It has been a miserable summer of washed-out holidays and sun-deprived vegetables – but as soon as schools returned, the sun came out, the nights warmed up and September is set to give us the best weather since June. The first long autumn swells are rolling in off the Atlantic Ocean and calm is returning to Devon as summer visitors leave. This is my favourite month, on and off the farm.
So many of the vegetables we grow and eat would rather grow 500 miles further south; life would be much easier for British farmers if the Norwegians had the culinary influence of the Italians. A cold spring and very dry June, followed by a wet, dull, and cool summer, have left sun- and heat-loving crops struggling. It is too late for the cucumbers in our polytunnels, which have not been happy all summer. But the sun may drive a late rally for the tomatoes, boosting flavour and allowing yields to get close to target. The warm nights we are now enjoying are generating a last burst of growth in the basil, too.
Out in the fields, our squashes are ripening well, ahead of schedule. September sun will harden the skins and dry the stalks, sealing the fruits and allowing some varieties to store through to next summer. We are on the climatic boundary for squash, and most other members of the lush, luxuriant, largely tropical cucurbit (cucumber) family. Butternut squash, in particular, struggles to ripen and develop its full flavour in Devon, so we have moved half the crop to my farm in the French Vendée. We consistently get twice the yield of fruit there, with better flavour, and a longer shelf life – for much less effort. Growing crops outside of their preferred climatic zone too often results in low yields and quality, for a higher environmental footprint – sometimes making me question whether ‘local is always best’.
We started the sweetcorn season with the fattest, sweetest and juiciest cobs we have ever grown in the Vendée, and are now in the thick of the UK season, which has done surprisingly well also. If you are tiring of eating it boiled or barbecued on the cob, try corn fritters, or simply slicing the kernels off the cob raw and throwing into a quick stew ten minutes before serving. My favourite is a simple onion, chorizo, bean, and sweetcorn stew, served with buttered runner beans, which have been fantastic this year.