Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Of bluebell woods and potato beds

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

On the Sunday of Easter weekend, the first of two sequential public holiday weekends in Britain this year, we visited a bluebell wood that’s owned and managed by the Selborne Society (think of the late great Gilbert White, the 18th century pioneering English naturalist, although this bluebell wood is nowhere near his home in Hampshire). The wood we visited is open to the public only once a year, at what’s usually peak bluebell time, although this year the bluebells were slightly past their peak of wonderfulness. Still, massed English bluebells certainly know how to make you gasp and stretch your eyes.

And here’s a sight that makes us proud: our potato beds. We’ve done very well with potatoes since we started growing them two years ago, and this year we chose four different varieties of earlies, none of which we’ve grown before.  We planted them on 18th March – and baby, look at them now!

This photo shows a row of Sharpe’s Express, one in the middle of Red Duke of York, and one of Casablanca – and yes, we know we planted them too close together but they don’t seem to mind. We also planted a row of Pentland Javelins in another bit of the veggie plot which have been much slower to start, but they seem now to be catching up with their friends and neighbours.

I can’t tell you how exciting and gratifying it is to watch this happening – well I can try to explain but if you’re a gardener you won’t need to be told of the pleasure of plant growing and if you’re not, you’ll think it’s all a bit loopy. This is the season for gardeners to smile beatifically at one another and say things like, “Just look at my [insert name of thriving plant]!” and for their gardening friends to smile and nod. Be tolerant and kind: a brutal cold snap and gusts of rain are just around the corner waiting to destroy our happiness.

I’m even sufficiently crazed by springtime to track down a poem I slightly remembered about potatoes, to see if it was celebratory enough to post. It’s not, really, though it has some great lines: here are the first two verses of Peter Viereck’s “To A Sinister Potato”.

“Oh vast earth apple, waiting to be fried,

Of all the starers the most many-eyed,

What furtive purpose hatched you long ago

In Indiana or in Idaho?

In Indiana and in Idaho

Snug underground the great potatoes grow,

Puffed up with secret paranoias unguessed

By all the duped and starch-fed Middle West.”

I can see why I liked that poem so much as a teenager – it’s rather cynical and mean-spirited. I don’t admire cynicism any more, and especially not in springtime.

Tuesday poem: The fish

Monday, April 25th, 2011

by Mary Oliver

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

This wonderful poem is by Mary Oliver, an American poet of enormous importance who’s won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and whose work reflects her abiding interest in the natural world as well as in the ways in which we express our lives. I remembered it when I was sent the fish photo by Wendy Gordon yesterday. Wendy and Colin were out in their boat on the Hauraki Gulf, in fact they’d just anchored off Ponui Island, and Wendy was about to take the fish to their farm managers there. But she took a picture of them for me first, which isn’t as good as being there and eating them in fine company. But it’s good enough when the photo can get to me in London, five minutes after Wendy took it 12,000 miles away. So I want to celebrate the modern world as well as the natural world, and friendship as well as this poem, and, oh! fish.

A springtime thought

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

How do you like them apples?

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

I realise that I tend to post about apples at this time of year, which shows it’s New Zealand apples that seem a worthy posting topic to me – either ones I’ve eaten there in situ, in autumn, or the ones that are exported to Britain which I eat here, in a London spring. I happily admit that I’m addicted to apples in a mild way – and it’s Cox’s Orange apples that get my vote very time.

And just look at how beautiful these ones are! The skins look as though they’ve been painted by an Impressionist artist, and I think it’s only New Zealand Cox’s apples that have this particular prettiness, I’ve never seen it on English ones. The crunch and flavour of these, despite the distance they’ve travelled, are streets ahead of every other apple I encounter. (Funnily enough, Cox’s apples are now very hard to buy in New Zealand, though it’s the variety I grew up with there; I daresay all the best ones are now exported.)

I appreciate how ideologically unsound is the importation of fancy food from 12,000 miles away. (It’s ships not planes in this instance, I believe, but it’s still a dodgy enterprise: close to indefensible by some standards.) I know that I ought to be making do with last autumn’s British fruit and most of the time that’s no hardship, and most of the time I do exactly that. But when I’m faced with the delightful prospect of eating these apples, I find it wellnigh impossible to resist: the eco-worrier in me retreats into silence. Or maybe it’s just that I stop listening to that voice.

I did say it was an addiction. Compassion may well be appropriate.

I have a London friend who shares my slip-and-slide inconsistencies about such matters, which is a comfort. And he once said to me – after I’d been banging on about not eating imported out of season soft fruit – that he just looks at the punnet of blueberries and whispers: “Well, you’re here now. Might as well eat you.”

And if I must, I’ll say the same thing to these apples.


Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Yesterday I decided to have canned sardines on toast for lunch. I think good canned sardines are delectable, and we all know that oily fish is good for us, don’t we? So the idea has virtue attached to it as well as ease, speed and the added attraction of toast: in this case Pain Quotidien’s organic five-grain bread, my current fav. A little lemon juice squeezed on at the last moment and maybe a little black pepper…

And while I was waiting for the bread to toast I noticed a small extra label on the side of the packet. So I read it, and since I can’t seem to photograph that part of the sardine packet at the right distance to make the words readable, I’ll have to tell you what the label says.

TIN NO. 0041 OF 7,735 TINS


(Sardina Pilchardus)




ON 27/8/09

Could a piece of information get any higher on the traceability register? Somehow, knowing all that made the sardines even more delicious. I even tried to find a photo of the fish market on Google, but no joy there, although I did manage to find these photos of the port, with fishing boats.

I recommend these sardines – not only because you can discover exactly when and where the fish were sold but also because they’re so good. Small sardines are a better buy than big ones, which in my experience sometimes taste a bit woody. These are the real thing, straight from Galicia to you (via the canning factory). How cool is that?

One fine road trip

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

We’ve just been on a terrific road trip into central Florida from Key West. I do love a road trip in any circumstances and this was as good as they get: easy driving on quiet backroads, good weather (OK, it was a bit nippy to start with, but it warmed up later and I stopped thinking wistfully about the snuggly cardigan I’d left behind) and lovely people and places to meet along the way.

One of the games we played in the car was a comparison between Good Things in the UK and those in the USA, but the latter came to mind so thick and fast that we stopped making the comparison and just enjoyed the ones we were experiencing. (Some examples. Clean loos absolutely everywhere, even in places that in other countries you might think twice about visiting. State parks in abundance, and all with excellent facilities like picnic tables and no litter, plus genuinely helpful signs & leaflets, and volunteer staff filled with enthusiasm. Food in little cafés and restaurants along the road delicious and cheap. And in supermarkets, if a piece of wrapped fruit – papaya, say, or pineapple – says “ripe and ready to eat” you know what? It absolutely is.)

One of the first things to catch my eye was this plantation of palms, spaced with such formidable regularity as though the UK’s Forestry Commission had been at work.

I was also amused by this pedestrian push-button instruction: a street called Shade is rather sweet, especially in a town (Sarasota) where there are many streets with names like Shade or Shady, and I also like the one called Ringling. (The circus of the same name used to have its winter quarters here, and there’s an enormous complex of museums and galleries bequeathed to the city by the astonishingly rich John and Mable – yes, Mable, spelled that way against expectation – Ringling.)

The main destination of this trip was to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic homestead at Cross Creek.(It’s a State Park! With great facilities!) She’s a writer I’ve admired for years, and yes you have heard of her – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel was “The Yearling” – and the visit was a big treat for me. The house is lovely, and now restored to look largely as she left it, but her orange groves were neglected and have now returned to a tangle of dense hammock growth. Still, the State Park people have planted a few token orange trees in her yard: here’s one of them.

And two road trip signs that are worth recording:

A sign in front of an ankle and foot injuries clinic that said: “Walk-in appointments available”.

And a piece of graffiti:

“Save the Earth. It’s the only planet with chocolate.”

Flash mob Hallelujah chorus

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

I’m a sucker for flash mobs – I saw a wonderful clog-dancing one on TV a week or two ago. But this one – in a food court in some shopping mall in the States – beats the lot.

Go on, click on the link! Enjoy!

It takes only one squirrel

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

While we were in Italy one bold squirrel ate all our sweetcorn. Every single cob on every single plant. Our friends at the gardens tried to tuck the net we’d left more firmly around the plants, but the squirrel just laughed as it pushed the net aside and grabbed another mouthful. Pawful. Whatever. We’d probably need a metal cage to protect the plants while they grow, rather than the right-on, ecologically-viable, recycled fabric net we were using.

The squirrel in question has been identified – it’s large (well it would be, wouldn’t it, after all that extra nourishment) with a particularly furry tail (ditto). And it is, it seems, not to be denied. Other gardeners have also had trouble with it – more sweetcorn devastation (obviously it’s developed a taste for that) and even, oh horrors, fresh pumpkin.

We’ll have to revise our planting plans if we’re going to be away in September again, I am absolutely not going to plant and nurture veggies just to feed the wildlife.

Does anyone know of a surefire, humane squirrel deterent?

No? I thought not.

Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there

Friday, September 24th, 2010
  • The smell of dry pine needles when you walk on them. We twice visited a little Umbrian town called Asciano because of its small but wonderful collection of Sienese art, and both times we walked across a carpet of dry pine needles crossing a park. The scent takes me back to childhood because my sisters and I spent hours playing on a hill at the back of my grandparents’ house that was thick with dried pine needles. It’s a very Proustian memory smell which in this case carries a heavy tang of spicy heat, and the springy underfoot crunch is also delightful. The photo is of Sant’Agata, the church in Asciano where the pictures used to be, and where I first saw them more than 20 years ago, although now they’re housed in a glorious new museum.

  • Two-sided billboards. I’ve always been amused by the absurdity of driving along country roads in Italy and being faced with a large billboard advertising a restaurant or hotel in the opposite direction to the one in which you’re travelling – oftentimes it’s in the town you’ve just left. I’ve spent idle hours wondering how it was that someone actually paid for such a mad installation. Did the owners ever check to see if their ad was in the right place, facing the right way? But on this trip we noticed that the billboards are now mostly double-sided, so at least some potential customers are captured on their way past. Phew. The Italian domestic economy is saved for another day. I don’t have a photo of one of these billboards, I’m sorry to say.
  • The views. This applies particularly – though not exclusively – to the Tuscan and Umbrian towns and countryside, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. How is it that absolutely every view is beautiful, even in the towns? As in “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” (Reginald Heber, since you’ll probably want to know, from the From Greenland’s icy mountains hymn) except that in Umbria and Tuscany the young men are so often strikingly beautiful as well, as though they’ve stepped straight from a fresco. Not vile at all. I would hazard a guess that Bishop Heber never visited Italy. This is a view in Narni, just to make one tiny point among many.

  • Tomatoes. Yes, I know I go on about these a fair bit, but the wonderful thing about Italian tomatoes is the fierce summer heat that ensures they aren’t even slightly watery. They’re deliciously juicy, but when you cut one open, watery juice doesn’t run everywhere. Because there isn’t any watery juice, that’s why not. So the flavour is more intense. Ipso facto and QED, and I rest my case.

  • The Sienese storage buildings that you see at the side of minor roads throughout the region. I used to think they belonged to the electricity workers but I’ve been told (on reasonably good authority) that isn’t true. (AMM.NE simply stands for ‘Amministrazione’ so that doesn’t get you any further into solving the mystery.) I don’t know who uses them, I’ve never seen anyone hanging around or opening or shutting the doors, but the buildings are impossibly sweet – the paint colours are perfect; the size meets every aesthetic criterion; even the finer points of the spacing and alignment of type in the signage is beautiful. Italy, you win the style prize again.

  • Oh, and the figs. You knew I was going to talk about the figs again, didn’t you? The organic farm where we stay has three purple fig trees, two green fig trees and one white fig tree, and the fruit on all of those comes to perfect ripeness in the month of September when we stay there. (No coincidence, I assure you.) D.H. Lawrence wrote a rather predictably rude poem about ‘the honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside’ and reminded his readers that ‘ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime’. But they keep in our food memories, David Herbert: they keep there, safe and cherished, from year to year. Photos help.

Tuesday poem: Ode to tomatoes

Monday, September 6th, 2010

ODE TO TOMATOES  by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

The street

filled with tomatoes



light is





its juice


through the streets.

In December,


the tomato


the kitchen,

it enters at lunchtime,


its ease

on countertops,

among glasses,

butter dishes,

blue saltcellars.

It sheds

its own light,

benign majesty.

Unfortunately, we must

murder it:

the knife


into living flesh,



a cool




populates the salads

of Chile,

happily, it is wed

to the clear onion,

and to celebrate the union





child of the olive,

on to its halved hemispheres,



its fragrance,

salt, its magnetism;

it is the wedding

of the day,



its flag,


bubble vigorously,

the aroma

of the roast

at the door,

it’s time!

come on!

and, on

the table, at the midpoint

of summer,

the tomato,

star of earth,


and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance,

no pit,

no husk,

no leaves or thorns,

the tomato offers

its gift

of fiery colour

and cool completeness.

I am surrounded by tomatoes. We are staying on a small organic farm in Umbria, where the tomatoes in the veggie garden (free to guests) are ripe and bursting with flavour, and beg to be picked and eaten. Local friends also arrive laden with baskets of tomatoes, and carefully explain the names and nature of the many varieties. We sun them on the terrace to finish the ripening process and pile them into pretty bowls for a burst of late summer colour – that’s one group of them in the photo above. And we make tomato salads of every kind – with basil and fruity olive oil, with anchovies and pecorino or little black olives, and with toasted breadcrumbs and garlic. We eat tomato crostini with pesto, we bake and braise tomatoes, and still they come.

The most prized local variety, the Cuore di Buo (oxheart) is very fleshy and ripens to a deep pink rather than a red. My favourite variety is the kind which a tomato-loving friend ironically calls Tesco’s Delight because no supermarket buyer would accept such a craggy, lumpy shape. (This sort might officially be called a Roma? I’m not sure.)  But the taste – ah, the taste!

And so Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes” strikes a deep chord right now. I’m amused to recall how many poems deal so happily with food and food memories – William Carlos Williams’s plum poem, “This is just to say” , is just the first that springs to mind. I hope you enjoy this poem, preferably with a good tomato or three to hand. And do have a look at the other Tuesday Poems.