'I almost feel sorry for the courgettes," says Sarah McNally of McNally Family Farm in Balrickard in North County Dublin. "Everyone is so excited to see them at first, because they are the start of the real summer vegetables, but by now everyone wants the tomatoes and aubergines and the courgettes are a hard sell."
It's a sentiment that will resonate with GIYers around the country, as those courgettes keep on coming. Home-growers report bumper crops and vegetables that seem to morph from delicate, slender fingers into full-blown marrows overnight. But after the excitement of the first few, and a couple of courgette fritter meals (cookbook author Diana Henry posted a great recipe for a version with halloumi on her Instagram last week) what's to be done with them - and with the abundance of other seasonal vegetables to be picked up for a song at farmers' markets and farm shops all over the country?
The McNallys grow everything on their organic farm from seed - they are one of the only vegetable growers in Ireland to do so - and, as a consequence, predicting the scale of each crop is difficult.
"When you grow from seed, you never know how many will grow," says Sarah. "You could get a hundred or a thousand courgette plants. Pumpkins and cucumbers are also a bit of a lottery."
While there are occasional failures and disappointments on the McNallys' farm, gluts are a regular occurrence. And although some crops can be stored successfully - beetroots and pumpkins for example - others need to be used quickly or preserved if they are not to go to waste. Last week, the baskets at the farm shop were full of enormous kohlrabi and whopper cabbages, on sale for just a euro or two apiece, both being snapped up by savvy shoppers planning to head home for an afternoon of pickling and fermenting.
Right now, though, it's the courgettes that are testing Sarah's imagination.
"We always have too many courgettes," says Sarah. "But there's no question of allowing them to go to waste, so we have to come up with ways to use them."
Sarah and her business partner, Liadain Kaminska run the Market Kitchen food stall which is on hiatus at the moment, but would otherwise be found in Dublin's Temple Bar market on Saturdays, and at festivals up and down the country. As its name suggests, the menu at the Market Kitchen is sourced entirely from produce sold at the market, with much of it coming from the McNally family's own stall.
"Jenny [McNally, Sarah's mother] always gets me to use up whatever there is too much of, before we can have the 'nice' vegetables," explains Sarah. So over the years she has become a dab hand at coming up with recipes to deal with seasonal abundance, some of which she is now using at the farm's café, where the veggie sandwich of the day might feature grilled courgettes or mamaganoush - "I take out the seeds to make them less watery, blister them on the grill and blitz them with either raw or roast garlic, tahini, salt, loads of basil and lemon; it's like babaganoush, except with courgettes rather than aubergines" - and the courgette muffins baked by Sarah's sister, Aoife, are a big hit with customers. Despite the quantity of courgettes that she has to tackle, Sarah says her favourite snack at the moment is "fried courgettes on buttery toast with salt".
Sarah first became interested in cooking as a teenager.
"Learning how to cook got me out of the farm work, the 'hands and knees' weeding that I hated," she says. "When I started trying to figure out how to pickle, Jenny always gave me cucumbers or courgettes and said that when I had dealt with them successfully I could try other things. I like kitchen work but there is a lack of variety to preserving - slicing courgettes for hours is not fun. So I don't overly enjoy the process but I do like the 'no waste' aspect of it, and the fact that in a couple of days you could have a couple of hundred jars is quite satisfying. I find I work better if I am told to use a particular vegetable rather than having too much choice. Our cucumber pickle [for sale in the farm shop] is a 'quick' relish/pickle using a simple solution of vinegar, sugar and salt with spices that can be eaten straight away, rather than something that involves a more complex process of fermentation.
"One of the biggest challenges that we face is what to do with a glut of herbs, but I use them to make zhug [a Yemeni hot sauce], chimichurri and various pestos, which bring something different to sandwiches. I wouldn't say that I am passionate about preserving, it's more about being pragmatic and practising what I preach than being an evangelist about the health benefits of fermented foods."
Although the McNallys' tomato crop is at its peak right now, they sell out each week and there are none left needing to be preserved. But when there are too many, Sarah either makes a simple chutney or slow-roasts them overnight with oil, salt, balsamic vinegar, bay leaves or whatever herbs she has to hand at 80/100oC, before transferring them to a sterilised jar to cool before sealing.
"They are great in sandwiches and for sauces," she said, "like a burst of summer in the middle of the winter."
With many of their restaurant customers currently closed or needing less produce than usual, the McNallys are having to come up with new ways of using some of the more unusual crops that they grow.
"The other day we got pork belly from our neighbours at Clonmanny Farm and my sister Niamh cooked it with a salsa verde of padron peppers and tomatillos - it was the best sauce ever," says Sarah.
Chef Cuan Greene started to learn about fermentation and preservation when he worked at Noma in Copenhagen.
"When lockdown happened, I was concerned about food waste," he says. "One of the suppliers I work with, Dave Heffernan of Little Cress microgreens, was left with two poly-tunnels full of tiny plants that nobody had any use for, with all the restaurants closed, so I arranged to bring them to the community garden in Reuben Street in Dublin 8 near where I live and put them in the ground. Now they are thriving and reaching maturity. It started a thought process, and I decided that I would like to start helping growers with fermentation, so I did some work with Drummond House in County Louth where they grow garlic and also with Ryans, who grow amazing rhubarb in Oldtown, in North County Dublin. At Castleruddery I preserved 150 globe artichokes. That was a terrible idea, it was a huge amount of work!
"For me fermenting and preserving is not just a trend, I really believe in it and if I can help make it part of our culture in Ireland by spreading the word and knowledge then I'm happy to do that, people can message me on Instagram @cuangreene. I see it as a way of giving back to the community."
Cuan suggests that anyone who wants to get into fermentation pick up a copy of what's considered to be the bible, The Art of Fermentation by the guru, Sandor Katz (aka Sandor Kraut), a promoter of the health benefits of eating fermented foods, although Cuan says that, for him, it's more about the flavour and saving crops than gut health.
"Lots of things can be preserved," he says. "I'm still a novice - I certainly don't consider myself an expert - but I have less failure now than I used to. Failure is part and parcel of preserving - there is nothing wrong with getting it wrong. My parents have some apple trees in their garden and this year my dad and I are going to try and make cider. We're going to bring them to a friend with a cider press and see how we get on. I don't know whether it's going to work but we'll give it a go."