Todmorden

Incredible!

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Growing food can change the way you respond to everything around you.

That’s what Incredible Edible Todmorden co-founder Pam Warhurst told me recently during one of our long chats about the story of the Incredible Edible movement.

And why have I been having long chats with Pam?

Because (drum roll)

we have written (another drum roll)

a book about Incredible Edible Todmorden!

 Yes, a whole book!

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution (by Pam Warhurst, with Joanna Dobson, as it will say on the cover) tells the story of the Incredible Edible movement, starting from the day when another co-founder, Mary Clear, ripped out the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Help Yourself’.

It charts the progress of the project over the six years since it was founded to today, when people come from all over the world to see what is happening in this once overlooked little market town in west Yorkshire.

I’ve been researching and writing the book for the best part of two years. I’ve done hours and hours of interviews with a whole range of people whose lives have been affected by the Incredible Edible movement – from the high school chef who started planting his own school dinner ingredients to the self-confessed city girl who had never even had a pot plant before she moved to Todmorden but now feeds herself and her son fresh, home-grown vegetables for nine months of the year.

Incredible Edible isn’t just about growing food though. It’s about a way of building community, recovering lost skills and boosting local businesses so that we can all look forward to a kinder, greener, more resilient future.

From planting vegetables on unloved patches of ground to launching a market garden training centre to encouraging local farmers to increase their range of products, Incredible Edible demonstrates how small actions have power to bring about big changes.

The book I have written with Pam doesn’t just tell a story, either: it also includes hints and tips for anyone who wants to start an Incredible Edible project where they are, and gives a few simple recipes from some of Todmorden’s many accomplished cooks.

In true Incredible Edible style, we’ve decided to publish the book ourselves. Today I launched a campaign on Kickstarter, the website that enables ordinary people to back creative projects.

Going the Kickstarter route is forcing me to do two things that are right outside my comfort zone: fundraise and (horrors) appear in a video.

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be doing either of them if it weren’t for the fact that I really believe the Incredible Edible movement has the potential to inspire people to bring about real and lasting change.

My biggest hope for the book is that it will inspire more and more people to see that it is possible to live by a different story, one that is not the worn out, disempowering narrative of global consumerism.

Our Kickstarter page is here. It gives more details about the book and explains how, if you want to, you can get involved with it and what you would get in return – everything from an e-book to a hard copy of the book to a fruit tree grafted in Todmorden!

However, this blog is not about to turn into one long advert for the campaign. That’s not what I’m here for and although I have got to plenty to say about the way the Incredible Edible approach can help us build a better future, please be assured that I won’t be making endless pleas for cash.

What I’m concerned about is how people can connect with the land, their food and their communities in what somebody in Todmorden described yesterday as ‘a joined-up circle of scrumptiousness’.

 

 

 

 

 

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the kale connection

This is the story of a vegetable facing extinction, a wise Scottish pensioner and the power of the Internet.

The vegetable in question: Sutherland kale. Now don’t switch off. Kale is massively underrated and it’s about time it had a revival. A sturdy, practical plant, it keeps on giving all through the winter and still manages to be beautiful.

kale

redbor kale

With its hearty, iron-rich flavour. It’s amazingly good as a pizza topping or combined with eggs to make colcannon, and I just have to try this kale pesto.

Sutherland kale is an extremely rare variety and the story of how it was rescued from oblivion should give hope to all of us who worry about the tendency of global food and seed companies to reduce all our fruit and veg to just a few dominant strains.

You can get it from the excellent Real Seed Catalogue, a small company in Wales that specialises in finding the best possible seed for kitchen gardeners and only sells varieties they have trialled themselves.

The company came across Sutherland kale in 2003, when Vicky Schilling, a customer from Ullapool, sent them a few seeds with a note explaining that she had been given them by Elizabeth Woolcombe, a 93-year-old woman from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. Ms Woolcombe knew it as an old variety that used to be popular with crofters.

She, in her turn, had been given some seeds half a century earlier by one Angus Simmonds, when he was researching kale at Edinburgh University.

I first heard about Sutherland kale via the Incredible Edible Todmorden blog. One of the latest Todmorden initiatives is a heritage garden where volunteers will grow rare varieties of plants and ensure they are saved for future generations.

Sutherland kale was an obvious choice for wet and windswept Tod, since it has been shown to withstand 70mph sleet showers, not to mention attacks from aphids, cabbage white caterpillars and ravenous goats.

Just two weeks later, in one of those wonderful cyber-coincidences that sometimes happen, I was reading another favourite blog, the Barefoot Crofter, and spotted a second reference to this very rare variety.

I left a comment expressing my surprise, and before I knew it Jacqueline, the Barefoot Crofter herself, had contacted me via Twitter and offered to send me some seed.

It makes me ridiculously happy to think that the kale plants in our allotment will be connected to the ones on Jacqueline’s croft and, more distantly, to a small group of enlightened people who understood the value of preserving a specific variety of plant at a time when the trend is all towards fewer types that are selected more for their ease of large-scale, commercial production than anything else.

The moral of this story is: small actions count.

The Real Seed people believe Vicky Schilling’s kale plants may have been the last ones in existence until they started growing her seed for sale.

If Vicky had not sent the seeds to the Real Seed Catalogue, Sutherland kale could well be extinct and people like Jacqueline, who farm in extreme weather conditions, would be that much the poorer.

Similarly, if Elizabeth Woolcombe had not faithfully saved seed from her kale, year after year after year, maybe it would have died out all the sooner.

If, like me, you have been involved in the Incredible Edible movement, you will know that one of their mantras is ‘Believe in the power of small actions.’

A movement that began when a few volunteers started planting vegetables in unusual places – think cemetery, bus stop, doctors’ surgery – and putting up revolutionary signs saying ‘help yourself’ is now spreading across the world and making a real difference to the way that people think about land, community and food.

The pins mark the places that are interacting with the Incredible Edible movement

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of increasingly erratic weather conditions, global economic crisis and issues like the huge decline in the UK’s endangered wildlife.

What can we as individuals do in the face of all that, we wonder. Well the stories of Sutherland kale and Incredible Edible demonstrate that the only wrong answer to that question is ‘nothing’.

One more home for one more bee: it all adds up

One more home for one more bee in Todmorden: it all adds up. Picture by Estelle Brown

Top picture of kale by Chris Wilcox; redbor kale by Tracie Hall. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

 

the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.

5kEdinburgh

Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.

damsons

The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.

one word for 2013

Can you really choose just one word as a focus for an entire year? In the last few days a positive rash of ‘words for 2013’ has been erupting all over the blogosphere, thanks mainly to this link-up. I read a few and realised that in many ways having one word as a touchstone, a prism through which to view life for the following twelve months, is a whole lot better than making a heap of resolutions and then forgetting them.

I prayed a bit and found there was a word that kept nudging me and just wouldn’t go away.

The word was HOPE. And it made my heart sink.

Oh no, I thought, hope is what you need when times get really tough. I must be thinking of this word because I’m going to have a hard year. Um, can I have a different word please?

But I kept seeing the word everywhere and as I mulled it over it began to make sense. I thought of all the reading I’ve been doing about the state of the environment and in particular about the way our busted food system continues to wreak havoc on the earth and in the lives of individuals.

It’s hard to pick from the abundance of grim facts out there, but here’s a couple that I came across just yesterday.

  • In 2012, China bought up sixty per cent of the world’s soya beans and fed them all to pigs (story here). I’m not having a go at China in particular – for years the west has been destroying virgin rainforest in order to farm cattle for our beef addiction.
  • In Ethiopia, a prime target for foreign land acquisitions yet also a major food aid recipient, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 per year. (See this factsheet from the Earth Policy Institute.)

The statistics seem overwhelming. How can we respond to injustice and stupidity on such a massive scale?

We can despair – the opposite of hope – and there is a certain logic to that, but it achieves nothing and makes our lives meaningless.

We can ignore it. It’s easy enough in the midst of a busy and often anxious life: deadlines to meet, shopping to do, family to care for. But it’s the equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting ‘la, la, la’. It changes nothing and sooner or later people will tell us we look stupid.

Or we can hope.

peony shoots: hope of glory

peony shoots: hope of glory

In 2013 I am choosing hope. This is quite a discipline. I am a natural pessimist with a tendency to depression. But I am choosing hope because it’s only through hope that things ever change.

peony bud

I am choosing hope because I have seen, for example, how a handful of committed individuals set up an amazing movement called Incredible Edible Todmorden (motto: we don’t do negative) and now their town is being transformed from post-industrial decline to a place with a burgeoning local food economy that is building real community and creating proper jobs.

peony unfurls

I am choosing hope because I believe the tomb was empty on Easter Day and that God is still active in the world, bringing good out of evil and hope out of despair.

As Tom Wright puts it: ‘Hope is what you get when you suddenly realise that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.’ (From Surprised by Hope. This book changed my life, no exaggeration.)

I am choosing hope because I believe that with this God it is never too late to change.

peony bloom

 

2013? Bring it on.

one word logo

alone with a lobster

After I read about Barbara Diggle’s amazing granny, the woman who knew how to use every scrap of a sheep’s head to feed her family (blogged here), I came across another bit of food history that couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We rented a holiday cottage that had an Aga in it and, gloriously, the instruction booklet dated back to at least the early seventies. I know this because at one point it mentions the cost of fuel as being ‘about 3/- or 15 New Pence’ and decimalisation came in in February 1971.

The Aga was introduced to England in 1929 and by the early 1970s it was clearly a considerable status symbol.

This aspirational tone is everywhere in the booklet, but especially in the illustrations. Take this for example:

This lucky lady in her pristine white dress has not only produced meringues, jam tarts and a couple of roast chickens from her spotless, shining Aga, she also has a lobster. A lobster. I asked my mum, who never had an Aga but who was very busy cooking meals for her growing family in the 1970s, if she could remember how common it was for people to eat lobster and she replied tartly that it would have been ‘far too expensive for schoolmasters’, a reference to the job my dad did all his life.

Now I’ve nothing against people who own Agas, although I’ve never had one myself. My point in writing about this gem of a booklet is that I think it contains some important clues as to how and why we severed so many of our connections with that most basic of processes – the journey from plant to plate and all the growing and cooking knowledge that goes along with it. I’m pretty sure many other food-related publications of the time would contain similar messages.

In the world of the Aga catalogue, that most basic of cooking implements – an oven – become a sign of your status, but even worse than that is the insidious suggestion that cooking is all about performance. ‘Why do good cooks love the Aga?’ demands the first page of the booklet. ‘And why do people who thought they weren’t good cooks, suddenly discover that they are?’ The sort of thing a good cook does is, again, suggested by the illustrations. Here’s another Aga lady, dreamily admiring the fruits of her labours.

Elaborate pastry, a whole Dundee cake, more jam tarts, glazed ham, lashings of butter … hang on, this is impossible for one person to do in a day, Aga or no Aga.

And here’s a third picture demonstrating something else that is impossible.

Sorry, but you cannot feed a family on cream-filled meringues and Victoria sponge (not to mention those jam tarts again) and still have hipbones that show through your dress.

These women are so isolated. Apart from the little boy in the last picture, they are always alone in their kitchen. Early in the booklet the reader is told that ‘the slow oven is perfect for keeping plates warm, or meals hot for tardy husbands or football-crazy sons’.  In other words, while the male of the species is out working, socialising or enjoying sport, the female is home alone, sweetly ensuring that he has a hot meal to come back to. And cooking food that she cannot possibly eat herself if she is to keep her Twiggy-style figure.

It all adds up to a grotesque contrast with the memories you can read about on the history section of the Incredible Edible Todmorden website. In these interviews, people celebrate the connections they made around food – the fishmonger who kept a good herring back for granny, the children who spent whole days picking bilberries together – and express a real pride in genuine cooking skills, such as knowing how to turn stale bread into crumbs to make a cake.

I’m really not advocating a return to the days when ordinary people couldn’t even afford meat at Christmas. But I do think a lot of people were robbed when an increasingly affluent and consumerist society made food into something that isolated and excluded, rather than a source of connection and celebration.

And I know I sing the praises of Todmorden a lot on this blog, but the incredible edible project is doing a wonderful job of restoring food to its rightful place as something that builds relationships as well as sustaining our bodies, and of making sure that as many as people as possible can reclaim the satisfaction of growing and cooking their own meals.

The world of the Aga booklet is one of impossible standards and a constant struggle to outdo your neighbours. The ‘fairer, kinder, greener’ world of Todmorden is one of renewed connections, from person to person and between people, the land and the food it produces. I know which one I’d rather live in.

 

mud, glorious mud

It takes more than a waterlogged showground to dampen spirits in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden. The showjumping was off and the heavy horses had to stay away but otherwise rain most definitely did not stop play at the annual Tod show yesterday.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a passion for this market town that is attracting attention from all over the world through the simple but radical act of growing food for everyone to share.

Yesterday it was great to get a fresh perspective on some of the other things that make Todmorden tick. Like cows …

… and sheep;

horses …

… and all manner of hens

Of course the incredible edible project had its own tent …

… which was full of the usual exuberance I associate with these folk.

It was great to see so many entries for the schools competition: Todmorden is doing a brilliant job of ensuring that the next generation knows how to feed itself.

Back in the town, we discovered Incredible Edible has also been doing some amazing stuff for pollinators, about which more in a future post. But I’ll leave you with a shot of this happy bee gorging on the nepeta which is blooming in drifts all over the town.

A huge thank-you to my daughter Miriam who took most of the pictures for this post.

lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.