As I was leaving the allotment the other day I met a couple, who I guessed were in their late sixties, also on their way home after watering their plot. The man asked me what I had in my trug, and I showed him the raspberries and whitecurrants I’d just picked. We got talking and it turned out that this couple had Plot 35a before me but, as they had got older and less able to lug a heavy watering can across the site, decided to swap it for an allotment closer to the communal water tank. They had planted the grapevine – my sprawling, calamitous, beloved grapevine – many years ago. Since inheriting this vine in April 2013 I have been trying to work out which variety it is. It produces red, fairly sweet grapes but after showing pictures to a few gardeners I was still none the wiser. So, now was my chance to find out: what variety was it? “I don’t know!” my fellow plotholder said with a shrug of his shoulders.
This couple are from Cyprus, and used the vine not for the grapes – “too small!” – but for its leaves, to make dolmades. It is true that the still-nameless vine produces beautifully lush, green leaves. I did try dolmades one year, stuffing the leaves with rice and chopped tomatoes and peppers before baking them in the oven, but I doubt my dolmades were anywhere near as good as the authentic version.
Meeting my Cypriot neighbours made me happy that London is a city with so many nationalities – yet it instantly reminded me of the sadness I feel after our country’s Brexit vote. I met this Cypriot couple a fortnight after the UK voted to leave the European Union. The morning after the Brexit vote, when I had had about four hours sleep, I went down to my plot to get away from the news. I voted Remain, because I believe our economy would be stronger as a member of the EU and that, despite what the Leave campaign said, our country is a more vibrant, diverse and tolerant place because of immigration.
There is nowhere more vibrant, diverse and tolerant than London. And our allotment site, like many others, is a cross-section of that diversity. Among the nationalities represented by plotholders are Spanish, French, Italian, Finnish, Irish, Nigerian, Canadian and Cypriot. What they grow on their plots may be limited by the British weather, but only slightly.
Since I last wrote on this blog, before things got hectic with work, I have been harvesting fruit and veg every other day. The first potatoes I dug up were ‘Casablanca’, smooth, pale and waxy. The cabbages, which were sown in modules in April and then planted under enviromesh, have been amazing – ‘Greyhound’, a pointed-headed variety, was first, and was delicious shredded and then sauted in butter and garlic.
This year has been the best year I’ve had for soft fruit: first came the strawberries, which I grew in pots – not as many as I would have picked in the ground, but harder for the slugs to invade; then whitecurrants and blackcurrants, which I threw together with raspberries for a summer pudding. The summer raspberries are still going, four weeks after the first picking, but they will probably finish in the next week, before the autumn varieties ripen at the end of August. The redcurrants started to ripen in stages. As I want to make a big batch of redcurrant jelly, I have frozen the berries at each picking until I have a big yield for the jam pot.
I am growing courgettes in pots – to save on space – which has not lessened the harvest. My favourite are these ‘Striato d’Italia’ and ‘Striato Romanesco’, with striped skins. Allotment-holders complain about having too many courgettes, but if you pick them small they never get boring. The smaller they are, the firmer the flesh, and all the better for spiralising into courgetti – just soften it with butter in a pan for two minutes. Or cut them lengthways and cook them on a griddle pan, with no oil or butter so the flesh gets properly blackened. Dice courgettes with bacon and onion and mix with egg for frittata, or to fill a quiche. Slice them widthways and layer with grated pecorino and bake in the oven. Courgettes hate being frozen, unfortunately, but if you really have too many you can cook them with potatoes and make into a vegetable soup to freeze for winter.
This is my first successful season of calabrese – the green, round-headed broccoli. These were sown into modules in April, at the same time as the summer cabbages, and then brought on under enviromesh. I cannot sing the praises of enviromesh highly enough – it keeps off cabbage white butterflies, slows down the slugs but also creates a microclimate which is slightly warmer, less windier than uncovered beds.
Time is running out to transplant leeks if you have grown them in a nursery bed or, like me, root-trainers. Prepare the bed by removing weeds and firming down with a wooden plank or walking over it – this will ensure the soil doesn’t collapse around the leek when you water them. Make holes six inches apart with an upturned broom or hoe handle. Take the baby leek and snip its roots to stimulate growth – this will help them settle into their new holes. Place each leek in a hole – or, if you are short of space, put four plants in each hole for baby leeks. Water each hole well. Depending on the variety, they will be ready from mid-autumn to spring.