James Wong maintains that for too long, kitchen gardeners have been following rules laid down by the Victorians that were designed mainly to boost yields. Wong now wants to turn attention away from size and towards flavour. After all, he says persuasively, that is why we grow our own fruit and veg, isn’t it? To get better tasting food than we can buy in the shops.
He pitches straight in with tomatoes, an excellent choice of crop for reappraisal, as tomatoes, although a popular choice for growers, can be fussy and finicky to raise.
Wong’s approach is to distrust a lot of received wisdom and to start again from his own ethnobotanical viewpoint. A botany graduate who trained at Kew, he is at pains to stress the botany/chemistry principles that inform his ideas and the scientific trials that back up his findings.
About the tomatoes, he suggests doing away with the watering plans, the trimming and snipping and the pinching out that we spend so much time doing each summer. Instead he prescribes salt water and soluble aspirin, working to increase the flavour of each fruit, even if that means reducing the overall number of fruit. Better one delicious tomato than three disappointing ones, he reckons, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Wong goes on to similarly deconstruct our growing habits for salads, blueberries, beetroot, peas, carrots, corn, before moving on to less conventional crops such as edible flowers, grapes and sweet potatoes. He loses me a bit on beetroot, before I realise that the earthy beet flavour Wong complains about is precisely the thing I like about them. But my Secret Garden Club colleague MsMarmiteLover will be delighted to know that he has found a sweet, non-soily beetroot for her.
As well as radical growing advice, the book also contains some recipes, again leaning towards the unusual and impressive – the floral jams, pear in a bottle (a must-try, that one), truffle ciabatta and a fluorescent purple carrot cheesecake are hardly the stuff of quick ‘n’ easy suppers.
Wong writes informally and with verve, rattling off statistics and findings from trials at a brisk pace. The scientifically minded reader will appreciate the detail and the backing; if you’re more of a layman like me, you can simply be carried along by his enthusiasm. The book isn't all about using exotically new techniques to grow vegetables: there is some solid and fairly conventional advice about pruning, for example, and many of his recommendations are based around choosing specific varieties for the flavour you desire.
Thanks to this book, I now have added a persimmon tree to my shopping list for this season. Now to find somewhere to put it ...
Published by Mitchell Beazley, price £20.00