By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 26 August 2015
“Therefore I give my simple advice unto those that love such strange and newe-fangled meates, to beware licking honey among thornes, least the sweetness of the one do not countervaile the sharpnes and prickling of the other.”
– John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597
There are few people out there who will share my enthusiasm for the gathering grey skies that have come to define the last couple of weeks. As balmy summer days picking canalside raspberries give way to the familiar damp of insolent British drizzle, my mounting excitement has been difficult to hem in. Pulling on my wellington boots, I know that the arrival of rain after a warm summer can only mean one thing: mushrooms.
I am what Lorna Bunyard once referred to as “a confirmed toadstool eater”, always keeping half an eye out for these mysterious fruits of the earth. It is no wonder that Mrs Bunyard’s chapter on mushrooms should follow a chapter entitled Strange Meats, however, as this is, historically, how they have been perceived by the British. John Gerard, perhaps our most revered botanist, was certainly not a fan, affirming that they “do hunger after the earthie excrescences” – an association he makes more than once – whilst noting their habit of popping up on the “rotting bodies of trees” in “dankish”, “shadowie”places. Gerard dismisses fungi as “unproffitable” and “nothing worth”, repeatedly warning the reader that they are “full of poison” and “deadly”.
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 16th July 2015
There are two places remaining in Wandsworth’s ever-changing landscape that formed an integral part of my early epicurean lessico famigliare: Hennessy’s butchers and Tooting Market. The rest have fallen away in time, succumbing to the slow but continuous gentrification of the area, and the death of many of its small traders and traditional industries. The sickly-sweet smell of yeast from the Ram Brewery no longer fills the air on certain days of the week – as it did for almost half a millennium – and the sounds of its majestic shire horses fell silent almost a decade ago. The historic site has since been purchased by a Chinese development company, and, like many other places in London, is set to be turned into “an exciting new residential and retail quarter” . Because we need more of those.
My paternal grandparents immigrated to London in the 1950s, arriving in Wandsworth from Malta and the Amalfi Coast. Both had experienced the ravishes of extreme poverty during the War, and came to London in hope of starting a better life. To the neighbours’ dismay, my grandmother kept chickens and rabbits in the garden to help feed her burgeoning family, bringing with her a tradition of cucina povera that her younger brother would later champion all over the world.
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, June 9th 2015
After four years of waiting, I am now number 321 in a queue of 690 waiting for an allotment in my local borough. The wait may seem long, but, as the situation currently stands – with some waiting lists extending for over a decade – it seems that I am lucky to be on a waiting list at all. Like most Londoners, I have to live with very little outside space, making the most of a single window sill and any vertical area that I have in order to produce a few small crops, interspersed with calendula and cornflowers that bring me great joy throughout the rest of the year.
Whilst there is a statutory duty for outer London boroughs to provide a “sufficient quantity” of allotment plots to the people living in them, what this quantity is proportional to the number of residents in the area is unclear. And it is precisely this lack of clarity, “built up through a century of agitation” in the fight for our right to allotments, that is now leading to their wanton destruction in the name of short-term profit. The law, described by Colin Ward as “both vague and voluminous” and “in urgent need of revision”, is exploited by those in power, who perceive these hard-won rights as burdensome and standing in the way of profit. If we replace the “safety first” culture of the 1960s, for that of “profit first” in the 2010s, it seems that John Betjeman put it rather succinctly: “We slice off old buildings, fell healthy trees, replace hedges with concrete posts and chain link fencing, all in the name of ‘[profit] first’, which is another phrase for ‘hurry past’.”
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 23rd May 2015
No, I should love the city less
Even than this, my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.
– The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins 
It is the end of May, and my kitchen is alive with bubbling decoctions of blossoms as the hawthorn starts to fade and elderflower sprays take its place. The pale blush of oak apples teases in the distance; the inedible galls a cheerful reminder of the bounty to come in the months ahead. The season of abundance is upon us, and, it seems, many kitchens across the country are keen to make the most of the nation’s newfound love for wild food.
My first forays happened in childhood, inadvertently trampling blankets of alium ursinum on walks with my aunt, and being astounded by the pungent smell of garlic that rose up from the woodland floor. I felt as though I had discovered a great secret, and wanted to learn how I might cultivate it for myself. Then I started to learn about the habits of plants, their seasons, their stories, and how to read the land – town or country – by the types of plants that choose to grow there. The outdoors became a movable feast in the truest sense; a series of little treasures to be enjoyed within reach of whence they sprang, or stowed with squirrel-like jealousy – dried or in jars – for the months ahead.
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 6th May 2015
Whatever the outcome of this year’s general election, the most notable legacy of the last coalition government will be the critically under-discussed revival of the nation’s food banks. Despite promises from the Con-Dem government of economic recovery, of increased levels of employment, and an improvement in wages, there was still an 163 per cent increase in the number of people needing to use food banks between 2012/13 and 2013/14, bringing the total up to 913,138 – more than one person in every hundred in the UK – roughly a third of whom were children.  The disparity is particularly remarkable considering that it occurs at a time when 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food waste – the equivalent of roughly six meals per household per week – is being created in the UK every year. 
Recent reforms to the UK welfare system, said to be designed “to help claimants and their families to become more independent”  cheerfully disguise the language of a much older agenda. Making his case for the abolition of the Poor Laws in 1807, Thomas Robert Malthus called for a system that would “throw off the rising generation from that miserable and helpless dependence upon the government and the rich” . In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus proposes that population growth naturally exceeds our ability to produce food, and that unchecked population growth (it is suggested, among the poor), is reset and brought down to subsistence levels by “misery, and vice”. 
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website 23rd April 2015.
The wisdom of Michel de Montaigne extends to most spheres of human life, not excepting agriculture and matters of the palate. In his 1580 essay Des Cannibales(Of Cannibals), in which he lambasts Europe’s hypocrisy in its perception and treatment of the people of the New World (in particular the Tupinambá people), Montaigne also draws some striking comparisons between cultivated and wild food. These comparisons not only strike a chord with the forager within me (who delights in the taste of what is to be found growing in the most unlikely of places), but also to the grower, who notes the difference in flavour when food is cultivated with a little care.
According to Montaigne, it should not be wild fruit that we call “sauvage” (carrying the implication of “savage”), but “[those] fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order”. He affirms that “living”, “vigorous”, “natural” fruit has been “bastardized …by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes”. This last thought has particular resonance when we consider it in light of the mass-produced and ultraprocessed food that has come to dominate so much of people’s diets around the world today. In high-income countries, ultraprocessed foods can make up more than 60 per cent of total energy intake . This would not be a problem if these foods provided people with adequate nutrition, but according to recent studies, ultraprocessed foods are currently responsible for more than 18 million deaths each year through non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, high bodymass index, high fasting blood glucose and high total cholesterol . More troubling still is that these multinational companies, that have become so adept at manipulating the fats, sugar content and textures of foods, market these products aggressively to the poorest societies, where they will make most of their profit in the next five years . Just as the eating of meat has become a marker of prosperity in many societies, so the giants of the processed food industry have come to embody the capitalist dream across the world.
I’m pleased to announce that I have been commissioned to write about seeds, how they are legislated, and their history for the Soil Association; you can read my piece here. This post was inspired by, and partly based on, some writing that I did last month.
I am very glad that these articles have resonated so well with the growing community, and would love to hear people’s experiences elsewhere in the world, particularly from growers who save seed.
If you care about food, then you should care about seeds: who owns them, who controls them, and how it affects our lives and our environment.
I will be delving into this subject more deeply in the near future: how seed hegemony keeps developing countries in poverty cycles, how the number of leaves on a head of lettuce can be patented, how small groups of innovative growers have been circumventing these laws and keeping stronger, indigenous varieties alive, and ensuring we have good food stock for the future.
The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.
Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.
I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.
A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.
For many people, the New Year heralds a sigh of relief with its promise of clean slates and forward-thinking, yet for me, the month of January is always filled with frustration. Its etymology contains happy nudges towards the actions associated with the New Year: namely, rejuvenation and reflection. Specifically, January is related to both the double-headed Roman god of new beginnings, Janus, and the fearsome warrior-goddess Juno [*for those interested, see P.S. for etymology/history]. But for me, January is a waiting game lodged between the two of them. Having reflected on last year’s successes and failures, and having planned most of the whats-and-wheres for growing in 2015, I am very eager to start getting my hands dirty.
Although there are still things to be foraged at this time of year — from tansies to incredibly tardy apples — the excitement of the heights of the mushroom season has died down considerably, and I find myself like a child counting down to Christmas thinking about the seas of wild garlic that will soon surface again from the deep. Happily, the relative quiet of the outdoors has had me creating all kinds of fermented concoctions at home: from staples such as sourdough to yoghurt and delicious beer.
People are often surprised by just how much it is possible to forage in a city, even in the depths of winter. The above pictures are the fruits of a recent foray in Leicester with M and R, and there were a lot more left on the trees. Many cities – London especially – have built over and around former orchards, and it is not hard to find trees that have risen from discarded apple cores along the roadside or the banks of canals. I was delighted to find one set of trees in Lincolnshire recently that I initially thought had been decorated with Christmas lights, but were in fact laden with apples. Often, it is just a case of looking a little closer.
Unfortunately, supermarket conditioning has left us wary of fruit that isn’t uniformly shaped and coloured. I use ‘uniformly’ over any other adjective, as I believe a fruit can be described as ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect’ even if it does not adhere to supermarket standards. It worries and angers me in equal measure to see kilos of fruit left to rot at the base of a tree on a street, only to see people buying them at an extortionate price from the supermarket. If you are lucky enough to have such a resource in your community, please use it, and encourage others to do so. There are few things more lovely than to see a box of fruit left out with a notice encouraging people to take some home with them.