I was meeting with a new colleague – Peter, a sanguine character who has over many years purchased grains and kernels for East Anglia’s oldest seed merchants

Keith Reeves, feature on one mans effort to find the rea good life. Food and wine writer Keith Reeve has transformed his life to live through self-sufficiency.
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2010 (01603 772434)

As they supply gardeners and farmers all over the world, it is incalculable how many future vegetables and fruits, indeed what potential tonnage of foodstuffs, have passed before his discerning senses over the years. I have mentioned his seed company before as they have been both patient and invaluable in steering me towards some semblance of order in the shambles I like to call my rural sanctuary. This, candidly, has happened on more occasions than I would normally care to admit. It is therefore gratifying to meet such generous assistance, as I am barely one of the nation’s foremost wholesale customers and hardly likely to become a contender for ‘kitchen gardener of the year’ either. It reminds me that as a wine merchant for many years, it was obligatory to provide substantive information on every single wine that one handled. From grower to vineyard, wine maker to shipper and most importantly the taste profile that allowed choice with considerably reduced risk, and enlarging confidence as to what wine best suited differing occasions. I felt just as secure with someone offering me a similar service regarding the humble seed packet during my elementary growing experiences. For him this was all above and beyond the call of commercial duty.

But then I have come to understand that in the world of domestic horticulture, where the overriding aim is to create the freshest and tastiest of foodstuffs, camaraderie is never thin on the ground. We are talking fervour and passion here, not well-mannered pastimes or dinner party conversation. With the notable exception of the small crowd of friendly cynics down at my local pub, people in the main have bent over backwards to help and offer invaluable advice. Sharing comes without debt too, be it over roots, diseases, flavours or infestations, the vegetable gardeners I have met appear to bond with an almost wartime alliance in the daily battle against natural adversity. It seems that, like wine making throughout history, experience is selflessly shared rather than hidden. For this I have been grateful, as it has kept my beans and peppers, as well as my spirits, up.

So it was, just as our conversation was reaching a conclusion, that Peter dashed off and returned with a treasured gardening book from which he pointed out the following passage: “In London, the chaotic struggle and many obstructions in Covent Garden, tend to deprive people of the good qualities of the garden produce grown so well in suburban and country fields. One simple way to improvement would be the adoption of district markets for local supplies. To bring the vegetables grown in Chiswick to Covent Garden and cart them back to Hammersmith is a needless waste of force” The quote was from another seed merchant, this one a Frenchman resident in London named Andrieux Vilmorin, and was taken from his seminal work on gardening which had been published way back in 1885 – plus ca change! As Peter was unaware that as coincidence would have it, I was indeed brought up in Chiswick and vaguely remember its market gardens, I took his reference to illustrate that in many ways we are more a part of a continuum than perhaps we think. So when it comes to production and consumption, we are standing alongside like-minded people in the most gentle of survival activities since the change from hunting and gathering took hold. Although both reassuring and illuminating, I should think the increasing establishment of farmer’s markets in our region needs no such validation as to their continued worth. More importantly is the support we should offer to our nearby high-street shops, a stalwart band, many still valiantly responding to available local supply. Certainly the nearby location of the principal ingredients of the year’s home-grown food in our house, has elevated and stimulated more culinary aspects of my life than I would have imagined. On the other hand, it has made me every more critical of the ‘business’ of processed foods.

I also realise how fortunate to have been ably helped by another colleague – Sean, and his invaluable work in the early construction of my vegetable beds. To have had the restrictions of six raised beds in the initial stages of my planning stopped the intimidation of a boundless landscape ready to floor me at the first blow. The surrounding timbers also gave me a pew to sit upon and sip a glass of something chilled during our former warm days whilst constantly reaching across to remove unwanted weeds. This is something I have noticed more and more in the gardening fraternity, they weed with one hand – no matter what else they happen to be doing with the other – even if it’s not their garden! Surrounding gravel prevented the snail and slug population of the Blickling Hall Estate from sharing my daily salads and a simple irrigation system proved a benefit in what looked like a lengthy summer. The large mole however, trained by Richard Attenborough during the Great Escape film, managed to pop up in the most sensitive of spots and it was only a trap left by Michael our passing mole-man, that saved the spinach bed from complete eruption. The accompanying metal frames that can be installed and covered with a tailor made net, saved my brassicas from the portly pigeons that seem to like it round my way, although cabbage white caterpillars did manage to turn sturdy leaves into French lace curtains within days The same frames have supported an essential polythene cover turning any one of the beds into a luxuriant greenhouse in seconds. This, now that we have started counting the remaining shopping days until Christmas, has been a boon as we continue to harvest our preferred range of salad vegetables day in day out. At the risk of repeating myself, I cannot speak too enthusiastically about my culinary selection from the ‘Oriental’ pages of the seed catalogues, these being our freshly discovered delights of two leaves -Mizuna and Mibuna. Both have distinct hints of mustard with Mibuna being the more robust of the flavours, with an added kick of crushed black pepper. Out of a flurry of assorted salad leaves earlier in the year, which predictably took me by storm as they seemed to arrive en masse, they were the first to became regular attendees on our dining table. Such salad types have the added benefit of having a built-in spiciness so need little additional work when it comes to vinaigrette assembly. For those of you increasingly disillusioned with the vapid taste of leaves such as store-bought Iceberg, it is still not too late to grow a few seeds on the windowsill. Otherwise I urge you to try them next season. Next to appear, and finding an equally friendly environment in my covered bed, are the beetroot chard leaves – all the taste of beetroot in a salad without the cooking. Both continue to optimistic memories of how August should have turned out.

But the runaway stars of this method of growing are the bright red and yellow members of the hot capsicum family. My chillis have arrived in numbers!

Chillis are good news in our house acting as core ingredients in everything from simple Thai soup to marinated Indian chicken, spicy ratatouille or simple Crab and chilli pasta. Difficult to keep it out of your life once you are hooked. But an unswerving family favourite is Chilli jelly, which I have included as a recipe this week, so as to provide zest with seasonal cold meats and jaded Christmas palates on Boxing day. Thanks to a flurry of your e-mails, and here I should add that anything over ten passes for a flurry in my solitary office, I was asked to provide some favourite chutney recipes from my last article. One from no less a figure than the secretary of a local branch of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, firstly asking if I would pop along one evening and give a brief chat about my gardening journey to date, and secondly to recommend my favourite pickle choices from my raised beds.

For the ” Real Good Life” series. For EDP Sunday; Copy:Keith

Terror seized my very being. It’s alright boasting about jams and pickles in the abstract, but a full-on tasting after a power point presentation in front of preserve and chutney royalty, was more than this boy could handle. Memories of what they did to our former Prime Minister trecently, flooded back. I am sure Tony Blair would have preferred a dozen Iraq enquiries rather than another night, addressing the W.I. No, realising that emasculation doesn’t only happen down at the vets, I declined as politely as I could, promising to review the situation in the forthcoming year. I got away I think, with my recommendation of a much needed runner bean chutney recipe, she professed a guarded gratitude in her reply, I’ve had nightmares ever since.

But the correspondence did make me realise that the world of preserves out there was more important than I imagined.

Pleasant research of the kitchen cookbooks and gardening pamphlets was once again the order of a damp and overcast day, this time I was scouring new chapters on preserves both for this year and next. Plant, pick and pickle became the battle cry!

Outside of the old mainstream haute cuisine cooking, and somewhere between the delicatessen and the gastro-pub, a quiet revolution has taken place. The jar of salsa at the deli or the homemade onion marmalade at the pub, have helped renew and increase our pride and pleasure in the food of the rural English landscape. Not just confined to our own shores, the cuisine de terroir  of southern France, or the tapas of Seville, or even the chilli infused street food of South America have looked to earlier food preservation as principal ingredients in the newly asserted culture of their national gastronomy. I expect few Indian meals would appear complete to the British palate without accompanying mango chutney and lime pickle after all. I for one have felt that of all the great meals that can be constructed in a pub, a Ploughman’s lunch is pretty close to the top. Rind washed Cheddar, freshly made bread, English apples and salads all bound by the refreshing tartness of a discerning selection of home-made pickles, a substantial meal, borne of agricultural necessity yet fit for a grand table.

So what was once a side issue of the variable harvest in my garden has begun to take centre stage, as Autumn takes its grip:

Instant Chilli Jelly

1 Kg of Jam sugar.
150 g of Red Chillis, the hotter the Chilli the less you will need
150g of Red Peppers
600ml of Sherry Vinegar, cider or white wine are fine.

Dissolve the sugar gently in the warming vinegar and add the finely chopped, or blitzed, peppers. Brink up to a volcanic boil for ten minutes, until setting temperature occurs. Cool and stir to distribute the bright red particles, then pour into sterilised jars. This should make around 4 standard jars.

Held against the light your jars should resemble a stained glass window with red flecked peppers in rose pink jelly. It is the most attractive preserve I have made so far, and one of the tastiest!

For advice on raised beds go towww.homegrownrev.co.uk and for seed advice, www.kingsseeds.com