I am beginning to think Peter Mayle’s international bestseller A Year in Provence is something of a walk in the park. His struggles with the local weather conditions, the daily choice of which beach to inspect, what to select for lunch, his run-ins with local tradesmen and his attempts to understand regional dialect, are all grist to the mill up here in East Anglia.

My horticultural tasks have become far more demanding.

Since the start of my gap year I have chosen to examine aspects of the food chain that I along with many others, have come to utilise. Scrutiny is not from a wayside bistro in the South of France, I have chosen the vantage point of a newly dug field in north Norfolk.

As a wine merchant I knew from day 1 that I had many more questions than answers lining up on the food horizon. From the outset I could see that, within the numerous goals I had set myself, many were likely to become early casualties in the column marked unrealistic if I did not seek assistance from the outset. Determined as I was to chase to ground every query that cropped up along the way, I had nevertheless vowed to keep as many enquiries as local as I could. This was not a bid to follow fashionable wisdom at any cost or claim adherence to any pervasive philosophy, what I wanted to do was to meet the people whom I wished to question face to face on a range of subjects that were cropping up as I stumbled along my chosen agricultural path. With my own Masters Degree in Ignorance I needed real people who were nearby and available – day or night in some cases. Unselfish folk who could demonstrate solutions, show by example and guide my feeble efforts along an orderly pathway. Patience was the other virtue they needed in spades. Forgive the early pun by the way.

As I mentioned in my last journal, we have reduced our food diversity with such dramatic measure over an alarmingly short period of time, that the outlook for a novice vegetable gardener looked rather cut and dried at first. I had a reasonable idea of the different types of cuisine I wished to consume, but I was all too aware that I had conveniently put aside the challenging task of seed selection which I shortly needed, in order to begin propagation.

But for now, with my pristine raised beds installed and my cleared turf a painfully distant memory, I positioned a garden bench so as to be able to peruse the immediate landscape and congratulate myself on the early showing of some pretty sound organisational skills. Before the weeds had time to re-colonise and with my freshly turned soil pregnant with expectation, I surveyed my new panorama, convinced of the life-altering phase I had begun. Suffice to say that my award winning nettles, alongside our internationally acclaimed dock leaves, began to labour more urgently than I from the ouset.

However noble my worthy ambitions, my days of self- congratulation were to be short lived indeed. Effort was required on all fronts at once.

Without a history of crop cultivation or allotment membership, I was clearly freed from all prejudice regarding well-tried varieties of many vegetables. I felt an early liberation from the constraints of contract growing, competitive gardening and rosette winning marrows. I was going to establish a new outlook. I was determined to work backwards from the plate to the soil.

The arrival of the many seed catalogues I had ordered was initially exciting, almost birthday like as each successive postal delivery brought greater treasures. I flitted through pages of garishly photographed vegetables, all of them plump and glistening, firm and colourful, clearly enhanced by Photoshop rather than Mother Nature. I felt I had drifted into a mild form of horticultural pornography for the allotment brigade, a nether world of sniggers and nudges centred around some comedy vegetables and humorously illustrated aubergines. I even answered some nagging question about the use of those garden sheds into the bargain. What those brochures failed to help with was my untutored yet demanding selection process. ‘Good cropper’ and ‘disease resistant’ were descriptions common to many varieties, but what conclusions was I to draw from the increasingly baffling terms such as ‘exhibition favourites, firm heads and vigorous trusses’ I asked?

I also noticed how precious little text was devoted to the taste profile of different species. Coming from a wine background that is usually the first thing on offer and apart from the odd example of pretentious hyperbole, is of invaluable help when selecting your evening tipple. Why should it be any different for vegetables or salads that you are due to consume at the same table?

I don’t wish to know how many I am going to get or how big they will grow, I want to know how they taste.

I had been in communication with a number of horticultural suppliers, hoping they would not spot the transparent ignorance that I was at such pains to hide, yet offer some desperately needed aid. Deliverance came by way of an invitation from an East Anglian seed merchant to pop along and discuss the project. When Tracy called to set up the appointment I was relieved to feel in safe hands. I was to meet her marketing director, Tony, who was apparently prepared to listen to my summary plans and offer assistance where appropriate. It was also clear that Tracey could spot a counterfeit from ten paces so I dropped all the pretence I had carefully rehearsed to date, came clean, and whilst waiving a white flag, made my way down to rural Essex to meet them both. What I did not know then was that I was about to be introduced to one of the largest, and indeed oldest, seed merchants in the British Isles. An additional aspect I was grateful to uncover was the unsung yet pivotal role of the traditional seed supplier throughout our culinary history.

My subliminal view of seed merchants, if I had one at all, consisted of a grubby double garage, populated by the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ all dressed in post-war, brown-buttoned overalls with two Biros and a pipe cleaner in the top pocket. The assembled troupe would patiently fill small envelopes from much larger Hessian sacks, using teaspoons where available and culminating with a lick of the envelope edge before dispatch to the hardware shop. You may well imagine how long this assumption lasted once I got to Kings Seeds down near Colchester. Instead I found temperature controlled storage areas, strict warehouse separation of varieties including a substantial area for organics, a vista of ring fenced trial beds out of every window, and laboratory conditions that would compete with NASA. Not a brown coat or teaspoon in sight.

The company, whose direct family history stretches back to the late 18th Century, is an outwardly modest little set-up that has weathered many historic dramas and industrial revolutions, followed more recently by a significant cultural change in our eating habits. It has throughout its two hundred year history quietly provided the seeds that produced the food upon which history’s stomach is so dependent. As a seed merchant they are clearly not alone in shouldering the responsibility for providing the nation’s dietary needs, but they appeared somewhat nonchalant as to how much they had illuminated my endeavours and assisted enormously in simplifying and affirming my planting choice. Their invaluable advice will become evident as the weeks unfold, when the recommended range of crops are hopefully turned into memorable cuisine.

They had also unwittingly moved the food chain back a few paces from its original starting blocks.

Yet there is some intriguing irony in the role of our traditional seed merchants, mainly encompassed by the sheer spread of their global activities and the requirement of differing climatic conditions, all of which are both complex and many faceted.

I have been a regular customer of my local farmer’s market in nearby Aylsham since its inception some years ago. Every so often, and memory permitting, I even manage to take my jungle patterned Hessian bag along with me for additional street-cred. I make a point of attending because I have long considered, and in many cases wholeheartedly agree with, the new chanted mantras of local sourcing and regional sustainability. As a responsible first choice, there clearly can be no argument against the principal of protecting natural resources and bio-diversity on one’s doorstep and promoting a local food economy wherever feasible. Yet the debate inevitably spreads to the global village when we look at the original source of so much of our food and beverages, as almost all of our cooking techniques, our basic ingredients, our horticultural activities, our present day eating habits and our farming know-how, are imported in part or in whole.

The core items of our sustainability are those mystical constituents needed for civilised dining, the root stock for vines or the Mother seed for vegetables. A Mother seed has a geographical heartland and here in the United Kingdom that heartland can be found in anonymous fields across Essex. These are areas selected centuries ago for their fertile soil, equable climate and the lowest rainfall in the whole of the British Isles. There is even less recorded drizzle here than Greece or Turkey. Kings, still cultivating 300 acres after centuries of activity, boasts a set of houses for the retired workers built in true Victorian fashion, a company peppered by family members and the maintenance of a local football club, you’ve guessed it – the Seedgrowers. I record this, not to flatter the helpful team I met but to highlight the enormous contribution and continued local influence the seed merchant exercised across decades.

The merchants role clearly cannot be underestimated, neither can it be summarised by a set of seed packets perched near the tills at your local garden centre. Who of us have not heard of the stock exchange or the dealing floor, Billingsgate or Covent Garden markets? How many of us would associate our pleasure in the numerous converted Corn Exchanges we attend for shopping, eating or live gigs with the once powerful world inhabited by seed merchants and their brokers?

What fascinated me was the extent with which seed merchants have traditionally engaged in, and often instigated, micro-economies around the world, in order to provide the nation’s basic sustenance at home. Even today precious, non-hybridised seeds are grown each year, harvested, and sent to vast beds in many host countries to produce thousands of perfect seed clones to be redistributed across the world’s thriving markets. The whole cycle can take three or more years to reach completion, yet commences at the start of every year here in East Anglia.

Seeds you select for your own domestic vegetable bed or local allotment will have arrived back from China, France, Chile, Poland, New Zealand or Italy. Host countries are selected for their unique regional climates, their modest land costs and inevitably, their moderate labour costs. They also provide a new cultural centre from which a local cuisine is subtly changed or adjusted via the seeds that are produced.

Food itself can clearly be seen as the expression of the land, governed by the variance of the climate and affected enormously by human capability – all of which impinge upon it and determine its qualities. These are all virtues to be understood and protected, otherwise food variety as well as quality, will quickly diminish. The next generation of seed merchants will doubtless be asked to stand alongside this debate and provide a more tangible contribution to the food chain and our understanding of it. Too long the discussions of seed science have centred around GM trials, almost to the exclusion of the many important food choices we need to make for the future. If the seed merchants join the dialogue, I think we will thank them more than we know.

For those wishing to appreciate the enormous contribution made by seed merchants and the workings of their craft, Kings are happy to organise eye opening tours of their warehouse and grounds, e-mail; sales@kingsseeds.com

Next; First seeds are selected and an early harvest consumed. The fear of blight comes to town and the mice discover my pea shots.