To the judges of show fruit and vegetables, size is what counts. But at grassroots level, it's all about taste.

Across the land, gardeners are nurturing their prize gooseberries and gently feeding their giant marrows. Many a sleepless night is spent before the chosen specimen is picked and proudly displayed at the local show. Competition is fierce. Perfection must greet the judges' eyes. Not a blemish must spoil the gargantuan proportions of the prize fruit or vegetable. Size is everything, taste counts for nothing. Few would dream of slicing up their competition marrows, let alone turning them into jam or chutney. It would be like eating the family pet.

Across the land, gardeners are nurturing their prize gooseberries and gently feeding their giant marrows. Many a sleepless night is spent before the chosen specimen is picked and proudly displayed at the local show. Competition is fierce. Perfection must greet the judges' eyes. Not a blemish must spoil the gargantuan proportions of the prize fruit or vegetable. Size is everything, taste counts for nothing. Few would dream of slicing up their competition marrows, let alone turning them into jam or chutney. It would be like eating the family pet.

It is easy to attribute such enthusiasm to British eccentricity, until you delve a little deeper into the world of show fruit and vegetables. It seems that even the Royal Horticultural Society does not award marks for flavour. After all, that would mean cutting into a beautiful specimen and possibly - the sacrilege - cooking it. Yet there was a time when such competitions acted as a stimulant to plantsmen. In the 18th century, for example, local gooseberry clubs competed fiercely to produce the largest and best-tasting gooseberry. By the 19th century Britain was at the cutting edge of gooseberry cultivation, and in 1826 the Horticultural Society listed 185 new strains in its first catalogue.

Gardening, however, is catching up with cooking as the "leisure pursuit" for fashionable homebodies. To marry the two is a natural step for any green-fingered cook, or the gardener who appreciates eating their own produce. Consequently, it is now chic for urbanites to pick their tomatoes and country cooks to stuff their courgette flowers. Flavour is coming back on the agenda, and now Gardening Which? has decided to try and keep it there by launching a new campaign, Taste the Difference.

The magazine's project covers a wide gamut of food issues ranging from encouraging people to grow their own food to supporting British-grown produce. It is also trying to increase awareness of the many different varieties of edible plants disappearing from gardens and farms. This is illustrated by the fact that only nine of our 2,000 apple varieties are grown commercially.

Gardening Which? wants to encourage people to buy local produce from farmers markets, farm shops, pick-your-own and box schemes. Ultimately, it hopes its campaign will lead to better-tasting food and greater genetic diversity.

It is a subject about which Raymond Blanc, the chef proprietor of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, feels passionately. "Regardless of how skilled you are as a chef," he states, "if you don't start with good ingredients, you will never create a great dish." True to his beliefs, he planted a garden at Le Manoir to supply the kitchen with a wonderful array of vegetables and herbs.

"I was brought up in the wilds of the Franche Comte," he explains. "My father grew nearly all our food in our three-quarter-acre garden. It was a proper potager. My mother cooked delicious, wholesome dishes from home-grown beans, fruit and vegetables." He pauses, "I am self-taught as a chef and as a result I was able to put into practice the simple tastes I had acquired as a child."

Raymond Blanc speaks to chefs on the necessity of finding flavoursome home-grown ingredients. "It is not just about eating superb food," he says, "It's about regenerating the farming industry and protecting rural life." His vision encompasses restoring wildlife to the countryside and supporting small artisan farmers. For Blanc, good, naturally grown food is an essential ingredient in improving the quality of life.

He is not alone in his views. As part of its campaign Gardening Which? conducted a survey on our attitude towards indigenous foods. It found that 50 per cent of us would like to grow our own, compared with the 4 per cent that currently do so.

Chloe Aldam and Chris Bell are among those who have taken up their gardening forks. The young professionals moved to their Bristol home two years ago. "This is our first garden," says Aldam, "and although we both come from families that have gardens, neither of us has had much experience." Bell, a turbine-systems engineer for Rolls-Royce, explains: "Initially, we chose plants that were easy to grow in a small garden, such as squashes, tomatoes, strawberries and giant sunflowers. There is something very satisfying about being able to pick your own food, especially when it tastes far better than anything you buy."

They choose plants that they enjoy cooking. This year they have heritage varieties of peas and beans clambering up poles, champagne rhubarb running riot, onions, leeks and shallots dotted among their flowers, pink fir potatoes breaking up some old turf and sweet-tasting wild strawberries scrambling out of pots. "We are not self-sufficient," states Aldam, "but at least we can control how some of our food is grown." Their tomatoes and peppers have been earmarked for favourite summer salads and sauces, and their excess rhubarb is already bottled for later.

At the moment they rely on friends, family and garden centres for plants and seeds, but they are perfect candidates for the Henry Doubleday Research Association's Heritage Seed Library. Based at Ryton Organic Gardens in Coventry (02476 308232), it is made up of 700 vegetable varieties that are no longer allowed to be sold commercially, a privilege afforded only to seeds approved and registered on a National List.

The seed library was originally set up to get round EU legislation which, in the creation of this National List of seeds approved for sale, had unwittingly penalised seeds that were no longer commercially viable and therefore not registered. It makes these rare seeds available to members, who pay an £18 subscription entitling them to choose (and grow) six packets of seeds from the annual catalogue.

Bob Sherman, the head of horticulture at HDRA, gains enormous pleasure from eating such old plant strains. "Last year I grew an especially sweet, thin-skinned green tomato called 'green grape', but I also love 'green zebra', a stripy, misshapen, juicy beef tomato that you simply can't buy in a supermarket," he enthuses. He tosses sweet "parsley" pea tendrils into his salads and cooks flavoursome "John's purple" carrots when weary of orange varieties.

Without doubt, modish cooks are going to have to get gardening. But until local competitions introduce two new categories - "best flavour" and "best heritage variety" - we cannot hope to achieve a gastronomic garden of Eden.

Contact 'Gardening Which?' (0800 252 100) for further information and membership details

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