Thursday, 29 October 2015

The league of vegetables

It’s definitely starting to feel like winter is on the way. The nights are drawing in, the trees are turning spectacular shades of reds and oranges and yellows and the place is once again overrun with dyspraxic pheasants from the local shoot with about as much sense of direction as the confused looking groups of Duke of Edinburgh expedition youths that we see trudging gloomily past now and again. Temptation has yet to get the better of us but it’s only a matter of time… The one advantage of losing the light so early is that it assuages the guilt of watching TV in the late afternoon. A happy coincidence given that the Rugby World Cup has pretty much taken over our lives these past few weeks. My dear devoted husband has religiously watched every single match and not one in real time (God bless Sky Plus). In these times of social media, texting and general 24/7 connectivity I remain utterly astonished that he has managed to avoid finding out the scores for hours, days, even whole weekends when he’s been away at work (i.e. in the middle of nowhere in deepest, darkest Scotland). I, alas, clearly a) give much less of a toss about the scores (and indeed sport in general) and b) am much more addicted to my smart phone than he is so I always seemed to know the results before he watched the matches.  This led to slightly awkward situations where my (pretty rubbish) poker face belied the result or I made myself very scarce towards full time knowing that the outcome was going to send him into downward spirals of depression and grumpiness. As indeed was the case with the Scotland match, after which he announced an official day of mourning, sported a black arm band and flew his tartan underpants at half-mast on the washing line. In a bid to escape the bitter disappointment of all of the Northern Hemisphere teams being knocked out of the tournament (not to mention the added sting that we had once again lost out to Ladbrokes) I took myself off to the veg patch to start clearing the beds. Nothing like wrenching some shrivelled up plants from the earth to cheer oneself up. Pausing to reflect and take stock of our relative successes and failings, I starting to construct a league table of sorts in my head (seems that the annual performance management cycles of the City are more ingrained in me than I thought!). If vegetables were teams who were the winners and losers of our first growing season?

Group A – Legumes
A tough group this one, with all the super star players that everyone wants to eat. The peas put in a good performance, plenty of form early in the season but after a full-on two weeks where we couldn’t eat enough of them it all went off the boil and we were left with a load of unripened pods, peas too small to eat and the pods too tough to bother with. Similar story with the broad beans – a short, sharp fortnight of glory then nothing. I like to think of them as the Chesney Hawkes of my veg patch – fairly easy on the eye, a ‘one hit wonder’ after their victory at the village show and then it’s all over and you never hear from them again. No I’m afraid the winners of this group have to be the runner beans. Slow to actually produce any pods but once they got going they’ve been loyally plodding away providing us with meal after meal of non-stringy, tasty greens. They also make wonderful snacks when you’re wandering past and fancy a munch and even the kids are big fans. Plus a very useful vehicle on which to load up dips and hummous. And of course they are fast (of course, being runner beans, *groan*) to grow: I can literally strip them of every bean and the next day there are a ton more. Group A winners sans doute.

Group B – Brassicas
The veggies that everyone feels they ought to eat but no one really genuinely enjoys (if we’re being completely honest here). Bad breath and flatulence central, otherwise known as ‘superfoods’.  This category is all about what actually managed to come up, stay up and then escape the jaws of the hungry bunnies and the plucking pheasants (who mysteriously seem to have no issue with direction when it comes to homing in on my broccoli the opportunistic buggers). The kohl rabi (one might say the ‘Accrington Stanley’ of the season…. “Who are they?” “Exactly!”) didn’t even turn up. Hundreds of seeds planted and not a single one germinated. Bottom of the group. We’ve had sprouts the size of peas and cabbages the size of sprouts. Dismal to say the least. The chard and the spinach has bolted and now tastes bitter. The one thing that has grown well and actually looks and tastes like something you wouldn’t mind parting money with at a fancy farmer’s market is the Cavolo Nero kale. Gwynnie would be so proud of me. I’ve used it pretty much every day, usually surreptitiously hidden in sauces and purees for the kids, but also out and proud in stir fries and it is pretty much the only thing I can confidently put in the dehydrator to make guilt-free kale crisps (if you don’t count the lashings of salt, oil and soya sauce I coat them in of course). Kale – you’re through.

Group C – Roots
Source of all of our rude comedy veg moments of the summer. Misshapen and forked carrots looking like weird, Tangoed versions of you can imagine what. Taste good too. In fact out of everything that we have grown this year, the carrots are the one thing that genuinely taste completely different to anything you can buy in a shop. The parsnips are not ready yet, nor the celeriac so to all intents and purposes they are disqualified. That leaves the beetroot, a good cropper, dual purpose as you can eat both the roots and the leaves, raw or cooked (as long as you stand downwind from anyone you are trying to impress later that day). And of course you have the added bonus of its sheer ability to make one believe that one’s innards are leaking out every time you visit the lavatory. It’s a close call but given that there is now a whole body of sports science evidence suggesting that beetroot juice can make you run faster, for the purposes of this whole tenuous analogy it pips the carrots to the post.

Group D – Alliums
Living in Wales you’d think growing leeks would be a piece of piss wouldn’t you. Apparently not. My leeks still look like blades of grass, seemingly trapped in some kind of stasis (in fact, they might actually be just grass, better go and check that out to avoid the ridicule of my fellow countrymen… serves me right for taking a shortcut and buying plants at Homebase I suppose).  The onions have put in a sound performance – they’re as big as anything you can buy in the shops and they make me weep like a Scotsman at a Twickenham quarter final (ouch, sorry) every time I cut them up. But I still can’t help but feel that by buying and planting sets (i.e. tiny baby onions) I’ve kind of cheated as all I’ve done is just made something bigger. There’s no real alchemy at play there. Unlike the garlic. You take one regular garlic bulb, split out the cloves, whack them in the ground in the dead of winter, remove the occasional weed and lo! six months later you magically have these huge bulbs, bursting with plump, pink cloves. They might as well be dancing the bloody haka on the raised bed.

Group E – Salady stuff
My greatest disappointment of the season. And where I have invested the most of my time, money and effort. The tomatoes in particular are the ultimate divas of the patch. Talk about high maintenance. To start with you’ve got all the potting up through two, sometimes three sizes of plant pot before the little darlings can possibly begin to contemplate dipping their precious roots into a grow bag, which incidentally cost a small fortune. You’ve then got to give each plant its own bamboo cane, attach it with expensive cable ties (adding more each week) then prick out the side shoots every couple of days. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough you’ve then got to water the bloody things every night, despite us investing huge sums of money on a fancy watering system (which seemingly was not enough to quench their insatiable thirst). All of this of course whilst they live in the lap of luxury in the balmy climate of the greenhouse, sunning themselves daily whilst the rest of us freeze our nuts off in Wales’ poor excuse for a summer. Oh and did I mention the riders? Do you have any idea how much Tomorite (a top of the range fertiliser) costs? It might as well be a Class A narcotic…. And then they don’t even bloody well get on the stage. I’ve had 4, yes FOUR, red tomatoes this year. And one of those was a complete mutant. I’m eliminating them from the competition for being complete time wasters. The cucumbers were not much better. Put it this way, no man worth his salt would want to brag about being endowed like one of these meagre specimens (although to give them the benefit of the doubt, they may actually have been gherkins but the seed packet got lost in the maelstrom of toddler chaos earlier in the year). The peppers and chillies never even made it onto the pitch. Which leaves the squash and courgettes. Once again a crazy array of different shapes and sizes, none of which I intended to grow but I was told by a horticulturalist that they are ‘free-pollinating’ which means I have effectively created my own Frankenstein pumpkins. Awesome. They get the winner’s slot on the grounds of that alone. Never mind the fact that they are the most low maintenance to grow and prepare (just whack a seed in the ground and a few months later pop the whole thing in the oven – job done) and have provided me with a solid meal on many an evening when I have forgotten to prepare anything else.

Fright night - mutant tomato

Frankenstein veggie genetics - these all started out life as the same variety of squash...

Group F - Fruit
Not strictly vegetables of course, but in the competition to make up the numbers, much like Italy at the Six Nations. The rhubarb will always hold a dear place in my heart being the first edible thing on the patch and seeing us through most of the summer (until we read that eating too much of it can cause kidney stones and the hypochondriac paranoia set in). The strawberries were a bit of a blink and you miss it affair, although partly our fault for not covering them up properly. The gooseberries and the raspberries were tasty enough but never plentiful enough to do anything with once I’d snacked my way through them whilst working in the garden (well there have to be some perks to the job!). The mulberry tree was a source of great excitement as it did actually produce fruit this year but like a cheap whore’s drawers it looked like a million dollars but dropped all its wares to the ground in the blink of an eye. Nowt left for us sadly. The pears are looking good, still rock hard but we are avidly awaiting the seven minute window when they are actually ripe enough to eat before they go over and spoil. That leaves the apples. One tiny little tree, one bloody enormous box of apples, which took me a good week to tackle into pie fillings, chutneys, jams and jellies. It has to be the winner.

I’ll spare you the painful, drawn out analogy of quarter and semi-finals (plus with six groups I’ve just realised that it doesn’t actually work out numbers-wise) and cut to the chase of the winner. It’s got to go to the garlic on the grounds that it is the only actual vegetable in which we are truly self-sufficient. We have not bought garlic for over seven years now and have been recycling the same ‘family’ all that time. It also has the ability to transform a fairly quotidian meal into something so wonderfully reminiscent of lazy Mediterranean holidays and expensive French restaurants (have you ever tried scrambled eggs with butter and finely sliced garlic? You should). Oh and apparently it’s good for you. And keeps the vampires away. I’m off to arm myself with some of my prize bulbs and a crucifix. Happy Halloween everyone!

Champion garlic

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