Last year I was approached by a publisher about writing a book. A kind of guide to the things I am doing here, separated into sections – a year in the garden, and year with the bees, a year of wild food, etc. This was to be a narrative, interspersed with recipes and more practical information such as calendars and tables, wild food identifying guides and the like. The publishing house seemed to like it but in the end, after much going back and forth, they decided not to move forward with the book mainly due, it seems, to me not being famous enough. I sent out the proposal to a load of other publishers and agents in the hope that someone else might be interested, but sadly heard nothing back. The below article was a first draft of the first chapter, about a year in the garden. It’s been sat on a virtual shelf gathering digital dust since then, so I thought I’d publish it here instead. It’s a long read, and the recipes are not included as they’d never been finalised (perhaps I shall do so over the next few months and put them up here). It needs polishing, and some of it a little more than that. Anyway, perhaps you will enjoy it. I hope so.
When I was a child, we had an orchard. I remember the day we moved in to the house it graced – from the city to the countryside – like it was yesterday. I paced the length and breadth of the field, measuring it by stride-lengths, wading through grass as tall as me. I’d never seen so much space. I remember me and my Mum dragging an old plastic sled around, in the crack of light between summer and autumn, loading up apples for cider-making. I remember picking ripe fruit from the branches, all crunch and sweet and juice like an ideal of apple. I remember climbing the trees in the spring, camouflaged in blossom. I remember my Dad hanging swings from the branches for us kids to swing on, higher, higher. I would lie in the tall grass in the summer, looking up at the blue sky, framed in green fronds, birdsong, buzz. I remember, and everything I do now is, in a way, an attempt to return to the curled warmth and simplicity of those days.
The plan is to create an orchard in the part of the field that adjoins our vegetable garden. We are to plant apples, pears, quinces, cherries, plums, sow wild flowers, and it will be marvellous. Winter is the time to plant fruit trees, whilst they slumber. We source two apple trees (a Starking and a Reine des Reinettes), two pear trees (a Conference and a William), one quince (a Portugal), and one cherry (a Sunburst). Some fruit trees are self-pollinating, meaning they need no companion. Others, such as certain varieties of apple or pear, must be cross-pollinated with another type. Thus the Conference pear and the Williams pear are chosen; a blossoming romance, the bees playing Cupid.
Choosing trees can be bewildering. Most fruit trees are grafted onto the rootstock of a related species, in part as a way of keeping the size of the mature tree to manageable (and harvestable) proportions. These rootstocks all have different characteristics, producing differing sizes with various related susceptibilities and strengths, and have unique requirements in terms of space, soil, and aspect. We are lucky to get excellent advice from the supplier. Our soil is clay, we are exposed to searing summer sun, wet springs, and occasional high winds, and so we select the trees accordingly.
After exploratory digging in several spots around the field, I find a good strip of ground that is not too waterlogged by the recent heavy rains. Many fruit trees can suffer from the charmingly termed ‘wet feet’, in that if their roots are submerged or saturated for any deal of time it can cause rots and fungal infections. The surrounding landscape here is flat, and wet. This is partly the reason for the great tangle of creatures and plants that share our home, but does limit our growing and land management options. (Insofar as we will manage the land – it may well manage us.)
I remove the turf from one half of the lawn in front of the house to create vegetable beds. Where I do this I remove great swaths of rubbish, hidden by previous occupants of the farm, from the ground – rolls of rusty barbed wire, crumbling concrete posts, plastic feed-bags – ruining any 25th Century archaeology. Sweat and curses are my daily tasks, and the digging seems endless, but finally the veg patch is ready. It is covered and left until spring, to be sown with our first year’s crops. Holes are dug, trees are planted. The land freezes, mist hugs the fields. Crystals of hoar-frost crisscross the hedgerows. Cobwebs solidify, gossamer and glass. The oak trees all shimmer and glitter white, like the frozen skeletons of gigantic ancient creatures (which they are, of course).
The first properly warm day of spring is here. I rise early, opening the shutters to test whether coat and hat are still required; they are. Suitably attired, I blink my way into the dawn. The sun is just peeking over the teeth of the pine forest on the hill, and all is long-shadowed silhouette. I am greeted by the morning chatter of birds, both wild and domestic – the chickens complain that they have not yet been let out (although I’m pretty sure they’d complain if they had, perennially dissatisfied customers that they are). From four or five different points around the fields and hedgerows, nightingales sing. They are the loudest sound this morning, trilling and whistling, and they will sing well into the darkest hours. The males sing in the mornings as a sort of territorial battle. At night, it’s the single chaps raising melodies to the star-soaked sky, singing of absent love. A lonely sound, though hopeful.
Uncovering the vegetable beds, I spot a salamander. It is mottled black, somehow glossy and dusky all at once, and with an orange stripe on its back. It sleepily attempts to flee, achieving more of a stroll. I cup it in my hands, and move it to a damp corner of the garden, under cover and protected from hungry eyes. Bees – bumble, solitary, carpenter, honey – are swarming the dandelions, dead nettle, and pussy willow, breaking their winter fast. A blue tit makes its nest in a hollow gatepost, and there is enough cheep-cheeping from inside to confuse the cats thoroughly.
The swallows have returned, swooping and twisting in the morning sun, acrobat amorous. The buzzards circle in twos and threes, calling to each other and climbing high against the blue, sending the chickens tumbling for cover and trying to hide under me. Frogs peep and whistle from the pond down the track, and scatter in machine-gun splashes if I come too near the water. All is life and noise and sex, and it is a joy to simply stand in the midst of it all, listening and watching.
The local population of coypu – large aquatic rodents who live in great complexes of burrows waterside – have relocated from our field to a pond further down the lane; good news for my edibles and evidence that the stretches of chicken wire I have encircled our land with are doing the job of keeping residents in and interlopers out. They are not shy, these creatures, and we watch a family for a time, the young shuffling curious steps toward us until they are almost at our feet. They gaze at us uncertainly, until a snort from a parent sends the whole gang loping off down the track opposite the gate.
My days are spent in dirt. I till some of the vegetable beds, with others left undisturbed; these have been constructed from layers of dead leaves, horse manure, and grass, an experiment in no-dig gardening. Soil structure being key, we are coming to realise that we do not grow crops, we are dirt farmers. Adding a top layer of organic matter and letting the rains and the worms do the rest, allowing the earth to remain undisturbed, keeping carbon and nutrients locked away. Nature cultivates the depths, and we tend the surface. It is less backbreaking, certainly, and we will see if we get more of the fruit for less of the labour.
We grow from seed, heritage and non-hybrid varieties. Modern varieties are, for a large part, bred for yield and disease resistance. But these do not necessarily bring flavour to the table, and we want to save our own seed; something that does not work with hybrids. If we can grow our food and, by harvesting seed from a portion of each, secure the next year’s crop we will be a country mile closer to self-sufficiency.
In early spring, the house is filled with trays of seedlings. Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies, cabbages, leeks, peeking their green faces up at us as we water the pots. As the season progresses the plants grow bigger and more unruly, and there is no space on table or windowsill. All is flailing tomato and courgette plants and I can’t find anything. We will build a greenhouse, perhaps a polytunnel, to have more room, though this is a year or so off yet. I sow carrots, radishes, and several types of bean – borlotti, French, runner – straight into the soil. I feed the wild birds far away from the beds in an attempt to stop them stealing the seed. This bribery seems to work, and most seeds germinate successfully. The chickens, however, have discovered a new and secret way into the garden from the field, and I have to shoo them away from the lettuce seedlings on two consecutive days. I erect more chicken wire, in every conceivable place that they could be getting through (I want to avoid clipping their wings if I can, as I am a softy), and hope their Houdini tendencies will be tempered.
We have some produce coming ready. Radishes, sown willy-nilly scattershot between slower growing plants, come good in a few weeks and are sweet and peppery. Rhubarb is deepening red, tart stems harvested for crumbles and compotes as well as a sweet, fruity liqueur.
The sky alternates sun and rain, and we wait and we watch as the world unfolds green.
RECIPE: RHUBARB VODKA
RECIPE: RADISHES WITH LEMON BUTTER
Spring drifts into summer. Seedlings have been hardened off; moved outside in the warmer daylight hours to be brought back inside at night. This gradually gets them used to the idea of freedom so that when they are moved from pot to plot they don’t get too surprised. They are then gently prised from their pots and pressed into the warm earth, and they begin to grow immediately, stretching skyward at a rate of, seemingly, inches per day.
The world is full of babies. Fledgling birds, infant coypu, and a chaos of insects. At night we must turn out all lights before opening a door or window, otherwise we are invaded by a million tiny aliens, flying and buzzing and biting. I am a dot-to-dot puzzle of red itches, and have to douse myself daily when I return from the garden or field to wash away any ticks that might have nestled in the flesh behind my knees or in my hairline. The bees from our hive busy themselves, furiously collecting nectar and pollen to heave back to the colony, where the queen is laying eggs, over a thousand a day. They are welcome company as I tend to the beds. My tasks in the garden take longer than they should, as I am constantly distracted by a sight or a sound.
The rains have retreated, and I water the plants daily with water pumped from the well. It is cold and slightly murky with a slight mineral aroma. I do this in the early morning, before the heat gets too much. We have installed an electric pump in the well with the help of a chap from the village called Maurice. Maurice, it turns out, is a water-diviner, and showed us how he uses a pendulum to find water. Whilst he did this he got both Marie-Laure and me to hold his hand to see if we had the gift – if the pendulum continued to spin then yes, if it stopped then no. Marie-Laure has the gift, it seems. I do not. Marie-Laure had a go on her own, and the pendulum spun, despite her insistence that she was doing her best to not let it. My jury is out, but it does appear that there is something of a tradition in the area for water-divining, healing of burns, and the like. I will find out (and be sceptical of) more, I am sure.
Maurice also dug his own well at his house. He and a neighbour spent eighteen months digging a hole, fifteen metres straight down, so Maurice must really trust his own water-finding skills (and trust his neighbour). He now has a working well, so make of that what you will. I for one am glad our own well was already here. No well-digger, me.
I run a hose from the well to several water butts placed at intervals around the garden, fill them with water, and let it warm in the sun, before filling watering cans the next day. A chill drink for the plants can be a shock and retard their growth, they prefer a tepid tipple. Fruit trees are watered (young saplings need watering daily throughout the first year to promote a healthy and strong root system). Tomatoes and peppers and aubergines, all thirst and are quenched each morning – little and often is the key, I find. The no-dig beds, where the space between the plants is filled with organic matter, hold moisture much better than the dug beds, and need refreshing less often.
The no-dig beds are proving to be a good idea. Fewer weeds, less watering, and the courgette plants are double the size of those in the dug beds and starting to crop already. The no-dig shallots are tiny and sad, however, seeming to struggle and looking somewhat stressed. Our potatoes are no-dig. Left in the sun to chit and then placed in a line on the ground, and then covered in dry grass cuttings from the meadow. As the plants grow, we ‘earth’ them up with more grass, and they do very well. To harvest, we will simply part the grass cuttings and lift the spuds. A great deal less work, with less risk of skewering our lunch with the tine of a fork – at least until they’re on a plate.
It is warm enough to begin cooking outside, and I set up a fire pit in the field, and a barbecue and a hot smoker in the garden, hopeful of good weather. Cooking outside with ingredients from the garden is a delight, the vegetables moved from earth to grill within minutes.
Peas are ready, as are broad beans, more radishes, rocket, lettuce, and these are salad days indeed. A stroll round the garden is complimented with snacks, straight from the plant and warm, seasoned by sweat-salty fingers. Breakfast is a simple matter of a quick trip to the garden, a visit to the hens to collect eggs, and back to the kitchen to fire up a pan.
RECIPE: GARDEN BREAKFAST (broad beans, scrambled eggs, parmesan, herbs, toast.)
RECIPE: BARBECUED BABY COURGETTE WITH FLAMED FLATBREADS, PEAS AND RICOTTA
As summer goes on, the land dries and quietens. The birds have ceased their song, and hide from the fierce heat of the day. Insects still buzz, though they too limit themselves to the early hours or the end of the day; the midday sun is too much even for them. I still water the garden, a task that takes me longer each morning as the plants grow – two hours of it today. The herb patch is wild, with gigantic fronds of parsley and coriander mingling with each other, basil is pungent from afar, and the hardier thyme, sage, and rosemary plants are thriving in the dry days.
We use no pesticides or herbicides. Slugs were only an issue in spring, and even then we had no real problem. A dusk patrol with a pot of salted water is a slightly gruesome yet effective tactic, as is simply tossing any discovered invaders to the chickens. The feeding of the wild birds through the winter has paid dividends, and they defend our vegetables and fruits loyally and ferociously. Happily they seem sated enough to do no real damage to any of our soft fruits, which are now starting to crop, with summer raspberries and strawberries sweet and sharp and full of the tang of the time of year. The dreaded cabbage white butterfly seems largely absent, though our buddleia is smothered with orange-tips and red admirals and green hairstreaks; beautiful names for beautiful creatures. Companion growing seems to help, with nasturtiums attracting the majority of caterpillars as well as providing peppery seeds for pickles. Nettles left wild do a similar job, and I can make a quick fizzy ‘beer’ from the leaves. Caledula is planted between tomato plants, as is the French tradition. Planting alliums near carrots deters carrot fly, and (so far) we have lost almost none of our crop to hungry pests save a few broad bean pods smothered by blackfly. And such a crop it is.
The flavour of home-grown is astounding. Throughout my career as a chef in the UK I sourced fruits and vegetables from a variety of suppliers. Depending on my job at the time the requirements were either cost, or flavour, or locality, or a combination. I did it for years. I had, I thought, a wide-ranging knowledge of the flavour of things. And I was aware of the time it took for the produce to get from field to kitchen, aware that this could diminish flavour. What I did not realise was just how time-critical some things can be. A pea that’s plucked and podded and eaten there and then is a far, far cry from the peas I would source. Even those that had been frozen within hours of harvest were sad floury things compared to the truly fresh. We grew a little veg in our tiny garden in Bristol, and these first experiments led to the conclusion that, if you have even a little space – a patio, and window cill – growing some fruit or veg is a remarkable experience. Translated and transposed to a large plot in the French sun, this has been multiplied a hundred-fold. I never knew what an aubergine really tasted like, until now. It tastes of savoury cream, fruity, with a deep umami that lingers on the tongue; it tastes how it looks it should.
Growing your own food is really part of a long recipe for lunch. Preparation may begin months, even years, ahead of any knife work. A well-tended soil is as crucial in your mise-en-place as good frying pan. As your seedlings grow, the universe organises its chaotic atoms into complex systems, shaking a chlorophyl fist at entropy. Mother Nature is as good a kitchen colleague as any, pointing out the ingredients that are good on the day and doing a good deal of the hard graft. Grow for flavour, grow for texture, grow new and unusual things, and grow for the sake of it.
There is also a quiet belonging that comes from spending so much time tending your own food. It is a part of life, it is life, and that separation that can occur when sustenance is simply fuel, pre-packed and shop-bought, dissipates. Things click into place. I am as much a part of the garden as the birds and the bugs and weeds, and we all feed off each other. It provides food for the table, and sustains body, mind, and soul.
The best day of summer is that day, warm and still, when the first tomato ripens. I have watched the plants intently as the fruits have swelled and changed in colour. Tiny Gardener’s Delight cherry tomatoes and Brandywine large, Coeur de Beouf for beef tomatoes and Roma for roasting. From light green to deeper shades, then to translucent yellow, to orange, and finally, today, a single tomato shines from the depths of the tangle of vines, the red of a fiery sunset. I reach in, pluck it from the stalk. I roll it around in my mouth for a minute, and it tastes of the aroma of the plants; piquant and green. Then I squash it between my teeth, and it pops. It is so flavoursome my mouth tingles. From the top of one of the vine-supports, a dragonfly watches me, and wonders what I am doing standing here with my eyes closed and muttering happily to myself.
RECIPE: SUMMER TOMATO TART WITH HERB YOGHURT
RECIPE: SUMMER FRUIT JAM
RECIPE: RASPBERRY FOOL
It is the end of August. Summer here hangs on in a final blaze until late September, so it is not over yet by any means. I am now dealing with vast amounts of produce. Courgettes that were cigar-sized and delicious just yesterday are now monstrous marrows, so I slice them and dry them in my dehydrator. Shallots are lifted and cured for a time in the sun, and will last all winter kept somewhere dark and dry. The tomato plants have taken over the world, and I wonder if I’ve overdone it. They are eaten fresh in salads and with good French charcuterie. They used in cooking for soups and pasta sauces. And still they come. So I pick as many as are ripe, and I chop them, cook them down slightly, pass through a food mill, and pour into jars to be sealed by boiling in a water bath. Tomatoes are acidic enough to be canned this way, other vegetables need to be pressure canned, something I am yet to attempt. Over the course of a couple of weeks we fill the pantry with jars and jars of red tomato sauce, enough so that we should not have to buy any tins over the winter months. We are self-sufficient in tomatoes, then, and it feels like a victory. A small yet significant step on our path to self-sufficiency. I do a little dance.
At the back of the house there is a room that originally would have been the ‘summer kitchen’. It would have had a sink, a dirt floor, a fire or oven, little else, and would have been used for cooking in the hot, dry summer months as a way of keeping the main house cool. Ours has been ‘refurbished’, meaning the floor has been tiled and the walls have been papered, the main result of this being a good deal of dampness. For the time being, until we get around to getting it back towards its original make-up (probably never, then), we are using it as a food store. The shelves are filled with airtight tubs of dried wild mushrooms, of canned tomatoes picked from the garden. Pickles, jams blackcurrant syrup, nettle beer, brined green beans, dehydrated courgettes (and a bubbling demijohn of weird cloudy marrow ‘wine’ that will probably be a solitary pleasure). It is not enough food to get us through a winter, though it is a start.
Our meals consist of the ends of things. The last tomatoes, the final aubergine (so reluctantly picked, I did not want that purple to disappear from the garden), late-ripening peppers, herbs. I can smell autumn on the breeze, but we still eat like it is mid-summer.
RECIPE: BBQ LATE SUMMER VEGETABLES WITH DUKKAH, PRESERVED LEMON, AND WHIPPED GOATS’ CHEESE
RECIPE: END OF SUMMER SOUP
RECIPE: BAKED BORLOTTI BEANS WITH FETA AND BACON
As the year wanders toward autumn, the garden becomes less frenetic. I have dealt with the produce that is particularly time-sensitive, such as peppers and chillies, and now the more stately, slow vegetables are the focus. Cabbages start to form tight heads, leeks are beginning to thicken, and parsnips are all lush foliage. We still have lettuces and rocket, so quick suppers of dressed leaves, saucisson, a boiled egg, and cheese, are possible. Indeed necessary.
It seems so quiet now, compared to the riot of Spring. Bees still forage for nectar, but with less fervour. Insects still zip about inscrutably, but the invertebrate traffic-lanes are less congested. There are fewer birds (at least fewer noisy ones). Frogs have spawned, and vanished. The buzzards and kites are rarely seen, though we hear their piercing cries still, most often at dusk. We start to see deer on the lane, distant and with a preternatural ability to know when they’ve been spotted. Their ears prick, they freeze, and then they turn and are gone, ghosts, with a final flash of a white tail.
Where we have left things wild – in most places where we are not growing food – it’s still a jungle of grasses and nettles, tangles of vetch, wild camomile. Ours is not a tidy garden, but this is a good thing. I do not want to be the lord of the manor, but simply a part of it as the other creatures are. Letting nature do her thing has helped us; a balanced biome has meant no plagues of pests, with plenty of predators to keep the slugs and mice at bay. An untidy garden can still be a beautiful one, it’s just not a manicured lawn. Monoculture breeds nothing save desert and fruitless work.
Now is the time to think of next year. Crop rotation is important, lessening the likelihood of diseases persisting in the soil to reappear with vengeance in coming years. Marie-Laure has painstakingly drawn maps and diagrams of what was planted where, so we may plan to move things around more easily, no head-scratching ‘what did we plant here?’ conversations. Keeping records is a good idea – when crops were ready, what did especially well, and so on – as, if like me, you are somewhat scatterbrained you will thank your past self for this information when the season to plant comes around again.
Autumn is the season for roots and squashes. I planted several squash plants in the ground, which have done reasonably well. The ones that I planted on the compost heap (as I had run out of space) became Amazon Jungle vines. Carrots are teased from the earth. Late spuds are lifted, and everything plucked from the ground lends itself to roasting, providing earthy warm flavours as the air cools across the meadows and woods.
Our own fruit trees are not yet mature enough to give us a harvest. Luckily Marie-Laure’s brother, who lives in the village a mile or so away, has an orchard full of mature apple trees. He has more than he can possibly deal with, so we traipse around under his trees collecting windfalls and plucking some fruits from the branches. I spend a day preparing some for cider. As I do not have an apple mill, I resort to the tried and tested sledgehammer-and-bucket method. After a few hours I have pulped several kilos of apples, pressing them with a hand-turned press to extract the juice. It is cloudy, caramel coloured stuff, and the sweetest apple juice I have ever tasted. I am covered in sticky pulp, and the last wasps of the season meander over to make friends. Ten litres of juice are set aside for cider, the rest drunk fresh or frozen for later consumption. As I pack my tools away in the evening, there is a chill on the air, the first cold dusk for months. Autumn is morphing into winter, and I am in need a warming supper.
RECIPE: BOUDIN NOIR WITH ROASTED APPLES, SQUASH, AND MUSTARD SAUCE
RECIPE: SQUASH AND PEARL BARLEY RISOTTO WITH BACON
RECIPE: APPLE, BLACKBERRY, AND CARDAMOM CAKE
October, and the nights now are cold. The sky is a black velvet bag filled with diamonds, and meteors streak from horizon to horizon, one or more an hour. The ground is cold, the first frosts have crusted the earth with glitter. The veg patch is looking bare, with most of our crops now over and done with. There is scant evidence of wildlife, though I know it is there, dug in and slowing, hibernation preparations.
Some rain has returned, and it is a relief for the land and for me; the length of my morning tasks is halved. It is my nature, I think, to miss winter in the summer, and vice-versa. I am momentarily grateful for a white morning, standing in the orchard in wellies, breath clouding and drifting away as the sun rises, pillars of light shuffling in the mist. It is a circle, growing food, and as my spot on this wheel sinks towards winter I cling to it, out of breath from the apex exertions of summer. In a month I will wish spring would arrive.
One morning I awake, open the shutters to our bedroom, and am greeted by a white world. A heavy frost had worked its way across the land, into even the most sheltered nooks of the garden. I have been waiting for a proper frost. I have been watching the parsnips, so lush with leaves in the summer and autumn, with barely concealed impatience, having never grown them before. The carbohydrates stored in the root, as food for the plant, are turned into sweeter sugars by a sharp frost. I lift a couple from the ground, and they are gigantic. Washed and roasted, they are like nothing I’ve ever tasted before; sweet and vanilla-scented and creamy, like an earthy crème brûlée.
The cabbages have reached epic proportions, and are fairly hardy, even shaking off a dusting of snow. Often poorly regarded, a good cabbage is a must in the garden and the kitchen. Taken inside, shredded and washed, it will keep well in the fridge for days and a handful can be added to soups and stews. A good quick lunch can be made by frying an onion in butter, adding some cabbage and spices, and topping with a fried egg. I have also fermented a big pot of cabbage, like sauerkraut, which is a wonderful tang to have on hand to use in dishes or just as a condiment. The humble cabbage has become, for me, and essential and favoured ingredient.
The leeks are standing proud, and will do so all Winter, hardy soldiers against the cold. These three plants – parsnip, cabbage, leek, will all last most of the winter in the ground, making storage easy. Added to our collection of dried, tinned, fermented, or otherwise preserved produce from across the year, we have a fine selection of homegrown ingredients. We will munch our way through the colder months, and I will grow restless and dream of summer, and it will all begin again soon.
Chaos and beauty and life and death, the heave and sigh of it all.
RECIPE: PARSNIP AND LEEK GRATIN
RECIPE: SPICED CABBAGE ON TOAST WITH FRIED EGGS
RECIPE: PARSNIP CREME BRULEE