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Cooking from a Kitchen Garden

At home in Brixton I try to manage a little collection of haphazard pot plants by my back door. The process of planting seeds, fighting off squirrels, and ultimately harvesting fresh lettuce leaves, herbs, pansies, radishes and chillies (for this is all I’ve successfully attempted so far!) is deeply rewarding.

My newfound love for gardening gathered apace this summer, with active involvement in the revival of a kitchen garden. Each year I cook at a private house in Berkshire, for a series of garden tour holidays hosted by the house. We serve formal lunches and dinner parties for 22 guests, typically American ladies, and my food here is light, classical, and as quintessentially English as I can make it (see recent Instgram barrage!). I deliberately celebrate herbaceous, wild, and floral flavours to reflect the nature of the guests’ holiday.

Over the Winter Jeff, the gardener, and I liaised over which plants to grow, in what configurations, and when best to plant them. Long story short, the most wondrous glut of baby carrots, candy-striped beetroot, tomatoes and runner beans is imminent, a week after our last guests have left (!) I jest. There was much I was able to make use of over the past month – nasturtiums, rocket, radishes, borage flowers, broad beans, and micro leaves – and as a cook it was utterly spoiling and a true joy.

Why does it matter? Well, if you’d asked me whilst podding broad beans for 22 an hour before service I would say it didn’t and that I was all for frozen peas, but growing ones own matters, I think, for two reasons: connection and flavour.

Firstly, it reclaims a little of the innate and ancient connection with nature, and the subsequent understanding, respect and appreciation that our food deserves. It’s a connection that supermarkets, packaging, and year-round produce – while convenient - have sadly distorted. More on this in due course. And secondly, flavour! Salad leaves packed with actual flavour..! I’d forgotten! So much flavour that dressings are sacrilege, and a slick of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon are all that’s called for. The peppery flavour of freshly picked nasturtium leaves has been extraordinary, it’s something that can’t be packaged and certainly can’t be bought (outside of a farmers market!). And delicate baby beetroot, intensely sweet and deeply earthy, so delicious we were crunching them whole along with fiery little radishes. I could go on and on… There are many important social and environmental reasons to grown ones own, or to choose locally grown food, but being in possession of taste buds is reason enough for me.

Few of us have the capacity to grow vegetables at home of course, but getting stuck in with dirty fingernails has been a pleasure I find hard to convey... I urge us all throw a handful of seeds in a pot of earth, connect with nature, and take pleasure in the flavour that ensues. I'll certainly be tending to those pots at home with a littler extra tlc in the coming weeks.

As a side, I can highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; Kingsolver is an avid locavore who commits to reconnecting with nature through living purely off food that she and her family have grown for a year. She describes the pleasures and benefits of local and/or home-grown food beautifully.

Josephine O'Hare