I gave up my beloved allotment plot, the Circus Garden, last year, after an unfortunate accident that had left me incapacitated for several weeks. It had happened at the worst time of the year, just when I should have been out preparing the ground, sowing seeds and planting crop seedlings. As I slowly recovered from my injuries the weeds, of course, had a field day.
Once I began to feel better, and after much agonising, I decided to give up the plot. The time and effort needed to restore it to its former glory felt beyond me in my weakened state.
Instead I agreed with my wife Sara that I would take on responsibility for maintaining our garden at home (for years she had reluctantly but diligently mowed the lawn and tended the garden whilst I had been off pottering contentedly around the Circus Garden).
So, once I was fully back on my feet, I set about imposing myself on our garden. When we first moved in here, over ten years ago, I had laid the back garden to lawn, so that our children could run around, playing football, cricket, trampolining and the like. Now all but one of the children has flown the nest, so I decided it was time for a more “grown up” garden. I dug up a sizeable section of the lawn to make way for fruit and vegetable plots, which I am interspersing with bee-friendly flowers and shrubs.
Sara was delighted that I’d finally liberated her from responsibility for the garden, and for a long time she seemed incurious as to what I was actually doing out there.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before Christmas, when a consignment of raspberry canes were delivered to the house, that she finally began to realise what I was up to.
“You’re turning our garden into your allotment aren’t you?” she said, accusatorially. I held my hands up but reassured her that by the summer it would look lovely out there, with a mixture of flowers, fruit and vegetables, “like a potager garden” I told her.
Now, as the weather warms up and the buds come out, the pressure is on for me to deliver.
It was once, of course, common practice in Britain for families to grow fruit and vegetables in their gardens in this way. Now, just a few generations on, the patience and wisdom involved in sowing, reaping, weeding and harvesting are regarded as unnecessary when the supermarket shelves are always plentiful.
It’s a shame, because this is not the way they do things in other countries. In Russia, for example, it is still regarded as the norm for families to grow their own fruit and vegetables, so much so that home grown produce makes up over a third of the country’s total production of fruit and vegetables. Similarly, it has been estimated that as much as 90% of the fresh produce consumed in the Cuban capital Havana is grown in gardens and local urban farms.
It’s a shame that so many of we Brits now seem to consider ourselves above growing our own produce. Those of us who do have an allotment or a vegetable garden will know and understand the thrill of growing, preparing and eating food you have grown yourself.
It’s a liberating experience to wander through your garden or allotment plot, seeing what is ready to harvest and picking totally fresh produce (free from pesticides and other harmful chemicals) that you have carefully nurtured: infinitely more satisfying than a humdrum trip to the local store or supermarket to buy “fresh” produce that has taken days, weeks or even months from being picked to reaching the shelves.
One of the more unlikely vegetables I grow each summer is the chickpea.
I began doing so as an experiment a few years ago, each season selecting the healthiest, most productive plants to use for sowing next year’s seeds, so that now I have a stock of chickpeas that are perfectly happy growing in the temperate climate of middle England. They also happen to feature in this week’s recipe.
Whilst on holiday in Sicily last year Sara and I found a delightful vegetarian-friendly restaurant in Syracuse. As I scoured the menu my eyes quickly settled on one particular starter – chickpea soup with rosemary oil – but when I tried to order it I was told they had run out.
Hugely disappointed, I was determined to have that soup one way or another, so here is my version. I’ve no idea how it compares to the Sicilian version that I never had, but I can confirm that it tastes utterly wonderful.
You could use tinned chickpeas as a shortcut, but for me this is a dish that works best with home cooked chickpeas.
chickpea soup with rosemary oil
250 g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, cooked until just tender, drained, and rinsed
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
½ tsp sea salt
1.2 litre vegetable stock
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the rosemary oil
250 ml extra virgin olive oil
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
to garnish (optional)
roast chickpeas (follow the method in this recipe, omitting the smoked parika)
1. First make the rosemary oil. Pour 250 ml olive oil into a saucepan and add the rosemary sprigs. Place over a medium to low heat. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting as soon as the oil starts to bubble. Continue to cook gently at this low setting for 15 minutes then remove from the heat and leave to cool and infuse. When cool, pour the oil through a muslin cloth or fine sieve into a suitable container, discarding the rosemary sprigs. Any oil you don’t use in this recipe can be kept for a further 2-3 weeks and can be used to add a lovely flavour to salad dressings.
2. For the soup, pour 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until it has become soft and translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook, stirring, for a further two minutes. Next add the drained and rinsed chickpeas, stock, bay leaf, rosemary and sea salt. Bring to a simmer then reduce the heat to low, place a lid over the pan and cook for a further 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes.
3. Remove the rosemary and bay leaf from the soup then process in a blender until smooth. You will need to do this in batches.
4. Reheat the soup before serving. Ladle into bowls and top with a drizzle of the rosemary oil, and a few roasted chickpeas.