Watercolour of Kingsland Road in 1852, by C.H Matthews, showing market gardens on the right. Published in The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes
Watercolour of Kingsland Road in 1852, by C.H Matthews, showing market gardens on the right. Published in The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes

What was Sarah Chandler doing in Edward Dixon’s garden at six in the morning of Thursday 4 September 1740?

Scrumping, claimed Dixon, but she said the apples and pears in her apron were windfalls, and the judge let her off with a caution.

Luckier than Eliza Ingram and Jean Kidd who were caught red-handed stealing cabbages from William Stevens’s market garden in the parish of Bow and sent to Bridewell prison.

The Hackney Petty Sessions book revealed a lot of this sort of thing in the profitable market gardens of East London, where quality fruit and vegetables were grown in intensely cultivated plots for comfortably off clients in the City.

Ugly sisters

According to historian Malcolm Thick, market gardens were the ugly sisters of garden history, which until recently was all about pleasure grounds for posh people.

Hackney had its share of those, but was ideally placed for the commercial activities of hard-nosed entrepreneurs.

In the 1590s there had been famine in London, and feeding the poor was a priority; root vegetables helped, and so plentiful crops of carrots, parsnips, turnips, neeps and swedes, were grown as a substitute for grain.

Exquisite turnips

A century later Hackney was renowned for its exquisite turnips (it was only later that they became cattle feed) and today you can find in fruit and veg stores all over Hackney, small tender white turnips, or fresh radishes, which can be simply cooked and eaten hot or cold.

Claudia Roden has a wonderful recipe for simmering them in a very little water with a  few fresh dates, then finishing off with butter or olive oil and salt and pepper.

It’s easy to chide the multinational supermarkets for promoting out of season fruit and vegetables, but our London market gardeners were just as crafty; there was big money out there and customers willing to pay for asparagus in early spring, tender young peas in April, long before the main crop, hothouse fruit, and abnormally precocious cucumbers and melons.

Londoners also provided the ‘night soil’ from privies and rubbish heaps to manure these costly crops.

What is now Pimlico was once a network of intensively cultivated plots, the Neat House gardens, and our own Mare Street was surrounded with garden plots and orchards, where Sarah Chandler nearly copped it.

Hackney was a good place for nurseries where exotic plants and palms were grown for sale, and Lord Zouch’s physic garden, run by Matthias Lobel, a world famous botanist from the Low Countries, flourished in Homerton High Street.

The Four Elements: Earth by Joachim Beuckelaer. Courtesy of the National Gallery
The Four Elements: Earth by Joachim Beuckelaer. Courtesy of the National Gallery

The painting immediately above shows the sort of vegetable stall that the advanced horticulture of the Netherlands could produce, a stunning celebration of enjoyable products, even allowing for the symbolism that both artists and their clients enjoyed.

Symbols

The vegetable kingdom is not lacking in phallic symbols, but some like the cucumber have double meanings, where it can signify the purity of Christ, and the apple that it is often associated with the fecundity of his mother.

The hothouse grapes might not have been displayed on every fruit stall, but they were out there to symbolise both the chastity of the virtuous young market woman, or the fruitfulness of a respectable married woman.

Fat-bellied cabbages and melons speak for themselves. Carrots and roots sit athwart each other in the shape of a cross, another possible religious meaning.

Late autumn fruits like mulberries are shown alongside early cherries, and various kinds of apple, the overall effect not unlike the more enterprising greengrocers of Hackney today.

Hackney offers most of the seasonal vegetables – from asparagus in whole food shops and most supermarkets, to ‘greens’ of various kinds.

It’s always irritating to be told that the only way to enjoy asparagus is to cut it just before use and run with it from the garden to a pot of boiling water in the kitchen. As if.

And even more irritating to have to boil the living daylights out of it the English way, before dunking it in slowly congealing melted butter, which oozes inexorably from fingers to wrist to elbow to armpit… such a mess, cancelling out the guilty thrill of eating with one’s fingers, when a sharp knife and fork are surely what nature intended.

But better still is to roll the trimmed and dried spears in good olive oil and salt crystals and roast or grill or barbecue, and eat with just a grinding of black pepper. Or you can sweat them slowly in plenty of butter until just tender, then serve with freshly-grated parmesan cheese.

Or scramble some beaten egg and cream into the butter-softened spears.

A good risotto is easily made with a stock made from the discarded woody ends of asparagus spears, along with a chicken carcass or some wings; the rice sautéed in butter or olive oil, then doused with the broth, and then the tender spears, cut into one inch lengths, incorporated into the rice after about five minutes, and the risotto, with more broth stirred in from time to time, served with more butter, and generous amounts of parmesan.

Gillian Riley is grateful to Malcolm Thick for sharing his gleanings from Hackney’s rural past.

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