A book review - A Taste of the Unexpected
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.