A few days ago I was sitting in my lovely new garden room having had the French windows open all day with all this warm weather, and was talking on the phone to Lady Muck, when all of a sudden out from under the sofa opposite a pair of tiny, dark, beady eyes appeared. And then another pair. Field mice. As I talked, these two ran across the room and back under the sofa again, only to re-appear somewhere else like characters from behind the arras in an Elizabethan play. It was only when I’d finished the conversation that I was able to assume my own part in their play – ‘Exeunt, pursued by a bear’. I was charmed, and it brought to mind my encounters with a frog the previous Sunday. I was prepping up to open my garden to the public as part of the Divinity Road Residents Association Open Garden (or more accurately ‘lets be nosy in our neighbours gardens’) scheme. I was advertising mine as organic, strong on composting, climate resilient, wildlife friendly….that kind of thing; so moving a bag of grit out of the way of visitors and finding a frog beneath was a very pleasant surprise. Frogs, tadpoles, bumble bees and honey bees, nesting birds (blue tits in the nest box), field mice, squirrels (they appeal to the visitors, but not to me); there was some sign of success, though I’m sad to say I haven’t seen or heard, a hedgehog for about a decade.
The visitors, some 40 over the afternoon, were impressed; several remarked that the garden didn’t feel ‘manicured’ like many others (the wildlife wouldn’t like that and I’m not into ‘outdoor housework’, I struggle enough with the indoor variety). The things they were most impressed with otherwise? That the garden isn’t flat but has different levels – at least in part a reflection of the fact that its built on a hill, and the arch with clematis and honey suckle growing over it. Coming through the side shed it is the first thing they saw in the garden, and it made more of an impression on them that it generally does on me. The range and variety of pots and statuary around the hen house impressed too, including the water barrel and guttering system for collecting rainwater off the hen house roof. Of course that is for reasons of hen security as much as for aesthetics; foxes, and there are a few, are definitely one aspect of the local wildlife I do not cherish!
It is a year since I took up my post as Chair of Garden Organic, and this week was the first time I had to preside over an AGM. It sounds like it could be the most tedious aspect of the entire role, but far from it. The event is something Garden Organic has always taken seriously – after all it is a membership organization and its Trustees are elected by and from the membership. So inviting them along and giving them a good time (as well as telling them about the grisly details of the finances) goes with the territory. And the ‘territory’ this year? Doddington Hall just outside Lincoln. It is a grand Elizabethan pile built in 1595, still in private ownership, with a set of facilities ideal for a gathering of organic gardeners. Apart from a conference hall suitable for 120+, approximately the number of members who came along, an excellent cafe (and the inevitable retail therapy opportunities which along the predictable ‘farm shop’ and ‘country clothing’ outlet, included a bike shop) it has a delightful garden (only open to the public twice a week during the summer months, but available to peer into through wrought iron gates at other times) and a two acre walled Victorian kitchen garden. More on that later. The assembled members were entertained by Garden Organic’s CEO James Campbell clad in a vivid lime green jacket, President Prof Tim Lang, whose ‘Unfolding agenda for Garden Organic’ ranged widely across everything from the risks of using fossil fuel-based fertilisers in a world where fossil fuels are increasingly scarce, to our ability to actually harvest the food we grow post Brexit, if the migrant labour isn’t there to do it. Commenting that we have an opportunity to unleash a rethinking of the food system, he urged us to ‘love the present crisis.’ And finally, Chris Collins, Head of Organic Horticulture, and former BBC ‘Blue Peter’ gardener, whose talk on Food Growing Schools in London project was by turns inspiring, laughter inducing and a dose of sheer common sense.
But in a way this was all a prelude to the garden tour. What a treat it was being taken round by the head Kitchen Gardener, James Mellors (a wonderfully Lawrentian stately home-ish name). The garden itself was only restored from desolation a decade ago, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and the expert input of the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ team. Now a team of five gardeners – deployed across the whole estate, has turned it into an organic marvel. Top fruit and soft fruit trained up the walls, including gooseberries climbing to six feet, asparagus beds like I’ve never managed – the secret seems to be the sandy soil – not clay like mine, a line of runner bean poles that is so huge it looks more like a Civil War stockade, quantities of broad beans whose pinched-out tops we were told were in the salads in the cafe that day, and parsnips that Chris Collins admired while confessing that ‘buttered parsnips’ were his favourite vegetable.
And this was to say nothing of the magnificent greenhouse with the merlot grapes and lemon tree, the biggest cold frame I have ever seen, and a set of compost bins, the heart of any organic garden of course, which our CEO James Campbell described as being ‘the size of my garden’ – well, certainly big enough to park an SUV in – indeed one did have an SUV parked in it! Said bins were located remarkably close to the church, but if you have your own church in the grounds I guess you can put whatever you like next to it.
To round off the day an ‘organic gardeners question time’ panel (not including me, I’m not expert enough) fielded questions from a highly informed audience. Questions like ‘What should I do with dandelions on an acre of lawn?’ The questioner was clearly angling for some kind of organic ‘magic bullet’ as an alternative to spraying them, but of course the panel took a completely different approach, suggesting that the obvious answer is to leave them there; as a supply of leaves for hens (I can confirm their love of them) or tortoises, for salad (of course), and the flowers for the bees and as the basis for dandelion wine. And dammit, just because they are pretty. With advice like that dispensed with such authority and good humour, who could argue with James Campbell’s (still in ‘that jacket’) concluding remark that Garden Organic membership at ‘less than the cost of a pint per month’ was a refreshment to savour.
It rained last night. That wouldn’t sound like such an amazing statement in the normal course of events in England. But its been dry, very dry, for a couple of months. It has rained occasionally, but April’s rainfall in southern England has been no more than 20% of normal and that has itself followed an unusually dry winter. Though not a cold winter – no snow at all this year, there were enough consistent and hard frosts in December and January to see off garden pests that thrive in warm winters – hopefully.
From my perspective the only consolation about this dry weather has been that at this time of the year evaporation levels are relatively low – the water in the soil by and large stays there. Helped of course by plenty of compost, muck and mulch. Thank you chickens, thank you compost heap. It has also been rather cold. Some sunny days, but chilly quite a lot of the time. Drought doesn’t necessarily mean hot sunshine.
But on a more positive note what an impact this has had on spring blossom. Several weeks of sunny, still and dry weather brought the blossom out – rather alarmingly early perhaps, and then temperatures plunged, the weather stayed calm, and the blossom bloomed and stayed blooming. Doesn’t the allotment look beautiful! Apart from a few late blossoming apple varieties, it has mainly gone over now, but the fruit crop has set – thank you bees – and assuming we now get some decent rain we could be in for a bumper fruit crop this year. Updates through the season.
Sitting at home last weekend watching the driving rain and the wind throwing everything around including the felting on my hen coop roof – a decisive prod to replace it this spring, reminded me of the old adage about March, ‘…comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’. It certainly came in like a lion this year. But I’d chopped enough wood for the fire and it seemed like a final opportunity to read about gardens rather than work in one. And what a treat in store to read and look at.
Last summer I was nosing round the book fair in the Bristol Passenger Shed – dozens of stalls all incredibly diverse in their offers, and came across one selling the library of the late Enid Marx, wood engraver and ‘pattern maker’ extraordinaire. She died in 1998 and she gifted her work and library to the V&A; with the generous caveat that they could sell off those parts of her library they didn’t want (the archive is now housed at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire). A bookseller had picked up all those parts of the library and had them for sale. Amongst the many treasures was Clare Leighton’s book ‘Four Hedges; a gardeners chronicle’. Published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, Clare was herself a remarkable wood engraver and writer. I snapped up the book, first edition, Enid Marx’s copy (!) and quite well-thumbed, battered even – with various personalised additions including a couple of Clare Leighton obits (she died in 1989), a hand designed ‘happy new year’ bookmark, and various annotations. Clearly a book that meant something its owner.
Reading it, its not hard to see why. ‘Four Hedges’ is a large format book which chronicles Clare and her partner Noel’s work on their garden near Princes Risborough in the Chilterns. It is divided into twelve chapters one for each month and starts in the Spring running April to March. Its a diary and series of reflections on the joys and sorrows of gardening, and the specific challenges of a garden ‘..perched on a slope of the Chiltern Hills, exposed to every wind that blows’. As she puts it ‘Dig into it just one spit and you reach as it were, a solid cement foundation. One might be hacking at the white cliff of Dover.’ But not only has she produced a wonderful chronicle of the garden, but no less than 86 absolutely beautiful wood engravings. No wonder the book is still in print.
Being early March I turned to that chapter to see how she felt about the weather and gardening while I was slacking in front of a log fire. Appropriately she starts by saying, ‘We have just visited some friends in a sheltered garden in Oxfordshire. As we went in at the gate we moved forward fully a month. Here were flowers in full blossoming: anenomes, daffodils, scylla, cyclamen and hepaticas clustered warm and still. I come back to our garden full of apologies to our struggling wind blown buds.’ But not to be put off she re-frames the experience; ‘Perhaps we are after all to be envied for the lateness of our seasons. Is it not like the privilege of hearing over again music that has come to its end? I have had the pleasure of seeing spring flowers in our friends garden and now I can travel back in time and watch the annual unfolding of buds.’ It reminds me of my trip to Iceland in 2013, visiting the Botanic Gardens in Akureyri on the north coast of that island in late July, and finding all the flowers of spring and early summer flowering in profusion. Joyous and dislocating at the same time.
Winter, as we know is a time for poring over seed and bulb catalogues, fantasizing about the wonders of the garden in the spring and summer and spending too much money. Strange to say Clare Leighton is no different. January includes a confession that brings a rush of empathy, ‘It is a terrible weakness to take as much pleasure as we do in bulb and tree and seed catalogues. Bulb catalogues, especially are wonderful ‘dope’. Does one think that the world is wicked, or foolish, or falling to bits, then half an hour with a bulb catalogue will cure one of all this nonsense.’ True enough, but lets not take this too literally. She was writing in the mid 1930’s, and we know that decade didn’t end well. But to happier moments; the thunderstorm that brought down all the windfall apples in September, the opportunities to give away plants, and the joy and wonderment of the abundance of self sown seedlings. How did they get so far from the mother plant?
All gardeners have artistic sensibility. The plants and flowers are their palette, the earth, rocks and walls their canvass, and the resulting garden, the finished article. Like with so many an artist the work can be endlessly revised and re-imagined. Clare Leighton does this in her garden, but for us that garden lives on in both her prose and even more importantly, her pictures. They were woodcuts that inspired Enid Marx, and its not difficult to see why.
January is the time of year to draw in the horns on the garden front and enjoy poring over seed catalogues, in front of the fire. First things first. Find the box containing all of last years seeds whether packets, or little ‘dinner money’ envelopes containing saved seed. Sort through them and decide which reluctantly need to be chucked. ‘Sow by August 2009’ in small type on the back is usually a pretty reliable indicator. So is scrawly handwriting saying ‘pumpkin seed, 2012’ barely readable for the way that slugs have unaccountably crawled all over it and chewed patterns worthy of Jackson Pollock on the packet. Sort through the saveable and the unsaveable; rule of thumb is that anything up to a year out of date is OK. Older than that is generally a risk not worth taking. Lady Muck has a rather more generous (optimistic?) approach.
Now its time to think about what is to get sown this year; bearing in mind variables like available space, any awkwardly-timed holidays, or successes or disasters of last year that may or may not bear repeating. And then there is the furtleing through the seed packets from last year in the sacred box. An approach probably not unlike that of medieval monks deciding each year which ‘sacred relics’ to to bring out and promote this year to bring the in the pilgrims. ‘Splinter from the True Cross this year guys? Lock of St Aquinas’s hair? Oh my God were running a bit low on original bones from the two fishes, better send an order down to the refectory for a re-stock.’ Nothing changes. Only these days having got the list of required seeds, corms, and tubers for the year sorted, its off to the garden centre rather than a bit of grave robbing in the crypt.
The annual winter ordering seeds from a catalogue is a ritual I have conducted for decades. But as the total area I cultivate has gradually shrunk – fewer mouths to feed and all that, (definitely not the five thousand) the need for dozens of tubers as sent out through the catalogues, has become an expensive and wasteful way to order. So a visit to a local garden shop seems a better bet. Buy what you need. Being in Bristol for a few days and accompanied by Lady Muck we head out to the Henleaze Garden Shop, a veritable emporium of all things to grow, or already growing. A range of potato varieties to die for; and if you want, you can buy just one tuber. In the end we select five, Charlotte, Desiree, Duke of York, Pink Fir Apple and Picasso (eat your heart out Jackson Pollock). The onion sets are equally tempting, Sturon, Stuttgart, Red Baron and a punt with some shallots I don’t know – Yellow Moon. All are carefully counted into bags, just a few of each – such a contrast from the bags of 100+ that came through the post and were mostly wasted. And now to the seeds, and all that hard work in the seed box pays off. The list is relatively short, both a reflection of the smaller growing space these days (a patch in the garden rather grandly known as the potager, a 6ft by 6 ft share of a communal poly tunnel on the allotment, and one large and four small beds amongst the fruit trees on the orchard allotment) and the saved seed supply from last year. There are some stalwarts needed, spinach, lettuce, french beans, beetroot, parsnips, leeks and tomatoes (but plenty of others like cabbage, courgette, broad beans and runner beans are not, as good stocks of last years seed remain) as well as the slightly more exotic like sweet Romano peppers for the poly tunnel. Tomatoes are one of those crops where planting several varieties and in different places; garden, poly tunnel, allotment, greatly reduces the chances of the whole crop getting blight. Packets of seeds are ‘harvested’ and placed with those tubers in the basket.
When its time to pay we discover the proprietor is trained in horticulture. He saves his own seed and sells the heritage varieties in plugs to get around the regulations on the sale of uncertified seed, and is enjoying running a family business that has been operating for over 70 years. A little snippet of gossip on what is going on at Jekka’s Seeds ensues. So much more fun than ordering from a catalogue. Job done. Home to divide up the packets of seed with far too many in them for most people’s purposes – 500 parsnip seeds anyone? Now its time to start planting …. well, soon.
I’ve had a pond in my garden for a good twenty years. When the children were small the space had a thick concrete cap on it, reputedly the base of a war-time Anderson shelter. It served the very useful purpose of hosting a children’s sandpit without them getting hopelessly muddy. But children grow up and the sandpit was no longer a necessary part of the garden. But a pond seemed like a good idea. While having some other work done on the house the builders broke up the concrete and dug a pond. Its been a good one and the frogs have enjoyed it a lot, spawning every year. But that Anderson shelter was where it was because there was plenty of earth – an earth bank at the end of the garden; and over the years the earth has gradually slithered into the pond. Pond and steep bank were incompatible, so as part of my garden makeover this year I resolved to move it. Second week in October was pencilled in as the time to do it – at a time when the frogs were neither so small as to be unable to make their escape nor hibernating at the bottom to escape the cold of winter, but rather roaming the garden and sheltering in damp places like the compost heap, while feeding on slugs and other garden pests.
Pond moving requires quite a lot of digging, so in the end I decided to shift it out of the line of fire of that collapsing bank, but not to relocate it entirely. After all it wouldn’t do if the frogs lost their bearings. So come mid-October and I’m processing the very recent death of my mum and pond renovation seems as good a way as any to do it.
Its quite a palaver. Emptying the pond of weed, mud and all that earth and stone that shouldn’t be in it; digging out the new pond profile; replacing the lining and the linings protection; securing it with stone and sod; refilling it and finally returning some pond plants. Now, stand back be patient and await the frogs return.
My mum Clare Stott, died a couple of weeks ago aged 94. Her funeral is tomorrow. There are many things I remember her for, but one of the most consistent threads in our lives was the shared passion in plants and growing. We moved to the house in north Oxfordshire that became the family home, in 1960 and in which she died fifty six years later. At the time my parents bought it, the house had been abandoned for some years and was only accessible from the nearby village of Wootton near Woodstock across the fields. The cottages were on a hilltop overlooking a spectacular view of the Glyme valley. Earliest memories are of my parents trying to create a garden from a steep hillside covered with limestone. Corn brash soil strictly speaking. The only way to create a cultivatable garden was to construct walls and paths out of the huge quantities of stone, and carve out little beds for plants in between. That engagement between slope, stone and soil was the basis of their gardening, and a major influence on mine. Garden structure was crucial, and from an early age I was taught how to construct traditional Cotswold dry stone walls from the materials readily available. Holding the other end of the lines and pegs while my dad Frank measured and used a level to design the network of steps linking paths, patches of lawn, and the arches and gates in walls that were to make up the garden was another formative experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the context, they were both active in the Alpine Garden Society and early memories include plenty of small alpines being planted, especially in the walls, paths, and nooks and crannies on steps. Equally unsurprisingly they they gravitated towards other such gardeners and garden designers.
One was Margery Fish, author of ‘We made a garden’, and I well recall a visit to her house and garden in East Lambrook in Somerset as a child. What a charming old lady she was! And what an amazing garden, helped of course by the house being the village manor house. The book, published sixty years ago, records her struggles both with the terrain and soil, but also (especially) with her husband Walter (long since dead by the time we visited in the 1960’s) who perhaps predictably as the ex-Editor of the Daily Mail, had a view of gardening as something where plants and lawns were to be controlled and tamed. Not so Margery Fish, who whose attempts to break up the symmetry of his paths with ‘tiny green plants that would creep along all the stones’ had to await his departure, where upon ‘…a lot of the Somerset cement became loosened, some of it helped, I admit by a crowbar..’ and ‘now I have little plants creeping and crawling out of nearly every crevice..’ Just like my parents garden, to which she paid a return visit to much to my mum’s delight.
Walls need plants growing up them, and paths need to lead somewhere, often to openings in the walls, with arches. Wisteria on the walls of the cottages, clematis especially a white one covering an arch, and red tulips in a long border running down the side of the dry stone wall that marked the edge of the orchard, were some of her favourite plants. Perhaps the rather unrelenting nature of the soil – if that is what you could call all that stone, led to a particular delight in winter flowering plants – grey stone, mist, leafless trees and bursts of colour; cyclamen in drifts across the lawns, were definitely a favourite. The interaction between stone, foliage, garden ornament – the stone cockerel, the sundial on its stone plinth, the pond with its little statue and tiny stream of running water, bounded by an old stone wall that preceded our arrival and separated garden from orchard and field beyond. All in all it was an interpretation of the traditional ‘cottage garden’ (after all it was a garden round two old and converted cottages…) designed for the circumstances; a largely north facing slope where the views across the Glyme and towards the small village of Wootton clinging to the valley on the other (south facing) side were as much of an attraction as the content of the garden itself.
Space, colour (the rose garden especially), views, garden as separate ‘rooms’ bounded by ancient walls with openings and arches, climbers, foliage and occasional carefully positioned trees and shrubs were its signatures. Room for vegetables and compost heaps? Certainly, but the kitchen garden had it place by the garage, not for daily contemplation. Strategically placed compost heaps were screened by annuals and clematis climbing over low walls, within striking distance of the kitchen, but just out of sight of the kitchen window. I won’t say that my own garden in the middle of a city and just 67 by 26 foot replicates much of this, but the learning is there, and for that I am very grateful.
Last weekend I was invited to speak at a conference in Bristol to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of the book ‘Radical Technology’ edited by Pete Harper and Godfrey Boyle. It was part nostalgia, part reflection on what we got right, or didn’t and and the lessons learned, and partly some visioning of the future. Naturally the book focussed on themes current in the 1970’s; food, energy, shelter, materials, communications and a rather mysteriously entitled, ‘autonomy’ as well as macrobiotics, the occult, and 19c utopias. I was there to reflect on Lawrence Hills’ contribution on the role of composting in organic growing. Hills was the founder of HRDA, now Garden Organic and by the mid 1970’s had already achieved a certain guru status. One of the original editors told me they were really pleased when he agreed to contribute. I suspect he was their oldest contributor. One of the big themes of the time was rural self-sufficiency, strongly influenced by the writings of John Seymour such as ‘Self Sufficiency’ (1973). Looking back, with sustainability and ‘carbon footprints’ more to the fore these days, the rural idyll looks remarkably self indulgent and unsustainable. High density, low carbon footprint cities are where its at. Unlike some of the other contributions Hills’ article is highly practical. He focuses on organic gardening – of course, but starts off by saying: ‘Anything written on organic gardening must begin with making a compost heap’. Anyone blogging as Lord Muck could hardly disagree.
The tenor of the article has survived the passage of time well – composting and organic growing are pretty timeless after all. I love his analogy; ‘Compost making is like baking bread – there are many methods but all are ways of using bacteria and fungi to make a product we want – compost is as ‘unnatural’ as a flint axe, a loaf of bread, a glass of beer or a chunk of cheese.’ It is written in very much what I imagine to be Lawrence’s ‘voice’ (I never knew him, he died in 1990) advocating ‘household liquid activator’ ie urine mixed with three parts water to get the composting processes going, allegedly at the time called ‘Chairman Mao’s favourite’ (I doubt it. Chairman Mao was no gardener, far too posh) and as a pest control spray ‘…nicotine, made by simmering 2oz of filter tip cigarette ends (ask your local cinema if you are a non smoker) in a quart of water for half an hour filtering through a cloth and diluting with six parts of water for aphids and four for cabbage caterpillars’. Priceless. Which cinema, and what cigarette butts? A fascinating little insight on how social and societal mores have changed in 40 years.
The funny thing is, Hills was chiefly famous in his time for advocating the use of comfrey, certainly something I adopted with enthusiasm in the late 70’s and still have plenty of on both allotment and garden, but it doesn’t get a mention in his contribution to ‘Radical Technology’. A few other things didn’t get mentioned in the ‘food’ section of the book either. Nothing on fairtrade, nothing on animal rights (though the article on vegetarianism did make passing reference to killing animals being a good reason for being one), nothing on selling as opposed to growing food, nothing on the role of multi-national food corporations (though there was a prescient piece by Charlie Clutterbuck who also spoke, on agri-business), nothing on the Common Agricultural Policy and its implications, though the book came out only months after an in/out referendum on EEC membership produced a decisive remain result… how things change; and perhaps most oddly of all, nothing on food and health. Obesity wasn’t the big issue it is now, but John Yudkin’s book ‘Pure, white and deadly’ on the dangers of sugar had been out for four years. The focus was really on addressing issues of equality, tackling the global food crisis, environmental sustainability (not called that then) and health, by growing your own. That is still important, but everybody at last weekends conference was only too well aware of the bigger picture issues too. At the time ‘Radical Technology’ was written, salmonella in eggs and other food safety issues, including food irradiation, and BSE, as well as the whole GM debate, were all in the distant future.
So it looks as if the UK will definitely be leaving the EU ….sometime. This historic moment has prompted me think about what our ‘national vegetable’ might be in these turbulent times. And being as the times are so turbulent, what the constituent national vegetables of the nations in the British Isles might be, as we go our separate ways. Lets start with the easy one; Wales. They already have a national vegetable, the leek. A good choice, so easy to grow, tasty, versatile and nutritious. But officially.. no other nation has such a vegetable. So here goes with some suggestions. Scotland. The national dish, haggis, is normally eaten with ‘neeps and tatties’. Far from being turnips, ‘neeps’ are actually swedes. Understandably popular on Burns Night which falls in January when there isn’t a lot else around – but hardly a vegetable to set the heart racing. How about a variation on the national flower, the thistle? The cardoon perhaps? or the artichoke? Looks much better on the menu of a swish Edinburgh eatery. Ireland? The obvious suggestion is the potato and indeed there a is even a ‘Tayto’ theme park in the Republic and the internet swirls with articles of the ‘Thirteen reasons why the potato is the Irish national vegetable’ – variety. But the potato is a staple, and redolent with the suffering of the Famine of the 1840’s. Hardly something to celebrate. How about the garden pea? There are some good Irish-sounding varieties like the Danny O’Rourke. And it is popular in Ireland. For the traditionalist perhaps caragheen, gathered from the seashore and popular in seafood restaurants might command support? The cabbage too has its supporters. After all colcannon or ‘champ’ made with cabbage and potato and often eaten with sausages, is a classic Irish dish, north and south. Would the North have its own? Hmmm… Didn’t someone once say ‘oranges are not the only vegetable’, or something like that. Lets move on. England. So many vegetables, so many contenders. From the root vegetable world, lets hear it for the carrot, and the parsnip. Such classics of English cuisine. For the more advanced palate the asparagus perhaps? A reminder of Spring, ready from St George’s Day. But perhaps that is its problem; too seasonal. Of course the English regions are asserting themselves these days too. So how about the ‘national’ vegetable of Yorkshire. Rhubarb obviously. Yorkshire, home of the ‘rhubarb triangle’. Most people think it is fruit, but it isn’t. Isle of Wight? Not independent yet, but who knows. Home of England’s only garlic festival, it has to be garlic. But who wears the crown of being England’s truly national vegetable? Something we have as part of the traditional Christmas dinner perhaps. Maybe the roast potato, but the potato is too closely associated with Ireland to really work; parsnip is definitely a contender, but what else graces the Christmas platter? Why the brussels sprout of course. Step forward…. the English national vegetable. Eat your heart out Nigel Farage, those perfidious Europeans have triumphed again.
To misquote American radical journalist Lincoln Steffens’ famous aphorism after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1919 (he later recanted). Last year when writing my Cowley Road Cookbook I forecast that the next big global trend to hit the Cowley Road food scene would be insects. Two billion people world wide are eating insects as part of their normal diet already, and I speculated that the arrival of entomophagy on Cowley Road couldn’t be far away. And sure enough Science Oxford hosted a bug banquet at the Pegasus Theatre over the weekend. Two in fact. Some twenty two people paid to come along, about half were children. Quick quiz. Who had eaten insects before? Only two hands went up, mine being one. Where? ‘In China.’ we both said.
And off we went. Starting with a short video from the BBC’s Living Planet series on children catching and eating tarantulas in the an unspecified jungle location. The size of dinner plates they say. Cook them over an open fire until all the dangerous hairs are burnt off and ‘they taste like crab’ – apparently. Back at the Pegasus nothing so ambitious. Actual cooking was out for a start, but we were served up with a kind of ‘tasting menu’ of little creatures; mealworms, (see picture) grasshoppers, ants, silkworm pupae, crickets and locusts. To be honest the mealworms taste like pringles; the crickets are better, a sort of coconut chip flavour, and the locusts are by far the most interesting; slightly fishy, crunchy, but the wings are a bit chewy. Yes that’s me eating one.
Being mainly aimed at children, presumably on the ‘get ’em young’ principle, the next part of the event was so so British it couldn’t be parodied. Cooking in a theatre? Never. ‘Elf and safety of course, but the Science Oxford team produced a tealight, some rubbers to balance it on and a little stand to to put your aluminum cupcake on for each table of excited adults and children, and it was the opportunity to melt some chocolate, throw in some dried berries/meringue pieces/candied cherries and your insects of choice. Locust dipped in chocolate anyone? It worked for some.
To round off was the ‘something I prepared earlier’, slot. Bug baking in all its glory. We got to sample huge platters full of banana bread …with added mealworms, chocolate truffles … with grasshopper, white chocolate fudge and ants, and my favourite, ‘chocolate chirp cookie’ with cricket. All very sweet, in both senses of the word. Next time something a little more spicy with a beer, like these ones in Beijing, perhaps.