‘the great dixter cookbook,’ with aaron bertelsen
ONE FAVORITE PLANT, one that has been a beloved companion here for a very long time, is a variety of Euphorbia called ‘Dixter,’ named for a British garden that also perhaps left the strongest impression of any garden I’ve ever visited. Now I am happy to say I have a beautiful new cookbook bearing the same name:
Aaron was on book tour in the United States lately, and made time just in the nick before boarding the plane home to talk about the Dixter vegetable garden, and what all he concocted from its long harvest season to serve up the 70ish recipes in “The Great Dixter Cookbook.”
Read along as you listen to our conversation using the player below (or at this link). It’s the April 17, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast. Enter at the bottom of the page, below the very last comment, for a chance to win the cookbook for yourself.
‘the great dixter cookbook,’ with aaron bertelsen
Q. You’ve had quite a global horticultural adventure in your life to date, Aaron. Can you tell us a little about the stops along the way so far?
A. I was born in New Zealand and grew up in New Zealand, and then left to come to Britain at the age of about 22. I went to Great Dixter to be a student for three months, and stayed for three years.
Q. Oops! [Laughter.]
A. And I traveled a bit regularly to Switzerland at that time, gardening in a chateau in Switzerland, then went to the States, to Iowa, for four months gardening. And then I went back to London to study at Kew, and then out to Israel for two years, working for two years in the botanic garden.
Q. And then back to Dixter, yes?
A. And then back to Great Dixter.
Q. And in your prolonged tenure you’ve been there about what—10, 11 years?
A. Interesting this is my 10th anniversary for growing vegetables there. I did not realize that when the book came out; it wasn’t until these travels that I realized it.
Q. So what’s the honorary thing you’re supposed to give someone for their 10th anniversary—is it a carrot or a rutabaga? [Laughter.]
A. [Laughter.] I’m not so sure.
Q. Is this your rutabaga anniversary? Even as far back as New Zealand, I think you even had some mentoring there in the vegetable garden. Your roots go deep in the vegetable garden.
A. Oh, yes. My grandfather was a great vegetable grower, and I grew up with that. I hadn’t realized his influence till I started writing this book. My style of gardening comes directly from him.
Q. Your job description on the book jacket says you are the Dixter vegetable gardener and cook, so what does the cook part mean—because it’s not a restaurant? [Laughter.]
A. No. Christopher died 11 years ago, and that was the moment where we lost his income from writing.
Q. And we should say that’s Christopher Lloyd, whose home Great Dixter was.
A. So we had to start finding a new revenue to keep the place going. We did this by doing study days and symposiums for North Americans. Fergus Garrett, the head gardener, gives them tuition, and I do the cooking. So that’s how the cook part came in, and it has evolved.
Q. Those are so popular; I know many people who have saved up their pennies to come over and do that.
A. We advertised one recently, and the 12 places sold out in 12 hours. So they seem to be going well.
Q. Then your cooking job is secure. [Laughter.] Do you have a cooking style, would you say? I could guess at it from looking at the cookbook, but how would you describe your culinary style?
A. It’s simple cooking, and enjoying the food within the season. I’m very aware of when things have their great moment, and I try to make the most of them in a way that’s simple, but so you can still taste the great flavor of homegrown vegetable, which I think is very important.
Q. There is nothing that is overwrought in the book, or fussy. I can see in the pictures the flavors of the vegetables and other ingredients coming through.
For those who may not have visited Great Dixter: how in the world so we really describe this place? [Laughter.]
A. It’s a very, very unique garden. It still has a very homely feel to it when you come through that little front gate and down that front path and see this beautiful house in front of you. The house is into three parts: There is a Medieval wing, there’s a Tudor wing, and there is the third one, a Lutyens wing. That sits in the middle, and this very interesting garden spreads around it, and is broken up into compartments with yew hedging.
The vegetable garden is up in the top part of that. It’s a full-on impact garden; lots going on, and very interesting in the way of using plants to their best.
Q. Is the vegetable garden where it always was, and does the public come to see it? Besides those study days you mentioned, there are also visitors on open days.
A. The vegetable garden used to be the whole of the high garden, and then Christopher reduced it in the 50s when he came home to live permanently. He needed space for his nursery, so three-quarters of it became stock beds. So we’ve only got a quarter of the left for vegetables.
Q. [Laughter.] The passionate collector, and someone who wants to try every plant shoved out some of those rutabagas.
A. You’d know about that.
Q. It’s funny what we do, and stuff just keeps getting pushed and pushed and pushed.
Q. You mentioned there wasn’t the income any more after his death from his writing. I’m someone who owns many of Christopher Lloyd’s books, and I am glad to see you carrying on the writerly tradition at Dixter. I think one of his later books was called “Gardener Cook,” no?
A. Yes, and it was based on the sort of same ideals about enjoying the vegetable garden and flavors you get from it.
Q. How do the ornamental gardens and the kitchen garden relate, whether philosophically or otherwise? Do all the gardeners meet and have common missions, as one big team?
A. It’s al under the umbrella of Fergus, who is the head gardener and CEO of Dixter. His vision is what pushes us forward. The vegetable garden is a very different style to the decorative side, because a lot of the vegetables are grown in straight rows, whereas the decorative side is completely different foliages and colors that all blends into one—leaving no room for weeds.
Q. I’m glad to hear that you are “allowed” or encouraged to make it production-oriented and not to have to make it ornamental. I speak sometimes to vegetable gardeners at public gardens, and they have to do that and sometimes it’s not as productive as a result. Of course one can do both, and one doesn’t want a mess on one’s hands, but I think sometimes vegetables are best grown in an orderly manner.
A. I think that’s right, and I think vegetables are beautiful grown in these lovely, straight rows going across the beds. I’m pleased that we can still grow them in a traditional way. And it feels that it’s part of Great Dixter’s rich history.
Q. I want to talk about some things you grow. I was thrilled to read in the new book that you love beets, or as you more properly call them: beetroots. Also when I read your entry about beets, they were purply-red ones. I love a proper red beet. The other colors are nice, but they’re not my thing as much.
What are some other real staples of the garden and your cuisine?
A. I think kale is big thing, and you play a part in that.
Q. Oh, it’s my fault? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, it is your fault, actually, after listening to you speak. And pumpkins are becoming a bigger part of the garden. I really love them, and think they are very versatile in the kitchen. They store well for us, which is always useful for the winter, to have vegetables that will give you some food then.
Q. I love the expression “good keepers,” an oldtime expression. It makes me happy.
A. Well, I am slightly old-fashioned. [Laughter.] You want a versatile vegetable like a pumpkin, and we grow a lot of salad crops, which are useful when you have study days and symposiums to cook for. So they’re our sort of staples, and then we have lots of other things throughout the year. And we still grow four rows of artichokes, as we did in Christopher’s time. Christopher liked to have artichokes throughout the year, and we’ve continued that and we use them in the kitchen and also sell them at the front door for our guests.
Q. Oh you do?
Like your own global gardening roots, the new cookbook seems to me to be infused with flavors of many places–not just traditional English cookery like Chicken and Leek Pie, which is in there I think, but also sumac dressing on a salad, and many other things that I wouldn’t think “English.” Let’s talk about some: like the kumara salad (I don’t even know how you say that).
A. Kumara is a native New Zealand word, a Maori word, for sweet potato, traditionally being grown in New Zealand. It’s a sweet potato and a very good vegetable. It’s becoming much more popular in England, but I grew up eating them, and it was much more popular there.
Q. You kind of make it into a salad.
A. Yes, with pumpkin, and a very good dressing that doesn’t take away the flavor of the two core vegetables, but just lifts them a little bit. [The dressing contains cilantro, mint, garlic, fresh ginger, honey, olive oil, and lemon zest and juice.]
Q. You have a secret ingredient in your granola.
A. As gardeners who spend a lot of time on their hands and knees, turmeric is a very good vegetable for joints, so I incorporate that into the granola.
Q. And there wasn’t a lot of sweetener in it; it didn’t seem sticky-sweet like so many of our American granola recipes seem to be.
A. Yes, I had a conversation actually with a lady last night who made the granola, and said it wasn’t American enough for her…
A. …and so she had hybridized hers and mine and added a lot more sugar. I certainly don’t eat a lot of sugar, and I think if you are using fresh fruit with it, it doesn’t need a lot. But each to their own.
Q. I was happy about that and thought it was a keeper, because it doesn’t have that. So many of them are just super, super sweet, and I don’t like that.
Tell me about the sumac dressing on that tomato salad.
A. The sumac is a Middle Eastern bark, and I think very good flavor if it doesn’t dominate a meal. It does very well in a summer salad.
Q. Do you remember what else is in it?
A. It has tarragon in it—which is another fantastic flavor. And in the dressing there is pomegranate molasses, which I have come to love and use a lot, whether it be with lamb or chicken, and it’s also very good in the dressing as well.
Q. There was a chickpea and tomato salad, and that might not seem like a strange combination—but the way it was put together.
A. I think the great ingredient in that is the fresh ginger, which gives it such a lift and unique taste. They are very simple flavors, the chickpea and the tomato, but having that coriander leaf and the fresh ginger really gives it a fantastic twist.
Q. And those are two things I would never have thought to combine, nor to combine with the chickpeas or tomatoes. It was completely different and I wanted to try it—as soon as the tomatoes come into season in about 100 years. [Laughter.] Or so it feels.
A. It won’t be that long. [Laughter.] But who knows?
Q. Who knows is right. Then you have a couple of recipes for these sort of savory patties or cakes or fritters: Describe the courgette [zucchini] fritters, and those potato kale cakes.
A. The great thing about the courgette fritter is that it’s actually very light, and it’s a very nice thing to either eat as a side, or I think they’re best eaten before lunch with a glass of Dutch gin or a glass of champagne, and with some hummus. They can be made in advance and then just slightly heated, as long as they are not lain on top of each other, because they will sweat. They have a very good flavor.
And also using the potato patties, which I think are very good when you want to get children to eat vegetables—well, potatoes are a vegetable, but things like kale. Children don’t always want to eat that, but the cakes are cooked in butter and are much more flavorsome for children, or you can add more cheese.
Q. To me, butter is one of the four food groups, so I am all for that. [Laughter.]
A. So am I.
Q. So owing to the Turkish ancestry of the head gardener at Dixter, Fergus Garrett, whom we talked about before, there is one recipe in the book called Borek, and your way of always having the ingredients on hand.
A. It’s quite a simple dish, and you can use frozen spinach for that. It’s quite easy and flavorsome with some cheese that you always have in the fridge, and the pastry keeps well in the fridge also; it’s ready-made and in a sealed packet.
Q. Like filo dough?
A. Yes, filo sheets.
Q. And instead of making “spinach pies” or triangular little things, I don’t know how to describe yours, but they are like snails.
A. You roll them like a cigar and then turn them like a snail, so they look like snails. And each person gets a snail each, which they often get with my salads, so it works perfectly.
Q. And it looks beautiful in the pan, too, even though it’s a simple dish. When you have a tray of them that you have baked, it’s beautiful. There are all these swirled snails tucked next to each other.
And I loved that in the recipe headnote, you said I could take my greens—you said you could use frozen spinach—but I could take my greens from the garden of any kind, and have that preparation, the filling, in the freezer if I wanted to make them in February.
A. And spinach does freeze well.
Q. To me, that’s always good—to be able to put things away so I have a taste of the garden all year.
I suppose I should have actually asked you for some growing tips but we got to talking about eating. So for instance, what about successions? To me they are a way to obviously extend the harvest of the crop, but also a way to outsmart insects or disease problems or weather aberrations. You do successions of lettuce, for instance.
A. Yes, because useful crops like lettuce that grow all through the season, we keep sowing seeds every three to four weeks. You don’t want them all to go over and not have any crop left. If you do the successions, you’ve got a lot more options.
Q. Do you do that with other crops as well?
A. I do that with other crops, like peas. They don’t always all get planted at once. Turnips, you can grow a couple of different crops so they come later. Beetroot certainly all through the year. We can overwinter beetroot, which I’m sure you can’t, but in a much milder climate they stay in the ground.
Q. No I cannot; you are correct. [Laughter.] They would be ‘Iceberg’ beets. What about vining crops? You grow a lot of beans, and I assume some are climbers, or pole beans. What’s a great way to support them?
A. We’re very lucky at Great Dixter, because we’ve got coppiced woodlands. We’ve got a by-product of the coppiced woodlands, which is the top part of the branches. We use those as they have traditionally been used in Britain. We call them peas sticks, and we use those to grow our peas and beans up [like this, and as above]. They’re quite tall twigs—the twiggy part of the tree—that we bring up from the woods in the spring after winter cutting, and use that to support the peas and the beans.
Q. When you say tall, how tall? Like waist-high or taller?
A. Well peas would grow to waist heights, but beans to no more than 6 foot. I always think there is no point growing something that you have to get a ladder to pick it.
Q. So you’ve got this pruning, and it has twiggy bits, but you stick the more solid end of it in the ground.
A. Yes, so the lower part pushes into the ground, and then the top finer piece go up to about 5½ or 6 foot.
Q. Wow. And no other support for it?
A. We then have a few chestnut poles down below to hold it in place.
Q. It’s sort of like “brushing up” the peas and beans but with a little extra support from those chestnut poles.
more about great dixter
- Visit the Great Dixter website
- About study days and symposiums at Great Dixter
- Aaron’s Great Dixter Vegetable Garden blog
enter to win the cookbook
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Great Dixter Cookbook” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last comment:
If beets, kale and pumpkin are some of the Great Dixter staples used through the year, what are your homegrown reliables?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Monday, April 24, 2017. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 17, 2017 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photographs except pea sticks copyright from “The Great Dixter Cookbook” by Andrew Montgomery/courtesy Phaidon. Used with permission. Pea stick photo from Aaron Bertelsen’s blog. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)