Buried treasure

Someone somewhere has a Basil Hallward painting of my hands in their attic in which the digits are getting younger with each day that passes while mine age in tragic contrast to my youthful visage and ruggedly handsome countenance*

I have hands like monkey's paws.

You'd swear they belong to someone with great-great-grandchildren, to an emu, or to a man whose job it is to remove the paintwork from hot Cadillacs in Death Valley using white spirit wearing no gloves, after eating salt and vinegar crisps and squeezing the juice out of 3 dozen lemons with his bare hands on a day when an off-course Papagayo wind is blowing itself silly.

This gives me a good excuse to keep my hands out of most of the photographs I take. And it's not so simple to take a picture and hold the harvest at the same time - I'm not a fan of most of those pics where you dig the whatever-it-is up a little and take a pic of it half in/half out of the earth.

Early last week I got the fork in the ground for a few minutes - I'm glad I did, it's been frozen ever since. And in this season of good will, I got three presents for my trouble. All needed photographing.

So it's handy to have the odd stunt hand double around. Now that I'm an award winning photographer you'd be almost right in imagining that people are literally unqueueing up to volunteer themselves to be hand models at Otter Farm.

Salsify - a size-zero parsnip to look at, with many stringy roots working their way out into the soil, perpendicular to the main root itself. It makes them a pain to dig up - you have to lift them carefully with a fork. It's worth the little trouble.



They're also known as the underground oyster which is stretching their delicate flavour rather too seaward to my taste. Having lived in Whitstable for a year or two I know an oyster, and this ain't no oyster. Somewhere in between artichoke hearts and asparagus, and very fine they are too.

My lucky wife won the race to hold the salsify and the glimpse of stardom that comes with it. She also got to have a small slug work it's slippery way across her hand. Don't worry, I told her about the slug once I got the shot right.

Salsify was the first thing I grew that I'd never heard of before seeing it in a seed catalogue, and it convinced me to always grow something I hadn't eaten every year, even within the constraints of the veg patch. This year it was oca and yacon, both beloved of the ancient people of South America.

Trent (who regular readers may remember enjoys the occasional jig around the farm) was here the following day and as he hasn't got old hands I roped him in for the oca and yacon. There was a little added tension as I hope to include oca and yacon in the book I'm writing.

There were a few 'ifs' attached to this: if tubers had formed below the surface over the course of the summer, if we didn't knacker them all trying to get them out, if they weren't riddled with slug holes, if they tasted good, AND if I could take a reasonable shot of any we harvested. This was the only photoshoot we had as I don't know anyone growing any, and the photos have to be delivered in February, so no time to grow any more.

You'd think it wouldn't be too hard to take a few pictures of a man holding a tuber, but it took a good few attempts. Bless him, he's American so we mustn't be too hard on the poor love. A few sharp taps with a hefty stick and he was soon holding it just right.

Oca looks like a blind cobblers thumb....



....or not unlike pink fir apple potatoes if you prefer.

They taste weirdly lemony raw, the moment they're dug up - a little like sorrel. The oxalic acid gives it the sharp edge, but this glides away over a few days in the light. They don't turn green like potatoes, so you can let them sweeten in the sun. Very good they are too.



The yacon has been growing about 2 feet away from the oca. If the leaves were the prize I'd have been in long ago, as their tatty but rather beautiful green growth shoots up a good metre or so tall. As with oca, you have to let winter arrive before nosing under the soil for the tubers.



Fresh out of the ground they're very much like baking potatoes to look at and water chestnuts to eat. They don't quite collapse as such - they've more resistance than that - but, like a very fine sorbet, they do sort of 'give in'. There's a hint of flavour about them raw although not much, but the texture is incredible. Ideal in a strange Waldorf salad I should think. They're now on the same window sill as the oca - a few more days where they should develop the flavour of pears. So they say.

Just in time for Christmas. Oysters, pears and lemon all from under the surface of the soil. Now there's a seasonal present.

Merry Christmas x




*some, more or all of this sentence may not be true

Hot nuts

1977 was one of those years where everything seemed to happen. It was a big year for the world, for England and for me.

Jimmy Carter became President of the USA, and I quite liked him - he was a peanut farmer I think, which appealed to me for some reason. It was the Queen's Silver Jubilee, which as far as I remember meant everyone had the sudden urge to close off their road, tie bunting to lamp posts and eat fairy cakes outside.

It was the year Liverpool first won the European Cup. Worth a click as much as anything to hear how a good commentator does his job. It's beyond comprehension that some fool in a grey office decided that John Motson should be given the biggest games a year or two after this. Not one stat, not one 'there's no question about that' trotted out here. Davies was simplicity itself. He said nothing when the picture didn't need adding to. You could tell he really felt it. He still commentates on hockey, gymnastics, just about anything other than football and he's utterly brilliant at each of them. Everytime I watch a game I regret I'm not hearing his voice.

I remember it as the year Roots, Jesus of Nazareth, Starsky and Hutch and the Incredible Hulk were on the box. They might have been a year or so either side in reality, but 1977 seems like a year where things happened, a year of focus with a blurring around the outside where not so much occurred.



I started going to the big school. I learnt the saxaphone for a term. My parents separated. But something far far bigger happened: Elvis died.

I was on holiday that summer in Lancashire, where most of my mum's family live. The girl who lived next door and I took a shine to each other and swapped many notes over the summer. I hid the ones she sent under the bed. I forgot to take them with me. They were found. I think she may still be blushing. I know I still am.

In 1977 you could still pick up the paper and be surprised at the main story, it was news to you almost every day. Imagine that: hearing something as huge as 'Elvis is Dead' from the paper first.

The aunties were in bits. They'd grown up with Elvis, with the emergence of rock n roll, with society letting out its belt a little. 42. Dying, as he did, 'at stool', overweight, and addled with prescription drugs seems impossible for someone who looked like this only 8 years before.

I guess the aunties felt old overnight.

I think I might feel very weird if Morrissey dies while I'm still alive. The second I heard the first Smiths late on one of many sleepy nights spent listening to John Peel the world changed a little. Like so many people you'll hear a similar story from, it felt like it was music made for and played to me alone. I hate saying it, but there it is - I'm a walking cliche of a male of a certain age, and every one of us feels like we alone were the authentic one.

I saw them as soon as I could - Cornwall Colliseum, summer 1984. Still-close friend Stu, myself and a girl with curly hair with a name I can't remember and a mini that could drive us there went. We backed into a wooden fence having taken a wrong turning, but that's all I remember apart from being blown away (by the Smiths I should add). Their first album had been out a couple of months, Heaven Knows Im Miserable Now was the new single. Every single single failed to let you down, which as anyone knows is the main responsibility of any band.

I only saw them once after that, a couple of years later at the GMEX Centre in Manchester. Factory records organised the event to celebrate Manchester's contribution to punk and all things related. I had an idle life punctuated only by traveling to see bands. Exmouth to Manchester. 254 miles each way. Up and back in a day. 20 or so of us hired a minibus, piled in at 5 in the morning and off we went.

£10 got you New Order, The Smiths, The Fall, A Certain Ratio, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Pete Shelley, John Cale (from the Velvet Underground), The Worst, OMD, Cabaret Voltaire, the Virgin Prunes, and Adultery (former members of Magazine). That is certainly the best £10 I've ever spent. I can't imagine the circumstances under which that may change.



It was also the year I won the Devon Under 11 Table Tennis Championship. As anyone who's ever been in my company for longer than it takes to drink a cup of tea will testify, I haven't forgotten my triumph. This may well be because other than an encyclopedic knowledge of Liverpool FC 1974-present, maths, identifying what smells smell like, identifying lookalikes, and catching a pile of coins in one hand having been balanced on an elbow, table tennis is my sole area of expertise. I say 'is', I mean 'was'. A few years ago I had a quick game and it was a waste of time - my centre of gravity (from where you play most shots) was no longer below the level of the table: nothing worked as it should. I connected with most shots sweetly, but they sailed way past the end of the table. A rather cruel indication of time passing.

I mention this table tennising triumph not merely out of pride, but because I think it may well have been the last time I won anything. This isn't a prompt for the violins: I rarely, if ever, place myself in a situation where I am competing to win something for many complicated and largely uninteresting reasons. That was until last Thursday at the Garden Media Awards.

The Media Awards is the yearly shindig organised by the Garden Media Guild (formerly the Garden Writers Guild). It doubles as the garden world's excuse to let its hair down. It was my first visit. The great, the good and the truly godawful are all there and if you can't have a top time on a day like this then you need to try a little harder.

I had the pleasure of James Alexander-Sinclair, Martyn Cox, Cleve West and Matthew Wilson on the same table along with Hayley Monkton (RHS PR Queen) sitting on my right hand. There were 3 others but I'm boring myself listing people so it must be sending you fast asleep.

It's a very simple day: food, awards, everyone gets to the pub.

There are around 15 awards. The host announces the 5 shortlisted parties for the award, followed immediately by the winner. If you'd have lashed me to a tree and flicked my buttocks with a wet towel I might have owned up to hoping I might make the Blog of the Year shortlist. Blog was the 5th award announced. I didn't make the shortlist.

I'll be honest, I didn't want to win it - I knew if I did I'd feel it was a miscarriage of horticultural justice - the actual winner should have won it all year long. But I was disappointed not to make the shortlist. I'll confess that I looked at the shortlist and thought I should have snuck in above one or two of the contenders. Ugly isn't it? But there we are. Better out than in. It's a hideous thing to acknowledge, and is probably not the cleverest to own up to, but when I stopped doing my other job and tried to spend more of my time doing what I love for a living I promised myself that I'd not pretend to be something I wasn't. I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I was miserable then. This is supposed to be different.

Then the shock of being nominated for and winning Practical Book of the Year and Book Photographer of the Year. I think I took leave of my senses. Not
in a Gwyneth Paltrow sort of a way, but the world sort of shut off. I acquired a sort of deafness - I don't remember the music they played (the title of which had some relevance to each person) as I walked up to try not to get nervous-smile face while being photographed. I can't remember what anyone said to me.



At some point between blog failure and Practical Book of the Year, Cleve West and I got roped in (somewhat willingly it has to be said) to sharing a cooking demo at Hampton Court Flower Show next summer. This can't be right.

I spent some time apologising to Martyn Cox - he was rightly nominated a few times and wrongly won none of them. Later I would spend so long apologising to Andrea Jones for winning the Book Photographer award that I must've seemed insincere.

The pub followed, spent mostly with Cleve, JAS, Joe Swift, James Wong and Lia Leendertz. Then an eventful train journey home with the very lovely Mr and Mrs Buckland.

So, 32 years after I last won something, I won something again. It was very pleasant.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D