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In the forest kitchen garden

Permaculture books telling you how to grow things abound. They are many, varied and wonderful. For some reason, however, permaculture books telling you how to EAT what you grow in interesting, creative and delicious ways are not, in fact, very abundant. This is a pretty serious gap, given that in many cases, it is actually easier for people to take up gardening than it is to fully figure out what to do with the abundance of things they produce. While most of us know what to do with an occasional handful of kale or greenbeans, the culinary education (poor and limited) of most of us just isn’t prepared for a garden’s bounty. Add in the more unusual perennial crops that come with forest gardening, and what you get is a lot of food waste, at least so I often see.

This is important for several reasons. First of all, people who grow food but don’t eat it eventually get bored with gardening and quit. The same is true with CSA customers or other local foods customers who find themselves overwhelmed or unable to use unfamiliar food – they stop buying local food and turn back to the grocery store where you can get those familiar green beans all year round in non-scary quantities. Moreover, making perennial and forest crops viable, and large scale forest agriculture viable depends on changing people’s eating habits – they have to start eating chestnuts and quinces and walking onions in quantities large enough to justify planting not the occasional yard, but acres to them. We know that perennial landscapes can produce a LOT of food, that diversified plantings are more productive per acre than grain monocultures – but we have to find viable markets for the kinds of foods they produce – that means training and teaching eaters on the value of those foods.

The good news is that change can happen in the food sector of society more quickly than almost anywhere else – everyone has an interest in food on some level, and if you can get the larger food community to pick up on something cool and tasty, you can literally change the world – consider, for example, the growth of organic agriculture, in large part in response to the demands of eaters.

There are a lot of good food books out there that have important points of intersection with the permaculture movement – consider, for example, Sandor Katz’s _The Art of Fermentation_ or my own _Independence Days_, but there’s a real gap in the literature about what to do with your perennial crop harvests on any scale – both preserving and daily eating. A lot of what is out there isn’t very good, to be honest – 70s style nut-loafish kinds of recipes that simply aren’t very exciting. Yes, you can eat them, but you can’t build a food movement on them.

That is what makes Mark Diacono’s _The Food Lover’s Garden_ so useful. Diacono is the head gardener at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s _River Cottage_, which should be a really good clue that this is going to be useful. The various River Cottage cookbooks are among the best cookbooks out there in creative, exciting, foodie-style use of foraged, perennial, unusual and seasonal foods anyway. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Diacono has written the first book that does a really good job of integrating cooking and gardening of unusual, and mostly perennial food plants.

The book’s philosophy is clear from the beginning – Diacono thinks it makes sense for most small gardeners to devote their space to food that can’t be bought for love or money – those things that you HAVE to grow yourself because they aren’t available in the market. If you grow other things, grow expensive things you couldn’t afford to buy (or buy as much of as you’d want). He states flatly that he thinks gardeners should stop growing potatoes and cabbage.

Now I wouldn’t go that far, but I recognize the value of a provocative thesis, and the idea that you should get the greatest flavor and economic bang for your buck is one I generally agree with for a lot of gardeners. He picks an unusual mix of crops that he sees as underutilized and tells you to grow them – and then what to do with them. The good thing is that the recipes aren’t the usual basic afterthought recipes appended to gardening books whose primary interest is plants – these are ways to learn to LOVE these foods – think lamb and quince tagine, pickled green walnuts, salsify rosti, autumn-olive gin, rhubarb kulfi and hot and sour daylily soup.

The book is idiosyncratic – his taste in unusual crops, and obviously suited to a moderate British climate, but it will have some interesting ideas for everyone. I’ve never tried growing Szechuan peppercorns, but I will now. Without really emphasizing the term “permaculture” the book essentially argues for the creation of home food forests – not on the grounds of optimization, but on the grounds that if you don’t, you are missing out on some amazing tastes. Armies are not the only thing that moves on its stomach – as various food movements of the last 30 years have shown, so does much of our larger culture. This is a very wise way to make change.

Most books about how to eat from any garden, annual, perennial, unusual, usual…they all repeat the same dull recipes. If you already knew you could roast root vegetables, pickle green beans, or put (gasp!) any fruit at all in a tart or crisp, you won’t find a lot to challenge the reasonably kitchen-literate, or really inspire someone who wants to put dinner on the table out of the garden not just for themselves but for a couple of kids and a picky spouse. There are some important exceptions, but I’ve often wondered why, when the farmer’s market and garden are so glorious and exciting, so many of the local eating books are a tedious read that doesn’t make me want to cook anything. This book isn’t primarily a cookbook, but like all the River Cottage books, represents a start on a larger project that needs a lot more participants.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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