Thursday, 29 November 2012

Better the devil you grow?

Hands up if you're a foodie?

Hands up if you (truly) like being called a foodie?

Hmmm, thought not. Doesn't it just comes with just a hint of 'pretentious' in these austere times?

There is, I think, a real tension between the new Good Lifers and the Foodies. It's not so much that we are one or the other. Fact is, we're both, and the tension is deep in our soul. Be honest now, we all want to be Tom and Barbara down at the food market, complementing the local grower, but one sight of the fancy stall next door and we can't keep our hands off Jerry's falafels.

And so last night I was wooed to be a guest at a supper club hosted by Unearthed, at Bristol's Devilled Egg kitchen academy. It wasn't hard to woo me. Here is a company who aim to source the next 'must have' but accessible ingredients for us to work our magic with. So saying to me "Hapless, I have the finest Iberico pork us Brits are yet to taste, and this little piggy has your name on it". I mean, how is a boy to say no to a pitch like that?

Lets cut to the chase, this was foodie heaven. The sexiest kitchen with the hottest gadgets, two talented chefs and a private supper club, passionate and knowledgable hosts who smuggled in treats from all over the world for a handful of food writers (and me) to not just sample but gorge on, a goodie bag and best best best of all - a mini cool bag for my posh picnics for one (otherwise know as lunch) - it's always the small treats! 

The last time I was invited to sample food I had a blindfold. This time I could see my food, and my tastebuds sparkled knowing they wouldn't be alone. I polished off each course and the chefs certainly worked their magic. The highlight was the Iberico pork, which I was told would be more like steak and would even served a bit pink. It was juicy and moreish as a result, and every bit as good as the hype. No need for crackling, it came wrapped in chorizo and pastry.

Other joys included Calabrian ‘Nduja, and spiced red cabbage with Kabanos with kicks left right and centre to accompany the succulent meat.

Nigella, reckon you can beat that? All you need to do is tweet...

But hang on! I'm a gardener. This is about as far removed from my onions as possible. There were enough unpronounceable ingredients here to give Al Murray-pub landlord material for a whole new tour.

I can see my winter onion weeping as I neglect her for the fancy food mistress. Something inside me shouts "stop, this is immoral, I should be giving all my time to own garden". But then my immoral side wonders, perhaps if I innocently bring my mistress to the kitchen my onion may, y'know, perk up? Or as always with onions, will it just end in tears? 

So Unearthed, I have a challenge for you:

Take no more than three of your hard-sourced delicacies, take your pick of traditional allotment fare and produce me two recipes that prove to me you really can have it all. I'm looking to see hearty British vegetables that I can grow, seducing the most unattainable of your wares.

Once done, I'll be asking my lovely friend Ruth of yummymummycookingschool fame to make them and try them out on her boys for a verdict. These boys know their stuff being seasoned foragers, cooks and bloggers so this isn't a task to take lightly...

Good luck. And as you mull that over, have some Kylie

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bat out of Heligan

I sometimes wonder how much more exciting the world would be if there was a bit more imagination in our everyday. 

Somebody, somewhere had a moment of absolute genius in naming the gardens I visited this weekend - The Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Personally I love a bit of creativity in a name. Take band names for example. I've always admired hard rock band '...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, for the audacity to suggest that you only know half their name. One Direction? Not so clever now.

Equally, shop names. I was nearly thrilled by a what I thought was a 1940's/50's fashion shop in the beautiful if slightly pretentious seaside village of Fowey. 

A taste of Fowey

Yes, that's right, they've tried to hide a warship here
The shop was, I thought, called 'Everyone needs a little glamour in their life'. I was thrilled not because I'm after an outfit to show off my legs but because the name stood out a mile from your average high street name. It's actually the tag line for a boutique hotel and shop called Upton House, but for at least for a moment I thought it was inspiring.

Which takes me to why the name 'The Lost Gardens of Heligan' is so inspired. In reality it's the garden jewel in Cornwall's apparently glittering collection of both wild and trimmed outdoor worlds. The story goes that this botanical archaeologists dream, the grounds of the Tremayne family estate, lay untouched for 75 years after the first world war. In 1990 Tim Smith and John Willis, Tremayne descendants, discovered the gardens and set about a sympathetic restoration.

Yet the name takes this raw story and gives it the Hollywood treatment, as if you're on an adventure to uncover lost garden civilisations - Indiana Jones with a pair of shears.
An amazing amount of discovery and restoration has gone into the surprisingly vast gardens, that stretch for some 300 acres. Yet this is also a living project, with formal and vegetable gardens, livestock being raised to supply the cafe, and no doubt much more planned.

Highlights included the jungle, the core of restoration. I also adored the new orchard and a hugely romantic apple tree archway. 

The jungle is worth the visit alone, with boardwalks past giant rubarb, a series of lakes guarded by bamboo and banana plants, and a striking New Zealand Yew. From the view at the top to the detail of every plant there was enough to keep me jumping from botanist to explorer and back again for hours.

The route implores you to look up, down, at the whole picture and at every brushstroke. From the bottom, looking up I discovered my particular favourite - a Broccoli tree (at least, that's my new common name for it).

But above all else and despite my trip into the jungle, this, I decided that this was no place for latin names and the ethics of victorian international plant collecting, but instead more of a folk affair.

I was brought up on a diet of Enid Blyton, The Secret Garden and all manner of storytelling set in the grounds of old English manor houses and their type. At a young age your imagination takes over and never really leaves you. 

The Lost Gardens, for me, simply had to be a place where I could finally prove that there is more to the world than the mundane and predictable, tax dodging multi-nationals and bickering politicians.

And as if by magic, I found a sleeping giant

Look carefully and you'll see her

With a bit of imagination (and a lot of hard work), gardens can be much more than the sum of their plants. They can transport you out of the 24 hour news cycle into wherever you wish to be, whether handsome explorer or wistful folkie.

So as you mull that over, hit 'play' below, close your eyes, choose your garden and take in the utterly enchanting sound of Bat for Lashes.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

50 Spades of Grey

So apparently, the key to a man's heart is not food, but a blindfold.

Well last night I had both. Together. In public...

But before you run a mile, this was a very innocent affair. I was invited by my friend Kat to take part in a blind tasting of the new menu at Bristol's Living Room. To spice things up, it was part of a competition against food bloggers around the country, as well as those round the table (it's amazing what the sight of a trophy does to people!)

So there I was, trussed up with the finest food bloggers in Bristol, whipped into a frenzy by things I'd not normally, um, sample.

Things kicked off with Black Forest ham and a mystery accompaniment containing 3 flavours to guess. I was given a goats cheese mousse, yet somehow I thought it was fig and black pepper. Off to a flyer.
The champion, showing that cool professional touch

The delights kept on coming, as did the wrong answers. I promise you, this is much harder than it looks. Still, there were some satisfied foodies as we gorged our way through the best of the menu (when I say we, I mean I - others apparently had more refined methods of tasting. I was just hungry!). I thought I'd perform well on the meat section. Not so. Apparently a mutton shepherds pie is not yet in fashion. It's venison this year, but mark my words...

Can you tell what it is yet?

Happily, there were combinations new to me and I actually left the evening feeling emboldened to be more adventurous with my dining habits. 

Like a typical bloke, the call of steak is all too often answered. Instead I could be having Glamorgan veggie sausages packed with leeks and caerphilly cheese. Hmmm, getting kicks eating vegetarian food whilst blindfolded and under duress? Hardcore quorn anyone? (I'm so sorry, that is truly appalling).

Anyway, we were treated to every section of the menu from starters right the way through mains and desserts to the cheeses and even cocktails.

The utmost concentration was required

But what does this have to do with gardening? Lots. How well do you know your fruit and vegetables with your eyes closed? In fact, do you know food at all? As you know, what I thought was fig, turned out to be goats cheese. My instinct for nutmeg was also apparently mistaken. It was green tea.

Basically I came home tail between my legs realising I don't know my ingredients, my flavours and indeed I have temporarily disowned my tastebuds.

Which takes me back to the reasons I grow veg. It's partly the privacy and wonder of time outside uninterupted, but it's also because I'd forgotten what food was all about. The care and energy needed to grow one simple vegetable, let alone meals all year round. And to know what they taste like fresh out of the ground, well, that's quite a treat.

Having said that, I've not yet found a seed called 'Moroccan spiced lamb' so until then i may be returning blindfold or not to my hosts for the evening. However I am inspired to clear the ground out there, digging up the last of the weeds and turning over the soil ready to plant next year's seeds. Of course, my first instinct this morning was to grab the spade.

But we all know you can't beat a good fork.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Wood grief

Trees don't just fall down on their own. 

Even if they're dead, which one of mine has been for a few years.

This came as quite a shock. You see, in the past its stupified state hasn't stopped it being a cat's playground

Nor a Christmas tree

But apparently, the new neighbours above (who on the first day of building work opened their window, which just happened to be by the tree (see above), and may have had a branch or two in the way) said 'we were wondering if it was dead, it must have just fallen down'.

Now granted, it is not the most elegant or mighty of trees, but on seeing it toppled I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Gardens aren't supposed to make you feel that. It was at that point I realised that it wasn't just the lost tree that upset me, it was the detachment, the neglect and the failure to garden at all this summer that hurt most. It was as if the garden was kicking me in the nuts saying 'Oi just because you're hapless, doesn't excuse your lack of effort. I can only do so much on my own, now get your sorry backside out here and get involved or there will be more horti-tragedy to handle'

It's not like it was a conscious choice not to garden. Instead, that inevitable creep of responsibility to feed myself through a regular salary, along with commitments to family, friends and sport is what did it for the grass.

I've had fun, I can't deny. A cracking weekend in Edinburgh, where sadly my camera failed me but I still got to indulge in the rather lovely Botanical Gardens.

I got to row along the stunning Avon Gorge (I promise you I'm the one in the front of the 3), and no amount of rain and cold weather dampened our spirits.

I won a medal. Not gold, but still.

But as with many, work is what finished me off. Relentless pressure and several trips to Fleetwood and Tynemouth have stopped me even picking my rotting raspberries and ripening pears. Before the violins are tuned up though please don't get me wrong, I'm fortunate to have my job and I made the most of any moment to savour the quiet beauty of faded resorts.

I took a windswept walk past the old outdoor swimming pool near Cullercoats and Whitely Bay (one for the closet Dire Straits fans out there). 

Meanwhile, having spent most of the last 2 years dropping in on Fleetwood the town had become familiar and is not without its charm... 

...not, however, a patch on the Blackpool Illuminations, which when driven through stir up the child like wonder of the fairground. Sadly they don't quite have the same effect in the light:


But all the while, the garden withered. I'd failed to furnish her with any crops this year, and I'd allowed nature to make her own decisions, the sadness very much a selfish one.  Last weekend I escaped from the tree carnage, unable to face the clear up and went to my favourite avenue of proper trees, which were drenched in Autumn sunshine:

And of course after such a restorative walk, my grief was put into perspective. Gardens never die, they simply move on. There is hope and having just taken a 3 week break from the office to recapture my gardening, writing and creative spirit, I seriously hope I can catch up. Some clearing and pruning, planning and opportunistic planting perhaps? Thankfully the garden is showing signs of life:

One note of caution...

Don't be deceived by that medal. I'm in trouble. It is such a mess there is one mighty gallop ahead

The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.