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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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)