by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown
I used hate the last grey bits of winter. I used to believed that the summer was lazy and hazy just like the song said. My body clock thought 5 am was bedtime not wake up time. I used to have gloriously long, varnished nails. And then it happened. Jared and I became smallholders.
It all started, back in 2001, when we took a country cottage situated forty miles from Oxford for Christmas week. It was standard Cotswold fare: cozy bed, Cotswold stone walls and floors, roaring fireplace, lovely pub two miles away with its own skittle alley and marvellous local ales on tap. To us, it was heaven incarnate. We lived in Manhattan back then. It took until 2010—a whole decade—for us to finally realise our addiction and our need to feed it.
Addiction? Yes, you have to call it that. It was an addiction to fresh-from-the-chicken eggs, perfect for making Eggs Benedict and Egg Sours. It was the eye-rolling richness of fresh-from-the-hedgerow raspberries puréed into sauce for grilled meats and gently transformed with vinegar into the perfect shrub for champagne cocktails. We had become addicted to “fresh-from” anything that was grown in good country soil.
When we moved into this eighteen-century cottage with its long-abandoned kitchen garden, we were ready for the challenge. The first month was part archaeological dig of Victorian china teacups, rusted farm implements, and an astounding array of clay pipes mixed with part geological study on how to turn hard clay deposits and former burn sites into rich, fertile growing compost.
Out came the graph paper and notebooks. Long searches through seed catalogues in front of a winter fire and rolling newspaper growing pots for seeds whilst it rained and sleeted outside were broke by trips to purchase essential tools. We discovered that working a ton of manure and topsoil into hand-built raised beds is better than three hours doing weight at the gym. Those lazy, hazy summer days are punctuated with contemplative weeding, slug hunting, and toting gallons of water pumped from our water barrel that was a former whisky cask.
There are staples in what is now our seventh growing season Borage for garnishing summer cups with its cucumber-y splendour has become a welcome “weed” that re-propagates itself year after year. Wormwood shrubs tower two-metres tall, providing a fresh infusion for Gin & Wormwood cocktails during the summer and dried for inclusion in homemade vermouth in the autumn. Corsican mint serves as ground cover before it is snipped as garnish for Grasshoppers and distilled for homemade crème de menthe.
Three nurtured blackcurrant bushes yield over fourteen kilos of fruit each year: perfect for fermenting into a rich wine and processing into crème de cassis. Assorted wild and cultivated strawberries, gooseberries, and two varieties of raspberries keep us occupied within the confines of our garden. Behind the house rises a hill of hedgerows that offers even more temptation: blackberries, bullace plums, elderflowers, hawthorns, the list is endless.
The Supremes—our three Black Star chickens—joined us two years ago. They yield huge, golden-yellow-yoked eggs that serve as the core for Egg Nogs, Flips, and those Egg Sours I mentioned earlier. They also do double-duty as crop protectors who snap up invader snails as a special treat.
Granted, we do grow peas and garlic. But why waste precious garden space on growing potatoes which are far cheaper in the shops and lettuce that only ends up feeding the local rabbit population? We prefer raise hard-to-find plants that serves a dual purpose: one for the plate and one for the glass.
Will we ever tire of getting sweaty, dirty, achy, and bruised from all this year-round activity? Only if we ever get tired of the taste and overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that happens when you sip a glass of something that travelled that amazing road from ground to glass.