GARDENING / The jolly orange giants of the vegetable world: Onions like footballs, cabbages big as cartwheels: at the Spalding championships size really does matter, as Anna Pavord discovers

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MEL EDNIE'S onion came to the UK Giant Vegetable Championships last weekend packed in a square wooden box with 'DANGER' written on the lid. The heaviest onion in the world, it arrived fresh from its success at the Kelsea Onion Festival. Inside this box was 12lb 4oz of onion, straining against its outer skin like a wrestler in a corset. Mr Ednie, a builder from Anstruther, Fife, stood nonchalantly aside while two acolytes reverently lifted the beast on to the scales.

A kind of procession developed through the Baytree Nurseries, Spalding, the venue for the event, as courtiers attached themselves to the king. Hands reached out to touch Mr Ednie as he passed by, catch some of his luck. 'All right then, Mel? All right?' Nobody touched the onion.

'No, that's against the rules,' explained Fred Hayton, an 82-year-old grower from Leeds. 'You might be tampering,' he added, giving the word a terrible significance. He had brought runner beans to the show, four giants, which for the journey he had laid against a wooden batten and wrapped tightly in damp tea cloths.

His son was there, too, with another set of monumental beans. Old Mr Hayton worked his way slowly along the table, all the world banished except for the beans and himself. 'Eh,' he said. 'Someone's been milking that one.' Milking? Milking? What is going on? 'Well, some growers reckon you've got to milk the beans every day,' his son explained. 'You know, run your hands down them. Keep them straight.'

To the outsider, there is a magnificent lunacy about these vegetables, the carrots turned into Gorgon's heads, whirling nests of bright orange snakes, the pumpkins like mounds of slowly sinking dough. All the pumpkins had the same saggy, flattened, run out of steam look, the look of a vegetable that has been pushed to the limit. In the process of getting big, most of the vegetables also got ugly. Only the giant onions retained their svelte sleekness. And there was a wondrous cabbage there, still symmetrical, grand, carved, although it was four feet across and, at 116lb, almost as heavy as its owner, Ken Dade of King's Lynn.

The growers stand around in knots, arms folded, shirt sleeves rolled up, leaning back slightly from the waist, the stance of men who know where they fit in the great scheme of things. The conversation is only of vegetables. 'I've not done it on the sub-laterals. That's where I've slipped up.' 'I fancy he's lost a bit of weight overnight. I'm not happy about him.'

Only the novices look at all nervous. For three hours until closing time for entries, John Handbury from Chesterfield hovered by the entrance area, worrying that at the last minute an unknown squash might pip him at the winner's post. It didn't and he won pounds 100.

The old hands, Richard Hope, Ian Neale, Mel and Ken, know who has won long before judging has even started. At this end of the season, many of the vegetables - onions, marrows, parsnips, giant radish - are already old troupers. They have done shows in Scotland, won prizes in Wales, travelled the pubs of the North-east where the leeks and the onions gather. Nevertheless the show was not without its dramas.

Who, for instance, was the mysterious Mr Overvoorde, whose winning pumpkin, a 460 1/2 lb monster, was magically in place before any of the rest of the competitors had arrived at the show? He was not a member of the British National Pumpkin Society so there was plenty of shock and horror in that quarter.

And pity poor Mr Jerrard of Fordingbridge, one of the few southerners competing at the championships. Held up on the long journey from Hampshire, he ran in just after the 11am show deadline, clutching two fearsome runner beans, either of which would have beaten the ones on the showbench that won the prizes.

There were also some important negotiations going on. Forget Gatt. Forget the CAP. Nothing that goes on in Brussels could be more serious and impassioned than Bill Rogers's plea for standardisation of the neck trimming procedure of onions. 'It's a minefield,' he said. You can lose an all-important quarter of an ounce with a bad trim.

'Why do you do it?' I asked a trio of growers, rudely interrupting a conversation which had consisted entirely of tales of onions past, dreams of onions future. I may as well have asked 'Why do you sleep?', 'Why eat?' 'Well,' said one of them eventually, scratching the knitted back of his cap. 'I was looking for something to do.' Courtesy demanded an answer and these are kind, courteous people.

'You've got the best growers in the country here, you know,' said one competitor severely, overhearing a remark of unconsidered levity that I made about a swede. I can believe it. The expertise needed to produce these monster vegetables, the love and care lavished on them, is self evident. But why is bulk so much more interesting than quality? Because it is incontrovertible, said another grower. 'It's a mine-is-bigger- than-yours situation. No argument.'

Of course you won't find men like these poncing about with courgettes or petit pois, though it is surprising that no one has yet found a way to persuade a potato to abandon its sensible way of life and take its place among the giants. Anything these people take on has to have the capacity for mammoth growth: swedes, leeks, beefsteak tomatoes, beetroots, watermelons, cucumbers. They have been quick to see the possibilities in mooli, the Japanese white radish. Here were radishes that could have doubled as truncheons.

And tarantara, a roll of drums, there was a world record broken at Spalding: Ian Neale of Newport, Gwent, presented the world with its biggest ever beetroot, 40 1/2 lb of inedible fibre, which he lifted as a shot- putter might, the vegetable balanced menacingly in his huge hand. Forty two and a half inches round the waist, he said proudly. 'Every night when I drop my trousers, I think: bloody hell, is it bigger than that?'

Though lacking in any of the necessary equipment, I am of course hooked on the idea of exhibiting my own giant vegetable one day at the Baytree Nurseries, Spalding. The recipe for success is daunting. First take 40 tons of muck and dig it in well . . .-