Top of the pods: Mark Diacono reveals his passion for peas
Mark Diacono's enthusiasm for peas has already won over his neighbour Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. And now he's working his magic on Emma Townshend...
Sunday 12 April 2009
Let's face it, it's pretty rare to meet someone who can enthuse at length about a pea variety without making you feel a bit, well, inadequate. Or maybe just bored. Most grow-your-own evangelisers will get slightly caught up in their own spiel until the phrase "pea ranting" springs to mind, while you find yourself thinking, "It'll be a miracle if I actually ever get around to the simple act of planting my own."
But Mark Diacono can enthuse about peas while making you laugh – a rare talent. "Hurst!" he exclaims, with reverence. "Hurst Green Shaft! The pea of peas!" And there you go, I'm already hooked.
Diacono moved, with his wife and baby, to Wincanton, Somerset, four-and- a-half years ago, to start what he calls a "climate-change farm", growing the kind of crops that do well in hotter summers.
Their little girl is now a schoolgirl chatterbox, and a field of peppers and pecans ripens in the West Country sunshine, along with a recently planted vineyard. The IoS covered the planting of Diacono's olive grove in 2006, but many of those trees didn't make it; nothing to do with wet summers, though: "They got ring-barked by voles, the little bastards," Diacono says, in a rare mournful moment.
Having established his farm, Diacono was roped in by his neighbour, the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to expand the latter's River Cottage veg garden. He now spends two or three days a week there, weeding, digging and giving short veg-growing courses, where he charms, with irrepressible enthusiasm, on the subject of peas. And many other vegetables.
Diacono's philosophy of vegetable gardening is thoroughly practical: "If I can't eat it, I'm not all that interested," he says on the subject of, er, stupid old flowers. But his vision also includes plenty of glasses of wine, drunk at the end of a hard day while watching the sun go down over your plot.
All his knowledge, enthusiasm and humour has gone into his new book, Veg Patch (Bloomsbury, £14.99). There are plenty of guides to growing your own, but this one is actually funny. And beautiful. And uncomplicated. It's one of the River Cottage Handbook series, which has already had successes with the fabulous Preserves of Pam "the Jam" Corbin, and John Wright's Guild of Food Writers-shortlisted volume Mushrooms. But I think Diacono tops even these.
You won't find anyone who better describes the feeling of wandering round a garden, nibbling bits and pieces while you pick your own dinner. And if you want a Diacono conversion experience in the flesh, his River Cottage courses run throughout the year, including one specifically for urban kitchen gardeners. Check out www.rivercottage.net for more details.
How to give peas a chance: Diacono's growing tips
"To give them a good start, sow your peas indoors. Avoid a south-facing windowsill to restrict their light, so they don't get leggy. Plant the seedlings outside when they're about eight inches tall – about that distance apart, too. Organic matter in the soil: yes; manure: no – or you'll just get green growth. You need the plant to make lots of flowers to get lots of pods. And the minute it starts flowering, water with comfrey mixture or seaweed.
"Slugs are inevitable, so just pick them off, or lay down plastic or a plank: they'll gather underneath it at night, then you can deal with them the next morning.
"You can eat the peas from the moment they're pods; whole pods steamed, dipped in mayonnaise! Hurst's are the sweetest, most delicious pea. Mmmm."
Hurst Green Shaft seeds are available from Unwins (£1.99, www.unwins.co.uk)
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