The best thing about amazon, the thing I'd really miss, and the one thing which has probably done everyone in the book trade a favour (or at least no harm) is the advance notice of upcoming books. I spend a fair amount of time looking for new titles - especially from favourite food writers - and then quietly looking forward to publication with an ever growing sense of anticipation. That was most certainly the case with 'A Year At Otter Farm', I've been a fan of Diacono's writing ever since the River Cottage Veg handbook came out in 2009 (I can't praise that series enough) and also really liked 'A Taste of the Unexpected' in 2010 which covered more of the unusual things that Diacono grows at Otter farm and what to do with them once you have them.
Part of the anticipation attached to 'A Year at Otter Farm' was to see what would be new about it, or at least how it would expand on the excellent books Diacono has already written - the rest of the anticipation was all about the simple pleasure of looking forward to a book by an author whose writing I enjoy. I haven't been disappointed in either score.
First things first - it's a lovely book to look at; the pictures are glorious, they don't cover every recipe but they do show livestock and plants in a way that really sells the pleasures of small holding. I'm particularly taken with some winsome looking sheep (not at all how my dad's looked, his always had a fairly disdainful come-on-then-if -you-think-your-hard-enough thing going on - quite often from half way down some ridiculous cliff from where they required rescue) and there's a particularly beady eyed cockerel who's a thing of beauty as well. Apart from looking good having pictures of the live animal is a useful reminder that meat does in fact start out as a living animal and if you're going to eat it you should want it to have had a decent life first. (Not that the core market for this book will need that reminder.)
The substance of the book is part memoir, part manifesto, part growing guide, and part cookbook all arranged by season. Something I really like about the styling here is that the recipe pages have coloured borders so they're easy to flip to - details like that always make me happy. I've looked at the recipes, bookmarked a few for use (particularly later in the year), and am really pleased to find quite a few cocktails and alcoholic infusions included. Having (responsible) fun with drinks is basically how I make my living and something I'm always happy to read about. Over all though it's the manifesto/memoir part of the book that's really sucked me in and that I've spent most time with.
I don't have a garden of my own anymore though I do have the use of one at weekends. Not being in it much has limited my planting ambitions, and seriously limited my ability to make use of what's been grown but it's better than nothing. Meanwhile I have a daydream where I win the lottery (or similar) and buy one of those huge Victorian walled gardens - ideally one with a gardeners house built into one wall - and plant it full of amazing things. A book like this absolutely feeds that fantasy, not least by adding hitherto undreamed of possibilities into the mix. Most intriguing to me is the concept of a forest garden, quickly followed by the perennial garden. The forest garden apparently mimics woodland, mainly using perennials which starts at a subterranean level carrying on up through ground cover, shrubs, and trees all linked together by climbers and planted to maximise mutual benefit. It sounds like a beautifully low input system. The perennial garden basically takes that concept and downsizes it to allotment or garden size losing the tree canopy. I'm not in a position to nurture a veg patch but I could (and to some extent do) have a garden which concentrates on things which are useful as well as beautiful. Smallholding isn't easy but the possibility of having some small part of the dream - well that's attractive.
What I really love about this book is how unbelievably easy it is to lose hours at a time in it; it's a page turner - which isn't necessarily what you expect from a cookbook - but then it's so much more than that. I find it thoroughly exciting that people are out there doing new and interesting things on the small holding/crofting/farming front; that it isn't all big business supplying supermarkets at terrifyingly low margins. We take cheap, industrially produced food for granted but I don't believe it's sustainable - or particularly desirable. There's to much waste and not enough understanding of how food arrives on the plate, not enough variety and not enough consideration for the wider environment, to many air miles and to much plastic packaging. (Can you tell this is a bit of a hobby horse for me.) Any book that makes people think about that a little bit more, which I feel this one does, and which provides inspiration and instruction for growing and cooking has to be a good thing, that it's also entertaining and engaging is a massive bonus.