VALE, Channel Islands — Two friends and I were visiting the island of Guernsey recently, spending a sunny March morning looking for a Neolithic burial mound.
Well, that’s what we were trying to do. We were actually sitting at a bus stop near the little town of Vale, waiting for the next bus after our previous driver had told us she didn’t know where the burial mound was, but the next driver would.
And of course the bus was late.
While we sat there kicking our legs and twiddling our thumbs in the sunshine, we noticed several cars pulling up to a group of boxes or hutches across the street from the bus stop. We’d been by this stretch of road before on an earlier loop around the island, so I knew the boxes served as a roadside vegetable stand, but, concerned about missing our bus, I hadn’t tried to investigate.
Now that our bus was obviously late, however, I ran across the road to take a closer look.
Though small in size at 5 miles by 3 miles, Guernsey has long been a big grower of fruits and vegetables. Grapes were the island’s first commercial crop, according to Guernsey’s tourism website, but were quickly surpassed by tomatoes in the late 1800s when Europeans finally discovered the fruit wasn’t poisonous like nightshade and actually made for very good eating.
The island’s website describes the tomato industry’s history:
“They finally eclipsed grapes and went on to cover 1,000 acres of the island in the late 1950s.Tomatoes were exported principally to England in wicker baskets, lined with colored tissue paper to denote the different grades of the tomatoes. Grading and packing was done by hand for many years. In the late 1960s nearly half a billion tomatoes were picked and exported to England. Each one of those had to be handpicked, packed and shipped out. With rising oil prices, the cost of production increased and it became cheaper to import tomatoes into the UK from Holland. It was the start of the decline of the industry and not long before many greenhouses lay derelict around the island.”
We’d seen a lot of these larger glass greenhouses earlier in the day, and I’d marveled that almost every home seemed to have a little greenhouse in the back garden. While several seemed to house plants of some kind, others now sheltered only rusty old cars.
Though Guernsey’s grape and tomato export industries died out, home gardening is still popular among the islanders, and little “hedge veg” stands like the ones across from our bus stop dot the island. They operate on the honor system, with prices posted by the goods and a jar or box for customers to leave their payments in.
Although flowers were in full bloom during our visit, it was still late winter, so there wasn’t a wide variety of produce on offer in the hedge veg stalls. Still, in the first two there were bags of chubby carrots, huge onions and tomatoes, European cucumbers, potatoes and fine-looking little cabbages, along with bouquets of cut flowers and cartons of eggs.
And then there was the third stall, with “Fresh Local Veg” painted on the side and a big sign with “RADISH” tacked on the front. Inside was a shallow pan of water holding five bunches of ruby-red radishes.
Though I hadn’t planned to do more than take pictures of the vegetables, I couldn’t resist buying a bunch. After all, you need vegetables even when you’re on vacation.
I plopped my money into the jar (giving the grower a little more than the posted £1.20 price since I hadn’t yet gotten used to the English coin system) and ran back across the road to my friends, gleefully clutching my bunch of radishes.
Though not as excited by the sight of vegetables as I was, my friends — one of whom doesn’t usually care for radishes — pronounced them very good later that afternoon as we ate our lunch by the side of the road at yet another bus stop.
Our late bus eventually came and we found the grave mound without further misadventure, but I was grateful that our unanticipated delay had also given me the opportunity to take a closer look at a part of the island’s culture and produce.
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