A book review - A Taste of the Unexpected

I have been looking forward to reading and reviewing this book for ages.  Mark Diacono is the head gardener at River Cottage and runs his own garden at Otter Farm where he grows all sorts of exotic and unusual things: apricots, Japanese wineberries, Szechuan pepper and kai-lan are just a handful.  He also writes for The English Garden (pause for small "what about my Welsh garden" rant) and his are always amongst the articles I really read rather than skip over.  This is a book both about growing unusual things to eat and also about cooking them.  I love growing food, I love cooking it, I love eating it.  When the book came in the post it felt like Christmas.

I am a speed reader, a skipper and skitterer over things that bore me and an express train reader with things I like.  But I have taken my time with this.  It is a book so densely packed with ideas and information and written with so much knowledge and even love that it seemed wrong to take it at my usual gallop.  Even so I know there are things I will come back to and read again.  There is so much to take in.

There are sections on tree fruit, nuts, soft fruit, herbs and spices, beans and greens, leaves and flowers and unusual root crops.  One of my immediate thoughts was that I am already growing some of his recommendations which pleased me.  I have already planted mulberries and quinces and have lovage and rhubarb by the ton and globe artichokes grown from seed.  So there was a pleasing smugness in feeling that I have been dipping my toes in this water all by myself.  But my second and subsequent thoughts were about how much there is that I don't know and have never even heard of.  Every section contains at least one thing which I must have and must have now.  I can't remember ever having read a book which made me so keen to get right out there and plant things, certainly not a book about growing food rather than flowers.

The beauty of this book is that it both inspires you and takes you by the hand.  Here is Mark on mulberries:

"With its long, dark, succulent berries, the mulberry has everything you could want from a fruit.  The flavour is unlike any other - somewhere between blackcurrant and raspberry with a touch of sherbet thrown in.  Although sweet enough to be a favourite with children, there is a faint tartness to most varieties that lends them a more sophisticated roundness."

If you have eaten mulberries this hits the spot.  If you haven't I would be amazed if you could read this without wanting to try.  But alongside the inspirational stuff which makes you want to start making lists of new things to grow, there is much practical detail about how to cultivate and harvest, enough for you to make judgements about whether what you are reading about is a realistic proposition and for you to be able to get started if you think it is.  It is not a book which is simply aspirational, although it does make you aspire to new tastes and new experiences, it is, for all its glossy pages and beautiful photographs, a useful book too.  I was pleased to discover the cause of the speckling on the leaves of my newish quince tree (quince leaf blight apparently) together with a treatment for it. The advice at the end of the book on planting trees is first rate.  The information about the amount of space likely to be taken up by Jerusalem artichokes is just what I wanted to know.

Every section of the book includes recipes for the crops which are being recommended.  Without this it would be impossible to imagine some of the more unusual foods in use in your kitchen.  The recipe sections, interesting though they are,  don't have me drooling and reaching for my pen to add to the wishlist but they do make me feel that if I have a go at some of these things I will be back, crop in hand, for some help as to what to do with it.  In this, as in so many ways, the book feels as if it will become a long term friend, a book that stays by the bed or in the kitchen rather than goes back on the shelf.

So as you can tell I liked this book a lot.  I tried to look for weaknesses and criticisms and to be honest there is not much.  Perhaps the only thing which I would like to see, gardening as I do at height on thin soil, and not in the favoured South,  is a more detailed assessment of the hardiness and fussiness of some of the plants recommended.  This can be a bit patchy.  We are told for example that Carolina Allspice is hardy to -20C but there is not a lot of commentary on whether apricots, which clearly do well for Mark in the South West, could be expected to ripen in colder areas.   Still perhaps it is for us as gardeners to know our own soil and our own location and to make our judgements accordingly.  That is fine for reasonably experienced gardeners but might be a lot to ask of someone who has come more recently to growing things.  In the context of so much inspiration, so much practical help and so much energy and enthusiasm, this is a small quibble.

This is a fine book.  It looks beautiful.  It reads like a dream.  It tells you things you didn't even know you didn't know.  It makes you write lists and wander round your garden working out how to fit things in.  I love my copy far too much to be able to give it away so I will have to buy some more to give to my favourite veg growing people. That's Christmas sorted.


  1. Wow, that was a glowing review which I am really pleased about as I like what I have read from him in articles. Usn't it great when you find a book you can be so passionate about as to want to return to it again and again? x

  2. I feel guilty now for devouring it in one sitting and not savouring it like you have. You're so right - lists are being made, gaps eyed speculatively and an incredible urge to get going right now!

    Even if it is nearly 10 in the evening, pitch black outside and p*ssing it down with rain :)

    Re devouring books - I've had my come uppance today in the form of over 700 pages :o

  3. Mulberries and Quince - my two favourite and quintessentially medieval fruit! As it happens, tonight I cooked quince, and a few weeks ago, I was picking mulberries from an English churchyard. Lovely scrumping.

  4. There was a mulberry tree across our back fence when I was a kid. We'd climb it and eat, and eat, and eat, until we had purple chins and hands and shirt-fronts. We'd come home sticky and stained, and full. In the tropics they sweeten reliably and are utterly scrumptious. And if you crush green mulberries into your hands and rub them, the stains come off.
    Good thing this book is written for English gardens, or I'd have to run out and buy a copy... Thanks Elizabeth. And welcome back.

  5. As you say; a great book for Christmas. I was admiring a Mulberry tree last week; it's leaves are so glossy and dark, I want one for that alone. I shall plant one in early spring.

  6. haven't been able to buy this in Oz just yet, but your review is awesome - i like a book that can show you how to use your fruit.
    i suspect i'll be mail ordering this little gem :)

    funnily there is a huge mulberry at the local community centre - we gorged ourselves last autumn, with a bunch of mums curiously watching - they had no idea all that fruits was edible !

  7. MMMmmm, you make it sound such a tempting book.

  8. Damn - sounds wonderful but I daren't read it. I seem to have used up almost all my planting space so I may need to aquire a new garden to plant it all. Then again, I love Mark's writing, so perhaps I will buy it and pretend it's a work of fiction.

  9. Ooh, that sounds lovely - I shall add it to my Amazon wishlist post haste!

    It's sort of along the lines of what I'm trying to do at my allotment, i.e., grow the more unusual varieties in among the more common or garden. For example, this year I've grown yellow French beans, Crystal Lemon cucumbers, butternut squash, white pattypan squash and cavallo nero (black cabbage) so it's always good to see what else is available.

  10. oh to have your green fingers!!!

  11. Why isn't this available on Amazon yet? It says you can "pre order" it... but where did you get it then?

  12. Dear Elizabeth, This sounds a truly delicious read. I have exactly the person in mind to whom I can give it for Christmas. Thank you for highlighting it.

  13. It has gone on my wish list for Christmas.

  14. You got me with artichokes from SEED? I do lucky with my Orchards.
    I have just planted my delicious
    Macoun Apple seeds, in a small pot. I have 2 trees comming up.
    Darn it, I forgot what kind.As you
    can see I am lucky to do that right.LOL


  15. I shall try and get this in the library, thanks for the great review.

  16. Enjoyed your review, have a copy and can't wait to make a start :)

  17. I'll be checking out the onsite Book Depository as I'm pretty sure this isn't on the shelves over here. Since beginning to blog, I have tried things outside of the normal Canadian gardener comfort zone - gooseberries, nut trees and elderflower. I look forward to reading this book!

  18. What a great review, it is now on the book list and the Christmas present list!
    I felt really smug with myself yesterday when I went out to the veg patch and found the broccoli florets had all grown again, and as I was cropping them, there growing up the fence were...runner beans. I have never managed to grow them before, this year they grew, flowered and then seemed to produce nothing....that is until now, sooo tasty. You can#'t beat home grown.

  19. Fabulous book - sounds like it will be on a lot of people's Christmas list!
    Marcheline - it was out here on 30 September. Very poshly, I had a review copy a few days earlier, and didn't feel lucky!

  20. It does sound lovely. There is nothing quite like growing your own and I've missed mine this year. I have a few people who I'd like to send this to (as well as getting it for myself of course.)


  21. Whoops, amazing how one letter can change meaning. I meant "didn't I feel lucky"!

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