Brian Viner: ‘I never thought I’d one day get my kicks from a kitchen-garden catalogue’

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The 2009 Marshalls Kitchen Garden Catalogue arrived the other day, causing me a small flutter of excitement. If you’d told me when I was 15, or even 30, that |I would one day get my kicks from|a kitchen-garden catalogue, I would probably have expired laughing – in which case, of course, your prediction would have been wrong. Yet I have been scrutinising the Marshalls catalogue with as much pleasurable diligence as when, in my adolescence, I studied the pages of the naturist magazine Health & Efficiency, which was a black-market unit of currency equivalent to 30 pieces of Bazooka Joe bubble-gum at the boys’ grammar school I attended, and afforded a rare opportunity to savour the naked female form, albeit with the pubic hair airbrushed out.

The Marshalls catalogue features naked females, too, and although I suppose there are other magazines through which you can flick while wondering whether to choose Charlotte, Anya, Maxine, Desirée or Juliette, probably even with similarly extravagant write-ups offering “soft, creamy-white, waxy flesh”, in this instance they are not blow-up brides but potatoes. The photographs make them all look truly enticing, too, so the choice is harder than it has ever been, especially as Marshalls has added several new varieties of potato to its repertoire this year, including the Vales Emerald, the Rooster and the Vivaldi (hailed in tuber-literate circles as “the potato for all seasons”). But we have discussed the matter as a family, and have decided to stick with the Pink Fir Apples that we have grown for the last three years, and perhaps one other. I’m leaning towards the Pentland Javelin, but only because I like the name.

Vegetables have marvellous names, as anyone who knows not only their potatoes but also their onions is aware. Red Baron, White Prince, Long Red Florence, Ailsa Craig, they’re all types of onion, while Yellow Moon and Picasso are kinds of shallot, and Picardy Wight a breed of garlic. So is Albigensian, another newcomer to the catalogue, which the blurb says is originally from south-west France, and is “the variety favoured by the Cathars, 13th-century heretics from the Languedoc”. I think we’ll have to grow Albigensian this year, if only so that I can fill a silence at |a dinner party with the news that the garlicky kick in the aubergine dip would have been recognised |by 13th-century heretics from the Languedoc. Although, on reflection, that might be a cue for everyone to get their coats.

Did I just write aubergine? I should have said Moneymaker or Ophelia, the varieties recommended by Marshalls. I might try one of them in the conservatory this year, but, on the whole, I have discovered, in my short life as a kitchen-gardener, that the trick is finding produce you can grow, and sticking with it. We can’t seem to get on with carrots in our thick north-Herefordshire soil, and all members of the brassica family are routinely savaged by cabbage-white caterpillars, yet peas, potatoes, onions and runner beans thrive.

Which runner bean, though, is |it to be in 2009? Marshalls has White Lady, Minnow, Pickwick, Celebration and Polestar, but the varieties in the catalogue that have really caught my eye, if only for sentimental reasons, are called Aintree and Red Rum. I grew up in Southport, a mile or so from where the great Red Rum was stabled, and he was frequently trotted past my house on his way to galloping sessions on the beach, leaving behind considerable piles of poo, which, now that I think about it, would have been perfect for spreading on a vegetable garden.

And just to stick with my Southport youth a moment longer, I told a woman who cut my hair in Winchester on Tuesday that, as a kid, I used to go to a really old-fashioned barber, where |men were shaved with cut-throat razors. The subject came up because she was telling me that the owner of the salon she works for is about to open a new retro barbershop at Winchester station, cut-throat razors and all. They’ve even bought a pair of 1950 barber’s chairs with ashtrays in the arms.

So I asked the obvious question: will they be offering customers “something for the weekend”? At least, it seemed obvious to me. Yet now I realise that I have bookended a column about vegetables and hairdressing with smutty references to sex. It must be my age.

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