Kew on a Plate – Raymond Blanc talks about his new book and BBC series
by Rhiannon James
Two years ago, Raymond Blanc took his 92-year-old mother and his sister out for lunch in the south of France, only to realise that the restaurant was located in the middle of a nudist colony. Whatever his mum’s thoughts on the matter, Raymond only had eyes for Agata – the potato in his bouillabaisse.
“As we arrived, there were all these nude bodies on the beach and it was too late to turn back so I thought, OK,” says Raymond, laughing so much he is struggling to get the words out. “But the point of that potato we ate in that bouillabaisse was that it was the best potato I have ever tasted. The flavour was rich, not floury at all, it was really absolutely beautiful.” Raymond has been growing ‘Agata’ ever since, in the hope of harvesting a potato that can live up to that moment.
It is this combination of mischievous fun with an intense commitment to putting the garden at the heart of his food that made Raymond an obvious candidate for creating a new potager at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – a year-long adventure that will be on BBC2 this month as a four-part series with an accompanying book.
The garden reflects Raymond’s passionate desire to return fruit and vegetables to their state of grace, before they were corrupted by supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of uniformity, long shelf life and year-round supply. It champions heritage varieties, organic growing and local (preferably home) production. It also reflects his mission to find, like that ‘Agata’ potato, the fruit and vegetables that can deliver perfection where it matters – on the plate.
With the able assistance of two Kew gardeners, Joe Archer and Alice Lumb, and TV presenter Kate Humble, Raymond grew 250 varieties of 50 different crops chosen for their flavour in his small corner of Kew, including many heirloom types with fascinating histories. These were subjected to taste tests and science experiments with Raymond designing new recipes to celebrate the best of them.
This was not just variety for variety’s sake. For Raymond, an apple is not just an apple, it is an ‘Annie Elizabeth’ or a ‘D’Arcy Spice’. ‘Chivers Delight’ (a Cambridgeshire variety from the 1930s), which is firm and high enough in acidity and sweetness to maintain its flavour when baked, he says is perfect for an apple tart while for a puree, try the “deep fruit” of an ‘Adam’s Pearmain’ (an early nineteenth century apple from Norfolk and Hereford) or a ‘Blenheim Orange’ (an Oxfordshire variety from 1740). For any apple though, it’s essential that “sweetness and acidity are in perfect balance because what makes a wonderful flavour is the contrast,” says Raymond – something he says supermarket apples are lacking. “You want sweet so they give you sweet. And we create these terrible apples like ‘Gala’, like ‘Jazz’, Like ‘Pink Lady’ which are full of sugar and no real flavour. It’s a bit like the seventies when the British palate was totally spoiled by salt. Twenty years later and our salt level is very low, but sugar will be exactly the same battle. And equally, the marketer knows that you, the British consumer, will go for looks, for the outside,” he says. “We get what we deserve.”
As the Kew project shows though, it’s not just the variety that influences the flavour but the growing too. “I can get very emotional about tomatoes, but the sad reality is that at least 90 per cent of those sold today are bred for their uniform looks and shelf life and are grown in huge greenhouses, hydroponically (without soil,” Raymond says in his new book. They are then picked before they are mature and ripened in special chambers using ethylene gas. Scientific analysis of these tomatoes versus the heritage varieties such as ‘Marmande’ and ‘Black Russian’ from the garden at Kew showed that the shop-bought tomatoes had a reduced diversity of flavour compounds and fewer potentially health-improving compounds.
The Kew project has benefited from many years of growing and taste trials at Raymond’s own organic kitchen garden at his two Michelin-starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. As well as extensive herb and vegetable beds, there is a heritage orchard with 2,500 trees which will rise to 4,000 when it is finished and a special mushroom garden. So why make another plot at Kew? “The garden is my culture, that’s what my mum taught me and my dad as well; they passed their knowledge to me. The garden, in the world of food, is the very heart – gastronomy is born from the garden. That’s the kind of gastronomy I know. And all my life, I’ve tried to pass that on to anyone who cares to listen,” says Raymond. “To me, it makes so much sense to grow things locally – that’s what we need to relearn in Great Britain, so obviously I wanted to do that on television.”
It’s hard to find a restaurant menu or cook book that’s not littered with references to seasonality but, according to Raymond, we are yet to truly embrace its importance. “If it is seasonal, if it is from close to home, it [a vegetable] has better taste, texture, colour and nutrients. A vegetable that has been picked a week before, which has travelled from millions of miles away, cannot possibly have the same nutritional profile as something just taken from the ground. Plus bringing it from a million miles away creates pollution, which you then have to clean up, and then there’s a huge cost associated with it so by eating our strawberries in June and not in December, and embracing seasonality, we could have better health, less pollution and less global warming.”
The programmes and book are accordingly structured around the four seasons but they also reveal a deeper sense of connection with the rhythms of the year and explain the importance of time in the evolution of each individual fruit and vegetable. Those baby vegetables so beloved of many chefs are pointless according to Raymond because they have had no time to develop any flavour. “I will cut a carrot when it’s just adolescent and it’s about three to four inches. The skin is not fibrous, the core in the middle will not have become woody, because that’s what happens when a vegetable grows beyond its size, the core gets bigger and bigger –it eats the flesh from the carrot – and it’s woody and hard and flavourless.”
He is also keen to emphasise ways in which fruit and vegetables can be enjoyed through their lifecycles from the tiniest seedlings or microgreens which can pack a powerful punch of flavour to the delights of beans left to dry in their pods. Nothing too is wasted; even the outer layers of a leek can be reserved for a soup.
Of course, as this is Raymond Blanc, Kew on a Plate is not just about growing. Raymond has created lots of new recipes to bring out the beauty of the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden. As it turns out, some of the simplest techniques can be the most revolutionary. “For me, the worst form of aggression is to boil a vegetable,” Raymond says. “The moment you boil, you know very well you are first removing lots of flavour through the water and then you are mostly killing your vitamins.” He recommends instead his ‘emulsion’ method which seals in as much taste and nutrition as possible. “A little bit of water, a tiny bit of garlic and a tiny dash of olive oil or butter, cover your pot and cook it beautifully FAST for three or four minutes and the carrot or whatever will give its own juice to the water and butter, creating an emulsion which will beautifully coat each piece and your carrot will taste TWICE as good as it used to!”
The nitty gritty of nutrition is not usually something you’d ask a chef about but Raymond is a bit different. “In the TV programme, I very much bring in the nutritional element of food, the idea that every molecule connects with our health or ill health,” he says. With some help from his partner of 13 years, Natalia Traxel, who is a doctor and nutritionist, he can tell you all about maximising potential vitamin A from carrots (by adding oil) and making the most of the nutritional benefits of brassicas – you need to eat them within 48 hours of being harvested, raw or lightly steamed. He is particularly worried about sugar and is exploring stevia and yacon as possible solutions – for the Kew project he has created a recipe for strawberry tartlets without using any sugar at all.
Trying out for ourselves some of Raymond’s experiments in growing, gathering and cooking food could it seems, even if in a small way, change the world for the better:
“I’ve always believed that food connects with our health, connects with everything and I mean everything: what agriculture we will have tomorrow, what kind of society we will have tomorrow, what kind of family we will have tomorrow. Eating is not an activity that is separate from what kind of world we are going to create for ourselves tomorrow,” he says.
Kew on a Plate will start on BBC2 on Monday 16th March. The accompanying book, Kew on a Plate with Raymond Blanc by Sheila Keating, published by Headline, will be released on 5th March. The Kitchen Garden is open to visitors and Kew gardener Joe Archer will be giving tours on weekdays at 2:30pm from mid March. Joe will also be running a one-day course: A Beginner’s Guide to Kitchen Gardening on 24th June.
Raymond Blanc’s Carrot, Cumin & Barley Summer Stew
For many years I’ve had a deep longing to create a form of risotto using barley, but as the Italians might tell me off, I decided to play safe and call this a stew. The spices add the complex notes – the heat should be gentle not overpowering. The dish is wholesome, satisfying and healthy yet luxuriously creamy and a fantastic showcase for the big flavour of my favourite Early Nantes carrots.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 30 minutes
For the carrots
500ml carrot juice
large pinch of sea salt
1 tsp ground cumin
6 carrots (ideally Early Nantes), skin on, scrubbed, halved lengthways then cut into 1cm slices at an angle
For the barley
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
80g white onion (about . medium), chopped
2 Passilla Bajio chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
150g pearl barley
1 tsp ground cumin
1 corn cob, cooked in boiling water for 20 minutes, covered
4 rainbow chard leaves, rolled and chopped; stems cut into 3cm pieces
3 spring onions, finely sliced
a small bunch coriander, chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
11/2 tbsp rapeseed oil
micro coriander (optional)
For the carrots, in a large saucepan on a medium heat, bring the carrot juice and water to the boil, then add the salt and cumin. Add the carrots and simmer gently for 10 minutes until they are cooked through. Remove from the heat, scoop out the carrots and reserve the cooking liquor.
To cook the barley, in a medium saucepan on a medium heat, add the oil and sweat the onions and chilli for 5 minutes, covered with a lid, until softened. Stir in the barley and cumin and continue to sweat for 1 minute. Add 500ml of the carrot cooking liquor to the pan, bring to a gentle simmer, then cover with a lid and cook for 50–55 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the barley swells and is firm with a good bite. Check the texture, taste and check the seasoning, and cook for a few minutes more, if necessary. Set aside in the pan.
To finish the barley risotto, using a long knife, carefully cut the kernels off the corn cob by running a knife along the central core. Keep four of the biggest lengths intact to use as garnish. Set these aside then release the kernels from the rest. Add the chard stems and leaves, spring onions and loose corn kernels to the barley pan and stir, then place the pan back on a medium heat and cook for 12 minutes. Add the coriander and cook for 1 minute until wilted. Finally, taste and adjust the seasoning if required, then add the lemon juice to sharpen the flavour.
To finish, in a medium frying pan on a medium heat, fry the cooked carrot pieces in the rapeseed oil for 6–7 minutes, until caramelised. Add the reserved pieces of sliced corn to the pan and cook for 3 minutes until they begin to brown. Spoon out the caramelised carrots, add them to the barley risotto and divide the risotto evenly between four plates. Finish with a length of sliced corn and micro coriander, if using.