Almonds in London

Someone called me from London last week, leaving a message about a large almond tree growing in his garden in the centre of town...laden with nuts, and throwing seedlings all over the place.

He left his number, I lost it.

If Mr Almonds in London reads this, please call again

The English Garden - Unbuyables - November 2009

If you're going to the trouble of growing something edible, why not take it as an opportunity to open up your larder to a few new flavours?

In this month's The English Garden I suggest reducing the amount of space you give over to those cheap harvests that taste no different to those you buy in the shops - the maincrop potatoes, the majority of the maincrop onions etc - and replacing them with some of the many foods only available if you grow them yourself...

....things like kai lan, salsify, crystal lemon cucumber (below), cardoons, Jerusalem artichokes, pea tips, mizuna, giant red mustard and red rubine sprouts.



To go with the article, here are a few of the best suppliers for sourcing seeds for unbuyables

Organic Gardening Catalogue
Real Seeds
Sarah Raven
Thomas Etty

To subscribe to The English Garden click here

Never a frown

I had a dream and Gordon Brown was in it. I can't say 'Gordon Brown' without following it in my head with 'texture like sun'*)

I think he might have appeared unannounced as I'm chewing over a couple of major (major for here anyway) additions to the farm, as I do every year around this time. Last year I didn't add anything in considerable numbers, just ones and twos here, threes and fours there. The bank was very grateful. The year before was the vineyard, and that one hurt.



Planting a vineyard, even a small one, is a pricey business. And the planting is just the start of it. There's the framework on which the vines grow, the mulch mat that it's a good idea to plant through, the canes, the rabbit guards, the ties. You get about one-cup-of-teas-worth of a sitdown after it's all done to admire your fine creation: then the works starts. Mowing, strimming, pulling out the secondary growths, spraying (if you do), pruning, tying in the growing arms. Then, after doing this for two years, you'll get a harvest - a harvest that's half the yield it will become in subsequent years. All this costs a fair bit of cash - apart from the set up costs, there's the tractor, the mower that attaches to it, the sprayer, the strimmer, plus all of that labour. But now, you hope, with the grapes peeking out from the foliage there'll be some going back into that depleted pot. How wrong: this, for many, is where the trouble really starts starts.

If you've planted an acre of fairly lively, vigorous vines, Seyval blanc say, from which you want to make a sparkling wine you may, in a reasonable year, be rewarded with enough grapes (it's a half-harvest don't forget) to make 2500 bottles. Sounds nice doesn't it. So you send your lovely grapes to your chosen winery for them to make, bottle, label and cork your 5000 bottles of wine. They'll charge somewhere in the region of £4-5 a bottle to do that, so you'll have to stump up £10000-12500. Still, who cares when you can sell good English sparkling direct for a minimum of £15 a bottle? You do, because even if you had an immediate market to sell it to, you have to wait. Another 18 months at least, while the sparkling wine completes it's fermentation and matures in the bottle. By which time you'll have had at least one more cycle of mowing, strimming, pulling out the secondary growths, spraying (if you do), pruning, tying in the growing arms and picking. And, more importantly, £20000-25000 you'll have had to find (it's a bigger harvest this year don't forget) to get it made into sparkling. You are now fairly well in the red...and all for a single acre of vineyard.



So the vineyard, marvellous as it is, has brought with it a certain sharpening when it comes to my economic view of Otter Farm. It's why it's hard to take anyone seriously when they suggest that what I'm up to in this 17 acres of smallholding is hobby farming: I may have some stupid ideas, I may have some good ones, some may have failed already, it may be entirely enjoyable and far better than a real job, I may not know too much about some of the things I'm trying to do, it may take all the time I can throw at it, but a hobby it ain't.

I occasionally wonder if part of the reason I planted the vineyard wasn't just to make absolutely certain that whether Otter Farm worked or not mattered very seriously when it came to the economics. Perhaps I didn't want it to be able to be able to slide into hobbyville. I don't know. So, I am feeling a little more serious about making sure that anything I add to Otter Farm pays its way.

Sweet chestnuts are up towards the top of the 'possibles' list and they may well make an appearance over the winter. They may not conjure up images of the Meditteranean as the apricots and olives might, but fit the 'climate change farm' they certainly do. At the launch of Climate Friendly Food last week, Rob Hopkins (who started the Transition movement ) began his talk with a blank graph, blank apart from a sharp, high wave half way along the x axis. The graph showed the time from 0 to 4000AD, and the brief up-and-down in the centre that he felt would become known as The Petroleum Interval: the extremely short period in our evolution when we partied out on the delights of fossil fuels. If you have the chance, catch one of his talks - not only is he (what my auntie would call) 'right bright', he makes the weight and tedium of climate change and peak oil rather amusing...actually that's pushing it a bit, at least sprinkled with light hearted moments.

We developed a 5 minute theory at the last Soil Association Conference that there was a correlation between the liveliness of the environmental movement and the quality of David Bowie albums, and there was something to do with Public Image Ltd in there too, acting as a kind of pi, but I'm getting old and forgetful, and (perhaps mercifully) the details have left my sorry brain. Still, PiL are reforming to play their stupendous Metal Box album which must mean something but whether it's armageddon or nirvana I'm not quite sure.



Where was I...chestnuts, sweet chestnuts. Apart from being utterly delicious cooked and eaten in endless ways, you can make a particularly wonderful flour from them too. Sweet chestnuts are extremely rich in carbohydrates and being a perennial plant their established root system means they have the wherewithall to produce year after year without much help at all. Wheat is an annual, and typically takes huge energy and chemical inputs to get it up and growing heathily to harvest. It's one of our major sources of carbohydrates, and if you accept that the energy sources for growing most of it are going to become scarcer and more expensive, it's not a huge leap to suppose that so will wheat, and the flour we make from it, and the breads, pastas and whatever else we make from it in turn. So there might just be a gap in the market for a low input, flour-producing high carbohydrate food like sweet chestnuts.

Time to call in Mr Brown..
GB: So Mark, when they're up and producing sensibly [RANDOM SMILE] in 6 years or so time, what sort of yield can you expect?
MD: About 25 kg a tree Gordon.
GB: And how much [RANDOM SMILE] can you get for a kilo of sweet chestnuts today?
MD: Non-organic, to a middle man like Riverford, £3 a kilo. Organic (as I am) and selling direct (as I hope to), considerably more, and obviously with the increase in global warming, the volatility of the wheat markets I expect...
GB: Shhh now. The principles of fiscal proberty [RANDOM SMILE] necessitate that I disqualify the last parts of your statement: £3/kilo it is
MD: But I've been in the papers and I've got a book coming out and everything and I..
GB: Shut it. Now, how many trees [RANDOM SMILE] are you thinking of?
MD: 50. Or a hundred. I can't decide
GB: So 50 trees x 25 kilos x£3 = £3750 each year in sweet chestnut income [RANDOM SMILE]. Not bad, but hardly earth shattering is it?
MD: But they won't take any work, not even pruning, and anyway it's all part of an integrated agroforestry plan, where I grow and/or graze underneath, harvesting from multiple layers from the same space..
GB: A plan is it? [RANDOM SMILE] So why [RANDOM SMILE] can't you decide whether to plant 50 or 100, or 76 or whatever?
MD: Cos Im not sure how many will look nice in the far field..
GB: Not really grasping this idea of a business plan are you [RANDOM SMILE]


* see also
Zidane, (you're rocking the boat)

Zat Knight, (it's a long way from home)

Ramadan, (Ding Dong)

A book

First, let me get the good news out of the way – I am about to start writing a book about Otter Farm. This is technically incorrect – in that I have already started, but the important distinction between today and yesterday is that someone is paying me to.

This has two important implications - firstly, joy and relief: I have an income that relates directly to Otter Farm. Secondly, what was coming comparatively easily and painlessly from head to hard drive has suddenly become weighted and sluggish: I have a boss. Or at least the notion of a 'boss'.

I am good at this - asking for something, getting it, and making myself unworthy. It is an impersonation of our ridiculous cricket team. I will not be like our ridiculous cricket team.

I feel comfortable sharing the good news with you, dear regular reader, as you know I am equally forthcoming with the cockups and disasters. The flood this time last year, was pretty impressive - a once in 40 year sluice out for the area, many of the almonds dying... I could go on, but I should try to retain at least a veneer of success and professionalism.

The book will be called 'A Taste of Otter Farm' and should be out this time next year.

Here's a picture to spruce things up a bit.

Perfect pairings

Writing a post for the blog tends to start one of two ways: I have a vague idea of a subject to write about so I write, then pop a few photos in that may (or may not) be relevant; or I have a couple of photos that I want to post and they get me going. Today you may have to bear with me, I'm not sure what this post will be about. It's not normal for me to have it planned out before I start (as you'll probably have gathered if you've read previous posts), hence the digressions, non-sequiturs and irrelevances, but today more than normal I have no idea where it's going. Sorry if it turns out to be crap. I'll start with a picture to cover for the lack of a proper introduction. I want to find a very fine pin and puncture each of it's black juicy cushions.



I'm looking at the double bass that sits in the corner of the office. I don't mean a brace of tasty oily fish, I mean one of those large wooden instruments that looks like a cello. I love my double bass. It's very forgiving: you take its weight with one hand and thonk away randomly and it's surprisingly easy to make a reasonable sounding racket. Very forgiving that is, until you play it in the company of another instrument.

The problem is a lack of frets - those metal lines on a guitar over which you close the string when you press your finger to the neck. Tune your guitar right and those frets give you a spot on A, up one fret to A#, and (unless you bend the string) you'll get just pure notes, on the nose, nothing in-between. Without the frets there's a whole lot of potential between the A and the A# - it's a gradation - you can travel from A to A# gradually rather than abruptly. If your finger is a couple of millimetres out it's not 'A' anymore. And you my friend will sound worse than Les Dawson.

Get it right and there's not much to get near a double bass. I've managed to catch Danny Thompson live twice, once with Richard Thompson and once solo. He arrived late for the solo gig, his car broke down on the way. He thanked both versions of AA for him being there that evening.



Here he is playing with John Martyn. I made apple and blackberry fruit leather earlier this week and I was listening to John Martyn and Danny Thompson. I promise I registered how both pairings were far far more than the sum of their parts. Even I'm not cheesy enough to make that up as a Gary Davies-like segue in a blog. Honest.

Listening to Danny Thompson makes me want to pick up the double bass and dedicate my life to learning to play it, and at the same time place it in the path of my tractor to turn it into a thousand tiny pieces for the fire. I wasn't born to play the double bass the way he was, the way he was born to do what he does, the way he was born to do this. I have this feeling alot.



I spend some of my week at River Cottage leading the garden team. The week before last I spent an hour taking photos in the garden in harsh light (ignoring that harsh light is no time to take photos) and was interrupted by people, the public, wandering around as if they own the place. Which they did, as it was the day of an Edible Seashore course.

John Wright runs the Edible Seashore course, along with the Mushroom course, and Edible Hedgerow course. I confess, I have openly laughed when reading a book (his book) about mushrooms. Edible Seashore is a work of gentle comedy genius. Even if you've absolutely no intention of foraging for a little wild food I urge you to buy them.



John and I tend to cross paths at events, promise we'll meet up for lunch and never quite manage it. I feel ever so slightly like an imposter in his company. I've done what I do for a few short years; John has lived what he does for decades. I quack on a little too enthusiastically and loudly; with gentle charm and humour he captures people's attention. I try to create something different, covering what is naturally there with something new; John inhabits the landscape he finds himself in. In harvesting from it and in knowing it so well he becomes a real part of it. It's a beautifully light, happy coexistence. A tasty one too - seaweed, crabs and allsorts of group-foraged seashore edibles made it to the lunchtime menu. On the plus side, I'm younger than him and don't have to go outside as much as he does in the cold months.



I'm not sure if I told him this, but I was recently in a meeting with a TV development team (don't ask) and suggested that they pair John up with James Wong for a series - they could both go foraging and argue over whether what they found was poisonous or not. The winner of each episode would be the one who got the most correct. Obviously the series would be called Wright and Wong. They thought I was serious. I'm not even sure I'm not.

The English Garden

Every month from the October 2009 issue I'll be writing in The English Garden magazine.



Although the main article will not be repeated here (why not subscribe?), I will be adding extra info here with each issue - it may be suppliers, something information we didn't have room to include, recipes or whatever

Feel free to email, ask questions or comment

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