grow it cook it preserve it eat it wendy pillar blog gardener grow your own in dorset


The difference between pigs and pork - December 2015

Most people who do the 'escape to the country' thing do so with a vision of rearing animals for meat, milk, eggs, etc. It looks so easy on River Cottage! It's rather emblematic of British food culture that fewer people dream of growing vegetables as their main end goal. British food culture is all about the meat or fish (or alcohol - it's quite cool to plant a vineyard). Vegetables are something we traditionally boil and put on the side of the plate, because they are good for us. To many people, a main meal without meat is incomplete. Fewer of us think a meal without veg is incomplete.

In Medieval times, it was believed that aristocrats were fundamentally different from peasants, and one of the key ways that they differed was in their digestion. The gentle fire of aristocratic tummies needed refined food like meat, whereas the coarse fires in the bellies of workers required vegetables, and meat was wasted on them. You can actually see this still embedded in our language today. Words for meat come from the French - pork, beef, mutton (eating lamb is a modern thing) - whereas the words for the animals are from the old English - pig, cow, sheep. This is because the French-speaking aristocrats descended from the Normans ate the meat, while us poor old Anglo-Saxons only got to tend the beasts.

Add that to our very British inclination for social climbing and sensitivity at being thought lower class, possibly from the same source of having the French aristocracy installed over us in 1066, and you have our British culture that says that posh is good and that posh = meat. It's not like that everywhere. The French have great respect for their peasant culture and their artisan skills, and in Italy the finest food, what we think of as quintessentially Italian food, is 'la cucina povra' (poor cooking), with vegetables playing a key role and meat a supporting one. Meanwhile, we are still acting out something that was relevant 500 years ago!

British gardening remains rather class-infected, with veg growing playing second fiddle to flowers - this is the reason why vegetable growing gets five minutes at the end of Gardener's World, as well as being why vegetable gardens are tucked away out of sight, and why allotments are undervalued and always under threat from development in a way that a grand garden full of topiary isn't.

To me, the vegetables are the most interesting part of a meal. Last weekend I make a paprika and butter coating for the roast chicken. It smelled marvellous cooking, and the first slice tasted pretty good, but the rest tasted of, well, chicken. The range of flavours and textures available from veg is just so much broader. With parsnips you can roast them, make mash, make curried parsnip soup or, as I just discovered, parsnip ice cream! There are new and exotic fruit and veg whose tastes you can't imagine or describe, you have to taste them. This year my Chilean guava fruited for the first time, and tastes like nothing I have ever tasted before. Meanwhile, a steak is a steak - there are good ones and bad ones, but how much is it ever going to surprise you?

We've been living here eight years now (I won't say we 'escaped to the country' because I've always lived in the country), and in that time we've had a full menagerie of chickens, geese, ducks, guinea fowl and even cows, but this week I gave away the last of my hens and I'm looking forward to including their run in the forest garden. Living in rural and foody Dorset, it's pretty easy to buy good meat. Angel Cottage organics, just a mile away, produce better meat than I'll ever grow for myself, but I don't know where I could buy a cauliflower so fresh and sweet I can just dress it with vinaigrette and eat it, or peaches so ripe that the juice runs down your chin as you eat them, let alone cima di rapa or yacon. Growing veg and fruit in the end is just that much more satisfying, and there is so much more yet to discover about them. It would be nice if they got the status they deserve alongside the steak and the wine.


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