Monty wonders why the British seem to love growing food more than eating it
On the radio the other day, I heard a well-known chef say that one of the problems of cooking in Britain is that we are just not a foodie nation. We like eating, but only up to a certain point and – more pertinently – only up to a certain price. There is nothing new in this. Arguably the British have not respected or enjoyed food very much for the past 100 years or so. But we do love growing food. All over Britain, allotments and veg plots are being tenderly kindled into a new season. Seeds are being sown and ground is being tilled. Varieties are carefully chosen, taking into account situation, soil, taste and season. The right moment will be selected for thinning, pricking out and transplanting, and the seedlings will be zealously weeded, watered and protected from the assaults of slugs, pigeons and a thousand possible predations that haunt the vegetable grower’s sleep. In other words, huge care is taken, coupled with great expertise. Add to this a sensuous and social pleasure that emanates from every allotment and you have a foodgrowing culture that is not equalled for breadth and ubiquity anywhere else in the world – nor matched, by and large, for quality or expertise. So why does this not translate into a culture of ecstatic enjoyment of this wonderful produce? I was working with a cameraman the other day, whom I had not seen for a few years, and we were reminiscing with mouth-watering relish about the time we were served lunch in Naples on a plastic table set up on a driveway in front of a modern, anonymous home. It was the antithesis of conventional glamour, but the food was life-changingly delicious – and all produced from the small-holding around the house. It was simple, fresh, seasonal and better than anything I have ever been presented with in a restaurant. We could both recall every detail of every dish – and there were many – and knew those memories would stay with us forever. My guess is that you could replicate this meal, in form if not precise ingredients, 10,000 times every day across Italy. My guess is also that you would be lucky to have it happen once a lifetime in Britain. Why? What happens between the soil and the plate that means we essentially lose interest? Why is it that we generate more passion for prize vegetables – and often prize means size – than we do for delicious ones? Any subsequent consumption is just an afterthought. When did our love of growing food become consumed by the means rather than the end of the process? Probably when that means became more precious and rare than actually feeding ourselves. It is a fantasy that medieval peasants grew exquisite vegetables on their scraps of land and created wonderful ‘peasant food’, the like of which the well-fed rich would pay a fortune for in exclusive restaurants. No, they grew quantity wherever possible, with touches of flavour to make the drudgery of their diets bearable. But when the Industrial Revolution caused a shift from country to town, cheap food was relatively plentiful, but land and the opportunity to grow vegetables and fruit became precious. Today, even the most urbanised, modern city-slicker is only a generation or two away from rural life. The houseplant on the windowsill is a heartfelt yearning for our own plot of land. Every allotment is like a gift of countryside to any flat-dweller. So when we grow vegetables, it is an act of profound celebration. It is an act of defiance at the loss of land and the loss of freedom to cultivate it as we choose. We dig, sow and tend with the same passion and intensity that the Italian makes the perfect salsa di pomodoro and our growing tips are handed down from generation to generation in the same way that an Italian mamma teaches her children to cook. In truth, we do love food. We are a nation of foodies – as long as it is still in the ground.
Every allotment is like a gift of countryside to any flat-dweller