Tuesday, 16 June 2015

the garden of earthly delights

And so we learn there's no return
Only journeys to depart on
Salt and dust, oil and rust
It's still the only garden

I'm no Adam, you're no Eve
Don't look back and never grieve
A wasted seed, a broken reed
It's what the poor man sets his heart on . . .

We never left the garden

Whatever qualities I may have, being a gardener isn't really one of them. I don't have green fingers, for sure. However, over the last few years I have begun to enjoy growing things to eat in my tiny garden more and more.

I always laugh when I see books or articles about small gardens. They still seem to think that a small garden is about the size of Rutland. Ours really is tiny, it's about thirty two feet by twenty (if that). Given its ridiculously small size we somehow manage to grow stuff in it as well as cook, entertain and - weather permitting - sit around soaking up the sun.

A few years ago - probably about ten - we actually attempted to run an allotment. That was a dismal failure by anyone's standards. Both of us being full time teachers with a family and my wife being on the Senior Management Team meant we had no time whatsoever to get up to there and spend the months of tpoil required to produce much worth talking about, let alone eating it. In fact, we failed so hilariously, we were just about to be kicked off of it by the council. We did manage to grow some potatoes and what started as courgettes. The potatoes were quite good, as I recall. However, the courgettes resembled the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers because we had left them for so long.

The dismal failure of that exercise was very disappointing but we have built up in a small way to provide some food that we really do use. I'm not talking The Good Life here of course! For the past ten or so years we have managed to produce a decent crop of tomatoes each year alongside some salad leaves and herbs. Last summer we did not buy any salad from a shop at all. Little Gem lettuces, rocket, chard and various leaves kept us supplied well throughout the summer and into early autumn. This year is beginning to look the same. This year we have nine tomato plants and another six to plant. The amount of french salad leaves, chard, rocket and sea purslane currently growing should see us well through the summer months ahead.

Alongside the above there are so many different herbs this year in pots and poked in to any available space that I've forgotten what I've planted where. I think I've actually got some sea kale growing but I can't remember where. Edible flowers like Borage and Nasturtiums are rapidly growing and we have a blackcurrant bush that seems quite prolific too. Because space is at a premium we probably should plan it all out but I have continued with my usual haphazard approach that the rest of my life seems to have bumbled along with that it hardly seems worth changing the habit of a lifetime for.

For many years I have been able to wander out of the back door and pick fresh herbs when I'm cooking - a small bay tree, an old gnarled rosemary bush that was replaced a year back and various
thyme plants have been constant culinary companions. This year the mint, sorrel, lavender and sage all seem quite robust. Sunday meals require regular wanderings out with a pair of scissors to snip a couple of bay leaves for a stew or some rosemary for the lamb or even thyme for the chicken.

When I think back to being a lad in Stevenage, the only herb that my parents ever grew was mint - there was always a fine patch outside the back door in our house in Four Acres. I really don't remember much else. I think my parents preferred flowers and a lawn. At least the mint sauce was always home made.

I sometimes joke about my mother's cooking. She was a pretty good cook really but I always wondered why she over-cooked joints of meat. Sunday meals often meant quite tough lamb or beef. I'm sure they would have been cheaper cuts but it took me quite a while as an adult to get into enjoying both cooking and eating them. Now, they are a pleasure to cook. I guess we have the plethora of celebrity cooks to thank for better knowledge of how to prepare food now. According to Michael Pollan Americans (and I guess the British too) have abandoned their kitchens at the same time that there has been a huge rise in tv celebrity chefs showing off food porn.

Most of the tv programmes about cooking are awful and I don't have much time for the bake-offs and Master Chef ones at all. Over the years I've enjoyed Keith Floyd and Nigel Slater. The latter is a fine writer. I've also continued to refer to the late Marguerite Patten although she hated sage for some reason. She was one of those post WWII writers that evidently changed Britain's cooking habits.

I took over the cooking (and shopping) quite a few years ago when my wife was becoming more and more bogged down in Management meetings and other important stuff. Nowadays, it's second nature. I make bread by hand, I can cook pretty well, even if I do say so myself, and being able to supplement what I churn out with some produce from our little garden makes me feel good about what I do. I spent most of last Sunday cooking or preparing food - homemade bread, guacamole, roasted beetroots and elderflower champagne were all made as well as the actual evening meal. Whilst I was pottering about the kitchen it occurred to me that this is exactly what I want to be doing when I retire.

As I am about to retire from the British education system next month I am very much looking forward to continuing my haphazard adventures in both small-scale gardening and cooking. Perhaps it's time to think about trying to run an allotment again . . .