By Emma Tingley
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it really has to be one of the most memorable
evenings I’ve had in a long time. Even now when I close my eyes and breathe in deeply, I
can recapture the atmosphere and aromas of the night. Some things have an amazing
ability to inspire you but my evening with James and his friend Charlotte down on her
allotment turned out to be one of those moments. I’m not sure how James would
describe himself, but to me he’s a modern hunter-gatherer. He seems more at home
outdoors than in and has an incredible knowledge and passion for creating food from
foraging. And Charlotte, a professional gardener, welcomed me on to her allotment as
if welcoming me into her home. For this evening, I traded the usual comforts of my sofa
for a log seat and an open fire, with a hearty meal in fantastic company under the stars
– an allotment dinner.
The evening really began before we’d arrived at the allotment just outside of Lewes.
Our first stop en route to the allotment was to a local game store on a farm to collect
the meat for our supper. As we drove down the narrow lanes of Barcombe, James
began pointing out plants that I must have seen hundreds of times but never given a
second thought to. Meadowsweet, a tall plant with small white flowers, can be used to
make wine and has medicinal properties. As nature’s aspirin it has anti-inflammatory
properties and is an excellent digestive remedy. To the Druids it was one of their three
most sacred herbs and it gets a mention in Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ as one of fifty
ingredients that made a drink called ‘Save’.
I have to admit that I’ve never been on an allotment before but Charlotte’s was
just a short stroll from the road. Already at work digging new potatoes, she paused
to welcome us to her plot. I’ve always liked the idea of having an allotment, but close
up I could see how much hard work is involved! The vegetable beds, the rabbit-proof
fencing, the constant battle with other pests, let alone all that nature throws at it. It’s
not been an easy year for her allotment, the slugs have been busy and many of her
usual crops haven’t faired as well this year. But she’s still proud of her patch!
Getting to work straight away James begins chopping wood for the fire.
As the guest I get to sit on a log stool and am offered a welcome drink –
nettle beer or elderflower champagne – both homemade of course from
ingredients sourced from foraging expeditions. Naturally I had to try both!
With the wood chopped and ready, time to light the fire using traditional
fire sticks. When struck together the steels produce sparks of up to
3000oC, which when land on the tinder (a bit of cotton wool or tissue)
spark the fire into life. James is obviously an expert and it takes just one
strike for the fire to catch.
Tonight’s menu is a three-course feast. With the fire going well, the
first job is to prepare the starter – wood pigeon. James gives me a quick lesson in how
to pluck and prepare a pigeon. Identifiable as a wood pigeon by the white collar around
its neck, this one is as fresh as it comes. Tonight it is pan-fried over the open fire and
served on a bed of baby salad leaves. Just before handing them round, Charlotte
disappears into the shed and returns with a bottle of balsamic vinegar to finish it off.
I’ve never had pigeon before, but it was amazing. A succulent dark meat, more steak-
like than I could have imagined. Delicious!
For the main course it’s a rabbit stew, made with celery, carrots and herbs served
with new potatoes. With an estimated 40 million wild rabbits in the UK, they are an
excellent source of protein, low in fat and cholesterol and are a great alternative to
chicken or turkey. Within a year a female rabbit can be responsible for the production
of up to 1000 others, so it’s easy to see where the phrase ‘breeding like rabbits’ comes
from. A well-known pest for farmers, rabbits cause an estimated £100 million of
damage to crops each year in the UK.
So as the stew is cooking over the fire and the potatoes are boiling, there’s time
to relax over a drink. Charlotte is a wealth of information on the plants and growing
seasons and I discover that she hosts a weekly radio show for a community station
in Brighton. Her enthusiasm for the outdoors is admirable. If she’s not at work as a
gardener, she’s tending her allotment or hosting her gardening show! It just seems
so obvious to her that we grow food to eat it and I realise how much I take for granted
the food that I buy and eat. I’ve always been a supporter of shopping local, but I really
do feel that I’ve caught a new enthusiasm from her and appreciation of what goes into
producing the food we eat. It makes me think about the food we waste too. Other than
the meat, all the produce we’re eating tonight has travelled all of two metres from the
ground to pot to plate. And the meat hasn’t come from much more than 3 miles away.
It doesn’t get much better than that!
By the time the main course is ready, the night is drawing in. It’s not the balmy
summer evening we’d all been hoping for, but somehow it seems more appropriate
to be wrapped in a blanket, sitting close to the fire for warmth. I’m not the most
adventurous of diners so would not have chosen rabbit stew, but, I have to admit, was
delicious. For dessert we’re treated to Charlotte’s delicious stewed rhubarb, served
with custard (practically the only thing on the menu from a shop!).
It was such a privilege to be a part of one of James and Charlotte’s allotment
dinners. By the time the fire was dying down, we’d had a superb evening of food
and friendship. By torchlight we finished the evening by leaving no trace of our
presence, other than the message I left on the inside of the shed door along with the
complements of previous allotment dinner guests.