Not standing still: The Great Dixter Cookbook

Gardener Aaron Bertelsen on the landmark garden that inspired his new cookbook centred on home-grown, seasonal produce


Say 'Great Dixter', and for some what springs to mind is the ornamental garden, with its bold, even shocking combinations of colour and texture and its exuberant planting. But the vegetable garden is also central to the life of this unique place. On this patch of Wealden clay, improved and enriched by a century of compost and cultivation, we grow fruit and vegetables to feed the many hundreds of friends, guests and visitors from around the world, who come to the garden each year to work, study, learn and share their ideas.

Great Dixter is also synonymous with the Lloyd family – Nathaniel, Daisy and their six children. They created the vegetable patch, along with the rest of the garden, when they arrived here at the start of the 20th century, and home-grown produce formed an important part of their diet. Christopher, their youngest son, was to take over the house and garden and put both firmly on the map. In his later years, finding himself without a cook for the first time, he taught himself and took great pleasure in producing delicious things made from his home-grown fruit and vegetables for both himself and his guests.

Christopher believed in celebrating whatever was in season at the time, and simple cooking was the best way to appreciate the flavour of just-picked peas, or a pear or plum left to ripen on the tree. Now that I am the one looking after the vegetable garden and the kitchen, my aim is very similar: to make the most of the produce that is in season and to show it off at its best. This is one of the great joys of growing your own – to be able to enjoy vegetables and fruit as they should taste, freshly picked and packed with vitamins and flavour.

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I first taught myself to cook out of necessity; living alone in my twenties, I was always in need of a good meal at the end of a hard day's gardening. Over the years, I have come to develop my own style, which, if pushed, I would describe as simple, seasonal and resourceful – I like to use fresh produce from the garden as home-grown fruit and vegetables taste so much better than shop-bought and I hate to waste the crops I have grown. Very often, fruit and vegetables take centre stage in my cooking too. Smoothies are a breakfast staple, and soups, salads and vegetable tarts form the backbone of our lunches throughout the year. Where meat does appear, it plays a bit part rather than being star of the show.

Inevitably, my own tastes and preferences have been shaped and enriched by ideas I have picked up over the years from other countries and my friends. Those influences can be seen in the book from my Israeli friend Yoav's shakshuka to the Turkish borek from our head gardener Fergus Garrett, and New Zealander Susan Butt's pumpkin and kumara salad. They all make good use of the crops we grow.

The connection between kitchen and garden is one of the things that make my job so fascinating. Every day I draw on the lessons I learnt from my grandfather in New Zealand, whether planting out seedlings a trowel's-length apart, striving to achieve a perfectly straight row, or following advice from Perry Rodriguez who ran the vegetable garden when Christopher was alive, or Tom Coward, who worked here for years and now has his own garden at Gravetye Manor. Then there are my American friends who are always sending me wonderful seeds, and, of course, the visitors to the garden, who also bring their different opinions and ways of doing things. I will be forever grateful to the lady who gave me her recipe for crispy kale with sea salt and lemon.

(Image credit: DALiM)

Every year brings something new and different. Both cooking and gardening require a willingness to learn from experience and to adapt what you are doing, from finally giving in and using fleece to protect young seedlings from frost, or combining pear, lettuce and fennel in a smoothie. Both cooking and gardening offer tremendous scope for creativity, whether that is adding rosemary to a loaf of bread, growing varieties of beetroot in triangles to create a foliage pattern, or sowing cream-coloured marigolds next to dark-leaved lettuces. As with everything at Great Dixter, the vegetable garden and the kitchen never stand still.

AARON BERTELSEN grows vegetables at Great Dixter, a Grade I-listed garden in the grounds of the former home of gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd in East Sussex. The Great Dixter Cookbook, featuring recipes alongside tips on how to grow the fruit and vegetables featured in them, is out now, Phaidon, £24.95;

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