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.

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How To Spoil Your Appetite In One Easy Step

Let’s get the apologia out of the way first. The London Street Brasserie in Reading is one of my favourite restaurants. Full stop. The service and food has always been impeccable, and I have never walked away from the place feeling less than deeply satisfied. I can recommend the place heartily.

Trouble is, I’m not here to review the restaurant. I’m here to show you the advertising hoarding that’s just gone up on my route into work for the place. Now, let me ask a simple question. Would you be more or less likely to go to the London Street Brasserie if all you had to go on was the recommendation offered by this piece of advertising gold?

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Who's For Dinner?

What the hell happened? If the mood the photographer and agency were after was “friendly and welcoming”, then they mis-stepped the mark by a pratfall and a half. The feeling I get when looking at this poster is “she’s about to drop the glass, crawl out of the hoarding and chew my bloody face off!”

Now, I’m prepared to accept that maybe the photo was taken on a bad day. Maybe that’s not a professional model up there, but a member of staff (in which case, my heart really goes out to her) who got caught in a poor pose. But that’s no excuse for a shot like that to make it through the editorial process, get printed up at great cost and put up as an image representative of the restaurant.

That, Readership, is an image representative of a Z-Grade cannibal horror movie. I’m sorry to have to share it with you. But I have to see it every frickin’ day. And it’s starting to get to me.

The London Street Brasserie Girl is in my dreams now.

FODDERBLOG – Arroz Espanol

My problem (of which there are many, yes, granted, but for the purposes of this post, let’s concentrate on the culinary conundrum) is that I’m frequently in the door late, to be confronted by a hungry Clare demanding scran in a flash.

Now, I don’t do packet food or ready meals, but I’m not averse to the odd shortcut. Like everyone else, I will sometimes resort to pasta and pesto – handy, as this is one of Clare’s favourite things. But I can do better with a little forward planning. I’ll elaborate further on this in the coming weeks, but as a rule of thumb, consider that I take pleasure in frugality. In other words, I like to cook more than I need, and freeze or chill the remains for meals days afterwards.

An example, then. This is the meal I cooked tonight. I was cold, wet and hungry, and running late. Clare is studying again, and has neither the time or inclination to catch up if I’m slacking on my watch. I’ve got to gets me my cook on.

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I always have a bag of cooked rice to hand in the freezer. I always make twice the quantity I’ll need for a particular meal, and the rest can be tucked away for when it’s needed most. The rice will defrost in minutes in the microwave.

So. Heat some olive oil (not extra virgin) in a deep-sided frying pan. Into the hot oil, one finely chopped leek and a wilted red pepper. No, it doesn’t have to be wilted. It’s just that mine was. Five minutes gentle cooking, to soften and sweeten the veg. Then scrape ’em out, and keep ’em warm in a bowl.

Then I threw in some roughly chopped chorizo sausage and the last of the mushrooms, again starting to wilt a bit. Chorizo is genius. Sweet, hot, smoky and meaty, it’ll flatter most of the bold-flavoured food I like to cook, and will last for ages in the fridge until it’s needed. It will crisp in the hot pan, and give off spicy brick-red paprika-scented oil that the mushrooms slurp up with abandon. Five more minutes, until the chorizo colours at the edges. Then the leeks and peppers go back in, along with the cooked rice. Mix everything together, and cook until the rice is hot and fragrant with the spiced oil.

If you’ve got any fresh parsley, chop up a handful, then throw it in just before you serve the lot in bowls. If you’re feeling extra hungry, have some tortilla chips on the side for scooping. I don’t think you need it though. It’s cheap and filling as it is. If you’re feeling fancy, maybe add some chicken or prawns. Maybe stir in a spoonful of creme fraiche for a creamier finish. Don’t assume this meal has any pretension towards being a paella or arroz con pollo, though. It’s just quick, cheap grub for a cold winters night.

On Beer

BA1374A0-D35C-423E-87D8-38B0568331B7.jpg To Mare Street in Hackney on Thursday, for the 25th Pigs Ear Beer Festival. I finally succumbed to the inevitable earlier in the year and invested in a CAMRA membership, and this was the first fest I’d been to since the big one at Earls Court in August. It was, as these things tend to be, fascinating in many different ways.

There are, of course, all the beers. At Pig’s Ear, a hundred different brews were available, ranging from simple British session beers (a particular favourite was Forest Bitter from Epping, a place deep in the heart of my youthful wanderings) to insanely strong Belgian Trappist brews – the sort of ale that could make you susceptible to religious visions, especially if that’s all you’re given to eat or drink all day. One big surprise was the range and inventiveness of the American microbrews on offer, giving a huge toot of the snoot to the idea that Yank brews are watery processed mouthwash. For example, Flying Dog’s Snakehead IPA was hoppy and complex, refreshing and deeply flavoursome all at the same time. There’s a real sense of play and invention here, reflected in the names of the ales. Appalling puns seem to be the order of the day – the prize has to go to Pitfield’s Night on Mare Street 3, at 13.8% ABV one to treat with respect if not an edge of fear and awe.

One of the joys of these festivals is the people-watching, of course. The usual bunch of hobgoblins, orcs and Creme Brulee rejects are there, of course, a bit wobbly on their feet after one too many lambics. But as the day draws on the demographic widens, and suits and girls begin to appear, all eager for a taste of something a bit different and more interesting than cheap lager and wine. The girls, in particular, seem to go for the darker, sweeter ales – Ossett’s Treacle Stout seemed to be a particular hit, although a lot of the Belgian fruit beers were going down very well too.

The beer encouraged long, looping skeins of conversation, mellow companionship and terrible jokes. There was good, solid food on offer to soak up some of the excess and tamp the roomspin down to an acceptable level. The experience was warm, relaxed and quietly joyful. In short, friends and neighbours, it was everything you’d expect from a decent night in a decent pub.

Which is a simple pleasure that’s under increasing risk. Pubs are closing at a horribly accelerated rate, and people are staying at home, encouraged to do so by the cheap slabs available at the supermarkets, the above-rate tax hikes on beer and wine that seem to be a part of every Budget and the perception that town centres at the weekend are hell holes of alcoholic debauchery and violence. Which they are, but that’s not the point. Town centre bars are not the places I’d frequent anyway (although I’ll make an exception for the fantastic Hobgoblin in Broad Street, Reading). There are plenty of great pubs that are worth a five-minute hike away from your usual routes and haunts.

It’s interesting to note then, in this air of gloom over the state of one of the pillars of British culture that a quote from a Frenchman of all people, Hilaire Belloc has begun to make the rounds of the op-ed columns. It’s disturbingly apposite.

“When you have lost your inns, you may drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the heart of England.”

With that in mind, then, a little propaganda. CAMRA have just launched a campaign to axe the tax, and I encourage all true-blooded, iron-livered Englishmen and Englishwomen to sign up to support it. I would hate to see my choice of boozer restricted to a generic beer barn, or chain pub. We’re better than that.

Sign yourselves up here, Readership.

Remember, your local might depend on it.

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Them’s Good Readin’s

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A slumgullion, according to Keith Floyd’s American Pie, one of my favourite cookery books, is a makeshift or improvised meal, usually in the form of a stew or casserole. I sling together a slumgullion on a regular basis, often out of leftovers, half-jars and veg that’s one last sniff from the compost bin. They would, inevitably, fail any and all health and safety inspections. They are, inevitably, delicious. I can, inevitably, never make the same one twice.

Now, the inestimable Dr. Jones has made me aware, through the auspices of the fine magazine of Confederate kulture Garden and Gun, that Southern cuisine owes a huge debt to the art of the slumgullion. Here, for your delight and delectation, are the 100 Southern foods you have to try before you die. I get the feeling that after trying them all, you probably would die, of pork fat poisoning if nothing else. But glory be, you’d die with a smile on your face.

An example, just to whet that there appetite:

Hash and Rice

Neal’s Barbecue

Thomson, Georgia

Trotters go in the cast-iron washpot. Jowls, too. Cooked down, over a wood fire, they become hash, kissing cousin to Brunswick stew. At Neal’s, rice is the preferred ballast, but a half pound of hacked whole hog works, too. (706-595-2594)

Trotters and jowls. Cooked in a washpot. I’m off to Georgia.

(Oh, and a reminder here of my favourite slumgullion, Brunswick Stew:

Recipe from Spanky’s Seafood Grill & Bar

First the sauce:

In a 2 quart sauce pan, over low heat, melt ¼ cup of butter then add:
1¾ cups Catsup
¼ cup French’s Yellow Mustard
¼ cup white vinegar

Blend until smooth, then add:

½ tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ oz. Liquid Smoke
1 oz. Worcestershire Sauce
1 oz. Crystal Hot Sauce or ½ oz. Tabasco
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Blend until smooth, then add:

¼ cup dark brown sugar
Stir constantly, increase heat to simmer (DO NOT BOIL) for approx. 10 minutes.
Makes approx. 3½ cups of sauce (set aside – to be added later).

Then The Stew:
In a 2 gallon pot, over low heat melt ¼ lb of butter then add:

3 cups small diced potatoes
1 cup small diced onion
2 14½ oz. cans of chicken broth
1 lb baked chicken (white and dark)
8-10 oz. smoked pork

Bring to a rolling boil, stirring until potatoes are near done, then add:

1 8½ oz. can early peas
2 14½ oz. cans stewed tomatoes – (chop tomatoes, add liquid to the stew pot)
The prepared sauce
1 16 oz. can of baby lima beans
¼ cup Liquid Smoke
1 14½ oz. can creamed corn
Slow simmer for 2 hours

Yields 1 gallon)

*stifles belch*