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As a child, I loved watching my father lose himself completely in his vegetable garden. It lay on the eastern side of our house as he walked around it, and each bed and plant was meticulously placed taking into account the sun’s trajectory, so that they had sunlight and shade as needed. Often, he would stop in front of a particular tree or bed for what seemed, to my impatient concept of time, like hours! It was almost as though he was communicating with them without words, praising them and lovingly egging them on to growing well.
One of the two plants that fascinated me were the grapevines, climbing and growing in long rows supported on wires with iron angles in between and the ends. It was magical to see the tiny bunches of grapes grow into clusters of watery green as well as deep purple marbles. My father would personally harvest the grapes, gently cutting them off the vine, and then start the exciting process of making a juice from these beauties. Little did I know then that the yellowish golden and burgundy liquid that filled the bottles in our basement was not juice at all! Till today, I have some of the large glass carboys my father used to make wine from those vines.
The second plant was the pretty and delicate asparagus, planted in a large bed in the centre of the garden, raised higher than that of other vegetables. My father would give them extra care, and almost pampered them with attention. They were real beauties, with feathery fern-like leaves, rising about 4 feet high. It was wondrous to see the asparagus sprout from the ground, little by little till the spear-like stalks were about 8 to 10 inches high. Then my father would cut these spears at an angle from the ground and, in the evening, we would have the precious crop steamed with a generous dribble of melted butter. I remember being taught to eat them with my hand, instead of a fork and knife: Just pick up a stalk and start eating it from the top all the way down to till the stringy part, almost at the bottom, and often not even that. I guess this is when my love for good things in life started!
We moved from that house, leaving behind all those wonderful asparagus plants, as well as the grapevines, which had grown beautifully gnarled with age. Then, in the late 1980s, I went away to study in California and returned three years later with a degree in landscape architecture—and 30 crowns of asparagus. The delicately flavoured bulb-and-stem vegetable is grown from “crowns”—one-year-old plants—and can take up to three years to fruit, but the wait is certainly worth the while. The crowns I brought back were carefully planted in the centre of the vegetable patch of our new home. It was a few years before we saw the green spears unfurl into a lacy canopy of foliage, but the plants are perennial – which means the same plants survive and fruit for up to 30 years with care and communion, as provided by my father.
Now, more than 50 years after I saw my first asparagus and grapevine, my vegetable garden is not as well manicured as it was when my father was alive; neither does it yield the bounty it did when he was the caretaker. It has a slightly unruly look—call it organic, if you will—but there are still beds of herbs and vegetables and fruit trees including mango, mulberry, chikoo and jamun, as well as seasonal exotica such as celery, broccoli and varieties of lettuce in the cooler months. But the constant from my childhood are the asparagus we planted more than 20 years ago, and a few vines of grape which are now very often lovingly spoken to in cajoling tones. Every monsoon, I look forward to the asparagus spears and wait to eat the first slender green ones in the simplest possible way, just lightly steamed in a wide pan with a lid, still with a slight crunch on them, or made into a pale green creamy soup or as a stuffing for a fluffy omelette, sautéed in butter and garlic.
I use tender grape leaves—protected fiercely against insects, bacteria and fungus—to make those little bites of heaven, the traditional Greek Dolmades, stuffed with a delicious and fragrant rice mix with herbs, shaped into little rolls and steamed until succulently tender. And so, in spite of the lower yield in varieties and quantities in the vegetable garden, the asparagus and the grapevine continue to keep alive the incredible memories between my father and I – and that is worth every lost vegetable.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.