GARDEN VARIETY Recipes from The Great Dixter Cookbook by Aaron Bertelsen
AN EXTRACT FROM THE GREAT DIXTER COOKBOOK BY KIWI CHEF-GARDENER AARON BERTELSEN.
MINT & PEA SOUP recipe page 114
For me, soup is not just a winter dish – I love to eat it all year round, and I particularly enjoy cold soup. Mint gives this soup a wonderfully fresh taste, and it makes a perfect lunch with some bread and cheese on the side. Perry, the estate manager at Great Dixter, once accused me of being lazy for adding whole peas, pods and all, to the pot, but I feel they give the soup more body and intensify the flavour. For the best result, chill the soup thoroughly. If I am making it for a crowd, I will put a large bowl of it in a sinkful of iced water. Note that this soup does not freeze well.
AARON BERTELSEN IS MUSING about preserves, something his grandmother was well known for.
“There was always a glut of fruit in summer, and you need something to eat on your toast in the winter. If you don’t preserve, you don’t have that wonderful memory of summer. It does remind one that there is hope after winter.”
The absence of a Kiwi drawl leaves no hint of Aaron Bertelsen’s upbringing in Muriwai, West Auckland, surrounded by his grandfather’s vegetables and grandmother’s beautiful flowers. British eloquence has taken over thanks to the past 20 years he has spent living and working as a gardener 18,000 kilometres away.
Most of that time has been spent at Great Dixter in southern England, on the border of Kent and Sussex, the home of the late Christopher Lloyd, an acclaimed gardener, television personality and writer.
Bertelsen volunteered at the manor, which is a mecca for green-thumbed pilgrims around the world, in 1996, when he was fresh out of the University of Otago, where he studied classics and social anthropology.
A three-week stint extended to three months, and a career of gardening followed: Israel’s botanic gardens in Jerusalem, and various other gardens around Europe and the United States. He returned in 2005 as Great Dixter’s vegetable gardener. Following Lloyd’s death in 2006, Bertelsen entered Dixter’s kitchen and has not looked back.
“I’m not a professional cook by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a trained gardener and I cook out of joy, really, and necessity,” he says.
As a seasoned gardener, he has a strong appreciation of all an ingredient’s qualities, from root to flower.
“There’s no point wasting something you’ve grown. It’s like people don’t seem to eat ox tongue any more, but it’s a byproduct of a cow that you’ve slaughtered, so you might as well eat it.”
That appreciation goes further, with the transience of the seasons. “I’m very much against eating fruit and vegetables that aren’t in season. They’re hugely overpriced and under-flavoured.
“It’s three weeks of gluttony, which is pure joy, rather than 52 weeks of mediocre. It may be only for a short time, but God it’s worth it.”
In his almost 10 years of cooking, Bertelsen has leafed through plenty of Lloyd’s kitchen notebooks as well as creating his his own recipes inspired by his travels.
The Great Dixter Cookbook features gardening tips and recipes for British classics, some contemporised – the likes of leek and Stilton tart, shortbread, Damson jelly and apple crumble. Tomato salad with sumac dressing salutes his time in Israel, meanwhile, while his grandmother’s fruitcake and a pumpkin and kumara salad nod to New Zealand.
The one thing Bertelsen wants to achieve from this book is to have people cook, modify and build upon the recipes within its pages.