With a pastoral life providing joy, nourishment and occasional debate, the odd visit to my local pub inevitably offers a modifying opinion to my philosophy. There the altered state I encounter has now shifted from incredulity to polite boredom. The early chorus of “you’ll never get it off the ground” has moved to a courteous “oh really” whenever I raise the subject of my recently harvested crops. To be fair they have been a patient and supportive bunch, tolerating the weekly successes and occasional failures of my rural exertions. One notable comment, as I was bemoaning the fate of my late tomato shoots, came from a local who, whilst securing his pint of stout with a vice-like grip, advised me that the year “was late starting” and that he “wasn’t at all happy” with his personal interpretations of the present weather conditions. His spooky countenance could have equally delivered the Ides of March speech from Shakespeare’s Caesar.

Admittedly, I was slow at getting the hang of allotment-speak, a carefully crafted Esperanto built to keep in-comers out, but a “late-starting” year was well beyond my understanding. Did he mean that we had usurped the normally reliable Roman calendar and started in February, or had God handed in a sick note to excuse March from attending? No, it was the weather that governed his logic, not months or even days, it was the decimating arctic weather holding Spring’s luxuriant flourish at bay for longer than usual that came in for special abuse. Looking back this was a welcome bonus for me, for had the year turned up on time I would have been well out of the race. I have been playing catch-up for months as it is, for Mother Nature to give me a head start of six weeks in my first year out, my gratitude knew no bounds.

What has become clear about my daily set of garden tasks is the clarity with which one can recall every moment at the wrong end of a garden spade coupled with the changing micro-climates that are frequently visited upon north Norfolk. Prior to my rustic enterprise, weather was something that tended to happen outside, doors open when hot, log burner roaring when cold. But it was Julie Reinger doing the TV weather forecast soon after Easter, that turned me from climate avoidance to midnight rambler. Having set my potatoes chitting in egg boxes all over the kitchen, I celebrated their first sprouting growth like a new father – with the notable exception of the ones I had placed the wrong way up that is – and I should have known then that their external re-settlement was always going to be traumatic.

Julie had threatened a frost, unusually late in the season and alarmingly late at night. Jonathan, the former Kibbutz dweller who now resided along the road, had warned me previously about the calamities that could beset the humble potato. Blight and the Irish potato famine loomed large in my nightmares, but late frost was always set as the highest vistation on his agenda.

In the meantime I had planted out six different varieties of earlies and was suitably proud to witness green shoots emerge in all directions. Having always had a soft spot for Ms Reinger, I didn’t want our relationship to get off on the wrong foot. There she was all glamorous and elegant, pointing at the Norfolk coastline as frost symbols appeared to gather over my very garden, whilst I was all overcoat and slipper-less frantically trying to cover my Solanum tuberosum with a rapidly pulled hay bale previously reserved for the hen house.

This was gardening green in tooth and claw, and I realised that unless I mastered the emotional demands our weather required, I would remain an outsider, a mere allotment lightweight. The stakes were higher than I had imagined and I didn’t want Julie to think that I had ignored her predictions. Suffice to say it was her guidance that saved my spuds that night, and she will doubtless be relieved that they continue to provide copious meals even as I write. She is welcome to a bag of my Pink Fir Apples anytime she passes.

No sooner had the alarming effects of late frost subsided than a well prophesised summer drought had begun. Although I was yet to discover its duration, I was once again, tardy with my contingency plans.


Saun, who had organised our raised beds in the first place, dropped by to review the desiccated state of the installation. His system allowed for daily irrigation although I hadn’t as yet got round to commissioning this aspect, by connecting hose to tap. My noble intentions for water reclamation and recycling were, at this stage, more a matter of laudable theory than eco-practice. I had purchased two tasteful green water butts and copious lengths of nuclear yellow hosepipe. The colour of the latter was determined by special offer, but as it had to travel across National Trust land – and this particular yellow would have put most traffic accident waistcoats to shame – it was not one of my better aesthetic decisions. The reason we had failed to install the irrigation system was partly to do with time constraints, partly to do with having to bury such a ghastly colour and partly to do with me figuring out that there wasn’t any rain to fill the butts anyway. Saun came up with a more intelligent observation which had surprisingly escaped me, and that was that I live under a thatched roof without gutters or down pipes. Clearly we had to travel even further with that hose after all. But irrigate we did although I must admit that the kitchen cold tap had to work harder than the water butts in the early weeks.

Fortune means that I share the pub alongside some of the local farming fraternity whose constant long-rang forecasts have proved invaluable. This does not mean you get the weather you want, but at least you know when its coming and my meagre crops tend to be more forgiving than ten acres of wheat. What cemented me to John, one of the nearby farmers, was how much in common I suddenly discovered we had. His opinion may differ here, but I am sure my London friends will be enthralled as to my erudite discussions over the right kind of rain and the best wind direction.

I have even caught myself, after an otherwise inconvenient downpour, commenting in sage-like tones, “that we needed a few hours of the stuff, to make a difference” praying for rain was a genuine first in my life. How easily I felt that at last I had begun to blend in with the agricultural community. The one sure thing about veg is that warm dry weather is good and wet weather is essential. Unless you want a suntan it’s win-win for the vegetables I thought. Another conclusion I should not have jumped to, as these boys have forgotten more than I will ever learn about weather conditions, is that nothing about local climate is ever that simple. Nevertheless they still seem to confer a friendly wave as their Land Rover strategically overtakes me near the deeper puddles.

With the sun back in hiding on the day of writing, and my grandson’s solitary sunflower having keeled over like Goliath in the blustery winds, my activities have turned to more suitable indoor fact-finding. I always define this more comfortable work around the kitchen table as research and development. My wife occasionally defines it as work-shy, and I feel I have yet to graduate beyond fair weather cultivation in her eyes.

So it was that Mike, a colleague working for a large wine shipper in London, telephoned last week and suggested that we put some of his produce alongside mine, agreement was simple, and he duly arrived via wind assisted drizzle, with a selection of bottles.

I had been out that morning and chosen a few likely crops in order to show off my growing and cooking prowess in the face of some intriguing wines. As a nation we have come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to wine drinking and we invest more and more time over our wine selection. What to drink with a lunch-time pasta, a traditional Rib of Beef or a take-away Chinese meal? Although some notable guidelines have stood the test of time, the absorption of world cuisines and the confidence of the nation’s culinary re-birth have radically shifted the ‘red with meat, white with fish’ mantra.

What part then have vegetables played in influencing wine choices? Is it red with ratatouille, white with watercress, even rosé with radishes? In fairness we don’t appear to have addressed the issue with very much commitment, so it was that Mike and I agreed to selflessly research the subject over lunch and under carefully supervised conditions. My wife and Rachel, a nearby work colleague, were unusually keen to supervise these particular conditions.

Having hand picked six onions, two beetroot, a melon sized squash and some early runner beans I was set to provide a bucolic French lunch. Mike arrived with some  overlooked rural wines from the Beaujolais region, and we approached the revolutionary task in hand. I had, in less than an hour’s kitchen activity, turned the above vegetables into a) a creamy onion tart, b) Haricotes a la Provencale  (runner beans fried in olive oil, with tomatoes and garlic), c) a soup cooked by filling the inside of the squash with garlic and thyme infused cream, made famous by Michelin star chef Paul Bocuse and d) set a beetroot jelly with a creamed horseradish top. Apart from my hourly rate, and the chickens increasingly demanding pay settlements, I had spent about a fiver. We could have fed another four people with ease although the wine might have been stretched a little.

We tried a southern French Viognier with the caramelised onion tart, which created an award-winning combo, but the stars of the show with squash, beans and beetroot were the Beaujolais wines. All made of the same silky Gamay grape with a light, fruity almost tannin free style, these vegetal masterpieces should not be confused with that annual Gallic import: Beaujolais Nouveau. This yearly hubris is regarded by many as Ribena with a hangover, and probably dissuaded a generation of potential wine drinkers with the short-term financial nonsense that was created by a few winemakers. But the best of the Beaujolais region and the elite wines (Crus) emanating from within its landscape of gently rolling granite hills, are worth more than a second look. We tried the varying wine styles including Morgon, Fleurie and Julienas that day and they all married with earthy vegetables, timbales, terrines, steamed beans and roast squash. To find wines that will seamlessly complement dishes such as roasted beetroot jelly was a delight. To fly the mainstream flag for vegetable cuisine and grape harvesting all on the same sociable day was a joy. I told you I was beginning to like wet weather!

To find out more about the wines or any of the recipes, go to keith@keithreeveswinewriter.co.uk. To contact Saun about the raised bed system, try www.homegrownrev.co.uk