The days are short and dark in London at this time of the year. Not cold, but wet. Very wet. And bleak, except for the occasional ray of sunshine. Apparently it’s the warmest, wettest winter since records started in 1910 (an average 4 degrees higher than usual) with many calling it “the new normal.”
In Tavistock and Russell Squares in Bloomsbury, drifts of daffodils are already in bloom and yesterday I saw the biggest bumble bee pollinating a flower in a nearby garden.
Rhubarb is also confused due to the late arrival of cold, frosty mornings. On the Welsh borders, asparagus spears are starting to sprout, plum trees are blossoming in Kent and almond trees are flowering in Yorkshire, all three months early.
Meanwhile at Borough Market, over on the other side of the Thames River, greengrocers sell tropical fruits such as soursops, pineapples, mangosteens, tamarillos and dragonfruit which seem at odds with the wintry days. Since 1998, bananas have overtaken apples as the best-selling fruit in the UK and over five billion bananas a year are consumed by the Brits. They travel thousands of kilometres to reach these shores, revealing the extent of today’s global trade.
Britain was once a major imperial power and well-heeled Brits became accustomed to having whatever took their fancy. The desire for new taste sensations in the form of exotic fruits and vegetables, spices, tea, coffee and cacao was once a driving force in their search for new colonies.
Everywhere I see pomegranates for sale, some for as little as 20 pence each, especially in north-east London around Islington where Turkish migrants congregate (other countries now colonise Britain rather than the other way round). I wonder how much the farmers who grew them were paid?
In London at this time of year most of the pomegranates come from Turkey, while others are imported from Spain.
You might have noticed that this regal fruit, with its little crown on top has become far more widely available over the past decade or so.
It’s not one to give away its secrets easily: it’s the glistening ruby seeds which are edible but you have to work hard to extract them. I’ve given some tips here about how to do this.
The renowned mystical poet, Rumi, who lived most of his life in in the Turkish town of Konya, has some advice on what to look for when shopping for pomegranates. In his poem, The Laughter of Pomegranates, he advises:
If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.
Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart…
I can’t say I’ve seen any cleft open in the shops here, but I have seen a few laughing pomegranates on trees in monastery gardens in Italy. As he says,
A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Like the fig, the pomegranate is one of the oldest fruits in cultivation, and as such is steeped in myths and legend.
Its sparkling grain-like seeds seem to have always captured the imagination.
In the Greek myth Zeus decides to give Persephone to Hades as his wife and make her “Queen of the Dead”. Demeter, Zeus’ wife and Goddess of agriculture, is thus separated from her daughter. As a result of Persephone’s abduction and rape, Demeter is full of anger and sadness and leaves Olympus to search for her daughter.
Caught between the gods and the mortal world, Demeter turns her wrath on both worlds, forsakes her role as guardian of the earth and causes wide-spread famine.
No flowers. No plants. No sunshine. When Hades carries Persephone down to the underworld, her mother curses the earth and everything stops growing.
Mother and daughter are finally reunited and the fertility of the earth is restored.
But before she is released, Persephone eats some pomegranate seeds. According to the myth, once you taste the fruit of the underworld, you can never fully escape it or leave it behind: you have to incorporate it into your life and transform your relationship with it. The story is an allegory of the dormancy of vegetable life during the winter and the promise of rebirth in spring.
As Alistair Clark points out in his paper Demeter’s Search for Persephone: From Antiquity to Tennyson,
“…of central importance to the story in all its iterations are the themes of separation, isolation, loss and displacement. In particular, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book V) both examine these concepts in a mythical framework – the former Greek, the latter Roman.”
According to Jungian psychologist James Hillman, it is in the underworld that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul’s cycles to those of nature.
Even today, Sephardic Jews set bowls of pomegranates on the table at New Year (Rosh Hashanah).
In her inspirational talk, The Heroine’s Journey, Canadian novelist Justine Musk says that for her, these seeds represent creativity: “acts of creation that grow out of darkness and pain, where new beginnings start.”
So next time you split open a pomegranate and are looking at those glorious jewel-like seeds inside, reflect for a moment on the myth and ponder its significance for today. Depending on which version of the myth you read, Persephone ate either three or six seeds and was doomed to spend one month in the underworld for every seed eaten, the consequence of which was the death of vegetation. Three to four seeds led to one barren season, six seeds to two barren seasons (half the year).
As I wander around the drizzly wet streets of London at the beginning of a new year, and see newspapers screaming Flood Warnings and more heavy rain predicted for the north-west, I think about the effects not just of climate change (now staring all of us in the face), but of the enormous quantity of fossil fuels required to transport all the goods to which we in the west have become accustomed. How does our expectation of year round availability of such fruits and vegetables affect the environment and our connection with nature and the seasons?
A recent report shows that more than half of the UK’s food and feed now comes from overseas.
The study, conducted by researchers from institutions including the University of Aberdeen, said: “Producing sufficient, healthy food for a growing world population amid a changing climate is a major challenge for the 21st century.”
As Clark points out:
“…an equally important lesson to be taken from the myth, and one which especially resonates with a modern audience, is the importance of the natural environment for humanity’s, and indeed the entire world’s, continued survival, highlighted by Demeter’s shrewd and cruel method of exacting revenge by depriving the world of its fertility.”