It hardly seems fair, but the riotous flourish that is the summer garden is already on the wane. For schoolchildren it is the rentrée, the beginning of a new year, and in many ways September can be seen as the start of the gardener’s year as well. For me it is a time both to sit back and evaluate the successes and failures of the past season, and to begin planning for next year’s plantings.
While we have thoroughly enjoyed every prized bite of our own produce, this first summer season has made it painfully obvious what novices we truly are, and how terribly far we are from the mark of self-sufficiency. We always knew the first year with a full plot would be somewhat of an experiment, just cutting our teeth really on the whole potager (kitchen garden) experience, but to be honest our results were far from the bushels of fresh vegetables and shelves of our own canned tomatoes that we had envisaged. In fact, so far I have yet to can a single thing (despite that being one of my goals on the Self-Sufficiency Checklist), as we haven’t had a surplus of anything (but courgettes, naturally), and all our produce has thus gone straight to our stomachs.
We have learned an unbelievable amount, however, and it is on this knowledge that we will build for next year, starting with a generous helping of good planning right now. I will write more in detail later of the successes and failures of this year, as for now I want to turn my attention to a book that just might heavily influence that planning…
As you just might (*cough, cough*) have picked up, we are pretty big River Cottage fans in this household, and one of the books I have turned to most in our gardening adventures is the River Cottage Handbook No. 4, Veg Patch, by Mark Diacono, for its handy format, straightforward advice, and especially the alliance of gardening and cooking. As Mark so rightly points out, having a garden is first and foremost about growing the things you love to eat. But this isn’t actually the book I mean. I was thrilled to see on Mark’s blog, www.otterfarm.co.uk, that he is coming out with a new book, A Taste of the Unexpected, another great title from Quadrille Publishing. And with many thanks to the guys at Quadrille, I have had the extraordinary good fortune to get my hands on a copy of this beautiful book early.
Long before I was actually able to get my hands dirty, literally, I used to sit in my tiny Parisian apartment poring over tantalizing gardening books, contenting myself with a few small pots of fresh herbs on the windowsill and dreaming of the vegetable plot I would one day have. Recipe books also received the same fevered fingering, cruelly displaying their delights, unfortunately reserved only for those people who actually had things like ovens, instead of two hot plates, or a kitchen counter on which to chop things, rather than a chopping board rested on one’s knees while sitting on the edge of one’s futon (a foot away from abovementioned hot plates). However, as I am truly coming to realize now, my dreaming was actually surprisingly dull, with my imagination restricted by my limited knowledge of the vegetable world, itself due to our modern food systems that offer the same sparse handful of fresh produce items year-round in our supermarkets.
Even as I became aware of my passion for vegetables and managed to move to the country to pursue it, this first year’s garden as you know contained the obligatory potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, courgettes, etc, still the standard supermarket fare, albeit much, much tastier. We did branch out a little with some heirloom varieties of tomatoes, or that Swiss chard, but for some reason I felt the need to dedicate our limited space to the staples, despite my true desire to plant such weird and wonderful things as kohlrabi, or Romanesco broccoli. Mark Diacono speaks of a very similar experience in his first year of smallholding in the Introduction to A Taste of the Unexpected, although in terms of volume he seemed to have better success, describing a result of “sackfuls of perfectly ok food”.
As he says, “Of course, French onion soup can be fabulous, and there’s nothing wrong with a jacket potato, but unless you’re striving for self-sufficiency, why put the effort into growing those staples when you can grow wonderful alternatives such as oca, yacon and Egyptian walking onions for your larder instead? Life is too short to grow unremarkable food. It’s simply not worth the time or effort and – happily – it’s no more tricky to grow the utterly delicious than it is the entirely ordinary.”
I couldn’t agree more. Although we are in fact striving for self-sufficiency, I am confident that it can actually be achieved through growing a large variety of fabulous vegetables and fruits, as diversity was a standard key to success in more self-sufficient times, as it ensures you always have something that is ripe at different times of the year, or if a particular crop is plagued with a disease or pest, you still have plenty of others to fall back on.
As far as oca and yacon go, I had never heard of them (although I know now from this book that they are tubers, or as Mark terms them, “buried treasure”), and I was extremely intrigued to find out more about Egyptian walking onions (do they in fact, walk like an Egyptian when they walk? Sorry, couldn’t resist…). These are but a few of the delightful new acquaintances I have made in the pages of A Taste of the Unexpected. And as someone who is aiming for self-sufficiency, I very much appreciated the fact that the book unites a wide variety of edible goodies, covering Tree Fruit, Nuts, Soft Fruit, Herbs & Spices, Beans & Greens, Leaves & Flowers, and Buried Treasure, as it is important to think of food sources beyond the simple rows of vegetables.
My only problem is that I now want to grow all these wonderful things myself, and the fantasies of my enlightened mind would now seem to demand I double or triple my plot space. However, I think the point is that perhaps they should in fact usurp the original territory of the standard fare. I am also inspired to try cooking with these out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables, as each new ingredient opens up wondrous culinary potentials, and A Taste of the Unexpected offers precisely that, a taste, as this book also includes mouthwatering recipes for each of its starring cast in addition to the background information and advice on varieties, growing and harvesting.
So as soon as I am able to tear my eyes away from the gorgeous photos and enjoyable reading of the pages of this book, I have my work cut out for me in planning next year’s garden. However, I suppose I must apologize in advance to you, dear readers, as the next year of this blog is likely to feature quite a few recipes using vegetables you will be hard pressed to find in the supermarket!
Whether you are a cook, a gardener, or simply a fantasizer as I was for so long, you are sure to enjoy A Taste of the Unexpected. I heartily recommend it.
Here are some of the places you can find it: