England has a population of 50 million mostly living in houses in towns and cities. Between these urban areas the countryside is mainly farmed using large machinery and very few people. Imagine an alternative situation where people are packed more densely into cities often in high rise blocks but where they also have a parcel of land about 600m2 out in the countryside grouped together in small ‘villages’.

In Britain I suspect this alternative would not work for a whole range of reasons but in Russia it works on a huge scale, the people I spoke to did not know any families without these plots. The trains out of the city on Friday evening are packed with people carrying baskets to collect the fresh food they have grown on their plots. But nearly all of them have also built some kind of ‘summer house’ on their plot so they can stay overnight or as long as they want during the summer. In winter its usually too cold to stay and there is nothing to do on the plot.

Summer houses are usually rather basic but functional, providing somewhere to sleep and eat and are often built out of wood by the plot owners themselves with some help from their friends. They are certainly not the ostentatious huge Dachas that the new rich Russians are building.

Preserving Aronia berries Copyrighted image Credit: Mike Dodd
Preserving Aronia berries.

An item frequently found on the plot is a small stove where pans of water are boiled to preserve fruit and vegetables for the winter. All the households I stayed in had a large store of produce from their plot(or their mother’s plot), it did not matter whether it was a city centre flat in Moscow or St Petersburg or a house in the countryside there was always that store of food that would last all year. As a tourist visiting Moscow and seeing the lines of Range Rovers outside posh restaurants this may seem strange but the vast majority of Russians are both rather poor and value the traditional healthy home produced food.

 

This year in Britain (well Milton Keynes at least) has been meagre for tree fruit after last year’s very heavy harvest. This often happens and is more pronounced in some varieties than others. However this was quite the opposite in the Moscow area with all the apple trees breaking their branches with the weight of fruit. We were living on fruit compote as this was the easiest way to deal with large numbers of apples quickly. One thing I did notice was that there were only one or two varieties of apples wherever we went. It seems that the severe cold winters mean that special very hardy rootstocks and hardy grafted on cultivars have to be used. There are a considerable range of these available but just like in Britain nowadays only one or two cultivars are widely grown except by keen gardeners or specialist orchards.

One regret from the recent trip was the lack of wild mushrooms. It should have been the peak of the season and my daughter had collected several kilograms just a few days previously which we were eating. But the hot 30oC+ temperature, very patchy rain and sandy soils meant that the ground was too dry for fruiting bodies to develop. The one edible species I did find, hedgehog mushroom,turned out to cause a lot of suspicion among locals since it is not one they traditionally eat and has spines rather than gills under the cap. I am always amazed at how traditional knowledge gets passed down as to which species can be eaten and which are poisonous. When my daughter was collecting it was with her grandmother who pointed out the good edible types. I wonder what percentage of the UK population would go out and collect and eat wild mushrooms without any help from identification books or experts. 

On the evening two hour journey back to the city past many small villages of summer houses we watched more and more people pack into the train with baskets full of produce and even some with bags full of wild mushrooms. Obviously their patch of forest had benefited from thunderstorms earlier in the week. It was coming to the end of the season in late August and many of the plots were more or less bare waiting for the severe cold to come and kill pests and weeds. It seemed strange that the season was about to change so suddenly whereas back in Britian we have a long drawn out late summer, autumn and even the winter can have warm days, unfortunately ideal for all those nasty pests and weeds to survive on our allotments.