When is a carrot not a carrot? When it's your child—and you've fed it and crowed over it and lovingly reared it ever since it was a seedling. British cooking phenomenon (and grow-your-own fanatic) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall explores the freedom and exhilaration of tending his family's vegetable garden.
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.
Freedom Is a Packet of Seeds As I look out on my developing plot today, I realize this was a very sound briefing. The seeds you plant and the plants you put out really want to grow. You don't have to make them; you just have to let them. There can be setbacks, of course. Occasionally, you have to submit to the tyranny of the weather, and the determination of the natural competition for the edible goodies you are nurturing—particularly the slugs. Losing a whole row of tiny beet plants to a single mollusk can be the cause of a major foot-stomping session. But chances are, you'll get over it by suppertime—especially if the purple sprouting broccoli is still going strong.
What can I say to the enthusiastic cook who is vaguely interested in the idea of growing his or her own vegetables but is still teetering on the brink of action? Realistically, for most of us these days there are no persuasive economic arguments for growing your own vegetables—at least, not if you cost out your time. (During summer gluts, my father used to pay me pocket money to pick and freeze peas, beans, and soft fruits from his vegetable garden. He once calculated that the resulting frozen produce cost him three or four times what it would in the supermarket. And that was without factoring in his own time.)
But there is still an important sense in which the vegetables you grow yourself really are free. When your time is given freely, what you make with it is free in the best sense of the word. When you buy your vegetables, you are a slave—to the car that takes you to the shops; to the methods, good or bad, by which the vegetables are produced; to the market forces, and the big bosses who fix the prices; to the shelf-stacking policies that determine the freshness, or otherwise, of the produce you buy. You have no say whatsoever in the means of production, no role in the quality of what becomes yours—only when you hand over the cash.
Grow your own vegetables and all that changes. What you take to the kitchen is not just a vegetable; it's a form of self-expression, a kind of opting out of the world as you're told it must be in favor of the world as you'd like it to be. You may doubt the wisdom of loading something as ordinary as a carrot with such deep personal meaning. But try growing them yourself, and you will find that carrots are far from ordinary. They are sleek, pointed orange miracles that come from nowhere to populate a bare patch of earth. And, almost astonishingly, you can eat them!
The fact is, those who already grow their own vegetables for the kitchen need no converting to the cause. I have yet to meet a vegetable gardener who complained that "it's hardly worth it, what with the choice available in the supermarket these days" or "It's too much time for too little reward" or "What's the point; you can hardly taste the difference anyway?" These are the clichés of the uninitiated—those who do not yet know the prickly heat of a fat radish freshly drawn from the earth, washed with a quick wipe on a dewy tuft of grass, then eaten without further ado; those who have not tasted the extra sugar dose in a pile of self-podded peas thrown into boiling water within an hour of being picked; those who have not marveled at the unrepentant earthiness of freshly dug potatoes…
Vegetable gardening is the very definition of a worthwhile project: something that matures slowly over time, whose progress is visible and tangible, and whose final rewards fulfill both a basic need, food, and one of life's finest luxuries—good food.