As I sit at my computer, with the wood burner bursting into life as morning logs are added to the preceding nights embers and snow swirls beyond my office window, garden guilt subsides for the first time this year.
From the warmth of my office, I have checked every gardener’s working calendar from Readers Digest to Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don to Sarah Raven, it’s official: I am allowed to stay indoors. It is not that I am a fair-weather gardener you understand, I have braved a few of the elements with the best of them, but this week has been too finger-numbingly cold to lift even a clutch of carrots let alone turn the compost, polish the spades or varnish my dibber. Gardening experts pointing out that winter chores are essential but not immediate, came as music to my ears.
It is fair to say that on inclement days I have felt it more constructive to remain indoors, Espresso coffee in hand, pursuing the vital aspects of research and development needed to maintain the new estate. Passing neighbours, still highly suspicious as to why I ever volunteered to be involved in the heady world of allotment culture, casually mention that they haven’t seen me that often in the garden recently. Do they not understand the virtues of good planning, can they not see, that a well-conceived vision replaces hours of menial toil? Well perhaps they were right in some respects, it hasn’t exactly been a breeze.
For me, the cataloguing of mistakes and the recording of intermittent successes is the focus just now. The column marked ‘What went wrong’ appears to have numerous entries, whilst the ‘Triumphs’ can be scanned a little quicker. Luck rather than judgement provided some delicious food over the past six months but the task in hand is to achieve culinary excitement in every single one of the next twelve months.
Two critical discoveries have dominated my education this past year, well three if you add that I may never be regarded as a competent smallholder, either at home or more publicly; down at my local pub. A glass or two at the bar still provides me with a bevy of critical opinions from all manner of sources. I even suggested to one vociferous local that he be recommended to the editor as my replacement, as his views of my frail gardening exertions, after downing his sixth pint, were bordering on the profound. He declined on account of his “computer being on the blink” and I “might as well carry on for now as he didn’t know when he would next get to Computer World”. Saw him last week at the supermarket, picking up a frozen vegetable Lasagne; I said nothing.
My meagre participation in the earth’s edible bounty, has created a bilateral approach to the planning of next year’s harvest. Although it sounds blindingly obvious, what to grow and how to cook now form the dual columns. The only minor change I intend to explore from the wealth of available gardening experience is to reverse the order. By which I mean, that the more competent I have become as a seasonal cook the more I have understood the type and volume of monthly provision my raised beds need to yield.
If one replaces the term crop with the term ingredient, the focus changes dramatically.
I knew at the outset that I did not possess the correct DNA to ever become a competent gardener. After only a few months it was clear that I do not have the skill set that I envy in others. It is not that I don’t aspire to feel like a natural out there, fork in hand, communing with the soil, it is just intelligent practice to understand one’s emotional limitations in order to minimise the inevitable heartbreak growing your own can provide. My horny hands of toil always looked in need of moisturiser I guess, I never fooled them down at the pub with my tales of rural integration. True, I did not get around to replacing my calfskin belt with a piece of gnarled twine and whilst my chiropractic centre got richer and my bank manager got poorer, I felt at the very least that my pastoral self was beginning to emerge, in spite of outward appearances.
But I did grow a lot of stuff and I did enjoy growing it. More importantly, it has fundamentally changed the way I cook and eat.
So although the garden has quietened down considerably and there is much less to undertake on the physical front, we still have vegetables to retrieve and recipes to explore. Not as much as I could have achieved perhaps, but next winter will be different. This is a time to decide what vegetables to retain, what were unnecessary and what new plants we need to swell the new and expansive demands of the kitchen.
One abandoned train of thought in my garden is the squirrel-like behaviour adopted by a few growers whilst planning their excess crop storage during late autumn. I vaguely remember my father at the end of the season wrapping apples and burying potatoes, hanging onions and laying out tomatoes. My mother in turn was lost within a swell of steam, frantically blanching for Britain, all in preparation for the solemn winter duties of burying dozens of plastic bags of assorted vegetables deep in the bowels of the chest freezer. Whether they all got used remains a mystery to me, but the cost of freezing kilograms of low value runner beans must surely out-way most gains achieved. I do remember that runner beans, relentlessly boiled, were a regular feature of every dinnertime on my infrequent visits to their Dorset cottage thereafter. My other concern was that my parents had omitted to tell their young son that World War 111 was about to commence and that food shortages were clearly imminent. Father in turn complained of rotted spuds, collapsed apples, mould-infested onions and during one memorable winter: exploding marrows. No, the presumption of over-wintering storage is definitely not on my agenda. On the other hand I have developed a renewed interest in chutneys, preserves and pickles and see more scope for them as additional winter ingredients rather than solely preserving an inconvenient surplus.
Next year must see a clearer plan for a genuine kitchen garden, planted carefully to enhance and fulfil each seasonal month, yet designed as much as one can, to avoid glut. With an eye on recipes and expanded cooking techniques to overcome wayward growth, the garden produce will be under less pressure, the cooking skills under more.
Think of grilled pork chop alone and a pig dies with little respect, think of intelligent cooking procedures to create meals from nose to tail and the whole beast becomes an esteemed food source. The same will be applied to the raised beds next year. All vegetable growth is an integral part of the year’s recipes and all recipes will govern planting choice. Not a single bean will inhabit the freezer, not a knobbly carrot cast into the wilderness.
No feast no famine it is hoped, but a consistent supply of ingredients turning the year into twelve, rather than four, individual seasons, to be celebrated as much on the plate as out in the garden.
It is true to say, looking back, that the simple harvest of peas was beyond me, and remedial action has been taken in the form of loo-roll inners being enthusiastically hoarded. A tip provided by a reader to fill the loo-rolls with potting compost, pop in the seeds and transpose the whole lot out into the garden when the shoots have climbed above the denture height of my resident mice, has been taken up with gratitude. Many more readers alerted me to preventative spraying against blight on the tomatoes, although my own personal jury is still out on this vexed issue. I did well with some types of new potatoes and realised the vast wealth of glorious recipes out there for the imaginative chef and the humble tuber. Later in the year I discovered the epicurean joys of butternut squash and marrow that had eluded me for so long. Beans in all forms, provided menus emanating from all parts of the world whilst a more comprehensive planting of many more varieties of onion and garlic is a must for 2011. My Chilli success will be strengthened, as will the staggered planting of late season root crops. The salad bed will be extended to almost hallowed supremacy allowing the provision of a dozen different salad leaves to cover at least eight months of healthy eating this time around. Herbs will be increased, as Thyme, Oregano and Tarragon were in greater demand as cooking became more expansive, whilst Basil and Coriander will be treasured as their shop price increases dramatically.
I will plan for delightfully fresh, International spring dining from French radish to Chinese Pak Choi as early as it can be achieved, then onwards through to the dietary celebration of southern Europe over the summer months. This will be followed by a re-examination of warming British and Scandinavian cuisine as autumn approaches and a major review of creative winter fare to be decided almost immediately in readiness for next year.
In addition our loyal and productive flock of former workhouse chickens, rescued for the princely sum of a pound a beak, are in need of repatriation. They have ceased to lay and although by definition all are females, the pot awaits and Coq au Vin beckons. Their much happier lives and their resultant shared gifts to us, from egg to carcass, will I hope be seen as a bargain. They will be replaced by a select band of equally orphaned and stateless birds, well past their industrial best but yet to find a further few years happiness with us – only if they keep well away from my early sprouting crops that is.
Discussions are already underway with a local free-range pig farmer regarding the potential installation of two Saddlebacks, which may further animate part of the garden, provide welcome nutrients, essential rotation and eventually breakfast. I say discussions but I’ve yet to democratise the debate in our house. Put another way I have not told anybody yet but I am sure it will be warmly welcomed. Who could resist, after all?