Following Joanna’s wonderful blog on pheasants the other week, another food-related post. About gardening. Sort of.Well, more a ramble, really, but there is some (vaguely) writerly stuff at the end. Promise.
Gardening? I am “NotAGardener”. There, I have said it.
“NotAGardeners” will know how inadequate they feel when they see a well tended veg patch, straight lines of leeks standing to attention, beans and peas running riot over a network of canes. Lettuces, cabbages, potatoes – to say nothing of herbaceous borders bursting with colour, flowers waiting to be picked to adorn the dining table. It would be (naturally) groaning under the weight of food I have grown, harvested and prepared with my own fair hands.
I would love to do it, I really would.
Some nights I lie awake and imagine my garden looking like Monty Don’s Longmeadow, full of greenhouses and raised beds bursting with flowers or eminently edible produce. Alas, although the spirit is willing the flesh, as they say, is weak.
After one session of gardening I feel like this…
And to be honest, I would much rather be doing this…
It is my own fault
I do not apply myself to the task as I should, cutting corners, rushing jobs. I know final results would be well worth the effort but alas, I fall by the wayside. Let’s be honest here, I’ve been trying for almost half a century. Ever since I saw Felicity Kendall being self-sufficient in Surbiton. I think I am now beyond hope as far as gardening goes.
When I sighed for a greenhouse, my family built one for me.
It is a thing of beauty and I use it for growing herbs, and for sheltering my bay tree in the winter.
But I feel I should be filling it with exotic fruits and flowers.
There have been a few successes…
Last year I managed to get outside at the right time and sow tomato and courgette seeds and – joy of joys – they grew. It worked. But that was one season.
And nothing like the abundance shown here!
Come this spring, the weather wasn’t good and I stayed indoors. True, my perennial herbs are growing in their pots, my bay tree is still cowering in the greenhouse out of the wind, but there are no vegetables. Nothing I can make a meal from. Sigh.
I have commitments. People to see. Books to write. Deadlines to meet.
I don’t enjoy gardening that much.
So I have to come up with some other way to get my veggies.
Easy: I will let someone else grow the veg. So I now have an Organic Veg Box delivered once a fortnight.
I know I am in a very fortunate position to be able to afford an OVB. (But let me tell you it is nothing – NOTHING – to what I have spent over the years on seeds, plugs, young plants, seed-trays and compost, etc. etc.)
However, it is more than a 100-mile round trip to the nearest big shops/supermarkets. AND my OVB comes from from a nearby farm, so I am supporting my local economy. What’s more, the root vegetables are gloriously muddy, so I am getting my hands dirty.
Back to the Veg Box
I like it, I really do, but this is the Highlands of Scotland. Not for us an abundance of soft fruits & salads (although the raspberries, when in season, are delicious).
The season for fennel, lettuce and French beans is quite short, so there are lots of root vegetables and greens. This means the challenge of finding things to do with the carrots, potatoes and kale. To say nothing of the beetroot and red or white cabbage. You would be surprised how many meals you can get out of a red cabbage. When there are only two of you. Okay, I relish the challenge, and my culinary repertoire has grown enormously.
A brownie point for that, at least.
The Writerly Bit
Buying locally-grown produce in season does make me think about 18th century living. Wealthy families might have hot houses or walled gardens capable of growing more exotic foods, but most existed on what was grown in their immediate area.
Live cattle and geese could be driven for miles to market, but without refrigerated vans, fresh food didn’t travel that well. When I am writing a Regency, I spend quite some time trying to work out what my characters would be eating in a particular season.
Which meant a bit more research for my latest wip…
It’s a Christmas story and includes pomegranates. (Don’t ask – too complicated. You will have to wait to read it). I have it on good authority that pomegranates were being grown in England in the 13th century: Alexander Neckham, Augustinian Abbot of Cirencester, mentions them in his De Naturis Rerum (an early encyclopaedia, to you & me).
Pomegranates were established in English gardens by Tudor times and grown in glasshouses in the 17th century. So, it is perfectly feasible for my Regency character to have them growing in his hothouse.
But enough about my book…
What about other authors?
Food is often used as the way to a character’s heart. Quite rightly, too, in my opinion. I am sure you can name numerous authors, but here’s a couple that spring to mind.
Katie Fforde is a self confessed foodie. She often writes about food in her books – Thyme Out (my personal favourite) and Recipe for Love, to name but two.
And my latest find is Veronica Henry’s The Impulse Purchase, a delicious story of a mother, daughter and granddaughter who work together to restore a country pub to its former glory. They are all excellent cooks so, of course, the pub food has to be top-notch, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t disappoint. It is full of foodie descriptions that make one’s mouth water.
And talking of Impulse purchases…
Friend and fellow author Louise Allen bought a “small scruffy disbound book” which turned out to be a treasure trove of recipes and household remedies. She published it under the title Mock Oyster Sauce & A Cure For Corns. As well as a lot of receipts there is a remedy for Gout, two for Cholera Morbus. Clearly a book that should be on every cook’s bookshelf. And I am sure some of these recipes have appeared in Louise’s own novels.
Finally, my ultimate favourites…
I couldn’t let this subject pass without reference to Georgette Heyer. Who can forget the Marquesa de Villacañas in The Grand Sophy, showing her practical side when it comes to dinner:
“There is a way of preparing fresh-killed chickens, so Vincent shall at once kill me two chickens, for chickens this woman tells me there are in abundance, and I shall contrive.”
And Frederica, worrying herself silly about poor Felix while the Marquis of Alverstoke summons up the courage to “put his fate to the touch.”
Only Frederica isn’t attending. She is trying to remember the name of an excellent jelly the vicar’s wife recommended when the boys were recovering from the measles. What could have been a tender love scene turned into a laugh-out-loud moment when she remembers it is Dr Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly.
There is a recipe for Dr Ratcliffe’s jelly, too…
You will find it in “A New System of Domestic Cookery: formed upon Principles of Economy: and adapted to the Use of Private Families.” Catchy title, what? It is written by “A Lady”, later identified at M E K Rundell.
The book is available online, if you want to try it for yourself, and it also has such nourishing concoctions as Beef Tea, Tench Broth and Rice Caudle, all under a section headed (ahem) “sick cookery”. Good luck with that.
They say confession is good for the soul
So I should be feeling better, yes? Able to get back to my day job (the writing) with a clear conscience. But the sun is shining today. There are green shoots appearing in the garden…
I should know better, I really should.
Where’s that seed catalogue…?
Happy gardening (if that’s your thing)
No, not even herbs, except for a very large rosemary bush which started life as a little plant in a small supermarket down the road. I do have flowers, and it’s quite a pretty garden, but that’s because a son and friend created it, and the friend still looks after it. IAMNOTAGARDENER, either.
What a lovely friend to have, Lesley! My gardening attempts have mixed results, but I have no sticking power, sadly 🙂
Beetroot is apparently incredibly good for you. Does alarming things to your pee, however.
Although I love the idea of being a gardener – and set seeds like nobody’s business in the early spring – I am a bit of a flake about the consistent attention that a gardener needs. Too easily distracted by writing and reading, I’m afraid. Though sometimes I get lucky. And the Madras rose that I got from the Chelsea Physic Garden still soldiers on heroically, blooming throughout the year and never sulking when I forget to water it.
And I love, love, LOVE Alverstoke’s rueful recognition that his intended very flattering proposal has been trumped by Restorative Pork Jelly and his decision to postpone the matter for now. That, I feel, is a chap with a proper appreciation of both romance and timing.
Lovely blog, Sarah!
Thank you, Sophie, it is encouraging to know I am not alone: planting seeds is such a hopeful thing to do, but then Life gets in the way, I find. Heyer’s books are full of wry humour, aren’t they? She takes love seriously, but recognises the ups and downs of courtship can be funny, too. And yes, beetroot has a very interesting side effect….
You are in my club. The very thought of gardening just about makes me keel over in apathy. However, I have managed to keep a few pot plants going for a while. My dragon tree is the most successful. Started tiny in 2012 and is still going and about three plus feet high now. But that’s my lot. I would love to have an OVB, but I would never be able to eat it all. Happy writing! That, after all, is far more important…
Thanks, Liz: I think a lot of us are cowed into silence by reading posts from enthusiastic gardeners. I remember someone showing me around their (prize winning) garden once and saying how little effort it took to keep it producing flowers and vegetables all year – no. I am well aware that if it was left to me, the weeds would be overtaking everything before too long. Know thyself, and thy weaknesses, I say 🙂
Sorry if my replies are delayed,
Forgot to say, one of my daughters just discovered The Impulse Purchase and recommended itto me. Coals to Newcastle?
It’s a great read…although it did make me hungry!
Great blog, Sarah. I’m afraid my own gardening has pretty much shrunk to pots these days and I have never been able to grow a courgette. Fortunately, I don’t like them much! Loved all the old receipts for the sick room.