Getting the taste for home-grown produce
I spent a morning recently with a friend, wandering round her new garden. She's in her thirties and has just got the gardening bug, big time. That's the age it often happens, if it's going to happen at all. But why then? Is it a nesting instinct? A nurturing instinct?
She's the age I was when we moved to Dorset, but imperatives don't seem to have changed. She wants to grow fresh food and to have space for her children to leap about. She has a trampoline, though - which is harder to accommodate in a garden than a swing, which was all that we had to rig up.
"At least you've been saved from The Curse of the White Garden," I said as we sat on the grass together, looking at her recently planted patch of poppies and spurges, Siberian irises and alliums. Bold, brilliant colours. Fantastic plants, though there were not quite enough there for the second half of summer, as she will soon discover.
The White Garden was mostly Vita Sackville-West's fault and for a time, when I started to garden, I suffered from the unhealthy addiction to single-colour borders that afflicted many people who made the pilgrimage to Sissinghurst. It seems a simple idea in theory, but it is much more difficult to do than you imagine. So I was glad that the dreary stage of throwing off-white flowers into dirty-grey foliage had passed my friend by. She didn't have a flicker of interest in the idea. And she's right.
The vegetable patch was the first bit of the garden that my friend had sorted out and she was already finding that the time that she'd had to spend on that had cut down drastically the amount of time she had for the rest of the place.
I started our first garden in full weave-your-own-shoes mode. I felt compelled to grow every fruit and vegetable that had a chance of surviving in our soil. And I did. But this friend doesn't have the same kind of space, so she hasn't wasted any time, for instance, on growing onions. And why grow onions anyway? The taste of home-grown ones is exactly the same as shop-bought ones. You save very little money on the crop. I'd say the same of shallots, and for the same reason.
The crops that are the most worth growing are the ones that are expensive to buy (such as baby leaf salads and spinach), or those where the flavour of the home-grown produce is way beyond the level of anything you can buy in the shops. In the last category, tomatoes and sweetcorn come top of my list. Salads and tomatoes are both easily grown in pots, but you need to use big ones. Small pots dry out too fast and quickly run out of root room.
Joy Larkcom, the queen of vegetables, introduced the concept of cut-and-come-again salads to this country from her travels in France and Italy and it is one of the few real shifts there has been in ways of raising crops. Larkcom developed the first mixtures of salad leaves to be sold in this country, the kind of mix that the French call mesclun and the Italians misticanza. I've written before about my favourite mix, but I'm repeating the ingredients because it is well worth seeking out, or making up yourself.
I bought the first packet of this mix in France, where it is marketed by the seed firm Tezier (tezier-jardin.com). It's made up of two different sorts of lettuce (one a romaine type, the other a looseleaf) and three different kinds of chicory. Rocket and chervil provide the kicks. The chervil is the surprise, the unexpected ingredient that makes this mix exceptional. It's a ferny-looking herb with a very particular flavour. Think parsley with a whiff of aniseed.
I also like growing vegetables that you can turn into soups, because a home-made soup is the most reassuring comfort food ever invented. A good soup is one of the best standby items that you can have in a freezer and it's an easy way to keep up with crops such as peas, which tend to come all of a rush and which need to be picked at a certain stage, before they get hard and floury.
But any decent soup needs to start with a good stock, and for pea soup I favour ham stock. You can buy a ham hock for £1.50 and this will give stock enough for several soups. Start by frying a couple of mashed garlic cloves and about 150g of finely chopped onion in butter (50g should be enough). Season with pepper. Add 450-500g peas and cover with 850ml of the stock. Bring the pot to a simmer and cook the peas gently for five or six minutes. Add a couple of tablespoons of chopped coriander, then purée the mixture with a hand-held whizzer, which is the best bit of kit to have arrived in our kitchen for years. When you serve the soup, you can dress it up with a bit more coriander and some fried cubes of pancetta.
My friend hadn't yet faced a glut of peas, because her children raided the rows in her garden even more regularly than the local pigeons. But there had been more successes than failures for her and I was glad of that. When you start to garden, you tend to dwell too much on the failures, thinking that everything that goes wrong must be your fault. But she'd got beyond the stage of thinking there should be a book of rules (there isn't) and was planning an asparagus bed. Asparagus? That's serious gardening.