The daffodils are out at last and it is warm today. Sunlight is casting shadows of bare branches across the lawn, catkins shiver in the breeze and birds are flirting and singing in the hedgerows. There is energy in the air and it's time to blow away the winter cobwebs and get busy.
Starnash is just a little smallholding but it serves us well enough. We have our veg patch and a little old orchard as well as a few chicken for fresh eggs. I'm firmly of the belief that you need just enough and no more, and if you look around you, what you need at the time is usually right beneath your nose.
We used to live in Brighton and when we holidayed abroad, I loved nothing better than wandering around markets gathering fresh fruit and vegetables to cook with later in the day. I used to gaze enviously at the little kitchen gardens neatly tended outside the front of so many French, Greek and Spanish houses. I loved the smells drifting from kitchens - appetising soups and the piquant scent of freshly made salads, a whiff of cheese and charcuterie, bread and wine; the sound of laughter and the clatter of cutlery from a lunch eaten in shaded rooms away from the midday sun.
No wonder the Mediterraneans live a long time. They make it all look so easy, so picturesquely foreign...the little old lady with her crinkled features who eyes you with some suspicion, her apron tied beneath her bosom, she bends to twist a couple of juicy tomatoes off the vine and pinch off a few sprigs of basil, then shuffles back to the cool darkness inside, where she will prepare some food to share with her husband before their afternoon siesta.
Self sufficiency was a given until the latter part of the twentieth century when 'convenience' became all the rage and we wanted our food processed for us so that we merely had to open a jar or tin, or pierce a film and throw away the packaging. How this food came to be - where it came from, how it was processed - was of very little consequence so long as it provided a tasty and easy route to sustenance at the end of the day.
Food preparation and cooking moved into a different realm; instead of being an everyday activity that was built into the daily routine of the household, cooking with what was in season and spanning out the leftovers over the week, cooking was suddenly elevated to an art form. With dining out becoming much more affordable and popular, and celebrity chefs seducing us with exquisitely photographed cookery books and TV shows, instinctive cooking no longer cut the mustard. Suddenly cookery had to be done properly or not at all. Ingredients came from far flung shores and cooking with unusual ingredients became an almost scientific process if the results were to be edible.
In the 1970's the environmentalist and activist, John Seymour, published his seminal book, 'The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency' which inspired the BBC sitcom 'The Good Life'. Tom and Barbara Good made self sufficiency an ambition for many when their new way of life was charmingly and humorously juxtaposed beside the aspirational lives of cynical Jerry and bemused Margot Ledbetter. The Good Life, despite it's lightheartedness, had a perfectly serious message - that anyone can be a bit more self-sufficient, anywhere. You give up certain luxuries but find you gain much more. Self sufficiency rarely creates wealth in the bank, unless you can combine it with a flourishing business, but in so many other ways it enriches life.
It is a fallacy that it is hard work to grow food, that it takes too much time, or that you need lots of space to do it. Nature is impressively generous. It never ceases to amaze me that so much nutritious food bursts forth from the tiniest seed, and all you have to do to kick start this food factory is to pop a single seed into a bit of earth and dribble a drop of water over it. The great thing about food grown in the soil you live on, in the air that you breathe and watered by the clouds above you, is that it miraculously has more protective nutrients to suit you in your micro-climate than the same vegetable type flown in from Spain or wherever, which will have been kept in cold storage for days, packaged in non-biodegradable nets or plastic, that you have to get into your car to go and buy from a supermarket (or wait in for a delivery from a supermarket depot), all in the name of 'convenience'. There is nothing more satisfying, or convenient, than stepping outside your own back door, cup of tea in hand, to browse your own 'aisles' to see what is in stock for lunch or supper. Not a single food mile in the process. In some ways the smaller the area you grow in, and the closer to your kitchen, the more likely you are to use the fruit, vegetables and herbs on a daily basis. And because so much of nature's produce is cut and come again, you're unlikely to run out of something fresh to eat every day.
When we buy food from the supermarket invariably we throw away some of it. When you collect it from your own garden you really only need a tiny amount because the food is so packed with nutrients, and you can take just what you need and leave the rest growing (until the preserving season arrives). Cooking can be a much more instinctive process but also interestingly experimental when you use mainly what is growing around you alongside a few store-cupboard staples. The flavours of freshly picked fruit and vegetables really are so much more intense than their shop bought equivalents, that once you start growing your own, it is hard to stop. Anything that is wasted can go straight onto the compost heap which will in time enrich the the soil of vegetable patch again. It's all a good circle of life.
We are not totally self-sufficient at Starnash by any means (we don't have a vineyard, for a start), or a house cow, but we do what we can to enhance our day to day lives. It's hard to be completely self-sufficient in this day and age and live a normal, connected way of life, but anyone can go some way towards living a more self-sustaining way of life and almost instantly reap the rewards, whilst treading more lightly on this Earth.
Interesting viewing: the film 'Food Inc'
Interesting reading: "The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency" by John Seymour (the best book by far, in my opinion!)