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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