Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sticking the fork in?

The Edible Garden Show

Slightly wrong-footed when I arrived at the Edible Garden Show and realised that the venue itself was, erm, a bit meaty. I had my sister-in-law, Debbie, along for the ride. She, my brother and their two lovely daughters are all vegetarians. I'd sold the trip to her as a veggie-friendly show that would (I reckoned) be all about getting food out of your garden. And that means veg, right?

But I started to worry as we trekked from the main gate past a shanty town of small buildings, prefabs and sheds, each of which seemed to be the HQ of another organisation dedicated to parading fancy livestock. (You can't pull the wool over my eyes. I know what you're planning to do with that animal once you've finished grooming it, and it'll not be nearly so pretty then, will it?)

We bundled past the queue (lots of Barbour jackets and shooting sticks, I was getting more and more anxious that this wasn't a great place to bring one's sister-in-law), found the press office and announced ourselves as the vegetarian contingent. The woman handing out the badges guffawed. How could she forget me? Just a week ago she had sent me a press release about the show, which featured the unpleasant idea that, with recession upon us, allotment holders might fancy the idea of setting up their very own snail farms. Yuk! The funny thing was that she sent the press release attached to a standard email that said 'I am sure your readers will be interested in this'. I had sent one back saying that I was the Editor of The Vegetarian magazine and that frankly I didn't think my readers would be all that taken with the idea. She was hugely apologetic at the time, and when we met, too, but she did say that the snail farm thing had generated a lot of press coverage. Actually, strangely enough, it even made it into The Vegetarian - we have a Hot and Not column...

Thanks to tortuous queues of traffic in the country lanes surrounding the venue, it was after eleven by the time we made it into the show and I made a beeline for the area where gardening experts were giving talks. I was keen to catch James Wong's session about growing unusual veg. Didn't catch it all, but what I did hear was fantastic. James is putting out the message that allotment gardeners are stuck in a postwar timewarp, growing predictable veg that take up lots of room and are cheap in the shops anyway. He wants us to use our little plots to grow things that are difficult to find in the shops, or expensive. He is also on a mission to educate us about what can and can't be grown successfully in the UK, and it turns out that a lot of the things we consider to be exotic are perfectly easy to grow in our own back gardens. Don't bother with a bay tree, he said. How many bay leaves can you use? If you've got space for a nice glossy-leafed bush, grow green tea, and then you can pull off a leaf or two whenever you fancy a brew. He showed us photos of oyster mushrooms growing on old telephone books and told us about the goji berries that have taken root in the cracks in the paving stones outside the BBC. He pointed out that quinoa has edible leaves, and shared the wonderful news that although he has so far failed to get soya beans to grow particularly well in this country, chickpeas grow easily and yield something very similar to edamame. What's more, they're nitrogen-fixing plants so they're good for the soil. He showed us photos of tomato plants grafted onto potato roots - pomatoes! Twice the veg in the same space! He's running a trial and recommended we visit to find out how to try it for ourselves. He went away too soon. I was already prepared to part with hard cash to get his book - but there is no book yet. According to the website, 'Incredible Edibles' will be available soon. I want it so badly.

Time for a stroll around the show. It wasn't huge, and that was good. Lots to see, along the lines of organic compost, garden knick-nacks, wellies, pots, dibbers, seeds, some actual plants, some people selling things made of plants (stocked up on Womersley fruit vinegars) and quite a few businesses offering instant fool-proof vegetable gardens delivered straight to your virgin raised beds. Several new businesses are making use of the internet and apps and all that techie stuff to provide interactive support and weekly gardening tutorials. Sadly there is no getting around the fact that my small garden is dominated by two big trees, and most vegetables prefer sunshine to shade.

Pride of place was given to the BHWT (British Hen Welfare Trust who had a little pen with four surprisingly big glossy hens. They were ex-battery hens and it was lovely to see them looking so proud and chirpy. What a strange life - from a battery cage to being the stars of the show. One of the birds managed to flap its way onto the top of the fence surrounding their enclosure and Debbie and I were soon making friends with 'Nigel' (!) - the first time I have touched a hen or fed one from my hand, but far from a first for Debbie, a farmer's daughter who grew up on a small farm. I was very taken with Nigel but can't quite bring myself to commit to hens. Firstly, for the reason that I don't have any pets - they make it hard for you to go on holiday and they break your heart if (when) they die. And wreak havoc on your bank balance if they get ill. Debbie has been advised by a vet that she really ought to be cleaning the family cat's teeth with fish-flavoured toothpaste. Nasty. Secondly, because I have vegan tendencies and I'm not sure where I stand on eggs (if you see what I mean). Debbie's garden is visited by what she calls a 'friendly fox' (I guess so as not to frighten her daughters) - we took advice and although there are some pretty good fox-proof hen houses on the market, the sad truth is that hens can die of fright if a fox menaces them, and that wouldn't be good at all. While we were talking, one of the ex-bats laid a 'soft-shell' - a rather nasty grey leathery proto-egg that the other hens started pecking to bits until it was hastily cleared away. Hmm. We trotted off to admire the amazing hen mansions with their slated roofs and turrets. I think my interest in hens will remain theoretical for a while yet.

Had a quick look at the animals section but predictably it made me quite uncomfortable to see birds in cages. I think Debbie liked seeing the goats as her family had some when she was young, and I guess it would be OK for veggies to keep goats for milk and cheese, but even the white ones look a bit demonic to me. I hated seeing the pigs penned up, with half the crowd cooing over their cuteness and the other half sharpening their knives and firing up the sausage machine. As far as I'm concerned there's no earthly reason why pigs should be putting in an appearance at a show that's about edible gardens. What's edible about pigs?

Grabbed a small but scarily solid goat's cheese pie for lunch on the hoof and scuttled back to the Experts Theatre where James Wong was about to reappear. This time he was talking about growing unusual spices and herbs. He's such an enthusiast, it was a joy to watch and I got quite a rush from being given so much interesting information all at once. I hope it's OK to share it...

Saffron is, as we all know, a very expensive comodity, but it was grown in England from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth (hence Saffron Walden). Why did we stop growing it? Because the price of labour went up, and the cost of painstakingly harvesting the golden stamens from the saffron crocuses became prohibitive. That's not a problem if you grow your own - just a few bulbs will make you self-sufficient in saffron and once planted the flowers will continue to come up for something like fifteen years! James recommended a saffron martini - saffron is a mild antidepressant and slightly psychoactive so he reckons that mixing it into a cocktail is sure to lift your spirits.

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is a woody shrub with fantastic fragrant bark - you harvest a few twigs and leave them in the sun to dry, and the bark peels off. Apparently it's like a cross between cinnamon and allspice. Sushi ginger (Zingiber mioga) is completely hardy with pretty variegated leaves, and you use the pink flowers and shoots wherever you would normally use ginger. Studies are showing that it is very effective against nausea. And it's slug-resistant.

Cardamon makes a lovely house plant, and rather than wait to harvest a handful of pods you can use the leaves in cooking. Chillis are quite well known as house plants but if you're a serious chilli fan you should plant a tree chilli (Capsicum pubescens) in your garden - they're hardy and huge. If you have room for big things, consider a Prickly Ash tree - and you'll soon be harevsting your own Szechuan peppercorns! Apparently the leaves are edible too - they taste like Thai Green Curry. Good heavens.

True wasabi is expensive in the UK, with specialist Japanese stores selling roots for upwards of £50. A lot of what is marketed as wasabi is in fact good old horseradish with a bit of green colouring. It grows abundantly in Japan where, according to James, it is such a popular taste that it is even possible to buy white chocolate Kitkats flavoured with wasabi. It turns out that there's nothing much to stop us growing it here.It likes cold, damp conditions. It grows like a weed in Scotland, in fact it's on the invasive side. You can eat the leaves. That'll slow it down a bit.

Hitting his stride, James told us about a plant that smells and tastes just like Coca-cola, and introduced us to Acmella oleracea, a pretty bedding plant whose flowers behave like popping candy in your mouth. Not sure how much use either of them would be in my kitchen, but it was interesting to hear about Stevia, a plant that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories at all. A single dried leaf can take the place of a cup of sugar in baking. It is only just commercially available in the UK after exhaustive testing. I'd like to try it. Could be revolutionary! We should also keep an eye out for Aztec Sweet Herb (Lippia dukis) which is 1500 times sweeter than sugar. It really makes you wonder why we aren't making better use of these things. Insert conspiracy theory here.

The show emptied out quite suddenly and there wasn't much competition for front-row seats for a talk on home cheese-making. Now, I know a fair bit about cheese and how it is made, but I've never yet been tempted to have a go at making it from scratch. That's possibly because I'm not a big fan of cottage cheese or paneer - it's not something I particularly want to eat, or to invest much time in. Or to have dripping over my sink. If I could be equipped with the knowledge and skill required to make a decent cheddar, that might be different, but I have yet to be convinced that it's simple or even desireable to make a proper, tasty, firm cheese at home. Add to the mix the fact that I am generally moving away from eating dairy and I rarely buy milk unless we have visitors and I'm on tea-making duty, and you can see why my curiosity hasn't really been aroused. Paul Peacock and his wife made a valiant attempt to show the thinning crowd that it was possible to make cheese by adding some veggie rennet to a carton of milk and letting it sit around for a while, but it didn't really work. Lumpy milk turns my stomach - that's nature's way of stopping you from getting food poisoning. Hearing the presenters describe the consistency as 'like babysick' really didn't help. I don't know - it looked nasty but apparently Paul has written a book and there are lots and lots of perfectly proper cheeses you can make in your own kitchen. OK, I was a bit curious, but at the end of the day, I'm still inclined to leave it to the experts.

The highlight of the show for me was James Wong - what a find he's turning out to be. Roll on the book and the inevitable overstretched TV series. I hope once James has told us about the strange and wonderful things we can grow, some other enterprising and gifted person will pop out of the woodwork and tell us how to make use of what we have grown...