Allotments can offer so much more than just homegrown veg

Undated Handout Photo of an allotment. Allotments provide a sense of community. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout/National Allotment Society. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.
Undated Handout Photo of an allotment. Allotments provide a sense of community. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout/National Allotment Society. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

Monday sees the start of National Allotments Week and associations are being encouraged to hold events across the UK to welcome people onto their sites.

I associate allotments with England but there are more and more sprouting up here. Ards Allotments, on the Comber Road in Newtownards, are holding an open day next Saturday, the 13th August from 10am – 4pm with everyone welcome to come and see the many benefits of having a plot in a shared space.

When I ran a restaurant in Manchester in the nineties, a taxi driver supplied me with vegetables, all year round, from his allotment.

In the summer he would arrive with boxes of beans, peas, tomatoes, chilis, potatoes and greens. Winter would see root vegetables, pumpkins, leeks and onions. Vegetables just picked and covered in natural dirt will always taste better than washed and packed ones.

Planning a menu around what’s seasonal and available is one of the great gifts to any cook. I’m no gardener but in the past when I’ve grown tomatoes and courgettes, the satisfaction has been immense.

When I’m travelling and spot gardeners hunched over a spade, surrounded by bean poles, leafy greens, multicoloured flowers, jewel-like ruby tomatoes and leafy herb tops, in a shared space it makes me yearn for a more settled existence.

It reminds me of the movie “Steel Magnolias” and the quote from the character Ouiser, played by Shirley McClaine, who says: “I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt.” I’m a third of the way there!

As our population increases, available space for growing decreases and this is where allotments come in. There are advantages too with support and camaraderie from other growers and the option to barter and share fruit and vegetables.

In a world where food safety has never been so pertinent, having control of your food is priceless. You can grow food without pesticides successfully by matching with plants that repel insects naturally.

When you grow vegetables it’s cost effective and you often have more than you need. Tomatoes, courgettes and lettuce are prolific at the moment and while it’s lovely to use them in salads, as side vegetables or in soups and pastas, they are ideal to be preserved for the winter months.

With food waste being a major issue, it makes perfect sense to bottle or freeze fruit and vegetables for the winter months. Open up a jar of spice redolent courgette chutney in November and instantly be transported back to steamy greenhouses and verdant land in July.

I’ve included a recipe for courgette chutney that’s spicy and warm – great now with grilled meats or cheese, perfect in the winter as an accompaniment to stews or slow roasts.

My second recipe is for a take on the Spanish tomato bread with grilled baguette topped with lightly pickled tomatoes, chorizo and goat’s cheese. A few producers are making chorizo now and are worth sussing out.

Alastair Crown runs Corndale Farm in Limavady and produces a brilliant one from his rare breed pigs. The smoky and spicy sausage works beautifully with the sharp tomatoes and creamy cheese (corndalefarm.com for suppliers).

My mum used to make soup with shot lettuces from a neighbour’s garden. My late grandfather grew courgettes in his garden outside Cookstown and these were added with a potato to thicken it naturally.

One of the things I learned early on in my cooking career was to use an absurd amount of butter when you’re making soup – substitute oil if you wish or just enjoy it for what it is! Use a wilted lettuce if you can’t get a shot one.

I’m away to plant some lettuces...