As Meat Free Week draws to a close, appropriately this week also saw the last of Divertimenti’s March events celebrating fruit and vegetables. On Wednesday evening Mark Diacono and Jenny Linford shared their expertise and enthusiasm for food that can be easily grown in back gardens or on sunny window sills.
Mark Diacono has a smallholding, Otter Farm, and was head gardener at River Cottage. Mark’s latest book, The New Kitchen Garden, sets out his approach to growing edible treats in whatever space you have available. Mark’s clear message was to just give things a go, and not to be tied to growing what you feel you should grow, but to grow things you like to eat. His discovery of the fantastic taste of fresh mulberries was one of the factors that drove him to buy Otter Farm. Mulberries grow easily in the UK climate, yet are very difficult to buy, particularly as they are best eaten just after picking. Fortunately another passionate mulberry eater has created a location of mulberry trees in the UK so I can go and hunt for some myself this summer. It sounds like I’ll need a good pair of gloves after Mark’s description of looking like he’d murdered someone after one particularly good picking.
Mark’s encouragement to focus on growing what you love was refreshing. He also suggested growing what
you can’t easily buy (like mulberries), as well as ‘transformers’. Transformers are foods you can grow in small volume, but add big flavour to dishes. He is a particularly passionate advocate of Szechuan pepper. This is a hardy plant that can be grown in a pot, and Mark had the entire room salivating at his description of using the peppercorns in a simple dish of salt and pepper squid. Other transformer suggestions included society garlic, Vietnamese coriander, shiso and lemon verbena. For people with small spaces, dwarf fruit is another good option, particularly with so many varieties now available.
In contrast, Jenny Linford focussed on a single everyday ingredient: the tomato. This is the subject of her latest book, The Tomato Basket. As Jenny pointed out, nearly every culture has a tomato recipe and uses local ingredients to highlight the rich, sweet flavour of tomatoes in different ways. Her top tip was to scald and skin tomatoes, as this helps to release juices and lets tomatoes truly combine with the flavours they are cooked with. The Black Russian tomato with its smoky bacon flavour sounded particularly intriguing. This is a good one for any vegetarians who talk wistfully about missing bacon. I also loved her idea of using tomatoes to cut through the heaviness of traditional comfort foods, such as mac and cheese, and risotto. An added bonus is that tomatoes freeze well. Freeze them whole with the skins on. When you’re ready to cook with them, just run the tomatoes quickly under warm water and the skin should slip off easily.
I’ve had fairly limited success with growing things underground, and have a series of unintentionally miniature carrots, garlic and beetroot to show for my efforts. Fortunately I’ve been more successful with tomatoes. Inspired by Mark and Jenny, I’ll be out in the garden to make sure my tomato seeds are planted by Easter Sunday. I’m going to try some of the cherry tomato varieties discussed on Wednesday: Sungold, Peacevine and Black Cherry. Mark suggested planting four varieties a year: one will be great, one will be okay and two are likely to be a bit rubbish. Keeping the mantra of giving it a go in mind (and making sure I invest in some decent tomato feed), hopefully in a few months’ time I’ll have some juicy tomatoes to add to my summer salads.
For more tips on growing tomatoes Mark has also written a great article in the Guardian.