Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Herbal essence

At a country hotel in Ontario, master gardeners and five-star chefs bring homegrown ingredients to life

While touring the Cotswold villages of England, I became enchanted by the gardens gracing the front of the yellowed stone houses. The combinations of flowers and herbs, roses and cabbages, rhododendrons and yews created kaleidoscopic patches that begged to be photographed.

One sun-drenched day, I encountered an elderly couple clad in wide-brimmed hats and knee-high wellies, pulling plump beets and carrots from a front garden fringed with pink and yellow roses.

"What's your secret to growing such gorgeous veggies?" I asked.

The lady replied, "Sow your seeds generously: one for the rook, one for the row, one to die and one to grow."

Her husband chimed in with more gardening lore. "Never plant the same herb in the same place twice in a row, or you'll exhaust the soil. Always sow seeds with a waxing moon, never a waning moon, because the lunar rhythms create a magnetic field that affects the growth. And, oh yes, edge your tomatoes and potatoes with marigolds to scare away the bad bugs."

Their words lingered in my mind when I dug the soil in my own vegetable patch and when I toured gardens around the world. One such garden, tucked in the back of the estate grounds of the Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa in Cambridge, Ontario, caught my attention. It wasn't just because it had a lovely layout, or that it was a true kitchen garden, but because it presented ideas for mixing herbs, vegetables and flowers I knew I could successfully re-create at home.

In spite of the drizzle on the day I visited last fall, this rectangular garden, created primarily to serve the chef's needs for the inn -- a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux circle of properties -- exuded an earthy, herbal fragrance that enticed me. I followed row after row, finding varieties of fat peppers and clusters of other vegetables. That day, resident assistant gardener Mario Muniz, who was carefully harvesting beets as if they were precious gems, introduced me to species I had never before seen.

"Look at the striations of the Chioggia beet," he said, as he sliced one in half, revealing red and white rings. "Taste it. It's delicious raw."

Sure enough, the crunchy bulb was unbelievably sweet. I followed Mario as he clipped leaves off basil, plucked coloured peppers off the vines and dug his fingers in the soil to examine round bulbs of celeriac. Along the way, he explained, "the chef wants tender young vegetables, so we pick things every day, so nothing sits around. And we try to get everything in its prime before it goes to flower or seed. There's no point in harvesting too early, or too late, because then it won't have the full flavour."

That evening, my multi-course dinner with its abundance of vegetables was all the more scrumptious for having seen the ingredients fresh from the soil.

Later, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Michaud, who was Langdon Hall's head gardener at the time, and who had come on board to redesign the kitchen garden four years ago. He explained how he had been enticed to work at the inn. After graduating from Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, he was working for the Federal Department of Agriculture at Toronto Pearson International Airport, checking items stopped in customs -- "everything from soup to sausages and plants from boxwood to cactus in soil that are not admissible to Canada."

He and his wife Karen decided the time was ripe to open Country Lane Herbs and Dried Flowers in Puslinch, Ontario. The owners of Langdon Hall, Bill Bennett and his wife Mary Beaton, initially hired Michaud to build a scented herb garden in front of the old stables on the inn's turn-of-the-century Georgian property.

 

Eventually, the sage, rosemary and lavender plants were dug up and the stables were converted to luxurious suites, adding to the accommodations in the main building, notable for their antiques and woodburning fireplaces.

The garden changes every year, Michaud explained. "We rotate the potatoes and tomatoes, never planting them in the same place twice. We choose seeds according to the chef's needs. This year there are many root crops: turnips, rutabaga, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, sometimes kale. And because the chef is particularly keen on coloured peppers there are purple, orange, yellow and a banana-shaped paprika pepper that is more delicious than anything you can buy in a store because it's picked fresh."

As a home gardener, I was inspired by the choice of species. That fall the harvest included nine varieties of tomatoes: the sweet and fuzzy Wapsipinicon peach tomato; the green sausage tomato; the silver fir tree tomato, which fruits and flowers at the same time; the Hungarian heart tomato, a fleshy slicing species with few seeds; the flavourful Black Krim tomato; the sweet olive tomato, perfect for salads; the beefsteak-style Italian heirloom tomato; the tasty Gold Medal tomato known for its yellowish flesh and red veining and the small Juliet hybrid tomato.

Besides the striated Chioggia beet, there was also the yellow-fleshed Burpees golden, the Scarlet supreme beet and the pure white beet. Among the other vegetables were three varieties of Swiss chard, summer turnips, carrots, leeks, pearl and red bunching onions and yellow and purple cauliflower. And don't forget the celeriac, "which is great for soups and can be cut in sticks for deep frying."

There was also an abundance of potatoes: the distinct Vikings with white flesh and purple and pink skins; the pink Desiree potatoes; the all-reds with red flesh; the yellow-fleshed banana fingerling potatoes; the white-fleshed French fingerling potatoes and the flavourful, blue-fleshed, blue-skinned Russian blues.

Some species -- for example, green asparagus -- return year after year. The raspberries, an ever-bearing variety that provides two crops of berries a year, have been there "forever." Herbs are planted yearly: rosemary, dill, cilantro, oregano, French tarragon, chives, parsley and nine varieties of basil. Edible flowers are planted in between: nasturtiums, borage, tangerine gem marigolds and lemon gem marigolds.

Visitors are always curious about the garden and often have questions such as when it's appropriate to harvest the various species and how to prepare the garden at the beginning and end of the seasons. So Langdon Hall started organizing special garden and culinary tours to explain what is grown and how the vegetables are used.

This year's Gardener's Weekend will be held May 25 to 27. It's a hands-on, two-day program which involves the entire gardening team, including new head gardener Heather Riddle. In addition, there will be Saturday morning garden tours throughout the summer. These will be open to all guests, not just those on a culinary weekend package.

"In the spring we rototill everything, level all the beds and seed at the appropriate time. We start peas two weeks early in the greenhouse to avoid rabbits (who eat the first sprouts), and as soon as the frost goes, we put in the transplants from the greenhouse -- peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, celeriac, leeks and onions. Anyone can start seed beds at home if they have adequate light," Michaud explained.

"You don't need to do much to prepare for winter," Michaud continued. "In fall, remove all the summer vegetables; add compost to the garden (using only items from the garden, never from the kitchen, which may include meat scraps that would attract rodents). Mulch the asparagus, the raspberries and currants with a mulch of woodchips and straw."

Thankfully, Langdon Hall's other garden -- a glorious, perennial water garden brimming with hundreds of varieties of lily pads and flowering lotus -- requires little work, he says. Still, every once in a while the garden doesn't cooperate. "One year, " he admitted, "the chef was disappointed because the celeriac didn't bulb up."

Mmm, perhaps that Cotswolds couple would blame it on the moon.

 

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