Sunday 30 May 2010

Malcolm and the Strawberries

One day last year it was very cold and wet and Malcolm shook his head. It was the strawberries. They were rotting. The ground had become flooded with unseasonable rain and it looked like he would lose all his crowns. We stood there the three of us in the damp and the gloom in silence for what seemed like a very long time. And then suddenly he began to detail a wild plan that just might save them - and us from the fate of a living in a world without that peerless English summer fruit.

You have to know two things to really appreciate what we were all feeling at that moment: the first is we had decided that year to only eat local fruit in season (with the exception of oranges and lemons).

The second is to taste those strawberries.

Malcolm has an organic smallholding near where Mark and I live and for the last seven years whatever the weather I’ve been going there and collecting a veg (and sometimes fruit) box. He and Eileen used to run a garage in London and made their own Transition from oil to working on this corner of sandy soil about 25 years ago. It is thanks to Malcolm and Eileen that I’ve been able to fully engage and experience what it means to eat in season. All the very good things. Like never knowing what will be in our box and every week it being a surprise. Like being fully conscious of what it takes to grow food from sowing tomato seeds to storing apples so they last until May.

We can’t grow much of our own food because we don’t own our garden, but even if we could I’d still make that journey south each week and back. Because it’s about relationship with people, as much as it is about eating delicious greens and beans. It’s about those conversations we all have week in, week out, about the land, about the weather and how the plants are doing - hearing the turtle dove in their garden when it arrives from Africa and the marigolds still flowering around the stall in the snow. What different plants are being experimented with each year: tomatillos, Cape gooseberries, new varieties of squash, Cantaloupe melons, baby turnips you can eat raw like radishes. Making that journey and seeing the hedges shift in time from white cherry plum to the red-berried hawthorn, the stall decked with Spring herbs and midwinter bay (nearly all my herbs were originally grown by Eileen: thyme, lovage, sage, salad burnet). A certain kind of loyalty you learn from this relationship people call CSA.

This kind of exchange gives you something you will never find in books or supermarkets: we can say what kind of Mexican chillies are the best to eat and how to prepare them, Malcolm can tell us how to pinch out cucumber side shoots, or when to prune a hedge (and lend us the tools to do it). That’s not internet information, that’s knowledge, hard-won by experience and a love of the material world.

Sometimes Malcolm invites us in and we have a walk around the plots: looking at the cherry orchard in blossom and the newts stirring in the ponds, the new garlic crop and inside the polytunnels where this week our kale, spring onions and courgettes have miraculously sprung. You’ve never seen such green vibrancy in one place. Soon we’ll be tasting our first new potatoes and broad beans. Oh, great joy!

You might wonder why everyone in Transition goes on so about veg. Why this month on the blog its been non-stop plants and flowers.

But you’d have to live with the poetry and rhythm of the vegetable year to know. In slow time, deep time. To decide to live a low-carbon life without all those 24/7 international consumer choices. With your heart in charge, not your head. That way you find out that in this coming month of Roses, its most lovely and fragrant fruit is flowering gloriously now in Malcolm’s garden. That, in spite of the weather, some plans conjured in the darkest of moments really do work out.

Above: inside the strawberry cage at Swallow Organics; Eileen's thyme flowering outside the door; strawberry flowers.


  1. Lovely post... So what was Malcolm's wild plan and did it work? Like you I've been eating only fruit in season (apart from oranges and lemons, which I consider to be acceptable because they've been coming by boat since victorian times). I've learned to love rhubarb lately, picking one stem each morning to cook fresh for my muesli. Today I had my first strawberry and experienced much joy, incluing knowing it's the first of many delicious experiences as we work our way through a year of fruit. How bonkers this might sound to people used to eating fruit indiscriminately from around the world. Adrienne from Transition Town Lewes

  2. Thanks Adrienne! The plan definitely worked, hence those lovely flowers. It will be the best year yet for Strawberries if they all set. But I'm not sure about the plan's details. It involved banking up the crowns as I remember. I'll get back to you on that.

    Rhubarb has been a stalwart in my breakfast bowl too this Spring. Right now I'm keeping a very keen eye out for those lash-your-tongue- first-thing gooseberries.

    Best wishes,