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Nigel Slater: suburban guerrilla

The understated celebrity chef gives Cate Devine a tour of his bountiful garden ahead of his new TV series and reveals why he has become such a passionate supporter of the grow-your-own movement.

When Nigel Slater opens the door of his minimalist Georgian terraced house in London, he’s munching on a buttery hazelnut biscuit.

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The white interior of his hip four-storey home is infused with the old-fashioned smell of baking, and his designer kitchen sinks are piled high with delightfully dirty dishes. A platter that last night contained a dish of sticky pork ribs is immersed in cloudy water, while a baking bowl and greasy baking sheets are stacked high nearby. The rest of the Pawson-designed all-white kitchen is absolutely spotless.

The much-admired food writer makes me a coffee (Illy, of course) that trickles thickly from the machine into a delicate white porcelain cup, and then decides to have one himself. “I don’t normally, but what the heck,” he says, grinning, his outfit of navy and black a dramatic counterpoint to his immediate surroundings. Together we snack on his newly baked biscuits. He’s trying out a new recipe, and worries that the centres aren’t as soft as he’d hoped. A perfect excuse for trying another.

Delicious as the cookies are, though, I’m too distracted by the view of his garden to pay much attention to them. The French doors are thrown open and I can’t resist bounding through them to the overgrown, fecund haven Slater’s had me dreaming about through his recent newspaper columns. His garden is also the subject of his latest cookbook, and forms the basis of a new BBC One television series. Here, within six neatly hedged square beds, I see an attractive jumble of various types of tomato, squashes, beans, beetroot, chard, cabbages, carrots, and lots and lots of potatoes -- most of which are Scottish heritage varieties such as Arran Victory, Kestrel (“a piercing violent and white”), Golden Wonder, Pink Fir Apple, Duke of York, British Queen, Pentland Javelin, Epicure, Edzell Blue, Kerr’s Pink and Shetland Blue.

There are fruit trees overhanging each bed and the whole space is enclosed by high hedges, trellises and walls. On a wooden table are terracotta pots of baby kale seedlings in wooden crates. A ball of twine, various hand tools, gardening gloves and sacks of perfect compost all help create an artful illusion of rural bliss -- even though we’re just yards away from the busy main road that runs past the front of the house.

And that, of course, is the point. At 51, and after a lifetime of food writing, Slater has become a passionate supporter of the grow-your-own movement, and insists it’s possible for anyone to create tasty organic vegetables at home, be it on a doorstep, windowsill or raised bed. It has to be said that his own south-facing urban garden is to die for, though it was not always thus. Originally laid to lawn, it was redesigned as a growing space by the gardening writer Dan Pearson, and advice on soil conditioning was given by none other than former Gardeners’ World presenter and current Soil Association president Monty Don. Several sackloads of compost and bucketfuls of horse manure later, Slater’s once-heavy clay soil is now, as he puts it, “as rich and sweet as sachertorte”. He’s also had huge success with his doorstep pots and bags, where this year he has grown thyme, purple sage, runner beans and wild strawberries.

It’s a serene and peaceful space, and Slater, who is single, readily agrees that it suits his solitary lifestyle. Slater almost always writes recipes for two people -- unlike, say, Nigella Lawson, who cooks for a family of six. But he does seek solace in other people. He suddenly announces: “I have serious allotment envy. Having gone round so many of them for the television series, I realised they were very visually beautiful and so productive. You’d be in the grottiest part of a city you’ve ever seen, turn a corner and there would be acres of climbing beans and vegetables. I love that people grow flowers with their vegetables.

“I also love the community aspect of allotments. I used to think they were for old guys in flat caps, and I really got a shock to see there were youngsters, old people and families working together. There is no class or race distinction with allotments -- just every social group getting on and having a good time.”

  A deep love of plants

 

Not that Slater would have the time to run an allotment on top of everything else. Tender, his 12th book so far, runs to a staggering 613 pages, with recipes for 29 different vegetables as well as growing advice. Its title is indicative of Slater’s characteristically gentle writing style and unfussy, uncomplicated dishes, and the stunning photography is both emotive and inspirational. It has taken three years to put together -- mostly because the artwork records each vegetable in its proper growing season. It speaks volumes of Slater’s deep love and affection for the plants whose seeds he chooses and nurtures so carefully.

Slater is already working on the second volume of Tender, to be published next year, which concentrates on growing and cooking with fruit. On his living-room work table a book entitled the English Plum is open at a page which shows a pretty watercolour of Victorian plums. Slater takes his writing and art directing as seriously as he takes his food. He’s up at 6am every day to switch on his computer and doesn’t stop until teatime, bar shopping trips for food. He creates recipes on his Gaggenau cooker and writes them up on his laptop, which he brings into the kitchen. It’s a meticulous and painstaking process. Experiments are usually consumed by him and his photographer Jonathan Lovekin. “My idea of hell is socialising with other foodies,” he says. “I can’t bear it. The whole foodie network thing drives me mad.”

It’s a sign of the times that so much effort -- and, no doubt, money -- has been spent on creating a book that is essentially a modern guide to one of the oldest pastimes in the world. After all, knowledge about how to grow veg is something our parents and grandparents would have taken for granted. Now, Slater points out gently, “there are an awful lot of ready meals about”.

Tender, and Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers, his BBC television series about growing your own, both tap into the current vogue for gardening and fresh, locally grown produce, but they also serve as a wake-up call for those who would dismiss the issues surrounding modern food production. Even those without a growing space can support the movement by buying at farmers’ markets and local shops.

“Let’s face it, local councils would sell off their vacant land to developers given half a chance,” he says. “There’s no money for them in allotments, so they’re like gold dust. I do have a sense that it could all be lost so easily. I found that almost every single allotment holder I met for the series was fearful that their plot would be demolished sooner rather than later. Everybody seems very aware of how precious land is.”

Slater hopes now to encourage more of us to “put something back” into the land before it’s too late. “I love the idea that people who have never cooked might start,” he says.

It was after his acutely asthmatic mother died when he was nine years old that the young Slater was given his first piece of garden to tend. “We’d moved to the country so that Dad could be nearer the woman who was to become my stepmother, and I was bored and asked for a garden,” he explains. “Then one day I came home from school to see a sign that read ‘Nigel’s Garden’. Dad had given me a patch next to his that he didn’t know what to do with, and though it was hard and dry I did start to grow things like carrots.

“Dad was a big gardener and if I have green fingers at all they’ve come from him. For me, one of the best smells in the world is when you break off a tomato plant. It reminds me of walking into Dad’s greenhouse when he was pruning his tomatoes. That has stayed with me.”

  The only boy in the cookery class

 

Ask where he got his love of cooking, though, and he doesn’t know. “I grew up thinking Mum wasn’t a very good cook because she didn’t do all the things other mums did, like baking,” he says. “It was only later that I realised it wasn’t because she didn’t want to or couldn’t -- it was because she wasn’t very well. I was unaware of how ill she was.” Though he documents these details in his searingly poignant award-winning 2004 autobiography Toast, it is really quite moving to hear them at first hand.

“I didn’t do well at school but they did let me take domestic science, bless them. I was the first boy to be allowed to cook alongside the girls. It was a big deal for my school to do this. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.” Slater got a GCSE in domestic science and after leaving school he started working in kitchens. This allowed him to escape home life. His stepmother was a “fantastic” cook but became very competitive. “I can’t think of one person who influenced me,” he concludes.

But he readily acknowledges that his gentle manner comes from his mother rather than his domineering father. “Gosh, yes, Mum was very gentle and very elegant and willowy and quietly focused. The worst thing I ever heard her say was ‘oh, heck’. She was lovely and very sweet. I do think I’m a lot like her.”

Slater’s email correspondence from his readers and viewers -- an “astonishing” number of whom are from Scotland -- is lively. “The vast majority of them are lovely and I only have a very few uncomplimentary ones,” he says. What’s the rudest email he’s had? “Someone describing me as smug,” comes the hesitant reply. “I don’t Twitter, but I do read tweets and there it was. It really upset me because I can’t think of anyone less smug. You have to be really confident to be smug, I think, and I’m one of the least confident people there could be.”

We’re sitting in his sparsely furnished white living room, underneath two portraits of a Dutch couple painted in 1643 and purchased by Slater when they came onto the market after languishing for 300 years in a French abbey. “I discovered after I got them that it was their wedding anniversary, so I opened a bottle of champagne and we had a toast,” he says. “Then one day I was gazing at them again and I realised I’d bought portraits of people who reminded me of my mum and dad. She has that gentleness and I could imagine her rolling out pastry.”

  At home behind the scenes

 

Unlike the late Keith Floyd, for example, Slater never swears on television. He says he enjoys the productive side of making TV more than seeing himself on the small screen. “I like being in the editing suite, enjoy the camera work and love doing voiceovers. As a practical thing to do it’s lovely. But I’m not bothered about actually being on telly.”

He isn’t about to join the new brigade of shouty celebrity chefs who raise awareness of supermarket chicken rearing or the standard of school dinners. “A lot of food telly has become very campaigning, and I’m not against that. I’m very glad someone’s doing it, but I do worry that pure cookery is getting slightly lost,” he says. “I wanted to see someone rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, and I think that’s where I slot in. My approach is softer and the feedback I get seems to suggest people like the idea of somebody quite gentle.” More Delia Smith than Gordon Ramsey, then? “Yes, I think so. It works because my stuff isn’t unusual or wacky. It tends to be classic home cooking with a bit of a twist or my signature on it. I don’t do anything people would say is different, but it’s familiar. I really, really enjoy doing cabbage recipes. I’m a brassica-phile.”

But it’s potatoes that really pique Slater’s interest. Tender devotes a stonking 55 pages, by far the largest section in the book, to tubers. “I love my spuds; I adore them,” he says. “But of all the vegetables, they are the only ones whose sales are dropping. Blame it on low-carb diets and their emphasis on switching away from starch. Many others prefer pasta and rice as accompaniments for meat or fish, so the potato is losing in the popularity stakes. I wanted to big them up a bit.”

He says he didn’t realise so many potatoes were Scottish varieties. “I was absolutely amazed to find out that all the potatoes we love, when you trace them back, they are Scottish. In Britain we have the perfect microclimate and the perfect soil to grow them in. I can’t grow enough of them to save my life.”

We love the potato so much, he claims, because of its versatility and ability to fill us up cheaply. Potatoes, he says, can calm and comfort, satisfy and satiate, but in truth they have little nutritional value. The real reason we eat so many is because of their power to soothe and fill. “A move away from a pile of potatoes on the plate will lead towards a new appreciation of an ingredient whose qualities have long been measured only in quantity,” he writes in Tender. “We shall learn that this vegetable is so much more interesting than simply a filler, that it is something whose character can vary dramatically according to season and variety. A vegetable to be explored with a new vigour.”

And, brushing off the last of the biscuit crumbs, he’s off to raid the fridge to find something to eat for his solitary tea. It’s likely to be leftover cold spare ribs and a bit of salad. “Not very glamorous, is it?” he says. Well, I beg to differ.

 

Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers, a six-part series, starts on BBC One on Wednesday at 7.30pm. Tender, a Cook and His Vegetable Patch, Vol. 1 by Nigel Slater, is published by Fourth Estate, priced £30.

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