This is the veg that Erik brought. It came out of the dark clay of his garden in Hethersett, though the plant, one of the Sunflower tribe, is originally from far away in the Andes. It is a yacon, sometimes called apple of the earth and is eaten sliced as a salad with lime. Erik cooked it up in Christine’s big North African pan with some chopped kuri squash. You said you liked water chestnuts he said (and it’s true tossed into a stir fry it was deliciously, surprisingly crunchy). What else is going on in your garden right now? I asked him. Roots, he replied. And sage. And proceeded to add a handful to the pot.
It’s been a tough winter for growers. Roots from swedes and salsify have done OK (once you could haul them out of the snowy, frost-bound ground) but anything above ground and leafy has suffered. Cauliflowers spotted by frost are being thrown away in their hundreds. At our January meeting we talked parsnip and horseradish, we talked the ecological footprint of quinoa, lacto-fermentation and how we are eating a LOT of cabbage (but not so many oranges). And afterwards we watched a programme about the discarding of tons of good fish into the North Sea.
This is the garden that Jeremy showed me. It’s the Grapes Hill Community Garden at the corner of the Dereham Road that’s about to open its gates after two years’ hard graft, from finding funds to putting up railings. It’s an act of local regeneration, an alchemical work that is turning a run-down playground into a flourishing green space – a showcase of what people can do when tarmac is pulled up and imagination and goodwill gets to work. Jeremy is one of a team of growers who along with Lara Hall from Norwich City Council are turning the paper plan above into physical reality.
At the moment what you see is bare winter earth with the structure of five wedge-shaped beds, four square (all with wheelchair access), a round lawn, trellis, spaces for compost, rainwater tank, hand-hewn wooden benches. But when Jeremy starts talking trees and plants the garden starts coming alive. Here’s the corner where the fig tree will go. Here are the posts where the grape arbour will be. Here is the apple and cherry orchard, with room for medlar and quince. Here under the trees are currants and strawberries; here late raspberries and a heritage crimson-flowered broad bean, fragrant herbs and spring bulbs. The vegetable beds will be allotted to the community and members of the garden this month. Everything will be organic. As well as a living breathing space amongst the bricks Grapes Hill will be a teaching garden (Jeremy is a Master Gardener), showing people how to grow their own fruit and veg, from sowing seeds to harvesting.
We stood for a long time in the rainy twilight talking plants. People who love plants are always able to communicate with one another. Do you know oca, he asked me? Oca and mashui are two root vegetables that are grown alongside potatoes in the Andes. Which families are they from? I asked. Oxalis and nasturtium he replied. And I remembered then how wild nasturtiums grew alongside the freeways in Quito. And that’s when I realised that I hadn’t noticed the traffic all this time. It was coming up to rush hour but standing under the bare-limbed ashes, talking roots, the cars had disappeared.
When you have plants in common something happens. When you cook together something happens. It’s hard to say what really except that invisible connections are made that make sense of things in a time when absolute madness seems to rule. When fish are thrown back into the sea and everything once owned by the people is up for sale.
A humble pie cooked by four people who don’t fly in aeroplanes anymore. A small Eden by the ringroad.
This is what I wanted to say on Monday: it’s what we put our attention on that matters. Communication can bring attention to what is happening before our eyes and bring the spirit of things into play: it can make a simple dish into a feast and a small garden into a paradise. It can make those South American vegetables appear as marvellous magical beings that bring connection with the great Andes with them, roots that connect two meetings on a rainy Tuesday, the community garden with the Low Carbon Cookbook, everyone in the room.
We’re living in a cold and hostile climate right now and we need to put energy into our root communication systems. Because what’s happening beneath the ground, under the radar, is what is going to make sense of our lives. Not our individual fantasies, our special moments, our spiritual beliefs, what “I” think about the world, but what we are physically doing with our hands and our time together. At the meeting we talked about our vegetable connections with places and people: the school allotment Erik had when he was eight years old, Christine’s grandfather who kept pigs and chickens in his back garden in Tottenham, about Kerry’s family who kept cherry orchards in Kent, my father in Kent who loved to grow asparagus and transmitted a love of vegetables that has endured when almost everything else has been taken away. Our inheritance, our memory, our imagination – what all good cooks and writers and gardeners share.
People who put their attention and love and intelligence into what they do are a resilient people. Because when you are engaged in seeing the world afresh, seeing the world through creative eyes, everything that happens around you matters, takes on a shine. You’re not in shut down. You are not a.n.other and infinitely replaceable. You are valuable. This transition only happens because of you.
Erik, Jeremy, Fran, Christine, Kerry, Martin, Charlotte . . .
Oca, Yakon, Mashua, Kuri
Grapes Hill, Norwich, Quito
This Low Carbon Life.