Since March, I have been growing and harvesting fresh salad leaves, herbs and vegetables at Newton Walled Garden, just outside Edinburgh.
It is one of the most satisfying things that I have done as a chef. At the height of the summer, the garden was supplying both escargot restaurants with all of our salad leaves and a little more than 50% of all the herbs we need.
I can't tell you how rewarding it is to plant a seed, nurture it, pick it and then to finally see that produce on the plate. Working with nature and the seasons is vital for a chef. Growing our own produce in the garden has given me a genuine sense of re-connecting with nature and its cycles. Tending the plants on a beautiful summer morning is incredibly fulfilling. It is almost like therapy.
There are several reasons for doing this. Yes, there is a slight economic benefit from growing your own veg and herbs but that hasn't been my main motivation. Being able to grow better quality produce than I can buy from wholesale suppliers is more important to me.
In the restaurants, we work hard to source the best quality meat, dairy, fish and drinks. We seek out the best producers we can and work closely with them. I want to be just as rigorous and as discerning with our vegetables and herbs. Growing my own seems to be the best way to do this.
There are good, passionate local suppliers who grow high quality vegetables. Unfortunately, they are not geared up to supply the quantities required in the two restaurants. I don't want to buy from the mainstream commercial suppliers because I cannot trust their products. I don't believe in the methods they use.
Recent events have highlighted problems in the poultry supply chain. We all remember the scandal of horse meat being mis-sold as beef from a few years back. We know there are fundamental problems with both the industrial livestock farming system and the supply chains that take it to the consumer. There is less awareness about the problems with industrial plant farming.
I don't want to eat vegetables from Spain or Holland which have been sprayed with pesticide and fed artificial fertilisers to make them grow faster. Nor do I want to feed these things to my customers. By growing our own, I know exactly where my veg comes from and how it was produced. It has integrity. It has verifiable provenance and I can have faith in it.
The produce from my garden tastes better. The flavours are more intense. They are not watery. By growing my own radish, lamb's lettuce or celery, we get a product which has a true flavour of itself. I also believe it is more healthy than commercially grown vegetables. I feel better after eating it and I want our customers to get those benefits too.
Around 1.3 acres in size, the garden is owned by Mary Fawdry. It has been in her family since 1947 although their connections with the land go back a century. As a child, Mary ran barefoot around the garden. Several decades later, she still works in the garden every day. I am very proud to have a role in the garden's story and very thankful to Mary for sharing it.
One of the reasons that Mary invited us into her garden was that she wanted to see it 'happily used'. She wants to see it have a wider benefit. Being involved in the garden has allowed us to employ a gardener. We also bring groups of school children to the garden and cook with them using vegetables that they have pulled from the ground.
It all feels good. It all feels right and, I said, working this kitchen garden has been one of the most rewarding challenges of my career. We have plans for developing our work in the garden with Mary. I will tell you about them as they come to fruition. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go and pick some leeks.