I don’t usually curl up with a recipe book, let alone laugh out loud while reading it. Cook books are for dipping into, drooling over the sumptuous pictures, searching for that quick weekday meal or special dinner party dish. The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is different.
Let’s get something clear from the start: this is not a guide to growing vegetables. Nor is it merely a series of ideas of how to use them. It falls somewhere in between.
There’s no detailed information on sowing times, planting depths or how to combat the inevitable pests and diseases. Indeed, such information is limited to a general guide at the beginning of each seasonal section of what to sow, what to plant and what to harvest, although occasionally a few recommended varieties creep in. Likewise, this is no glossy, picture-filled tome – ironic in a way as the author’s background is in the visual media. Instead, there are simple line drawings by Nici Holland while the hessian-like feel of the cover has a tactile quality that makes you want to caress it.
What brings these often overlooked ingredients to life is the quality of the writing. There’s an almost lyrical element as Lawrence describes his relationship with vegetables from work on his allotment to inspiration in the kitchen. We hear of the first seeds “snuggled in pots of compost”, onions and shallots are “buried to their necks in fine soil” while “every row, plant, every flower is a recipe-in-waiting”. In this joy for the raw ingredients he has a passing resemblance to Nigel Slater, one of the many well-known chefs with whom he has worked as a television producer.
He has, he tells us, three motivations for “digging in the rain”: price, the need to eat less meat and concerns over waste. Yet a fourth comes through more strongly than these: flavour. From tasting the sunshine in tomatoes to the subtleness of leeks his enthusiasm for each ingredient is evident.
The book walks us through the seasons from the early promise of asparagus and broad beans, through the inevitable glut of summer and eating “the same crop every day for a fortnight” to the mellowness of autumn and the squash family “little parcels of sunshine and hope” on the black earth, to the sparseness of winter. Learning to appreciate the seasons is, he argues, essential if we are to eat well.
“When you hum the same tune as nature – get into its rhythm – then you will learn to savour produce at its very best.”
Each chapter of the book begins with an overview of what the season holds and his work on the allotment before moving into a series of recipes – punctuated by short sections on individual vegetables – that show how to make the most of what is on offer.
Some are simple; arguably salad leaves with a mustard dressing barely constitutes a recipe. Others are familiar, such as potato pieces roasted with tomatoes, garlic and rosemary, rhubarb crumble or sticky sausages. However, there are more that are unfamiliar, making this a voyage of discovery for even the most experienced amateur cook. All are comfortingly straightforward without obscure ingredients or hours of preparation and will tempt even the most reluctant veg eater to the table.
We tried the ‘Baked Honey Salmon Fillet with Celeriac Puree’, as I still had celeriac in my veg plot. It was a wonderful mix of sweet and slightly sour while pureeing the celeriac elevated this sadly underrated vegetable to fine dining status.
As the year passes, we learn a little of the author and his family from the rocket-inspired proposal to his now wife to his mint phobia and his eldest son’s superhero plans. His description of the groans that accompany the discovery of yet another would-be marrow and his children’s reaction to a daily diet of courgette are familiar to anyone who has ever grown this prolific crop. “Culinary creativity is the saviour,” he tells us.
Growing vegetables is hard work and at times, when the weather is against you and the pests are rampant, disheartening. But the joy of eating something you’ve grown is “one of life’s most satisfying and fundamental pleasures”.
This optimism and anticipation is what permeates every page of this book and which is ultimately what keeps us all growing. As Lawrence says: “When you have a spade in your hand, there’s always something to look forward to.”
• The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
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