‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816 ‘The Horticultural Fate’ dedicated to the Rainer Family by Paul Pry, c. 1829
I have but three creatures in the world over whom I have a right to exercise any government, a foolish dog, a restive horse and a perverse gardener… In this small dominion I meet with as many difficulties as ever an indolent monarch did. The dog uncontrolled is for ever running after sheep, or jumping on me with dirty paws; the horse will by no possible persuasion go over the same ground twice; and the gardener is demolishing my beds of flowers, which I meant to have had enlarged. - Catherine Talbot 1747
When I took up gardening, about 12 years ago, I entered a world dominated by women. They looked after the National Gardens Scheme and they were in charge of the RHS shows.
Most of my dahlias are safely out of the ground and tucked up in pots in their shed for the winter. Those that I’ve left in the ground have been given a deep covering of cow manure to protect them from the frost. All, that is, except for the tree dahlias, which are impervious to the early frosts and will carry on flowering until well into the new year. The first few weeks of winter this year has been pretty horrid, with a series of sharp frosts and some hefty storms, but that hasn’t deterred the tree dahlias, which have continued to thrive.
In 2003 Matt and Magda Wilczynski had good jobs in their home town of Cracow, Matt working as a paint sprayer in a garage, Magda as a biochemist in a lab. But they read that the minimum wage in England was due to rise to £4.20 a hour and that was enough incentive for them to throw up their jobs and make the move to England. They applied to work for me at the Damson Dene hotel, Matt as a handyman/gardener and Magda as a waitress.
One of the taboos drummed into every visitor to Japan is that you mustn’t blow your nose in public. The Japanese find it disgusting. They overcome the problem by sniffing, which is merely irritating. It comes as a surprise to Westerners who are attuned to the heightened sensibilities of the Japanese to discover that they find nothing wrong about slurping their food, in fact they positively relish it, the noisier the better. There’s a technique to it, which I’ve never mastered, but the place to practice is in a noodle restaurant.
When I spotted the restaurant sign saying “Slow Food Slow Life” I just had to eat there. Peeking inside, I could see that it was packed with young Japanese and no tables were free. But I went back the following evening, nice and early and grabbed a table. This was Okayama, off the beaten track, and none of the waiting-on staff spoke English. But a friendly crowd at the next table told me that the set menu consisted of a selection of Okayama specialities, so of course I ordered that. The photo below shows the first course. I’ve no idea what it was, and I can’t say it was delicious, but it was good to try it. Several more courses followed, including diced ham, and noodles with sliced pork, all of it good. The menu, for anyone who can read Japanese, is reproduced below. The cost of 3,500 yen equates to £21. The idea of Slow Food/Slow Life is very appealing to the Japanese. The Slow Food movement is more popular in Japan than anywhere in the world outside Italy, and it’s easy to see why, because, like Italy, Japan is dominated by small organic farms.
Cafe Bientot in Okayama is a cosmopolitan place. It has a French name, with an English-language menu, sells German beers and Italian food. They have a set lunch of soup, salad and a small calzone pizza for 600 yen (£3.65) but when I eat Italian in Japan I always go for the spaghetti vongole. In Japan, you can eat Italian, French or Chinese, just as in any other country, with one crucial difference – in Japan, the food is very rarely prepared by a native of the respective country – the chef will almost always be Japanese.
At posh restaurants (but not in Japan) the waiter will sometimes come round with a tray of live lobsters asking you to choose one. I’ve always suspected that this is a con, as you’ve no way of knowing whether the lobster which they bring you cooked is the one which you chose. There are no suspicions of this kind at the boat restaurant in Fukuoka, where you catch the fish yourself and you can watch it being cut up for you before being served raw to your table. It’s a favourite restaurant for children. The picture shows Max and his sister Maia, the children of my friends Phil and Yoko, gleefully celebrating a good catch which we later ate. The children were asked if they wanted the fish cooked, but insisted that we had it raw. This restaurant is more expensive than most – it cost £44 each, including booze, but for that you get a good deal of entertainment. The video below shows one of the chefs demonstrating how to take a largish fish and slice it into sashimi, without killing the fish first. It needs a firm hand to turn a fish into fillets while it’s squirming beneath the knife.
The idea of Slow Life is to take the principles of Slow Food, which are “good, clean and fair”, and extend them to life in general.
Here in the Lake District, the air is clean, the pace is slow and the atmosphere is calm. If we don’t grow food ourselves, we can buy it in friendly small shops, where you know the quality is going to be the best.
This blog is a celebration of the Slow Life, with forays into the world of design, music, the arts, gardens, and my particular weakness, Japan.