Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

There is a lot about my newfound passion for growing vegetables that I find faintly disconcerting. For example, it occurred to me the other week, while pottering in the vegetable garden and listening to Test Match Special on my headphones, that I had become thoroughly diverted from a particularly fascinating passage of play, in which the Australian wrist-spinner Shane Warne was bamboozling England's batsmen, by the discovery of black bean aphid among the broad beans. When vegetables get between a chap and his cricket, it is time to take stock. Or in my case, to make stock. While Warne continued to torment Andrew Flintoff and Co, I picked a head of fennel, a carrot, an onion, some slightly scabby broccoli, cabbage and watercress leaves, and took comfort in the production of a top-notch vegetable stock.

The scabbiness and the black bean aphid do not appear to have affected the flavour of the vegetables, ditto the flea beetle that has nibbled through all my rocket. I was amused and horrified to read a newspaper article that suggested Britain's farmers are being forced to throw away as much as a third of their fruit and veg, because supermarkets want it cosmetically perfect. My rocket wouldn't even get into the Tesco car park.

And Somerfield, of which there is a branch in Leominster, our nearest town, reportedly has a three-page document relating only to cauliflowers, which must all be of uniform size and colour, with no more than two spots per leaf. No cauliflower grower can afford not to meet these regulations. One says that he doesn't even bother to harvest about 20 per cent of his crop, because the rules are so tight. And he throws away another 10 per cent or so during processing, then gets more returned by the packers for being sub-standard.

So there are all these good cauliflowers being left to rot, just because they don't look beautiful. Imagine if people were judged on the same basis. Actually, in some areas of human endeavour, they are.

Patrick Holden, the director of the admirable Soil Association, rightly says in response to all this that "the supermarkets want food that looks like it never came out of the ground", which is absurd; indeed, it ought to be the other way round. For the past month or so, in this house we have been eating food that not only looks but tastes as if it has just come out of the ground, sometimes, as they find yet another morsel of soil in their mouths or small green creepy-crawly on their plates, more literally than the children would like.

I am learning, too, that each vegetable-growing season has its star performers, just like each cricket or football season. Last summer it was the Red Duke of York potatoes, which were unbelievably flavoursome and inspired a dish that we think we invented, called Bashed Potatoes. Pick a dozen red Duke of Yorks, boil them in their skins, drain them, add a knob of Herefordshire butter and a little salt, then give the saucepan an enthusiastic jiggle, and you have Bashed Potatoes. This year, alas, we were unable to find Red Duke of York seed potatoes. So we have bog-standard Dunluces which are splendid but do not lend themselves quite as happily to bashing.

This season's star performers have been the broad beans, black bean aphid notwithstanding, and the courgettes, which responded with almost audible pleasure to the three days of torrential rain we had a fortnight ago. In the fruit cage, meanwhile, there is a spectacular crop of raspberries, blueberries and gooseberries, few of which would conform to supermarket size-and-shape criteria, yet all of which taste infinitely better than anything I have ever bought from a supermarket. That's not such a tricky equation to work out, surely?

'Tales of the Country' by Brian Viner is out now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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