Photo: Simon Wheeler
When I was a child, my family moved from London to a rented farmhouse in Gloucestershire, and we inherited a wonderful vegetable garden in full swing. My first memory of the new house—I think it was the very first day of our arrival—is sitting on the lawn eating raw carrots that my father had just pulled from the ground. It was a revelation to me that we might be able to grow our own vegetables, and hugely exciting. Not that I became a 7-year-old expert gardener or anything. I would happily pick, and I would happily eat while I picked. But as for digging, sowing, weeding—no thanks. I was far too busy climbing trees and racing snails with our neighbors' children to find time for that.
Our vegetable garden did, however, help me shrug off the usual childish antipathy to the very idea of vegetables as food. As a treat, a fresh pod of tiny peas, popped open and raked with my thumb straight into my mouth, was right up there with a sherbet. Still is.
Nearly 15 years later, when I was working as a sous-chef at the River Café in London, my appreciation of vegetables entered a new dimension. Here, the daily consignment of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs was prepared with as much care and attention as the meat and fish. I learned to cook zucchini gently in olive oil to a luscious creamy pulp, which could be lifted to sensational heights with a few torn basil leaves and some Parmesan shavings. I learned to roast whole garlic bulbs and shallots so that their natural sugars were transformed to an almost toffeelike sweetness. And I learned how to mix simple salads of just-picked leaves that allowed the natural spiciness of arugula or the mild, metallic tang of baby spinach to speak for itself.
I soon came to realize that vegetables—and their vegetable relatives, herbs and fruits—are without a doubt the cook's greatest assets. And now I firmly believe that any cook who thinks vegetables are the least interesting part of a meal, a bore to prepare, and a mere adjunct to meat or fish is missing the point. As far as I'm concerned, vegetables are staple, central, the main thing. Failure to recognize this is the root cause of much dissatisfaction in the kitchen. And embracing the notion will do much to improve your life with food.
As to the art of growing vegetables, I am hardly a leading authority. Nevertheless, I am an unremitting, if recently converted, enthusiast. And by plundering the knowledge of others with far greater experience than myself (and reading the back of a few seed packets), I have attained a level of competence that serves me well. Most of the time.
On the "how to" side of vegetable gardening, I'm still in the learning category, in other words. But when it comes to the question, Why bother?—well, I think I've given that more thought than most. In 1998 my wife and I moved from London to Dorset, intending to grow and rear some of our own food. The creation of a kitchen garden was my first priority. I knew from my Gloucestershire days what good gardening looked like, but I had precious little idea how to go about it. I turned to my father for advice. "It's easy," he told me. "You plant stuff in the ground and it grows." I wanted a little more guidance than that. "Look after the soil," he said, "and the soil will look after the plants." That was pretty much all I got, along with some top tips on making a compost heap.