Gardener and cook Aaron Bertelsen is on a mission to get us to grow – and cook – our own veg. And the good news is you don’t even need a garden.
As the resident vegetable gardener and head cook at the spectacular medieval Great Dixter House and Gardens in East Sussex, there’s little Aaron Bertelsen doesn’t know about growing food.
Funny and forthright, he’s passionate about encouraging everyone to give it a try, no matter their circumstances. ‘I’ve lived in a high-rise building so I understand the constraints of city living,’ he says. ‘But everyone can experience the pleasure of eating something delicious and thinking, “I grew that.”’
In his new book, Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots, Aaron explains how to cultivate everything from herbs to root vegetables – and even fruit trees – whatever your space, whether you’re a green-fingered pro or have never planted a single seed.
Originally from a small village on the West Coast of Auckland, New Zealand, Aaron arrived in Britain as a student in 1996 to spend three months volunteering in the garden at Great Dixter. However, once he arrived, he didn’t want to leave.
He went on to study horticulture at Kew Gardens in West London, and worked at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens, but Dixter, the former home of the much-loved late gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd, drew him back. ‘I returned in 2005 and have been here ever since,’ he says.
While Aaron has always had an affinity for gardening, his culinary skills took longer to develop. For a while the only dish in his repertoire was a pasta bake. But with gardening events to host and staff to feed at the Dixter estate, which is open to visitors from spring to autumn, the job of cooking for large numbers fell to him, so he had to quickly expand his skills. ‘The food I enjoy making is very simple,’ he says. ‘It’s seasonal and makes use of the fruit and vegetables I’m producing.’
Many of us are now conscious of the environmental impact of our food, which may have travelled thousands of miles to get to us, amassing a vast carbon footprint before being wrapped in single-use plastic by supermarkets. Growing and eating food which is in season offers a simple solution to this eco dilemma, and, as Aaron points out, it tastes better, too. ‘People have got used to buying strawberries and other summer fruits in winter, which have been picked green and chemically ripened,’ he says. ‘Aside from the environmental issues, you’re paying a huge amount for inferior food. If you eat seasonally, you’re going to have fruit and vegetables at their best.’
It’s also ideal for those of us trying to reduce our meat consumption. ‘People are seeing vegetables as the main event now, rather than just accompaniments to a meal, and that’s fuelling their interest in growing,’ he says.
He enthuses about the other benefits of ‘pootling around with pots’ – even a few minutes of gardening has been proven to have a therapeutic effect, and for those with children, it’s a great way to show them the relationship between how our food is produced and what’s set on the table.
Want to give it a try? For novice gardeners, he recommends trying herbs, particularly rosemary, basil and sage. ‘They don’t need much space – they can be grown on a windowsill and, with the summers getting hotter, they do very well.’
Salad leaves are also an easy starting point, he says. ‘The cut-and-come-again crops, where you get a mixture of seeds in one packet, are great because they’ll keep re-growing.’ Chard is one of his favourites, ‘especially the peppermint variety, which is beautiful, with red stems and green leaves’.
And even though cultivating fruit trees may sound daunting, Aaron insists it’s not. ‘A lot are available dwarfed, which means you don’t need massive pots,’ he says. ‘In the kitchen yard I’ve got apricots, peaches, nectarines and apples. If you have a sunny wall to put them against, that’s ideal.’
For shadier areas, he suggests blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries. ‘All you’ve got to do is work out your conditions and find the plants that will thrive in them.’
Make use of this time of year, when most gardens are looking bleak and barren, as it is ideal for planning. ‘Think about what you’re going to use in the kitchen; that’s where you’ll get the pleasure. Get some pots and the area ready for planting in March. You don’t have to start on a large scale,’ he says. ‘But once you’ve grown something you love, you’ll be surprised at how adventurous you’ll become.’
Here are some of Aaron’s favourite recipes – all made with veg from his kitchen gardens at Great Dixter.
My sister Lisa has the same love for beetroot as I do and her husband enjoys growing vegetables with their three children. Beetroot is something that does well for them, so they are always looking for new ways to use it in the kitchen. This recipe is typical of their style: simple, fresh and designed to show off the vegetables to their best. Toasting the hazelnuts will give a more intense flavour; leaving them raw gives a fresher taste.
My dear friend Linda Smith lives in Memphis, where she has the most wonderful farm filled with hummingbirds. This soup is one of hers. I often make a big batch then eat it for lunch throughout the week; the flavours deepen the longer it is left. I am always adding different things to it depending on my mood and the season – kale, swiss chard or even parsley (stems and all) are all great additions. I sometimes pop in a few skinless chicken thighs too. By the time the soup is cooked the meat will be soft enough to eat with a spoon and the bones will have added lots of flavour.
I love this dish. It’s hearty but light and the kale adds a real intensity of flavour – as well as a great contrast in texture – that cuts through the sweetness of the beans and tomatoes. It’s a perfect way to refuel after an energetic start to the day and makes a great lunch. The bread is important here; you need a good-quality, substantial loaf so that it can soak up the juices and flavours without disintegrating. In winter, when the kale is still in peak condition, this recipe will work perfectly well with a couple of canned plum tomatoes, too.
This warm spiced lentils dish really makes the most of the intense, slightly bitter flavour of cavolo nero. It is unusual to see these earthy ingredients combined with exotic spices, but it does work. I like this as a main course but you can also use it as a side to accompany lamb, chicken, sausages or even a substantial fish, such as sea bass. I use Puy lentils for their nutty flavour and firm texture – plus the little gleaming, dark greeny-grey pebbles look beautiful with the cavolo nero leaves. Make this with vegetable stock if you prefer, for a completely vegetarian dish.
The Global Generation Skip Garden in London’s King’s Cross is a great spot. The café served this colourful and substantial salad in alongside pies, quiches and toasted sandwiches. The Skip Garden’s version of the classic Mauritian slaw achard de légumes combines the best seasonal vegetables with the warmth and vibrancy of the East African coast. To vary the flavours, you can also add grated fresh ginger to the spices while they are toasting and sprinkle over some toasted desiccated coconut, or pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds to add a little more texture and nutty flavour.
Hummus made entirely from chickpeas is one of the great loves of my life, but even I recognise the need to change things up a little from time to time. This recipe is the answer. Not only do you get a new flavour, the colour is incredible too. A dish of this beetroot hummus looks stunning alongside a plate of raw vegetables and will keep you going while you wait for lunch, ideally with a glass of champagne. Note that this is good made with carrotsas well. My friend Henry Witheridge – another great gardener – recently introduced me to split-pea hummus too. Another exciting addition to the hummus repertoire.
This dish is redolent of my childhood winters in New Zealand, when my father would cook it in our coal-range oven. Sweet flavours like these need a little spice to bring them to life. I like to intensify the flavours by heating the spices in the oil before adding any other ingredients, a technique I learned in India. The coconut oil is my addition to my father’s recipe – it brings another element of flavour and really seems to complement the spices.
This is a wonderful way to use up the outer leaves and ribs of lettuce that might not make it into a salad. It is also very adaptable – use whatever salad leaves and herbs you have to hand. It is great for lunch or as a starter – especially before a fish dish.
This recipe was born one summer weekend when my friend Elizabeth Metcalfe was visiting. After a busy day working up our appetites, we went to the garden to pick vegetables and herbs for supper and made up this recipe. It is a perfect example of how a few simple ingredients can combine to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. It is important to allow plenty of time to first brown the chicken, then for the cream and wine to reduce as this will intensify the flavour of the herbs. Use a good heavy pan that can sit on the stove and go in the oven. I like to serve this with green vegetables and some new potatoes that I can crush into the sauce.
Where possible, I like to make use of more than one part of the plants I grow, and pea shoots are a particular favourite of mine for their beauty and excellent flavour. This recipe comes from my great friend Lee Hallman who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where she has a wonderful container garden. The risotto is a real taste of early summer, and a great way to show off tender young vegetables at their best. You could also use young broad beans and broad bean tops in addition to, or instead of, the peas. This is delicious with a lightly seasoned baby-leaf salad dressed simply with olive oil.
My friend Dr Kyle supplies me with the seeds I need each year for the garden. She is also a great cook, so I was delighted when she shared this easy pickled veg recipe with me. She uses beetroot, but I like to use carrots or radishes as well. Cucumbers work too – although they should not be boiled before adding to the pickling liquid. Keep any extras in a non-reactive container and in a cool place. I love to eat these with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream as a salad or side dish – great with leftover meat.
This flavoured vodka is the best I’ve ever tasted because the fruit is front and centre. Traditional recipes work by volume – one-third alcohol, one-third fruit, one-third sugar. My gardener friend Tom Coward’s does the same, the difference being that you don’t add the sugar until later, giving you the chance to taste as you add and stop at the point where the balance is just right for that particular fruit. If you have only a small amount of fruit to play with you could make it in a jam jar. Once the vodka is ready, strain it, decant into bottles and keep it in the freezer.
Cooking the blueberries in their juices really helps to bring out their flavour and creates a wonderful contrast with the smooth, rich custard in this dessert. With blueberries, you probably won’t need to use any additional sugar unless you have a very sweet tooth. If you decide to use fresh currants (black or red) instead, you may need a sprinkle. Figs, apricots and peaches will all work beautifully in baked custard, too.
While there is very little better than a fresh apricot eaten straight from the tree, if you are lucky enough to have a good crop you will need to be a little more imaginative. Baking apricots intensifies the flavour and will bring the best out of any fruit that is not quite perfectly ripe. The combination of spices in this syrup enhances different aspects of the apricot’s flavour, while baking them whole – with the stones still inside – adds another layer of complexity, with nutty almond flavours emerging. Try this alongside a scoop of good-quality vanilla ice cream or with double cream. This recipe would also work well with fresh peaches.
This pavlova recipe, from my friend Isabelle Smith, is a wonderful variation on the classic. Basil is a great partner for summer fruit and also turns the meringue the most delicate pale green.
Interview by Polly Dunbar
Buy Aaron’s fabulous new book with a 20 per cent discount
Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice and Recipes from Great Dixter will be published by Phaidon Press Ltd on 7 February, price £24.95. To order a copy for £19.95 with free p&p until 2 March call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk.