Country Diary: 16
The Idler’s Editor, Tom Hodgkinson, has retired to a Devon farmhouse to write a book. Here’s the sixteenth part of his diary.
ELDERFLOWERS AND POTATOES GOOD, CHICKENS AND TOMATOES BAD
ARTHUR and I went out and cut one hundred elderflower heads from the trees that are all around the house. We are following Whittingstall’s recipe for elderflower cordial and so for the whole of Sunday the kitchen smelt of elderflowers. What a joy that was. Now we will have five bottles of elderflower cordial for the summer and it was free and fun to make.
OUR experiment with chickens hasn’t worked. We locked them in the barn for a week with the idea that they would start to lay eggs there as they wouldn’t have any choice. Our theory was that once they regained their freedom, they would continue to lay eggs in the barn. One of them started to lay on a pile of straw and we left behind two eggs. Such dummies, we understand, are necessary because if you remove all the eggs then the chickens decide to go and lay elsewhere. Through this technique we got two eggs during the week. We then felt sorry for the poor chickens as they hadn’t seen daylight. So we let them out. Which means freedom for them but no eggs for us. They occasionally come back to their barn to get food but in the main they seem to be laying in some mysterious and unreachable thicket somewhere. Our landlord is pleased that the rooster has vanished as this means no little chicks. But we want eggs, otherwise we just have a few daft pets.
THANKS to my correspondent Alex who writes to say that he agrees with my sentiments concerning tomatoes. Every other vegetable we have grown has been fairly simple to grow, ie, put the seed in the ground and wait. And we have had delicious potatoes, courgettes, beetroots (fabulous beetroots), rocket and lettuces following this simple procedure and even the carrots, while grotesquely misshapen, have been widely appreciated as well. The parsnips are looking healthy, the runner beans are climbing their poles, the peas are climbing their twigs and even the leeks are starting to look a little more leek-like. I also hold out great hopes for the onions and garlic.
BUT the tomatoes. Holy heaven. “Tomatoes are bitches,” says Alex, wisely. “As you rightly point out, they demand huge quantities of unrelaxing and awkward intervention – watering, trimming, supporting, more watering, etc. And your hands get covered in that nasty green, acidic tomato starch. If that isn’t bad enough, there’s always soft fruit economics to come along and jab you in the balls. Just at the point when your tomato harvest peaks – late in the summer – the bottom falls out of the domestic market, and they are virtually giving them away for free in supermarkets – 45p for a gallon of tomatoes.”
ALEX goes on to say: “The tomato deal is months of watching nothing happen, and then it hails tomatoes for a few weeks. Last year I planted about 8 tomato plants… They all looked puny and diseased after what must have been a couple of months, so I panicked slightly and got in some more, another 8 mature plants. But then, fairly soon, they all began to grow like mad, while they all got blight. More hours were spent trying to save the plants by hacking off and carefully removing diseased leaves and stems from the site. By harvest time, I was desperately slashing them to pieces, fighting a rearguard action to protect that fruit not already violated by blackbird beaks from the blight, while at the same time trying to prevent the plants from turning into trees. Never again, tomato.”
INSPIRED by Alex I went out to my tomato pots, and pulled up six of the eight withered, yellowy plants and threw them on the compost (I kept two just in case). It was a good feeling. Then I went up to the vegetable patch and pulled all the branches off the spreading tomato bushes up there. They had indeed turned into wild bushes, side shoots everywhere. I threw a couple away and left four, again, just in case. I then realised that I don’t even particularly like tomatoes. Those enormous juicy ones in Greece are nice, but British ones are always disappointing. So what strange masochism, I wondered, had led me to put so much effort into growing them? I must think for myself in future.
THE CATS, cold, merciless creatures that they are, have been depositing dead swallows in the kitchen. The pub still smells faintly of cat piss despite constant mopping and spreading of biological liquid. I went out and pulled up some of the camomile that grows out of every nook and cranny around the house and planted twenty sprigs in a bowl. That has helped. I might try to make camomile tea now.
DESPITE the tomato problems, the vegetable patch brings a pleasure and satisfaction that the world of work consistently fails to do. In work, as with computers, everything goes wrong all the time, whereas with vegetables, a little seed does actually grow into something edible. I seek solace too, as a lonely Libertines fan with a helpless sadness at the sight of Peter Doherty’s drug addiction, on the Libertines fans’ forum. This is a lively debate board full of fledgling Oscar Wildes. I plucked up the courage to post up a Blake poem which seemed relevant to the problems of addiction. I sat back and waited for some comforting responses. One guy said “thanks”, but then another accused me of whittering on about lovely poems when I should be going out and smashing up bus stops.
It’s a harsh world out there. But we poet-diggers shall overcome, some day.