Month: July 2014

The Pleasure of Physic

One of the great pleasures of a warm summer is to be had in visiting some of the physic gardens dotted around the UK, or indeed elsewhere in Europe. Many people know the fine examples at Oxford (see photo above) and Chelsea, while Padua is probably one of the most visited in Italy; but there are also some charming smaller ones which are well worth visiting.

Physic gardens have a long and distinguished history. They can be traced back to the medieval medicinal and herb gardens, which were often attached to monasteries. However, those we visit today tend to be associated with the Renaissance rediscovery of the natural world. The best examples date from between the later fifteenth century and the end of the seventeenth. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth the general study of botany and the taxonomy of newly discovered plants grew in importance, so the traditional physic garden, with its emphasis on the medicinal properties of the plants, gave way to the great botanical gardens we have today such as those at Kew and Cambridge.

The most important physic gardens were consequently founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the continent Pisa, Padua and Bologna were established in the 1540s; Zurich in 1560 and Paris, Leyden, Leipzig and Montpelier during the remainder of the sixteenth century. In the UK the surviving garden at Oxford was founded in 1632, while that at Chelsea dates to 1673 and Edinburgh was established by 1676. However, the now disappeared gardens at Kew, Wells and of course John Gerard’s private physic garden at Holborn were significantly earlier. It is generally believed that Gerard’s famous Herball was based on the collections of the physic gardens of Europe, as well as listing his own plants.

Cosmos, Phlox and Ipheion at Chelsea Physic Garden 2013-5Advances in science, botany and medicine, and geographical exploration provided the impetus for donors and seats of learning to establish gardens where medicinal plants could be cultivated and studied in a single purpose-made site. They also had a symbolic purpose in glorifying nature and hence the God who had created all therein, in the manner of Genesis. Like almost any designed garden of the period they may well also have recalled the Garden of Eden in the imaginations of those who used them.

The most important ingredients for a successful physic garden consisted of knowledge (often in the form of a distinguished plantsman or botanist as the keeper – for example Jacob Bobart the Elder at Oxford and Philip Miller at Chelsea), money (Oxford was financed and created by Henry Danvers, first Earl of Danby) and a supporting institution (the Universities at Oxford and Edinburgh and the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea).

Despite their grand beginnings, the progress of the early botanic gardens was often erratic, with inadequate funds for maintenance and staff salaries, and notwithstanding the noble aspirations of their founders. The University of Oxford website offers an example, stating: “The Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 when Sir Henry Danvers, gave five thousand pounds (equivalent to £3.5 million today) to set up a physic garden for “the glorification of God and for the furtherance of learning”. but continues: “The walls and arches were built on such a grand scale that by the time they were finished in 1633 all the money had been spent and there was nothing left to pay for the running of the Garden… In 1642 the Garden gained its first Curator, Jacob Bobart. For the first seven years the University failed to pay his salary. During this time he helped to make ends meet by selling fruit grown in the Garden. Among these fruits was the medlar (Mespilus germanica) that is listed in the Garden’s first catalogue of plants that was published in 1648.”

Their layout and architecture are almost always interesting, often distinguished and give great pleasure to present-day visitors. Many examples are walled, for reasons of both prestige and practicality. The theft of plants was a common hazard. The preventive walls also tended to control winds and retain heat to provide a beneficial microclimate. Additionally, they provided a suitable support for climbing plants. Walls need entrances. The gates of the gardens of Padua and Oxford certainly have an artistic merit that is generally recognised. At Oxford, Nicolas Stone’s Grade One listed Danby Gateway of 1633 is almost baroque in feel.

For many years after the eighteenth century physic gardens were seen as rather dry and neglected curiosities, preserved by the founding institutions by force of habit, or as quaint and romantic locations for the leisured classes, slightly dubious assignations and interesting literary settings.

Oxford in particular seems to have inspired writers. These include Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel; the Waterlily House appears in the background of Tenniel’s illustration of the Queen’s Croquet Ground. Tolkein often sat beneath his favourite tree, a gigantic Pinus nigra, that seems to have inspired the idea of the walking and talking tree Ents in the Lord of the Rings series. Evelyn Waugh used the Danby Gateway as the setting for an early and important meeting between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder at the beginning of Brideshead Revisited; while Philip Pullman located an interface between Will and Lyra’s  parallel worlds at a bench in the Garden in His Dark Materials. When they finally have to return to their respective worlds, they agree to both sit there for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s Day, in the hopes of sensing each other’s presence. In each case the author has clearly been inspired by, or chosen the setting, for its symbolic and transitional potential between different worlds (social, imaginative or cosmological).

Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden

Recently, physic gardens have come back into fashion, albeit for reasons quite separate from those for which they were created. Oxford and Chelsea continue to carry out research, but this needs money, and Chelsea, surrounded by an ultra rich neighbourhood, has very effectively marketed itself as a meeting place for those with time to spare; there is an excellent cafe. The Oxford garden, always a haunt of students and visitors, is now deeply trendy and extremely popular.

New physic gardens are still occasionally created today, and although they inevitably lack the spirit of exploration that drove their predecessors forwards in the great period of botanical expansion, they are still delightful to visit. At Petersfield in Hampshire the medieval burgage plot, donated by Major John Bowen in 1988, has been turned into a small physic garden using only plants that would have been familiar to two distinguished local botanists of the seventeenth century, John Goodyer and John Worlidge. It is supported by volunteer gardeners and a Friends organisation and is interesting as well as very popular with the local workforce as a relaxing place to spend a lunch break and with visitors. In South Wales the Cowbridge Physic Garden was opened by the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust in 2004 in part of the 18th century walled garden of Old Hall. It’s good to see that some of the old physic gardens are thriving and that new ones are being created. Chris

Image Danby Gateway, Oxford Physic Garden: credit

One of Our Favourite Recipes: Endlessly Adaptable Bread

 Bread Pan

This is a marvellously versatile recipe; you can make a wholemeal loaf, a white cob, or anything in between, with the addition of flavourings, herbs or any of the vegetables in the previous post.

The original recipe comes from Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake. He is the ‘bad cop’ to Mary Berry’s ‘good cop’ on The Great British Bake Off and his books are all brilliant, as are hers. They are easy to follow and have a balance of favourites and more unusual recipes. How to Bake has recipes for a mixture of breads, pastries, puddings, cakes, pies and tarts, all of which are delicious.

Most vegetables are better with strong white flour, rather than wholemeal.

If you want a sweet pumpkin bread, add 2 teaspoons of runny honey instead of the butter. If you are using a purée of vegetables reduce the butter by about half. Always add the water slowly so the dough does not become too sticky.

The flours and yeast that we use are in brackets, but any strong bread flour and quick yeast will work; experiment to find your favourites.

For 1 loaf

  • 400g stoneground strong wholemeal flour (Waitrose Canadian and Very Strong)
  • 100g strong white bread flour (Waitrose Farm: Leckford Estate)
  • 10g salt
  • 10g instant yeast (Dove’s Farm Quick Yeast, this is loose rather than in sachets so you can measure the exact amount)
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 320ml tepid water
  • Oil for kneading and to grease the bowl

Tip the flours into a large mixing bowl and add the salt to one side and the yeast to the other.

Add the butter, three-quarters of the water and any puréed or grated vegetables. Turn the mixture round with your fingers and add the rest of the water a little at a time until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is soft, but not soggy. You may need a little more or less water. Use the mixture to clean the inside of the bowl, folding the edges into the middle. Keep going till you have a rough dough.

Coat the work surface with a little olive oil, then tip the dough onto it and begin to knead. Keep kneading for 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be smooth and silky. Oil a large bowl, put the dough into it and cover with a tea towel. Leave to rise until it has at least doubled in size, at least 1 hour, possibly 2 or even 3.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment or silicone paper.

Dust the work surface lightly with flour and tip the dough onto it. Knock the air out of the dough by folding it inwards repeatedly until the dough is smooth. Flatten the dough and roll it up into a sausage, then roll this out with your hands until it is about 30cm long. Tie the dough in a knot and place it on the prepared baking tray. Put the tray into a clean plastic bag and leave to prove for about an hour. Large recycling bags are excellent for this, using a wire mesh food cover to keep the plastic off the dough. The dough should have doubled in size and spring back when prodded lightly wit a finger.Wholemeal 1

Meanwhile heat the oven to Gas 7, 200C.

Gently rub flour over the dough and put the loaf into the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, then check it is cooked by tapping the base, it should sound hollow. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Jane

One of Our Favourite Recipes: Potato Bread

You can make bread using an amazing variety of vegetables. Pumpkins will give you a sweet, soft loaf and grated carrot makes a delicious savoury bread. Beetroot will turn your bread pink, spinach, a mottled green, both adding an interesting Veg and Bread  2flavour. Onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs can all be added. In our opinion though, potato bread is the best of all.

The bread doesn’t taste of potato and is not at all heavy as you might imagine. The mash gives the bread a lovely chewy quality. It is also delicious with a handful of sage, rosemary or thyme mixed into the dough. If there is any left over, it makes very good toast the following day.

This recipe comes from Jane’s book; Kitchen Garden Cookbooks: Potatoes, published by the National Trust.

For 1 loaf

  • 200g cold, mashed potato, without butter or milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 400g strong, white flour (possibly more)
  • 7g easy-blend yeast
  • 300ml tepid water
  • Oil to grease the bowl
  • Herbs (optional)

Mix the potato, flour, salt and yeast together. Add the herbs (if using), keeping a few back for the top of the loaf. Pour in the water bit by bit and knead on a floured surface until the dough is smooth and not too sticky. You may need to add more flour depending on the consistency of the potato.

Shape it into a round and put it in a greased bowl, turning so it is well coated.

Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place for an hour or so till it has doubled in size.

Punch it down as hard as you like and knead for another minute.

Grease a large baking tray and then shape the dough into a loaf (long or round, whichever you prefer) straight onto it. Push the remaining herbs into the top. When it cooks the loaf will spread to about double the area. Cover with a tea towel and leave for 30 minutes to rise again.

Preheat the oven to 230C/455F/Gas 8Potato Bread 2

Cook for 10 minutes and then reduce the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6

Cook for another 20 minutes until nicely risen and golden.

Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Jane

One of Our Favourite Recipes: Black Forest Gateau

Cherries in a Bowl 3When we put the photos onto the website we realised that it looked as if we only made bread, sweets and alcohol. To show what balanced diets we have we thought we should include a cake.

Black Forest Gateau was originally trendy in the 1980s. For many years it was sneered at, along with Prawn Cocktail and Grilled Grapefruit, but is now enjoying a well-deserved revival.

There are two versions, one for when you can get fresh cherries and one for the rest of the year so you can enjoy it at any time. You can use any cherries; morellos have a sharper taste, but compliment the chocolate very well.

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 225g unsalted butter, soft
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 500g cherries, pitted and 60g caster sugar or
  • 400g cherry conserve (use conserve rather than jam as you get more whole fruits)
  • 4 teaspoons kirsch
  • 350ml double cream
  • 40g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 170C / Gas 3

Grease two 20cm cake tins with removable bases. Line the bases with greaseproof paper. (If using a single 23cm tin cook for 50-60 minutes at 180C / Gas 4 and cut into three layers.)

Sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa into a large bowl.

Add the butter, sugar and eggs.

Mix roughly with a fork so the flour doesn’t fly everywhere and then mix with an electric hand whisk, moving the whisk so you get as much air as possible into the mixture. You can mix it in a processor but the cake may not rise well as you won’t get as much air into the mixture. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of warm water so the mixture plops off a spoon.

Divide between the two tins and bake in the middle of the oven for about 40 minutes until a skewer comes cleanly out of the centre.

Leave to cool for a minute or two, then run a knife round the edge and turn the cakes out onto a wire rack, removing the paper from the base.

Put the cherries, sugar and kirsch into a small saucepan and simmer until the cherries are soft. Leave to cool. Or mix the conserve with the kirsch.

Whip the cream so it forms soft peaks.Black Forest Gateau  2

Grate the chocolate, using a peeler so you get bigger shavings.

Level the top of one cake and then cut each cake in half horizontally. Spread fruit and cream on each layer and pile them up.

Spread a layer of cream on the top and sprinkle with the chocolate. Jane & Chris