It’s a miserable day in March and I’m standing on a tiny, weed-infested patch of ground. Around me are 20 or so similarly uninspiring little plots, all overlooked by a block of flats, a fish and chip shop and a mobile mast. And yet I couldn’t be happier—at last I have my very own allotment and a chance to grow my own fruits and vegetables (I’m not counting the time in Delhi when I lived briefly in a farmhouse and gave the gardener seeds for a range of Mediterranean vegetables but was surprised several weeks later to find he had planted nothing but methi).
For most of my life, allotments have been deeply unfashionable: the preserve of grumpy old men growing prize marrows and pottering in their sheds. But recently, thanks to increased interest in healthy eating and concern about food miles and pesticides, people, many of them young and female, have been clamouring for a little place to grow their own. There are currently around 100,000 people waiting for an allotment in the UK—I had almost given up hope after languishing on the waiting list for over seven years.
The person who had the allotment before me seems to have thrown in the towel in the middle of last year, so on that early spring morning, armed with a brand new set of garden tools, I started to tackle a year’s worth of weeds. It was back-breaking work but that day I experienced my first great allotment joy when I discovered some perfect red-skinned potatoes in the ground. It was as if they had just been sitting there all winter waiting for me to find them, a horticultural baton being passed from the person who had put them there.
To honour this precious gift I took them home and decided to make my favourite potato dish, the simple but luxurious Gratin Dauphinois. I paid attention to every detail of preparing this buried treasure—peeling them slowly; choosing a special dish for them to bake in; partnering them with locally produced butter and cream from the farmers’ market.
As I prepared the dish, I thought of my predecessor at the allotment, his or her hard work that had brought the potatoes to my kitchen. My family devoured the Gratin Dauphinois and agreed they were the best potatoes we had ever tasted. A very good omen, I hope, for harvests to come.
I know this might not seem the obvious choice for the hot months in India but Gratin Dauphinois can be assembled in a few minutes. It can then be left to its own devices in the oven while you retreat to somewhere cooler and leave the magic to happen in the oven. In my Delhi kitchen, the malai (cream) from the top of the milk used to make a wonderful Dauphinois.
1 fat clove of garlic
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 150 degree Celsius. Peel the potatoes and slice very thinly, then rinse in cold water. Dry the potatoes in a clean tea towel. Peel and finely slice the garlic. Generously butter an oven dish. Layer the potatoes and garlic, seasoning well with salt and pepper between layers. Pour over the cream. Dot the surface of the potatoes with little pieces of butter. Bake for about one-and-a-half hours until the potato is soft and the surface is golden brown.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.