Midday in the kitchen at Great Dixter and the vegetable gardener, Aaron Bertelsen, uncorks a bottle of cold white burgundy. I was expecting a cup of tea and a bit of fruit cake.
This is, after all, a very English house. Designed by Edwin Lutyens (he combined two houses, one from the 15th and one from the 16th century and added to them), Great Dixter, in Northiam, East Sussex, was home to one of Britain’s most loved gardeners and writers, Christopher Lloyd. He grew up here and eventually took over the gardens created by his father and Lutyens, and made them his own.
'This is exactly what Christo would have done,’ says Bertelsen, pouring generous glasses. 'When Christo was here and there was just the two of us we’d often have champagne at lunch. He believed in living life.’
Lloyd died in 2006 but his old fridge, bought in 1932, still hums quietly in the corner. The big glass-fronted cupboards, the crockery, utensils and shelves of books are all his. But this is not a house and garden set in aspic. Half the table is covered with labels, string, spices, jars of jam (a lot of preserving goes on here), and paperwork. A constant stream of people – gardeners, office staff, friends – drift in and out.
The talk is of practicalities – what chores have been completed this morning, what needs to be cooked for dinner, new recipes. There’s a lot of swearing, teasing and laughter. Lloyd is mentioned so often you’d think he was upstairs writing away just as he used to, and his influence seems to be at the front of Bertelsen’s mind.
An irreverent, funny and energetic New Zealander, Bertelsen knew about Lloyd from pieces in Gardens Illustrated and first visited Great Dixter as a student in 1996. He returned in 2005 intending to stay for three months but never left. 'Christo taught me so much,’ says Bertelsen. 'He didn’t think of gardening as a job or a hobby. He saw it as part of life, something that everyone should be doing, and he thought everything was connected – gardens, music, literature. He gave me book lists, fiction he thought I should read, and made me start a diary. The diaries were one of the conditions of my being here. He would say that a diary entry “puts everything to bed’’.
It was a kind of therapy, an end in itself. The horticulture I learnt from the head gardener, Fergus Garrett, but from Christo I learnt about life. He taught me the difference between seeing and looking. “Be interested, always ask questions,” he used to say. And also he advised me not just to have friends my own age. He thought you should have younger friends too. Freshness and curiosity were very important to him.’
Throughout the year, Great Dixter hosts symposiums and the staff (the gardening students live here and have bedrooms upstairs) have to be fed as well, so cooking is almost as important as gardening. That job soon fell to Bertelsen.
As he could only make pasta bake when he arrived, he had to learn fast. 'I started to love the vegetable and fruit gardening more than any other. Gardening to eat feels different. I began to enjoy eating greens because I’d grown them. A desire not to waste anything grew naturally. Christo believed in sustainability and we still do today, but not because it’s a rule – if you grow fruit and vegetables you want to ensure every bit is used. Simple and seasonal is a good mantra but a cook needs to be resourceful too.’
Bertelsen’s recipes, with some from the Lloyd family’s kitchen notebooks, have now been preserved in The Great Dixter Cookbook, published next week. Bertelsen particularly loves beetroot (he uses the leaves and seed tops), adores salad ('but not those micro-leaves, they’re total nonsense’) and tomatoes ('when I meet other vegetable growers in the summer that’s all we talk about’), and is helpless when faced with ripe seasonal fruit. 'Fruit is the romantic side of edible gardening – it’s luscious. I can gorge myself on fruit.’
Soups, vegetable tarts, salads and simple puddings such as compotes and crumbles are the backbone of cooking here. Preserving, which starts in the summer and continues through to the winter, and freezing are important too. There’s a huge larder – it’s the size of a small room and feels colder than it is outside – stuffed to the gunnels with chutneys and pickles, and another large cupboard devoted to jams. On almost every windowsill there are ornamental gourds.
The gardens are almost deplete of colour, it being winter, but the bleached branches and patches of tired honesty are beautiful. Inspecting fennel and bitter leaves with Bertelsen’s dachshunds trotting beside us, I wish I was a gardener.
'I know I live in a very privileged position but everyone can grow something. I like to teach rather than preach – half the stuff that is said about growing your own is bullshit,’ says Bertelsen. 'You have to be sensible and realistic about your space, and you have to accept that things go wrong, but gardening makes you feel good. And it’s great to eat what you’ve grown.’
Pumpkin soup – made from Great Dixter pumpkins – cheese, chutney and homemade bread are the perfect lunch. As I leave more pumpkins arrive in the kitchen. They’re expecting 50 people for dinner so orange flesh is being chopped with a huge cleaver; there’s more soup to be made. 'Yes, more soup, more soup!’ cries Bertelsen. 'I need to think of new flavours to go in this.’
I consider, even though I have a life and children at home, asking if I could stay and work here. Great Dixter is so suffused with good food and so devoid of pretension that I don’t want to leave: I long to roll my sleeves up and cook.
Baked potatoes with smoked-mackerel pate
Christopher Lloyd was the master of the baked potato, and under his tutelage I came to love them. The first step is to choose the right variety of potato. For us at Great Dixter there is only one choice: the Picasso. It is the right size, with sweet-flavoured skin and fresh-tasting flesh. The mackerel pâté recipe comes from a great friend, Harriet Parsons. Christopher loved it, especially with drinks on the lawn. It is best made the day before and left in the refrigerator overnight to set.
For the pâté
- 4 smoked mackerel fillets
- 500g cream cheese
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp strong horseradish sauce
- freshly ground black pepper
For the potatoes
- 6 large baking potatoes (Picasso variety, if available)
- olive oil
- roasted beetroot or green salad, to serve
- chopped spring onions and parsley, to serve
- First make the pâté. Take the skin off the mackerel fillets and remove any small bones. Put into a food processor or blender with the remaining ingredients and blend briefly. Don’t overdo it – you’re making a pâté not a paste.
- Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Scrub the potatoes, pat them dry and prick all over with a fork. Brush with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt and bake for 1 hour, or until soft when pressed.
- Serve with the pâté and roasted beetroot or a green salad. Garnish with spring onions and parsley, if desired.
Roast leg of lamb with broad beans
The combination here is one of my favourites. The mint really enhances the flavour of both the lamb and the broad beans, bringing a freshness to this dish.
- 3kg leg of lamb
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2kg fresh broad beans in their pods, or 550g frozen beans
- 1 carrot, 1 onion and 1 celery stalk, all roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp golden caster sugar, plus an extra pinch
- 1 tsp tomato purée
- 4 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 150ml dry white wine
- sprig thyme or rosemary
- 250ml lamb or chicken stock
- 50g butter
- 1 tbsp chopped mint
- buttered new potatoes, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas Mark 2.
- Rub the lamb with one tablespoon of the olive oil and season well. Place in a roasting dish with a lid and roast for three hours.
- Increase the temperature to 200C/Gas Mark 6 and roast for another hour, or until the meat has begun to break apart. Turn the oven off and leave the meat in to rest until needed – at least 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile pod the beans (if using fresh ones) and cook in a pan of boiling water for five minutes. Refresh in cold water, then squeeze them out of their skins and set aside.
- For the gravy, my method is unorthodox, but ensures less greasiness than the usual way. Heat the remaining olive oil in a clean pan, add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic and brown gently for 10 minutes. Stir in one teaspoon of sugar and the tomato purée and let this brown too.
- Pour in all but one teaspoon of the vinegar and cook to reduce to a syrupy glaze.
- Tip in the wine, scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan and let bubble. Add the herb sprig and stock, simmer for 10 minutes, then strain and set aside.
- Once the meat is resting, melt the butter in a pan, add a pinch of sugar, the mint, a good pinch of salt and the remaining wine vinegar. Bubble for one minute, then tip in the skinned beans along with two to three tablespoons water and cook for another two to three minutes.
- Reheat the gravy in a pan, spooning in some of the meat juices if desired, but be careful to skim off any excess fat.
- To serve, carve the lamb into thick slices and serve with the beans, gravy and buttered new potatoes.
Frozen pea and mint pesto
This recipe is perfect for using up any forgotten peas in the freezer, and it is a real taste of summer, which I hanker for in the winter. It is delicious with pasta.
3 small jars
- 250g shelled fresh or frozen peas (about 900g in their pods)
- 2 fat cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 50g pine nuts, toasted
- 50g Parmesan cheese, chopped into small chunks
- good handful mint leaves
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for storing
- Cook the peas in a pan of boiling water for two to three minutes, until just tender, then drain and refresh in cold water. Drain again and pat dry.
- Tip into a blender or food processor and add the remaining ingredients. Pulse very briefly, until everything is roughly chopped – the mixture should still have some texture.
- To store, put into a tightly lidded container, cover the surface with a little more olive oil and store in the refrigerator for one week, or freeze in plastic food bags for up to one month.
Great Dixter’s pear trees are over 100-years old and still produce great fruit, but I always want more, and fortunately can get them from an excellent orchard just down the road.
For the pastry
- 350g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 175g cold butter, diced, plus extra for greasing
- 1 egg
For the tart
- 6 pears (750g in total), ripe but not too soft
- 2 tbsp demerara sugar
- double cream, to serve
- Put the flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the egg and, using a knife, stir in just enough cold water (two to three teaspoons) to bind the dough together.
- Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and shape into a ball. Cover with clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes, or ideally one to three hours, before using.
- Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4, placing an oven rack in the lower part of it. Butter a loose-bottom 30cm tart tin.
- Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface until it is large enough to line the prepared pan.
- Peel, quarter and core the pears, then slice the quarters lengthwise. Arrange the slices in concentric circles in the pastry case, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with the sugar, place the tart on a baking sheet and bake on a low oven rack for 40 minutes until golden.
- Take the tart out of the oven and carefully slip off the outer ring, leaving the tart sitting on the base. Return to the oven on the baking sheet for another five to 10 minutes so that the sides get really crisp.
- Let the tart cool to room temperature, then slide onto a serving plate and serve with double cream.