All I want for Christmas...
Our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, ponders on Christmas vegetable harvests past and present...
‘CHRISTMAS time, mistletoe and wine’, so suggests an old client’s most catchy and ‘memorable’ Christmas song, though for us gardeners and growers it’s less about mistletoe and wine and more about Brussels sprouts, parsnips, new potatoes, carrots, cabbage and any other vegetable we can bring into the kitchen, straight from being harvested, for cooking for our Christmas lunch.
I guess of all days of the year Christmas Day is the day us green-fingered lot want to harvest fresh vegetables straight from a garden or allotment. A day for celebrating the bounty of the work that has gone on throughout the year to ensure the crisp freshness and homegrown tastes to share with family and friends that grace our table. For some, Christmas Day is a day of celebrating a birth two millennia ago, for others it’s a time to gather and share gifts and happy times, and for a few it’s simply a day off from the everyday drudgery of life – for most it’s likely a mixture of these and a fulsome meal around a crowded table strewn with disarmed crackers, printed novelty jokes and a microscopic plastic magnifying glass.
For me, Christmas preparation begins around late February/March, or earlier if I am looking to buy seed. One of the first sowings of the calendar year is Brussels sprouts – their small, mottled brown spheres scattered sparingly over half a half size seed tray and then tucked away from the light with a good layer of compost, tamped down to ensure each seed is fully encased. Invariably, I will nowadays sow the other half of the seed tray with Portuguese cabbage, another member of the brassica family that is most probably better known in Guernsey as a Walking Stick cabbage as its dried, hardened stalk can serve as a walking stick when properly processed and cared for. Sometimes, walking sticks made from the stalks of sturdy brassicas were twisted like corkscrew hazel, and my dad always wondered whether Can Can man’s stick was made of such a stalk.
Carrots and parsnips are far less sturdy when it comes to germination, so I sow these mid-March through April, when the weather has warmed a tad. Carrots for the Christmas table can even be sown later, though parsnips need a good eight to nine months to produce that sweet root that is delicious steamed, boiled or even better as a roasted veg – and don’t get me started on the sweet deliciousness of parsnips baked in a Gruyere sauce. Dad would just do a few sowings of Nantes carrots through the first half of the year, and any remaining in the ground when the wetter weather came would be dug up and stored, dirty in sand in a bin in the garage. Dad said the soil kept the flavour and the sand kept them fresh and one day I’ll do a ‘highly scientific experiment’ to test this myself.
Parsnips wise, I now grow mainly Guernsey Half Long – I have found the seeds hard to come by of late, though I am hoping to see them back in catalogues for sowing in a few months’ time.
Of course, we can’t forget Christmas spuds – invariably a ‘new’ or ‘early’ potato as they grow quicker than main crop varieties. Dad always planted his Christmas seed potatoes on 25 August, four months ahead and each seed potato in a very large tomato pot. The pots would sit outside for a few months and then be popped in the greenhouse, being watered, and fed with scrap manure from our chickens along the way. Up would come the shoots, then the green growth, eventually cascading over the pots. Most years in Guernsey it wasn’t necessary to fleece these potatoes as it never got that cold, though in London I need to fleece them. Even now the thermometer of the polytunnel has already dipped down to -3C.
With Brussels sprouts and cabbage, what you see is very much what you get – the excitement is in the growing – sowing the seed, germination, pricking-out, seedlings becoming plants, growing bigger and bigger until the first tiny pimples of sprouts begin to appear, then grow, and grow, while we wait for the cabbage to heart up in all its folding curliness. Of course, there is the sound of the snap of the sprouts as they’re pulled from the stem, a sound that to this day takes me back almost five decades to my dad and I popping the first sprouts raw into our mouths and crunching away on the green buttons of closely folded leaves – ‘Baby cabbages by all accounts,’ dad would say… Then the squeak of the savoy cabbage leaves as we pulled the head from the ground, giving it a good shake to get soil off, and removing any yellowing leaves to the compost pile.
A few weeks back I was asked by a fellow allotmenteer whether I had decorated one of my Brussels sprouts for Christmas – in reality, I will be saving seed from this Groninger variety after it flowers in the spring and the festive-looking ribbon is simply my ‘Remember to save seeds from this plant’ marker.
As I said, with sprouts and cabbage what you see is what you get, though with the carrots, the parsnips and especially the potatoes… the anticipation and nervous joy of below-ground harvests is still with me today. What lies beneath? There might be loads of green, leafy growth above but what will be proffered below? Might there be a bountiful harvest… or might it all be fur coat and no knickers? The pulling of the first carrots belies any fears, or not… and then we must wait for the parsnips to grow and show, putting down a finger to see where the shoulders had formed… and then gently down with a fork, your free hand pulling gently, then out comes the root, hopefully as a long yet stubby, single creamy-white shaft of starches and sugars. And then the potatoes…
Down at the bottom of our garden at Le Pignon on Rue des Varendes, having harvested the rest of the Christmas veg, dad and I would steal our way to the greenhouse, slide the metal and glass door aside and step within. It was always that bit warmer and with all breath or brashness of wind left behind. The only inhabitants of the greenhouse at this time of year were bare soil, six pots with withering potato leaf, maybe a parsley plant or two and our hibernating tortoise all cosseted away. That trepidation and excitement in turning out the first pot of potatoes always hung in the air, as it does still today. No fingers being poked into the compost for dad here – he would just turn the pot upside down on the bare soil and rummage… sometimes a first glimpse would be seen before any soil was disturbed, though by the time all the spent compost of that pot had been sifted we would have a good pound or so of shiny new potatoes for steaming for Christmas lunch. Utter joy and utter satisfaction.
The procession back up to the house with all the jewels harvested from the garden would culminate in the kitchen… and dad’s job was done on the Christmas table veggie front for another year. My job wasn’t done, though, as I would swap from Gardener’s Mate to Cook’s Helper.
Mum would take up her role from where dad left off… cleaning, peeling, prepping, and cooking, and then delivering all to the jammed Christmas tables of family and friends, with us smaller kids on a fold-away table that was kept just for such occasions. Merriment ensued, and champagne, wine and Babycham for the younger ones flowed. Happy days indeed.
I was always pleased to be a part of the Christmas table journey of our home-grown veggies – from sowing to harvesting, prepping and cooking, plating, and of course eating, and in these matters, nothing has changed to this day.
Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com