Tulips, daffs, forget-me-nots, garlic. Wildly flowering blossom. It is so exciting to be at the allotment. Everything is happening. And yet I am still alone there. It won’t be until mid April that the regulars will come and so in the meantime I am here and it’s all mine. There are rat droppings in the shed and forgotten potatoes from last year have sprouted into the space where I have sown carrots, there is a carpet of grass in the greenhouse, the windows are filthy, couch grass pushes its roots underneath everything, it is everywhere, every day there are fresh sightings. Weeds flourishing is always the sign that it is time to start broadcasting seed. I can’t bring myself to start clearing and washing the greenhouse glass because there is no water yet, it would be a case of me a cloth and a jar of vinegar.
I like the mat of grass in there anyway. It gives off a dry rustling heat as I drag the greenhouse door along its clapped out runner and walk inside. I like it derelict because it reminds me of finding abandoned houses and setting up camp in them as a child far away from parental interference. Why does everything have to be clean? I imagine gardening in my bare feet and lying down in the earth under the sun’s rays. But then I’m aware this wouldn’t be suitable for Hampton, dormitory suburb of England. And I have an 88-year-old neighbour one plot over who would think I was dead. He’d worry.
The best time is morning. Early as possible before anyone is awake. I’ve been here at 4.30 when I’ve woken into darkness and decided to give it a whirl, the ground slick with snails, the slowest parkour imaginable; snails hanging upside down on the bins, leaning against leaves like Gene Kelly, nonchalant. A world of slime.
Anyone would think that given that I spend so much time there, that my plot would be amazing, full of verticals and ploughed within an inch of its life. My other neighbours, Russians with a small boy, do more in a weekend than I manage in an entire season. I saw them this morning, him on the roof of his homemade shed with a fag on, heard the boy, who was swinging a piece of fence, their place dedicated to blue gauze which they had hanging over big wooden struts, to keep out nature – slugs, birds, foxes. In the foreground were manicured clumps of flowers and fruit bushes. How did they manage it when they’ve not even been here? I am here all the time. I manage very little.
I like being near to their industriousness though. Sometimes I see the dad out in the street or on the bus and we have chats about the allotment or about our various ailments, and because of this, there’s a quiet empathy between us which makes working there easy. I know they don’t expect me to hang around, we’ll wave and nod and exchange pleasantries but no cups of tea or too many anecdotes. It’s important not to become too attached to growers, to maintain independence; a chat can easily take up too much time, grow unwieldy and then the next time you feel obliged to begin it all again, and then you’re never alone. You’re talking about Brexit and Trump. It’s ruined then.
You find you’re there ever earlier, to avoid the inane chatter. Chatter is what I grab my bike and ride to avoid. This is not the same as being happy to see people, which I am generally. So this is the bit before. Before summer when I avoid the weekends and the loud free-wheeling manic-ness of small children. Sounds occur now but they are abstract in nature, a solitary laugh, the tipping of a wheelbarrow, stone and tin. The rest is a kind of busy silence, where everything is alive and beyond me, the soil dry, sun everywhere. A time to unfurl.
My favourite thing at the moment is the new sorrel – a tight bundle of lettuce-green leaves, ripe for picking every day. It is a year-old plant grown from seed and it should be bitter by now but is still tart and lemony, turning a muddy taupe when introduced to heat and disintegrating totally in soups. It is the cousin of the handsome rhubarb, both of them astringent and singular stand alone perennials. I have not yet eaten sorrel raw, except pinched between finger and thumb and eaten in furtive shreds, so I only know it as a flavour and not quite as a texture. It would be nice to have those shield-like leaves in a salad bowl and feel the crunch. I am still afraid of fibre, but I will get there.
I add sorrel near the end of cooking time and it merges with all the other ingredients lending a sharpness and depth. Recently, I made a carrot and butter bean soup to which I added the leaves of parsley and sorrel five minutes before the end and the stalks earlier. Please use the stalks. If you’re interested in having an unadulterated sorrel experience simply sweat some young leaves in olive oil until they break down into a purée and keep in the fridge under a film of extra virgin.
Olive oil, onion/shallot, garlic, carrots cut into thinnish rounds, butter beans, parsley, sorrel, sea salt, a few tablespoons of yoghurt, butter for the brave.
I have deliberately not mentioned amounts. If you’ve read Julian Barnes’s book A Pedant in the Kitchen you’ll know how infuriating he finds this. Whatevs. You can combine butternut squash with the carrots and you can also add celery along with the onion. Really it’s a melange of vegetables made liquid by the addition of some stock or water. I like to add a knobette of butter to the vegetable mess near the end, but you don’t have to. I think it lends a velvety quality.
Gently wilt the onion or shallot in a small amount of olive oil, then after a few minutes in which they’ve had a chance to soften, add smashed up garlic, sliced carrots, chopped herb stalks, butter beans and stock/water. I didn’t add the whole tin of butter beans but a handful. Cook over a medium heat until the carrots are soft and then add a generous handful of parsley and a fist of sorrel leaves and the butter if you fancy. The sorrel will turn mud-coloured. Cook for a few minutes more, or mere seconds if you like it very fresh. Liquefy in a blender and add a tablespoon or two of yoghurt, some sea salt and a smattering of fresh parsley, sorrel or other soft herb at the end.