It’s funny what you envy.
I’m not bothered by your diamonds or designer labels but show me your allotment or garden and I will probably mutter a little before making my excuses and leaving, kicking your cat or running a sharp object along the door of your car on my way out.
It’s mainly because as a garden or allotment owner you are able to cultivate a hobby that results in something that you can eat. But it’s also about the fact that you have a sanctuary that you can escape to, perfectly legitimately: “Excuse me everyone, but I’ve got to water the veggie patch”. Green spaces are a real comfort zone. One day I will have one of my own.
Until then lusting over other people’s will just have to suffice. And this is what I found myself doing when we went for dinner at The Potting Shed pub in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The Potting Shed is in both The Sunday Times and The Independent‘s Top 50 places to eat. It’s a really charming gastro pub that feels original because the details have come out of a passionate imagination and not a corporate mission statement.
I don’t know what it is with nice pubs and small portions. Do they think people who like handwritten signs and the promise of local food, quirky art and vintage sofas, polished glasses and a sleepy dog by the fire also enjoy supermodel appetites? Not me.
I’m usually happy with the amount of protein on my plate, but I think it’s tight and silly to hold back on the carbs and vegetables. I was really looking forward to the seasonal greens and crushed new potatoes with my roast Cotswold free-range roasted chicken in port jus, but I could barely see them.
Gripes about portion sizes aside, the food was lovely, as I knew it would be. I could tell by the handwritten signs.
The pub is proud of using their own homegrown veggies and the menu suggests wandering through their veggie patch, so when the pub got too warm and my head got too swimmy I did exactly that.
The gravel beneath my feet crunched as I made my way to the allotment, car doors slamming around me as people arrive for their dinner. I spend a few minutes peering at the edible jungle through the chicken wire fence until I realise that I there is an open door next to me and I creep in, feeling like the girl in The Secret Garden.
Instantly the atmosphere is different. This is the calmest space I have been in for ages, but it also hums with life. The air is soft. I look around; loving the order that belies the chaos of the twisted vines, and the purpose behind the beauty of the flowers. It makes me realise how much time and effort goes into getting vegetables onto a plate; no wonder the portions are so small!
I also realise that I can barely identify anything around me.
I can make out the kale, the mangetout, the cabbage. I can spot the lettuces, because they look the same in the shops, and I know what a zucchini flower looks like. I’m not as bad as the young man behind the till in the supermarket earlier this week, who held up a beetroot from the conveyor belt and said: “Sorry to be annoying, but can you tell me what this is?” But in this allotment, I’m only one step ahead of him.
What do I love most in this garden?
The scarecrow that looks like he is dancing for the entertainment of his crops, knees bent, jiving away. The crop that stuns me the most – artichoke – reaching up proudly to the sky like an alien flower, recognisable and so desirable. I want some. This is my forbidden fruit, the apple to my Eve and the truest test of my moral fibre.
The rows of rainbow kale. The huge, generous leaves of a sturdy cabbage. The delicate snowdrop-like stems of something that confuses me, until I trail my hand down to the dirt and find bulbs of garlic.
It is enchanting. But before long, everyone streams out of the pub, I hear my name being called, and it’s time to go home.
As I close the chicken-wire fence behind me I can almost hear a whisper from the plants.
Envy is green, they tell me. It has tough, fibrous leaves that wrap themselves, layer upon layer, tight around your greedy heart.