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Journal

In the garden with Xanthe Gladstone

“I remember so vividly going out to our vegetable plot where I grew up in Scotland and eating carrots that we had just pulled out of the ground. I remember the taste so well, that sweet taste of a carrot that tastes like a completely different vegetable to the ones you buy in a supermarket ... Our vegetable garden didn’t last long because it was ravaged by deer and rabbits ... but it influenced the direction I decided to take my career.”

A few years later, Xanthe Gladstone, now 24, is back growing carrots in that same rabbit infested garden, dividing her time between Glen Dye in Kincardineshire, her family’s other home Hawarden in North Wales and London, combining growing vegetables with cooking and writing recipes. She is one of a new generation of young people recognising the ways in which the current system of industrial food production is not working, with the energy and borderline obsession to do something to change it. Just two years ago, newly graduated from Edinburgh University, Xanthe was following a much more conventional career path for a recent graduate - she was in an office job working on marketing for food and drinks companies.

Very quickly though she realised that being inside, sitting still and working at a desk were making her unhappy. She retreated home to rural Wales to rethink her career and then to Ireland to take the legendary Sustainable Food Course at Ballymaloe Cookery School. The course is taught by Darina Allen and a host of internationally acclaimed teachers - over six weeks it covers organic growing, climate change, food waste, nutrition, foraging - a modern, evidence based, food culture that harks back to traditional methods and skills. It is a course that fosters understanding of the link between the farm and the plate with an emphasis on sustainable growing and eating, a course that aims to reset the broken system of food production.

“By far the most important thing I have taken from the course is learning from the ferocious passion that the whole team of teachers bring to the school. Learning to question the system, to stick to your beliefs and to value proper quality food. We close our eyes too often to understanding the journey that food has made to get to our plates.”

Back in the gardens, Xanthe is deep in mud, creating lasagne raised beds and planning her crops, seeing what will grow in enough quantities to sustain a business. In Wales she has a beautiful, if previously underused, Victorian walled garden to play with, but in Kincardineshire her plot is on top of an unsheltered hill.

“I have chosen to grow similar vegetables in both places, so seeing how the different climates affect how they grow and how they taste is going to be a fascinating experiment.”

The food itself is destined for the various Gladstone family businesses - the holiday cottages at Glen Dye, Hawarden Farm Shop and The Good Life Experience festival in Flintshire - as well as for Xanthe’s own restaurant project, a pop-up supper club in London called Knuckle which she runs with her boyfriend Hugo Ross.

At present they get their produce from the organic vegetable sellers Abel and Cole and the aim is to gradually supplement that with home grown - knowing the exact provenance from seed to plate, closing the gap between grower and eater.

Xanthe is a great fan of the American chef Dan Barber, writer of the book The Third Plate, who has campaigned for ‘Farm to Table’ style restaurants to evolve much further.

Rather than cherry picking the most conventionally highly prized ingredients, he encourages chefs to look at the food that is being underused or wasted along the way. The more unfashionable cuts of meat, the less glamorous vegetables, the parts that would be thrown out. For me this holistic view of ingredients is something that is much more likely to happen when there is a true connection between the growing and the cooking. It is obviously something we get on an individual level when we grow things to cook, but it has been missing from a lot of restaurant food, even the restaurants which put great emphasis on provenance. The browsing of a farmers market selection or the visiting of a farm is good sourcing, but it is not the same as actually growing things and knowing them.

Personally I think all chefs should have a stint tending growing things as part of their training. I believe it transforms a relationship to food – it fosters a generosity with ingredients, a lavishness with herbs and greens, but also a care and respect. The knowledge of how frost and rain and soil affect flavour, when to harvest for specific subtle changes of tastes – these things can’t be learned from bought ingredients, only from grown.

Xanthe is spreading these passions through community projects too - from being a gardening ambassador in primary schools to organising a farmers market for local producers within the walled garden at Hawarden.

There are bees and chickens and a great love of making things from scratch, digging around for the ways things have been done for generations and re-interpreting them for contemporary tastes. Xanthe has a wonderfully evocative Instagram feed, full of vegetarian recipes with vegan versions - and she has given us her recipe for Radish and Carrot Kimchi.

Photo Kinvara Gladstone

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I am a bit of a womble.  My Studio is a layering of things that have been found, things that have been saved, things that have been given to me - I like to be surrounded by a bit of history. ⁠⠀
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I am known as an avid skip diver so people kindly keep me things.  This weekend I am off to pick up 13 sash windows rescued from a skip.⁠⠀
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This is my dye cupboard - the mordants and other powders, the piles of fabrics and yarns, my newly started record book and the glue to paste the swatches in.⁠⠀
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It has had a hard life - the back is patched with hinges as plates, there are many, many layers of paint and a door has gone missing along the way.  It is perfect.⁠⠀
Back when I grew flowers commercially the area that is now ‘the orchardy bit’ was rows and rows of spring bulbs.⁠ In the years where the deer didn’t eat the tulips they looked magnificent, stripe upon stripe of pure pigment. ⠀
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When I turned my back on growing for money, we simply took out the beds and levelled it, turning it back to grass.⁠⠀
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The tulips quickly gave up - never brilliantly perennial here anyway, they took the opportunity to fade out fast.⁠ Well if you don’t want us . . . ⠀
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The narcissi loved it though and every year appeared back in their serried rows through the grass. ⁠There was something disturbingly grave like about them.
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My planting  ever since has all been an attempt to disguise that - feathering the edges, making little islands, trying to make it all look haphazard.⁠⠀
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Gradually it is working - this is the edge of what would have been a bed of Narcissi geranium (best vase life, along with best scent) - now happily interspersed with a pheasants eye and a little lemon coloured one I have lost the name of.
Abundance.⁠⠀
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And the hedges beginning to vibrate with that gloriously specific spring green.
This week has been about experimenting.⁠⠀
Experimenting with all the ways to dye with daffodils, experimenting with the new e-course part of my website, experimenting with shooting and editing videos on my phone.⁠⠀
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My business hero is @sethgodin and his mantra is 'ship it' - a way of saying that the best way to learn is to make things and get them out in front of people before they are polished and 'perfect'.⁠⠀
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So I took his advice and combined all three experiments. Today's newsletters will have links to a free e-course all about dyeing wool with daffodils.⁠⠀
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I have been absolutely amazed by the colour you get from faded daffodil flowers (see the second photo). It is a bright, yet somehow soft, golden yellow which is now adding an amazing zing to my pile of plant dyed fabrics.⁠⠀
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I am prone to obsessions.  My brain hones in on topics and rabbit holes away, a constant background chatter to my life.⁠⠀
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It annoys the people I live with as my world shrinks to one topic. ⠀
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My camera roll shows me it is three years ago this week that I returned to natural dyeing with plants, concentrating on using only the plants growing within a couple of miles.⁠⠀
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Three years of experimenting with plant after plant, three years of googling and reading obscure articles and piling up samples. ⁠three years of conversation about mordants and modifiers. ⠀
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Three years is a short time in such a slow craft. A blink of an eye. ⁠⠀
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But already I can see a difference in my skill.⁠⠀
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This is a corner of the cupboard where I stash my fabrics and yarns building up enough for a project.  These have all been dyed this year - with barks and cones. ⁠⠀
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This week I am dyeing with bright deadheaded daffodils and the golden yellows will join these soft terracottas and pinks while I dream up something to make.
I grow very few white flowers. ⁠⠀
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White summer flowers tend to mark in the rain - white roses look like discarded tissues, white dahlias spot brown.  Even cosmos purity - which I do grow - goes droopy and grey in a way that the coloured versions don't.⁠⠀
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The petals of spring bulbs however seem rain resistant - so I can indulge my love of white flowers and enjoy them backlit by the morning sun on the Studio window shelf.
Bright and light and pretty.
I am spending a lot of time in the greenhouse at the moment - playing an endless game of jenga with my seed trays.⁠⠀
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Many of the seedlings are for the community gardens - being planted out gradually under fleece. We are biding time, taking the cautious route so that we minimise the risk of everything being wiped out by a very cold night.⁠⠀
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We still have a full month of frosts to go here - little ones of -2 or 3 are manageable, an extra covering of fleece, some bricks to act like a storage heater.  Most hardy seedlings will recover from getting their tips nipped a bit.⁠⠀
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Last year though we had a really cold night in mid May, when growth was going well and sappily. It blasted the blossom and killed many of my hardy veg too. Slightly too late to resow.⁠⠀
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Speak to the older generation of gardeners and they all sowed and planted out much later than is the fashion today.  They perhaps had a point.
I wrote in my Friday letter this week about the sudden lifting of the uncertainty and inertia that had been dogging me for a few months.⁠⠀
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It's always easier to write about these things once they are resolved - do you find that?  Once I am unstuck and lolloping along happily again, I can look at it all and not get sucked down.⁠⠀
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Of course all this talk of getting going again, of new plans and exciting things . . . . it all actually means hard work. ⁠⠀
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Head down, working through an actual written plan kind of hard work.  Not always my natural strength.⁠⠀
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So yesterday I rearranged the studio window shelves and cleared the working table, ready for an uninterrupted start today. ⁠⠀
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An attempt to keep momentum.
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About Snapdragon Life

At Snapdragon Life I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

 

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