Tag Archives: ranting

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.

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Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…