Phuong and her dad Son, visiting her from Saigon. On arrival I mentioned to them that I needed to go out to my allotment shortly to tend to my vegetables. The comment produced an outpouring of enthusiasm. ‘How wonderful – could we come with you?’ This is definitely the first time guests have expressed such enthusiasm, mainly the questions are on the easiest way to get to Bicester Village or which colleges the Harry Potter films were shot in. But of course the tradition of home vegetable growing especially the much prized ‘private plots’ allowed under communism, have a strong resonance – especially as they constituted about 1% of the cultivated land but produced 25% of the food in many communist regimes. They were suitably delighted to discover how close the allotment was – they had assumed a lengthy bus ride rather than a five minute walk.
On arrival Son and Phuong were clearly amazed at the lushness of it all, especially the range of flowers on some plots, which did look rather beautiful in the evening sun. An inspection of my plot followed – the source of greatest surprise being rhubarb, a totally new concept to them.The garlic came in for approval but I was stumped by their questions about ‘black garlic’ something I’ve never seen nor heard of. After a quick visit to my space in the shared poly tunnel where they admired the basil and tomatoes making great progress in a rather chilly May, the final stop was the orchard plot. This produced the strongest reaction. Cherries just netted against the birds, and apples and pear blossom just setting were viewed with reverence and delight.
As we came to leave I pulled some of the rhubarb, just as a typical English rainstorm loomed, and we took it home and stewed it with dried fruit and served with yoghurt. So Saigon will now be regaled with tales of the strange fruit they grow on those British ‘private plots.’
At last a bit of rain! So I was off to the orchard plot on my allotment to scythe the rapidly growing grass under the fruit trees. Some damp on the grass works a treat and my two handled scythe from Simon Fairley of Tinkers Bubble cuts through the new growth like a knife through butter in these conditions.
But before I’d even reached the plot and commenced scything, two fellow allotmenteers had accosted me and made jokes about my resemblance to Aidan Turner (not) and his scything in ‘Poldark’. So controversial! Not everybody agreed with his style which certainly looked more like hacking at the grass than scything as I understand or practice it and debates have raged in media ranging from the ‘Daily Telegraph’ (see link) and Patrick Gore-Langton in the ‘Daily Express’ to the News Quiz.
As for me.. well the scything was going just fine until the rain came down again with about a third done. So its the shirt-on Ross Poldark look-alike(ish) up on the plot again later in the week.
China may be associated with large-scale, commercial agriculture, but on my trip there in 2014 I was delighted to discover that ‘Bio Farm’ in Shanghai is bucking that trend. Founder Jane Tsao (pictured) set up this small farm in the eastern suburbs of the city in 2004, and it gained organic certification a year later. She now employs about 60 staff and together they grow a range of fruit and vegetables including salad crops, tomatoes, spinach, water melon, figs, strawberries and peaches. The farm manages to stay economically viable by selling its produce to high-end restaurants in Shanghai. This is combined with a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme with approximately 400 subscribers.
Bio Farm is linked to Garden Organic though the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), and it uses a range of its educational materials. The team run a ‘grow your own’ education programme and a ‘Bio Farmers Kitchen’, where CSA members and farmers can prepare and cook their food. The day that I visited, its volunteers were preparing open up the farm for a ‘tomato day’ to encourage more visitors.
Jane sees plenty of room for growth in the organic sector in China. “It’s a rather elite niche at the moment,” she says. “But we love and need reliable, safe food in China and we are proof it can work right here in Shanghai.” The biggest problem Bio farm faces is development pressure. This five-acre patch of greenery is right beside a main road and surrounded by factories, offices and suburban housing. Local developers are already arguing that the farm is an inefficient use of space.
This post first appeared as an article in The Organic Way no 213 Spring 2015
Jans Ondaatje Rolls ‘The Bloomsbury Cookbook’ (Thames and Hudson) is as much social history as cookbook. The ‘Bloomsberries’ may have been the foodies of their day, but were profoundly ignorant of all aspects of food production and preparation. The book combines food related paintings, prose and gossip, with recipes, to provide a very human portrait of this much studied Group.
From a very different perspective and taking a much longer historical sweep, Margaret Willes in ‘The gardens of the British working class’ (Yale University Press) focuses more on the struggles of creating a ‘blessed plot’ from cottage gardens and allotments. She brings it to life through the words of people such as Joseph Turrill, small time market gardener and diarist who was a neighbour of Lady Ottoline Morrell in Garsington. A horticultural history of the people who latterly were employed as the cooks and gardeners to the intellectuals.
This post first appeared as an article in The Guardian ‘readers books of the year 2014’, on 27 December 2014.
It was so wet and gloomy that an afternoon invitation to see HRH Prince Charles open the new Heritage Seeds Kitchen Garden at Le Manoir aux Quats Saisons a few weeks ago was potentially something of a mixed blessing. In the event the mud won out and the guests were confined to quarters – or Quats as it seems to be known locally – the drawing room of the Le Manoir. His Maj toured with an excited Raymond Blanc (‘RB’ to the staff), Anne Keenan the garden designer, David Love Cameron the head gardener and of course Garden Organic’s CEO, James Campbell. Quite enough, once the security guys had done a once over to check for anything untoward, to turn the place into a fairly accurate replica of the Somme. Especially after the formal planting of an apple tree to commemorate the visit. It turned out to be an F1 hybrid – not very organic, so someone will have to slip out and buy a replacement when nobody important is looking. Much more salubrious chatting in front of the log fire to Garden Organic’s Vice President’s Susan Hampshire and Thelma Barlow (from Coronation Street) both of whom are real gardening experts and organic growing enthusiasts.
Eventually the royal party pitched up, shaking the rain from the coats and umbrellas and joined us for tea. When having tea with royalty what to talk about? ‘Have you come far?’ No, that is what they supposedly ask us. Well we have corresponded about keeping chickens in the garden in the past – something which has led to Garden Organic’s Hens@home project (see my blog post of 8 April 2014) so I tried my luck. Bingo, the Royal face lit up and soon the conversation was not only about hen keeping but the merits of keeping a pig in the back garden as well. Great way to reduce food waste he assured me. Don’t tell DEFRA! Perhaps the ‘black spider’ already has.
And what was the tea like you ask? What you got was great – how could it be otherwise at Le Manoir, but there was so little that I’m sure the hens, let alone any piggy waiting patiently outside for any scraps, died of starvation years ago.
In one of those strange conjunctions of life, this morning I said goodbye to 18 books, pamphlets and letters by William Morris for Jeremy Deller’s (he of the ‘English Magic’ exhibition currently on in Margate) latest exhibition, on William Morris and Andy Warhol to open at Modern Art Oxford on 6 December and then received my annual load of muck from local farmer Paul, on the allotment. All muck and (English) Magic… sort of … in the space of an hour.
Researching my book on the social and cultural history of Oxford’s Cowley Road through food, is turning up some great stories. Not least that of the ‘Oxford sausage’. From medieval times on, Oxford was well placed in the centre of southern England as an agricultural centre. Animals were driven to the city from as far away as Bristol for slaughter and it became something of a meat processing centre. The Oxford sausage, made from a pork and veal recipe was invented in the 18C by a Mrs Dorothy Spreadbury. By the late 19C it had become very well known, not least by being popularised my Mrs Beeton in her book ‘Household management’ published in 1861 where she refers to it as her ‘ideal sausage’. The recipe doesn’t appear as the Oxford sausage in later editions, so I thought I would reclaim it for Oxford by reconstructing it.
Mrs Beeton used veal in her recipe so I suggest that lamb be substituted. Traditionally it was considered to be a ‘breakfast sausage’ and is notably spicy. The recipe doesn’t need skins because of the of beef suet which stiffens it. Roll it in flour instead before frying. So here is the ‘modern version’ ie without veal.
The Oxford sausage Ingredients 1lb good quality lean pork, such as shoulder 1lb lean lamb 1lb beef suet ½ lb breadcrumbs The rind of ½ a lemon finely grated Grating of nutmeg or mace 6 fresh sage leaves ½ teaspoon of dried marjoram 1 teaspoon of savoury herbs to hand Salt and pepper to taste Method Chop the pork, lamb and suet finely together. Add the breadcrumbs and lemon peel and a grating of nutmeg. Wash and chop the sage leaves finely add these with the remaining ingredients to the sausage mix and when thoroughly mixed roll into sausages, cut to desired lengths and roll in flour. Fry with other breakfast fare such as tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs, as desired.
By the end of the 19C century this humble breakfast sausage had been transformed into the ‘Royal Oxford sausage’. The Piggott’s sausage factory where they were made and its associated abattoir were established in the 1880’s in Denmark St, off Cowley Road and local photographer and early Oxford publicist, Henry Taunt retells of an Oxford Alderman giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee who made reference to ‘Oxford manufacturers’. ‘Alderman’ asked one of the Hon members ‘have you any manufactures at Oxford?’’ Oh yes sir’ said the alderman ‘we have two, parsons and sausages!’
It seems that local people were less forgiving and regularly complained of the smell, but the factory and abattoir remained open until 1937.
I don’t think I have perched a glass of champagne on a compost bin before. But I did today on a visit to the organic vegetable garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons at Great Milton outside Oxford. The occasion was a tour of the vegetable gardens led by their star gardener David Love Cameron (who spoke at the Garden Organic AGM in May) and garden designer Anne Keenan, for a group of Garden Organic’s major donors and Trustees. It was a warm September afternoon, ideal for a garden tour – a fact that I noticed as I cycled out from Oxford, hoping to do the trip in 45 minutes and finding it took 55, including getting lost in Great Milton. Unfortunately I’m not such a regular visitor to Le Manoir that I could find my way unerringly and needed directions from three young people sitting on a bench on the village green.
What fun it was as we were shown the vegetables, the poly tunnels and greenhouses, the areas planted up for the dinner table and those mainly planted up for visitors to look at, to demonstrate the success of an organic kitchen garden in action. Quinoa, amaranth, chard, pumpkins and squashes, beans, the herbs, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, a huge range of Japanese salad crops, and much more besides, including of course the composting systems… leaf mould, wormery, bin system. The garden has it quirks. There isn’t much in the way of flowers as companion planting, a fact remarked upon by some of our party. Over tea and that champagne, one of the gardeners explained that ‘Mr Blanc is a bit of a purist. He doesn’t like flowers in the vegetable garden…’. Yes there are signs of Mr Blanc’s unique stamp all over it. Admiring the large pond by the main house with lilies and bird sculptures, something that has been there since the 15c to raise fish in, one of the gardeners explained that crayfish were introduced not so long ago… by Mr Blanc himself. Unfortunately they were the wrong sort, not the innocent English variety but the far more aggressive American species. An accident, and one with consequences. They rapidly burrowed through the pond lining and into the stone walls. The pond drained away alarmingly and an urgent cull was launched. Nearly all have been caught and no doubt served with a great flourish in the nearby dining room, but a few remain. Thank goodness it a French man and not a member of staff, who mistook American for British.
I am writing a book on the social and cultural history of the Cowley Road area of east Oxford – publication due October 2015 with Signal Books. As part of the research I am interviewing all those people who have been so central to Cowley Road becoming such a centre for anyone interested in food and how it has evolved since the early 20C. The arrival of Asian shops and restaurants, the rise of the wholefood movement (and fairtrade) the role of Mediterranean and Eastern European food outlets as well as east Oxford being a site of production – orchards, allotments, smallholdings, community gardens, foraging – as well as consumption.
One of my first visits was to the Excelsior Cafe, a landmark on Cowley Road for as long as anyone can remember. Andreas Koumi is the proprietor and in my interview with him last month I discovered that he had opened it in 1961.
Its image is fairly down market – cheap and cheerful all day breakfasts, tea and coffee and a clientele who are often on the margins of society, even by Cowley Road standards. Andreas always has time to talk and my interview with him over coffee ranged from where he got his supplies from – the coffee is all ground by him using only organic beans, something of a surprise to Cowley Road coffee buffs who have always spurned his premises, to famous regulars including Rick Stein when he was a student at Oxford in the 1960’s, and the origin of his ‘specials’ menu. Being Greek Cypriot in origin, Andreas generally has moussaka on the menu. What is his secret recipe? Its the Rick Stein connection. He uses a version of the great man’s recipe.
Last week I popped in for a coffee and Andres took me aside. ‘I’m packing it in’ he said. ‘I’m 80 and its time to stop.’ ‘When?’ I asked. ‘The end of the month’. Today I went and bought a card for him. I got to the cafe and there was a hand-written sign on the door saying that it was closed. Too late, I thought. But no, the door was ajar and I went in. There he was on his own surveying the cafe for the last time – and he was leaving it exactly as he had it for all those years. His son Evripides, was standing by the door. Andreas and I had a few words and I gave him the card. ‘You can’t chat for long’ he told us, ‘His wife is waiting for him in the car’. And with that I watched as he locked the door for the final time and walked down the Cowley Road to the waiting car and retirement.
Its really great to see a project that been ages in the making come to fruition. A bit like the first apples off an apple tree grown from seed. Several years ago I helped fund (in fact I’m an Executive Producer) a young film maker, Karney Hatch who had a great idea – a documentary on urban agriculture worldwide. Well now its errr, hatched. From Cuba to Shanghai, the USA to the UK the documentary is a moving portrayal of the successes and challenges of the urban agriculture movement and its premiere is now scheduled, for the Portland Film Festival from 26 August.
Karney has managed to team up with Hollywood star Daryl Hannah (she of Blade Runner, Kill Bill, Wall Street, Steel Magnolia and other movie blockbusters fame) who is also a really committed environmental campaigner who was arrested outside the White House in February 2013 protesting against the Keystone pipeline and once spent three weeks tied to a walnut tree on an urban farm in south LA which was threatened with redevelopment.
Karney has released a short trailer which you can watch here. Lets hope it too turns into another blockbuster with that touch of stardust!
Veg growing, composting, organic gardening, allotments, garden writing, garden history with a radical twist. The personalities, the people, the plants, the goss, the weather and the occasional bit of magic thrown in… Now (October 2018) with a comment option. Please feel free.