Lia Leendertz is one of Britain’s most loved gardening journalists and authors. As well as writing for The Guardian newspaper and Gardens Illustrated magazine, she also writes an award winning Blog, Midnight ramblings at http://lialeendertz.wordpress.com. The Foodie Bugle contacted her to find out how it all began, how she grows her own food, where she likes to do her weekly shop, what advice would she give to new foodie gardeners, and above all what she likes to cook and eat and the culinary legacy she would like to leave her children. Here is what she told us.
My foodie facts – by Lia Leendertz
After studying horticulture at Edinburgh Botanic Garden I lucked into a job as a trainee horticultural journalist at The Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine, straight from college. I made connections with The Guardian and Gardens Illustrated through my very well-connected friend Esther McMillan, head gardener at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. I owe my entire career to her, now that I think of it. I must buy her a bottle of wine sometime.
I started writing my Blog, Midnight ramblings, in January 2010 partly to justify spending so much time mucking about on Twitter but also because I had lots of things I wanted to say, and couldn’t see any other way of getting them out there. The garden media world can be a very conservative one, and I wanted to write about the more political side of gardening. It’s been a delight and a surprise that so many people are interested and the blog has a very warm and supportive followership. I am very bad at keeping it fresh and topical. I don’t update regularly at all, more when the fancy takes me, but I don’t think it matters. I think the beauty of blogs is that you can do exactly what you want, and being a lazy blogger with occasional flurries of activity is what suits me.
I am not self-sufficient at all in my vegetable garden. Not even close, although there are points in the year where I can temporarily suspend the veg box for a few weeks. There’s always a plant that gets eaten by a pest or succumbs to frost but that is part of gardening. You learn year on year. I don’t have the answers, but each year I’m a little more sure-footed. I hope in about 30 years time I’ll have it sussed. Last year we started sharing our allotment with a group of friends and the main problem we are finding is the need to scale up production. I have to sow whole packets of seed at a time, not just a small row. Last year I think we got about four and a half beetroots per family, but I’m hoping it will be different this year.
What we grow in the allotment and garden is heavily supplemented by a weekly veg box from www.thecommunityfarm.co.uk. I like cooking in this way: getting presented with a box of vegetables and having to work around it. It has forced us to eat more vegetables and to experiment. I try to have the basics in the cupboard or fridge – rice, pasta, eggs, cheese, butter, the very occasional bit of meat – and then work around that with the veg. I have two young kids so I keep things fairly basic: variations on cauliflower cheese (leek cheese, chard cheese, calabrese cheese) are a regular feature. If I’ve got time I make things like risottos and crumbles and quiches, just those same basic ingredients plus seasonal veg or fruit. It does come down to time though. I fairly often throw frozen chips and fish fingers into the oven.
I also love baking cakes. We have loads of soft fruit on the allotment and some in the garden, and last year I got really into making a sort of basic summery sponge cake and mixing gooseberries of blackcurrants or whatever into it: they cook in the sponge and the juices seep into it. I make a lot of variations on Eve’s pudding all summer and into autumn, just whatever fruit we’ve got a glut of made into a sauce and topped with a vanilla-y sponge. I’m very excited that our gooseberries are ready so early. The start of the summer fruit sponge baking season can be only days away.
I am massively lucky to live off of the Gloucester Road in Bristol, a thriving high street that shows few signs of succumbing to high street homogenisation. It really has everything: butchers, great bakeries, veg shops, a fishmonger, delis, all among the shoe shops, chemists, book shops and cafes. During the severe cold weather over winter when the news was full of emptying supermarkets and food lorries stuck on motorways, Gloucester Road just carried on as normal. It’s such a great place to shop. It means I rarely go to supermarkets.
The best meals I have eaten recently have been courtesy of Dan and Ellie at their wonderful Montpelier Basement supper club. There are a couple of others in Bristol I am desperate to try out too. Such fun, and such great food, if Montpelier is anything to go by.
My desert island book would be my big Reader’s Digest Cookery book. Not very glamorous, but it’s the one I pick up most often for the basic stuff: making pastry, boiling an egg (joke, sort of). I like Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion for making the link between growing and cooking, and Mark Diacono’s books for the same. I’ve been trying out recipes from Harry Eastwood’s Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache, all cakes based on vegetables: beetroot chocolate brownies, pumpkin and St Clement’s cupcakes and more. If you can get beyond the tooth-grindingly posh-twee writing, the recipes are a great way of using up veg box gluts.
I believe that all consumers can make a huge impact on your carbon footprint by buying organic food, local if possible, from independent shops, and by cooking from scratch. I think it’s something that foodie types have ‘got’ almost instinctively, and it’s great: they have turned this environmentally-friendly way of eating from hand-wringing and worthy into a really desirable, glamorous thing. It’s something the garden media should learn from. If you can grow some of what you eat yourself that takes that link even further, growing, cooking, eating: it is such a simple act but it takes us out of the cycle, and removes some of the hugely destructive power that the supermarkets hold over us.
I was brought up by my mum who was a bit of a hippy back then, so food was wholesome and decidedly wholemeal. At the time I gazed longingly at school friends’ white sliced bread and dairylea, but it has left me with a love of solid, 70s, hippy food. Give me a really dense slice of wholemeal bread or a herby vegetable crumble and I’m happy.
I make the kids try a little bit of everything we cook, and maybe one day they will fully appreciate it but in all honesty they enjoy the frozen chips and fish fingers teas best. Some day I will let them know that vegetables don’t always come smothered in cheese sauce.
Lia Leendertz’s Blog: http://lialeendertz.wordpress.com
Follow Lia on Twitter: @lialeendertz