The Hungry Gap

January, traditionally known as the ‘hungry gap’, where the feast of Christmas was over and all that was left was dried broad beans, pickled veg and whatever porridge oats the rats hadn’t got at. It’s not quite the same today, with food flown in from the tropics and out of us with fridge freezers powered off the grid. However, for those of us wanting to live lightly on the planet, its worth going back to the wisdom of ages past.

Beans, beans the musical fruit…

First off…do you REALLY need a fridge in this weather? I have lived the last 17 years with no form of refrigeration excepting a zeer pot. More about that when it gets hotter and we need a fridge. For now, all I do is stick my perishables in wicker baskets in the bathroom. The wicker lets the air circulate around the food, which stops vegetables rotting. Instead they just dry out. A metal lockable box just outside works well too. The floor is always colder, store milk and suchlike in boxes with water in down there. Hundreds of years ago, this room would have been the classic pantry, or a cellar. Fridges use a lot of power, so you are saving the planet and your wallet as well! (Plus you don’t have to listen to that annoying humming noise).

Wicker and willow boxes in the bathroom.

So what vegetables and fruit would be in season?

This is the perfect excuse to try Medlar, Mespilus Germanica, a relative of apples and quinces. This strange fruit was eaten as a dessert in the 19th century and in the time of the Tudors. It is eaten once it is bletted (frozen) and left to ferment, which makes the astringent fruit very soft and sweet. Eat it with cream or ice cream for the full whammy! It is hard to find at Tesco, try to make friends with a neighbour with a medlar tree or grow your own.

Kale and winter cabbage are still trooping on if you planted them early enough in the late summer and early autumn. Their thick fleshy leaves are resistant to frost and full of iron.

As for forageable veg, much depends on the severity of the frosts.

I’m still finding Chickweed, or Stellaria media, at the top of the Canal bridge in window boxes and in cracks along paths. This delicious salad leaf is sweet, tender and full of much needed Vitamin C. Cleavers, Galium aperine, is still poking up tender shoots which help cleanse the blood and kidneys of toxins – just what the doctor ordered after Christmas indulgence!

Lastly, we equate January’s cruel deluge of bills and taxes with Janus, the two faced Roman god of doorways, change and transition. It is important to remember that the freezing weather is actually essential for many British native trees to reproduce. Many seeds, such as apples, need a period of scarification by being frozen for a certain period of time. which ‘unlocks’ them so they can grow in the Spring. In these times of global warming, many British trees that reproduce this way face an uncertain future. We could expect to see plants and trees from Mediterranean climates start to thrive instead.

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