Book Review: A Taste of the Unexpected

A few weeks ago when I asked the publisher for a review copy of Mark Diacono's new book, I was worried that knowing him would cloud my objectivity. I spent ages telling myself I'd have to be, because compromising my honesty would mean this blog is dead in the water. I needn't have worried, it's simply a work of genius.

Mark's crafted a rare thing: a non-fiction book about food, growing and cooking that's a cracking page turner. I returned home on Wednesday evening after my loooong day at the Palmstead seminar to find at last it had finally arrived. It was like opening a present: I was instantly hooked and I finished reading it in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Mark's turned his attention away from last year's standard grow your own fayre to his major love, the growing of the more unusual fruit and vegetables he does at Otter Farm and writes so well about on his blog. His philosophy is simple: why waste so much time and effort on growing the usual suspects (and usually cheap to buy) only to find they don't taste that much different to what's available at the shops? Instead we should turn our attention to the tastes and foods we savour the most and use these as our guides to drive out the list of things we really want to grow. If the list still contains potatoes or carrots then that's fine, but do make sure they're varieties which can't easily be found in the shops.

If flavours and what you like to eat are your guide, then Mark argues you'll be adding many more of the unusual foods available to your must-grow list. He's saved us hours of work (probably years actually) by revealing nearly 40 of his favourite tried and tested of these, all fluffed up and ready for us to try. Expect supplies of these plants and seeds to sell like hot cakes in the next few weeks.

Mark's introduction guides us through the best way to come up with our own wishlist. From lists of unbuyables and transformers (foods which turn the other ingredients into a sensational meal), through seasonal highlights, gambles, uncertainties and quick returns he maps out the possibilities for us. Each one is then thoroughly introduced, bundled together under the headings of Tree Fruit, Nuts, Soft Fruit, Herbs & Spices, Beans & Greens, Leaves & Flowers and Buried Treasure. You'll already be familiar with some of them like almonds, asparagus and apricots, but I'm sure only the most experimental amongst you will have tried oca or yacon.

This is a good move: by describing some of the more familiar options and how to grow them, the best varieties to choose etc. Mark builds up trust with you which in turns gives you the confidence to not only to try to grow the more familiar foods which suit your garden's conditions, but to also try some or all of the other ones described. I've already radically altered the plans for my allotment next year.

The final masterstroke is to provide mouthwatering recipes (courtesy of Lickedspoon) for all of the crops featured. I can't wait to try Fesanjan (a rich chicken dish from Persia using the featured Carolina Allspice), Stir Fried Pork with Kai Lan (a perennial member of the brassica family) or Wineberry Trifle. Where appropriate Mark also says where one ingredient could substitute for another in recipe(s) given elsewhere in the book. My only gripe is that the recipes for the yummy sounding chestnut jam and the chocolate cake mentioned aren't included.

All of this is generously sprinkled with photographs of both crops and recipes which will make you want to eat the page. The book is also well seasoned with warmth, wit and a treasure trove of anecdotes and experience.

It's my book of the year :)


  1. Thanks - well worth ordering.

  2. Now there's some serious quick reading ~ talk about burning the midnight oil VP :) My copy has just arrived this morning and your review has made me determined to make a start asap!

  3. Oh no ;) another book to add to the list .... and I'm supposed to be cutting back, both because I've run out of space and because I spend far too much on books .. but it sounds too good to miss, even if we'll have to find the recipe for chestnut jam elsewhere

    Great post VP, thanks for sharing


  4. So you've not seen this item from the BBC:

  5. Hermes - go for it!

    Anna - enjoy :)

    Joanna - you haven't seen the pile of books I'm sitting next to as I write this!

    Anonymous - I'm not aware of that particular report (cooks stick with recipes they know for those of you who haven't looked at the web address given), but I am aware of the research. I'm just as guilty as anyone for using a tried and tested set of recipes. However, since I started growing my own my cooking has become much more varied so that my tried and tested is continually evolving. Indeed, if I think back to the dishes served up in my childhood in the 60s/70s, we've all become much more adventurous in our cooking. I see this book and the recipes it contains as another step in that process.

  6. I am so excited to find your blog and to hear about this book! Christmas gifts for at least 10 friends right off the top of my head...bravo!

  7. Hi Abby and welcome! Judging by all the comments I've seen so far as well as my own views on the book, your friends will be very pleased this Christmas :)


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