Great Dixter in East Sussex has a proud tradition of vegetable growing, as well as entertaining, whether serving up pumpkin pie to American gardeners, or sitting around the fire with a drink and something homemade. Resident kitchen gardener and cook Aaaron Bertelsen has collected his favorite recipes in a user-friendly volume, The Great Dixter Cookbook.
Photography by Andrew Montgomery.
Before The Great Dixter Cookbook, there was Gardener Cook, by the late great Christopher Lloyd, who was born at Dixter and spent most of his life there. He lived with his mother who died in the ’70s, an event that was quickly followed by the death of the cook. Lloyd found himself surrounded by fresh produce and no knowledge of how to prepare it. Always a beacon for students and admirers because of the garden, the house at Great Dixter became ever more populated with guests after Lloyd took up the challenge of learning to cook.
Since Christopher Lloyd’s death in 2006, there are more students and friends than ever, and the man overseeing the progress of food from garden to table is Aaron Bertelsen, himself a former student. The kitchen is divided in two: a pre-kitchen with a small table and antique refrigerator (and radiator) and an inner kitchen, leading to a yard. The pantry is brilliantly designed and typical of old-fashioned establishments: north-facing and always cool. There is a metal grill instead of a glazed window.
Aaron strikes a neutral tone in this book, choosing not to compete with the memorable wordsmith-ery of Christopher Lloyd. “Although scones are synonymous with strawberry jam,” Bertelsen writes, “I tend to serve them with plum jam because I don’t grow strawberries.” For a paragraph on the merits or otherwise of growing your own strawberries, see page 87 of Gardener Cook (in brief: it’s better to visit the local “Pick your own”).
The house at Great Dixter was remodeled in the early 20th century when Christopher Lloyd’s father hired Sir Edwin Lutyens. Besides the wonderfully detailed doors and cupboards, there are plenty of ample window sills for temporary storage or longer-term displays of pumpkins. The wall stencils are about 100 years old.
Old-style cookbooks, with an emphasis on enormous quantities of written information, are not easy to navigate. The Great Dixter Cookbook has the advantage of clarity; I may have many recipes for fruit fool but have never looked at them properly. Apparently, it is just a matter of simmering fruit and whisking cream.
The sober photography of Andrew Montgomery suits the interiors of the medieval house, and no doubt would have met the approval of Christopher Lloyd. As he mentions in his intro to Gardener Cook: “I hate those books that have glamorously laid-out meals in violently colored illustrations, which entirely put me off the product.”
N.B.: For more about Great Dixter, see: