Getting through the hungry gap
Updated: May 4
I just made some aubergine chutney with some fairly dodgy-looking old aubergines (more on this below) and was thinking about the veg we had in the shop today / the veg that went into the boxes this week and how limited it is, and in not great nick. And I wanted to just write down some thoughts on how we as a family get through the hungry gap whilst still avoiding being sucked into buying produce from outside of Europe. [We haven't bought veg from a supermarket for.....at least 2 years, probably a lot longer so we've forgotten what that choice might even look like!]
Riverford says 'The name ‘the Hungry Gap’ harks back to a time when an empty field really meant going hungry. Traditionally, the gap had to be bridged with a spartan diet of cabbage, old potatoes, and fruits preserved during kinder months. These days, however, very few people eat a local, seasonal diet; the supermarkets can easily top up their shelves with even more imported produce, or crops grown in the UK under heated glass, and no one need notice the difference.'
When you're buying/eating seasonal UK veg at this time of year, there isn't much to really fill you up. Asparagus - tasty but pricey. Salad that has been over-wintered and grown inside. Radishes. Turnips (we've not grown these this year). Spring greens. Spinach, cauliflower - maybe. If you're lucky you might be able to find a bit of kale, purple sprouting broccoli or chard still about. There might be a few early UK tomatoes but still very pricey. Stored potatoes, new potatoes just starting from down south (not local to us here). Mushrooms are grown inside so available all year round (phew). Rhubarb. Wild garlic.
As you can see, that ain't a big list! Hence the hungry gap. If you were living off the land you would be eating nettles at this time of year in the UK hence we as a business obviously rely more on imported produce during this time, just as the supermarkets do. But the fact that this produce has to travel longer to get to us (not helped by Brexit issues) does impact the quality and taste. So it got me thinking about what it is we're doing at home to help us get through these few weeks without too much struggle. And the aubergine pickle is my starting point!...
1) Bring on the pickles and chutneys: Make these through the year and they come into their own now. The aubergine chutney we just made is here - I didn't have tamarind paste so made my own using worcestershire sauce (2 tbsp), tomato paste (2 tbsp), lemon juice (2 tbsp), brown sugar (maybe 2 tbsp?!) - and it really made a taste difference to our meal. As I said, the aubergines we used were in a bad way and wouldn't even made it into the wonky veg heap in a supermarket. But cutting away the bad bits left us with lots of lovely flesh that worked a treat and it felt so satisfying to have saved them from the compost. Appreciate we have access to the non-sellable veg as we have a veg business, but if there's something you want to make and you could use some non-perfect veg then let us know and we may be able to help. Or ask us what we have that could be used in a chutney or pickle and we'll sell you what we have for special price just to avoid wasting it.
2) The freezer is your friend: We all have those things we shove in the freezer (don't we?) thinking 'that will come in useful' and somehow it never comes back out. Well now is the time. Get out those sauces, leftover meals etc that have gone in and need rescuing. We don't have a very big freezer so this isn't a great help to us but we have plans for a chest freeer and then we're talking! Then your freezer is nice and empty for you to start filling it again as the summer veg and berries come in.
3) Pantry staples are crucial: In our house we can't survive without these at any time of year, but particularly so now when we really rely on them. I get slightly (very) panicky if stocks go down.
Tins of tomatoes. Pulses (dried and tinned beans, dried lentils and split peas). Rice - brown and white, arborio for risotto. Pasta (we have been buying organic wholegrain spelt pasta which is fab if anyone is interested). Nuts. Raisins. Capers (life-changing, move a simple tomato sauce to something way better). Olives. Sardines and anchovies (we get ours from The Tinned Fish Market and they are way better than any others I've tried). Good quality tomato sauce - can also double up as paste if needed. Parmesan and cheddar (ok more of a fridge staple). Olive oil, balsamic vinegar. Mustards. Spices.
I think there's more than this but this is just off the top of my head so will come back and add if I remember other things. Obviously this list excludes breakfast (oats all the way), and flour for bread and baking etc...that's a whole different thing. And we always have eggs too. But these staples above get us through - through the hungry gap by giving us lots of tasty options for curries and daals, pasta sauces, stews, risottos, things to go on toast. Even if our veg box doesn't look very appealing, or if we have to cut out bits that aren't quite up to scratch, we have all these other things available to cook them with and make them taste good.
Off now for our tomato daal and aubergine chutney. Let me know if you have any other things I can add to this. I'm sure there's heaps more to say!
~ the best bit about this post is the inevitable reaction from old friends who knew me as the first to say let's go out for food rather than cook, and who rarely had more than a pint of milk in my fridge....well, times they are a-changing (already changed) and let's just see I've seen the light! If I can do it, anyone can! ~
[I also plan to write anther post on what the hungry gap means for us as a business, how we manage it in terms of what we buy in / put in the boxes, etc. And what it means for you as customers as supermarkets have, over the years, made us so much more detached from the seasons as their focus is on choice rather than provenance and seasonality. Watch this space and #enjoythehungrygap]