Category Archives: Growing food

For the love of kale

There’s something so dreary about the word ‘kale’. Trying dragging it out – kaaaaale. Depressing. Boring. Dull. Virtuous. Farty. Tough.

Wrong, it’s none of those*. And at this time of year, it’s a godsend to the vegetable gardener. We’ve had a couple of sharp frosts and right now it’s trying to snow – again – so my kale is in prime picking condition.

IMG_1332This year, I grew it by accident. Almost.

It’s a toughie: it withstands conditions like these in 2010 (the kale is the leafy lump, foreground, right), and shrugs off the worst effects of the weather, laughing all the while. It can be eaten to the stalk by caterpillars during the summer but spring right back in winter. Nothing, but nothing, kills it. And as a result, I’ve suffered from kale-glut syndrome.

The symptoms are easily recognisable: a freezer full of frozen kale, a tendency to put kale in everything, to contemplate making kale ice cream and flavouring chocolate mousse with it, a desire to be really close friends with everyone and give them presents. Of kale. So last year I decided I wouldn’t plant any, and stuck to my resolve. (Shh. I missed it. A bit.)

Earlier this year I was inveigled into taking home some small cavolo nero plants at the Green Fair and plant swap in Penrhyndeudraeth. I didn’t want to, but I most emphatically did want to get rid of some tomato seedlings in exchange, so I took a tray. I shoved them in a corner of the veg plot and left them alone. The caterpillars didn’t; they had a fantastic time. But I remembered that a bare kale stalk can mystically regenerate, and left them in. They’re now the only thing standing, and they are DELICIOUS.

cavolo neroBut what do you do with kale, even if it is the sophisticated cavolo nero, given that the kale ice cream was not a hit?

This little lot is being shredded and added to a stir fry this evening. It’s also been in stews and baked with pasta, and it’s been in a lovely Tuscan ribollita in the past, though not yet this year. There are lots more possibilities, too, and of course it can take really strong flavours and stand up to them, face them down, even. Watch this space.

My latest favourite is a pasta sauce. The recipe came from an Italian neighbour and was scribbled on the back of a receipt from the local farmers’ co-op (once my shopping receipts urged me to try perfumes; this one’s slogan informs me that ‘quality bull semen is now in’). It was pinned on my kitchen noticeboard for ages but has finally made its way safely into my notebook. It serves one, due to unreasoning prejudice in the kale stakes.

Orachietti con cavolo nero
Serves 1

80-100g orachietti
a big handful of small cavolo nero leaves
half a tsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
6 anchovies
chilli flakes, to taste

Put a large pan of slightly salted water on to the boil. As soon as it boils, add the orachietti. Time it – when the water returns to the boil, allow the orachietti to cook for half the time specified on the packet (this usually means about 5 minutes). During this time, chop the cavolo nero and discard any tough-looking stems. Add the leaves to the orachietti once the 5 minutes have elapsed, and allow it to cook for the rest of the specified time – generally 10-12 minutes in total.

Warm the oil in a small frying pan over a gentle heat. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon. Add the chilli flakes and stir – cook very briefly.

Drain the pasta and cavolo nero well, and return them to their warm pan. Tip in the contents of the frying pan, stir everything together and serve immediately, with plenty of black pepper. Enjoy!

kale

* Confession time. Honesty makes me admit that kale can be difficult. Pick the wrong variety and cook it wrongly, and it can be every single one of the negative things listed. I once sowed an obscure heritage kale out of interest and respect for generations of north-of-Scotland crofters, and it was possibly one of the toughest things I’ve ever grown. It was beautiful to look at, very prolific, and shoes, it would have been fine for. Eating – meh…

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Chutney time!

There’s something about making chutney. I end up feeling virtuous because I’ve used up the last of my crop – inevitably, green tomatoes are involved –

tomatoes

and there’s a beautifully stocked cupboard to admire. Well, OK, it’s a box or two under the stairs but I still come over all Laura Ingalls Wilder: ‘Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things!’

Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of things: fresh chutneys, chutneys that are directly Indian in inspiration, traditional ‘British’ chutneys, chutneys using unusual or foraged ingredients (elderberry: very good). I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the lot. Cold meat, baked potato and chutney, oh yeah. Chunks of warm home-made bread with strong cheddar and chutney on the side, even more oh yeah. I’ve amassed a small library of recipes, some of which are sketchy in the extreme and some of which slide into picccallli territory (oh no).

I have now come up with a basic formula and just play around with it. It’s simple: 2kg vegetables / dry ingredients; 250g soft light brown sugar; 250ml cider vinegar and 125ml water. Spices to suit what I’m doing. I can fit this into my biggest Le Creuset casserole, and end up with (roughly) seven 300g jars (I eat a lot of Gaea’s wonderful Kalamata olives, and the empties are ideal).

steam risingThis year my two kilos were made up of 700g assorted tomatoes, mostly green; 350g finely chopped white onion, 200g sultanas and 750g apples (peeled weight). I added two chopped chillies and three scant teaspoons of tamarind paste, and made up a spice bag with cardamoms, plenty of coriander seeds, dried ginger, a few cloves and cumin seeds. That went in, followed by the sugar and the liquid, and I filled the whole kitchen with steam.

cookingI bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. It cooks down for maybe two hours, maybe longer, depending – but the consistent thing is regular stirring to ensure that absolutely nothing sticks, whatever ingredients I’m using.

I check it more frequently as it reduces and changes colour, and soon it becomes more and more rich (and smells delicious). I know it’s ready when I draw a wooden spoon through it along the bottom of the casserole, and it leaves a clear trail – the inside of my Le Creuset is white, making it really clear. I’ve had my jars, freshly washed, drying out and sterilizing in a low oven, and the lids have been in boiling water.

Fighting the urge to change into a Little (Li’l?) Pioneer frock (happily, there’s no longer any Laura Ashley in my wardrobe), I start potting.

chutney jarsFirst, I retrieve my jam funnel from wherever I put it last time I used it. This was inevitably months ago, and the search can a) take time, ideal for cooling the chutney a little, and b) reveal all sorts of interesting things, like a pastry rings and an espadrille which had fallen behind a drawer (??). Then I carefully fill the jars, pop the lids on and, when they are cool enough to handle, I tap them firmly to fill up any gaps. Well, some gaps.

And then they disappear into the box under the stairs to mature. They need to be left until Christmas at the very least, and preferably until this time next year; earlier, and they are but a pale shadow of what they will later be. It takes time to develop a real depth of flavour.

I tend to use the Garden Club’s summer show as a marker, because that’s when I go prospecting, pulling jars out and tasting to determine which one has the honour of being entered into one of the most keenly contested classes. I only won a third this year – possibly because I’d eaten most of last year’s Apple, Date and Ginger and only had half a jar left:

IMG_0489

I really couldn’t enter half a jar and had to put in the Green Ginger (green toms, courgettes, apples, onion, LOTS of ginger) even though I knew it needed more time. The AD&G is delicious, but unfortunately I can’t find the notes – they’re probably in the drawer with the other espadrille and the pastry rings, hang on while I go and look… and maybe the notes for my orange chutney from 2012 will be there too.

I know I should be more organised, but for me part of the enjoyment of making chutney lies in never making the same ones twice. It’s impossible anyway, as far as I’m concerned. This year, for instance, I didn’t have as many green toms as usual and my apples ripened incredibly quickly; last year I had left-over courgettes to go in, and even a few beans. I believe in going with the flow when it come to chutneys. Plus I won’t know what this year’s contribution is really like until next August. Good, I hope. Fingers crossed!

Optimism, vegetables and the gardening gods

Every year it’s the same. I plant more of almost everything than I need for the veg garden and give some of it away. Then the rest of it weakens or gets a terrible disease or is eaten by slugs or just keels over for no apparent reason – rather like sheep, incidentally, though sheep are less likely to be eaten by slugs – and I have to find replacements from elsewhere.

This year, it’s the tomatoes: my first lot developed early blight. Astonishingly early blight. Straight into the bin; wash everything in sight – and no tomatoes. Due to a mixture of friends’ generosity and some swift ecological elbowing at a Green Fair and plant swap, I now have replacements. Seven Gardener’s Delights, one Marmande, one Alicante and two complete mysteries because the person who brought them to the plant swap didn’t bother to label them. Hey, it’s an adventure.

veg patch waitingThen there’s the weather. All my plants have come on beautifully in the last couple of weeks, and it was time to put the windbreak up around the veg patch, put it up again after it blew down the first time, put it up a third time with new stakes and more swearing, accept that ground-in dirt doesn’t come off hands easily and that all jeans have muddy knees. I was a bit late, and it had to be done.

The yellow mangetout were muscling the lid off the cold frame and the beans were making a bid for freedom. The dill and flat-leaved parsley suddenly decided to behave like strange herby versions of Jack’s beanstalk and all the spuds burst out of the ground at once. The spring onions put on a couple of inch in growth overnight and the kale I’d been prevailed to take at the plant swap broke its pot. I swear I can hear the garlic growing. Everything which wasn’t already out got planted out over the weekend. I was chuffed; the veg patch looked good. But the gardening gods were watching out for horticultural hubris. Yesterday was a day of one thunderstorm after another, as if they hadn’t made their point with the first one, and today looks set to be the same. Damn.

So why do I bother?

Simply, because I’d hate myself if I didn’t, given that I have the space and (sometimes) the ability. I can grow the varieties I want and I can make economic decisions which make sense. Take, for instance, the humble onion. I can buy decent onions at a reasonable price, but decent shallots are a different matter (as, given some spectacular recent price hikes, are spring onions). So I grow them instead. I’m picky about potatoes, and my favourites are Ratte. Used to get them at Borough Market; Borough Market now 250 miles away and 12 years in the past. So I grow them.

And when you grow your own, you make the decisions about when to harvest. No cricket-ball-sized beetroot here; no giant furry broad beans that taste of cardboard. Oh yes, the beans. I do like beans – even if I always overdo it – and there are some delicious varieties out there which never see a shop. Until recently I grew Borlottis, but I’ve stopped now; instead the space is devoted to Cosse Violette, a new gold bean (called ‘Gold Bean’ – hm, wonder what colour it is, and could it be – shh – a bean?) and the small and sweet Cherokee Trail of Tears. Try asking for that in the Co-op…

tomato parentsAnd then there are happy accidents. I save seed and sometimes this can produce interesting things, like the year I produced the Costoluto Russian – or possibly a Black Fiorentino – tomato. They were delicious, but further attempts at deliberately crossing Black Russians and Costoluto Fiorentinos produced nothing exciting. Or, indeed, edible. Fluff. Not good. But you never know; I could have made tomato-breeding history.

These, by the way, are the parents, separated by a plant pot, and the unintended cross had all sorts of advantages. The plants were not as temperamental as the CFs and the fruit not as vine-breakingly enormous as the BRs, though I did miss the opportunity to repeat silencing the pub with a single 500g tomato, as I had the previous year. Again, you can’t recreate that experience in Tesco.

But I’m missing the most obvious advantage: taste. A warm tomato, fresh off the plant, eaten on the quiet when you’re supposed to be harvesting for the pot – nothing beats it. Those baby broad beans are packed with nuttiness; the potatoes actually taste of something; the beans each have a different feel and flavour. OK, so I may be picking caterpillars off the Cavalo Nero for ages but it’s worth it to have a ribollita with real punch. And when it comes to furtive picking, you have to go a long way to beat the sneaked pea. Or several. Now all I have to do is work out how to protect an entire veg patch from the vagaries of the weather.

Unseasonably cold? That means soup!

As a gardener, I do keep a sort of record – and so I know that it’s often chilly and stormy at this time of year, here on the west coast of Wales. I’ve often ended up having to replant things which I was rash enough to put in the veg beds, and I generally have the last fire in the woodburner about now. This year, however, I seem to have forgotten all that and have been taken by surprise. My immediate reaction, though, wasn’t to go out and chop logs. It was to make soup.

I don’t tend to have soups in summer; it seems wrong, on some sort of fundamental level. Don’t get me wrong; I like cold soups but it seldom occurs to me to make one. Whereas it’s almost the first thing I consider for lunch on a cold, rainy, windy day – in May. Grumble.

So I hit the recipe books and notes in search of inspiration, given that I’d also just come back from Aldi with a supply of veggie bargains. No more shopping; time to adapt and improvise and come up with something which would work. Because it is, ostensibly, spring I went to various Italian recipes – Italian food somehow seems less depressingly wintry than what’s happening outside – and ended up with a variation on an old favourite…

One word: I usually have home-made tomato and herb passata in the freezer; it’s a godsend if you grow too many tomatoes, as I always do (they’re as bad as the beans). By now I’m gearing up for the new growing year, and am keen to use what’s in stock; I’ve got another three boxes of this to go. But a bottle will do just as well, though adding a little basil would be good.

Emergency Minestra di Ceci
serves 4

Soup yum1 small red onion
1 banana shallot
5g butter
1 tsp olive oil
3 sticks of celery
2 small carrots
1 red pepper
350ml tomato passata
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme

Peel and finely chop the red onion and the shallot. Put the butter and oil in a heavy pan or casserole and heat them gently, then add the chopped onion and shallot. Sweat them over a low heat for 5 minutes or so, making sure that they don’t catch. Chop the celery and carrots finely while the onions are cooking, and then add them to the pan too. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the onion and shallot are transparent and softening. De-seed and chop the red pepper, also finely, and then add it to the pan as well. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, still making sure that nothing is burning by stirring regularly (and keeping an eye on the pan, of course).

Add the tomato passata and increase the temperature; add some water to bring the level of the liquid up to cover the veg. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Put the bay leaf in the soup and pull the leaves off the thyme and scatter them in as well. Bring the soup almost up to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer it for about 10 minutes, or until the carrot and pepper are beginning to get nice and soft. Tip in the chickpeas and cook for a further 5 minutes or so – longer if you want the chickpeas to disintegrate slightly; you may need also to add a little more water to get the soup to the consistency you prefer, but it should be thick. (If intending to freeze portions, bear in mind that they will be cooked more when reheated and don’t overcook the chickpeas at this stage.) Add seasoning to taste and serve as soon as the vegetables are done to your satisfaction, accompanied by chunks of bread.

not a good ideaNow I have the freezer bulging again. Nothing better than soup for freezing. And nothing better for freezing gardeners than a bowl of hot soup.

But there’s a lot that’s better for cameras than trying to photograph soup while it’s actually cooking… happily the new camera seems to have recovered. Not sure about me, but there you go.

In the hungry gap…

Every year I end up in this position come April and May. Nothing to eat. Er, except for a huge stash of frozen green beans, and they’re beginning to pall a little.

dig for victoryIt may seem surprising to anyone who doesn’t grow vegetables – though obviously we all should (!) and this is an accurate depiction of me, by the way – but this is the time of year when home-grown produce is thin on the ground. Traditionally, it’s the season when labourers and peasants’ resources were at their most stretched and starvation was a real possibility.

Happily that’s not (quite) the case now, but it can still be an issue for anyone who likes to grow as much of their own veg as possible. There just isn’t that much available. Brassicas and the like are mostly over by now, going to seed as the temperature increases, and nothing else has yet come on stream.

Admittedly there is a variety of kale which fills the gap – introduced to Britain in 1941, when it was most desperately needed – but I’ve lived on kale at this time of year before now and I’m not keep to repeat the experience. And that’s what it does: repeat. I shall say no more, but my decision has been a popular one. If you’d like to test it for yourself, Chiltern Seeds usually have Hungry Gap Kale. It’s frost resistant (not a problem for me), and it does have a good flavour, but… oh, yes; I said I would say no more. Instead I’m just going to stand in the garden and sigh.

We are still lucky though. Not only can we garden without the risk of enemy parachutists landing in the potato plot, we can supplement our stock with food from the shops. And even if we try not to fall back on that to any great extent, we do not have to actually can anything, though apparently one in five US households still do. Listen to Betty MacDonald on the perils of home canning in the late 1920s:

First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so it won’t be wasted. Frankly I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all of my spare time reading up on botulism…

That risk still exists today: between 1996 and 2008 there were 48 outbreaks of botulism in the US that were directly linked to home-canned food, and botulism kills – nastily. To me, this doesn’t sound like something I should be doing; I’m thinking the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, but with a jar of home-canned cauliflower.

beans dryingThank goodness we have freezers now (admittedly freezers full of french beans). Incidentally, the same over-production addiction – Betty MacD. noted that her neighbours were eating the season before the season before’s produce, and were still planting and planning on canning the current season’s stuff – applies today. I know I don’t need quite so many climbing beans this year, but guess what’s in the cold frame, ready to go out?

And in a few months time they’ll have been blanched and be drying off, ready for packing and putting in the freezer…

I’ve seen all sorts of alternative suggestions for things to fill the hungry gap but I’m not sure I could live on asparagus – and though I wouldn’t mind trying the season is short and doesn’t actually fill the gap. However, these ‘options’ mostly come down to other brassicas – purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, and more kales – and in my experience most of these are already bolting. Squashes, if seasoned well in a good autumn (and that’s a big ‘if’ for me here in Snowdonia) will keep, but even they are failing now, going a little squishy at the base or stalk or, alternatively, getting so hard you have to take an axe to them. Leeks can stay in the ground so they’ve been recommended, but by late April they’re generally sending up spectacular seed heads or are so woody as to be unusable. It’s that HG kale or diddly squat. Diddly squat, then.

Despite this, I rather like the hungry gap in a perverse way, even if I am fed up to the back teeth of frozen beans. It connects me one of the main reasons I bought a house with a decent garden: feeding myself. It reminds me that food should never be taken for granted, and that seasonality should be a factor in my diet. The more I rely on out of season foodstuff from a supermarket, the greater the negative impact on the environment. I know it’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a bigger thing. And in my case, a giant vegetable soup. Or Spanish green beans. Or green beans with tomato. Or a green Thai curry featuring – you guessed – green beans. Or just plain green beans with tomato sauce and fish fingers (getting desperate here). Green bean terrine?

Hang on a second – there is something other than frozen beans, though I’m not quite sure it’s a substitute for tomatoes, spuds, onions, beetroot, courgettes. The rhubarb looks promising…

Dealing with The Great Apple Glut, II…

Last year was wonderful. We didn’t have a summer as such, except in March, and that was just at the wrong time. My apple trees flowered early in a bit of a panic, there were only a few bees about and, as a consequence, I had very few apples. This gave me a breathing space which I appreciated. But this year I’m back to normal. I’m not complaining; I’m just running out of ideas.

There were three old apple trees in this garden and, when I moved in, I thought they’d be too elderly to present much of a problem. Wrong.

One doesn’t do much. Another is a Cox, and the apples it produces are prolific but beloved of the birds. The third is un-be-lievable. We’re talking carrier bags. So far this year I’ve given away nine, and I’m not talking half-full bags either. I’m talking bags so full the handles give way. And we’re picky when we’re picking – anything chewed, nibbled or pecked gets thrown over the wall into the wildy bit next door. Then I’m faced with the problem of what to do with what remains. A lot get given away, though my picking companion has his own problem and I can’t offload give him any. Chutney gets made, of course, and crumbles. And I’m also very fond of an apple cake which always goes down well – even though it only uses about three…

The original recipe has been much adapted. It came from a Good Housekeeping book on wholefood cookery that was published in 1980, on appropriately brown and gritty paper. Mind you, the attitudes in the text are rather 1950s – readers are warned, for instance, not to have too many spicy foods like curries because they ‘may overload the system’, and are told that business lunches can be a problem ‘for the husband who eats so much at lunchtime that he cannot face the large meal his wife has cooked in the evening’.  Grr. Sisters may be doing it for themselves, but not men – or not in the 1980 world of Good Housekeeping, evidently. Also some of the recipes are, quite frankly, disgusting. What on earth would possess anyone to make ‘breakfast in a glass’ with coffee substitute (?) boiled up with milk, strained through a sieve, then blended with – wait for it – an egg and a teaspoon of honey. NOOO.

apple cakeHowever it is worth persisting, if only for the baking section. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it’s a Good Housekeeping book, this is rather better and I have used a lot of the recipes in it. They are fine once I’ve worked on them a bit to make them less heavily penitential; there seems to have been some feeling that the proverbial reputation of wholefoods had to be maintained by producing worthy, weighty slabs of brownness. I find this odd, as by the 1980s even Cranks had begun to lighten up a little, both literally and metaphorically. So here is my heavily adapted, very heavily adapted – perhaps I should say ‘inspired by’ instead – contribution to coping with the apple glut, part two.

Apple and walnut cake

175g butter, soft
175g unrefined sugar
3 medium eggs
175g self-raising wholemeal flour (or 100g wholemeal and 75g white)
100g chopped walnuts
75g sultanas
half a tsp ground cinnamon
350g cooking apples (about three medium ones)
25g Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to gas 4 / 180 degrees C (conventional; 160 fan). Grease and line a round 18 cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add a little flour with each one to help prevent curdling. Gently fold in the rest of the flour, half (50g) the chopped walnuts, all the sultanas and the cinnamon. Peel the apples and grate them straight into the bowl, folding them into the mixture one by one. It is easier to grate them if you leave the core intact for holding, then discard it afterwards. Spoon the mixture into the tin and level it out.

Put the rest of the walnuts on a chopping board and chop them even more finely using a large knife. Mix them with the Demerara sugar and sprinkle this crunchy topping evenly over the surface of the cake. Bake it in the oven for 90 minutes, then test to see whether it is cooked – a skewer or, if you’re me, a fine knitting needle, should come out clean – and you may find you need to leave it in the oven for another 10 minutes or so. When it’s done, take it out of the oven, put it on a wire rack and allow it to cool in the tin for at least 15 minutes before very carefully removing the tin – don’t turn the cake upside down to do this as some of the topping will fall off. Allow it to cool completely before serving.

A few tips to avoid unfortunate consequences (don’t ask me how I know):

1. This cake will not rise overmuch because of the topping, so do not be alarmed if the tin appears rather fuller than you might expect. Do not be tempted to transfer it to a larger tin. One word. Biscuit.

2. Even if you have another 67,945 carrier bags full of apples, do not be tempted to add more to the mix to see if it works. Err on the side of caution. Unless you like a sort of apply, slimy, slithery bread pudding, that is. I hate bread pudding. Any kind.

3. The cake mixture can seem a little heavier than you might expect. Do not be tempted to add liquid. See reason 2 above. The apples provide enough juice. Really.

4. Using dessert apples makes a sweeter cake, but it’s not supposed to be intensely sweet; it should have a slight tartness to it which is refreshing (according to some of the village garden club who have just tested one I made for an open garden event). Also eating apples can be too juicy. See reason 2 yet again.

5. I use the coarse half of a flat grater and rest it over the bowl; it works fine. The apples shouldn’t be too finely grated and if you do them in a food processor they can either go to mush or go brown, or both. Using the old-fashioned method doesn’t take long, works much better and doesn’t involve so much swearing (or washing up, come to that, for those of us who can’t have dishwashers because we rely on 200-year-old soakaways).

6. Depending on your oven, you might need to cover the cake with foil towards the end of cooking to prevent the top from catching. Only open the door to do this in the last 20 mins or so. Alternatively, cook the cake towards the bottom of the oven rather than in the middle. Especially if the unfamiliar oven you are using has an overhead element that cannot be turned off, unless you want a cold oven. Not a good experience.

All right, that used three apples. Hmm:

strewthRemember tip 2. Remember tip 2. Remember tip 2…

Really real seeds

I’ve always tried to grow at least some of my own food, even if that’s only been herbs in a window box. Now I grow much more, and last week I had a deep disappointment over beetroot, but at least they weren’t mine. I know that for some people the very existence of beetroot might be a deep disappointment, but I’m not one of them. I love beetroot, the earthy taste, the sharp fruity sweetness (if that’s possible), and most of all I love roasted beets chopped into a feta salad. Unfortunately I didn’t grow any myself this year – illness at planting time restricted my activity – and so when I saw some at the local produce market, I grabbed them. They were smaller than most, about the size of a golf ball, promising concentrated flavour.

Wrong. Texture, yes. Flavour? Nah.

You can grow things beautifully, with great care. You can harvest them when they should be tasty and succulent. But if you don’t have a good, tasty variety in the first place, what’s the point? And if you buy seed from the Big Boys your chances of getting a tasty end result are dimininshed. That’s because the Big Boys have to sell approved seed, and approved seed means commercial varieties. Varieties designed for the supermarket, by and large, where taste is not the first priority. Often the seeds on offer are F1 hybrids, so you can’t save the seed because they won’t come true, and they won’t have been bred to suit the domestic grower anyway. Oh, the copy on the packets or the in the catalogues may make them sound good, but stop a mo to consider what some of the wording means. ‘Good for freezing’ for instance, on a packet of French beans. All French beans are good for freezing. What this means in this context is that they’ve been designed (bred or engineered) to all ripen at the same time, which is what commercial growers need. Gardeners do not; we generally prefer our mad, insane, ripening season to be spread out a little bit, if only to ease the stress on our nerves and picking hands. Nor do most of us demand ‘good uniform fruit’ – another strap line – but supermarkets do. Flavour, they’re not so bothered about. And, almost inevitably, many adaptable and delicious (often local) strains of vegetables have been lost in the past 40 or 50 years.

This brings me to a company who are the first of my local food heroes. I’m stretching ‘local’ a bit here, but they are in Wales. South-west Wales, but Wales nonetheless: The Real Seed Catalogue. I try and order most of my seed from them, at least in the beginning – and that’s at their encouragement, because one of their aims, at the cost to their own profits, is to get people to save their own seed. So what’s different about them? That would be almost everything. They specialise in heirloom and heritage seeds, seeds for plants that have been shown to really work, seeds for plants that are packed with flavour.

kaleTake one example, Sutherland Kale. I first grew this a couple of years ago, and it’s a smasher. It’s also a perfect illustration of the philosophy behind Real Seeds. It’s a real heirloom variety, now thought to be extinct except for individual gardens – and the Real Seeds seedbank. It can withstand almost anything in my exposed garden (even cabbage whites, which have been hellish this year), and still perform. And it tastes great, so several ticks for this variety already. Then there’s how it came to be offered through Real Seeds, which illustrates the collaborative community they have built up. As the packet says: ‘This variety was saved for years by Elizabeth Woolcombe of West Drummie in Sutherland, who is now 93. She got it from a kale researcher [who knew there were such jobs?] called Angus Simmonds in the 1950s…’ and it was sent in by someone called V. Shilling. Not exactly a product of intensive development, then, designed to produce lots of kale for a giant supermarket distribution centre in, say, the third week of February. Maybe this year they’ll be adding Shetland Kale, as they have had seeds submitted for trial and it’s currently doing well. And they do trial; nothing gets in the catalogue or on the website unless it works. Everything is grown at their place in Pembrokeshire for family use; if it’s fiddly, fastidious or tasteless it doesn’t make the cut. But it’s not parochial; there’s a wide selection of oriental vegetables, for example, or tasty Bulgarian tomatoes alongside the more familiar Cosse Violette climbing beans and the Verde di Italia courgettes. And they all work.

Adaptability is vital; growing your own vegetables can be chancy enough without unconsciously trying to replicate commercially grown varieties. The small team at Real Seeds also make sure that they select the best seed in the first place, something most gardeners used to do but which is impossible on a highly commercial scale. They also continuously assess the range of seeds they offer, looking at areas which are a little light – runner beans, for instance, or endives – and deliberately going in search of appropriate possibilities. Some of the things they offer might be an acquired taste (I’m not quite sure why I ordered the cucumber I did one time, but let’s just say it didn’t make my cut, though some friends loved it), or completely unfamiliar – but I follow the advice of one of the River Cottage books and grow something unfamiliar every year. And I know that if I fancy growing huauzontle*, there’ll be decent seeds available, clear instructions and even a few recipes delivered with my seeds.

*A Mexican contribution, otherwise known as ‘Aztec greens’, Chenopodium berlandieri. Now you know…