30 August 2011

Science with Peter

Long promised and long awaited:
Why you must eat cabbage within two hours of harvesting. Or, why children are right to loathe school dinner cabbage and most brussels sprouts.

In order to enjoy a cabbage in all its glorious sweetness, your choices are these, in order of preference:
1 Pick your own and cook within two hours.
2 Find one at a farmers market, picked yesterday (but remember to cook it at once).
3 In winter buy brussels sprouts on their own sticks. The sprouts are under the impression that they're still growing so they stay fresh for longer.
4 Last choice, and only in desperation, go to a supermarket, where your cabbage will have been sitting around for quite a while. And it will have received bumps and bruises which you may not be able to see but you will be able to taste.

This is the point with cabbages - we rarely experience their better side. However, there are people in the know and I feel privileged to impart this crucial information. The old boys at the allotment of a Sunday morning consider the handling of cabbages in their order of business. They cut their cabbage last and take it home carefully (not via the pub). It is imperative that one's brassicas are dropped into boiling water without delay, and especially, without being bumped.

'When brassicas are bashed they start to produce mustard oil', Peter informs us in the tack room at Marsh Hall. I've begun carrying a notebook when Peter is around: idle conversation is never completely idle.

'This emission of oil makes them taste and smell horrid. The more a cabbage is bashed the more mustard oil it produces. One of the nastiest smells you can get is the smell of rotting cabbages.' And then: 'Mustard oil is only a few molecules away from mustard gas.' What!

Notoriously, mustard gas was used during the First World War, as an added weapon in shell attacks. It is a blistering agent and can sometimes lead to a slow and painful death. Somehow, ironically, it is odorless.

Telling non-believers about the three or four degrees of separation between cabbage and poison gas will not make any converts. Instead, try boiling your freshly cut cabbage and serve it proudly, along with a blindfold.

26 August 2011

Market News

When it rains relentlessly at the Market, as it did today, everything looks different.
There are people about but they are only giving their time in the wet to absolute essentials: fruit and veg, fish, ultra-cheap household effects. When it rains, the latter tradespeople cover their stall on all sides with white tarpaulin. This provides a very pleasing backdrop for Dave the plant man.

On a dry day his stall is a little meadow on tables, against a cacophony of plastic and cellophane. Today, naturally hydrated and softly lit, it resembles a stand from the Great Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show.

24 August 2011

Fast Food of the Gods

There is something medieval about the concept of foraging: like wassailing, it needs an 'a' in front of it. In England, this is a good time to go a-foraging, with the hedgerows full of sloes and haws and hips. With the exception of blackberries though, foraging in the hedgerows can require a leap of the imagination, or quite a bit of patience and know-how. We like crab apple jelly, but only birds appreciate crab apples straight from the tree.

Further south, by the Mediterranean, well - it's a different story. The land might be arid and dusty but there is plenty to harvest from plants growing out of stone walls, food which is ready to be eaten there and then. So many wild things are edible: figs, almonds, fennel, anise, (cactus fruit and pomegranates will require a knife). You'll never run out of garlic...

Grapes drip over the walls/garages/disused bread ovens of other people's gardens, and olive trees look sculptural around their pools. The owners may have left for the summer, so, more foraging.

A sarong becomes a toga, flip flops look almost elegant and the scene is instantly classical. It's 800 miles away from the clogs and gaiters of the peasants back home.

23 August 2011

Further Top Tips from an Under Gardener

It is unwise to undress in your employer's garden. You may feel an insect crawling up your leg, you may shake your leg in a distracted way before getting a crazy idea that it's a wasp. You might pull one leg out in a hurry and give your trousers a shake.

Do not. Because there is a tiny but very real chance that your employer will appear from behind a bush saying 'Hello?'.
Just at the moment that a large cricket jumps out of your trousers.

20 August 2011

Appreciating... Rust

Rust-to-order has been around for a while and is pretty as well as neat. At this year's Cottesbrooke Plantfinders Fair it was hard to avoid the chic-ness of it amongst the stands and in the hoovered borders by Arne Maynard. There the carefully rusted hoops complement the claret hues of the planting, so immaculately.

But iron which has had a life, and is now keeping busy in retirement, accumulating rust as it goes, is much lovelier. In the less groomed parts of England, bits of beds have been put to practical use for years. My friend Peter remembers his parents growing their raspberries along bedsteads in their Swindon cottage garden. On the Balearic Islands, from which I have just returned, iron pipes and iron bedsprings are cobbled together as gates.
Gates which are impossible to open.

Gates to Open in a Hurry

...And gates which should never be opened.
Welded reinforcing rods for concrete, with decoration.

The swift-action classic, made from olive.

Requires concentration while opening. And closing.

A palette and boulder arrangement, best left alone.