Call them peaches....

Last weekend was a rare weekend off. So we got in the car and drove a long way, to Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire, home to an annual plant fair in Northamptonshire. I have no warm affections for Northamptonshire. I went to college there for about 3 months in 1991, or maybe it was 1990. I have found few places so unappealing as Northampton.



The sum total of my recollections from those few weeks are a sickness bug, getting drunk and dancing to the Happy Mondays* too often, listening to Kate Bush's The Sensual World a lot, going back to Exmouth where I lived at the time, mostly to get drunk and stagger around to the Happy Mondays. I didn't even like the Happy Mondays that much. Life was less than fascinating at the time but Northampton wasn't going to spice it up any. I packed it in. Not before I'd bought a few course books I needed, one of which - the Norton Anthology of American Literature, has a gazillion books printed in small font size, on very thin paper crammed into its three inch thickness. I owe it any scant familiarity I have with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. I owe a childhood neighbour any scant familiarity I have with Slim Whitman; for some reason his voice was always wafting out of the small kitchen window open in all weathers.



Cottesbrooke is a very very fine plant fair indeed. Excellent, interesting stalls with plants of very fine quality. Lots of edible plants too from Crug Farm, Pennard Plants and Edulis amongst others. It was partly just enjoyable and partly checking it out as I'm doing a stall there next year. If you haven't been, it's very well worth a day. Nice shortbread too.

It also served as a limp excuse to visit James Alexander-Sinclair, his wife and one of his children. This was not so much social as a response to a challenge: his son Max was, I was assured, a Scrabble demon. The female contingent repaired to their respective quarters, leaving us males to lock horns over the Ipad Scrabble board**. A fine quality game ensued: I won by a small margin, appropriately enough by placing BLETTING across a triple word score, late on. I declare myself Undisputed Lord of Scrabble.

I also had the chance to see James' garden. He's a garden designer of some repute...apparently. I got up early on Sunday to sneak a quick look...



* One thing you can say for Kinky Afro, it may have the finest opening lines of a song; so too this...and now I come to think of it this, or maybe this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this or even this.

** I should be awarded points for not saying 'a night on the tiles'

GFW

Everyone has flat days and you need to have a few moments in the memory bank to pull out and play on ‘repeat’ in your mental cinema. Thursday contained not one, but a few of those.



It looked like a busy day. I got up, walked into the office, turned on the computer, filled the kettle and thought I’d better get the pigs and chickens fed. It was already getting hot outside and I decided to water the few potted plants I hadn't managed to get in the ground yet. The sun, the cool breeze and having to stand still for a minute or two and I found myself relaxed - not able to be tearing to the next thing. I turned around and watered the newly planted mulberry. Onto the Chinese quince. There’s not a lot to do when you’re watering other than look at what’s around you - which is exactly what I don’t find the time to do. On to the fanned apricot. Then thumb over the end of the hose to spray the seedlings in the veg patch.

I carried on - any plant was an excuse. I checked my phone - two hours had passed. Monday to Wednesday had passed in a few minutes, but those two hours early on Thursday morning felt like like a week off. Having stopped long enough to notice, I saw that there were dozens of strawberries perfectly ripe, plus the early blackcurrants. Breakfast in the morning sun.



A few hours in the office, a few minutes deciding what to wear, then the train to London to the Guild of Food Writers Awards. I do like a do that's put on (a) somewhere convenient and (b) somewhere swanky. Fishmonger's Hall, just as you hit dry land on the north side of London Bridge, fits the bill perfectly. Take the tables and chairs out of here and fill it with a few hundred of the food world.

Halfway through the evening, two people I greatly admire were talking about my book. Sheila Dillon was telling Anna Del Conte that she really ought to have it. This is a bit like John Peel telling Brian Wilson that I’d written a nice song. And all taking place against the not inconsiderable background of Nigella’s cleavage. Half an hour earlier A Taste of the Unexpected had won Food Book of the Year. I genuinely didn’t think I had a chance of winning. Not for any particular reason (although the other shortlisted books were very fine), nor was it one of those if-I-convince-myself-I-won’t-win-I-just-might mind strategies: just a certainty that I wasn’t going to. I think I’m fairly good with my instincts but it dawned on me, just as the award before the one I was up for was given, that at another awards ceremony a few months ago I felt that the book would be shortlisted and it wasn't: my instincts weren’t necessarily that reliable.

That gave me about 30 seconds to contemplate the possibility that it might actually win. From relaxed and cool to stepping from foot to foot. They announced the winner. It was me. Or rather it was my book. And I was lucky enough to be right by Debora Robertson who had a large hand in making the book so fine. She was up, with HFW, for Cookery Journalist of the Year. In my awfully biased opinion she should've won. She gave me a huge hug. River Cottage forager, John Wright, should also have won the Work on British Food Award. He is the Zidane of food writing - perfectly balanced, always seems to have time to say what he has to say even if there's only 6 words to do it in and he looks like your dad. Few books make me laugh out loud more than his - try Edible Seashore if you fancy a holiday read, honest. He and Debora couldn’t have been happier for me and, I’ll be honest, that made the award even more special. One for the home team, as John put it. Slightly giddy I kissed the award presenter, Mary Berry, who rather than give me a good handbagging had the grace to say something complimentary. I even said a few words.

Someone (@SpoonHQ) tweeted from the awards that I was 'an unexpectedly tall & tasty looking food writer' which made me wonder if I write like I'm short and ugly.



A few words I didn’t say were that I wish I could’ve been in two places at once, as there was a party to celebrate the birthday of another from the home team who’s no longer around.

A belting night where I got to meet other people who's work I love, including Niki Segnit (who's The Flavour Thesaurus is as beautifully written as it is useful) and Tim Hayward whose Fire and Knives should hit the doormat of anyone who loves their food.



My oldest friend blagged his way in, happily not before Nigella has snuck out and away from his coarse West Country glares. He assured me Roast was the place we should be eating - partly because it was by the station that would take us back to his house and mostly because the meat is apparently magic.

I saw a look in more than one person's eyes when I said we were off to Roast but it was handily placed so I ignored it. Mostly it was fine. The Ridge View and the Chapel Down Pinot, both English sparklers, were incredible...but the roast potatoes were, and I promise I'm not exaggerating for effect, the worst I've ever had. Genuinely. They would've lasted 20 overs on a turning wicket with Yuvraj Singh at the crease. Still, 'perfect' needs a flaw, as I wrote almost 6 years ago, and on Thursday the spuds were it.





If you're intersted, the images are angelica, sweet cicely seeds, salsify flowering a year after sowing (yeah whatever with your parsnips at Chelsea Cleve) and a salsify seedhead.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D