Michael Watts is my winter veg man. He isn't a summer veg man because he doesn't grow any. But from October to March or April, the time for cabbages and kale, caulis and leeks and the other vegetable glories of the winter months, I potter round to Michael's place most Saturdays.
The house, the vegetable garden and the ritual of buying are - what shall we say? - idiosyncratic. The house looks like a perfect 18th-century Cotswold home, except that Michael built it with his own hands in the 1960s. The vegetables grow in an acre of walled garden, in long, straight lines. There are opal-green drumheads, emerald-green savoys, the lips of the outer leaves curling out from the fat round centres; January King washed with purple; dark purply red cabbages. There are raggedy kales and ranks of leeks, and creamy caulis and purple- and white-sprouting broccoli. And all organic, too.
In a way, buying vegetables from Michael is the apotheosis of the Slow Food philosophy. There's nothing fast and furious about it. I poke my nose into the Aga-warmed kitchen, where his wife Tessa rules with no-nonsense hospitality. There's a cup of coffee, a biscuit and we (there are usually another couple of shoppers there, too) settle down to a session doing the word games in the Times.
And then it's outside. Michael opens the back of the elderly van from which he sells his vegetables. I take a savoy and a drumhead, some leeks weighed on old-fashioned scales with old-fashioned pound and half-pound weights. I take a couple of handfuls of kale, too, and a pound or so of sweet, juicy comice pears that Michael gets from another organic grower not far away.
His brow furrows, his eyebrows droop, his lips move as he goes through some abstruse mental arithmetic. "£3.40," he says with finality.
"Are you quite sure?" I always ask. It seems an absurdly small sum for the quantity and quality of veg.
He is sure. I bundle up my purchases and wave goodbye until the next Saturday.
All recipes serve 4.
Drumhead cabbage, carrot and bratwurst stew
Each cabbage is suited to different dishes. This one, which is a kind of sauerkraut-effect affair, definitely calls for the indestructible qualities of the white drumhead varieties. You really need a mandolin for this recipe - you can slice the cabbage and carrots with a knife, sure, but I can never cut them so fine as I can on the cheap and cheerful mandolin my mother gave me years ago. Of course, you can use any old sausage, but I think bratwurst, with its mild, slightly spicy flavour, works best.
½ drumhead cabbage<br4 medium carrots
2 medium potatoes
500ml chicken stock
200ml dry white wine
Salt and pepper
Slice the cabbage on the mandolin or as thinly as you possibly can with a knife. Ditto the carrots. Peel and dice the potatoes quite small. Cut the bratwurst into chunks. Heat the stock in a saucepan, add the potatoes and simmer for five minutes or so, until parboiled. Pop in the cabbage and carrot, cover, simmer for about 10 minutes, pour in the wine and add the bratwurst. Heat for a further five minutes, then eat with relish.
Lasagne of leeks with scallops
This is quite a fancy dinner party number. Of course, it's not really lasagne, which is made with pasta, but the overall design is the same. You can see it, can't you? Pale green sheets of grassy leek, luminous white discs of sweet scallop, yellow, buttery juices ... Yum.
2 big, fat leeks
50g unsalted butter
8 fat scallops
1 dssp double cream
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper
Trim off most of the green bit, then cut the leeks in half lengthways and open up carefully. Wash and drain the leeks. Select the best of the outside leaves and cut them across into 8cm lengths - you need 16 'sheets' of leek in all. Melt the butter with a little water and braise the sheets of leek for three to four minutes, until cooked through. Take them out and keep warm.
Slice the scallops crossways into three and poach gently in the leeky, buttery liquid, again for about three minutes. Add the cream and lemon juice, and season. On each plate lay a couple of leek sheets in a higgledy-piggledy manner, arrange six scallop slices on top, then lay the remaining leek sheets on top. Pour over the cooking juices and serve.
Michael usually has a box of swedes at the back of his van. They are the perfect root veg, with their glowing orange colour, flavour that matches earthiness and sweetness, and capacity to absorb butter. The French look upon the swede as fit only for animals. Poor fools. What do they know? The vegetable to put alongside mutton, beef or venison.
1 large swede
100g unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
Peel the swede and cook it whole in boiling water. Once cooked, set it aside to cool, then cut it into chip shapes. Melt the butter in a frying pan. When it is foaming, put in the swede chips and fry until they go golden brown. Season and serve piping hot.
I include this in homage to Michael's wife, Tessa, queen of pudding makers. Her version of this dish elicited the following apothegm from their son's 86-year-old Italian father-in-law, who had just had his third helping: "It is a sad man who does not give into his weaknesses." The man is a heart specialist.
750g Bramley apples: no other will do
Caster sugar to taste (possibly 60g)
For the topping
110g salted butter
110g caster sugar
110g self-raising flour
Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Peel the apples, cut out their cores and slice quite thinly. Cook the slices dry in a saucepan over a medium heat until they go fluffy - they will release enough liquid to keep things moist. Add caster sugar until the apples are as sweet as you like, then transfer to a buttered baking dish to cool.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat the eggs and add them, a little at a time, to the sugar mixture. Sift the flour into the mixture until it is all well blended. Spread the sponge mixture over the apples, then bake for 50 minutes until the top is firm and well tanned. Dust with caster or icing sugar.