Forcing is unseasonal. In a way. It’s also a manipulation of a plant’s natural instinct: a form of coercion. A root is coerced to grow by highly orchestrated growing environment that would never occur in nature. We think of the 19th century forcing industry - stalks reared in miles of Yorkshire sheds, heated with coal coming up from the mines and fertilised with the nitrogen-rich
‘shoddy’ or wool waste from the mills.
We seem to be about as far away as it gets from seasonal eating.
But this is only a partial view on a rich tradition which is about so much more than this.
The desire to grow food indoors over winter is part of our human nature. Once, winter meant hard times and when the ground froze over, there were no overseas gardens to turn to. Storage and root cellaring critically extended the edible life of a harvest but also – and this is the link with forcing – changed and augmented it. Storage is not static. Although the root was harvested, it continued to ‘grow’ in its new, subterranean, man-made chamber.
A carrot buried in sand in a cellar became sweeter (riper, in a sense) all the while its starches were left to convert into sugar. It was even coaxed – solely through the art of environment – to re-grow its greens using the energy stored in its root. This how the Victorians had beetroot tops, turnip tops, i.e fresh greens, in January. Known as clamping, it’s a largely forgotten technique – but it’s what links forcing into history.
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