Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review - A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono

Far too many months after receiving a review copy of this wonderful book, I am finally going to share (that is an affiliate link by the way, if you click on it, I get a small amount of reward points from amazon - I think, I'm new to this whole thing).  It's not that I left the book lying around or found it so boring I didn't know what to say.  On the contrary, I've found myself reaching for it every couple of days to read another bit or re-read something (for a third or fourth or fifth time).  I think I've just been feeling the pressure of having promised to write a review.  And then felt so guilty about not writing it yet that I haven't even been reading Mark's blog, which I really miss.

So without further ado let me start by saying that this really is a fantastic book and I'd heartily recommend it.  The premise of the book is to introduce people to some varieties of food to grow that may not be traditionally grown (in the UK) but which are now more viable due to improvements in varieties coupled with taking potential climate change advantages into consideration.  He also mentions a few very traditional but no longer very much in favour things, such as quince and medlars.

The first section deals with choosing what to grow and preparing your space.  And I think there is much to be said for his philosophy of letting flavour be your guide, growing some unexpected flavours, growing things that are either entirely unbuyable or very expensive to buy, growing transformers (e.g. spices, where just a little can completely transform a meal).

Then there is a section on growing and eating, which devotes a couple of pages to each fruit/veg/herb/spice/nut - varieties, how to grow and care for it, harvesting and, very importantly, what to do with it once you've harvested it.  There are a couple of recipes for each crop, most of which have left me longing to have a garden of my own so I could grow and eat all of these amazing things.  Luckily, some of what is listed in the book is already grown in the community garden I volunteer at here so I have some hope of trying a few of these in the foreseeable at least.

You can tell while reading the book that Mark Diacono is passionate about what he is doing.  He also seems to have a far better developed palate than I do but despite the fact that I may not be able to distinguish "...a citrusy, lemon sherbet wave that gradually gives way to warm heat...", I badly want to grow my own Szechuan pepper just to see what he's on about.  And although I didn't get around to it this year, I can't wait for next year's walnut harvest to show up at the market so that I can make fesanjan, a sweet-sour Persian dish.  And that's to say nothing of the fuchsia fruit leathers, the lamb and quince tagine, choclate soufflés with apricot sauce, medlar and apple chutney, nectarine salsa, autumn olive jam, lemon honeysuckle bars, wineberry vinegar, oca saag aloo, carolina allspice rice pudding, cardoon gratin, hot and sour daylily soup not to mention mulberries (which, I am ashamed to admit were for me until now just a very lovely candle scent - I've never seen or tasted mulberries in real life).  Hmmm, have to stop now, I'm making myself hungry.  No wait, one more fabulous thing, there's even a recipe for making your own Chinese five-spice mix.  And I'm not quite sure whether I should be fascinated or just plain scared by the Egyptian walking onions (completely going off on a tangent here but about thirty years ago a friend of the family gave us a Speak + Spell for christmas and that's how I learned to spell both Egypt and onion and it seems strange to write both those words so close together now), which I find kind of freaky looking. 

The book finishes up with a directory with some basic information on sowing, tools, planting a tree, a list of suppliers (mostly UK-based obviously) and recommended further reading.

All in all I think this is one of those books that I will refer back to again and again and I can see its pages becoming somewhat grimy over the years as I use it in the kitchen and, eventually, in my own garden.  If you're looking for a nice christmas present for the gardener or wannabe gardener in your life, do have a look at the Taste of the Unexpected.  It's got enough basic information to be really good for beginners but I think it's also unusual enough to appeal to the more experienced gardener.  And the photos are wonderful enough to justify it's existence as a coffee table book even if you don't like gardening at all.  I did receive my review copy for free but I will be ordering one for my brother soon and I have several friends who can expect to be getting copies for their birthdays next year too.

P.S.  I was just testing the amazon link to also let people know that normally it is possible to just change the country code in an amazon link to get your own country's page for that book (i.e. changing to .de brings me to the German site).  It didn't work for the US site though and it seems that across the pond the book is called The Food Lover's Garden: Amazing Edibles You Will Love to Grow and Eat. Just so's you know. :)

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