Caught by the River

Mrs Bun’s Allotment Kitchen

Nina Walsh | 19th November 2012

by Nina Walsh.

Racing against the sunlight and slightly battered from the elements, we decided that last Sunday was to be our final day at the Allotment Kitchen this year. It was also the Allotment Committee’s Annual General Meeting and The Kitchen was scheduled for discussion. With cooking partner Felix taking care of business at the truck, I sat anxiously waiting in the neighbouring scout hut for the meeting to begin. As the gardeners filed into position to have their say, the hut was soon filled to capacity leaving standing room only for latecomers. A popular event it would seem.

After much dissection of the treasurers report on finance, tree restriction debates and discussions on how bad this years harvest has been for everybody, we finally reached item four on the agenda, The Allotment Kitchen. It was quite obvious that it was a hot topic for some, who had tried to raise the issue before ‘item four’ had been initiated and been politely told to wait in line, so you can imagine I was a little nervous about the ensuing siege ahead of me. I needn’t have worried so much as, apart from the odd reference to our ‘commercial venture’ (if only) being likened to Starbucks arriving unannounced on the plot, the territorial disdain for dog walkers (who I promptly defended as there is no way we could have afforded to run the show without them) and the inconvenience of having to move the wheel barrows ten yards around the corner, there was nothing that folk could really take too seriously when so many had enjoyed our presence over the summer. Those who had actually spent time at the Kitchen and could understand that, as bizarre as it may sound, we set the Kitchen up because it was a really nice thing to do as opposed to the sharp business decision some suspected, gave us their full support that earned us a round of applause for the quality of our lovingly baked baps and a nomination onto the Committee as events managers. Points were raised that the Kitchen had brought people together and made it feel a safer place, friendships had been forged and the general feeling was one of positivity and encouragement to pop back up again next spring.

With the absence of Trevor over the past couple of months, however, the plan to replace the old shed with a new cabin seems to have lost momentum and the committee have gone full circle with concrete and shed renovations back on the agenda. Trevor did make an appearance at the AGM but sadly, it was to officially step down as chairman. The new dining cabin is still a possibility but the project has been suspended until budgets have been drawn up on the price of concrete and possible renovation works. This may take some time….

It has been a busy last couple of months at The Allotment Kitchen, having to juggle our time around festivals, studio recordings and film catering work. We did, however, manage to keep the ship running for all but one weekend throughout the summer, much to the appreciation of our regular Sunday diners. The addition of our Felix & Pi home made jams and Hemp & Turmeric K9 cookies on the menu were a great success and we managed to raise £100 for the children’s charity, The Rainbow Trust with our Big Hour Cake Sale as the clocks went back. We also invented some rather interesting and highly rated pies, which will be on sale at The Social Christmas Market every Saturday throughout December.

It was a particularly rubbish year for growing stuff and many of my own crops sadly failed. However, I was fortunate enough to be given the responsibility of care-taking some of the plots of our regulars whilst they were on holiday, which subsidised my own disappointing harvest. Offerings of freshly foraged mulberries and curious edible fungi were exchanged for elderberry hot toddies and blackberries swapped for cake so, despite a difficult year, I really did pretty well!

I feel truly blessed to have been able to spend my summer weekends with such lovely people and delightful dogs, cooking the food I enjoy in one of my favourite places on the planet. Not too much to ask for really is it? Felix, Fifi the Truck and I have had the chance to refine our working relationship and are now ready to take on the world. We have several winter venue options in discussion, from film studios to pub courtyards and shall report back once we decide our next move.

Plot 18 has now been turned over and bedded down for the winter. The sprouts are showing some promise for Christmas and the garlics and onions have been dibbed in ready for natures cycle to begin once again.

To round up this seasons Allotment Watch I have enlisted the expertise of Kitchen regular and fellow gardener, Squirrel John to share with you his pearls of squirrel wisdom and a delicious recipe for Squirrel Provençal:

Squirrel Provençal Recipe: By Squirrel John

To my mind, squirrel is far more ethical to eat than any of the intensively farmed meat on sale these days. I became a vegetarian in protest at the state of British farming when the BSE crisis broke many years ago. Since then, I’ve researched the very high environmental impact of meat production. About the only bought meat that I will now eat with a clear conscience is properly wild game such as boar, venison or rabbit bought from farmer’s markets. I have no qualms about eating squirrel as:

a) It’s an introduced species that has almost wiped out our native reds.
b) It’s one of the most destructive of all introduced species in this country.
c) It’s classified as vermin and therefore should be culled whenever possible.
d) It’s not fed any chemical additives or growth-enhancing antibiotics.
e) They live a free and happy life. Compare that to most farmed animals.
f) 1kg of beef requires 10kg of corn to produce, forcing global prices up and increasing global famine.
g) That 10kg of corn requires chemical fertilisers & pesticides that consume finite energy resources.
h) Intensive farming is one of the top 3 global greenhouse gas emitters.
i) Locally sourced squirrel has very low food miles.

Taste wise, squirrel has been compared to duck but is much less fatty. Older squirrels can be tough so I play safe and always slow cook them for many hours which also brings out the flavour. If you think you can casually toss squirrel meat onto a barbecue as if it were chicken, you’ll be disappointed as it’ll be unpleasantly rubbery. An electric slow cooker is an excellent investment and these can often be picked up for very little at boot sales as they’re popular “use once and then get bored with it” Christmas presents. Most of the meat on squirrels is on the limbs with a little on the saddle and surrounding the spine but with hardly any breast meat. Being small animals, bones can be a tad problematical but they’re not as bad as most fish. In particular, the vertebrae are rather spiky and unpleasant to inadvertently bite on. You’d need phenomenal butchering skills to de-bone the meat before cooking without wasting most of it. So do as I do and separate the bones out after cooking by which time the meat should be falling away from them. Don’t stir the recipe during or after cooking but instead carefully lift the complete carcasses from the cooking pot so they’re spine uppermost on your plate. Peel the meat off from both sides of the spines and you’ll find the complete backbones can then be separated out intact and given to any handy dog. The few ribs can be individually picked out.

One whole squirrel is enough for one person with a healthy appetite. Here’s a recipe I’ve successfully made myself:

Squirrel Provençal

Take three squirrels and cut off the limbs. Brown the limbs and the carcass in some oil in a pan on a high heat.
Remove the browned meat and transfer to a slow cooker or casserole dish. Add two chopped onions to the pan and fry until translucent. Add the onions to the cooking dish. Add two tins of tomatoes or equivalent fresh ones if you’ve managed to grow any blight free this year. Add plenty of chopped garlic, sliced carrots or other root vegetables, some stock powder, a tablespoon of Herbes de Provençe, several bay leaves and a good glug of red wine. Slow cook for at least 4 hours.

Mrs Bun & Squirrel John

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