While my wife, Rohan and I were spending a few weeks in the wintry antipodes (see Reconnecting Down Under), the plants in our Brittany garden were enjoying a summer heatwave. Friends regularly watered them, so the sun, which elsewhere was causing mayhem, simply helped our vegetables mature. On our return, the tomato plants were over two metres high and heavy with fruit. The maize was even higher with its beards beginning to darken and, on the ground, giant cucumbers were invading the paths. The most exuberant plants, however, were the root vegetables and, of these, it was the onions and the beetroots that were particularly luxuriant.
Setting aside the glories of the garden, being back meant that once again I could feel properly orientated – at last I knew where I was in space. I had just spent two weeks living in the astronomically back-to-front world of Australia where the sun moves across the sky from right to left and at midday is at its peak in the north. I know that many won’t understand what I am bothering about, but looking down our garden to watch the sun move across the sky from left to right meant that stability was restored. With my compass set right I could relax*.
Returning to the vegetable garden, for looks, size, number, taste, familiarity and overall sturdiness, the prize for ‘best root vegetable’ in 2018 goes to our onions. This year the crop was larger, and the individual bulbs bigger than ever before. As always, we had planted Roscoff onions, a variety that comes from farms around 100 kilometres to the north of us and which has been grown there since the 1600s. Their familiar plump shape, warm, golden surface and tasty pink insides that quickly melt on cooking, make them very special. Apart from being loved in Brittany, they have a place in British life too. It was Roscoff onions that, for years, were plaited and draped over handlebars and sold in England by ‘Onion Johnnies’ from Brittany.
And there is more; the Roscoff onion, like onions generally, is sturdy – it is one of the few vegetables that looks after itself. They resist drought, don’t need tying up, and are not eaten by slugs or snails. They also resist decay; when hung in strings from the ceiling they last well into the following year. What more can one ask?
Finally, to the gaff – had I thought ahead I could have avoided the flood of tears in our five-year old neighbour. During the summer the house next door is let to families. From their car registration and their language our recent neighbours had to be Swiss Germans. We can see very little of what happens on the other side of the fence, but noises do spread and the predominant sound was of children chatting, playing and occasionally squabbling. Although we couldn’t understand what was said, it gradually became clear that there were two – one bossy, the other more withdrawn.
A few days into their stay I went round, introduced myself, and asked the mother of the family if she would like a beetroot – we had a bumper crop which we would like to share. As she was accepting my offer she was joined by two girls, one around seven (the bossy one) the other five. I suggested that all three might like to come over and pick a beet for themselves. The mother spoke to them in Swiss German and after some negotiation told me that the two girls had decided that they would like to go without her.
Holding hands they followed me through a narrow gap in the hedge and then across the 10 metres to the vegetable patch where we carefully chose a beetroot and pulled it out of the ground. They then ran back together to present the beetroot to their mother. In fact, it was the older girl who chose, carried, and then presented the quarry. The little one, who had never actually touched the beetroot, turned her back on her mother, walked slowly away and burst into tears; being excluded yet again was clearly too much.
After a brief chat with the mother I walked back to the allotment with the younger child where, with great intent, she picked her own beetroot and then carried it back. She gave it to her mother and with a shy smile turned to me and very gingerly said ‘Thank you’. She had, her proud mother told me, just started learning English at school.
As a gardener, having a bumper harvest made me feel very fulfilled. As a father and now a grandfather, I felt silly for not having thought to give the two sisters one beetroot each. Here was a naïve gaffe if ever there was one.
* In French, the word for a compass is a ‘boussole’. The word ‘déboussolé’, the state of being bereft of a compass, means to be disorientated.
The photograph illustrating this essay shows this year’s crop of onions drying on the garden wall.