Celebrity gardener Alys Fowler has stepped out of the garden and into her Kings Heath kitchen to come up with inventive ways to make her home-grown produce go further. She chats to Sarah Probert about, pickling, potting and preserving.
After years of cursing the British weather, vegetable growers are finally enjoying the fruits of their labour.
With cold snaps, downpours and then nearly a month of glorious sunshine, the conditions have, for once, meant that this has been a good year on the veg plot.
But the abundance of produce has now left many scratching their heads and wondering what to do with the glut they have got.
Celebrity gardener and Kings Heath resident Alys Fowler is an expert at creating dishes out of her own produce, making sure it lasts well beyond the growing season.
Her modest kitchen at the back of her terraced house is filled with bubbling jam pans. Her harvest plucked from the back garden, nearby allotment or even foraged in the local parks.
But it is not just jams and chutneys that she is creating, she has been perfecting more adventurous concoctions from damson cheese to sauerkraut and tabasco sauce.
“People enjoy these forgotten domestic skills. It gives you a sense of control of the food system, it is a really pleasurable thing to do,” says an enthused Alys.
“It gives you a real sense of satisfaction to be eating summer foods in the winter.”
Passionate to share her delicious recipes, Alys has published a collection of them plus some top preserving tips in her latest book, Abundance.
“Food is getting more expensive and we go through this big effort to grow all of this food so it is ridiculous to have to put it on the compost heap if you don’t know the best way to preserve it,” she adds.
As we speak she is poised over a pan to make a batch of rhubarb and elderflower jam, a rich preserve which she says tastes delicious spread over a hot scone.
“It is a floral, subtle jam which is quite special. I don’t make a huge amount of it but it is lovely.”
Alys shot to fame as a presenter on BBC2’s Gardeners’ World and has published books on thrifty gardening and how to forage for food.
She has played an active role in the city’s increasingly popular gardening scene, teaching at Urban Veg, a community garden created on the plot abandoned by BBC Gardeners’ World three years ago when Monty Don returned as the main presenter and filming shifted from Birmingham to his Herefordshire home.
At the same time previous presenter Toby Buckland was dropped and Alys also left the show.
Part of Winterbourne House and gardens at the University of Birmingham, the plot has been transformed as demonstration gardens and is looked after by a group of dedicated volunteers.
“When Gardeners’ World left it was turned into a community space where people can learn about food growing. It is a display garden and a really good place to go and have a look at all the different ways to grow food,” adds Alys.
As well as the creation of Urban Veg, Alys is excited that there is a real growing gardening scene in the city, from guerilla gardening where enthusiasts decorate unused public spaces such as roadsides and roundabouts with plants and flowers, to projects like Edible Eastside, which has converted a brownfield site in Digbeth into an edible park.
“There is a food growing scene here and it is something that more and more people are joining,” says Alys excitedly.
And part of that food scene is about sharing of produce, with an active bartering system taking place in the city suburbs.
“We started off swapping jam for jam but that can be really boring so now swapping all sorts of things. I have swapped jam for honey and the bartering system is alive and well in the community,” says Alys.
She believes Birmingham could go one step further on this food revolution, by growing its own produce on a commercial scale, while going some way to tackling unemployment by offering horticultural training.
“Birmingham has got so many green spaces which are underused and a huge amount of land that is not developed. Birmingham could have a real potential to produce its own food.
“There are spaces that could be turned into very interesting temporary food growing plots and I would like to see the council embrace that opportunity.”
* Abundance by Alys Fowler and published by Kyle Books is out now, priced £16.99.