The garden is my sanctuary. A place where no email or phone call or text can get at me. This green patch at the back of the house is where I collect my thoughts and focus, clear my head of clutter and where I can potter until I feel strong enough to face the world again. The fact that it also feeds me is a bonus, the icing on the cake of a hobby turned way of life.
What has become the biggest pleasure is the actual business of growing. Even now, a few decades on from the mustard and cress I sprouted on blotter, I still marvel at brown envelopes of wizened seeds becoming tiny stalks and leaves, flowers and fruits and vegetables. I get a sense of careless joy when I pick something for the kitchen that I have grown from seed - a courgette, a squash, a handful of marble-sized tomatoes.
This garden consists of six beds, a small basement courtyard stacked with pots and a cold frame, and a set of stone steps loaded with potted herbs. I have little choice but to continue to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. It is partly my spiritual need (or greed) to have both flowers and vegetables. But sometimes that produces soul-lifting scenarios, like the simple orange Crocosmia that I have sited under the espalier pear. Likewise the magenta and damson Pelargonium 'Earliana' next to the crinkled lime-green leaves of courgette cassata. Dangling bunches of grapes dipping into the potted magenta Tradescant roses produce hidden corners of joy.
As much as I hate the thieving, cunning, stinking little sods, I have finally made some sort of peace with the foxes. They sunbathe in the carrot bed, spark out like dogs on a hot afternoon. One is almost tempted to bring them afternoon tea. Curiously they have chosen to sleep two feet away from the expensive ultra-sonic fox deterrent. And yes, I have checked the battery.
The best of the squashes are currently in flower, which is almost absurdly late, but I find most things tend to catch up. This is the year of Connecticut Field Pumpkins. Neat and round, they have something of the picket fence about them. I'll be baking cookies and attending mass in a bonnet next. But squashes of one sort or another have played a large part in this garden and each year I seem to grow more. Everything about the pumpkin appeals to me - the fat, elegant seeds, the lush growth, the sight of ripe orange globes strewn around the garden, but most of all the way their cut edges caramelise in the roasting tin.
The broad beans ended up in a salad this year. I am liking them cold more and more. Broad beans come to life when you mix them with lemon. I dress the blanched beans with lemon oil or slide tissue-thin slices of fresh lemon amongst them. Even now there are plenty around, though most of mine have been pulled up to make space for an arrival of the brassica plug plants that should be popping through my letter box any day now.
I have grown tomatoes since my only outside space was a windowsill 30 feet up. Two varieties - Costolutto Fiorentino and Marmande are as much a part of this garden as the box hedges and ivy covered walls, being planted year after year. Others come and go as the fancy takes me. Whatever, I still find myself cheered by a dish of mixed varieties, at first with basil leaves and olive oil, later with anchovies and French beans and then, when they pile up, a sharp and spicy curry. Eaten, needless to say, out in the garden.
Carrot thinning salad
Carrots have been one of my quiet successes this year. The carrot thinning salad has become a regular weekly addition. Root vegetables no bigger than your little finger have a charm to them that insists you leave them whole. Cooking them, in shallow water so that they steam rather than boil takes barely a minute or two. I dress them as soon as they're out of the pan, sometimes with a light lemony dressing, other times with fresh coriander. Serves 4.
6 handfuls of carrot thinnings, no thicker than your little finger or 2 bunches of baby carrots
6 small beetroots
a clove of garlic
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp of olive oil
a handful (about 4 tbsp) coriander leaves
Wipe the carrots and remove their stems. Don't peel the beetroot. But cut off any thick stems or tails. Put a shallow layer of water in a large, shallow pan, add the beetroot, cover and steam for 10 minutes, then add the carrots.
Remove the beets when they are tender. Peel and cut into thin strips, somewhat similar in thickness to the carrots.
Make the dressing by dissolving a good pinch of sea salt in the red wine vinegar, then whisking in the chopped garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Add black pepper and toss gently with the beetroot strips and carrots. Add the coriander leaves and toss gently. Serve warm or at room temperature.
To turn this into a main course salad, add spoonfuls of ricotta or cottage cheese to which you have added pepper and some of the dressing.
Baked tomatoes with green chillies and coconut
You will need some rice or bread to go with this. Serves 4.
3 tbsp olive or groundnut oil
2 cloves of garlic
1 hot, green chilli or two
a thumb-sized piece of ginger
½ tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp cumin seed
6 green cardamoms
12 moderately large tomatoes, or a mixture
50g creamed coconut
a handful of coriander leaves
Peel and slice the garlic, halve the chillies and scrape out their seeds, then chop them finely. Peel the ginger and finely slice it. It should be thin enough to see through. Warm the oil in a high-sided frying pan then add the garlic, chilli and ginger, letting it soften but not colour over a moderate heat.
Stir in the chilli flakes, coriander, turmeric, cumin, then pop the cardamoms out of their husks, crush the seeds lightly then stir them in. Once the spices have warmed through, chop four of the tomatoes, stir them into the spice mix and pour in 100ml water. Bring to the boil then slice the remaining tomatoes horizontally and lay skin down in the sauce. Let the coconut dissolve, with a little help, into the sauce. From this point the sauce shouldn't boil, just simmer very gently.
Once the tomatoes are tender to the point of collapse, serve them with the coriander leaves over them, and plenty of rice or bread to mop them up.