It was those trips to the Balkans that started it. As we hard-core Europhobes know, one of the main joys of leaving EU Europe is that the food tastes incomparably better wherever the writ of Brussels does not extend. Although the hard-skinned, white-membraned Dutch tomato has already started to colonise the humble Skopje salad in Bulgaria — agriculture in the bread baskets of Eastern Europe is being comprehensively closed down in preparation for EU membership — there are still pockets of resistance south of the Danube, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, where a cucumber does not taste the same as a carrot. There, I consume vegetables with something bordering on obsessiveness — a craving, indeed, which is equalled only by a concomitant dull rage back in England, where the only green beans on sale in mid-summer come from East Africa, and where all vegetables are stale and tasteless. A demanding palate demands exceptional measures, and so I decided to apply for an allotment.
Within a few months of having put my name on the waiting-list, Esther rang from the local association and said a plot was free. An appointment was fixed; it was a bright and crisp November Saturday morning. A short cycle-ride from the rumble of Hammersmith to the suburbs of Stamford Brook, and the payment of a £5 annual rental fee later, I was the proud tenant of a patch of earth the size of a sitting-room and a rather rusty filing cabinet which serves as a tool shed. The previous tenant of the plot had evidently devoted his Sunday-afternoon energies to burying hundreds of plastic bags from the local supermarket, but these were duly exhumed and seeds inserted in their place.
To enter the world of allotments is to enter a secret garden. Unlike some of the scrubbier allotments one occasionally glimpses from the Tube, our garden association is hidden from outside view, tucked behind the gardens of houses on either side. Surrounded by a high fence, this enchanted territory can be entered only after a formidable clanking of the padlock, and the swinging open of a heavy gate. But once inside, the smoke and the grime of London melt away like a bad dream. The gardens, which are situated on a disused railway track, compose a long and elegant strip of land which winds for a quarter of a mile or so; as you walk down the narrow path, the birds sing more musically and the air smells sweeter than in The Matrix Reloaded outside. Hollyhocks, roses, fruit trees, beans, sweet peas, chard, strawberries and artichokes grow in colourful and charming abundance.
Even the human beings are nicer. In fact, they transmogrify as soon as they push open the gate. The ingrained London rudeness is shed as swiftly as a snake’s skin, and instead a mantle of kindness and infinite charity slips effortlessly on to their shoulders. No compliment is too great for everybody else’s crop. ‘Good morning, good morning,’ they will say as they pass. ‘How wonderfully your beans are doing!’ — their simple desire to please making them quite blind to the tangle of weeds and the shrivelled snapdragon peas choking to death underneath them. Gardening is to the English what cooking is to the French — a deeply civilised and civilising pursuit which unites the whole population in gentle and loving camaraderie. The earth, you see, does not tell lies.
As Esther led me down to my plot on the first day, we passed an immense pile of horse manure and straw, steaming gently in the cold air. ‘I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for free manure,’ Esther chatted eagerly, ‘and so I rang them up. When the phone was answered, the person on the other end of the line said, “Buckingham Palace”. I thought it was a mistake. But this all comes from the Queen’s stables — and they even deliver it for free!’ If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the royal horse poo, now you know.
‘I’ve lived here since before time began,’ a well-spoken man in corduroys and a checked shirt said as he came up to me. ‘I remember when this was a railway. These allotments were probably built for the indigent poor over there,’ he said, waving vaguely in the direction of the council flats near the entrance. ‘But the indigent poor evidently decided they had better things to do. So the gardens have been taken over by the middle classes. Much like everything else, I suppose. Good day!’
He’s not absolutely right, but class distinctions evaporate anyway. Gordon and his wife are there every day, either doing odd jobs or whiling away the evening on a bench. So is Jim, the bright-eyed 70-year-old Irishman with a plot that bursts with flowers, who keeps his beer cold in the water tank, and who kindly looks after my plot during the week. Curiously, though, national distinctions persist — at least in terms of the crop yields. So, for instance, Antonio, who left the wastes of Calabria to come and work on a British conveyor-belt in the 1950s, and who speaks Italian almost as haltingly as he does English, has masses of rocket on his plot, which on my English plot next door remains obstinately anaemic and weedy. By the same token, a gentleman from the West Indies manages to grow astonishing sweetcorn every year, while the rest of us have to be content with a few diminutive cobs.
But apart from the human delights, there are the culinary ones too. Observing the miracle of plant growth may be surpassed only by observing that of children; but nothing can equal the sense of eating chard or broad beans fresh from one’s own garden. It produces an astonishingly energising effect, quite unlike that produced by food from the supermarket. And the power of taste and smell is everything it is cooked up to be: the bite of my first home-grown strawberry transported me so violently through space and time that it seemed I was again a six-year-old boy on my knees in the fruit cage of the Berkshire farm where I spent my childhood. I had quite literally never once tasted that unique taste in the intervening decades.
So absorbing, indeed, is the simple task of weeding and pottering about that hours become minutes and time slips by unnoticed. And so I trudge, my back hurting pleasantly and my limbs aching slightly, back along the path, as the sun sets and the air stills until, with a sense of infinite repose and achievement, the padlock clanks again and I cycle home.