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Vegetables now come in ever more wondrous styles and sizes: carrots can be ink-purple; courgettes can be round like mini melons; beetroots can be white and yellow; courgettes will climb up a wall; and Tomato Green Envy has edible tomatoes which are ripe when green. I doubt if any of these new shapes and colours will be available in supermarkets this year. To enjoy them, you will have to grow them. They are all such fun. Guests hardly believe that I can cook, but if I offer them Carrot Purple Haze and Carrot Yellowstone together, they begin to think that there is magic hidden in the kitchen. They combine yellow and purple and look amazingly chic.
Vegetable gardening has become so much more flexible. The first step is to give up on soil at ground level. It is indefensible against animal invaders and is usually far from ideal. Think instead of controlled compost in containers only. Last year my best carrots grew in bottomless buckets and I had excellent spinach in a big plastic pot bought in Sainsbury’s for only £5. I filled them with bags of John Innes compost, mixed to a consistency which Mother Nature has never achieved on open ground. The rabbits failed to storm them and even after heavy rain, the soil was immediately workable. On balconies or in small front gardens the lesson now is that vegetables can be packed into all sorts of trendy containers, trendy twice over if you paint the outsides in smart colours. I like greys and the pale buff shades known as Stone in Farrow & Ball’s paint list. Bold reds and navy blues are not at home in the Cotswolds but they can look great in an urban setting.
The Royal Horticultural Society runs constant trials in its Wisley gardens and ranks the varieties which are best value for gardeners. Their listings are invaluable and the ones with the letters AGM in a green cup after their names are all excellent choices (AGM means Award of Garden Merit). Many of them are great in containers. Thanks to the AGM ranking, I have discovered that even broad beans can be fitted into a container. The RHS recommends Broad Bean Robin Hood, a variety which is low growing and fit for confined existence. The pods are short, too, but they hold up to six beans each and the flavour is excellent. No staking is needed.
For an easy AGM initiation, try sowing spring onions. It may seem so easy to buy a pre-grown bunch, tied up in a rubber band, but if you sow and grow Spring Onion Lilia, you will end up with something distinctive. This Italian variety has glistening red-purple onion roots which look much more dramatic in salads. It is so easy to grow and yet so satisfying. It also has a more punchy taste.
I am an apostle, still, of the traditional runner bean. Sometimes people manage to grow it up tall tripods of canes, stuck into a big pot, but for once, I prefer to line a vegetable out in open ground. The crucial thing is to pick the beans before they become too long and tough. I prefer the variety called White Lady as its white flowers are of much less interest to birds than the traditional scarlet forms. If the flowers are stripped off, obviously there will be no beans in August. In hot dry summers White Lady also performs well. Like all the best varieties and AGM forms, White Lady is available from Thompson & Morgan (thompson-morgan.com or 0844 573 1818 for orders by phone). They also list the remarkable dwarf form, Hestia, which has red-and-white flowers and really will stay low in a container while cropping well with true runner-flavour. Hestia is now the answer in confined spaces. As young runner beans do not often turn up in supermarkets or even in good vegetable stores, gardeners are the people who most enjoy them.
In that invaluable guide for nitwits, the River Cafe Cookbook Easy, Ruth Rogers and her assistants give an excellent recipe for broad pasta, fettuccine for example, with slices of prosciutto, a dash of butter, rosemary and some fried-up radicchio. I have earned unmerited credit, even from keen foodies, for starting a lunch with this pungent dish. Out among the badgers and wild garlic, it can be difficult to find radicchio on sale at short notice. I now grow my own in bottomless buckets, sowing the Italian variety, Radicchio Rossa di Treviso Early, also available from Thompson & Morgan. It coped well with last year’s wet start to the season and then the longish dry spell, justifying its claims to be reliable in British weather. As for the rosemary, it has to be bought as a bush, of course. I now much like the one called Gorizia as it is upright, tidy and so far, hardy, even in 2012/13’s testing winter. Armed with your own rosemary leaves and your own radicchio ready for shredding, you can knock up the River Cafe pasta in about ten minutes flat.
Spinach is a must for another neglected old favourite: bacon and spinach salad, enlivened with a dressing of olive oil and white vinegar. The art is to mix the melted fat off the fried bacon into the fresh spinach leaves too, but the finding of a true spinach is no longer easy in this age of tasteless pseudo-spinach beet. The answer is to grow it yourself, remembering that spinach hates hot dry weather and is prone to bolt. If you sow the F1 Hybrid varieties, the bolting is a particular problem. The best of the hybrid bunch is now Apollo F1, but even this one must be watered regularly in its container. It is best always to keep spinach pots out of full sun. The reason why spinach beet is now so ubiquitous is that it crops for weeks without bolting and survives well in dry weather. It tastes of nothing much in a salad.
On Sunday nights after a blissful day’s gardening I know I will be falling back for a quick dinner on my favourite garden omelette. It is not my idea, but the great Elizabeth David’s, who gives the recipe for this former French favourite in her book French Provincial Cooking as Omelette à l’Oseille. Boil down some sorrel leaves, but not too many, until they are a soft mush and then spread them in the middle of a three-egg omelette. The taste is so fresh and pungent. Sorrel is never seen in shops, but is so easily raised from seed. The trendy form nowadays is Sorrel Blood Veined with a red central stem to each leaf. If you pick it and stop it bolting, you can have sorrel-Sunday evenings for years. My plants have just had their 20th birthday, kept young and fresh by constant picking for omelette dinners which are a pleasure to recall, having been made in about six minutes each.