My gap year in a Norfolk garden continues to usurp my fragile sensibilities. No sooner has a superlative plan been devised than it stumbles at the next available fence. Scanning back through my life, I wonder why I am still so surprised. Nevertheless, no sooner had I got into my Mediterranean stride amongst the new bounty gracing the kitchen table than the portent of cooler North Sea breezes curled around my raised beds, challenging my optimistic belief in the further provision of mid-summer crops.

Still waiting for an August heat wave to arrive and nurture my remaining salad plants, I have reluctantly welcomed the end of September.

Although vaguely aware of the difference between weather and climate, I have been concealing a wicked secret these last few weeks. I have harboured a terrible desire to experience just the tiniest hint of purely localised global warming, this by way of a reward for all my gardening labours. It was clearly not to be and further adjustments to my firmly set outlook had to be faced. First up were the kitchen skills. These required immediate re-deployment, as braising, roasting and grilling became the self-defence mechanisms that needed to kick in with the weather that had now arrived in north Norfolk.

Secondly, during such re-evaluation which included the litany of misjudged plant selection made during the year, the pressure was racked up further. Adding insult to injury next season’s seed catalogues clattered through the letterbox and began their now regular appearance on the hall mat. Pages of glossy photographs illustrating sun-drenched produce and swollen crops with not a hint of sleet in sight! This is surely like the first day of tight rope walking when, as you edge your way out across the Victoria Falls, someone lobs you a beach ball to catch.

There is no let-up in the allotment world, just a periodic change of focus I guess.

But the few events that have spurred me onwards tend to come from unexpected directions. Each and every item of vegetable maturity denotes the changing weather patterns more memorably than any hallway barometer ever did. The coming of age of each of my crops has reflected and chronicled daily climate conditions more than I ever imagined. By the same token their inability to mature and reach fruition due to unwanted weather, is just as unforgettable and cuts to the quick. The disappointment can be devastating, but I suppose all scars heal in time. I don’t ever remember this much drama whilst shopping at the supermarket!

With the call of a comforting shopping experience and the certainty of retail supply in my nearby town, I had to fix my eye firmly on the worthy experiences that fending for one-self have provided.

I cannot avoid the conclusion that some of us are out of touch with the vital links in our food chain. Me included, up until recently. I know we might all busy, pre-occupied or wearied by our daily toil, but I suspect we are in danger of being increasingly distanced from the preparation and awareness of our own freshly selected diet. This is not some revolutionary observation from the comfort of a cosy Norfolk kitchen, but is borne out by the recently published figures from the multiple retail chains, citing that the ready made, processed food market, is now worth in excess of fourteen billion pounds per annum. And it’s growing year on year, they arrogantly declare.

Least we forget: we then proceed to toss 40% of our food into landfill sites soon after procurement.

So are we buying badly, storing badly or cooking badly? We are certainly spending well.

Although I thought of myself as a reasonable cook, growing vegetables has shown me how restricted some of my cooking skills really are. It is the knowledge that without supermarket or television guidance, cooking with ingredients picked by seasonal circumstances not preordained selection, mean that one’s own culinary aptitude has to be more engaged than ever. This I have enjoyed more than I can say although it has not been easy, and family alongside patient neighbours, have had to swallow mistakes of Olympic proportions.

Whilst cleaning our hen coup recently and separating our healthy layers from the complacent few, it occurred to me that the reason that broiling chickens are bred and supplied cheaply, has a lot to do with the modest skills needed to transform them into dinner. Lesser cuts of meat or ‘difficult’ species of fish clearly require more kitchen dexterity than a vapid chicken breast and a ‘cook-in’ sauce. The prevailing expertise needed to make a family meal from scrag end, oxtail or pork belly seem to have waned in direct proportion to the global expanse of convenience food. That convenience or processed food is a major contributor to the alarming and often fatal effects of the ‘Western Diet’, that most such treated foods place cost above nutrition and, in the cut and thrust of modern state education, the understanding of a nutritional diet and its daily preparation remains under threat – I think alarm bells should be ringing across our nation more than they presently do. As for our treasured vegetables, nowhere is there a clearer call to arms for the rich heritage of our National vegetable cuisine than today. Developed in the first Elizabethan era and in danger of reduction in the second, a return to a proportionately higher vegetable diet is now a necessity not a fashion statement.

Did any of you see the sainted Jamie Oliver on the box recently, showing a potato to a class full of American children, did you also gasp, like me, when not single member of the chip-eating classroom was able to identify the vegetable? Unless we intervene, the control of food quality and supply will continue to be vested in less and less hands, and coupled with the alarming daily financial forecasts, economics will play an even larger part of our dietary choices than education ever can. The certainty of diminished dietary well-being is already known, the single most important way of combating this issue is to engender greater understanding of the food choices we make and the concomitant skills with which to prepare it. Never let it be assumed that a journey round a supermarket can be a substitute for a simple cooking experience.

In the meantime, and at short notice, I had a working lunchtime meeting to prepare for. A visit to the garden and the ensuing cooking would provide adequate proof that I had become a worthy member of the rural community, at one with the landscape and flexible in outlook no matter what the prevailing weather conditions visited upon me. With a local lamb providing some chump and kidney, the morning visit to the garden provided a vibrant cabbage vying for supremacy among the brassicas, glistening red onions, plump carrots, creamy white Charlotte potatoes and generous sprigs of silver thyme and flat leaved parsley all promised fresh vegetable flavours. My simple autumn crops found themselves in slow-cooked company by way of the first casserole of the season; Irish stew. As the subject of the meeting was a local cookery school now based at my nearby pub, the seasonal lunch provision had to appear honest but unfussy in its taste profile and professional yet modest in its appearance. With a selection of newly picked autumnal vegetables, a warm Aga and no time to spare, enough food for four people appeared from the oven three hours later. With a warming Nebbiolo red from nortern Italy, and a loaf freshly cooked in the lower oven, the provisions were ticked in the box marked successful. Irish Stew, at less than two pounds a head. Alan, the landlord of our local, couldn’t offer too much flattery as his wife is Welsh and I can’t do Cawl or lava bread yet. But seaweed cookery is already on the cards for next year.

Another topical reminiscence in my rural Arcadia, was the discovery that certain vegetables were more eagerly planted than were needed. In essence, I am now far more aware of why every other cottage I drive pass, has cut price marrows on a makeshift stall outside the back gate. As Terry, one of the regulars down the pub sagely announced, “nature always comes at once”. Yes I was a little too enthusiastic about my beans, my courgettes and my squashes in the beginning, and I have had to be more imaginative than ever in the kitchen. But the recent vegetable cookbooks of Sophie Grigson and Nigel Slater deserve much applause in the Reeves household, and have opened my eyes to richly tasting, inexpensive family cooking. One step up perhaps, and Simon Hopkinson offers Michelin star cooking with the most commonplace of seasonal garden ingredients in his own publication – Vegetarian Option. They have all been invaluable and original in equal measure.

However last weekend was also the first of the chutney frenzies that look set to occupy some elements of the frequent miserable weather conditions we are having, as well as containing the explosive harvests in some of the raised beds. I have flirted with this ancient method of preservation every once in a while, but for this coming Autumn, members of the Women’s Institute will have to be on their mettle. I have been panic buying pectin sugar and a range of vinegars, extra jars have been stockpiled and a jam thermometer has joined the kitchen armoury. I intend to fill the pantry with an assortment of gingham-topped jars and handwritten labels. Seeking cast off blouses from an early Dolly Parton concert and armed with a pair of pinking shears, I was looking to create award-winning presentations. Snatching paralysed green tomatoes from the jaws of defeat was my current mission. It will come as no surprise to many living and cooking in the country, that anything that grows can be preserved in one form or another. For a thousand years of recorded culinary history, meat and fish have been smoked, salted or brined for the winter months, firstly to provide supper for ourselves, and secondly as there was little fodder to support domestic beasts on land. Smoked bacon is just such a direct link with past survival, having been established here before the Norman invasion, whilst the salting of fish arrived earlier with the Roman infantry. Fruit and vegetables were much more difficult to conserve over winter months and were the subject of much trial and error before preserves were established in our dietary journey. So it was in my kitchen last Saturday although we are still getting some of the trial and error off the wall. From cheeses and marmalades, jams and jellies, chutneys and pickles, crops that were overpowering the garden like a chapter from Day of the Triffids are now quietly maturing in darkened storage, announcing their contents and date of origin from a job lot of sticky labels, proudly sporting illustrated fruit in lurid colours. The sense of achievement and self-satisfaction were beyond measure. For those of you fortunate to be on the depleted expenditure of my Christmas list this year, the joy of my various chutneys is a pleasure yet to be savoured. For those of you who are not, I am sure Fortnum and Mason will doubtless be beating a path to my door.

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