Kinky Leeks and Gracious Grapes – The RHS London Harvest Festival Show 2014

Apart from Cinderella, few people are likely to consider an after-dark encounter with a giant pumpkin an exciting prospect, but the Royal Horticultural Society are out to change all that. In a revision to the normal schedule, the RHS London Harvest Festival Show opened late on Tuesday, treating members and their guests to an evening of carrot carving, apple bobbing, foraging masterclasses and, of course, prize-winning fruit and veg.

Office works, locals and keen gardeners mingle in the RHS Lindley Hall
Office workers, locals and keen gardeners mingle in the RHS Lindley Hall

Long standing followers of The Frustrated Gardener will know that the RHS London shows are favourites of mine. They are gloriously old fashioned, so much so that one can imagine Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham sending his best grapes down on the train from York, or Sherlock Holmes inspecting the entries with his inscrutable eye. The show must appear now very much as it did in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Prize winning pumpkins, RHS Autumn Harvest Show 2014
1st prize went to Peter Geyelin’s gargantuan fruit

The competition for heaviest pumpkin may be a little light-hearted, but other classes certainly are not. Gardeners and growers who exhibit here know their onions, their leeks and their parsnips. The highest standards are called for and judges take no prisoners. However, in the new spirit of transparency adopted by the RHS at other shows, a table is laid out explaining what the defects are that exhibitors will lose points for. Heaven forbid one’s cauliflower should have a lumpy curd or one’s leeks be slightly kinked. It’s a level of perfection, indeed artifice, that very few strive for nowadays, but wonderful to witness.

What not to do. The National Vegetable Society point out the faults the judges will be looking for
What not to do. The National Vegetable Society point out the faults the judges will be looking for

The first thing I do every year is check out which Duke has won first prize for his grapes. This year the Duke of Devonshire came out tops in both classes for white grapes, going head-to-head with the Duke of Marlborough. I imagine their noble rivalry must be something of a friendly tradition and, like the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, I’d like to imagine it will continue in perpetuity.

Prize winning leeks, RHS London Harvest Festival Show 2014
No kinks here! Perfect leeks, as white as alabaster, pick up the prizes

In an area ambitiously dubbed the ‘Wild Wood’, master forager Claudio Bincoletto was on hand to give advice about hunting for your own food. Asked what he thought about British truffles, he kindly described them as ‘tasting like wet hazlenuts’ and offered a jar of the real thing to sniff. Woodsy and wonderful. He didn’t look like man you’d argue with.

Not long 'til Halloween and the pumpkins and squashes  are in their prime
Not long ’til Halloween and the pumpkins and squashes are in their prime

The catering at these events is a big attraction; nothing too corporate, just a handful of well chosen suppliers offering quality food and drink. Hiver beer from the Real Ale Company always goes down a treat, as do the little gyoza prepared by The Garlic Farm. If I were a coffee drinker, I’d have dived straight for the espresso martinis served from the back of a Piaggio Ape by Word on the Street.

Through the evening we were serenaded by Robin Grey and friends, playing on a banjos, ukeleles, guitars and percussion. They were lucky to be heard over the din created by ‘Can You Dig It?’ and their carrot recorder making workshop. I regret not having a go, as participants seemed to be having a lot of fun, even if the resulting cacophony almost made one’s ears bleed.

Showgoers of all ages take the weight off their feet and enjoy a snack in the Wild Wood
Showgoers of all ages take the weight off their feet and enjoy a snack in the Wild Wood

Ending on a more serious note, opening late does seem to be helping the RHS attract a more mixed audience, without who’s interest I suspect they might struggle to continue these venerable London shows. This part of Westminster is hardly buzzing at night, so it’s a fun diversion for locals and office workers alike. As for me, I’ll keep going for as long as they continue, making the most of a living, breathing piece of England’s horticultural heritage.

All the colours of autumn can be seen in rainbow chard, chillies and tomatoes
All the colours of autumn can be seen in rainbow chard, chillies and tomatoes