The first time I met Mark Diacono, he'd just taken delivery of a load of Italian olive trees. Which was surprising, because he lives in Devon. But there you go, he's just that kind of a guy. Oh yes, horticulturally speaking, he'll tell you all about climate change, and his ambitions to farm in a way that reflects our coming reality. But the truth is, scratch at the surface and you'll find someone who never accepts standard operating procedure and who does everything with an intriguing little twist. Including even the thorny issue of World Cup snacks.
Diacono was the very first person I ever wrote about for this paper, and at the time I didn't quite realise what an immense journey he was embarking on, that muddy day, unloading olive trees from a lorry. Eight years later, with exotic crops ranging from apricots to his own grapes via Szechuan pepper (pictured above), and after having written a number of acclaimed and indeed award-winning books, he's finally turned out the tome that explains what he's been up to down there in the West Country all this time. It's rather deceptively titled A Year at Otter Farm, when more accurately that should be "Almost a Decade"; but it reflects the seasonal nature of all his growing, cooking and eating. Also drinking. Where Mark's concerned, you do need to factor a bit of enjoyable drinking into the equation.
Not that I'm calling him a lush or anything. It is 99 per cent impossible to have a veg patch as immaculate as his, let alone run a posh pizza oven, on a hangover. But wherever he happens to be, there is a strange tendency for cocktails to just start, well, appearing. Two years ago at Chelsea Flower Show it was a sultry, unspecific little green number, using herbs grown by his Somerset neighbours, Pennard Plants. And this year it's a whole novel set of boozes: "You have to try my cucumber Martini," he tells me, with enthusiasm.
My favourite though, and the one that's just the ticket for this time of year, are the drinks involving mulberries. Mark's always had a thing about mulberries. "The finest fruit I'd ever tasted," he says, of his first one. Though they're not the easiest thing to get your hands on. I texted him once from Kew Gardens, where I'd tried to eat some off a tree, and discovered that they only come off the twig with a twist that breaks the skin, leaving you stained with the evidence of your gastronomical thieving. Caught red handed. Literally.
But once you've got your scarlet lobster paws on them, his secret suggestion? A sterilised glass jar. Fill it a quarter full with sugar, tip that out. Half fill it with mulberries; then pour the sugar back in; then "top it up", in his words, with vodka. I think I might have changed that wording myself; I hardly think that's "topping it up", Mark: it's an entire quarter of a Kilner jar of Absolut. But delicious it is, undeniably, and an unarguable taste of the summer.
And to follow? Perhaps his blackberry whisky: that's a recipe to save for next month's likely bumper crop. "Everyone loves it, but once it's matured you'd never know it has either blackberry or whisky in it," he writes, with a recognisable grin. In fact I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more charming cookbook than A Year at Otter Farm, because Diacono's humour flavours every page. It actually contains food recipes, too, though you'd never know from reading this article. Which brings us to the final question: what has he decided on that all-important issue of the perfect World Cup snack? "Oh," he says straight off, "The spiced almonds. So easy you can do them at half time. The exact sweet-spicy thing you want when you've got a cold beer next to you."
'A Year at Otter Farm' is published by Bloomsbury, priced £25
Four more: Mark Diacono's world cup snacks
It's not just about potatoes... Peel thin strips of parsnip, salsify and celeriac, then deep-fry, draining on kitchen paper, and season with salt and garam masala.
Salt and Pepper Padron Peppers
A very fine tapa: little chillis blistered in a slick of oil, with salt and pepper added as they cook. Serve with a cold beer.
Convert the haters! Brussels sprouts, peeled and coated with olive oil, salt and pepper, baked until they are lightly crispy and gently golden. Delicious.
Take 400g of freshly cooked broad beans, purée with three cloves of garlic, five tbsp olive oil and 12 mint leaves: serve with sourdough and goat's cheese.
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