It’s been a hard couple of months but I am very pleased to finally announce that everything is now in full swing down at the allotment. Potato leaves are bursting through their mounds, signifying that the tubers underneath are beginning to swell in the soil. Different varieties of cabbage are brimming forth and have escaped, so far, the unwanted attentions of slugs and birds. Runner beans are sprouting, climbing skyward and some of the tomatoes have already unfolded their delicate yellow flowers, promising an abundance of fruit. And if you can detect an overly florid tone in my prose, you might just guess that I am a happy soul at the moment.
Because getting everything ready has been a complete pain in the backside. Seriously, my buttocks have never felt so sore before and the amount of digging that I have done, along with my Dad and brother-in-law, has been phenomenal. We started in earnest in April and we just haven’t stopped since. Well, I mean mainly at the weekends. Saturdays in general have been taken up with the business of shovelling muck, scooping dirt and forking mud and forking hell it’s been tough. But all the weeds have been lifted, all the grass roots have been scuppered and all the nettles have been ploughed and for the first time in a long, long while our plot is looking rather neat and presentable.
At last, I can hold my head up high whenever one of the older residents shuffles on by for a nosey because boy, some of these retired fellas really do keep things spic and span. Unfortunately, with regards to allotment life, there is an element of keeping up with the Joneses and it always frustrates to have to keep catching up with these guys who seemly move at a snail’s pace. However, bingo, we are there and going forward, the rest of the growing season should be fairly relaxed with a neat trim here and sprinkle of water there.
Except of course, that is not going to be the case because weeds, and perhaps some of my fellow elderly compatriots, never go to sleep. I found this out to my cost the other day when I visited the plot to collect some gooseberries. Or goosegogs, as we affectionately call them. They are just coming into season and I always look forward to gathering a crop. The thorny bushes don’t give them up gladly, I always come away with a scratch or two but the effort is worth it because gooseberries make for fantastic jam, and crumbles, and fools, and pies. And lots and lots of other things.
So there I was, skipping gaily forward towards them with a carrier bag when suddenly the record needle (with Julie Andrews singing incidentally) came skidding off. For there in the middle of our largest bush was a massive cluster of bindweed, insidiously wrapped around all the branches, slowly squeezing and suffocating the life out of the plant. I had only visited the plot a few days before and there had been no sign of any bindweed then, so for a second or two, I just stood there flabbergasted. I may have even flabbergasted out loud some violent conjecture about the damn weed because out of nowhere, my neighbour Theo popped his head up.
I am not sure how old Theo is but I do know that he originally comes from somewhere in the West Indies and that he likes to sport a natty blue boiler suit, whatever the weather and he loves dispensing words of wisdom whenever he hears me swearing at inanimate fauna.
“Danny, you can’t just pluck bindweed out the ground like that. You got to dig the roots right out the earth so it don’t come back.”
I replied that I had done enough digging to last a lifetime whilst pointing to my posterior and he just laughed, before countering wide eyed with “You can’t stop Danny, you got to keep at it, aaaalllll the time.” Then he just giggled some more before sauntering off to his shed, where I think he lives.
With that, I duly untangled the bindweed carefully out of the gooseberry bush and with a trowel fork steadily worked the despicable morass of roots from out of the ground surrounding the base of the plant. And whilst doing that, I kept thinking to myself about what I had to do if I really wanted to make this allotment work. Could I really make the ultimate sacrifice and never see my family again? They could always visit I suppose. After all, Theo’s daughter and grandson always come to visit him and he seems to be quite happy about that.
Now, gooseberries may well be considered as sour miscreants, odd cousins of the currant family which could do with a good shave and are definitely a pain to prepare, what with all the top and tailing that you have to do but they are a versatile ingredient. As I mentioned above, they are fantastic in sweet summery desserts but gooseberries also go well with oily fish, particularly mackerel as the tart flavour cuts beautifully through the rich flesh. There are lots of variations for gooseberry sauce with some tweaks including an addition of ginger, coriander seed or chilli but I tried some the other day with elderflower; to give the acidity in the sauce a flowery, scented lift. Try this very simple recipe at home with some fried mackerel fillets, new potatoes and a salad for a light lunch, to be eaten in the garden if possible. Or inside if it’s thundering.