Friday, 25 May 2012

Planting acorns

When I was a very young girl I once read a book that described a vegetable garden full of the lushest salad. A character in the story could see the garden from her window but she could not enter. She longed for the salad, dreamed about the salad, grew sick from a lack of tasting the salad. This is an old, much loved story, but for years I couldn't remember what the book was called. I just remembered the salad. I longed for the salad, dreamed about the salad. Thankfully, I didn't grow sick from not tasting the salad. But I did give up hope of ever finding the book. When the Internet came along I regularly googled the words 'salad', 'garden', 'story', to no avail. I asked my mum if she could remember the story and questioned friends. A few said it seemed familiar, but could help no further. When my children were born I spent much time in second hand book shops looking for the elusive tale. Then one day, I started to read my daughter Rapunzel, the famous story of the girl with long tresses, locked up in a tower. And there it was, the desperate pregnant woman craving the luxuriant, green, thick, fresh herb. Craving it so much that she agrees to give up her child in order that she might taste it.

Rapunzel, Paul O. Zelinsky (Penguin)Rapunzel, Paul O. Zelinsky (Penguin)

In the book we own now, the salad is in fact a herb called Rapunzel. The woman "made a salad of the roots and greens, and devoured it with a wild hunger. So intensely delicious was the taste that she nearly fainted as she ate." Can you imagine? This image left an imprint on my childish mind that stayed with me for 30 years. I still long for that bloody salad, knowing that it will always be out of reach to me. But I have that story to thank, I'm sure, for a life long passion for food.

Recently, I've been working on a food buying co-operative idea with friends. We've started taking deliveries of some truly lovely fresh vegetables and salads from some fantastic growers with organic principles and strong ethics. I am very happy indeed about this development. I've always tried to buy the best quality food for my family, but on a tight budget, I've often compromised. Now, I don't have to. Because we are many, we are able to negotiate good discounts. It is a total win, win.

Regular readers will know that I'm keen on nature and that my love for trees in particular and other wildlife filters through to my work. I've also been following the exploits of guerilla gardeners for a couple of years. (It is funny to me how guerillas, once associated with warfare and fighting, have been reworked into just slightly edgy but totally nice artists, knitters or gardeners) Even though I have absolutely no gardening skills whatsoever, or maybe because of it, the idea of growing plants, especially food crops in random areas in the urban environment, on unused grass verges or patches of wasteland really appeals to me. And then, I discovered this book, by accident, as I was looking for a gift for a friend. It sort of said everything.

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono (The Harvill Press)

The blurb on the back cover explains, "Jean Giono's beautiful allegorical tale is legendary. Written in the 1950's, its message was ahead of its time, inspiring readers to rediscover the harmonies of the countryside and prevent its wilful destruction." It is the story of a solitary shepherd who spends his life planting acorns, and grows a forest. It is thirty pages of loveliness. The shepherd changes his whole environment and that of the surrounding communities. "The ruins had been tidied up, crumbling walls knocked down, and five old houses rebuilt. The hamlet now had twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young couples. The new houses were freshly roughcast and surrounded by kitchen gardens where rows of both vegetables and flowers grew: cabbages mingled with rose bushes, leeks with snapdragons, celery with anemones. It had become a place where one would wish to live." I would live there in a second. And I really want some of that celery. And the the leeks. I'm actually longing for them.