Why bother making my own food

Yesterday I cat-sat for the friend who is looking after my chilli plant. The thing is massive now, dominating her dining room table. And, on one of the branches, is a single red chilli. Just one chilli on one branch, that is. But it looks pretty tasty and is probably ready for harvesting soon.

Given that I can buy a bottle of Encona for a pound, the effort to grow this single Scotch Bonnet pepper seems ludicrous. And there have been all the costs – buying plant pots and compost and baby bio so I can dote on the plant with special food. This is a lot of effort for a single chilli.

This leads me to think that the farmers growing the chillis for Encona sauce are a lot better at it than me. If that was my job, the world would have just a single spoonful of Encona each year. Based on this performance, growing my own food is unlikely to be cost-effective.

Michael Pollan repeats a similar argument about cooking near the start of his book Cooked. He quotes an op-ed by the couple who write the Zagat’s guides, where they suggest “people would be better off staying an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and letting bargain restaurants do what they do best.” Pollan sees this argument as simple division of labour, the cooks using their talents while the rest of us focus on our own skills.

Of course, Pollan spends the rest of his book explaining why we should learn to cook, but that basic argument still seems persuasive. And it is worth questioning the narrative, promoted much of the media and spearheaded by Jamie Oliver, that true freedom lies in learning how to cook dishes from scratch.

A couple of reviews have picked out a passage from Johnathan Meades’ new book, the Plagiarist in the Kitchen, where he questions the fetish for home-cooked food, “Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits?

The Angry Chef spends often attacks the guilt people are made to feel about food. While he is often attacked as an industry shill, he points out that people are too overworked and stressed to be making every meal from scratch – and being educated about ‘processed’ food, enables sensible choices to be made.

I’ve blundered along for about 20 years now, feeling guilty about the mix of home-cooked meals, fast food and tinned food in my diet. I’m still alive, so I guess I’m doing that OK. I still want to learn how to cook better, but the issue is more complicated than books on healthy eating make it sound. Cooking has to fit into a busy life, and seem worth the effort.

That said, I am looking forward to eating my single chilli soon. There’s not enough to make sauce, so I will eat it raw. But I will save the seeds for next year.

My chilli plant is a dick

Right now, I’m not entirely sure where my chilli plant is. I’m not sure this is a bad thing.

Back in March, I planted about 20 chilli seeds from a batch that my friend Rosanna gave me. Only one of these sprouted. But it grew into a massive plant and, for a time, I felt smug at my skill.

Growing plants was a big deal for me. People sometimes told me a few green things would make my house seem warmer and more welcoming, but I didn’t want the responsibility of plants. The one time I was given one, by my friend Teresa, I had the sad duty of watching it die and wither, despite my efforts.

I almost killed this plant a couple of times. While I was away for 5 nights on the Pennine way, my house sitter cancelled. I arrived home just in time to find the plant almost dead. Looking after another living thing makes you aware of the true fragility of life.


I almost killed the plant on one of the hottest days of the year, when it was between the window and the curtain, roasting in the trapped heat. In a few hours it had dried out precariously. But it survived and even flowered. Then the the flowers kept dropping off, littering the shelf around. But there was no sign of fruit.

I checked back on Rosanna’s instructions: Put it in a 9″ pot, if you haven’t done already, and keep it wet. If it’s dropping flowers (without leaving little chilli-nubs behind) then it’s unhappy. Either the pot is too small, or it’s too dry, underfed, or too wet (the latter is unlikely).

One problem was that I’d somehow bought a 7 inch plant-pot, not a nine inch one, so that was quickly fixed, but it didn’t help. Chillis are considered to be one of the easier things to grow. Growing what is, essentially, a garnish, is proving so tough that it amazes me that someone, somewhere is growing enough plants to keep me alive.

With all the travel I’ve been doing lately, I had to find someone else to look after the plant. The photo at the top of the page shows me carrying the plant across Hove. And, a few days after the plant left my house, I received a video from the friend looking after it. The blurry short piece of footage reveals something unexpected. Look close at the centre of the picture and you can just about make it out.

Among the leaves is a tiny green Scotch bonnet pepper. The minute my back is turned, a fruit appears. All this grief for a single pepper, when I could buy a fresh one for pennies. A whole pound would buy me a bottle of Encona. It seems a lot of work for little payback.

The friend who was caring for the plant is away for a few weeks, and I’m not sure if they’ve made arrangements. Maybe they’ve given the plant to someone else to look after.

My lounge does feel emptier without her though, and it would be easy to be reunited. I really should find out where my chilli plant has got to.

First shoots from the chilli plants

I planted twenty chilli seeds, following my friend Rosanna’s instructions, and so far only one has germinated. I’ve given up on the others and planted another batch in the hope that some others will join my successful seedling.

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I’ve not grown a plant from seed, except at school – cress on blotting paper in primary, a bean for GCSE. Watching the plant emerge from such has tiny seed has been thrilling. I am so excited that it’s a struggle not to give it a name, because that would be silly. And, while it’s a shame that the other plants haven’t appeared, this one success has given me a little confidence.

Repotting proved harder than expected, and I worried that I would injure the plant. It survived the move and is thriving. I love checking on it for new signs of progress, seeing the signs of each new sprouting leaf:


I’m now well into onto the second stage of Rosanna’s instructions:

  1. When the shoots are an inch tall remove the clingfilm. Keep the compost most but not wet.
  2. When the seedlings are two inches tall, re-pot into a window box or 9” round pot. Water well and put somewhere nice and sunny. A south-facing windowsill is perfect.
  3. Keep the soil moist but not wet and feed once a week with Baby Bio or similar. Chillies also love tomato food if you have any.

I’ve bought some baby bio and a watering can (the latter from the pound shop’s Charlie Dimmock range, naturally) and will do my best to see this plant to adulthood. I’m going away for a week soon, so there will be strict instructions for my house-sitter. I’m starting to feel very affectionate about this plant. But I am not going to give it a name.




Growing my own chillis

I’d been meaning to grow chillis from seed, but never got around to it. In the past I’ve been terrible at keeping plants and they always died. Some people have green fingers, I have black fingers. When my friend Rosanna offered seeds from her successful homegrown chilli plants, I had no excuses and said I’d take some.


The tiny seeds (so crunchy) arrived wrapped in clingfilm. Looking at them it seemed amazing that anything would every grow from them.


Rosanna sent me instructions via Facebook. The first few stages seemed simple enough:

  1. Take a chilli seed, plant it in shallow compost (about one to two inches deep – a takeaway container, an old margarine tub or yoghurt pot is ideal), at a depth of about a quarter of an inch.
  2. You don’t need any special sort of compost – anything will do.
  3. Plant one per yogurt pot or 2-3 per takeaway container. Plant twice as many as you think you’ll need: not all seeds will germinate.
  4. Water well so the soil is damp but not sopping wet. Cover the container with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm in semi-shade (i.e. out of direct sunlight) for a week or two until they sprout. Depending on the time of year this will take between one and four weeks.

I went out to buy compost and plant-pots. It turns out, you can get a lot of cheap gardening things from the pound shop, whose range is endorsed by gardening celebrity Charlie Dimmock. I put twenty seeds out, which is apparently a lot, then waited to see what would happen.


Only one chilli plant has actually emerged from the soil since I planted them three weeks ago. The others have been sent to the airing cupboard to see if that encourages them to start sprouting. Even though my success rate so far is a mere 5%, that first plant feels like a victory.