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Dining at the Garden Plot/Hackney allotments

  • Subject: [cg] Dining at the Garden Plot/Hackney allotments
  • From: "Sharon Gordon" gordonse@one.net
  • Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 18:35:21 -0400
  • Importance: Normal

http://www.waitrose.com/wfi/ , September issue

London Fields
Juliet Roberts leaves the clamour of the city behind her as she joins the
plot-holders of a Hackney allotment for their annual barbecue party.
"Hassan has the best ‘restaurant’ on the allotments," says his neighbouring
plot-holder, Julie. Today, as he prepares food for the Manor Gardening
Society's annual get-together in Hackney Wick, he’s proudly sporting a
brilliant white chef’s jacket.   "Smart, eh?" he winks. "I have to wear this
so they know who’s the chef."   Hassan Ali, a Turkish Cypriot, moved to east
London in 1968. A retired mechanic, he now spends his time working the land
in much the same way he did at his previous home near Limassol, a mile long
strip of land running down to the coast.   "I used to have 300 lemon, 200
fig and even three banana trees," he says, "but what I miss most is the
sea." He grows everything here that he used to grow in Cyprus, apart from
aubergines, lemons, and, of course, bananas. In his greenhouse, he shows me
his collection of seeds, stored out of reach of the mice in an
out-of-service fridge. Brightly coloured packets sent from friends in
Cyprus, Turkey and Greece contain seeds for cucumbers, runner beans,
flatleaf parsley, fennel and various types of squash.   He has two
flourishing allotment plots, which provide him and his family with fresh veg
all year round, but Hassan's favourite occupation is cooking up enormous
barbecues. Sandwiched between his greenhouse and his shed, which is kitted
out with a two-ring, calor-gas stove, sits a dining table under the shade of
a lush, fruit-laden vine.   "The grapes are no good as they don't get enough
sunshine," he explains, "but I use the leaves to make dolma stuffed with
minced meat and rice."   At the opposite end of his plot, Hassan has a
second dining area, beneath the canopy of an enormous fig tree. Nearby is
the all-important rotisserie barbecue, wired up to an old car battery, and a
sink, where his girlfriend Kathy is assembling a salad from ingredients
picked just minutes earlier. Juicy tomatoes from the greenhouse, ridge
cucumbers, peppery rocket, onions, garlic, fennel, white cabbage and sorrel
are all chopped up finely.   "He likes everything cut up so small, you'd
think he was a baby," says Kathy. She douses the salad with olive oil,
vinegar and a generous squeeze of lemon. Meanwhile, beers are cooling in an
old water butt and Carlton, Hassan's Yorkshire terrier, has sniffed out the
chicken on the table and is looking up expectantly. Hassan chides him, but
breaks up a biscuit and drops it in his direction.   As well as his beloved
barbecues, Hassan loves to rustle up tasty snacks. Depending on the season,
his specialities include sliced, salted kohl rabi, served with olives and a
glass of ouzo, and baby broad beans with black olives and the ubiquitous
lemon juice and olive oil. His neighbour, Julie, recalls an intriguing
combination of ripe figs, topped, tailed and halved, eaten with thick slices
of Halloumi.   For more substantial meals, Hassan will make a stew from
seasonal vegetables. "You have to cook it slowly," he says, "for at least
two hours. Last week I put in some small pieces of lamb, then green beans,
onion, tomatoes, green peppers, potato, carrots, chillies, white cabbage,
garlic, water and olive oil."   In a nearby plot, Kaz, a Turkish tailor, and
two of his workmates are cooking shish kebabs. "I've been coming up here for
13 years," he says. "I love the peace and quiet. I cross the bridge over the
River Lea and its like I'm out of London." For his kebabs, he always uses
shoulder of lamb, which he cubes and marinates in a blend of cumin, ground
onion, garlic, milk and olive oil.   Soaking in a bowl of water are several
sheep's testicles. "I'll skin these, slice them in half and put them on the
grill. Delicious," he says.   At one o'clock, Hassan makes his way down to
the allotment society's community shed and lights the barbecue. A car radio
is connected to some speakers, plot-holders begin to draw up chairs and the
party gradually gathers. Each plot-holder has brought something along: tins
of beer, paper napkins, cushions, cutlery, a parasol.   Once the meat is
cooked, Hassan urges everyone to tuck in, providing a seemingly endless
stream of chicken breasts and wings, sweetcorn, fried onions and sausages.
Piling their plates with meat, salad, and fresh bread from a local Turkish
bakery, everyone agrees that food eaten outdoors always tastes better.
Many of those present have been coming to the allotments for several decades
and the general consensus of opinion is that little has changed, other than
that the sheds are bigger. Albert, a 75-year-old, recalls working on his dad
’s plot when he was aged 12. He has had his own allotment for more than 40
years. "Without it, I'd be lost," he admits. "It keeps me fit and gets me
out of the house every day."   Despite his plot being bordered by those of
Greek and Turkish families, Albert grows the usual fare found on most
English allotments. He says that his neighbours grow the same as he does,
but that they also have chillies, garlic, sorrel, a spinach-like leaf called
calaloo and row upon row of broad beans and sweetcorn. Unlike Hassan, Albert
always takes his produce home to eat, but is impressed how his neighbours
cook up feasts; one of the neighbouring plots even has a clay bread oven.
"They roll the dough out with a cut off broom handle," he laughs.   Once the
food is finished, many stay on well into the night drinking beers and
chatting. Hassan, however, returns to his plot, takes off his chef's jacket
and settles down for a snooze in one of the reclined car seats underneath
his sweet-smelling fig tree.

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