Collaboracooking

It’s funny how you get inspired sometimes. We’ve grown some herb fennel this year, which has grown to about a Rob in a single season (1 Rob = a smidge under six foot). TLC decided the time had come to prune it. “Hang on to some of that,” I said. “I’ll do something with it.”

Which of course meant I had to do something with it. There was a pack of fish chunks in the freezer (sold as a fish pie mix) which would go admirably. So, the rough sketch of dinner started scribbling into being.

At dinnertime, then, I started with one of our (small, red) onions, and three cloves from a decent head of our garlic, a stick of celery, some past-their-best baby corns and at TLCs insistence, one of the house chillies, green and sparkling fresh. All finely chopped. That was fried off in a ping-pong ball sized lump of butter and a little olive oil.

When that panful was fragrant and sizzly, I chucked in whatever white wine was left in my glass at the time (guesstimate: just under half a glass), and a couple of tablespoons of creme fraiche. Once that was bubbling, the fish went in. The mix had white fish, salmon and smoked haddock in it, but anything seafoody would do. Prawns and scallops would be nice. About 300g is enough for 2. At the same time, I lobbed in a couple of good handfuls of chopped fennel, and about the same of parsley, as it’s been going nuts in a pot all summer and I have to keep using it.

I clapped a lid over the lot, and let it burble for five minutes or so until the fish was cooked, while I warmed up some soft ribbon noodles and yelled at TLC to get some knives and forks out.

Noodles on plates, followed by heaped ladlefuls of the fish stew. Lime wedges on the side to squeeze over at the table.

It was as you’d expect. Creamy, spicy, fishy, unctuous, hot, sweet, sour and utterly delicious. Most of the base flavours came out of the garden. I couldn’t be happier with this one. It tasted French Indo-Chinese, with the chilli creaminess playing with the delicacy of the herbs.

And it was all TLC’s idea.

Festivale

Earl’s Court is home this week to The Great British Beer Festival, making it the one time in the year that it’s actually acceptable to drink round there. Beer festivals are enormous fun, and if you play it right you can get nicely sozzed while still keeping hold of the niceties of social behaviour. Here are the tips that I and my partners in ale, the Beeranauts, have come up with over the years.

1) Food. As important as a beer glass. There’s a mass of food stalls in the central area, and you can even get a salad if you’re some kind of girly wuss. I would recommend a decent cooked breakfast before you even start. There are plenty of cafes and pubs that open early to serve food on the Earl’s Court Road. Don’t enter the Exhibition Hall without a well and truly lined stomach.

2) Get your bearings. The programme is vital to planning out your day. It tells you plenty about all the beer on offer, the itinerary of bands on the music stage, and where you can find the award-winners. If you’re a bit of a ticker like me, this is essential. Also, if you’re a civilised type, now’s the time to find a table and set camp for the day. We tend not to, which leads to tired legs after a few hours. Some people brought fold-out picnic chairs this year, which seems like a smart idea.

3) Freebies. Keep your eyes open. The Bombardier stand was giving away free t-shirts, and beer mats and other goodies are always up for grabs. Plenty of good merchandising at curiously affordable prices here as well. Don’t just be thinking all your money for the day is going on beer.

4) The half-in-a-pint-glass trick. This has served us well. The first thing you do once you’re in the hall is to buy a glass, £3 deposit, a nice souvenir for the day. It comes in pint, half and third sizes. The Beeranauts always buy pint glasses, and order halves. This way, you can fit in more brews through the day. More importantly, the volunteers behind the pumps always err on  the generous side on servings. You always get a bit more than a half, which can add up to almost a full pint over the course of a day.

5) Keep an eye on your glass. If you don’t, some thieving tyke will have it away. That means you have to spend out another £3 if you want to keep going. This happened to me at the end of the day, which I would like to think is the action of some higher power telling me that I needed to stop drinking, and that I didn’t need another commerative pint glass. Shame though. I was enjoying that cider.

6) People-watch. All human life is here, and it’s all getting nicely tweaked on the finest ales known to man. With a camera, or even a notebook and pen, the artist has character material to last for years. The Beeranaut’s personal favourite was the guy in the greasy leather stetson, body warmer and sand-camo combat strides, with no shirt and a wild spill of white hair. King Of The Show. Also, don’t assume this is a man-only thing. Plenty of girls at the show, and they seemed to be on the dark ales too.

7) Move outside your comfort zone. You will never get another opportunity to try different and interesting beers from all over the globe, so try a glass of something you would’t normally. Lager drinkers, try a stout. Bitter boys, get a perry down you. If you think all American beer is watery froth, there’s a stall full of craft brewers ready to prove you wrong with some of the strongest ales of the show. My tastes have changed radically over the past year or so, and that’s down to trying and enjoying new stuff at beerfests in Battersea, Reading and Earl’s Court.

8. Do the day shift. The halls get intolerably crowded in the evenings, so if you can, do a day shift and leave early. I tend to find six hours does it for me anyway, so we’re normally done and heading home by 6ish. Can’t say that I’m really good for anything when I get back, but at least I’m normally in one piece, and happy after a fun, woozy day out.

My recommendations? Well, the Beeranauts did a tour of each other’s home counties, which led to some interesting choices. The treat for us was probably Wood’s Shropshire Lass, which was recommended as a good alternative to the 2010 Champion Ale, Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale. But I also loved Tunnel’s Late OTT from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and the dark and complex Felstar Crix Forest from the heart of Essex. I don’t think we had a duff beer all day.

I tweeted everything I drank, so you can see the full list by checking out the hashtag #gbbfun.

Me and Rev Sherlock in our Beer Pride t-shirts

Food Hell

Let’s start with a song, shall we?

Amanda Palmer has, I think, nailed the experience of food hate. We all have one. That foodstuff that you don’t just dislike (sprouts), or refuse to have on your plate (sprouts) but will actively force you out of the room. Marmite have built an entire advertising strategy out of this, positioning their product as one that neatly divides the nation. I fall into the hater camp, I’m afraid. I will, on occasion, use it in a stew or casserole to give some of the deep, rich umami tang for which it’s rightly known. But spreading it on toast seems such a ridiculous concept to me. You may as well dollop gravy browning on your morning slice. Or a turd.

Marmite are now trying it on a bit, I think, by launching the Marmite Bar. This is a cereal bar, one of those sticky, oaty slabs that can sometimes do the job if you’re up late and don’t have time to put milk onto a bowl of cereal in the morning. Most cereal bars have some manner of fruit in them to lighten the mix. Marmite Bars, and my gorge is actively rising as I write this, remove the fruit, and replace it it with Marmite. It’s a savoury cereal bar. Just what you need to smack your tonsils awake on a Tuesday morning. It’s a product that Marmite are actually pitching as a dare. “Have we gone too far?”, the posters cry. It’s a bold move, but I can see it backfiring. I know I’m not the target market (probably the opposite, in fact) but I can’t see anyone wanting to buy the horrid things. I have trouble conjuring up a more revolting prospect.

Oh, who am I kidding? Let’s talk about my own personal food hell.

(Digression. I’m a fan of the BBC cookery show Saturday Kitchen Live, which shows archive food shows alongside live cookery skits and a spectacularly pointless omelette race. One silly feature is Food Heaven, Food Hell, in which the token celebrity of the day is quizzed on their favourite and least favourite food, and then subjected to a vote in which they will eat a dish based on either. No-one yet has dared to pull the bullshit alarm on this trite concept:

“So, (B-list celebrity with something to plug) , what is your Food Hell?”
“Well, (avuncular host) , my Food Hell is prawns.”
“Oh, really? (initiate flirt/banter mode, dependent on gender of guest) And why, pray tell, is that?”
“Because I’m violently allergic to them, and if I eat one I will go into toxic shock and die.”

It’d be nice to see that once. Don’t you think?)

Aaaanyway. My food hell. The humble egg is a cornerstone of world cuisine, a foodstuff as versatile as it is loved. Millions of people go to work on one every morning. They are cheap, nutritious and the foundation of the Great British Full English Breakfast.

Put a fried or lightly scrambled egg in front of me, and I will run out of the door. My lovely wife, my deary darling, will sometimes indulge in a breakfast of scrambled eggs soused in ketchup, which will send me to the bottom of the garden with my hand clamped firmly over my mouth. I have a friend that will send me photos of any particularly runny fried egg sandwiches he manages to get hold of. I’m not kidding here, the thought of it is making me feel a bit sick.

It’s partially a texture thing, partially a smell thing. I do have a problem with gelid foods, which I think is a common problem with Food Hell in general. Many people I know will cite tomatoes or mushrooms in their spit list, because of the squishy, half-set texture. It’s notable, I think, that I don’t have a problem with eggs per se. I’ll happily cook with them. I make a mean pancake, will happily eat a quiche or even a Spanish omelette, and will even whip a just cracked egg into fried rice. But the concept of runny yolk does not fit well in my gut. And I honestly have no idea where it’s come from. As far as I know, I have always hated eggs. There must be a memory I’ve blanked out somewhere, of a particularly runny soft-boiled egg and soldiers that just flipped a switch in my tiny head. In his memoir Toast, Nigel Slater writes of how his mother’s insistence of forcing him to eat runny egg put him off them for life. I think I’m the same.

This made me a particularly miserable vegetarian, of course. In fact, it was eggs that turned me away from the righteous path. On a driving holiday through France, it soon became clear that the only thing that was available for salad-huggers like me and TLC was omelettes. Even the salads had hard-boiled egg in them, which tainted them completely. I tried to man up, and ordered a cheese omelette one night. I managed one bite, and that tiny morsel ended up back on the plate. I spent a week eating bread and cheese, and the occasional bowl of frites. It was horrible.

Finally, on the last night of the trip, I cracked. We went to a seafood restaurant in Le Havre, and I ate cod with puy lentils. It was a magnificent, Proustian moment. I can still taste the meal now. It was back down the slippery slope for me from there. I lasted barely a year as a vegequarian, and am now a rabid, unapologetic carnivore.

Some years after that trip TLC and I went to Paris, and found a decent vegetarian restaurant. it was fantastic. The food was simple, pure and delicious. If there had been more places like that in Brittany in the spring of 1992, I’d probably still be a courgette-muncher today. (I still am, but not exclusively.)

So, let me know, Readership. I’m intrigued. What foods really don’t do it for you? Are you a Marmite lover or a hater? More to the point: would you eat a Marmite Bar?

Hail To The Ale

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Ah, beer. Stuff of life. One of the first foods. Made from pretty much the same simple ingredients as bread, and it’s been with us for just as long. Grains, yeast, flavourings and time. That’s all there is to it. There is an argument in ecumenical circles that if Jesus Christ truly was of the working-class, then he would never have touched wine, and the Blood of Christ at Holy Communion should be a nice drop of IPA instead.

My enthusiasm for the holy brew knows no boundaries. A decent beer is one of life’s finest ingredients. It speaks to me of community, of friendship, of good times. Too much will give you problems, but that is an argument that can be levelled at … well, anything. If I was forced to choose, I mean, really gun-to-the-head-of-a-loved-one choose, I believe I would rather drink beer than anything else. OK, it’s not going to replace the first cup of tea in the morning, or the flat white served with a smile from one of the AMT girls at Reading station, but on the whole… Well, let’s just say I look at historical records that tell us that everyone drank beer instead of water up until the mid-nineteenth century because it was safer, and wish vaguely that I was a time-traveller.

Before this turns into the confessions of an alcoholic, a little bit of focus. My love of the saintly sup has turned me into an activist. I am a member of CAMRA, and have signed petitions and written to my local MP regarding the perilous state of Britain’s pubs. The pub should be a cornerstone of British society, up there with the red phone box and the double-decker bus.

Of course, both of those are extinct, and the humble British boozer is going the same way. A pub a day is closing. These are terrible times for a vital part of English culture, and I try in my little way to support and encourage the public house and everything about it.

Which leads to my arrival at Clapham Junction yesterday, to meet some friends and enjoy the Battersea Beer Festival. This was our second attempt. Last year we were unable to gain admittance, faced with massive queues that refused to subside even in the face of a vicious snowstorm blasting down Lavender Hill. That night we ended up in The Falcon on St John’s Hill, just down the way from the station. This is a beautiful pub-in-the-round, with a lovely long bar, a couple of snugs, pretty decent food and a fabulous selection of beers. We had our own mini-festival that night, and The Falcon seemed the ideal place for our little group to form before heading up to the BAC, home of the festival.

This was a very wise move. There was a CAMRA stall, and kegs had been set up in the back room to entice punters into trying some slightly more esoteric brews. That, along with the food that Nicholson’s pubs like the Falcon specialise in (very good pies and sausages, ideal for soaking up booze) meant that we headed up Lavender Hill in high spirits, and in the mood for more.

We got into the venue without problems, issues or any kind of a wait. A token entry fee and £2 dropped for a commemorative beer glass, and we were in.

Now, a word on the beer glasses. You buy one at the door, and hang onto it through the session. You can buy half and pint glasses, and these are oversized and lined in third, half and pint measures. We always drink halves in beer festivals. It seems pointless to bloat out with a full pint of something you might not like. Plus with halves, you get to try more over the course of a session. One trick is to order halves in a pint glass. Inevitably, you will get more than the measure, especially as the day wears on and the worthies behind the bar, volunteers and enthusiasts all, become more and more tipsy and loose-wristed at the kegs. For the most part, we were getting tooths (two-thirds of a pint) for the price of a half. At £1.50ish a shot, this represents VERY GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY.

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The venue is pretty impressive. The Great Hall at the BAC is a big old woody church hall, complete with high stained glass windows, and the booming echo of a decently crafted acoustic. That room, which must have been fifty feet long, is filled with a central, double-sided bar stacked high with kegs. By 6pm, that room will be stuffed to the gills with drinkers of all shapes, sizes and levels of beardiness. And that’s just the girls, kathudTISH.

I’m always surprised by how many females of the lady-type persuasion turn up to these gigs. Although the day is normally heavy on rotund hairy gentlemen of a certain age and the occasional dashing handsome interloper such as me and my crew, come hometime and whoops look out, it’s like a Boots advert in the Great Hall. Here come the girls, and they’re all after a half of insanely strong Belgian lambic, or a decent porter. They go for the strong dark stuff, ales with flavour, body and character. None of your cheap lager here. These are classy birds. Although they’d whop you one for telling them that. I am far too much of a gent/coward to try.

Eventually, we felt the urge for something different, and ventured downstairs to the cider and perry hall. This, we decide later, was a Big Mistake. The room is dingy and airless, and entirely populated by twats in stupid hats, urging each other on to ever more foolish feats of stunt alcoholism to the strains of (this is the godshonest truth) the refrain of Gary Glitter’s You Wanna Be In My Gang. We have a glass of something (Newton’s Hereford Perry, very nice) and do a runner before things turn nasty. C’mon, C’mon? No, f’anks.

After that, we took the advice of the marvellous Ciaran, who lives just round the corner from the BAC, and headed to another pub, The Eagle. This regularly wins awards, and no wonder. It’s a warm, cosy place, filled with locals, and the beer is clearly sourced, stored and served with care and pride. It’s a perfect place to finish the evening before the long drag home, and the pint of Loddon Hoppit that I sip is a clarion call back to the West. But I shall return.

So, recommendations. The Twitter stream I generated through the day is here. Yes, I tweeted the beer I drank. I’m 21st century, me. The hit of the fest for me was Black Hole Brewery’s RED DWARF, an unbelievably moreish toffee-flavoured treat. I was generally in the mood for milds, porters, stouts and other dark beers, so the list is by definition skewed that way. The Falcon is here. I’m not telling you where the Eagle is. I’d like to keep that one a little bit secret.

Food For Thought

I love flicking through cookery books. I’m a complete sucker for them, always have been. I’m a curious cook (that is, someone that enjoys playing and investigating in the kitchen, not someone that’s a bit odd when he puts on an apron (although that accusation has also been quite fairly laid in front of me. That does not necessarily mean I have to eat it)). I believe in reading round the subject. Post-austerity cookery books of the 50’s are especially good value, their garish colour schemes never quite disguising the fact that the lovingly photographed spam fritter is just that, and therefore in-flippin-edible.

I enjoy cookery books that bring something more than recipes to the table. My enthusiasm for Nigel Slater knows no bounds, and it’s not just because his relaxed and improvisational way with a meal perfectly suits my own. He brings so much of himself to the page that the process of cooking becomes more… conversational, I suppose. Plus, he has a way of slipping dirty jokes and innuendo into the recipes, in a way that just adds a certain naughty charm to proceedings. Anyone that doesn’t believe that cooking is all about sex should try reading some of his dessert ideas.

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is another book that I go back to time and again for inspiration, although it doesn’t actually contain any recipes at all. Rather, it’s the passion and the attitude that he slathers across the page that I sometimes crave. Part autobiography, part cautionary tale (it is thanks to Bourdain that I will never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday), part business plan, part manifesto – all great. He writes crime books too, with the same elan and skill. The book was transferred to a lacklustre TV show, that failed in my mind because there wasn’t half enough Bourdain in it. His greedy enthusiasm for everything edible renders the book almost lickably good.

However, if cornered, my favourite food book comes from the mighty, and sadly missed, Keith Floyd. He was the first TV chef I took seriously, and certainly the one that inspired me to cook with a glass in hand. One for the pot, one for me. His American Pie is an extraordinary travelogue. Floyd tears across the States in a big red Caddy with a crazy blonde PA in tow telling a story that is in equal parts crazed, elegiac, evocative and drop-the-book funny. It’s a bonus that it just happens to have an addendum filled with some extraordinarily good recipes. I will admit to not being brave enough to try to make chitlins or collard greens his way (offal and I have never seen eye to orifice) but his small section on the great American slumgullion has informed my cooking from it’s formative stages. Again, it’s that slightly experimental approach. I like all these ingredients. Let’s chuck ’em all in a pan together, and see what comes out. It’s worked so far. Well, I haven’t poisoned anyone yet…

I’ve found a couple of pieces online recently that have nourished me in a similar way. Roger Ebert, the famed movie critic, has posted a wonderful piece on his recollections of food. It’s a piece that’s Proustian in it’s detail, and heartbreaking in it’s central conceit – following a series of operations, Ebert can no longer eat or drink. The memory of food is all he has left. Although there is a wonderful moment where he talks the doctors into putting some coke into his IV…

Then there’s this, from Stuart Ian Burns, AKA Feeling Listless. Slipped into the middle of his musings on frozen pizza and Costco steak, there’s a moment where he talks about a Pan du Chocolat he ate …well, half-ate, at the Musee d’Orsay Café in Paris. It’s beautiful and frankly … heartbreaking.

There’s plenty more food for the soul out there. Any suggestions?

Advice from a (very) reluctant gardener

I spent most of the last post regaling you with tales of my laziness and incompetence in the garden. So you’re probably wondering where the hell I get off in offering any sort of advice. Apart from “Don’t listen to a word this man says.” But I believe that scars can be lessons, and that you learn from your mistakes.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, I’d like to present you with my thoughts, random and twisted as they are, on the gentle art of food production. Or How Not To Fuck Up, The Rob Way.

1. SALAD.

You can’t go wrong with salad, really. It’s redonkuously simple to raise from seed, takes no time at all to grow, and just keeps coming back. In fact, along with bastard nettles, salad has led me to the greatest appreciation of the tenacity and vigour of plant life. Short of dumping a Bhopal worth of toxic nasties onto it, it’ll keep on coming.

A packet of mixed varieties of the kind of interesting leaves that will set you back three quid per pillow pack in Tesco can be had for a pittance, or free if you keep your eye on the gardening mags for cover-mounts. Open pack, scatter a pinch of seeds in a pot of fresh compost, water, leave, wait two weeks. Bingo. Gourmet salad that will keep coming up after several pickings, but if you scatter another pinch of seeds into the same pot every couple of weeks that, my friends, is salad for the summer.

Bear in mind though, that this needs a careful wash and a pick over before serving. And you might want to keep an eye out for stray nasties. Allow me to illustrate:

Things I have found in my salad pot while harvesting for dinner:

a) animal faeces

b) wormy slug things

c) nettles

A subset:

Things a thorough wash will remove from your carefully selected leaves:

a) animal faeces

And another:

Things I have fished out of salad moments before serving it to guests:

c) nettles

Go ahead, do the maths. I can wait.

2. WEEDS WILL SUCK OUT ANY JOY YOU FIND IN GARDENING

Some cooks, notably Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall, are vocal in their support of the nutritional benefits and flavour of nettles. I am of the opinion that the vile toxin in this most evil of plants has percolated into his brain and is forcing him to do it’s bidding.

He has become a slave to the pernicious weed, and he wants us to come along with him to his happy little plant utopia. I know different. I have seen what these things look like. I know what these things can do. I have grabbed for something that looks like wild rocket, and come up with a bouquet of barbed wire that literally had me crying with pain.

Believe me, when you’ve pulled out a tap root as tall as you are, and still not be certain that you’ve got the whole thing, then you know that you are facing an enemy that deserves both your respect and your utter, unswerving emnity. It’s like the Day Of The Triffids out there, people, and if you’re unprepared the evil stingy little bastards will have you.

I have been known to extol the use of of napalm at the copse end. Like Ripley says, it’s the only way to be sure.

Right. Sorry. Where was I again?

Oh yeah. Nettle soup. Don’t do it. Your humanity will thank you.

3. WHEN IT COMES TO GARDENING OPINIONS, LIKE ARSEHOLES, ARE EVERYWHERE. NO WAIT THAT’S NOT QUITE RIGHT.

I guess this is the point where you’d be justifed in yelling at me. Oh poor Rob, boo hoo hoo, look at me with my acres of land that gives me mild backache and and a thin excuse to wallow in undeserved existential angst. Some of us, that is, most of us, have to make do with the sort of postage stamp plot you gleefully walked away from in 2004, if we even have a patch of ground to hang a back door from. We don’t get the option of overwhelming ourselves with a horticultural excess, thank you very much Alan Titchmarsh, so less of the smuggery, you patronising git.

Which is fair enough. My woes are insignificant, and are born from a wealth of opportunity and space in which I could make my mistakes. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. In fact I am the opposite. I am the sort of bumbling idiot that would make a rank amateur look like Monty Don, so I once again advise you to approach any advice I’m offering as hard-won, covered in bruises and mud, and to be taken with a heaped double handful of Maldon’s finest.

I do have a point here, believe it or don’t. If you have any kind of interest in throwing seeds into dirt and gnawing on the leafy results, then there is a shedful of advice and info out there which is maddeningly patronising and wildly contradictory.

For example. There’s a strong argument that one should grow the kind of crops that would be difficult or expensive to source in the shops. Kohl rabi, to name one. Cardoon. Celariac.

Which makes sense, until you’re faced with a bed full of kohl rabi, cardoon and celeriac and you realise that a) you have no idea what to do with it and b) no-one you know, including you, can eat the rank stuff. Seriously. Cardoon is a more fibrous, less tasty form of celery. Celeriac is like a turnip crossed with a football, in both appearance and flavour. Kohl rabi … fuck knows. Not a clue. Steam it until it goes gluey, then use it to plaster a wall for all I know. Or care.

So, yes, it may seem blatantly bloody obvious, and I can feel you winding up for another rant, but listen. Here’s my handful of change. Just grow what you like to eat. Root crops for definate. You can grow carrots and cabbage in a bucket if you have the slightest bit of outdoor space. Spuds can go in a planter, and even if you just grow newies it’s worth it. There’s a real difference in flavour if a new potato lands on your plate within an hour or so of coming out of the dirt.

And of course, tomatoes and chilis can be house plants as long as you’re vigilant and cruel with the foliage.

Now, to prove the point I made above, I’m going to merrily go ahead and contradict myself.

It’s worth growing exotic salads, as they’re quick to grow and easy to bin once you discover that mizuna isn’t your thing (heathen. It’s delicious.) And if you do have the space, it’s worth maybe trying one thing you wouldn’t usually pick up from Sainsbury’s. I developed a liking for courgettes after planting a couple on a whim, and there’s a plant in my small veg patch now that I’ve just started to crop from. Courgette fritters are the best, trust me.

But if you’ve only got counter or sill space then I SWEAR TO GOD YOU’RE AN IDIOT IF THERE AREN’T HERB PLANTS TAKING UP SOME OF IT. Attractive, fragrant, multiple uses, and may I once again stress, dirt in a pot, seeds, water, sunlight, bit of time, DONE. If you’re buying pot herbs or worse still, packets of cut herbs from Morrison’s, then you’re a mug. Unless your idea of herbs is that green confetti that you get out of a Schwartz pot. In which case just … go away. Really. Just go away.

A pot each of basil, thyme, rosemary and parsley will set you up as the kind of person that understands the function of a kitchen, that it’s not just a room to keep the microwave and kettle. And that, my friend, makes you the kind of person that is worth knowing, talking to, or snogging.

4. DO IT FOR A REASON.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along is that my whole reason for going out in the garden in the first place was to improve my skills as a cook. Fresher ingredients make for a better meal. I’ll admit to monomania when it comes to the subject. If I can’t eat it, it’s really not my kind of thing.

Flowers and shrubs are ok, I suppose, in a fragrant sheltery kind of a way, but they’re just kind of … there, really. Taking up valuable carrot-growing space. Food from the earth is where it’s at for me. It’s the motivation for me to pick up a spade, pull on my gardening pants and get out there.

At one point, I even flirted with the idea of following the example of our next door neighbours and keeping chickens and a goat. Until I was quietly taken aside by my lovely wife.

“Rob,” she said, sitting me down and then sitting on me just to make sure I was listening. She may have wiggled a bit to really catch my attention. “You hate eggs, and you barely have the patience to look after a potato, let alone anything with a pulse. I’m not having the SWAT division of the RSPCA dropping in on us after you start running the animal equivalent of Aushwitz.”

She’s right, of course, curse every teeny tiny perfect inch of her. Vegetables very nearly got the better of me two years ago. That can’t happen again.

I now have one small plot, running courgette, butternut squash and cucumber plants. A couple of pots of chilis. A growbag with a couple of varieties of tomatoes. The aforementioned plethora of herbs and salad. And that’s it. Come the winter I’ll probably clear the ground and do cabbage, carrots and beetroot. Maybe some garlic and onion sets. Perhaps a planter of spuds when the new season seed potatoes arrive. But I’m keeping it at a proven acceptable level, and the ground clearance we worked so hard on means that the evil weeds should not present so much of a problem (ha ha famous last words).

I feel better about the copse end today than I have done in years. It feels like a place to relax, have a drink, and watch the vegetables grow.

And that, my patient, patient Readership, is what gardening is all about to me.

Confessions of a (very) reluctant gardener

It was all supposed to be so easy. We moved out of That London in 2004, ready to take on aspects of a new life. Clare was taking on a new job out in the throbbing everpulsating heart of Oxford’s Science Belt, I would begin the life of a Thames Valley Commuter. More importantly for the purposes of this piece, we were seriously upgrading our garden.

Our old place in Walthamstow was a typical two up two down end of terrace, snug, compact, with a garden that would blush with pride at being called postage-stamp sized. There was room for a couple of pots and an overenthusiastic gunnera. And us, if we sat close together and didn’t breathe too hard.

By comparison, the new place had a hundred and thirty feet to play with. There was a fish pond. There was a water feature. There was a vine-strewn pergola. There was another pond, which we found when we started getting the goddamn vine off the goddamn pergola.

And then there was the copse end. Backing onto a stand of trees owned by the local school, the last fifty feet had been used by the previous owner as the engine of a small market gardening enterprise. There was a ramshackle outbuilding, a greenhouse, and four big brick raised beds.

I looked at this bit, called bagsy on it, and began to plot my new life as a kitchen gardener. There was enough space to grow just about everything vegetable we could ever need, and the infrastructure was already there! It would be so simple. I started buying seeds, sets and bulbs and began to plant.

I was ahead of the curve when it came to the grow-your-own boom that is taking over gardening shows and magazines. I was growing spuds, knotting garlic and harvesting fresh salads a good few years before it became fashionable.

And I remain ahead of that curve now. While everyone else is building, I’ve spent the past few weeks tearing everything down. The greenhouse and outbuilding have gone. All but one of the beds has been torn up, and turf will soon be laid over where they once stood.

I’m starting again. And this time I’m doing it right.

It was fine for the first year or so. I started gently, opening up one bed at a time, planting the veg that I knew I would eat. Spuds, carrots, onions. Root crops that didn’t need much care or attention. The weather was good, the harvest was deeply satisfying. On several occasions, I was cooking and serving meals which had been 80% sourced from the beds.

I started to get ambitious, and that, Readership, is where the wheel started to come off the wheelbarrow. I opened up all four beds, and was growing a veritable cornucopia of veggie goodness. Sweetcorn, courgettes, tomatoes and chilis. Radish, cucumber, salads by the bowlful. And we started to come across a couple of problems.

First of all, as I commute to and from work in London, I spend twelve hours a day away from the house. I was getting less and less time to tend the plots, and increasingly, less inclination to do so. Weeds began to sneak into the beds, and I had to spend an increasing chunk of my weekends battling the nettles and bindweed. Weeding is no fun, and I began to resent, rather than enjoy the time I was spending at the copse end. It was tiring work, and as I began to put it off more and more, the unwelcome visitors began to take a firm grip. I was getting stung to bits and worn out every time I took a trip down the garden – a trip I was becoming increasingly disinclined to take.

Secondly, I was the victim of my own ambition. I had planted up enough food to feed a decent size vegetarian village, and was simply growing far more than we could eat. Even with donations to interested parties, a lot of what I grew bolted or rotted in the ground before it could get eaten. This, in addition to a couple of lousy summers, meant that I gradually stopped even going up past the garage to see what carnage was being wrought.

The results were pretty obvious. The copse end became a weed-clogged, gloomy nightmare. It was used as a location for the Sick Puppy film “The Gourmand”, and it suited perfectly. My bit of the garden had mutated from a landscape of hope and sustenance to the setting for a horror film.

(2:28 for the true horror).

Things had to change, and this year has been the year to do it. We came to the conclusion that things weren’t working, and for a very good reason. We were trying to adapt what was in place to our needs, rather than letting our needs dictate the shape of the grounds.

Also, we had known when we moved in that the sun ended up drenching the copse end in the afternoon. It was the perfect place to unwind after work with a beer, and being confronted with under-tended veg beds was not the nicest of views.

Also, I’m a workshy knob who’s not really that into gardening in the first place. There, I said it. I love the idea of gardening, planting stuff, eating the results. It’s all that tedious mucking around with dirt and spades in the middle that I can’t get to grips with. Yes, yes, I know, if you’re an organised gardener you can get your chores down to twenty minutes a day but even that small amount seems like a noisome intrusion into my plonked-in-front-of-a-laptop time.

Or, if I can just be slightly less tough on myself for a sec, the only spare time I get to fart around with hoes and sticks and watering cans are weekends, time that I kind of like to spend with my lovely wife not bloody working, thank you.

We have spent our free time this spring on clearance duties. The copse end has been restored to a tabula rasa, and this time we’re defining what goes onto it. We have, as the sainted Ellen Ripley would urge, nuked the site from orbit. I have made acquaintance with a sledgehammer. Anyone aware of my co-ordination issues should be cringing at that thought, but thus far I, and everyone within swinging range, remain surprisingly undamaged.

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We have cut down three trees, including the scary eucalyptus that was blocking the sun, while looming towards the house at a thirty-degree angle. That took one long Saturday, a day tainted with the distinct fear that at one point the bugger was going to land in next door’s garden, on top of their greenhouse. It didn’t, but it was a close call.

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We mused about remaking the outhouse into a summerhouse, before giving into the inevitable, realising it was half-rotten and rendering it down to firewood. We have had a lot of bonfires this year, each one a waypoint, a signal flare, an exorcism.

And there are bonuses. I have a shed now. I have a proper, honest to goodness shed. I have a firepit. A proper, marshmallow-burning firepit. We have turf to lay, a summerhouse to raise, lights to place. And then, Readership, we will have a piece of land that we can be proud to call our own.

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Coming up: Rob seems to think he can give advice about gardening, despite all the evidence to the contrary he’s just given.