In my last journal I tried to pin down the rationale behind my self- imposed adventure into food independence and define the methods I thought might achieve an alternative link with the culinary world beyond. Privacy and contemplation were to be my watchwords and sustained physical activity would provide healthy exertion as well as a vastly improved physique. Suffice to say that any such planning in my life has normally been doomed from day one, and this was to be no exception. That is not to say that such worthy gaols were unachievable, my problem is that they began to manifest themselves in completely the wrong order. Oscar Wilde’s phrase “A triumph of optimism over experience” sprang to mind, although what he knew about the tribulations of kitchen gardening remains largely unpublished.

The intervening weeks have been permeated with a host of new experiences both practical and theoretical. Some, I might add, have been downright excruciating. How they have vied with each other, has been a defining experience so far.

On the theoretical side, my research into the history and science of food has been fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. I have spent considerable time examining some of the post war food obsessions that governed my peer group as well as the more recent myths that continue to affect succeeding generations today.

Surprisingly, that for all our emergent education and increased wealth, we display more confusion about what to eat and drink, than any other group of people in history. The predominant British diet of cheaply and often callously reared meat, expanding reliance upon processed foods, the alarming increase of added fats, salts and sugars, have not only come at the expense of grains, freshly harvested vegetables and fruits, they now threaten some of the core principals of civilized life. Not only do we believe we have greater culinary rights than any earlier civilisation, we have solicited direct access to any part of the planet’s food we require, in spite of all emerging consequences. Yet has any of this dietary abundance made us healthier, benefited our immediate social habits or increased our greater generosity to mankind? Apart from the odd governmental gesture, the general trend seems to suggest that the answer is less positive than one would wish. We as a species clearly began our history with no innate wish to bring food related illnesses upon ourselves, or inflict starvation upon any other – yet we are becoming increasingly successful at both.

When Brazil, arguably the fourth largest economy in the world, decided to provide enough meat for international consumption at that famous burger bar on every street corner, it casually sacrificed over ninety per cent of its rain forests in less than thirty years to provide grazing for its beef cattle. Equally whilst food giants concentrate their efforts on shareholder reward, the United Nations recently published confirmation that 98% of vegetable and fruit varieties have disappeared since the start of the 20th century and only 15 species of plants are now commercially provided for over 90% of mankind’s foodstuffs. Not only are we happy to sacrifice our general health, as well as the oxygenated vigour of our planet on the one hand, we are now hell bent on reducing bio-diversity on the other.

The more I looked, the more I understood that our route to real food has become progressively skewed.

I feel that we have allowed science to govern our instincts, and commerce to dictate our dietary well-being.

How many people can accurately define words such as nutrients, vitamins, cholesterol, omega, fibre, amino acids or polyunsaturates, how many more would understand which are good which are bad and in what quantities they should accept or refuse? None of these dietary terms existed in common parlance at the start of the twentieth century, most have arrived at about the same time as jet travel and the silicon chip. So why have we chosen to trust what most of us can barely comprehend and why have so many relinquished common sense and their instinctive relationship with food, all in such a short period of time?

On any supermarket shelf, how many edible items can you count that are prefixed by ‘forms part of a healthy diet’? Presumably you were unaware of what constitutes a healthy diet and needed guidance or alternatively you were actively seeking something that formed part of a thoroughly ‘unhealthy’ diet and therefore needed no such distraction. Either way the rationale is there to outwit you, and in doing so, to promote processed rather than natural food. When my friends buy apples from the farmer’s market or an Italian housewife selects her Olive Oil from the grocer, when a Frenchman purchases his early morning bread at the bakery or a Moroccan selects almonds at the market, do they not already know what constitutes a healthy diet?

These thoughts spring more from irritation than puritanical fervour, as I feel that the more I try and understand the complexity of a modern food chain, the more I feel increasingly debarred from it. We cannot shake the hand that feeds us anymore, presumably because there is no financial merit in allowing us to reach out and make that connection. We are no longer encouraged to understand what naturally keeps us well, and deliberately thwarted by the industrialisation and processing of our food sources. We have been living on trust and it has begun to backfire.

I heard a perfectly intelligent schoolboy from London, who during a food programme on Radio 4 recently described a pineapple as “growing in chunk-like formation on tropical bushes”. Great use of language, close but already so very far away.

I never expected that my insignificant attempts at planting a few parsnips, a handful of spuds and the odd lettuce would astound or change the world, but my route to cultivation has already changed a number of casually held ideas of my own and has begun a train of thought that has perplexed friends and family alike, it has shocked me a bit too.

These thoughts, still without translucency, provided a newly discovered motivation when on day one of my project I sunk my spade, deep into undisturbed pastureland and began my journey to harvest.

My reference for such physical exertion was that notable work published in 1977 by the Readers Digest called; ‘Food From Your Garden’. It had been given to me by my wife when we moved to Norfolk some 20 years ago, clearly surpassing even her optimistic faith in my abilities. It has lain virtually undisturbed, like the treasures of Sutton Hoo, ever since. Until now. The book is a regular companion in the house, as well as in the garden, often swathed in clingfilm in order to track published instructions to the letter, no matter how inclement the weather. Following on from a cursory study of its early, significant pages I decided I could not put it off any longer the time had come and I was going to ‘prepare the ground’. I should have instantly known the dangers ahead as preparing the ground still resided in the introductory page, not even in the innumerable chapters I had yet to absorb.

Following each measured spade of turf removed with an early flourish, line illustrations from the book propped against the gate, and wearing my new gardening gloves, I must have cut quite a figure from the middle distance. Within a short while, my increasingly frequent interludes upon the garden bench were rehearsed in a monastic pose, easily fooling passing villagers with my worldly gaze as I secretly gasped for oxygen in near silence. I normally regard myself as reasonably trim, and although I have never chosen to test my fitness alongside Gordon Ramsey in the London Marathon or risked a cardiac arrest to the dulcet tones of Lady Ga Ga on CD at the local gym, my long held theory is that so long as Keith Richards is still standing I have nothing to worry about. Unprepared as I was for a year, even a week, in the garden, I was soon to discover that the Marathon may have been the easier choice. My wife had lined up her chiropractor and acupuncturist fairly early in the proceedings, as evenings were spent dreaming of lift-in baths and stair hoists formerly advertised by Dame Thora in the National Trust magazine. But direction and planning were close at hand, even if the horse liniment was going down rapidly. Brian, down the pub, had already put me in touch with a local couple called Sean and Gaynor, who own a small company and had to my joy, developed a raised bed planting system that had a beginning, a middle, and an identifiable end. Here was the consummate gardening logic. Fittingly idiot proof and one which even I could not only see, but touch and understand. I say that, as within days of my own floundering labours, guided by Readers Digest, I was staring at an orchard that had begun to look more like the battlefields of Ypres than the gardens at Versailles.

Sean arrived just in the nick of time to introduce me to the apparent wonders of raised bed gardening. Not only did such a system show me some desperately needed parameters, it watered itself, kept out birds and would keep all the little seedlings warm and cosy on chilly nights.

Prior to this I had been seeking advice on the new project down at my local pub, an establishment teeming with experts in all fields as you may well imagine, and here I had come across the early warning signs that my naivety had justly deserved. Alarmingly it was pointed out that from day one, the new vegetable garden was to be visited by more than the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the form of mice, pigeons, slugs, rabbits, weevils, drought, blight and frost. On one particularly memorable evening, I swear I could hear all four of them saddling up in the tack room, as I was encouraged to put aside my glass of wine and the packet of peanuts and reach for Bordeaux mixture and slug pellets instead. I had not set out on day one to preach from the ‘Early Testament of Organic Farming’, but now with a despondent heart I felt that I needed a battery of chemicals with which to undertake hand-to-hand fighting with the whole of the natural world.


As an experienced gardener, Sean appeared sympathetic to my plight, nonchalantly waiving aside such threats as he drove across my lawn with a pick-up truck full of Belgium railway sleepers, a rainproof tool kit and a spare pair of gloves. With a cursory glance at my physique, he mentioned that he could always get Gaynor to help lift the sleepers down, if I was too busy.

Surprisingly, after only a few days of physical exertion and some heavily sedated evenings with a Radox slick on the water surface of my bath, six glorious beds sat proudly in the orchard, where only moles had formerly triumphed. We had built a parterre of railway sleepers packed with topsoil and local authority compost (hats off to them for this facility), installed irrigation facilities, introduced scaled down poly tunnels as well as netting frames and surrounded it all with a neat walkway of oak edged gravel. Forget the conservatory, we had surely doubled the value of the house in a matter of moments.

Which reminds me, Geoffrey the bank manager telephoned that week, and had remarked that he had thoroughly enjoyed reading of about my gardening ‘gap year’. He seemed equally fascinated in hearing of my detailed negotiations with a local seed merchant and my desire for a range of new gardening equipment. He even offered some commercial sympathy that my kitchen, now full of chitting’potatoes, would clearly offset the costs of forthcoming Jersey Royals. Yes, of course he was aware of how much disposable income I was saving, and yes, he was clearly impressed by my research into the global food issues and yes, he did feel that I was right to save humanity from processed obesity, although he pointed out that the banking industry had a few issues of its own to resolve yet, but in the meantime would I mind banking with him for a change? Perhaps I’ll send him a weekly vegetable box when I get going, he’s sure to understand.

In two weeks time – We discover the history behind an 18th seed merchant, select our crops and watch as the first shoots appear.