Full Monty

Monty won­ders why the Bri­tish seem to love grow­ing food more than eat­ing it

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

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

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