The wish to grow my own food whilst examining the culinary cultures of the world has had some modest even subliminal effects upon my otherwise well practised daily rituals. However, one sizeable and unexpected outcome of my gardening exploits has been the recognition that my home, both inside and outside its protective walls, is a far more significant place than I had previously understood.

Over the past few months I have read more gardening books and magazines than you could shake a trowel at. I have bored otherwise close friends into near submission with the minute details of my gardening discoveries, and I have asked more questions in the last two months than I ever posed whilst studying for a degree. One lightning strike I have felt more than I would ever have predicted is that when you wish to create self-sufficient meals for yourself, your family and your friends, the earth you dig is not just a handy practical material in which to grow your future food, it becomes Base Camp One dominating the very nucleus of your aspirations.

I am not sure when it first got to me but there was a day which, like so many others before it, was spent either on damp soil, painful knees or in back aching combat against resilient weeds that thepenny finally dropped. I realised I had inadvertently taken a kind of temporary ownership of the soil. But this was no land grab. My first inkling arrived on a wet Tuesday afternoon way back in April, a murky vision if you like of the direct confluence of tilled soil and furrowed man. As the rain seeped gently through to my undergarments I realised that I, and the immediate landscape I presently inhabited, were quietly changing their relationship.

Mind you, I kept that thought quiet down at my local for obvious reasons, they already think I am mildly certifiable as it is.

These lyrical thoughts were not without their Doomsday influence. A few weeks earlier I had visited a friend, Karen, whose smallholding is dedicated to the gentle rearing of Saddleback pigs. She and her partner had just purchased some additional East Anglian farmland previously dedicated to cereal and potato crop. After years of sustained and relentless extraction this barren soil had more in common with the landscape photographs of World War I than the fertile bearer of our food. Concrete on dry days and impenetrable mud on wet days, the land in a frighteningly short period of time had become a mere vehicle for volume food production. You now take out only what you put in, the rest is an inert substance where most fields no longer provide any natural conveyance of life. Initially baffled by the insensitivity of former agricultural custodians, yet confronted by the wearisome justification of market forces whenever I asked, I looked elsewhere for an intelligent rationale.

When our landscapes are relentlessly scoured in order to produce food for our citizens, then that need must surely be an authentic one. It will come as no surprise to many that my own discoveries were less clear-sighted. When one learns that in a single year the British public throw away nearly 7 million tonnes of food at an overall cost to the nation of something in the region of £8 billion, the formula no longer stands up to scrutiny. Well not on philosophical grounds at least. To know that one in three bags of food purchased from the four major high street suppliers is casually thrown into the bin each week, is disarming to say the least. To count the effect, as well as the mere cost, is approaching a social nightmare.

So why get so concerned I asked myself. Plant the seeds and lift the crops, it’s all you’re here to do. Let me try to explain my wayward outlook here. If you go to friends you pick something special. You select a bunch of flowers, a particular bottle of wine, even those curious chocolates shaped like snails. In short you offer a selected gift, which you hope will be enjoyed and appreciated, as well as reflecting positively upon your polite and educated choice.

To provide a meal you pluck a radish or courgette, climbing bean or fennel bulb from one’s carefully tended soil and present it, after some preparation, as a gift to another. It is fundamentally the same experience. The only difference is in the former one merely selects, in the latter one builds from scratch. So the soil becomes pivotal to the gift. It is no longer a vehicle to be plundered opportunistically, it is at the very core of the gesture. This may sound rather effete to the average sugar beet farmer, but it will come as no surprise to the grape growers of Europe.

How the soil in France or that metaphysical expression Terroir is viewed, could perhaps illustrate my thinking here.

Terroir is one of the many French words that has neither a direct translation into English nor an equivalent sense in most of the activities of British farming. Terroir has also become a fanciful concept to some of the winemakers of the New world but it is fiercely defended in many European vineyards. The Australian revolution, some thirty-odd years ago, which defined its wine by grape variety rather than region,city or village, was the first onslaught that suggested that a wine was created in the winery by winemakers, not in the vineyards by grape growers. The word encompasses soil and rainfall, temperature and topography, sunlight and geology. Terroir also refers to the magical and disproportionate combination of all these aspects. A term for the poet not the accountant I suspect. So if some of the outstanding qualities inherent in the wine, were transmitted from the terroir to the glass, why not allotment to plate? Well I was hooked. I had inadvertently begun to relate to the soil itself. What was once the crippling chore of turf removal, compost building, earth shovelling and assorted wheelbarrow manoeuvring, had now become a quasi-emotional relationship. I had imbued the dirt on which I toiled with an expectant hope unheard of in an otherwise rational life. Friends at my local were gathering at this stage with the increasingly resolute view that I needed to get out more.

I in turn became equally convinced that I was, in the confines of my own garden, discovering some of the important things in life once again.

One of the first recipients of the attachment I now offered my rural plot, was the ubiquitous potato. Formerly divided into crude sectors such as new in Spring, jacket in Winter, roast with the Sunday joint and some chips occasionally consumed off-premises. Now that the soil and I had formed a newly discovered union, and I was imploring its help on a daily basis – my potatoes had a lot to live up to. They did not disappoint. As the earth was to offer its side of the deal, mine was to select and nurture. The choice of my first serious vegetable needed thought and deliberation. Few will believe that my research of the humble spud took me from the Potato Famine in Ireland to the prosecuting courtrooms of New York, where McDonalds chips were so often in the dock. I charted its bewildering course from the Americas to Europe, across the low countries to the eastern bloc, and from Bengal to sub-Saharan Africa. The potato has touched so many lives and influenced more cuisines than almost any other vegetable in history.
There were few culinary cultures in the world that had not at one time or another, worshipped the coming of Solanum tuberosum esculentum  and very few that have not developed its use throughout history. It was the much misunderstood Raleigh that had been credited with the popularity of both pipes and potatoes, but the latter was known to the Spanish much earlier due to their constant summer trips down to South America to colonise as much of the continent as they could. In fact it was cultivated in Peru over 5000 years ago and had continually developed as a principal recipe ingredient across South America and later throughout Spain and Portugal. The French were rather sniffy about it at first with Louis XVI not granting it table space until well into the 18th Century, yet a later, more enlightened French nobleman gave his country’s name to a particular style of fries, now eaten in almost every country in the world. The French initially thought that any vegetable which matured beneath the soil was clearly under the control of the devil. So how could a potential crop, from a vegetable variety that has given its name to idiocy and laziness in the form of potato head and couch potato, triumph in so many ways? More international recipes than any other vegetable may well be one answer.

So it was, that once a row of bright green foliage became speckled with tiny pink flowers my garden fork was thrust into rich black soil revealing dozens of cream coloured orbs below the surface.

Our first foray into home cultivation and its resultant meal times was the plate of early Charlotte potatoes, barely the size of Bantam eggs, all presented without accompaniment to a small group of apparently eager friends wishing to sample an al fresco luncheon after considerable build up by myself over the preceding weeks. Two initial dishes were tentatively provided. Both had been steamed with some mint sprigs, the first served only with a sprinkling of rock salt and butter, the second with a good Italian vinaigrette, brimming with Thyme, Oregano and Basil, tipped into the warmed dish allowing the potatoes to absorb the varying flavours over five or ten minutes. Not only were the tastes outstanding, with real flavours of ripe hazelnuts mingling with fresh buttery cream, they had the distinct earthy smell of warm spring days that I had all but forgotten. I felt like the Marcel Proust of the allotment world.

This was also my first realisation that the garden could offer up complete meals, no longer a casual side order or a bulking afterthought with the meat dish. I also understood how necessary the herb plantings were going to be in furthering this end.

One spectacular success was the aforementioned steaming followed by gently crushed immersion in an infusion of warm cream, garlic and thyme, Pommes Dauphinois in a matter of minutes has been repeated many times as Pentland Javelin, Winston, Maris Bard and Duke of York revealed their differing flavours. At the time of writing I now hover near the Pink Fir patch, desperate to place the pink salad potato alongside its fellow French countryman the breakfast radish, doused in olive oil for a mid morning snack.

These early exploratory meals reveal that selection and process, the often overlooked relationship from seed to the kitchen, from harvest to plate, have been the bedrock of former civilisations and culinary pleasure alike. Even up until the Second World War it was the gardener and the cook in creative unison, who fed the bulk of our nation. The one thing common to all those who have preceded us, has been respect rather than control of the soil we occupy. Our soil and the water that irrigates it, are both an essential natural resource. Their health and the food security they have provided to date are wholly inter-dependent. Our understanding of this health, and its necessary continuation, appear to be the single most important aspect of the food chain we build. I was surprised to find how close this relationship is to my back door.