High summer sees vegetable plots across the country bursting at the seams with fresh produce, most people grow enough to furnish their own tables from time to time, but there are a handful of green-fingered wizards that have taken their patches to the next level and have enough surplus vegetables to tie in bunches and place in a ramshackle box outside the front gate available to anyone who might happen to pass by.
In a country where the termites of the foodie class wax lyrical about farmers markets, food miles and local produce, I can’t help but ask myself what will be the next obsession? The answer is simple: I’m putting my money on Honesty boxes. Though I might sound derogatory about some of the above they are all well and good, Britain is a nation gradually returning to how things used to be and how things most certainly should be. Supermarkets are now the bad guys and there are many that will go out of their way to support local producers rather than give their cash to the man. But these are thing we should be doing anyway, the demise of the village grocer, baker and butcher that took place over the 80’s and 90’s are no more…the people want them now more than ever.
Although I moved back to the country last year, Honesty boxes were off limits, the tree house project allowed for no such luxuries- but then I had my own patch to worry about. This summer has been different, since moving into the barn nestled just below the South Downs I was a bit in limbo and a bit late to get planting (save a few chilli plants) and being in the vicinity of at least 4 honesty boxes all backed up by some seriously heavy duty plots (I had to go and meet those behind them), I have begun doing my grocery shopping from them.
My first experience with the honesty box system occurred when I was a nipper being whizzed back and forth to school, my mother would pull over at a rickety looking table at the entrance of the same obscure driveway weekly, peruse the goods on offer give me some coins and I would grab a bunch of the freshest veg going. Quite often I remember it being runner beans and tomatoes. To my naïve way of thinking, I couldn’t understand why we had to pay- surely they could just be pinched? After being tutored in the ways of righteousness and the whole concept behind this bizarre form of window shopping, it became clear that Honesty boxes were more than just a chance to get your hands on the freshest vegetables grown locally, it was also about trust. A few pilfered vegetables wouldn’t be the end of the world by any means, but the concept exercises man’s trust in his fellow man and goes some way to proving we ain’t a country of teeving pikes.
Last week myself and Tom (Aka the Hungry Cyclist) took a tour around my part of the countryside on his vintage Tandem, zigzagging between local producers of any kind: The hedgerows, micro bakeries in back yards, butchers and honesty boxes. The plan was twofold, see what we could get our hands on turn it into something tasty for breakfast lunch and supper but also film the entire escapade.
It was a true example of what the entire ‘slow food’ movement is all about, we had some fine banter with whoever had created whatever we bought, foraged for a few extras, shot some rabbits caught some fish and even drank some cider. Travelling across the South Downs in the open air, something only a bicycle can really offer. For Lunch I managed to catch a couple of chub from a small stream- usually a completely inedible fish, but by turning it into ceviche, wonderful things happened and this once rubbish fish became amazing. By the end of the day Daisy (the tandem) was adorned with a variety of top-notch ingredients ready to be turned into a fine feast. We had bread from the local baker, Duck eggs, tomatoes, onions and cucumber from a series of honesty boxes, Rabbits, local cured ham and clotted cream from a farm shop (including cider and mead for good company), a variety of herbs from a community herb garden, The wild larder delivered well: Horseradish, sorrel, meadowsweet, samphire, mint and cherry plums. Combined with our own set of staples, there were at least a dozen different dishes that we could have prepared.
We opted for a two course meal: pan fried Saddle of rabbit wrapped in cured ham on a bruschetta of toasted bread and a honesty box salsa, to top it off we made a sorrel dressing to drizzle over the top. Pudding was duck egg pancakes with a reduced plum and mint ‘jam’ with lashings of clotted cream, all done over the pleasant appearance of the camp fire perched high on the South downs. Despite being woken by a gun-wielding gamekeeper on a quad bike at 2am…it was a very pleasant evening and our food showcased the best that was on offer in this corner of the country at that very moment.
Although you might be pushed to find honesty boxes in a sprawling conurbation such as London, if you life in the country, you have no excuse to stop and have a gander. The hedgerows hold more than just wild food, if you are lucky you could find allsorts: eggs, veg, fruit but unfortunately no meat! Oh well, I suppose the gun will just have to keep pulling it’s weight for now…