The hungry gap is officially upon us, and harvest suddenly seems a very grand word for the little that is coming in. We are at the end of the old, and the very earliest beginnings of the new. There are plenty of apples still in store, but the parsnips will run out in a week or two. The tender shoots of brocolli are getting smaller and smaller, so that each time we pick a little more leaf and a little less bud. This is the way it goes, in the garden: you eat what there is, all of it, because you grew it and it tastes good.
Thankfully, the scales are slowly tipping in favour of the new. The spring cabbages are oh so nearly ready. The rhubarb is getting on just fine, in its new and sunny spot, and I can’t resist pulling the odd stem. And everywhere, inside and out, on windowsills and dressertops and in the crumbly brown beds themselves, seeds are sprouting and putting on leaf. Miniature leeks have almost finished touching their toes, and are reaching up to salute the sun. The brassicas are moving on from their familiar curvy seed leaves to frillier adornments. They each have their own style: dark green for the wintry savoys, light green for the summer cabbages, a hint of purple for the fussy cauliflowers. Tomatoes reach towards the light and it is a balancing act between flooding them with sunshine and keeping them safe and warm. Radishes, beetroot, rocket and scallions: none are anywhere near ready to be eaten, but they are in.
This is the time of year when I scout around the edges looking for a free harvest. One which took no sowing, no weeding, no feeds. Our Sunday chicken was adorned with fresh oregano as well as lemon. Fish comes with a taste of parsley. We all keep nibbling the mint.
The main haul at the moment, though, are the nettles. Young and bright and superbly full of sting, they are an unexpected favourite in this house. Each year I expect someone to complain, but no-one ever does. Perhaps it’s the witchiness of it, or the fact that they’re good for so short a time. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s so little else on offer. Or maybe it really does taste as good as I think it does, this scavenged soup, in a recipe made differently each time.
The very smallest harvest, though, I ate alone, in one greedy, excitable mouthful. Celeriac has such tiny seeds that you can’t help dropping too many into each pot. I took the nail scissors to them yesterday, for a spot of miniature pruning, before popping all the offcuts stright into my mouth. And although I knew that they should taste like celeriac, it was a joy to find that they did.
Am I the only gardener who takes a nibble here, a nibble there from the emerging seedlings? You’d think I was starving, but I’m not. There are baskets of veg coming home from the market. There is plenty else to eat. We are not really hungry in the hungry gap, living as we do in the nineteen thirties. Just impatient, and excited by a taste of what’s to come.