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In midwinter, signs of new life

Alice Oswald's nature column.

All over England, in dark rainy towns, in misty flooded villages, people are flicking through seed catalogues. People with too many children, people trapped in their houses in winter – the thought of seeds is stirring them, giving them a tiny image of escape:

“All those little ones with feathery fronds like parachutes; ones that dress up in tasty flesh to be eaten and deposited elsewhere; ones like cyclamen, whose stem develops into a tightly coiled spring that brings the seed pod back to the earth. If you part the leaves, you can just see a series of springs. Oh, I love the catalogues. I can’t wait till the season comes round again.”

Seeds are simply obstructed leaves. If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.

At the base of all this pausing and spinning, made of the same ecstatic stillness you find at the centre of a wheel, there are the seeds. They are very hard-coated and patient. Like 1920s women, saying nothing at the supper table, they hold the whole story of the leaf but their particular skill is to sit tight, waiting their turn: “Poppies, for instance – they can sit 70 years in the soil, waiting for the right conditions. Sometimes, they’re just waiting for the flash of light that comes when you’re digging.

“You know there’s always a flush of weeds when you turn the soil? That’s because there are millions of ungerminated seeds just waiting for your spade to let the light in.”

The seed saver, although she loves the catalogues, doesn’t buy many seeds. “What’s happening now is that our seeds are in the hands of about six companies and they only want varieties that have uniformity and a long shelf life. All the rest are lost. It’s phenomenally dangerous.”

She prefers to save them and swap them. “If it’s peas and beans, I let them dry on the plant. Quite early on, I select which ones I want to save and I leave a variety. I’m looking for a good bean and a random time of development. Broad beans, they have their own special, silky, floppy lining. They’re snuggled into this lovely cocoon; you can see an impression of all the beans in it, like a floppy soft bed.

“I peel it apart and sniff it and pop the seed out and pull off that rubbery grey skin and there’s the bright green bean underneath. But with tomatoes, I just wipe it on a bit of newspaper and tear it off. I remember one old boy who used to squash a tomato under his heel and just wait for it to germinate the following year. As for sweet peas, they’re so rock hard, you can’t imagine they’re going to burst into life.”

Growing pains

She shakes out a handful. They look like lead shot or plastic beads. It’s hard to define how they differ from any of these, except that a bead, once you know it is a bead, seems a finished thing, whereas a seed gives off an atmosphere of becoming. It has the look of something introverted, sealed in, held down, blindfolded, compacted – a little capsule of frustration.

“Sometimes, if you’ve sown quite thickly, the force of the seedlings raises the whole crust of the seed tray. I find that sort of thrilling, the way it pushes up the earth. It shows what power is behind it. They just want to get out; they really, really want to grow.”

Alice Oswald was in conversation with Alison Williams

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide