RHS London Harvest Festival 2016

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Autumn has truly arrived when it’s time for the RHS London Harvest Festival show. This annual event comes at a busy time for me, falling just before I embark on my annual buying trip to India and China. But it’s a good opportunity to reconnect with my inner kitchen gardener and stock up on apples, garlic and chillies to fuel Him Indoors’ prolific chutney making. A short walk from my office, through the mansion block of Victoria, bathed in warm sunshine and with crisp London plane leaves crunching under foot, I am quickly at the Royal Horticultural Society’s magnificent Lindley Hall.


The first prize winning basket of vegetables
This basket of vegetables was awarded first prize


The fact that the Harvest Festival show is all about fruits and vegetables, rather plants and flowers, makes it one of my favourite events of the horticultural year. And as a regular visitor I am always on the look out for new exhibitors. I was fascinated to learn about the medicinal and herbal properties of birch sap from Lisette and Bernadette at Priestlands Birch. The sap of the humble silver birch has been used for centuries to detoxify the body and stimulate the metabolism. It can only be tapped for about 4 weeks a year, just as it rises through the tree in early spring, but before any leaves unfurl. Fresh water is drawn up through the roots, gathering stored nutrients as it goes. Hence the sap is packed with Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Vitamin C, Zinc, Phosphorus, Sodium, Iron, Manganese and Amino Acids.

Through the ages the crystal-clear liquid has been used to treat skin, kidney and rheumatic conditions and applied as a first-aid treatment for burns. It can also be drunk as a re-hydration tonic and administered as a hangover cure. Like milk, birch sap does not keep unless refrigerated, so the drink I tried was served from a bucket of ice, having been frozen since it was tapped. I was advised that a small cup would give me the midday boost I was craving. I can’t say it had a noticeable effect, but it was certainly very refreshing.


Grape 'Muscat of Alexandria' is an ancient variety used for making wine, rasins and for serving at the table
Grape ‘Muscat of Alexandria’ is an ancient variety used for making wine and serving at the table


Long term followers of this blog will recall my delight in the eccentricities of this venerable show, including the annual duel between their Graces the Dukes of Devonshire and Marlborough for the honour of producing the finest grapes in the country. This year both Nobles were usurped by a Mr and Mrs Davidson from Alnwick, who swept the board with a section of stunning home-grown bunches. The quality of the Davidson’s ‘Madresfield Court’ black table grapes and ‘Muscat of Alexandria’ white grapes was head and shoulders above the competition, winning first prize in every category.


Prize pumpkins
Plump prize pumpkins


The other competition that can’t go unnoticed is that for the largest pumpkin. This year’s winner was grown by Ben Ben-Eliezer and weighted an incredible 566kg (1247lbs), equivalent to two Shetland ponies. The unattractively obese fruits entered into the ‘battle of the bulge’ took centre stage in the Lindley Hall and wore their prize rosettes with pride.


Row upon row of apples in the competition classes
Row upon row of apples, pears and quince in the competition classes


Whilst on the subject of fruit I was keen to get some advice on which quince (Cydonia oblonga) to grow against the wall of our new house. Pennard Plants recommended three Russian varieties that are resistant to quince leaf blight, a disease I didn’t know existed and can now hopefully avoid. These included pineapple-flavoured ‘Aromatnaya’; ‘Miagkoplodnaja’, which can be eaten raw; self fertile ‘Konstantinopeler’; and another from Europe, ‘Serbian Gold’, aka ‘Lesschovach’. Pennard Plants offer bare root plants from November and potted plants at other times of the year.


Eye-popping peppers
Eye-popping peppers


Among the most colourful exhibits were those staged by the RHS trials team with a dazzling array of sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum). The range of shapes and colours was mind-blowing, starting with inky-black ‘Midnight Dreams’, not-so-lilac ‘Lilac Belle’ and elongated ‘Violetta Lunga’; moving through brown (‘Mini Blocky Chocolate’) to more familiar reds, oranges, yellows and greens. The colour spectrum was echoed by Sea Spring Seeds, from whom I purchased a bag of chillies labelled ‘Russian Roulette’: I like to live dangerously! Here the variety and beauty of chillies (also Capsicum annuum) was illustrated with aplomb. A multi-coloured variety called ‘Fairy Lights’ grabbed my attention, as did ‘Tinkerbell’ with distinctive fruits the shape of a friar’s hat. These little chillies, stuffed with mincemeat and baked, would make perfect canapés.


Chilli 'Fairy Lights'
Chilli ‘Fairy Lights’


Nothing goes to waste at the Harvest Festival Show. When the doors close, all the fruit and vegetables go to an East London restaurant which uses up food that would otherwise go to landfill. The establishment’s chefs create top-notch dishes which are paid for on an ‘as you feel’ basis, ensuring everyone in the community can afford to dine together.


RHS London Harvest Festival, October 2016
Show-going stalwarts peruse the seasonal fare


As Britain’s longest leeks are sliced and sautéd, its mightiest marrows stuffed and seasoned, and prize pears peeled and poached, it’s time for me to pack my bags and head east …… far east.


The first prize winning fruit basket at this year's show
The first prize winning fruit basket at this year’s show









Categories: Flower Shows, Fruit and Veg, London

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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15 comments On "RHS London Harvest Festival 2016"

  1. Couldn’t get to the show this year so thanks for giving me a small insight and, more to the point, what I missed. I love this show and of course don’t always agree with the judges! Safe journeying to India and China – no doubt you will spoil us with some posts from far off lands.

  2. I really wish I’d gone now. Am kicking myself. I thought it would be another flower-style show. As for quinces, I have a Vranja and a patio Serbian Gold – they are such beautiful trees. The Vranja is to be persuaded into an open fan this winter. Hope you have a great trip.

    1. It’s such a good show for an urbanite like myself who can’t get out to the big country produce shows. I always feel transported to another time and place. Good to know you rate both those quince. I’ll let you know which I go for.

  3. Go the Davidsons! Oh this show looks so enticing and I am in love with ‘porky’ pumpkins with pretty rosettes! Maybe one day I will get there.

  4. I have Meechers Prolific quince and it is just that! I started harvesting quinces after three years and now produce enough jelly and membrillo to last more than a year. And the scent of the fruit is amazing.

  5. Always amazes me the enormous effort people go to to produce these wonderful fruits and veg. And makes me rather ashamed that I don’t! And thanks heavens nothing goes to waste.
    The quinces remind me of my mother who was a great jam and chutney maker. One year she made quince jelly that somehow turned out like spoonable toffee. We loved it.
    Enjoy your shopping trip – it sounds great but I imagine it’s probably quite exhausting.

  6. Had planned to go but didn’t make it either, so thanks for this report and lovely photos.
    Re those Russian quince varieties: mightily impressed with your spelling out the name of the “edible raw” variety (won’t even attempt myself 🙂 )!
    Have a safe and – though it is work and very busy – enjoyable trip to the Far East!

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