Down a rickety private road with a large Victorian house to one side and a tall Victorian wall to the other, I’m excitedly guided towards a timber door within the wall, which simply reads: Secret Garden. Pushing the creaky door wide open, a magical sight reveals itself – four acres and 50 shades of green.
It’s a balmy 29°C and the heady scent of summer is still very much alive, swirling around within this curved Victorian walled garden where I now stand – the kitchen garden of Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred chef of Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles in Perthshire.
The space is divided, with a large 2.3 acre rectangular growing space to the nearside, filled with rows of lavender plants, wild strawberries and zucchini, among many other vegetables, herbs, edible flowers and fruit, while to the far side–a wild grazing ground for the garden owner’s flock of sheep.
There’s a persistent but faint buzz in the air, which I later attribute to the colony of Scottish black bees, tended to by local Perthshire beekeeper Paul Valot. To the left of the garden is the aged cast iron greenhouse, which, although parts and panes have been replaced over the years, also dates back to the Victorian period.
Unlike other gardens, this one is unique. The surrounding wall – which happens to be listed – provides an environment, which can be a suntrap and a perfect growing ground for many, many varieties of fresh produces. “It’s also great for keeping out deer and rabbits,” says Jo Campbell, kitchen garden manager and all around horticultural whizz. “There is something special about walled gardens in that they were once areas of high production of vegetable, herb, fruit, cut flower and exotics,” she says.
As Jo and Andrew guide me through the garden, pointing out herbs, plants and vegetables, we pick, smell and taste our way through some of the ripe produce. Foraging among the plants, I stroke my palm over leafs of lemon verbena, inhaling the zesty lemon freshness as I draw my hand to my nose.
Incredibly, despite row-upon-row of fresh produce at my feet, when Jo arrived in Perthshire in August 2013, the garden was a blank canvas – barely used and wildly overgrown. In 12 months, Jo has devised a layout and design for the garden that works best for the crops, while establishing a watering system and crop protection methods to keep predators at bay and, most importantly, one that is considerate of the changeable local climate. The most dangerous thing is frost, although “you can’t use weather as an excuse in horticulture. You have to work with the weather,” says Jo.
“Even though the past year has been a good warm growing season, we are in Scotland and we cannot be fooled into the fact that this may differ in the future, so it is [a process of] working around the weather with cloches, horticultural fleece, perhaps a polytunnel, but also, to an extent, accepting that there is a Scottish season,” Jo explains.
Over several months, Andrew, Jo and the team have built trust with the owners of the garden who occupy the house across the drive. As each season has passed, the owners have witnessed the good work that is being achieved as the garden has slowly come back to life.
At the owner’s request, Jo and the team have retained the original herb patch within the garden. Expanding on the original patch, among the many herbs growing in the garden include chives, chive cracker, rosemary (“the pastry chef came down and picked some rosemary for a rosemary and chocolate ganache just recently,” Jo adds), lemon bergamot, anise hyssop, sage and garlic chive, although not every variety has flourished: “dill has struggled, as has flat leaf parsley,” Jo says.
Looking around at all of the ripe produce, it is difficult to imagine what the garden looked like just one year ago. The greenhouse, which peaks at over 40C, is a hive of activity, while other produce includes runner beans, rainbow chard, celeriac, salsify, dwarf French beans, purple shiraz mange tout, beetroot ‘candy’ chioggia (the beautiful marbled effect beetroot), sugar snap peas, French tarragon, many varieties of cress, celery leaf and nasturtium leaves. There’s the red vein sorrel (which is neatly cut and displayed on each table within the restaurant), black peppermint, edible flowers and elderflower, among many others varieties.
Jo has been somewhat of a coup for Andrew. Their paths crossed after the chef put a Tweet out looking for a grower for his newly found kitchen garden. At the time, Jo was travelling around India. Later, as she was preparing to return, she made contact with Andrew to ask if the position was still available.
Jo’s resume is impressive, having worked closely with Raymond Blanc on the heavily documented kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the Oxfordshire countryside before leaving for her travels.
The space Jo manages now is almost twice as big as that she once oversaw at Le Manoir. “At Le Manoir I worked on a 1.5 acre kitchen garden, which was already established, so it was just about improving what was already there,” whereas here, in Perthshire, Jo has been responsible for creating the garden from scratch.
Jo worked for Raymond Blanc [known to all who worked with him simply as ‘RB’] for three years. During this time she developed a close bond with the French-born chef over their mutual love of the garden. “RB was an inspiration when I first began to grow vegetables for chefs in 2002. He is so passionate about vegetables and from my very first meeting with him at my interview, we would enthuse about vegetables and we remain in touch.”
Part of Le Manoir’s kitchen garden is the Asian Garden, which inspired Jo to take time out travelling around India in 2013. “RB has a passion for South East Asia, but before [Le Manoir] I had never grown food plants of the world. In preparation I researched the countries and produce, incorporating South America too, and sourced the seed available in the UK,” Jo says.
“Travelling to India and seeing the markets abundant in all the vegetables and herbs that I had grown at Le Manoir was amazing. To see chickpeas growing as crops in fields, luffa, lablab beans, chilli and aubergines, fields hand weeded or with cow and harrow was incredible.”
Jo has brought out the best in Andrew’s kitchen garden and it’s her level of dedication, expertise and hard work that makes this garden what it is today – a spectacular vision of horticulture. Of course, it isn’t just the garden that benefits. Thanks to the abundance of produce readily available, the kitchen is thriving in a new direction, too. “I look at my menu in a different light now and I’m so much more aware of what we can grow,” says Andrew, who has held two Michelin stars since 2006.
From planting to harvesting, every seed, bulb and root requires care and nurturing, as Jo explains: “Having a vegetable garden is like having a child. It needs continuous care and attention and can’t be left, especially during spring, summer and autumn.”
“You appreciate the labour of what goes into preparing an ingredient before it even reaches the kitchen,” Andrew adds, as we continue to forage the summer growth.
When autumn and winter arrives in Scotland, the garden will still yield a feast, with typical produce expected to include parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, corn salad, spinach, chervil, chard, as well as overwintering crops for an early yield in spring, such as peas, spinach and kales.
The garden and kitchen are working in harmony to establish a cycle of home grown produce for Andrew’s restaurant throughout the year by not only growing, but preserving produce, too. “Another consideration is to grow crops through the season that can be preserved, dried or pickled for winter use, [such as] winter squashes, tomatoes, coriander seeds and roots, drying herbs, onions and shallots,” Jo says.
The horticultural team are learning about new and alternative uses of ingredients that they would perhaps of previously disregarded, while Andrew and his team of chefs are experimenting with each season’s new ingredients in ways they couldn’t have imagined possible before the garden arrived.
“You look at what is being grown in the garden and you think, ‘Good God,’ there’s loads here, but we use all of it,” says Andrew, scanning the garden. “That’s how we work differently now; changing the menu depending on what is available.”
There’s a clear sense that the garden has brought about a turning point for Andrew and his restaurant – an epiphany and period of exciting experimentation. The kitchen and front of house teams are discovering new produce, flavours and dish compositions that he never thought possible before.
Restaurant Andrew Fairlie’s kitchen garden has a calming, peaceful feel – therapy, of sorts, for the mind, body and soul, but it’s location, in deepest Perthshire, remains a secret.
As a beginner gardener, I’m keen to find out if it’s possible to grow in one’s own space at home. Jo says the basic principles of growing are quite simple: “Grow what you like to eat – something that can’t readily be bought in a shop or market.” She suggests turning to items that are often more expensive in the shops and markets, such as zucchini flowers, unusual herbs, alpine strawberries, although, as Jo points out, “everything tastes better fresh.”
It’s incredibly important to look after the soil, to feed and care for it. “The plants will then take care of themselves,” she finishes.
Images by Jean Cazals