My love affair with markets

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Venice, and I tweeted to ask if it was weird that I got more excited visiting the fish market than the Doge’s Palace. The answer was pretty unanimously ‘yes’!

It wasn’t a one-off experience. Stately homes don’t do a whole lot for me. Recently I was in Cardiff, and was duty-bound to visit the Castle, partly because it is the famous local landmark, but mainly because my husband’s beloved grandfather worked for the Castle as a groundsman for 50 years. My husband wasn’t able to be there, but as I had shared Gramps’s love of growing with him, I went in search of the plaque in his name. Incongruously, it was behind the security-locked gate to the tennis club, where only the privileged few could see it.


I got side-tracked en route to the Castle though. Enjoying wandering through the shopping arcades with the narrow alleys with glazed vaulted roofs I came across the market. I looked at my watch. Time was rather limited and I should stick to the plan. I looked at the market. I went in. It was a beautiful traditional market, with a glass roof and a gallery for a bird’s eye view of the stalls. It was still a proper market too, with butchers’, greengrocers’ and fish stalls and not much in the way of tat. I am so often tempted to move to a city solely so that I can buy my food at such a market!

davFortunately it was early and not yet fully open, and there were few food shops on the rest of the route (I am not distracted by shoe shops!), so I was not too delayed and still made it to the Castle. Yes the state rooms were remarkable, in a rather overdecorated way, but I felt slightly swindled of the £13 entry fee. The only room where I felt inclined to linger was the library, with its collection of all of the nineteenth-century classics, such as every one of Dickens’s novels, all rebound in matching leather with the family logo, naturally.

sdrYou see, the 2nd Marquis of Bute, a Scotsman, not a Welshman, made the vast fortune that built this castle from coal mining, having inherited much of South Wales through his wife. And under that simple statement lies a multitude of truths about children working in mines, about the deaths of miners leaving their families destitute, about the wrecked health of men and the long and bitter fight for proper wages and health and safety for such hard and dangerous work. Not to mention the raping of Wales’s natural wealth and the wrecking of the environment.

davSo it seems a little obscene to me to gaze up at the gilded ceiling. Most stately homes have that effect on me. I look at them and wonder if they were built from the profits of slave trading or colonial exploitation. When the Brits arrived in Bengal it was the richest country on Earth. A century later it was pretty much the poorest, which it has remained ever since, and Britain had built a lot of stately homes. To preserve them for the general public to pay a (rather high) fee to gawk at how the other half lived from behind ropes and with exhortations against touching or taking pictures of the precious things, well I do wonder what is the point!

sdrNow a market, on the other hand – they are frequently older than a stately home for a start. The Rialto market, for example, has been there four centuries longer than the Doge’s Palace in its current form. Markets always contain characters, the best of them are a mine of information about authentic local food culture (like buying laver bread and Welsh cakes at Swansea market or fresh stuffed pasta in Bologna market) and, duh, there is stuff to eat there!

Although the Rialto market was very fine, I think my all-time favourite market is still that in Cork. You could buy every single part of  a pig there – I have never seen a display of pigs’ tails anywhere else! The fish was a match for anything I’ve seen on the continent, and all sorts of modern exotic ingredients were available as well. If you lived locally, you would never need to shop anywhere else.

My European tour of markets goes on though, so Cork’s leading place is only provisional! I have heard of a great market in Sardinia which I must visit, and there is the famous Mercato Vucciria in Palermo too. Watch this space for further travels where stately homes and ‘attractions’ get elbowed out of the way for the local market.


Staying well

Last year I wasn’t well, which made keeping up with the garden, among other things, difficult. I’ve reached that age when we are supposed to present ourselves to the medical establishment for testing and dosing with statins/HRT/antidepressants/pain medication, whatever, and to accept the end of robust good health.

Well I won’t. I don’t trust Western drug-based medicine (long story – in my shoes you probably wouldn’t either) and I fear overtreatment more than I fear illness. If I have an accident or a heart attack, please take me to hospital, but chronic illness I’ll handle without drugs, thank you very much.

So 2016 was a year of experiments in testing the effects of sugar, caffeine, gluten and all the usual culprits, as well as various supplements and herbal medicine, with varying degrees of success.

If you follow me on Twitter you can’t have failed to notice that I went to Italy in October, on a 200-mile cycle ride. I had been very worried about doing this, that I wouldn’t be well enough to train, or to complete the ride, but by the second day I was feeling bloody fantastic. I was still going strong at the end of each day, and at the end of the week I could have turned around and gone back again! Not only this, but the feeling and the energy stayed with me for 2 months afterwards, despite catching a cold on the flight home.

Then I relapsed though, and have had trouble just getting out of bed in the morning again. The question is, can I isolate what was so damned good for me on holiday and reproduce it at home? As much as I’m all for going on an adventure holiday every 3 months, it’s not the most practical solution!

My husband asked me about my diet on holiday: ‘Well, I had pastries, cake and espresso for breakfast, cake and more coffee for elevensies, pizza or pasta for lunch, and risotto, pasta or gnocchi for dinner (on one glorious occasion all three!), usually with gelato on the way back to the hotel. Basically, it was a total carb-fest with added cheese and caffeine’.

‘I guess we can rule out diet then’, said he.

It was hardly a fair representation of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ since it was all restaurant food – although it was all fresh cooked, proper food, and Italians do genuinely eat cake for breakfast – and I would hesitate to try to reproduce this in my daily life, but where does that leave all that careful rationing of sugar, gluten and caffeine?

We are well schooled to turn to diet as an obvious contributor to, well, everything, no doubt because there are handsome profits from doing so, but is there really any gain to obsessing over food groups beyond eating natural, home-cooked food?

There are a couple of other factors of course. Sunshine is an obvious one. At our northern latitude, there just isn’t enough of it to generate adequate vitamin D to keep us healthy. This was October though, and I had been outdoors a great deal all summer.

There’s the time away from my PC and the deadline stress, and the exercise too. With twice daily dog walks and gardening, I’ve never been inactive, and the standard medical advice is only 30 minutes per day. I read recently though, that this is one of those targets set because the experts think people might actually attain it, rather than because it is effective, and the amount of exercise needed to combat the harm caused by a desk job is actually 2 hours of quite vigorous exercise. It could be an inconvenient truth that 4 to 6 hours of exercise a day is what it takes for me to stay well!

For now I’m trying to get 2 hours on my bike as often as possible, yes, even in a UK February, and not analyse my diet too much. The Michael Pollen diet is for me – as long as you made it yourself, it’s fine.

And there’s another cycle trip to Italy on the horizon.

Keep calm and carry on gardening!

(First published September 2015 at

I admire gardeners who carry on cheerfully posting about their gardens no matter what goes on around them. It shows a strength of spirit and purpose that I struggle to have. The dreadful things that go on across the globe sometimes make my garden seem trivial. I am unable to isolate my garden and my life from the world in general, or restrain myself from getting involved in politics, as anyone who regularly reads my posts will have realised!

Last night I went to see Woman in Gold at the cinema. One of the themes was how the civilian population of Austria welcomed and supported the Nazis. The Nazis were, it has to be remembered, elected to power, and immensely popular. One of the great mysteries of the whole Nazi era is how so many people supported them; after all, they were not a few thousand nutters subjecting a population, but had the support and collaboration of millions of ordinary people. When I see newspapers calling refugees ‘cockroaches’, when politicians talk about them as a ‘swarm’, when all those in power conveniently forget the role our military and economic policies have played in creating the hell holes of Afghanistan, Syria and other countries that are driving this Biblical exodus, and when the people around me, from my builder to my landed aristocrat neighbour, parrot what the newspapers print, I see echoes of this Nazi project. A race of people is ‘othered’, made to seem utterly different and unrelated to ourselves, scapegoated for society’s ills, usually by the same people actually driving those ills, and demonised. It makes it acceptable to do terrible things to those people, or just stand by while they suffer and die. Before anyone jumps on me, I’m not saying it is the same as the Holocaust, I am saying that a similar process is at work there, in embryo. Coupled with the organised and coordinated campaign by the media, all parties in Westminster and the elite generally, including the threat of a military coup, to derail the first prinicipled leader with a democratic mandate in my lifetime, these are troubling times. Us white westerners tend to think we are immune to the kinds of disasters, social, military and natural, that see people displaced and destitute in their millions, but we are not, no one is. Our approach should always be ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’.

It would definitely be easier to live, and to make change in the world, without the present bunch of sociopaths in power, with a government on our side instead of always making us fight them. And we have to stand up for what is right. However, the gardeners who get on with their gardens whatever happens are right. Real change does not happen in Westminster, in international fora. They are just facilitating or fighting what happens in the real world: I read somewhere ‘If you want to create a new world, don’t bother arguing with the old one, just build the new one’. Westminster gets its power from us, as does the media, and if we treated them as irrelevant, they would quickly become irrelevant. And as irrelevant, they would have less power to fuck up people’s lives across the planet.

‘Be the change you want to see’, is also a favourite mantra. The important things in life are the people and environment around us, getting clean and good food and being healthy. Paying attention to those things and not what the media invites us to pay attention to takes power from them and denies them their messages about what we should buy or buy into. Repeated often enough, it changes the world.

So today, I am going to go into my garden. I am going to tackle the weeds that have miraculously taken over after just a fortnight away, I am going to harvest potatoes and pumpkins, and pick apples, plums, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. And then I am going to make some amazing food for us to eat. I’m not going to worry about the state of the world today. And I don’t want to see any more pig jokes.

A really thorny subject!

(First published January 2016 at

I’m going to tackle a thorny subject that’s pretty important to me – losing weight. I have to add a disclaimer that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. My qualifications on the subject come from extensive reading over many years (including everything published in the International Journal of Obesity for 10 years for my day job!), and trying out ideas on myself, which resulted in losing 3 stone which, more importantly, has stayed off. There’s a huge amount of diet information about and most of it is nonsense. If it was any good, we’d be a slim, healthy nation, and we’re plainly not that. On the whole, diets are great for getting rich, and lousy for losing weight. If I can condense my years of research into 1000 words, and it helps shorten someone else’s search, that’s great, but if you follow my advice and drop dead, bear the above in mind and don’t even think of suing me!

First of all, diets don’t work, they only make you fatter. Diets don’t work, they only make you fatter. Yes, I know, I just said that, but it’s worth saying twice. Diets have a simple, apparently obvious, logic – cut the calories going in and burn the fat off – but for a number of reasons they don’t work in practice. (At least they work the first time, but the weight will go back on and they work less well each time you try.) The main reason is because they try to lose the weight too quickly by cutting calories too drastically. Your body has a ‘set point’ and built-in mechanisms to keep your weight stable. If you put on a few pounds over Christmas, it’s pretty easy to lose them in January. By the same token, lose a stone in a month, and your body will fight you to put it back on, and once you start fighting your own body, you’re screwed. You probably spent 10 years putting the weight on gradually, and it has to come off gradually too, probably over 2 years or more. That way your ‘set point’ comes down too and the weight will stay off. That seems an inconvenient truth, and a long road when you want to be ‘bikini body ready’ this summer, but try and lose it too quickly and, whether it works in the short term or not, in 5 years you’ll more than likely be heavier than you are now, whereas by losing it slowly (1 kg per month), in 5 years’ time, you could easily be up to 5 stone lighter.

The human body is badly adapted for living in an environment with abundant food because, for all of its evolution except the last few decades, starvation has been the big threat to survival. In much of the world, it still is. So it is very well equipped to deal with starvation. Cut your calorie intake in half and your body will think you are in a famine and go into survival mode, reducing your metabolism and halting long-term repair functions (which has serious repercussions if you spend half your life on a diet) to preserve your fat stores, and even worse, making you really hungry and obsessed with food to increase your motivation. This might work in the Serenghetti when a bit more foraging might turn up some good roots, but in a supermarket full of junk food you are trying not to eat, it’s a disaster. And it’s calorie-dense foods you’ll be after too; no one ever craved carrot sticks! Add in the ubiquitous processed food industry’s magically addictive combination of fat and sugar that does not exist in nature (ice cream, doughnuts, cake, biscuits, chips, etc.!) and triggers receptors in your brain more like cocaine does than proper food, and the odds are really stacked against you. There lies the road to binge eating, shame, guilt and a wrecked psychological relationship with food. This is why diets put on weight, not reduce it.

The way to sustainably lose weight is to (1) make an honest assessment of what you really eat, by keeping a diary of all your food and drink intake for about 3 weeks. Then (2) review it and find your worst food habits, in terms of calories and health, and cut back a bit. If you have a takeaway every Friday, have one every other Friday. If you have four roast potatoes on Sunday, have three. If you have three chocolate bars a week, have two. Make small changes for life, not drastic changes for a few months. Don’t give up all your favourite foods, don’t cut out whole food groups and don’t adopt bizarre eating habits that are different from those of your family. If you can cut back to the point where you lose 1–2 kg a month, job done, just keep it up. (3) After a few months, the weight loss will tail off and you will need to make a few more changes. By this point, though, your earlier changes will be established eating habits, and it won’t be a big issue. Food preferences are only habits, and if you change your practices a little in the direction of healthy eating, that is what you will come to prefer – honest! You can’t go from being a take-away queen to being all wheatgrass juice and quinoa overnight, but you can make huge changes a small step at a time, and each one carries big long-term benefits.

Tackle the emotional reasons why you overeat, with a counsellor if necessary. If, like me, you eat to cheer yourself up, comfort yourself, reward yourself, celebrate, and so on, there are other ways to do these things, I have eventually found!

And that’s all really. Gradually move your diet away from processed food towards natural, home-cooked food. Avoid diet books and programmes like the plague, and realise that most information about diets and healthy eating is deeply flawed, even that coming from doctors and similar sources. The only really uncontroversial pieces of advice about healthy eating that aren’t prone to changing with fashion are (1) eat amounts in proportion to the amount of energy you use, (2) eat as varied a diet as possible, (3) eat lots of fruit, salad and veg, in any form, (4) sugar (or simple carbs like white flour), fat and salt mixed together are dangerously addictive and best gradually reduced and eliminated, and (5) avoid all processed food – if it has a label on it, even if the label carries health claims, be deeply suspicious of it.

And there it is, 20 years’ research in 1000 words, more or less!

Harnessing the power of fungi to restore soil fertility

You know you read those descriptions of plant soil requirements – ‘Any reasonably fertile, well-drained soil’, like no fool would garden in soil that wasn’t reasonably fertile and well drained? Well some of us fools do. I battle with low fertility, alkaline pH and patchy drainage. I recently had a full soil analysis done, and the pH is 8.1 and the soil is deficient in organic matter and most minerals, although the zinc level is freakishly high for some reason that will need investigating.

Drainage is a funny one here because we are in Blackmore Vale, legendary for its boggy clay, but the level of my plot has been raised by about a metre against the flooding, mostly with rubble, and it is surrounded by a major ditch (or moat, depending on the weather), so it is very sharply drained close to the ditch and progressively boggier with every metre you move away from it.

In the annual veg garden I built raised beds and filled them with composted cow manure from Komit Kompost, which needed to be topped up annually for the first few years as the compost broke down. This is the traditional approach – bring in tonnes of soil improver. It worked well and now it is a great growing medium for veg, but I can’t afford the cost or the back power to apply this to the whole of a one-acre plot,  so I need to do something different elsewhere. Plus, everywhere else I want to grow perennial plants, and as soon as the roots go down into the subsoil, they will encounter the original hostile conditions. While I grow lovely shallow-rooted veg, the trees that I have planted mostly look stunted and unhappy.

Digital image
The veg garden

I have a theory. I read about a compost tower, where you bury a 6 inch soil pipe vertically, with several feet of it in the soil and a foot or so sticking out, with a bung in the end. You chop up your compost materials small and add them, and they break down and feed the soil. The beauty of it is that it only takes up a 6-inch diameter space, and you can apply it where you need it, no shovelling required. The downside is the need to chop up the materials small and the need to bury it 3 feet down – I would need a minidigger to do that and would excavate several boulders! Plus, it’s a solution for a small garden, not the scale I work on.

So I have made a different kind of compost tower, three of them, from four pallets screwed together, for the forest garden. So far, so standard. In conventional composting, you would take out the contents, turn them, replace them, do this three times, then shovel the compost out and take it where you want it. Way too much work! The capacity for hard labour does not increase with age, and let’s just say I’m looking for easier ways to do things these days!

dsc_06651I continually add compost materials to the top of this tower, but I never turn it or interfere with it. For a lid I regularly add a layer of cardboard held down with planks. And that’s it. I have never dug this piece of land. It is about 150 feet by 50 feet, and I used mycorrhizal fungi when I planted the apple trees. By now, the native mycorrhizals plus the added ones should be thriving. Mycorrhizal fungi are incredible organisms, as are all fungi.  Connected to the plants’ roots, they are the soil’s internet. In un-dug soil, if a plant is attacked by a pest, another of the same species tens of metres away will produce deterrents to that pest – it is the mycorrhizal fungi that enable this kind of communication. They also distribute soil nutrients from areas where there are plenty to areas that are deficient. When you dig, you break up the mycelium and destroy the mycorrhizal network. It’s one of the biggest arguments for no-dig.

With three strategically placed sources of compost on the plot, with the soil undisturbed, I figure that the mycorrhizals over time will distribute the nutrients from the compost and improve the whole plot. In addition, I am including plenty of nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating plants in my planting plan, and hopefully the fertility of the plot will improve from lousy to at least reasonable over a few years. Repeat testing will tell.

As the compost in the towers shrinks down, I just top it up with whatever I can lay my hands on. My one  rule is ‘nothing thorny’. In time it will stop shrinking, at which time I will unscrew the sides, level the heap and start again elsewhere. The towers are not things of beauty I will confess, but I am a fair way off worrying about beauty on this particular plot. It’s all about getting an ecosystem going that’s not all hogweed, docks and nettles.

Will it work? We shall see. As with all proper gardening projects, it will take a few years to come to fruition, not a single weekend with Alan Titchmarsh supervising.


On courgette tyranny

Right now my Twitter feed is full of messages along the lines of ‘What can I do with this 20 kg of courgettes/runner beans?’ These two are the usual offenders. There are plenty of good recipes for preserves, courgette cake and so on, but what you don’t hear is ‘sling them on the compost heap and go to the beach’. While the country as a whole bins a third of the food that it buys, and far more than that is wasted before it even hits the supermarket shelf, us grow-your-owners beat ourselves up over a few wasted vegetables (if you consider composting a waste, which I don’t – compost bins need to eat too!).

courgettes1It might be a ‘middle class problem’, and the peach glut that I occasionally get must be the ultimate middle class problem, but it is a real problem nonetheless. If you have even one productive apple tree, particularly like the ‘Katie’ that I have, which ripens in August and doesn’t keep for more than a week or so, or a modest row of runner beans, you can end up enslaving yourself to a quest to preserve it all in a race against time and it can get quite stressful.

DSC_0617[1]By all means make preserves, as long as you enjoy doing it and are going to eat them. Chutney keeps pretty much forever anyway and courgettes make great chutney. Personally, I have never found a means of preserving runner beans that is not a delayed way of composting them – salted, pickled or frozen, they have always lingered for a year or more, then been thrown out in a clear-out. Courgettes I like to freeze, fried in discs. Defrosted and warmed in a frying pan then mixed with pasta and cheese, they make a great mid winter lunch. But when the freezer is full, I don’t mind composting a few. Yes, it’s great to have food preserved for the winter and not to have to go out in the cold for supper, but it’s not like we have feet of snow in the UK, and the garden can carry on producing fresh veg all winter, up until the hungry gap.

When you’ve made as many preserves as you are likely to eat, and frozen as many as you need, when your friends act like they are doing you a favour taking them (or worse, avoid you!), don’t stay up all night finding inventive ways to preserve the crop, or beat yourself up about the waste. Compost them, and plant fewer next year. If you can’t find someone who would like your windfall apples, then leave them, they will feed a multitude of wildlife. Growing veg takes a lot of energy, and growing much more than we need is not the best use of that energy and time, probably the most precious and limited resource we have. In order to be sure of having enough, I always aim to grow a slight surplus, but I bear in mind that, growing my own, I waste far, far less than if I was using the commercial food chain in any form and I don’t worry about composting some.

Don’t be tyrannized by your courgettes – sling them in the compost and go out and have fun in the sun while it lasts (she writes on a drizzly day)!

There’s a revolution afoot in the garden

Next year I plan to have a year off growing annual veg, not only to get to grips with the more neglected parts of my garden, but also to have more fun. Today, instead of starting out with a marathon weeding session, which is of course what Sundays are for, I got up early and went to West Bay for a swim in the sea before all the tourists got up. It was breathtakingly cold, but also breathtakingly beautiful, and I’d like to do more of such things, along with some more cycling challenges. On top of that, at this time of year I tend to be so flat out watering, weeding, harvesting and preserving that I have little time to make anything creative in the kitchen or to go foraging.

I still want to eat well though, and that’s the catch. I love my veg. And so I’m going to have to be efficient with the energy that I put into the veg that I grow. I’m paying attention to what is indispensible in the kitchen this summer, what is easy to grow that I really can’t live without, and what is a prima donna that doesn’t contribute enough for the time and space it takes up. I am influenced in this by the fact that lovely Goldhill Organics is local, and I can buy locally grown organic veggies there every week and not have to buy supermarket veg.

DSC_0582[1]First on the list of things to go is okra, having just had the electric bill that its extra heat contributed to. Despite extensive and expensive mollycoddling it has produced only a handful of pods for the second year running. It’s out. Also aubergines and peppers – since I can buy local organic ones and they are challenging to grow, they can go on the list too.

DSC_0575[1]High on the list of things to stay is French beans – generous and easy and a staple in the kitchen, with a small footprint, they are must haves. Also courgettes and lettuce, and of course, tomatoes. I eat so many tomatoes in summer that buying them might bankrupt me! An automatic watering system might be useful though. With French beans, salad, courgettes and tomatoes, one could happily eat well all summer. I was going to scrap the sweetcorn – another demanding and temperamental crop – but then I tasted it harvested straight from the garden and cooked immediately in a little butter. You just can’t buy that! Autumn and spring spinach is essential too.

Most of the brassicas can go, temporarily at least. Much as I love growing cauliflowers, they are easy to buy and even non-organic ones hold little pesticide residue. Purple sprouting, alongside the perennial kale, and some pak choi, may be the only ones to earn a place next year, possibly following some summer calabrese, which has produced harvests for week after week this year.

DSC_0578[1]Having had some white rot on the onions and terrible rust on the garlic, not to mention the leek moths, I am resting the entire onion family next year, with only some perennial Welsh onions in the edimental garden for fallbacks. Carrots in tubs, but not in the ground, and I think I’ll give the celeriac and parsnips a miss too – they are fussy and easy to buy well. A few new potatoes, but no main crops.

DSC_0586[1]Wow, that has slashed the growing list! Some early mange-tout and sugar snap peas and plenty of broad beans, plus maybe a Crown Prince squash or two providing we eat our way through the stockpile still in the freezer, and the list is about complete.

The empty beds can be heavily mulched and left for a year, which will help clean them of weeds, and the beds I am using can be polycultured, which will simplify rotation. Obviously there are still perennial fruit harvests to pick, store and eat. There are the asparagus, globe artichokes and various perennial veg that I planted this year, and there is also a world of foraging outside my gate.

Who knows whether, after my ‘gap year’, I will go back to aiming for self-sufficiency in annual veg or if I will carry on down a revolutionary perennial and foraged path. Time will tell!