“Anyone who has been fortunate enough to eat fresh, home-cooked vegetables in France remembers them with pleasure. The French are interested in vegetables as food, rather than as purely nutrient objects valuable solely for their vitamins and minerals.” – Julia Child. Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1963)

As it is the destiny of all seeds to sprout and for all plants to grow, it has been my good fortune to discover that you have to do an awful lot to stop them. This, therefore, has become something of a providential tale as I have never been a compliant or natural gardener. As those possessing only a casual perception of my abilities will know, it is inconceivable that the term ‘green fingered’ could ever be added to my slim roster of skills.

My late father however was a devoted and proficient vegetable gardener, and although I was vaguely aware of the assembled produce that he regularly bore from garden to kitchen, the infrequent visits to my parents’ cottage were solely concerned with metropolitan pleasures; what weekend attire to pack, what wine to take, what nearby restaurants should be booked and what citified abundance could I discharge upon their rural Dorset outpost. James Russell Lowell would have looked askance at how my own ‘blessed…horny hands of toil’ were kept firmly in the pockets of my suitably creased linen suit, I offered scant assistance and paid little attention to my father’s abiding horticultural wisdom. An opportunity I now regret.

But later, as a wine merchant, writing regular features on food and wine for the Eastern Daily Press, my mischievous editor thought it a highly amusing idea for me to grow my own food. Having never planted a tuber, sown a seed or drilled a set in my life I was asked to decamp to my garden, install some rapidly assembled raised beds (built entirely from Belgian railway sleepers), grow a substantial assortment of vegetables during the course of a year and record the seasonal disasters that he believed would inevitably follow. I guess he anticipated a potentially entertaining shambles from the outset – he certainly guessed one of those correctly. It came, it went, and somewhere in the archive there languishes written evidence of that time.

But a seed germinated, and not just below ground (sorry). My task to plant, eat and convey, resulted in a desire to understand the process that I had formerly divested to multiple retailers, food processors and assorted nutritional scientists. (Wasn’t it our former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who cynically changed the National curriculum idiom of Cookery Classes to Domestic Science?)

I enjoyed growing and preparing vegetables and as the earlier intimidation of the task started to dwindle, I began to relish the idea of shortening my personal food chain.

Research into the industrialisation of food production showed the intolerable costs being exacted by our western diet and its reliance on livestock. Domestic animals, bred for our insatiable need, contribute more to global warming than the entirety of transport systems worldwide. In addition, this newly established western diet makes many of us fat and sick, forces animals to be reared under especially cruel conditions and strips the world of its forests. Amongst the research that accompanied that earlier project was the opening line from Michael Pollan’s 2008 publication In Defence of Food‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ This modest book with its catchy strap line had sent a clarion call to a principally cosmopolitan readership, many of whom regarded Pollan’s vision as something of a distraction from mainstream dietary wisdom. But to widespread astonishment, his unassuming book rocketed to number 1 in the New York Times bestseller list.

Suddenly we were no longer smirking at shantytown allotments, good life practitioners, vertical gardens, hippy-dippy spirulina devotees or vegan apostates. Previously barbarian sub-cultures were now pounding at the gates. Discussions around food quickly extended to land use, water conservation, corporate patronage, chemical intervention, fishing technology and farm production. Emphasis moved from the bourgeois delights of supper selection, effortlessly assembled by coquettish television chefs whilst relegating cooking to a spectator sport, to the effects of global food production upon our diet, our resultant health, the other inhabitants of our natural world and our apparently tremulous planet. Nutritional orthodoxies were being challenged, the penny had finally dropped, and the sound of its fall echoed way beyond the obfuscation of food scientists and marketers.

Restaurateurs like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, or Ruth Rogers at The River Café, had always taken inspiration from Mediterranean gastronomy and had subsequently given vegetables a starring role. Now chefs around the globe started weighing in with reduced meat menus and quota led fish cuisine. Foraged weeds became signature dishes at fashionably expensive restaurants, like Noma in Denmark and El Bulli in Spain. Alain Ducasse, a chef with the highest Michelin tally on the planet, blatantly disregarded the French proclivity for barely stunned meat cuisine and opened a restaurant in Paris serving vegetables as the sole protein course. And it came as no surprise that at the same time the quest for low intervention or ‘natural’ wines started gaining equally populist traction.

Given that we have long had access to exciting food cultures, developed and codified across millennia and effecting an obvious dependency on primary vegetable cooking, many were now being re-examined under the aegis of biodiversity and social geography. At the same time, more and more enlightened advocacy highlighted the fissures occurring in the culinary foundations of our western culture.

That the planet has decreasing resources will surprise very few, the notion that we must consume more fairly and more mindfully has yet to become commonplace. As with all such issues it is witless to solely define previous failures, what matters most is the nature of the response, and as a continually growing species, pressure builds to establish a ‘greener’ economy and by inference – a greener diet. I suspect that sometime soon we must either choose it ourselves or consumer legislation will find a way of foisting it upon us.

As my haphazard foray into domestic horticulture had proved unexpectedly revealing, I decided to pursue the venture and set about re-installing that same group of raised beds in the garden of our present cottage.

So, adapting to my bucolic shortcomings and an abridged skill-set, I found many clear advantages to this method of gardening. A gravel surround dissuades snails and slugs from sharing your endive and rocket leaves, the wooden boundaries provide a welcome seat during the relentless weeding, and the necessary replenishment each year of composted waste from both kitchen and garden creates a domestic eco-system all of its own. Additionally, the perimeter of a raised bed provides a finite domain across which one hopes to exercise some semblance of agricultural control.

Apart from my newfound attraction to the vegetables I grow myself, and later in life than I would have wished, I have discovered the simple and coherent unity of growing, cooking and eating. So as a range of fresh ingredients to serve at table became central to a revised culinary outlook, raised bed gardening – however haphazard my generation of its precious harvest still remains – is now a manifest part of my family’s every meal.