A little spot of ground.
In England, flowers tumble from window boxes, festoon doorways, and border even the tiniest lawns. Vegetables and fruit are not so obvious, but English gardeners grow them just as passionately as they raise flowers.
Behind the houses you'll find A-frames covered in scarlet runner beans, while glass-lidded cold frames shelter tender crops such as cucumbers. In summer you'll see great ferny hedges of asparagus, thistle-headed artichokes reaching to the sun, and row after row of lettuce, peas, onion, beets, strawberries, and more. There will be currant and gooseberry bushes and perhaps an apple tree. You might spot tall stands of fennel or pillowy clumps of chives. And there's sure to be mint. It's a gardener's bane because it spreads, but English cooks love it. They drop sprigs into the water for boiling new potatoes or young peas, and they wouldn't dream of serving roast lamb without chipping a handful of mint for a fresh mint sauce.
The teamwork between English gardeners and cooks has a long history. It goes back to at least medieval times when the lowliest cottager had strips of village land for growing grain and a garden but the cottage for growing "worts"--a term that included both vegetables and herbs. Parsnips, valued for their sweetness and for the leaves that fed cattle, were the most popular crop, while cabbages, lettuce, parsley, radishes, and onions added flavor and nutrients to the medieval grain-based diet.
The gardening habit survived the centuries. Even when the Industrial Revolution turned England into an urban country, nineteenth-century industrialists who built their employees model towns such as Port Sunlight or Saltaire provided gardens, either near the houses or as plots of land called "allotments." Today, many vegetable-growing enthusiasts rent allotments for a small sum from the municipality. Since allotments cluster together, they not only offer growing space but also a chance to share gardening tips and complain about the weather with neighboring allotment holders.
Just as backyard and allotment gardeners can trace their gardening back to feudal cottagers, so the kitchen gardens of large country houses descend from medieval manors. In an era of muddy roads and dangerous forests, the manors produced all their own food. In the warmer south, they could raise grapes for wine and maintain orchards of apples and pears for cider, perry, and sauces. Farther north, leafy greens, leeks, and skirrets--a form of carrot--predominated.
Sometimes recipes of the period call for specific vegetables. Blaunche Porre--literally "white puree"--is a stew of leeks and onions, colored with saffron. Caboches in Potage is a spiced soup of cabbage and leeks. But other recipes are vague, often simple calling for worts and letting the cook use whatever was in season.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, all sorts of new crops were appearing. This was the great Renaissance era of discovery. Potatoes, green beans, and peppers arrived from the Americas: artichokes, broccoli, fennel, and scorzonera came from Italy; eggplants and cauliflower made their way from Middle East; and rhubarb completed the long journey from China.
With these new crops to explore, both gardeners and cooks needed books explaining how to grow and serve them. Many of these originated as household books, in which ladies wrote their "receipts." Generally, they focused on special dishes and on ways of preserving the bounty of their gardens. They made rosewater for flavoring desserts and perfuming cosmetics. They preserved vegetables as pickles or in layers of salt or sawdust or in sugar syrups. The eighteenth-century writer Hannah Glasse had recipes titled "To Keep Peas Green till Christmas and Artichokes to Keep all the Year." The trick with artichokes was to place them in a warm oven, "till they are as dry as a Board, then put them in a Paper Bag and hang them in a dry place."
These books show the anxious concern to make the best possible use of garden crops, so it's not surprising that some authors combined both gardening and cooking expertise in one volume. Of these, John Evelyn's Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets, published in 1699, includes a pullout plan for a vegetable garden, explaining what the gardener should work on each month. Evelyn also gives cooking and medicinal advice. For example, writing of beets, he says. "The roots ... cut into thin slices, boil'd, when cold, is of itself a grateful Winter sallet; or being mingl'd with Oyl, Vinegar, Salt ... 'tis preferr'd before Cabbage as being of better nourishment. Martial commends it with Wine and Pepper."
Larded with such classical references and sprinkled with Latin, Evelyn's book can be hard to read today. But in 1744 an anonymous author published a detailed book on cultivating and cooking vegetables and fruit that is as useful as it was when it first appeared. Called Adam's Luxury and Eve's Cookery, it was intended for "the Use of all who would live Cheap and preserve their health to Old Age."
The emphasis on healthfulness dovetails with today's nutritional concerns, and the vegetables match those still found in English gardens. But only tow or three decades ago, some of its recipes, and indeed those of the contemporary Hannah Glasse, would have seemed strange. For example, it has nine recipes for artichokes, it has nine recipes for artichokes, three for scorrel, and four for cardoons. These had disappeared from most English gardens and were reintroduced from Continental Europe in the early 1980s.
Many traditional recipes lost favor. For example, virtually every pre-twentieth-century cookbook has a recipe for artichoke pie filled with artichoke hearts, dried fruit, dates, spices, and sometimes. chicken. Cooks also made spiced and sweetened pies from spinach, green beans, peas, parsnips, and potatoes. Fritters were popular, too. Adam's Luxury and Eve's Cookery has recipes for beets in a clove-seasoned batter of flour, wine, and eggs, and for parsnip fritters flavored with rosewater and sherry. Some vegetables now usually eaten raw were frequently served as hot side dishes. Cucumbers were hollowed out and stuffed, or stewed and served with meat, for example. Celery was made into ragouts with gravy. Lettuce was a staple in soups. The ribs of the leaves were sometimes candied, or the whole vegetable was stuffed with sweetbreads and chopped meat or other fillings.
Today, when chefs work hard to create ingenious dishes, few of these recipes sound as bizarre as they did a few years ago. But while fashions in cooking change, the English love of growing vegetable gardens stays constant. Summer evenings find allotment holders munching just-pulled radishes and discussing their entries in the vegetable section of the local flower show. Homeowners spend the long, light evenings hoeing. Suppers start with a trip outside to gather lettuce, peas, or strawberries. As autumn approaches, cooks squirrel away pickles, chutneys, and jams for winter. Berries are frozen and potatoes stored for winter. Come September, it is time to offer the shiniest jars, the handsomest cauliflower, or the purplest beets to the harvest festival at the church.
With all this plenty, gardeners and cooks have no trouble agreeing with John Evelyn's classic conclusion to Acetaria: "He that was possess'd of a little Spot of Ground, and well-cultivated Garden, with other moderate Circumstances, has all that a Modest Man could well desire."
RELATED ARTICLE: SUMMER PEA SOUP
This pea soup should include lettuce, but feel free to add or substitute other green leafy vegetables or herbs.
1 Tbsp. butter 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 Boston lettuce or similar loose-leaf lettuce 2 cups (loosely packed) spinach leaves 8 stalks parsley 8 young mint leaves 10 young sorrel leaves or 1 tsp. lemon juice 3 cups shelled peas salt and pepper to taste 1 cup whole milk or light cream mint sprigs or chives (or both) for garnish
Melt the butter in a large pan over low heat. Add the onion, cover, and let the onion soften for 4-5 minutes. Discard outer leaves of the lettuce and tear the remaining leaves into coarse pieces. Strip off any tough, coarse stems from the spinach. Put the lettuce, spinach, parsley, mint, sorrel leaves or lemon juice, and peas in a pan with 4 cups water. Season lightly with pepper and salt, cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes. Cool to lukewarm, then process in batches in a food processor. Strain each batch through a sieve into a clean pan. Add the milk or light cream and cook over low heat until the soup reaches simmering point. Check the seasoning and consistency. Add salt and pepper, if necessary, and more milk if you like a thinner consistency. To serve, pour into soup bowls and garnish with mint sprigs or chives or both. Serves 4-6.
RELATED ARTICLE: EVE'S BEETS
This recipe is adapted from Adam's Luxury and Eve's Cookery, which says that the beets should be sliced from top to tail "in the Shape of the fish called Soales."
3 medium beets, boiled and peeled 1/2 tsp. powdered cloves, plus extra for serving if liked 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 tsp. salt, plus extra for serving 1/4 cup white wine 1/4 cup milk 1 egg, beaten light olive oil or peanut oil for frying lemon wedges for garnish
Slice the beets into 1/2-inch slices, working from the stem to the root end. Dust with powdered cloves, shaking from a sifter or through a sieve. In a shallow bowl, mix the flour and salt. Make a well in the center and stir in first the wine and then the milk and egg. Whisk into a very thick batter. If necessary to mix, add water a teaspoon at a time, but do not let the batter get thin.
Pour about three-quarters of an inch of oil into a shallow pan and heat it until it is so hot that a drop of batter sizzles and pops up to the surface within a few seconds. Place a beet slice in the batter; coat it on both sides then quickly remove it to the oil. Working quickly, coat three or four more beet slices with the batter and add to the pan.
Fry them for 2 minutes a side, or until both sides are golden. Lift from the pan and drain on paper towels. Keep these beets warm while you work on the rest. Do not let the beet slices sit for a long time in the batter because they will stain it with their juice. Sprinkle with salt and a little extra cloves, if liked, and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve immediately as a side dish or hors d'oeuvre with drinks. Serves 4.
RELATED ARTICLE: ARTICHOKE AND CHICKEN PIE WITH CURRANTS
Old recipes called for far more dried fruit and dates, but this modem version just has currants.
6 large (about 2 lbs.) boneless, skinless chicken thighs salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup flour 2 Tbsp. olive oil I medium onion, chopped 1/4 cup sherry or Marsala 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth 1/2 tsp. mace or nutmeg 1/3 cup currants 6 cooked artichoke hearts, quartered 2 Tbsp. light cream 1 lb. puff pastry 1 egg, beaten
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Sift one tablespoon of flour over the pieces and season them with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the chicken pieces over high heat until lightly golden--about 5-6 minutes. Remove from the pan.
Saute the chopped onion in the pan juices until it has softened. Add the artichoke hearts, sprinkle with mace or nutmeg and the remaining tablespoon of flour, and stir together for a minute. Add the sherry or Marsala and half the chicken or vegetable broth and stir over moderate heat until the liquid thickens. Return the chicken to the pan and add the currants. Add the remaining broth. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Remove the mixture from the heat. The filling can be made several hours ahead.
To proceed, preheat the oven to 425 [degrees]F. Lightly grease the sides of a 2-inch-deep pie dish or casserole. Take a third of the pastry and roll it into a 2-inch strip. Line the edges of the dish with this. Roll the remaining pastry into a lid to fit the top, and cut a hole in the center to act as a vent.
Fill the dish with the artichoke and chicken filling. Brush the pastry edging with egg and place the lid on top. Press to seal the edges,-then brush the lid with egg. Cut pastry scraps into leaf shapes and arrange on top. Brush these with egg, too. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 [degrees] F, then 10 minutes at 375 [degrees] F. Serve with vegetables. Serves 6.
RELATED ARTICLE: ROSE FLUMMERY
The word flummery comes from the Welsh. The dish has been popular since the Middle Ages, when it was made from either almonds or whole-grain wheat or barley.
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds 1 cup half-and-half 3-4 Tbsp. clover honey or similar light-colored honey 3-5 drops almond extract 2-4 tsp. rosewater 1 package unflavored gelatin 1 pint strawberries roses or rose petals for garnish
Put the almonds in a food processor and process until they look like fine bread crumbs. Put them in a medium saucepan along with the half-and-half, milk, honey, and 3 drops almond extract. Heat over low heat, stirring often, until the mixture barely reaches simmering point. Keep it trembling at this point for 10 minutes, then pour it through a sieve to strain out the almonds. Taste and stir in another tablespoon of honey if you want a sweeter dessert. Stir in a teaspoon of rosewater. Taste again, and add more rosewater and almond extract to get the flavor you like.
While the mixture is cooling, dissolve the gelatin in a small bowl with a quarter cup of hot water. Stand the bowl in a pan of hot water set on a low heat. Stir until the gelatin mixture is completely clear. Stir about half a cup of the cream mixture into the gelatin, then stir this into remaining cream mixture. Rinse out a mold with cold water. Don't dry it. (This makes it easier to turn the flummery out for serving.) Pour the mixture into the wet mold. Chill for at least 4 hours, or until set. For serving turn onto a pretty serving plate. Decorate with the berries and roses or rose petals. Serves 4-5.
RELATED ARTICLE: APPLE AND RAISIN CHUTNEY
Chutneys are a favorite way of using garden crops.
2 1/2 cups cider vinegar or 1 cup each cider vinegar and malt vinegar 1 tsp. whole allspice 1 2-inch stick cinnamon 1 bay leaf 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 2 large onions, peeled and chopped 2 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped 6 tart apples such as Granny Smith (about 2 lbs.), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks 1 15-oz. package raisins salt and cayenne pepper to taste 2 cups dark brown sugar
Put the vinegar, allspice, cinnamon, and bay leaf in a large saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain out and discard the spices. Add the garlic, onions, celery, apples, 2 teaspoons salt, and a pinch of cayenne to the vinegar. Cook covered for 15 minutes, or until the apples have softened.
Stir in the sugar and cook gently until it has dissolved. Add the raisins, then cook at a moderate to brisk temperature until most of the liquid has evaporated (about 4-6 minutes, depending on the juiciness of the apples). Taste a little of the chutney and add more salt and cayenne to taste. Pour into sterilized jars and cover.
(To sterilize jars, immerse them in a large pan of water, bring to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Alternatively, put them in the oven, turn it to 250'F, and leave the jars for 20 minutes.) When the chutney is cold, remove the lids from the jars and wipe the insides to remove any condensation. Because of its high sugar and acid content, this chutney keeps well for 6-8 weeks. Makes about 3 pints.
Claire Hopley, who grew up in England and now lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, writes about food, travel, and books.