Thank goodness it’s via email as I’ve already assumed the sing song lilt of Paul McCartney as I prepare to interview the well-known British author Adam Nicolson. (They say that Canadians have an ear for picking up dialects). His latest book, “Sissinghurst, An Unfinished History” is due for release stateside this month. With a bag of crisps and outfitted in my Beatles T (seemed only appropriate) I read his fascinating memoir of growing up with his grandmother, poet Vita Sackville-West at her legendary English castle “Sissinghurst”.
Rich in content, his writing satiates many interests including history, agriculture, economics and gardening. Personally, the “bangers and mash” were the passages that focused on the formal gardens and more importantly, the agricultural landscape surrounding Sissinghurst. Here, Nicolson discusses how he fought to transform the dormant working landscape of the castle grounds into a viable working farm. Eventually, the triumph of this resource was able to support the culinary needs of Sissinghurst’s restaurant. The business operation that Nicolson designed is reminiscent to New York’s Stone Barns outfit of employing sustainable farming practices to feed the locavore frenzy. With a British spin, his model is embellished with regal punctuations, murder, treasure and nostalgic accounts of his distinguished ancestry. As the book ends, we see how Nicolson has begun a new chapter in Sissinghurst’s long history. He will be noted for breathing new life into the grounds in an innovative way that amalgamated old world practicalities with contemporary economics and food culture.
Recently, I had the favor of his interview in anticipation of his lecture stop in Darien. (Please note that he references Alan Alder the ballet dancer not, Hawkeye Pierce). And so my cyber conversation with Mr. Nicolson begins.
Lesley MacAulay: To meet the culinary demands of your restaurant, the farm needs to supply food in order to produce approximately 200 meals a day. How do you accommodate the kitchen in tandem with the constraints of the cooler growing seasons? How has your plant list changed since its conception... according to what plants thrive best in the soil or as per culinary preference?
Adam Nicolson: One of the benefits of running a restaurant in tandem with a famous garden is that it is all closed over the winter, from late October to about mid-March. This means that we don’t have to cater in the vegetable garden for those non-growing months. But of course that does leave the hungry gap in the spring when visitors are here in numbers for the spring flowers but the vegetables have yet to produce in any volume. We have made a big feature of lettuces, herbs and other salads for those early parts of the year. We also very carefully store root vegetables and when the new orchard gets into full production we will store and/or juice apples and pears.
The plant list is in constant evolution, and it is of course a conversation between the soil (which is exceptionally difficult here) and the kitchen. This conversation has not always been easy, as the chefs at Sissinghurst have found it rather difficult to adapt to the supply of vegetables coming off the garden in slightly unpredictable quantities and qualities. It’s early days!
It is important to remember that this is about more than a vegetable garden: the new farmer here John Hickman has Sussex beef cattle, Romney sheep, chickens and large wheat and oat fields. The beef and lamb is already in the restaurant, eggs coming on stream. He may be getting some pigs later in the year.
LM: Ina Garten is a celebrity chef in my neck of woods. I refer to her recipes constantly. I selected her highest frequency produce used in her recipes to influence what I should plant in my own jardin potager. What would be Sissinghurst’s high frequency produce?
AN:Salads and herbs, spinach, kale, chard, courgettes and cucumbers, peas, broad then runner beans, carrots, beetroot, potatoes and in the polytunnels, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants
LM: The New York Times estimated that in 2009 approximately 10 million people would start a garden for the first time. Have you seen a similar phenomenon explode in England?
AN: Certainly there is a huge Grow Your Own movement in England, a desire to return to roots, to know where your food comes from, to get back in touch with the soil, to feel the freshness .
LM: What advice would you give to the novice home “vegetabler”?
AN: Get the soil right! Feed it with organic matter and make sure that it will drain. Neither too thin nor too stodgy. And lots of compost. If you get that right, things grow. And don’t sow too early. Be patient about getting things in the ground.
LM: Stone Barns in New York runs a similar operation to your own. They now have two restaurants that they support through local farm resources. It has been a huge success and the owners have since created Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture to foster their message of local farming. How many visitors to Sissinghurst are now coming to see the operations and intricacies of the working landscape rather than the White Garden?
AN: Before we started this new whole farm scheme Sissinghurst was getting about 150,000 visitors a year on a slowly dropping trend. Last year, after quite a lot of promotion and publicity, Sissinghurst had 200,000 visitors. About 120,000 of them went to the restaurant, about 90,000 visited the vegetable garden. We don’t count the numbers who walk round the farm.
LM: Since opening its doors to the public, Sissinghurst has become globally renowned for its spectacular and beautiful formal gardens and walkways. How was the dichotomy of the returned agrarian landscape stitched into this refined design aesthetic?
AN: The idea Vita had for the garden here was that she could ‘find in chain/The castle, and the pasture, and the rose.’ The ruined Elizabethan mansion, the mixed farmland and the garden she made were all to be part of one connected whole. The ancient landscape of the Weald of Kent provided the rather loose, rough frame within which the high gardening in the Rose and White gardens could be seen as a climax or culmination of the place. High horticultural art, the idea is, is seen to best advantage when it appears emergent from the landscape not imposed on it. To recreate a mixed organic Wealden farm (not wall to wall chemical arable crops) is to return Sissinghurst to its natural balance.
LM: In landscape architecture “genius loci” is a term used to describe a sense of space or a place’s individual personality. You provided a punch list of objectives for Sissinghurst in your book. How has the estate’s identity of becoming “a place exceptionally itself” evolved since you went to print?
AN: These things are extremely difficult to define. It’s certainly feeling good at the moment. There are a lot of people working on the land here — the Hickman family, the vegetable gardeners, volunteers, new woodmen and estate wardens, who seem to have a spring in their step. As I do! Genius loci comes, maybe, from the integration of human desires for a place with what that place can give them. It is in the concordance of those desires and the unforgiving conditions imposed by weather, soil and aspect that a place can seem to live. But it is slow. We have to ease into a new/old way of being. It’s coming: we have lovely calves and lambs here in newly sown pasture fields which have been down to oil seed rape for years. John Hickman is an exceptionally careful farmer and the arable land looks great. We have put in nearly a mile of new hedges on old lines. And we have re-instated a 40 acre hay meadow (Frogmead) which was there in the Middle Ages and was taken out in about 1860. ‘A place exceptionally itself’ is a somewhere that is living in the knowledge of its own past but is energised and not trapped by that knowledge
LM: Obviously the gardens at Sissinghurst are your favorite. What landscape would be a close second?
AN: I have long loved the Hebrides, wild, rough and very beautiful islands on the NW coast of Scotland.
LM: I really enjoyed your nightingale analogy. What history do you envision yourself making that will be emulated in the future?
AN: I hope that the changes that are happening at Sissinghurst might provide a model for other places. That is the song I would like to think I am singing.
LM: Imagine that you could assemble a cast from past to present to join you in a Sissinghurst harvest feast. Who would make your guest list?
AN: Off the top of my head:
Audrey Hepburn, John Aubrey, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Keats, Benjamin Disraeli, John Betjeman, Alan Alder, William Cobbett
If your name didn’t make Mr. Nicolson’s guest list you still have an opportunity to share in his company (Though, I would imagine minus the rabbit pie, slow-roast root vegetables and pudding with gooseberries). He will be speaking about this book and personal journey at the DCA on May 19th. The event is being sponsored by Barrett Bookstore whom also have copies of the book for purchase. From me to you.