Saturday, 11 April 2015

Birdsong and Broccoli

Broccoli - mainly purple, some white

The birdsong gets louder, and more diverse, by the day.  When that first 'crack of dawn' appears on the horizon the concert begins, progressing from adagio to crescendo in the space of a couple of hours.  I wish I could say I know this because I am experiencing these recitals first-hand but, in truth, it's a vicarious participation for me right now.  This Spring I know about the dawn chorus like I know about the beauty of the sunrise - from friends lucky enough to live by a green space, or have windows facing east.  For the lucky ones, both of the above apply.  Aspect and sound are all important when you live in a city.  Sunrise or sunset, green space or an easy commute. Compromise is certain for the vast majority.

I am a committed townie but, much as I love urban life, the absence of birdsong outside my window is a nagging loss.  I'm not a life-long Londoner, so I know what I'm missing out on.  Birdsong is out there amongst the brick and concrete but most city dwellers have to seek it out in the park, the community garden or city farm.  The lucky few find it in their own little patch of green, or for those fortunate recipients of a key, in the garden square.  The luckiest of all, in my view, find it on the allotment.  Once derided as only for the retired, now lusted after as a must-have accessory for our times; the allotment is what makes it possible for me to survive in a city of 8.3 million people.

Allotment:  A  small piece of, usually, public land rented by an individual for cultivation

Wild violets

Through the creaking oak gate I go, past the sooty-tipped Ash tree where white violets are lifting their lavender-tinted heads.  Their perfume is kept secret from anyone who's not prepared to kneel down and  nuzzle the bosky depths playing host to them.  Stepping onto my allotment is like stepping into another world.  The sound of birds singing their hearts out is almost shocking after the dull hum of the city.  It's the Blackbird, Robin, Wren, Blue Tit, Chaffinch and Wood Pigeon that are most at home here.  Happy to tolerate humans, happy to take advantage of our digging, our sloppy housekeeping, and very happy at our forgetfulness to safeguard berries and brassicas.  In return we get to hear their songs.  A more than fair exchange, I think.

A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.


Broad Bean Grando Violetto

If my allotment neighbours hadn't come to my rescue last summer there would be nothing at all to harvest right now.  In mid-Spring a carefully prepared seedbed had been sown with broccoli, cabbage and kale, watered gently and diligently, and scanned obsessively for signs of germination. Faint signs of growth had appeared, fingers were crossed that the little green spikes were brassicas rather than bedstraw.  Then the freak rainstorm hit.  Rivulets gouged pathways through the soil, fragile roots were exposed and delicate seedlings carried off like paper boats on a river.  By the time I accepted that every single one was lost, the time for starting from scratch had passed.  News of successes and failures travels fast on the allotment and, soon, spare plants were proffered and gratefully accepted.

Broad bean seedlings - Wizard & Grando Violetto

This year will be different. I will not put all my eggs in one basket.  An £8 propagator has already produced seedlings of broad beans, broccoli, cabbages, kale and celeriac.  This year I will have plants to spare to come to someone else's rescue. Now it's early April and we are itching to get on with the new growing season.  Broad beans, peas, spinach and early potatoes are planted but without those donations of cabbage, broccoli and kale seedlings there would be no reward for our day's labours.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli seedlings

So, what to do with my harvest?  Anchovies are an invaluable store cupboard ingredient for lifting any number of dishes from salads to roast lamb.  They're particularly good with salad leaves or green vegetables.  Italians like to use them in a sauce with puntarelle, chicory or spinach.  It's hardly original, I know, but I love them with Broccoli and I just happen to have a fantastic crop right now. I have a preference for Purple Sprouting but an anchovy sauce also works with White Sprouting and most spring greens.  Salted anchovies are wonderful but, the more widely-available, tinned ones in olive oil are fine.  Quantities here are just a guide.

Purple (or white) Sprouting Broccoli with Anchovy butter
(Serves 2)

2 good handfuls of Broccoli (or other spring greens)
60g (2oz) unsalted butter (or good olive oil if you prefer)
1 tin of anchovies (I drain the oil as I'm never happy with using it)

Steam the broccoli until just tender. 
Melt (warm through) the butter (olive oil) in a frying pan.  Add the roughly-chopped anchovies and cook, stirring, until the anchovies melt into a sauce.  Remove from the heat.
Add the steamed broccoli and toss in the sauce to coat.

Serve with crusty bread.


London is blessed with its green spaces but let's hear it for more trees for cities. Meanwhile, thank goodness for 'Tweet of the Day'.