It surprises me just how much envy may be generated by a bunch of freshly dug beetroot; Instagrammed next to coral pink toes, one beet cut open to show candy stripe Chioggia, not common or garden. These days, I dream about vegetable patches; neatly planted rows of heritage varieties with names like Black Krim, Vitelotte and Rouge Sang. Canes tied like tepees, trained with brightly flowering legumes and cloches, heavy, old fashioned and impractical ones, made of blown glass. Twenty-something me would poke me in the eye and ask WTF? In reality, until recently, I had a northeast facing slab of crazy paving, where only dandelions and brambles survived.
For frustrated urban growers like me, the sight of raised beds appearing citywide has been ridiculously exciting. Timed to coincide with Bristol's award as European Green Capital; it has taken more than a year of planning and predominantly volunteer work, to realise Incredible Edible Bristol. Reclaiming unloved or ignored plots of land across the city, including areas that are usually kept out of the limelight; the project aims to tackle issues such as food security, food poverty and to simply encourage communities to grow food together.
One site, not too far from me, is Millennium Square. Paved with French limestone, brilliant white in the sun, it can sometimes feel stark and a little sterile. Dominated by the burnished sphere of the planetarium and a large Telescreen that plays BBC news, twenty four hours of the day, there is a disparate collection of public art and, four large walled flower beds that I'd never really noticed. Usually a cut through to the harbour side, I don't often stop to linger; the blaze of nasturtiums and rafts of strawberry plants bearing unripe fruit, made me look. Next to them, a bed skillfully interplanted with salads, brassicas and tented canes of peas and beans and, further on, a bed of alliums, carrots and fruit trees.
My first Incredible Edible harvest was a furtive one. Climbing up onto the stone ledge to retrieve two red butterhead lettuces, I found myself explaining that you really could pick the vegetables, and I wasn't being a naughty, not nice lady -as I overheard someone tell their small child. For the second, I was emboldened, taking back up along in the form of my mum. This time I came away with a handful of miniature beetroot; two onions; one kohlrabi and a turnip. Then realising I had no bag, had to carry them away bindle-like, in my hoodie. Totally Urban right?
Though it may sound like a motley collection, eating root to shoot, they made a good few meals: beetroot puree with toasted fennel seeds and slices of macerated onion for smoked salmon; beetroot tops in garlic and mustard with sea bass; kohlrabi leaves stuffed with seasoned rice and spicy ground pork and bhajias of turnip, kohlrabi and onion chive. Alongside, flashes of being at my grandmother's apron strings, as she taught me, in the infuriating way that Indian grandmothers do, to cook without a recipe and instead by taste, look and feel. The way, it would seem, I now cook -and a rather handy way it turns out too.
So here's a recipe, although really, it's more of a guide. Change the vegetables, use more or less spice; flesh it out with your own taste and feel.
Millennium Square Bhajias
1 medium kohlrabi
1 small turnip
4-6 onion chives
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp ajwain seeds
1 tsp black onion seeds
4-6 tbsp gram flour
Sunflower oil to fry
Grate the kohlrabi and turnip into a mixing bowl. Finely slice the onion chives and add to the bowl. Sprinkle over cumin, coriander and chilli powder, followed by the ajwain and black onion seeds. Add 4 tablespoons of gram flour and mix thoroughly. Leave the mixture to rest for 20 minutes; the gram flour should absorb most of the liquid to form a soft dough. If not, add a further 1-2 tablespoons of gram flour and leave for another 20 minutes. Shape into small patties and shallow fry in sunflower oil. Serve alongside raita or chutney.
For more information about Incredible Edible Bristol and how you can get involved, visit their website. To find out which beds are ready for harvest and what is available at each site, there is an app available, but feel free to get out and about and have a nosy around the beds. You can also read an interview with Sara Venn, co-founder and driving force behind the project here.
And finally, a short film about the Urban Food Growing Trail by EatPictures...