If you've ever toyed with the idea of setting up a kitchen garden but put it on the back burner, perhaps you should think again. Having a kitchen garden to draw upon for ingredients for your restaurant makes sense on a number of levels: from freshness of flavour and produce provenance to financial savings on expensive items and educational benefits for staff. Why else would acknowledged leaders of the culinary world - Michel Bras in France, Andoni Adúriz in Spain and Raymond Blanc in the UK - go to the trouble of maintaining one?
The perceived wisdom is that the flavour of vegetables and herbs is at its best within the first 30 minutes of being plucked from the ground or plant. The quicker you get them into the oven or pot, the better. And there's no better way of achieving this optimum freshness than by having a vegetable and herb garden right outside your kitchen door.
"We grow peas, and they have a fantastic flavour if you use them straight away," says Max Fischer, whose Derbyshire restaurant with rooms - Fischer's at Baslow Hall - is the beneficiary of not only peas but also pea shoots, grown in his veg garden throughout the summer in about 11 days and used mainly in salads.
Andy Burton, head chef at Swinton Park hotel in Masham, North Yorkshire, is likewise in no doubt about the flavour difference that can be obtained from cooking with freshly harvested produce. "Take a carrot - if it's used within 10 minutes you can still really taste the earthiness of it," he assures me. And that goes for any other root vegetable you care to think about: potatoes, parsnips or turnips, for instance.
Fischer's garden at Baslow Hall has grown over the years but covers no more than about half-an-acre of ground, yet it still manages to supply the 40-seat restaurant with seasonal produce throughout the spring, summer and early autumn. It by no means meets the restaurant's full needs consistently - "Most supplies are still bought in," concedes Fischer - but it does provide Fischer and his head chef, Rupert Rowley, with the ability to use some expensive ingredients in greater quantities than would be the case if they had to source from outside. The pea shoots are a case in point. As are alpine strawberries: "We have a fantastic crop every year of those - and they run right into November, so it's a long season," says Fischer.
Alpine strawberries are also a good cropper at Swinton Park, where Burton tends to use them in parfaits and jellies (see recipe, page 26). Swinton, being a country house hotel, has a classic Victorian walled kitchen garden dedicated to vegetables, herbs and fruit; it also has several apple and pear trees scattered around the landscaped gardens on the estate. It's larger than its counterpart at Baslow Hall and can provide a greater volume of produce for the hotel's 60-seat restaurant. "I would say that in the summer there's something from the garden in every dish we put out," says Burton. "Obviously, it's a little more difficult in winter, but we've just renovated an old Victorian greenhouse, so that may change things a bit."
The story is similar at Catey-winning Read's, the restaurant with rooms in Faversham, Kent, whose chef-proprietor David Pitchford also has a classic Victorian walled kitchen garden. He estimates that, in the summer, the one-acre plot supplies about 70% of the produce used in the restaurant: from salad leaves to vegetables, fruit and herbs. "Two long rows of runner beans feed up to 120 covers," he says.
Setting up and maintaining a large kitchen garden is not cheap. Fischer estimates that he spends more than £20,000 a year on his garden, buying plants and seeds and employing two part-time gardeners to help maintain both it and Baslow's leisure garden. But, over time, the investment can prove invaluable as a unique selling point on the menu. Guests like to have a link with a property beyond the four walls of its dining room, as Christopher Basten, head chef at Great Fosters, a 16th-century hotel in Egham, Surrey, can testify.
"Because we're an English country manor, customers, especially Americans, love to see the provenance of the ingredients, and when it's so local they can see it growing when they look out of the window, it adds to their eating experience here," he says. Basten flags up the garden-restaurant link in menu descriptions along the lines of "warm pigeon salad with rocket and mizuna from our garden". At Read's, Pitchford goes one step further and tags his menu with an open invitation for his guests to wander round his garden to see for themselves where their food has come from.
Traceability Whichever way it is underlined, there is no doubt that food provenance is increasingly important for diners. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that traceability has been the food Zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century - and, arguably, the last decade of the 20th. Ever since the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises, people have been paying more attention to where their food is sourced from, whether eating in the comfort of their own homes or dining out. Putting the breed or variety, producer and even the method of production (eg, organic) at the end of your menu appeals to diners; it can even encourage them to spend a little more than they might have intended.
There are other benefits to having a kitchen garden, too. For one thing, a well stocked herb garden can make a small restaurant self-sufficient. "Our herb garden is definitely the biggest money maker," confirms Pitchford. "Before we restored it, we were buying in between six to eight bunches of chives a day [at about £1.20 a bunch], two or three bunches of mint and lots of parsley a day. I'd guess, in fact, that we were spending between £30 and £40 a day on herbs altogether."
Pitchford had help designing and setting-up his herb garden from specialist Kent grower Jekka McVicar (www.jekkasherbfarm.com), but even if you are in a metropolitan area, it is possible to get a herb garden started so long as you have some back-yard space and can get your hands on suitable planting containers. In London, St John's Fergus Henderson and his wife, Margot, who is a chef at Canteen, have done so right in the heart of the City.
Less common herbs One of the advantages of getting expert advice from someone like McVicar when planting out a herb garden is gaining an introduction, right from the start, to herbs that are used less commonly for culinary purposes. Read's numbers white and blue hyssop, angelica, jasmine and verbena alongside the more familiar parsley, thyme, chives and sage; while, at Swinton Park, Burton has been introduced to the spinach-like Good King Henry ("a very earthy taste"); and at Great Fosters, Basten can draw on a supply of sorrel, borage, mustard spinach and nettles alongside marjoram, fennel and other more widely used culinary plants. "I wouldn't have used nettles at all if they hadn't already been here," he admits, "but we make a gnocchi with them which we serve with fish like John Dory or sea bass, and it goes down a storm with the customers."
Want another kitchen garden plus point? Well, it's a useful educational tool for the kitchen brigade. Through the growing and harvesting process that goes on under their noses, chefs learn to make the connection between ingredients and the food production process. It teaches them to respect food and to understand in an unequivocal, hands-on way about seasonality. "We've had young chefs who didn't know how potatoes or raspberries grow, and the garden's been very successful in giving them an understanding of where things come from," comments Fischer. Pitchford elaborates: "The garden dictates what we cook, not the other way round. And if you do have an abundance of one thing, you go back to bottling, so you're teaching those preserving and pickling skills."
If your business is a hotel or, like Read's or Baslow Hall, a restaurant with rooms, then home-made preserves at breakfast or chutneys with cheese are an obvious way to serve surplus produce. The Read's ktichen, for instance, makes a rhubarb and ginger jam for the breakfast table; while at Swinton Park, Burton's brigade do several tomato-based chutneys to serve alongside terrines and cheeses, including one with marrow which keeps the cheeseboard going for "several months".
Jams and chutneys are not the only solution to produce overload: Burton also preserves artichokes in oil (the garden grows three varieties of this expensive vegetable); Basten makes his own herb oils (golden majoram oil is used with John Dory); and you can use soft fruits such as raspberries and strawberries in smoothies for the breakfast table. The fact is that gluts of produce require inventiveness. "It gets everybody thinking," agrees Fischer, who is currently inundated with courgettes. What is he doing with them? Well, apart from using them plain, so to speak, he is making ratatouilles and chutneys and stuffing or tempura-ing the flowers.
Quality of produce It's not only junior members of a brigade that learn from the experience of working with a kitchen garden. Old dogs can learn new tricks - or at least rediscover forgotten ones - because the flavours that accompany such freshness inexorably lead chefs to simplify dishes in order to showcase the quality of produce they are working with. "The art is in not messing about with things. You don't need to," stresses Burton.
Burton, Basten and Pitchford all admit that they have tapped in to a resource - the garden - that was either already in situ or waiting to be restored. Fischer, on the other hand, was brought up on a farm and had an innate and passionate desire to set up his own garden. Whichever is the door of entry into the grow-your-own world, though, it seems that, once in the garden, chefs acquire the zeal of the convert.
"I find myself spending more and more time outside," says Pitchford, who has worked with Brogdale Horticultural Trust, the nearby home of the national fruit collection, to establish some old-fashioned varieties of fruit trees at Read's: Golden Glow Fan apricot; Coe's Golden Drop, Opal, Czar, Kirke's Blue, Marjorie's Seedling and Victoria - all plums; Merton Pride and Louise Bonne among the pear varieties; Bountiful, Kidd's Orange Red, Howgate Wonder and Greensleeves in the apples; Lapins and Morello cherries. The names are enough to get the culinary mind working overtime.
"Some chefs might prefer to play with their sports cars. For me, the whole cooking and gardening thing is a way of life. It's what I enjoy. And that's peace out there - you can be on your own without anybody shouting at you. You can switch off. I suppose it's a type of therapy," laughs Fischer.
Natural possibilities: what you can grow
Vegetables Golden, red or green Swiss chard (goes well with lamb or beef because it's quite earthy); courgettes, marrows, pumpkins and gourds, potatoes, parsnips, shallots, onions, turnips, leeks, beetroot, peas, carrots, beans (French, runner, purple), broad beans, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet corn (maize), rhubarb, pak choi, artichokes - and, in a greenhouse, chillies, aubergine
Salad ingredients Lettuce (Cos, frisée, Lamb's), mizuna, rocket, spinach, pea shoots, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes
Herbs Parsley, sage, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, dill, sorrel (good with fish such as salmon or cod), fennel, garlic, chives, mint, lemon balm, lovage, lemon verbena, hyssop, angelica, jasmine, coriander, nettles, borage, basil, oregano, horseradish
Soft fruit Raspberries, alpine strawberries, blackcurrants, loganberries, tayberries, blueberries, gooseberries
Hard and stone fruit trees Apples, pears, plums, quinces, medlars (very acidic and good with pork and game terrines), cherries, mulberries - and, if you have a walled garden or greenhouse, apricots, peaches, figs (good with monkfish), oranges and lemons
Other fruit Melons
10 reasons to start a kitchen garden
- Freshness of produce.
- Better flavour depth in produce.
- You will save money on herbs.
- You can grow expensive fruit and veg which you might otherwise not be able to afford to use.
- You can experiment, and therefore cook, with unusual varieties of herbs, fruit and veg.
- It will educate staff about seasonality and the growing of produce.
- Staff will learn preserving and pickling skills when there are crop gluts.
- Crop gluts encourage inventiveness on menus - "thinking out of the box".
- Produce traceability is a menu USP.
- You can grow ornamental flowers to use as table or hotel room decorations and edible ones, such as nasturtiums, to use in dishes.
Creating a compost heap The key to a good kitchen garden lies in continuously enriching and giving structure to the soil, as plants drain the earth of nutrients during their growing process. The cheap and easy way to do this is to establish a compost heap. It's a no-brainer, really, using your own kitchen's vegetable waste to help produce the next season's crops.
You can buy a ready-made compost container or make a compost box yourself, using treated timber for the sides.
- If you make one yourself, make sure the base is aerated (clay pipes or bricks at the base are a good idea).
- Don't build it more than 1.5m high or more than 2.1m square - bigger than this will stop the air from reaching the centre and cause material to putrefy rather than rot down properly.
- Avoid all meat and animal products, eg, bones, fish heads, etc, as these will attract vermin.
- Avoid citrus items, as they have a high acid content which upsets the balance of phosphates and nutrients in a vegetable compost.
- Don't add any cooked vegetables, as these will just quickly decay and smell.
- Besides raw vegetable trimmings, such as cauliflower, onions, garlic and leeks, add garden waste such as grass cuttings to give balance. Don't add large amounts of one substance.
- Turn over lightly with a fork twice a week, or thoroughly turn every four weeks.
- Compost heaps need to be moist, but not wet. Wet any dry material that is added to the heap and water in dry summer periods. Make sure that you cover the top in wet weather to prevent nutrients leaching away.
Ready in about 3-4 months.
Further information from the Soil Association, www.soilassociation.org
Extending the seasons Swinton Park is owned by Felicity and Mark Cunliffe-Lister, but it is Mark's mother, Susan, who is responsible for restoring and overseeing the property's walled kitchen garden.
She suggests using raised beds with frames over them to extend the seasons. This way you can grow winter salad crops, for instance.
"If space is very limited," she says, "I would grow crops that can be continuously
cropped over a long period, such as perpetual spinach, courgettes, autumn-fruiting raspberries, wild alpine strawberries, salad leaves and lots of herbs."
The kitchen garden year If you are thinking of starting a kitchen garden, below is a month-by-month guide from head gardener Russell Dixon and gardener Rebecca Newman of Great Fosters hotel in Egham, Surrey.
- Bed preparation: prepare ground by forking over and adding manure.
- Early sowings of broad bean seeds for harvesting in early summer.
- Forced rhubarb will begin to appear ready for harvesting.
- Sow soft herbs and leaves, eg, basil, flat parsley, sorrel, coriander, pak choi, rocket, mizuna and spinach, under glass or in a polytunnel.
- Sow peas under cover. They will need supporting with canes when 6-8in high.
- Sow borage flowers - will produce all summer if deadheaded.
- Seedlings will need pricking out every 3-4 weeks to give them room to grow.
- In open ground, sow more hardy plants, eg, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, brassicas, broccoli, courgettes, runner beans, onions, beefsteak tomatoes, chillies, radishes, nasturtium flowers and wild strawberries.
- Re-sow rhubarb for early harvest in December/January.
- Salad leaves ready for harvesting.
- Second sowing of salad leaves, eg, rocket, mizuna and basil.
- Prick out basil flowers.
- Trim back soft herbs.
- Water twice daily at this point.
- Liquid-feed crops twice a week (for an organic feed, steep comfrey and nettles in water and strain).
- Parsnips ready for harvesting.
- Brassicas ready for harvesting late May.
- Trim back second sprouting of soft herbs and leaves such as rocket, mizuna and pak choi.
- Broad beans, peas and borage flowers ready for harvesting.
- Harvest nasturtium flowers and re-sow.
- Runner beans ready for harvesting.
- Beefsteak tomatoes are ready for harvesting.
- Take cuttings of rosemary, thyme and lavender and transplant.
- Sow and train tomatoes under glass or in polytunnel for September harvesting.
- Potatoes, courgettes, chillies and wild strawberries ready for harvesting.
- Tomatoes are ready for harvesting.
- Still harvesting late-planted salad leaves.
- Time for clearing, turning over the ground and adding manure or compost to improve the soil and restore nutrients.
Great Fosters nettle gnocchi
INGREDIENTS (Serves eight)
250g red-skinned potatoes, baked
75g "00" flour
10g ricotta/cream cheese
10g fresh Parmesan cheese, finely grated
250g nettles, blanched (no stalks)
75g wild garlic, crushed
1/2 egg yolk
Salt and pepper
METHOD Scrape out the potato from the skins while still hot. Carefully add the flour, cream cheese or ricotta, Parmesan and egg yolk and mix together.
Place the blanched nettles and garlic in a food processor and blitz. Pass through a drum sieve. Add to the warm potato and cheese dough mix and knead, being careful not to overwork. Season.
Form the dough into sausage shapes and cut into 2.5cm pieces. Form on the back of a fork.
Blanch in boiling salted water. Refresh and keep for service.
NB Dough is much easier to work while warm and when there are two people in the production line.
Recipe supplied by Christopher Basten, head chef, Great Fosters
Swinton Park pink Champagne jelly with walled garden alpine strawberries
INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
4 leaves gelatine
1 x 75cl bottle pink Champagne
100g caster sugar
200g alpine strawberries
Soak the gelatine in water until soft. Warm 10cl of Champagne and dissolve the gelatine in it. Pour the remainder of the Champagne slowly into a bowl, making sure you keep the bubbles, then add the warm gelatine and Champagne mix to this. Stir gently to make sure the gelatine is evenly distributed, but make sure you don't disturb the bubbles.
Allow mixture to settle, then pour a small amount of it into a mould (no more than one-third of the way up the mould) and set in the fridge. Keep the remainder of the mixture at room temperature and do not allow to set.
Once mould has set, place a few alpine strawberries on top of the jelly in the centre of the mould, keeping them away from the edge. Pour a little more of the gelatine and Champagne mixture over these, so mould is approx two-thirds full, then return mould to the fridge to set. Repeat procedure until the mould is full. Then refrigerate again for three hours.
To serve, run the mould under warm water and turn out on to serving plate.
NB You can use Pimm's as the base for the jelly instead of pink Champagne.
Recipe supplied by Andy Burton, head chef, Swinton Park