Rhubarb, Rhubarb

We’re putting a bit of our own rhubarb in the Standard Fruit Bags this week – crack open those Rhubarb Crumble Muffin recipes!

Rhubarb is a native of Siberia and thrives in wet, cold winters (even ones that extend into late April) – making it perfect for Scotland. But though we’re pleased as punch to be able to supply a bit of Moffat rhubarb, ours is slow off the mark compared to the produce from one of the most famous rhubarb growing areas in the UK.

West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb from the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, an area of about 30 square miles between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. In the late 19th century early forced rhubarb was sent to Spitalfields and Covent Garden markets in London in time for Christmas and was sent to Paris for the French market. Though much smaller nowadays, the Rhubarb Triangle is still famous for producing early forced rhubarb and has Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Commission.

Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark
Yorkshire rhubarb is always kept in the dark

Rhubarb plants in the Triangle spend two years in the fields without being harvested, storing energy from the sun in their roots as carbohydrates, before being subjected to frost and transferred to heated sheds in November. There they are planted and kept in complete darkness. In the sheds the plants begin to grow in the warmth and their stored carbohydrate is transformed into glucose, resulting in forced rhubarb’s bittersweet flavour.

The sheds are long, low buildings which are heated – originally with the coal which was plentiful and relatively cheap in the area. Nowadays, diesel is used instead.

Forced rhubarb grown in these sheds is more tender than the stuff we grow outdoors in spring and summer. Without daylight the rhubarb leaves are a pale green-yellow and the 2-foot long stalks are sweet and tender. Traditionally the pickers harvest in candlelight as any exposure to strong light will stop the growth of the stalks. By the end of March the harvest is over, the rhubarb roots totally exhausted and fit only to be used as compost.

Of course, now we can get more exotic fruits from around the world, rhubarb is no longer so popular and the heyday of the Rhubarb Triangle is long gone.

Now, though I come from Yorkshire, I’ve never tried Yorkshire rhubarb. And while I love the idea of keeping the tradition going, I can’t help but feel it’s a very energy intensive way of producing a crop and can’t quite get my head around trashing all those wonderful rhubarb roots!

As far as our fruit bags go, we’ll stick with the unforced rhubarb for the foreseeable future – grown without heat, cropping year after year, it’s our idea of a truly sustainable fruit!

Life is sweet (cicely)

This time of year, there’s a little bit of magic right outside my back door.

A delightful forest garden patch just outside my back door
Forest gardening – grow your own for the chronically lazy

No, it’s not the Snake’s Head Fritillary – though a life-long love of Charles Rennie Mackintosh means I can’t see their lovely flowers without coming over all Art Nouveau. Nor is it the many dock plants ‘dynamically accumulating’ lots of minerals from deep underground with their long tap roots.

It’s not even the lovely, delicate yellowness of the oxlips (they were supposed to be cowslips so we could get enough flowers to make cowslip wine, but someone in the garden centre obviously got their labels mixed up).

No, my own bit of magic is our mini forest garden just outside our house. Planted a couple of years ago with a few bits of wild garlic and a single sweet cicely plant around an old and ailing bird cherry tree, it has since gone native and is now become our ‘go to’ spot to spritz up our salads and our scrambled eggs.

Daffodils at the base of our very heavily pollarded bird cherry

Forest gardening is a way of designing a bit of land to mimic a young woodland, planted up with edible or useful plants. It has a top storey of fruit and nut trees, with under-storeys of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, annuals, root crops and climbers, all planted to make a wonderfully productive, naturally fertile landscape. It’s the perfect gardening technique for the terminally lazy and it’s one that we use a lot!

With only the effort of wandering out to see what I fancy for tonight’s meal, since early April I’ve been harvesting a range of salad leaves from our patches of forest garden for which I would have to pay an arm and a leg in the shops – sweet cicely, lovage, wild garlic, tarragon, rocket, watercress, salad burnet and masses more (and not a limp lettuce leaf amongst them).

Later on, I’ll have soft fruits, nuts, crops for hedgerow jellies and wines, a bit of willow for my first attempts at basketry, herbs which act as natural fly and moth deterrents, topped with a crop of more apples than I know what to do with. And apart from trimming off the odd nettle (yes, I know, I should be using those too), there’s no weeding required.

That’s my kind of grow your own!

If you fancy giving forest gardening a go, Lets Live Local have produced a free booklet on how to go about it. Email us on admin@letslivelocal.co.uk if you’d like a copy.

Today, well-lived

The fruit bags are packed (we start early at Lets Eat Local Towers) and I’ve just gone to the end of our road with the wheelie bin. It’s a glorious crisp and sunshine-y day and there’s roe deer, yellow wagtails and hares stretching and yawning. Can birds yawn?

Pausing by our old bridge to breathe in the beauty and the calm of Annan Water, I’m struck by how blessed we are here and now. And I’m reminded of the old Sanskrit poem and realise there are few better ways to live your life.

Look to this day:
 For it is life, the very life of life.
 In its brief course
 Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
 The bliss of growth,
 The glory of action,
 The splendour of achievement
 Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
 And tomorrow is only a vision;
 And today well-lived, makes
 Yesterday a dream of happiness
 And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
 Look well therefore to this day;
 Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!

Beet it!

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of our members who go ‘yum, beetroot!’ when it’s in the bags – and yes, it is in the bags this week.

Most often, people still have it left over in the bottom of the fridge and have a ‘Will I? Won’t I?’ moment with the Swap Box.

Which is such a shame! Because that sweet, slightly earthy flavour, smooth, velvety texture and rich colour can be a culinary delight.

Beetroot has a long history in this country, evolving from the wild native seabeet on coastlines from India to Britain. It originally had a long taproot like a carrot and only the leaves were eaten as food—the root was used for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 16th century that it gained it’s now familiar rounded shape.

Hardy and relatively easy to grow in our challenging Scottish climate — which means it’s affordable — it’s one of the first and last veg to be in season.

And it’s so good for you – high in betacarotene and folic acid, eating it regularly helps cleanse the liver and can assist in lowering incidences of heart disease.

Beetroot can be a key ingredient in many fabulous salads. Or try it juiced with a bit of orange or apple juice — a real revelation! Or indulge a sweet tooth with delicious beetroot chocolate brownies or beetroot chocolate cake.

Whatever you do, stick with the beet!

Mind the Hungry Gap!

It’s here.

That heartsink time of the year when the UK’s early summer bounty hasn’t quite kicked in and the store of overwintered roots has dwindled to the last raggedy (and sometimes mouldy) rejects.

Over the past few weeks we’ve said a bientot to UK dirty carrots, to Scottish red cabbage (no, don’t cheer!), to those lovely squeaky Scottish Savoys and a whole lot more besides.

The produce lists are decidedly sparse in April and May (and June in Scotland), with lots having to be brought in from Europe to fill our empty larders. Costs are higher too, as producers need to recover their packaging and transportation overheads.

But hey, that’s what this seasonal food thing is all about, isn’t it? In days of yore (??) our grannies would have cracked open the salted and pickled and preserved fruits and veg to add a few minerals and nutrients (and a heap of salt and sugar) to the family’s fare.

That’s not something we do so much nowadays…we just remember to keep the Italian carrots in the fridge. Ciao carota!

Spring Cleaning

Are you full of the joys of Spring? Flicking around the house with a duster? Filled with a desire to declutter, wash curtains and vacuum all your hidden nooks and crannies?

Galium aparine
Galium aparine aka sticky willy or cleavers

As well as your house, it’s a really good idea to “spring clean” your body at this time of year to get it ready for a new season and clear out the sluggishness of winter.

In some traditional medicine systems, foods are classified according to their effects on the body– whether they are hot and ‘heating’ or cold and ‘cooling’. You probably already instinctively know about hot and cold foods—think about how you want to vary your diet through the year! In winter, we naturally lean towards carrots and onions and roots (all heating foods), while a lovely summer’s day has us running for lettuce and cucumbers (unsurprisingly cooling).

All those roots and store cupboard meals of winter take their toll on our vitality and energy. The carbs and sugars we need to get through a bleak midwinter are fine, but spring and summer is a great time to bring fresher and lighter, cooling foods into your diet.

If you’re really keen, you can try a herbal tonic tea to put a ‘spring’ in your step (sorry!). Herbs such as cleavers or sticky willy were traditionally used to cleanse and give the lymphatic system a flush.

But you can get just as good an effect by modifying your diet and bringing in lots of fresh spring greenery, including a few ‘herbs’ like chickweed! Or nibble on one of our herby salad bags—with lots of lovely fresh spring herbs (and not a sticky willy in sight).

A Living Soil – why it matters

One of the things Lets Eat Local is trying to do is support commercial growers and farmers who are actively working to build a ‘living soil’ on their holdings.

‘Why does this matter?’ we hear you ask. How long have you got?

A living soil is full of life. It’s a busy, working community, full of bugs and microbes and fungi (a bit like Moffat then, but with minibeasts instead of people!) that interact with plants to naturally promote fabulous and healthy growth. And we believe fabulous and healthy plants are a great starting point for fabulous and healthy people. As Charles E Kellogg put it:

Essentially, all life depends upon the soil …. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”

But the really clever thing is that a living soil knows exactly what it needs without us interfering!

Experiments from as early as the 1950s show clearly that organically managed soils, left to their own devices, release exactly the right balance of nutrients at exactly the time the plants need them, while their chemically treated counterparts become ‘junkies’, craving their fix of NPK to get them up in the morning and keep them going. (And THAT sounds like me and coffee…).

A living soil is also a very effective way to capture the dreaded ‘carbon’ in ways that we are only just starting to understand.

That’s why many of the farmers and growers we buy from spend a lot of time just letting the soil do what it wants to do naturally. And they are consciously managing their soils as ‘carbon sinks’, finding ways to lock carbon away in the soil through grazing, permanent planting or by using special annual crops. We like their style!

Like everything else with Lets Eat Local, we’re only really at the beginning of our journey of making a big difference to soil health, but buying from these growers helps.

And isn’t it cool to know that every bag of veg you buy is helping a bit of soil in Scotland or England live a little?