Farmer’s wife and mother of three Ann Bowyer recalls how her childhood influenced her own family’s food traditions and the creation of a kitchen garden for the farmhouse table.
I grew up with a big garden filled with vegetables, soft fruits and an orchard. My mum herself grew up during the Second World War when living on a farm must have been a big bonus in having enough food to eat.
My childhood was spent on the farm my mum and sisters had grown up on near Saffron Walden, in Essex, and we too ate a lot of what came from the garden.
Regular shoots across the farm in the winter months saw partridges, pheasants and hare make their way onto the family table, while rabbit and pigeon were often included into our diet. My dad fished in the river running through the farm, so trout featured heavily through the summer months.
As the year went round, we would wait for the next thing to come into season: picking pods of sweet green peas and eating them raw when no one was looking or pulling young carrots to crunch on after rubbing the dirt off on the grass; ripe red currants which looked like fish eyes, green gages and in autumn the bitter smell of walnuts collected after getting home from school.
Family gatherings were always a memorable part of my childhood and family members would contribute their signature dishes – cheese, scones, apple cake, Scotch pancakes (one aunt had married a Scot) and my mum’s chocolate sponge. Christmas was always a big gathering and a big feast – my dad made a new dining room table one year to fit everyone around.
And when the deep freezer arrived there were no longer sweet jars of salted runner beans through the winter. Vegetable and fruit production was stepped up to fill the chest and England winning the World Cup in 1966 will be remembered more as the whole family sat round podding peas for the freezer than for Geoff Hurst’s winning goal.
"what is more satisfying than planting a tiny seed, watching it grow and enjoying eating and sharing it?"
Being the youngest of five girls my grandmother had not spent much time with my mum in the kitchen, so mum was always happy for me to cook and experiment with new things. Home economics classes at school were a really good grounding and where I learnt the basics for much of what I still do now.
When I first moved to the town where we live now in Monmouthshire, I shared a house with another farmer’s daughter also used to having a vegetable garden at home. She and I had an allotment and after acquiring a load of muck from my later to be husband and lots of digging, we kept ourselves, and friends, in vegetables.
Once married and moved to the current farm we had no garden so, with two small children, and another soon to follow, we began to establish first a lawn and flower garden and then a vegetable garden.
What is more satisfying than planting a tiny seed, watching it grow and enjoying eating and sharing it?
The recipe for my sweet bread dough which can be used for all sorts of things.
Top tip: Whatever you make, cook at 180degC/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 30 minutes for a loaf and 20 minutes for smaller things.*Many people make the mistake of thinking bread has to be warm for the yeast to work and the bread to rise. The milk should be no more than blood heat – when you test it with your finger the milk is barely warm. When proving bread do not put it in the airing cupboard or stand it on a radiator – both are likely to be too hot. A warm kitchen is good, but most importantly place the dough in a draft free position. Bread will rise over night in the fridge.
Sunday lunch has always been important, especially in my husband’s family, because on a busy livestock farm every day can tend to follow the same pattern.
Stopping for lunch on Sunday, especially for those who do not spend the morning in the kitchen cooking it, slows the pace and makes Sunday different.
As my children grew up we would very often either all eat together at my in-law’s (my Gran made the best roast potatoes) or at our house. Special Sunday’s are those meals when you can say everything is home-grown from the beef to the vegetables and whatever fruit might be in the pudding.
While the children were away at university Sunday lunch became a lesser affair, but now there are more often than not family members at home and the opportunity is back to sit, eat and talk together.
Certain things are always made during the year because the produce is there. Peas are in risottos, sweetcorn into a relish to be enjoyed during the winter months, rhubarb goes into a meringue tart, green peppers and tomatoes are included in a mean spicy beef stew. The list can be endless.
I try, and usually fail to have something to gather from the garden all-year-round. The winter months are not so good, but very often summer is in the freezer.
In spring, when lambing and the farm has quietened down, I persuade other family members to deliver me a load of muck. Depending on the weather digging has been done or a tractor comes in to help.
Once the plot is rotovated and my seed order has arrived, the veg patch gets planted up. In autumn I will plant over-wintering broad beans, onion sets and garlic. The beans hopefully will be ready to pick in late June next year. I have already planted parsnips, leeks, lots of carrots, cabbages and broccoli to see us into this coming winter.
The best fun in the summer at about 6pm after a busy day is making a meal from what’s in the garden. Just being able to go out and pick something fresh, cook it and eat it.
Sometimes I think it is because I am lazy and not organised enough to plan shopping and meals. But really I would much rather go out in my garden and have some seasonal vegetables, than go to the shop to buy prepacked vegetables, which very often you cannot smell or touch, which have travelled miles and been picked for days.
I like to try new things and this year have grown purple climbing French beans – very attractive in the garden, but cook green. Florence fennel has been a success and will be grown again next year, while celeriac has yet to prove itself.
Like so many small rural towns our local market town no longer has a market and shops and the banks are closing. This is no good for sustaining rural life so we now have a country market, which is held every Thursday morning.
Local producers of cakes and savouries, preserves, crafts, fruit and vegetables, honey, plants and eggs come together to sell their wares.
Our market has become a busy place attended by people of all ages who come to buy, catch up with friends and chat over a cup of coffee.
Right from those cookery lessons at school I have loved making bread. How clever to put yeast with flour and water and end up with a beautiful, crusty, smelly loaf of bread.
My breadmaking commences on a Wednesday evening and every large bowl in the house is filled with something. Then I am up early the next morning to shape and cook the dough and usually the last person in the market ready for opening at 10am.
I always make white loaves and a second loaf which might be olive and herb, fruit, nut or seed of some sort or maybe sourdough. I make rolls and something sweet such as Chelsea buns, pains aux raisins or croissants.
That first half-an-hour at the market is very satisfying when the queue outside the door comes in and people tell you how glad they are to see you and how good last week’s whatever they had was, and ask if you have made some more.
The community comes together, I see and catch up with people from town I would not see otherwise, new people come in and make contact with the community.