Tales Of The Country: Taking a leek and seeing red

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The other day I spent a blissful few hours stringing together our home-grown onions, shallots and garlic, not sure whether to hum "I've Got A Brand New Combine Harvester" or "La Marseillaise". I had harvested the crop a week or so earlier, laid it out to dry and, after stringing it, hung it up in the pantry where it now dangles impressively over the tins of baked beans, like an allium sword of Damocles waiting to drop. "Just watch out, you shop-bought stuff," is the message. "We're from the vegetable garden and we're a superior species. Your days are numbered."

Anyway, there I was, feeling very much like a horny-handed man of the soil, when Tom, an engaging young fellow who does some gardening for us once a week, arrived with baby leeks. They were a present from our friends Jim and Shelagh Snell who live on the western edge of the greater Docklow metropolitan area. That evening I tossed the leeks in butter with some of our peas and chucked in some mint torn from the abundant if now slightly dishevelled herb garden we've been cultivating in the middle of our old disused cider press. Delicious.

The following day I called the Snells to thank them for the leeks. "Oh, I'm glad Tom passed them on," said Jim. "Have you planted them yet?" There was an appalled silence at my end. "Actually, we've eaten them," I said. Jim roared with laughter, and explained that they were meant for planting, and would have grown much bigger. Just as you think you're getting the hang of this living in the country lark, you commit a faux pas as big and squelchy as a fresh cowpat.

Still, we can't be faulted for enthusiasm in and around the vegetable garden, and have been energetically harvesting and cooking more beetroot than we quite know what to do with; visitors to the house are very lucky if they leave without being forced to consume at least one bowl of my beetroot, mustard and balsamic vinegar soup. ("Delicious," said the postman, "but I won't have seconds if you don't mind. It's not nine o'clock yet.")

Which - to return, sort of, to the subject of misinterpreted leeks - reminds me of a favourite anecdote of my wife Jane's concerning her sister, Jackie. The teenage Jackie was once taken to see a doctor after anxiously reporting that her urine seemed to have turned red. To her mortification the doctor did a series of tests and finally asked the killer question: "Have you been eating a lot of beetroot?" She had.

Disappointingly, neither copious quantities of my beetroot soup, nor Jane's beetroot and feta salad, seems yet to have had that dramatic effect, but it's probably only a matter of time. Meanwhile, we are already planning next year's vegetable garden.

Jane went for tea yesterday at the home of her friend, also called Jane, and came back raving about her celeriac. Our onions, shallots, garlic, beetroot, peas, lettuces and runner beans suddenly seemed a bit prosaic.

That's another problem with living in the country. You think you're achieving great things in your garden and then you visit someone else's, and suddenly develop a debilitating dose of peonies envy.

Not-so-silent witnesses to a domestic tragedy

On Sunday morning I got a phone call from the people who live opposite the end of our drive. They had found a dead cat in the middle of the A44 and thought it might be ours. Would I identify the body? Sure enough, it was Tess. In all directions but one from our house there are miles of fields teeming with shrews and voles, yet, in a rare exhibition of feline foolishness, she had chosen the direction of the main road.

We have been mourning Tess in different ways for different reasons. Jane was worried about how the kids might take it, and indeed 10-year-old Eleanor cried and cried, upset beyond consolation by the idea that Tiger, Tess's four-month-old kitten, was now motherless. Joseph, aged eight, rather forced the tears out because he felt that the occasion demanded a show of grief, while Jacob, our five-year-old, was a picture of stoicism. In fact he was fascinated rather than saddened by the sight of Tess's lifeless body, which he kept wanting to touch. We have always thought that Jacob might grow up to be an actor, but perhaps he'll be a pathologist - or better still, an actor playing a pathologist, seconded to Amanda Burton.

As for me, I grieved for the 80 quid we spent recently on having Tess spayed, and was reminded of Mary, the guinea pig we had when we lived in London, who cost a tenner and was then boshed around a bit by the neighbours' cat, necessitating a two-night stay at a veterinary surgery. We subsequently got a bill for £115, and could only assume that Mary had made excessive use of the minibar.

Still, those visits to the surgery in Crouch End were as entertaining as they were expensive. Jane treasures the recollection of a po-faced receptionist calling to the vet: "I've got Mrs Simpson on the phone. You saw Bodie last week and now Doyle's not very well."

Tenderfeet and toenails

The children went back to school on Wednesday, after a Swallows and Amazons-style summer of climbing trees, swimming in rivers and making dens in the woods, one of which is at least as intricate as the hideout in Rogue Male. At 10, Eleanor still enjoys making dens as much as her two brothers, and on Tuesday stopped painting her toenails on being called out to help them make a wigwam. This time next year, I fear, the toenail-painting will have taken precedence.