the hungry gap
Thursday 12th April 2012
With cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and greens coming to an end in the fields and the stores rapidly emptying of roots, local veg is getting scarce. As there are still three or four weeks to go before we cut our first spring-planted lettuce or spinach, we are approaching the depths of the ‘hungry gap’.
Until relatively recently the alternative was dull vegboxes of woody swedes and bolting leeks, truckloads of imports from Spain and Italy, or closing down for three months (as some of the original box schemes did). Five years ago, after looking at our carbon footprint and studying climatic maps of Europe, I came up with a plan of plugging the hungry gap by growing in the Vendée region of western France. It all seemed so logical: crops would be ready 4-6 weeks earlier than in the UK, the land was good and cheap, there was plenty of water and sunshine and it was a quarter of the road miles of importing produce from Spain.
What I failed to appreciate was that those average climate figures masked huge variation. While the moderating effect of Britain’s coastline generally gives us a temperate if dull and wet climate, the Vendée seems to be wildly unpredictable, especially when the wind is from the north or east as it has been for the last month. Last Easter I was camping and swimming in the sunshine; this year I am typing this in front of the woodburner in my bus, looking out over a grey, windswept lake. My children, who came down to work and earn some Easter cash, have gone home early in disgust. We started well with some wonderful lettuce in the boxes but, with temperatures fluctuating between -4 and +25˚C, we feared the frost and were slow removing the crop covers. The heat stress on sunny afternoons scorched the spinach and lettuce, and sent the turnips to seed. We must be braver about uncovering next year. All is not lost though: the courgettes survived the frost, the early sweetcorn is up and looking strong, and the carrots, cabbage and kohlrabi look great. We are learning. The local bank manager still seems to like us and, best of all, we now have a toilet that flushes. Not bad after three years of cropping, but still a way to go.