Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

Living in the country, surrounded by green open space and few obvious diversions, I still seem to spend my days in a state of peaceful distraction. I think therefore I digress, it seems. It all appears so mild and favourable out there. Just the thought of what to have for dinner is quite engrossing. I'm expanding the vegetable zones and starting to think about sowing some grain crops in spring.

As a part of my gentle scheme, I was all set to get some geese at the Moreton-in-Marsh agricultural show on Saturday. My friend Paddy has a goose called Christmas. He also has a duck called Crispy. His horse is called Brian - lucky for Brian, I reckon.

I called Paddy and asked him how they were all getting on. He said that geese were certainly nice as long as you feed them every day. If it isn't you who feeds them, they bite you on the bottom when they see you. Geese seem to be very specific about this. That is not the kind of atmosphere I was seeking so I decided to stick with vegetables for the moment.

Back in the kitchen, for our delight, Mona, the German au pair, was working on a sauerkraut. It was her granny's special formula and it was quite involved, although not as involved as her mother's recipe for ceremonial cheese soup, but that doesn't come into this story. A consignment of special cabbage had arrived from Germany, and trips to the supermarket in Stow, the organic wonderland at Daylesford and the butcher's in Chadlington followed, but we were still short of ingredients to the tune of three juniper berries. We had the two kinds of paprika, the allspice, the marbled pork and goodness knows what else, but to get the kraut perfectly sauer, she really wanted those berries, for granny's sake.

I knew there was a juniper bush in the garden somewhere. I'd heard the gardener muttering about it. He holds the whole juniper family in low esteem. I went sauntering in search of juniper. There was a bush I didn't recognise in the vegetable patch with some nice fat berries on it, and I tried one. It was quite bitter, so I didn't swallow it, thinking I'd come back when they were a bit riper.

Then by a cosmic conjunction of serendipity, synchronicity and shopping, I came across the complete guide to British berries in a secondhand bookshop and it has instantly become my bedtime read of choice, ahead of the Screwfix DIY catalogue.

Funnily enough, the book falls open naturally at a picture of the shrub that I found in the vegetable patch. It said that the unripe fruit I'd nibbled, Atropa belladonna or deadly nightshade, causes more deaths than any other berry. When mature, the berries are sweet, and five are enough to kill a child. I dug it up immediately in a cold sweat. I should have worn gloves. Just from touching it, a couple of hours later my hands started to itch. Daily we dice with death, even in Oxfordshire.

Mona found the berries in the deli in Chipping Norton. Excellent sauerkraut.