Wednesday 20 August 2008
Brian Viner: Courgettes were never far from my mind
Country Life: 'When I used to spend the summer in Cornwall I never had the same level of vegetable separation anxiety'
It would be plain silly not to take a summer holiday because of all the activity one would miss in the vegetable garden and the orchard, but I confess that as we hauled the final case into the taxi for the trip to Birmingham airport, my thoughts were not of the forthcoming flight to Nice and long al fresco lunches in the Provencal sunshine, but of bolting Little Gem lettuces and what the squirrels might do to my hazelnuts. Even once we reached the south of France, sadder to report, these concerns did not entirely dissipate. On the beach at Juan-les-Pins, while not two metres from me a topless young French woman stood sensuously rubbing suncream into her female companion's shoulders, courgettes were never far from my mind.
It is one of the disadvantages of vegetable gardening that nobody tells you about. While all those books and magazine articles extol the pleasures of raising your own celeriac from seed, there is nothing to warn you that the two weeks you choose to go on holiday in the summer will inevitably coincide exactly with the most fecund fortnight of the year, fruit-and-veg-wise. In some ways it's a bit like parenting. You devote your heart and soul, and income, into raising your little darlings to be resourceful and independent citizens, but only realise that you've done a pretty decent job when they tell you that, if it's all the same to you, they'd much rather spend a summer holiday camping with their mates in Porthcawl than pretend for one second longer that going into a boulangerie for freshly baked croissants represents the zenith of fun. Not that my courgettes want to go camping in Porthcawl, but I hope you understand what I'm driving at.
Actually, this was the first year since 1996 that we haven't spent our summer holiday in Cornwall, where I don't think I ever experienced quite the same level of vegetable separation anxiety, perhaps because we were in the same country and I knew that, if it all got too overwhelming, I could always zip back up the M5 to Herefordshire. But being overseas, for a week in France and then a week in Italy, somehow intensified the disappointment that I wasn't at home to pick the first runner beans, or the last raspberries, of the season. Of course, I somewhat overstate the extent of my gloom. I enjoyed our holiday hugely, especially the week in Liguria, where we rented a simple but characterful house in its own olive grove, owned by a charming Italian naval officer who insisted that we should pick as much ripe fruit as we could find on his fig and damson trees. "There, doesn't that make up for what you're missing at home?" said Jane, who enjoys our vegetable garden but has never quite understood why I leave it behind rather as Juliet left Romeo. In fact, with just the odd tweak, Romeo and Juliet could easily be about a man compelled to leave his courgettes. "Parting is such sweet sorrow/ That I shall say good night till it be marrow."
Anyway, as soon as we got home from holiday I hastened to the vegetables to see how they had got on in my absence. Again, if it's not too fanciful, there is a parallel with parenting. A father reunited with his children after a lengthy separation will see immediately how they have filled out and developed, and thus it was, albeit after only 15 days, with me and my runner beans, broad beans, onions, potatoes, lettuce, peas, raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. They had grown their hair, had some body piercings and their voices had dropped, in a fruit and veg kind of way.
I have had to come to terms with the brutal reality that my vegetable garden enjoyed its last blaze of glory while I was picking someone else's figs in some corner of a foreign field. In terms of this growing season, it is now over the hill. The rocket has run out of juice, the broad beans are has-beens, the runner beans are accelerating towards the finishing line. I know I should now be planning for autumn and winter, and indeed my sprouts and squashes are showing some fine early promise, but the enthusiasm I had in the spring and early summer, when the trowel felt like an extension of my arm, has wilted like overwatered chard.
Brian Viner's latest book, 'The Pheasant's Revolt: More Tales from the Country', is now available in paperback (£7.99)
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