The Ungardening Year

This year, despite living on a six acre smallholding, I have essentially had no garden in which to grow stuff. Earlier this year, I fell upon a solution to this most frustrating of conundrums and invented a new style of horticultural pursuit known simply as ungardening. Alarmingly or encouragingly depending on just how feckless and indolent you are, this approach seems to have resulted in my most successful growing year yet.
Even early on in the year, things were looking up even as the diggers were moving in. I salvaged the garlic days before the old veg patch was smashed up good and proper, the plumpest, juiciest garlic I have yet managed to grow despite being dug up about a month early. It lasted about two months, which isn’t bad considering the only thing I don’t add garlic to is coffee.

I grew some seedlings on a windowsill. Most of them, admittedly ended their days parched, stunted and yellow on a bench outside the front door, sacrificed to the god of not having anywhere to plant out your seedlings. But the few lucky ones, a trayful of tomatillos, and some Black Russian and Sungold tomatoes, were rehoused in the balmy Elysian idyll that is the school greenhouse. I was rewarded for my lack of planning with bagfuls of fruit. Most of it was green but I readily converted my spoils into tomatillo salsa, green tomato chutney, pickles and ketchup, happily more than enough to ensure that all my family members will be receiving a variety of green tomato based Christmas presents this year, and maybe next year as well (the ones I haven’t already earmarked for the bounty of home rendered lard that is), firmly cementing my position as ‘relative most likely to be disinherited’.

I had enough red / purple tomatoes to make a couple of jars of super tasty tomato sauce and I also had one of the massive ugly Black Russian bruisers sliced up on sourdough bruschetta with grilled ewe’s milk cheese which as well as being the most middle class elevenses I’ve ever had was also delicious (in the interests of balance I followed it up with a few factory spoiled pink wafers washed down with a blue Panda Pop).

I planted courgettes and pumpkins seedlings out in two locations, out on the manure / nettle heap and on some rubble to one side of the old veg garden. I have never had much luck with either of these vegetables, managing always to grow foliage that would not look out of place swathing Sleeping Beauty’s castle but hardly any fruit. Again I was blessed with so much plant that if I had actually been trying to grow anything else it would have been a problem. It was still a problem in that most of the energy was going into the plant so relatively speaking I garnered fewer fruits than I should have. But as I had about thirty plants strewn around the place I have been kept in courgettes all summer, and the seven or so pumpkins will keep me going (pumpkin wise anyhow – I still require my weekly rations of rough red, crunchy cheddar and Tangfastics, obviously) until well into next year. Granted, I no longer have any nutrients left in any soil anywhere but at least I’ll have a freezer clogged up with pumpkin soup for the foreseeable future. And lovely pumpkin it is too. Or is it squash? I actually have no idea as I threw the packet away as soon as I had sowed the seeds and with it any memory of the variety.

My greenhouses are all dead now, their bleached worm’d bones / shards of lethal splintery glass scattered as far as the eye can see, so there were no cucumbers this year, but as well as cuckooing the school greenhouse for the toms I also managed to actually nurture a chilli plant to maturity. That I bought the infant plant from a shop is neither here nor there. That it was plagued with aphids that caused the entire corner of the dining room to become coated in sticky filthy goo is neither here nor there either. Forty chillies, people. Forty chillies. The most I’ve managed previously is two chillies from six plants. I have now ‘pruned’ it ie removed every last piece of fricking aphid mucassed leaf and BURNT them in an actual bonfire, fully confident that the black damp twig that now remains will spring back to life at some point next year and go forth and chillify once more, preferably far less inhabited by goo bugs. No really. It will.

It’s not all unqualified partial half assed success though. The failures are all quite wishy washy too. The bathful of salads and beans didn’t last very long but beanwise at least the results were no worse than any of my previous growing attempts, and I actually got a few meals out of them. And the geese LOVED the salads. Meanwhile, the lone globe artichoke I ‘favoured’ by repotting it outside the front door languished and died, only to burst back into life in late September. Naturally, it has started to die again now, deprived as it is of nourishment and space, proof if proof were needed (NB it isn’t) that I am the kind of gardener that not only kills things but kills them twice. My amazing spontaneous veg hedge full of potatoes, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, borage and nasturtium looked fantastic earlier in the year. It now resembles a giant caterpillar after a fight with an equally outsized sea cucumber. My smug potato based grin at discovering it was full of spuds was slapped right off my face when the plants died back and I couldn’t locate any of the tubers, and as it’s a hedgebank you can’t really do that much digging around in it in the same way you could in a bed. There are still plenty of Jerusalem artichokes if you like that sort of thing (personally I can take them or leave them. So I have left them. Ensuring that next year I will have nine times as many of them to shrug at.)

Apparently Tom, my brother in law and sometime garden type for a living, is coming round tomorrow to make a start on the raised beds, and thus will come to an end my year of living without a vegetable garden (aside from, you know, the other thirty seven years I managed it). I can’t say I’m not glad, which after several moments of brain-hurting deliberation I THINK means I’m pleased about it. I can’t wait to have a proper vegetable plot again. As interesting a non-experiment the old ungardening has been I have felt weirdly disconnected, cut adrift, just that bit more useless than I usually do. I find myself drifting about on the veg garden site, crunching through glass and tripping over the footings for the raised beds, standing where the polytunnel will one day stand (c. 2047) missing the ordered chaos of my old garden, longing for the day when the potting shed bench, currently a sound stage for my son’s Lego stop motion animation efforts, will once again be covered in broken seed trays, strewn compost and open seed packets instead of tiny plastic flames and evil crocodile-headed overlords.

The spades and forks will again be trip hazards, laying across the paths hidden by docks and nettles instead of lined up on the shed walls like trophies of some long forgotten battle in the cobwebbed hall of an aged embittered warrior king who fought mainly with gardening tools. The brassica netting, currently bundled into a corner behind the orthopedic mattress (nope, no idea) will once again come loose and trap all the butterflies in with the cauliflowers and snag without fail on the tines of every passing fork. And the plants themselves will surge from the soil rank after rank, striving past thistles and the slugs sheltering under discarded pots, fighting the good fight once again: the fight for the right to grow to at least three quarters of their specified height and be put into a soup or dressed with a nice anchovy based sauce.

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Given the Pip

Everyday is Apple Day at the moment here in Devon, especially Saturdays and Sundays. There’s barely a farm or estate across the county that’s not getting in on the act. One day they might get round to standardising it so everyone will celebrate the humble apple on one day alone (with Wassailing being a kind of apple Easter). Then we can all spend the SAME day standing around crammed into orchards ignoring each other in our Rab gilets paying 50p a crank of a hastily assembled catalogue apple press for half a teaspoon of radioactive verjus, carving apple ‘sculptures’ (cutting some apples up), doing apple ‘crafts’ (cutting some paper up), shuffling along in winding queues for a high welfare pork and apple sausage baps like so many Joules catalogue models making the world record attempt for the unfriendliest AND slowest ever conga, determinedly sipping a pint of warm ‘Pippin’s Old Face Scrunger’ until it is finished because it cost the best part of five quid whilst trying to prevent the puppy from skittling any more toddlers in his sheer permanent joy at beholding any member of the human race especially the small ones, repressing the urge to shout ‘WHAT I WOULDN’T GIVE FOR A SPICY CURRY POT NOODLE RIGHT NOW’ and finally failing to ignore the kids who aside from only entertaining an apple if it is both Kermit green and utterly flawless, have been asking repeatedly since you paid the entrance fee if they can go home and play Minecraft now.

“NO,” I, er, you trill. “This is NICE.” Attempting to wrest the children’s interest back to the miraculous fecundity of the mother earth goddess, and also inclined to salvage as much enforced so called fun out of the ninety minute round trip as possible you hastily encourage them to scrounge some sweet chestnuts from a neighbouring field, which is all well and good until a flat capped mockney appears with his two kids, both of which the dog immediately tries to knock over.

“Tyke, jas the wans on the graand, yeah?” he drawls in perfect Westminster School Barrer Boy, seemingly oblivious to your existence. “Naaa Jago, gedddaaahn from theyar! The faaarma’ll have your gats for gaaaaah’ers!!!! Never mind wot yor mavva’ll say if I takes yer back wiv a broken orm free days before yer French ‘Orn recital!!! Nah GERTCHA!!!” Deciding against pointing out that the farmer in question was long gone and it was all National Trust as far as the eye could see, you cast him a glance that would wither the Aigles off a weekending investment banker. Who does he think he is, in his tweed blazer and yellow cords, elbowing in on your patch, nicking your future marron glace / compost? Hmm? YOU who have farmed this land, or at least some a mere fifteen miles west, for almost three years now (if you count five chickens and a pick up as farming, if not it’s STILL TWO (sheep are DEFO farming)). Townies, eh? They come here, trample the cornflowers, spend inordinate amounts of money on loganberry and cobnut tiffin, crowd out the (nice) pubs, barking loudly of how you tell a sloe from a haw and about the time they ate roadkill muntjac at Ludo’s Summer place in Lombardy. Your teeth clench as the rusticated twat-hatted chancer swoops down in front of you plucking up the mushroom you’ve been eyeing, ninety nine percent sure it’s a Wood Blewit, and squashes it into his waistcoat pocket behind his giant iPhone 6. Luckily for him by this point the poo bag you were using to collect your bounty is just about full (yeah, true, you COULD have bought a hand-woven applewood trug off Calendula the woodswoman but it was that or the kids’ school dinners for the next month) so you bid Tyke, Jago and Pops a fond ‘oi, oiiiiii!’ and call it a day. Back home, preparing the chestnuts for your dinner of stuffed mushrooms, you find every other one full of strange brown dust and a fat white maggot, nestling like the canker worm slumbering at the blackened heart of liberal middle England.

(I didn’t tell Jamie. He’s a bit squeamish.)
Gor Blimey Stuffed Mushrooms
Four large flat mushrooms, stalks removed and finely chopped
Poo bag full of sweet chestnuts (not horse ones, as they are very poisonous. You’ll know you’ve got the right sort if you spend the rest of the week picking bright green spines from out from under your fingernails. Sweet chestnuts also have a kind of pointy beard, and aren’t also called conkers.)
Medium onion, chopped
Two cloves garlic, or six if you’re me, crushed

Herbes de provence, or ‘some herbs’ as I like to say. (Rosemary, oregano, thyme. Etc.)
Cream cheese
Grated cheddar
Breadcrumbs (if you’ve got any – I didn’t)
1 – Preheat oven to 200°C, gas Mark 6
2 – Slash and blanch the chestnuts in boiling water for about ten minutes until they are soft. Take out of shells. You will probably prefer to discard the ones with maggots in unless you are Ray Mears. Chop ’em up, trying not to think about maggots (this is QUITE difficult).
3 – Fry onion, chopped mushroom stalk and garlic in a bit of oil or butter until softened. Add salt, pepper, herbs and chopped chestnuts. Fry for a few more minutes.

4 – Take off the heat and stir in a handful of breadcrumbs, and enough cream cheese to bind. The heat from the pan should melt the cream cheese making it easy to stir in.
5 – When you have achieved the desired consistency (you are aiming for the firm side of sludgy) dollop into the gaping stalkless cavity of the mushrooms (which you will have arranged nicely on a baking dish) and press down.
6 – Sprinkle generously with grated cheddar cheese, a few breadcrumbs and some black pepper, and pop into your oven. Or put it in, if you don’t do popping. It is ready when the top is nice and golden and the big mushroom is cooked through.
7 – Serve with stir fried sprouted beans with pancetta, roasted courgette and a baked potato. For example.

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Review: A Little Piece of England by John Jackson

Months ago, when the promise of Spring was wriggling gamely from the mire left behind by a mild but mardy winter, making cute squeaks of effort, chucking crocuses and ducklings hither and yon, we Vegetablists, still shrugging off the shredded paper and rubbing post hibernation sleep from our scrunched up peepers like so many Blue Peter tortoises were sent a smallholding memoir to review. As the resident idiot hobby farm correspondent and all round book fan (books are GREAT, aren’t they?) it found it way on to my desk / disgusting dining table weirdly boasting ‘varnish’ the EXACT shade of Morrison’s Right Price spaghetti hoop juice, and became instantly obscured by woolly hats, bits of old Weetabix, an assortment of shredded comics, laptops, dog treats, cats, several other books and half a dozen chewed up socks. Which at least partially explains why its taken me the best part of three seasons to get round to reviewing it. And then there’s the fact that reading is not something I have a great deal of time for, I mean in the way that LITERALLY I have NO TIME to do it in rather than I think there are better things to do with my spare time, because I don’t – I just don’t HAVE any spare time. Which, having finally managed to read the book in its entirety, I am sure is something John Jackson, author of ‘A Little Piece of England’ and apparent doer of ninety three things at once will identify easily with. (ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR SEGUE, thanks very much.)

The book was originally published in 1979 under the title ‘A Bucket of Nuts and a Herring Net’, a reference to Jackson’s proven method for luring sheep to, well, wherever he wanted them to go. As an object, the reissue is quite lovely – a small, perfectly heftable hardback, with a creamy dust-jacket boasting a line drawing by celebrated illustrator Val Biro. Biro’s beautiful illustrations also introduce each chapter, which discretely deal with various aspects of life on the Kent smallholding which the Jackson family moved to in the mid sixties, having escaped the London suburbs. Most of the chapters unfold in a series of vignettes and anecdotes retold in Jackson’s affable, easy prose and as such the book reads a bit like a transcription of a likeable uncle’s after dinner ramblings. Albeit an uncle who has possibly had a little bit too much brandy. And really likes the sound of his own voice. Which is actually okay, because he’s good fun and most of what he’s going on about is really quite interesting anyway. We are introduced to the many different animals they take on over the years and favourite characters are recalled with real affection and humour. For me this is where the book is at its most successful. The chapter about the goats was particularly delightful and faintly gobsmacking – Chance was sent through the post and turned out to be a hermaphrodite. The description of Snowy and Fancy capering in the moonlight was utterly bewitching and has altered forever my previous opinion of goats as kind of greedy gangly precocious sheep with weird rectangular eyeballs (though regretfully, short of evolution, nothing can change the fact that they still have weird rectangular eyeballs).

Also notable is the extent to which the various family members blithely take things on without a moments doubt that they are ill equipped or lacking in experience, be it rearing baby owls or building a new barn. They just take it on, for better or worse, work things out, and generally muddle through in a thoroughly admirable kind of way. And all without a single reference to Google, which these days is probably as much a definition of self sufficiency as anything. Other chapters’ subjects include the arduous retelling of the building of the aforementioned outbuilding, the division of labour between family members and the epic journey to Devon to pick up hay for the winter. Over all a picture is painted of a family all pulling together to achieve the aim of self sufficiency or as near as dammit, and despite the glaringly obvious fact that they started off in a highly privileged position (and Jackson continues to work in London full time throughout) their life on the Ridge seems less of a decision based on middle class whimsy than an inevitability, a turning towards the light; they all seem born to it, at least from Jackson’s retelling, and all three of his children have found careers directly or indirectly traceable to their rural upbringing.

For all its charms, though, I much preferred the book’s original title and wondered at its being replaced. For a hand wringing soppy liberal like me, ‘A Little Piece of England’ comes across like the title of a UKIP guide to Benidorm chip shops and also neatly contracts inevitably into ‘Little England’ with all attendant implications. This niggle is hardly assuaged by the discovery that John Jackson was the founder of the Countryside Alliance, a organisation which campaigns upon many different aspects of rural life but is inextricably connected in most people’s minds with toffs moaning about fox hunting and making a jolly good fist of alienating themselves into the bargain. You might not think that any of this matters in terms of the book’s contents and I’m not entirely sure that I do. It’s an enjoyable read and will appeal especially to anyone who dreams of running a smallholding. You can read it on purely the level of an anecdotal memoir, but I suspect that Jackson also wants to convey through it his belief that our connection with the land is fundamental to a meaningful existence, and when that is lost we lose something of ourselves and our ability to be properly fulfilled. The way most of us live removes us, layer by layer, from the things that ultimately make us tick, at least properly tick, until we are utterly dependent upon others for everything. Convenience is king, and it’s rendering us useless. I don’t imagine he’s advocating that we all troop down to the river and start banging our trollies with rocks; the trappings of modern life have also brought welcome liberation from drudge and personal freedoms unimaginable to previous generations, especially for women (at least in the West). But there’s a balance to be had, a clawing back to be done, skills to relearn, values to adjust. There is, Jackson asserts, a simple inherent joyfulness in doing things and making things ourselves, especially those things directly connected with the land, the basic means of food production. Watching things grow, reaping the rewards, as well as working within a community, exchanging skills, experiences enriched by being shared. And whether you’re milking a cow on your Kent smallholding, growing chillies on an apartment windowsill or simply doffing your cap to a bumble bee from a ditch it’s all part of the same thing. So chuck your iPad out of the window and get your wellies on pronto. There’s muck to be cherished.

Click here to find out more about John Jackson and ‘A Little Piece of England’

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The Stuffer of Dreams

Ah Summer. You were great while you lasted. You still are kind of lasting. The children are back at school, be-freckled and cheesed off, drowsing in the mid September haze, chewing their pencils, gazing off across the playground, dreaming of long days filled with endless arguments over ancient Beano annuals and how many yogurt tubes the other one has already had, and even longer days at Crealy Park World of Adventure. Jamie hunches over his keyboard pretending he’s not looking at Facebook, painful, precious memories of him and his friends having tug of war contests with the pick up, the tractor, the Landrover and Paul Totterdell’s ludicrously pneumatic Hilux in the field and jumping Tom’s written off Peugeot over ramps, fading now as the first leaves lose their verdant glow and plunge, everlong into their fiery epilogue. Autumn has crept in unannounced, eaten the last forgotten Fab lolly wedged down between the Quorn burgers and a mysterious tupperware box full of rock hard beige matter and put its loamy boots up on the pouffe, shrouding the hills in low smoky cloud like the faux Victorian wedding veil round a plump goth girl’s freshly dyed green tresses caught in a breeze as she waits for her beau (Spider – cravat, silver topped cane, brothel creepers) outside the Dracula Experience on Whitby seafront.

Mists. CHECK. Fruitfulness. CHECK. Clammy o’er-brimm’d bee cells. Er, CHECK. He knew his stuff, old Coughing Johnny. What he didn’t know about Autumn you couldn’t fit in a sweet kernel’d hazel shell. I love Autumn. It’s my favourite time of year but this year it is especially welcome as I can start to feel a bit less guilty about not doing any gardening except for courgettes and squashes / swollen gourds, and they kind of garden themselves. Instead of gardening we have been landscaping and now have a lawn outside the front door, a development which unhappily coincided with the childrens’ rediscovery of their roller blades and the acquisition of  a new puppy. Consequently within three days the newly laid turf looked a bit like the lesser know Joan Miro work ‘Skid Marks n Dog’s Doings Number Six’. Jamie is outside mowing it now with what presumably is a lawn mower but sounds like a Harley Davidson that’s been left in a barn for thirty years and looks like George Orwell’s kitchenette with a handle. Actually the lawn looks fine. Better than fine. And it’s not bloody concrete. Unlike the rest of the concrete.

YES, if you missed that, WE’VE GOT A PUPPY. A PUPPY. THAT’S A PUPPY. He’s a Collie / Kelpie cross (slightly disappointingly that’s the Antipodean sheep dog type Kelpie as opposed to the supernatural shape shifting water horse type Kelpie) and his name is Kep, short for Kepler, after seventeenth century beruffed hairy number-crunching chopstick novice Johannes Kepler. Resident dork Jamie chose the name. Edith wanted Snuffles. Laurie wanted Shadow. I was quite happy with Dog 2 but Jamie threatened to force us to watch his keynote speech video from Hamburg Supercomputing 2014 in full if he didn’t get his way. It’s quite a good name really: as well as the nerd kudos it will give me down Tedburn puppy training classes (they right look down their noses at you if your dog’s not named after a Renaissance bigwig or at the very least a Nobel prize winner) it can be shortened to the snappy  ‘Kep’ which is useful as Collies only hear the first syllable of any word (hence the fact they are all called Spot, Tip, Boots, Patch, Peg, Shep, Bob, Hat, Cup, etc). Currently rounding the sheep up generally takes Jamie and me most of the day as they are what might be described as flighty, or as I like to put it, VERY ANNOYING. You can get them near the gate but as soon as they realise you are not actually lavishing a handful of sheep nuts upon them out of the goodness of your own heart but in fact manipulating them for your own ends (ie to insert worming drench down their gobs, trim their dags (pooey arse wool) or, er, to cart them to the (mouths silently) abattoir) one of them shouts (in sheep, obviously) “IT’S A TRICK! SPLIT INTO EMERGENCY TEAMS EXCEPT MADAME BONKERS WHO WILL JUST THROW HERSELF INTO THE NETTLE HEDGE AS USUAL!”. Our decision to get a dog to train to herd them has not been without controversy: there is a school of thought that splitty uppy sheep like ours can’t really be herded by dogs at all. On the other hand, he’s A LOVELY LITTLE PUPPY DOGGY WOGGY, so, you know, we can’t lose (except in terms of cherished footwear / computer cables / Playmobile barbecues etc).

The other notable acquisition is my brand new sausage stuffer. Gleaming and ginormous, it sits on my work surface looking mean and serious. It has a two speed gear box. It has a massive 5 LITRE capacity loading cylinder. If this baby was a MOTOR CAR, it would be the SORT that JEREMY CLARKSON drives across a SALTFLAT to a sound track that sounds a bit like ENNIO MORRICONE…. but ISN’T.

In short, it’s a bit like getting behind the wheel of a really posh car, you know like a, oh I don’t know, Vauxhall Vectra or something when your only previous mode of transport has been a rusty red tricycle that you have to take apart and put together every five minutes in order to trundle another three squeaky metres rendering you covered from neck to waist in meaty wine. (You know, that kind of tricycle.) Actually this is a bit harsh. And I like rusty red tricycles. The old stuffer is very good quality (it’s current equivalent is this, I think) and perfectly serviceable but hasn’t got a very big capacity and is not very easy to operate on one’s own (but not impossible) and since oiling it a few weeks ago the rust on the thread transfers itself generously and stripily to anything it comes into contact with. I’m sure this could be cleaned off probably, but frankly I can’t be arsed. And with that ringing endorsement I present my great sausage machine swapathon… yes, I’m offering my old sausage stuffer to one lucky reader in return for something else you think I might like or would come in handy. Simply make me an offer below and (if you could also share my blog in some social mediatastic kind of way this may sway my decision towards your home made wicker fondue set / cheese sieve) and this slightly cantankerous warhorse of an old stuffer (YES I AM STILL TALKING ABOUT THE ACTUAL STUFFER) COULD BE YOURS. AND it comes with three different nozzles. THREE. Imagine. Thin sausages for breakfast.  Fat sausages for tea. And some salami for supper. It truly is the stuff(er) of dreams.

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Scorched Nuts and Broken Teeth

Right folks, I’ve got about ten minutes, the first ten minutes I’ve had spare since the vacuum of useful time and space that is the Summer holidays. The kids are at the cinema with my parents. By rights I should be incinerating mountains of their school work whilst they are out of the house and unable to object. Black sugar paper mounted scrawls of beetles barely visible to the naked eye and ‘musical instruments’ fashioned from bog roll tubes and semi-hydrated rice litter every available surface following the inevitable disintegration of the vast ‘topic folders’ (or ‘huge pieces of badly glued paper folded in half’ as I and everyone who isn’t a primary school teacher likes to call them), everything sprinkled liberally with Hama beads giving the place the air of a giant inedible Jazzie.

My dad is visiting from Harrogate. He came bearing gifts of vile American coffee in one of those huge tubs they put Donny’s ashes in in the Big Lebowski, mysteriously sourced from the local US Airbase Supermarket, three individual Yorkshire curd tarts and my grandmother’s recipe book, a spiral bound notebook filled with her curly handwriting detailing the secrets of her underwhelming chocolate cake, the pastry that broke knives (no really) and a recipe for Leeds parkin which is evidently so good it is repeated every three pages. There is a lot of margarine involvement. Margarine, as we all now know, is the work of the Goat of Mendes himself (yeah, you Mendes, I’ve seen you down the Olivio factory hiding your tail n horns under disposable hygiene garments as you hydrogenate the crap out of the trace of natural oil legally required to align your wan treachery unct with real live olives), or at the very least Terry Wogan. But I will at least give the parkin a go. Substituting the marg for the yellowest creamiest saturatedest fattiest butteriest butter I can smear my face with, natch. Alternatively I should probably just publish the notebook verbatim, shove in a few ironic pictures of hostess trolleys and doilied cake stands and become an overnight baking sensation: ‘Grandma Firth’s Yorkshire Kitchen: baking to warm the heart and break the teeth’.

Jamie is on his annual holiday / ‘series of important meetings that always seem to happen in the middle of August, in California, spread over three weeks’. I’m sure his workload is hellish, and he must be under a lot of pressure, certainly going by the pictures he posted of himself covered in mud with a tie round his head leaping through the undergrowth of some National Park or other like a gangly Bruce Parry after one too many swigs of sacred fermented rat wee whilst the locals snigger behind a tree stump quaffing Heineken. Somehow I’ve still managed to make a bit of salami in order to keep the coffers full (my coffers, incidentally, are all about the size of an eggcup and I’ve got three). The hazelnut and cider went down a storm and at the last farmer’s market I almost DOUBLED my first week’s takings pocketing a cool £113. Imagine, that amount of cash every two weeks. I’ve taken to throwing loose change on the settee and rolling around on it whilst watching The Colbys on youtube. Though I have to remind myself not to do it wearing my yellow power suit with micro mini, as apart from the whole ‘stray tuppence’ issue gert big florin imprints on the back of your legs hardly smacks of international business savvy. Just ask Stephanie Beacham.

The last time I managed to make some (having palmed 50% of the children off to the seventh circle of hell, or ‘Multi Sports Activity Day’ as they quaintly insisted upon putting it) I was roasting the hazelnuts in a cast iron frying pan when Glyn, fence wizard and sayer a lot of ‘proper job’ turned up and distracted me with talk of mini diggers and drive edging and the destruction of huge swathes of concrete, as well as some kind of ‘dark tin’ which though a painful process of translation from Devon to Yorkshire and back again turned out to be the ducting to be buried for pipes and such down to the pond. All of these were subjects I warmed to, as I look forward keenly to the day when the outside of the house looks more chocolate box and less ill advised and subsequently abandoned experimental combined car-park / municipal tip (oh, alright, I said MORE, didn’t I?), and we chatted for quite a few minutes until he sniffed a bit and asked with no little expectancy, “you bakin more o them cakes, then?” at which point I remembered the nuts. I rushed inside to find them not completely burnt but not usable in anything I was going to sell to actual people apart from me. So I set them to one side and started again, as Glyn rumbled away in his red pickup, bereft of cake and regrettably no more up to speed on the dark tin.

Having spent the remains of the day mincing, mixing, stuffing, weighing, labelling and hanging forty three feet of sausage (give or take a hank of entrail), it was later that evening that I finally turned my attention to the slightly burnt but not actually bitter hazelnuts. And in a matter of seconds I had turned them into something delicious – Hazelnut and Stilton Pate. It’s so easy it seems a bit ridiculous to call it a proper recipe, and is open to so many variations too. You could use other nuts, other cheese, add herbs, even garlic or chilli. So it’s kind of an unrecipe. There. Now I’ve invented a new branch of cookery as well as gardening.

Hazelnut and Stilton Pate
Two tablespoons of hazelnuts (not including the ones that roll off the spoon onto the floor which you will obviously pick up and eat)
Stilton – really depends how strong it is and how strong you like it. (This is BRILLIANT, isn’t it?)
Cream cheese – enough to make pate the consistency and mildness you want (basically DO WHAT THE HELLKINS YOU WANT)
Salt and pepper

Method
1) Place hazelnuts in heavy bottomed pan over a low heat. Bugger off and have a ten minute conversation with someone and entirely forget about the nuts until you can smell them burning. Swear. Turn off heat.
2) When cool, rub off as much of the charred skin as possible from the nuts, and place in a jug / fairly high sided bowl. Add the stilton and cream cheese, season and using a hand blender, whizz up until the pate is the desired consistency.
3) Serve with thin slices of crispy brown toast. For an added sense of superiority, place in a container suitable for a picnic and eat with some dressed rocket next to the hot dog concession at Crealy World of Adventure.

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Ungardening

Ah, lovely home grown produce. There really is nothing better than eating your own vegetables, accompanied by the meat from the pigs you fed and raised yourself who learned to greet you with a cheery grunt before you carted them unceremoniously off to their deaths, served with the chutney made from the courgette glut left over from the four wheelbarrow loads you’ve already donated to the local orphanage, washed down with a piquant pea pod brandy that you knocked up last year and has matured to the point of being virtually drinkable, enhanced by the charity shop find chipped duck egg blue enamel coffee pot full of grown-from-seed dahlias sat on the hand crocheted mat in the middle of the upcycled dining table you liberated from a skip with gasps of ‘it’s ERCOL, Flavia! And anyway, it’s not really stealing.”

I mean, there probably isn’t anything better, it sounds absolutely brilliant but frankly I wouldn’t know were it not for the millions of pictures posted on twitter (“PHEW!! Today’s haul!!! #gyo #lovemygarden #punchableface”) of scenarios very similar to the scene I have just rendered without the faintest whiff of envy. Ho no. Not a WHIT. Because at the moment I have no garden, this year’s brewing activity has extended to three small plastic bottles of elderflower cordial and there is no meat to actually, you know, EAT, as I am rapidly converting it all into underpriced salamis (I had two people at my last farmer’s market insist upon paying MORE than I’d priced it at – I really need to knuckle down and read my ‘Apprentice’ cash in ‘choose your own destiny’ pop up book properly. I’ve only got as far as deciding upon the team name although my first choice of ‘Lethargy’ was unanimously rejected by my other team members despite the fact that I am the only human being on the team and they are (sigh) entirely two dimensional cardboard figurines with no discernible charisma or actual personality whatsoever.)

I miss having a garden, but I do wonder when I ever managed to do anything in it. To be fair, I don’t think I did ever do that much in it really, but rubbish as it was it was quite pretty (if messy and weed ridden) and moderately productive (considering the largely benign neglect that most of the plants were subject to). Growing flowers in amongst the veggies was the masterstroke that tipped it over the edge into ‘acceptable’ as opposed to ‘a total disgrace’: the marigolds flowered for the best part of a year until they were ripped out by the mini-digger in a scene reminiscent of an animated sequence from an early Greenpeace campaign film shown as the ‘children’s entertainment’ along with that ‘cartoon’ about the Hiroshima bomb and its aftermath at the 1982 HPAG (Harrogate Peace Action Group) Summer fundraising jamboree (no, REALLY. As if carob squares and cooled fruit tea weren’t punishment enough).

The whole of my vegetable plot has been re-landscaped and one day (very possibly once we’ve sold the house and someone else lives here) it will look amazing, boasting huge raised beds, a polytunnel, recreational areas, beehives, fruit cages, the CHUFFING WORKS but at the moment it looks a bit like it did when we moved in: like a patch of scrubland, except it’s a lot bigger and a large bank curving along the bottom end. I had resigned myself to the fact that there would not be a lot of gardening to do because there was no garden to do it in. But I thought I would grow a few things in pots, and filled a bath full of compost, salads and beans. Since then, because I now run the world’s most unlucrative charcuterie empire, I find myself mainly standing around wearing a hairnet up to my elbows in spicy mince, and don’t really have any time to do any gardening at all. But a few weeks ago I decided that rather than just give up on the gardening I would cleverly devise an experiment, whereby I could not only give up on the gardening but also contribute valuable research to the field of, er, vegetable science AND spawn a whole new branch of horticulture, which I have named ‘ungardening’.

The practice of ‘ungardening’ involves, as the name might suggest, putting as little time and effort into gardening as possible. Virtually nothing is watered unless you are using a hosepipe to replenish drinking troughs and the plant happens to be in the range of the hose. Likewise, nothing is repotted, moved, netted, unless the imminent demise of a particularly cherished specimen becomes dangerously apparent, and even then the more likely course of action will be to think about what you should do, rather than actually do it. All the plants remain in the situation they were in when you embarked upon your new pastime of ‘ungardening’. If they sort of live, sort of brilliant. If they don’t, you are rewarded with an initial crushing pang of guilt but also, perhaps a little later, a sense of relief that there is now one less plant for you to wilfully neglect, because it all adds up doesn’t it? There are, however, techniques one can employ in order to successfully ‘ungarden’ and still reap the benefits of actual gardening. One of which is volunteering to do some light weeding in the school garden for an hour every now and then. All the toil and angst of seeing through the whole process for better or worse is taken almost entirely out of your hands, and you still manage to go home with big crunchy lettuces, punnets full of redcurrants and armfuls of rhubarb. Alternatively, by making friends with people who do have a vegetable garden, do too much gardening, can do it properly (this one’s important) and don’t live too near the local orphanage, you are almost guaranteed a source of beautiful tasty home grown vegetables. Albeit THEIR home and not yours.

As my experiment proceeds through what can only be described as a bit of a draught (ie two consecutive days without rain) one’s resolve is severely tested. The salads, having gleaned enough dew to sustain them thus far, are looking decidedly flaccid and have stopped growing. The single globe artichoke I ‘rescued’ from my old garden and repotted is in such an appalling state I almost dared not post a picture of it for fear of the Globe Artichoke Appreciation Society organising one of their notorious mobs to come round, boil me, peel off my skin and dip it in hollandaise sauce, because this is the very least I deserve. The Egyptian walking onions I had hitherto regarded as indestructible are really quite destructed. Frankly, if it wasn’t all in the name of pioneering a new and entirely unliterally groundbreaking new botanical movement, I should be thrown into a horticultural gulag for crimes against vegetablity. Hanging (baskets) would be too good for me.

But there are winners as well as losers as a result of / despite this brave experimental approach / utter fecklessness. My courgette and squash plants that I planted out onto a patch of rubble strewn with a bit of rotted manure are thriving, better, in fact than the ones I planted onto the manure heap itself and although I have yet to see a squash (I won’t as I can’t grow them – I KNOW, it’s a complete MYSTERY to me too) the courgettes are coming, if not thick and fast, surprisingly not that thinly or slowly, despite not having being watered properly once. Last years nicotiana I planted next to the front door have self seeded and are flourishing. And what I though was self seeded borage in and around the newly landscaped hedgebank are in fact potato plants yeilding ACTUAL BIG POTATOES – surely the holy grail of the Ungardener – the produce you didn’t even KNOW you were neglecting but produces food ANYWAY! In fact I found the biggest potato I have ever harvested last night after simply shoving my hand into the bank and pulling it out, like some kind of tuber based Excalibur. “Arise, Sir Pentland Javelin”, quothed I, “I dub thee my tea”.

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Gobbling Market

Wow, it’s quiet. The kids are at school, I have boofed the geese down to the bottom pond, and Jamie has taken Jess (my stepdaughter) and Dudley (yapster and general hound) camping leaving behind both me and his faulty banjo. He went into Exeter to buy a replacement string the other day, along with his favoured elusive brand of chilli pickle. He returned with lightbulbs and an angle grinder. Consequently, a) his banjo remains understrung and b) all the meals that I serve him retain their actual intended flavour much to his chagrin, but c) there are no longer any superfluous handrails about the place and Edith, my young daughter / maungy monkey has resorted to dangling off the scaffolding tower for kicks, prerubberised playground stylee, at least when she’s not hurtling down the newly installed rubble superhighway on her purple bicycle hell for leather scattering bantams to the four winds and d) the landing is ever so slightly less dingy.

I’ve just come back from Chagford, where I’ve been to check out their flea / farmer’s market in a bid to source further outlets for my charcuterie products. Last weekend I did my first farmer’s market in Crediton, following a week of sleepless nights and days filled with labelling, packing, merchandising and general ignoring of every other area of responsibility of my life, which goes partially to explain why my children now resemble abandoned gonks (complete with felt tip adornments) and my house looks like someone has picked it up and rolled it diceways for it to land on the little known side marked ‘carnage’.

The market started at ten prompt. Three hours and a cool sixty two pounds later, I descended into something of a comedown, similar to the kind of thing I imagine Robert Plant would have experienced following a sell out gig at the Hollywood Bowl circa 1971, albeit with less JD-n-Nembutol-cocktail-fuelled hide-the-sausage shenanigans with a Valley Girl called Popsicle (unless, of course, she happened to have been helping him to vac pack two kilos of salami before putting it back in the fridge) and probably a bit more more elderflower-and-lime-cake-fuelled pooey-dog’s-bottom-fur-scissoring.

I did contemplate taking Laurie’s junior dirt bike for a spin across the landing but ended up just shoving the vac round instead, and having remembered that we don’t in fact own a television settled upon throwing a dead elephant shrew from my bedroom window instead, gifted earlier in the morning by one of the cats and forgotten in the pre-market excitement until it got wedged up the hoover nozzle. ROCK AND ROLL, ladies and gents. Rock and roll. “Oh yeah, sweedard,” growls Jimmy from the adjoining boudoir, where he’s pleasuring Big Doreen with a tube of Steradent. Dor, notorious erotic adventurer and part time char down Tivvy Morrisons, can do things with a squeegee and a can of Pledge that would make Cynthia Payne blush. “What goes on tour, stays on tour. Except the matching suitcase set. And the Blackpool tower musical fag lighter for Aunt Bunty. And the Eazi-clean windcheater I got from Cleveleys outdoor market – practical, hardwearing AND an attractive shade of taupe. Now, crack open the Tippex, babe, and roll me onto the private jet.”

And boy, there’s nowhere more rock and roll than Chagford. Except everywhere more rock and roll than Chagford, that is. Which is, er, just about everywhere. Chagford is a kind of genteel hub of slight grooviness and extreme wealth. If you need your chakras realigning and half a pound of foie gras to pop in your hand woven basket, you’re in the right place. If you’re after a spray tan, a six litre bottle of White Lightening and a post-prandial punch up you have probably caught the wrong bus / borked the Satnav in Benji the Bodger’s twocced Morris traveller en route to Croyden Arndale. Put simply, it’s a ‘locally sourced free range charcuterie’ kind of town and I want me a piece of the alpaca pashmina-ed almond milk ‘n artisan cracker fuelled hot yoga action. Or at least I do when I’ve got enough flippin salami to branch out. I am already outgrowing the big fridge set up cobbled together in the garage. The flea market turned out to be more like a car boot sale (albeit one pitched at marchionesses) rather than a farmer’s market, though I did speak to Lucy, the nice woman who ran the posh cheese shop who almost instantly invited me to accompany her to Chagstock, the local music festival (ie a field full of posh hippies with the munchies) to sell my wares there and help her out in the food tenty bit. As a) it clashes with my second farmer’s market in Crediton and b) I won’t have anything left to sell I’ve had to decline, which is a bit galling really as I suspect I could have made a tidy and actual profit there. I also ran into a chap called Davon who I met the other week at my friend’s birthday party who has just started running a small farm business with his brother up there, and he kindly offered to show me around. I didn’t take any pictures of it because I was too busy shouting at Dudley to stop barking at the nanny goats so here’s a picture of one of my abandoned leeks flowering instead.

Apart from having names which pretty much preclude them from living anywhere except Chagford / Middle Earth, Davon and Sylvan Friend run a project called Chagfarm, which is an organic community farm type thing. They keep pigs, goats, chickens and bees. People pay a membership to join in and for which they get a certain amount of meat, dairy and honey each month. They started last year with seven acres. They have used crowd funding. They have been on BBC South West Spotlight, goddammit. Why haven’t I been on BBC South West Spotlight? Because I am a numpty, whereas they are serious, hardworking and organised, and Davon has a magnificent handlebar moustache with which he supernaturally controls his destiny. One of these things may not be true, but it is true that I was mightily impressed with their farm and what they’ve done in so little time. And they have a lovely shiny food processing building chock full of huge stainless steel sinks and mysterious blue vats that I would kill either of my grandmothers for, if both of them weren’t already inconveniently dead (RUDE). It’s kitted out for dairy, but it still made me weep inwardly with envy and swear on my dead grandmothers’ quality of afterlife that I would have something as good… VERY SOON.

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