Autumn garden notes and recipes from Great Dixter
An extract from Aaron Bertelsen's The Great Dixter Cookbook
I always think of autumn as the start of the gardening year. When the summer is over and the garden cleared of all the crops that have gone over or gone to seed, I feel a great weight lifting from me. Now is the time to look back over the year’s successes and failures, to make plans and to replenish and improve the soil ready for the next year’s crops. This opportunity to start afresh each year is one of the things I love most about growing fruit and vegetables. Unlike having planted an ugly shrub, say, or an ill-chosen tree, I am not forced to live with my mistakes — I can simply learn from them and move on.
In the kitchen, it is a different story. Here, rather than clearing the decks, we are busy restocking, filling the freezer with fruit and vegetables, and making jams and chutneys to see us through the colder months. And this too makes me feel happy. I believe that cooking, like gardening, is an activity best done with other people, and there is nothing better than a leisurely afternoon in the kitchen making jam or chutney with a good friend. It is a celebration of everything the garden has given us.
This is a very special recipe for me for a number of reasons. First, it came from someone who I can honestly say changed my life. I have known Susan Butt as a neighbour and great friend since I was three years old — we are like family. After university, when I wanted to get into gardening, Susan was the person who told me about Great Dixter and encouraged me to write to Christopher: the rest is history. Second, I am very happy to have a recipe that feels like it has a New Zealand flavour to it.
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It is a great pity that many people will not eat beetroot — I guess it is a hangover from schooldays. I think it has a much more interesting flavour and texture than potato, and maybe this is just the dish to convert them. Can anyone resist baked cream and parmesan? I could very easily eat a whole dish of this on its own, although it is also wonderful with a good roast chicken. Do try to hunt down some decent parmesan — it is worth the effort.
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The marriage of tarragon and chicken is one made in heaven, and more than enough reason to grow the herb. At Great Dixter I grow it in pots that sit in the courtyard outside the kitchen. Christopher Lloyd’s recipe below is unbeatable, but do take the time to brown the chicken properly at the start, ideally in a cast-iron pan. The iron gets very hot and then holds the heat so that the chicken takes on more colour while cooking.
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Beetroot is incredibly easy to grow. The only things you really need to watch for are spacing, so that they have room to grow, and watering, so that they don’t run to seed. I grow several varieties. Detroit has a great rich flavour and a mouth-feel like a waxy potato. It bakes brilliantly. Crimson Globe looks beautiful. Slightly lighter in colour, it has distinct rings that remain visible after cooking. But my favourite of favourites has to be Boltardy, it is an excellent doer and lives up to its name.
Parsley, coriander and dill will quickly run to seed, so keep them well watered and pick the leaves regularly. Mint is invasive so either keep it in a pot or, if you must plant it out, try sinking it into the ground in a plastic pot with the bottom taken out. Perennials, such as rosemary and thyme, can become woody unless they are cut back regularly. Tender perennials, such as tarragon, should be protected over winter — I keep mine in a greenhouse.
I like to grow a range of different varieties each year. Jarrahdale is the king of the pumpkins for me. It starts off grey and gradually turns a beautiful salmon-pink colour. Black Forest Kabocha is the pumpkin my father grew when I was a child. He always roasted it, so that is what I do with mine.