How Far The Vances

Meet the Vances – Stella and Jefferson.  This rootin’ tootin’ farming couple are my great-grandparents. They wound their way from Virginia, through Tennessee and landed on this farm in Kentucky.

Now meet my grandparents. Katie and Jim Tom. (No relation to Stella and Jeff.)

They were farmers, too.  I come from a double-sided group of land people, growers of things like food and hunters of things like food.  Here's a week's supply of quail, or pheasant, or rack of pigeon..hard to tell.

How far removed am I?  This is the question on my mind lately.  I’ve never grown anything, never lived on a farm; in fact, I’ve lived in three of the largest cities in the world for most of my life now.  When I ran across these photos I felt these hearty, hard working people peering intently at me and asking, ‘Where’s your land, girl?  Where do you get your food?’

Well Stella, for a couple of years my husband and I lived in the converted Hartley’s Jam Factory near Bermondsey. 

    The Jam Factory 1902

The Jam Factory 2009

Mr. Hartley grew his own fruit trees on the expansive property. The fruit was prepared and packaged in our building. Someone gave me an original glass Hartley’s jam jar when we moved in.  Once, a cab driver tried to drop us off at the Bacon Factory by mistake. Slightly further afield was The Hop Exchange where they sold hops like stocks. And down the road The Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange was doing something with animals that didn’t involve eating them. You could tell which street you were on in this part of the world by the use of your nose. But that’s all over now and none of this makes me a land girl.

During the time I lived at the Jam Factory, Borough Market was my grocery store. London’s oldest and largest farmer’s market is the Disneyland of the British food world. 

I watched Jamie Oliver feed one of his children here. Mario Batali scoured the market with his entourage and Ainsley Harriott gave me a friendly smile as we stood over a huge cauliflower. The polish wore off after a while. Imagine digging your money out of your pocket a hundred times, watching helplessly as the coins roll under a display of a large dead hare. Imagine carrying ten different bags, or a single large one that’s so heavy it’s like lugging an alligator around. Imagine your local grocery store is a world famous tourist attraction. Every Saturday was a suicide in an effort to fill even the smallest of British fridges. Jeff and Stella don’t look like they’d have the patience for it either.  (Don’t you think they look like Granny Clampett and Uncle Sam?)  

Although, I'm sure any of my relatives would kill for one sip of Monmouth coffee, which is by far the best coffee in all of London town. Monmouth is right on the edge of the market on a cobbled street. It has three walls, the fourth is open to the street and the scenery of the market - even during pelting rain and on the most frigid winter days.  I tend to proselytize and evangelize when dragging friends from the States to the place. People who don't usually drink coffee are stunned to find themselves acting like a kid who's tasted his first milkshake when they try Monmouth coffee, as witnessed by my friend D. who NEVER drinks coffee. I still buy my coffee there and travel across the city just to sip one of their cappuccinos.

Now I buy most of my food at Waitrose.  Just the other day I found the zucchini/courgette section empty. Kaput.  Nothing.  Frustrating to no end.
“Excuse me,” I said to a Waitrose worker. “The courgette bin is empty. Do you have any more?”
No, she shook her head.
“You mean you’re out of courgettes?” How could this be possible?
“We didn’t get our shipment from Spain.”

So there you have it. Britain is perfectly capable of growing a courgette or two, but we eat Spanish courgettes.  The UK imports so much food that the supermarkets display large signs whenever they get their hands on British produce.  ENGLISH STRAWBERRIES! BRITISH POTATOES!  Jefferson and Stella, and Katie and Jim Tom, all long returned to the earth, would find it hard to fathom.

Jeroboam's Whiskers

Guess what. It’s raining. Not sprinkling, not a shower; it’s raining cats and dogs, cows and tortoises, all day, not a moment’s respite. That’s the way it rains here, unlike any other place. Everything you’ve heard is true. And if you’re reading this next week, or last week, I can assure you it’s probably raining on whatever day you 
read. We live under a daily threat.

In the city of London, in the Borough of Camden, in the hamlet of Hampstead there is a wine shop, ahem, a fine wine merchant that I rushed into immediately creating a puddle on the floor. I set my big black umbrella (I have eight) by the door, and wiped my leopard rain booties (cheap as a nylon vintage shirt and more cheerful) on the coconut coir mat and pulled back the hood of my rainproof jacket. I could describe the wide-planked wood floors and the deep wooden shelves that hold very fine vintages about which I know nothing, but that might give the impression that this wine shop, ahem, merchant, might be a nose above, say, Oddbins. It might. And when approached by a young man, trying his level best to grow a set of whiskers in mutton chop form on his still tender skin, I am initially softened by this attempt to make me feel as if I’d just popped into a costume drama.  He wears a long hunter green apron and I wonder why.  Are there dusty catacombs in the bowels of Heath Street where he battles cobwebs to retrieve a rare bottle of port?

“Good afternoon.” Of course he would say that.
“Hi. I’m looking for an Italian red that I once drank in the Holly Bush pub up the street and can’t find anywhere.”
I search in the pockets of my jacket for the little piece of paper with the name of the wine, but it isn’t there.
“Gosh, it’s terrible out today, isn’t it?” I mumble still searching.
“I’m so glad you came in. You’re the first customer I’ve seen, the first person I’ve seen all day. I’m so bored. It’s so boring. What can I help you with? Can I tell you about this wine?”
AND HE WAS OFF…Like a smooth Kentucky filly he was speeding through the wind in rapture describing a red wine from god knows where, his whiskers whisking furiously. He rattles on non-stop, shows me around the place, and take a gulp of air after he asks what I plan to eat with the wine.

I don’t normally drink, but when I do… I just want a nice bottle of red for a lunchy-do and now that I can’t find the blasted piece of paper, I don’t really care from where it hails. When I tell him about the mushroom lasagna his face turns quizzical.

“I’ve never heard of that dish before.”
He wasn't joking. I didn’t know how to respond.
“Well, it’s lasagna, but instead of meat sauce it’s made with wild mushrooms and cheese.”
“Oh,” he said tugging on the ole whiskers, “that sounds very interesting. You’re making me very hungry. I was bored, and when you leave I'll be bored and hungry. We must find an earthy red to go with that.” It seemed he remembered I was there for a reason.

I mention a Shiraz. He looks appalled and spends an inordinate amount of time badmouthing it. He keeps glancing at the door and I silently question whether he has vain hopes for a crazy Monday onrush of customers, or perhaps he's thinking of locking the door and making me his listening slave for the rest of the day. It’s still pouring out, I've not chosen a wine yet and I really have to go.

Finally, we narrowed it down to two; one was a little more expensive, more than I really wanted to pay. I knew we'd only drink a glass or two; it was destined to sit on the baker's rack in my kitchen and turn to vinegar before I had a chance to give a marinara a kick with the remainder. But I bought it. I bought it because in spite of himself, he sold it to me – something about the earth, the grape and those mushrooms. I was beginning to feel badly about leaving him there for the rest of the afternoon. A sad look washed over his face when I picked up my umbrella.