28 November 2012

A Cold Collation

Great Dixter chimneys as seen from the top of a high compost heap.
On Monday I found myself peering into a store cupboard in the kitchen yard at Great Dixter. From the floor to the ceiling were rows of jars, some still holding preserves from the time of Christopher Lloyd's parents, who moved there in 1912. Like the rest of the house, this cupboard has never been subjected to a 'clear out'.

The British have long been a nation of growers and preservers, and the Dig for Victory instinct continues. Brits have not always been a nation of good eaters, of course. It might be that until recently the need to shore up was the driving force in domestic food production. Potatoes and apples stored, jams and jellies made: food shortages kept at bay. The eating experience was at its best about good plain British cooking, without ideas from Abroad.

The kitchen garden at  Great Dixter.
At its worst, as we know, British cooking could be pretty dire. The exodus of domestic help after the 1930s cannot have helped, as people were forced to boil the life out of their cabbages themselves and in the absence of properly-made mayonnaise there was an over-reliance on salad cream.

Now, people who cook also like to grow things and people who grow things are learning to cook. At Great Dixter there was a cook until the 1970s but when he died Christopher Lloyd decided to learn to cook himself. "Christo was very greedy. He LOVED food," says my guide. Dinner might start with whiskey and walnuts, and after pudding there would be chocolate and coffee. It's very easy to imagine when you are at Great Dixter, with its comfortable kitchen and open fires. And yet home-grown and home-cooked is still quite a new idea: Christopher Lloyd's book Gardener Cook was published within fairly recent memory. 

Well-tempered leeks and bulbs for sale at the Great Dixter Fair last week.
Lloyd's friend and neighbour Vita Sackville-West, who died 50 years ago, had a complete lack of interest in food, shared with many people in her generation. She and her husband Harold Nicolson wanted to be alone in their small cottage at Sissinghurst Castle and didn't want servants around at night. According to former head gardener Sarah Cook, the housekeeper at Sissinghurst would go home after leaving them a thermos flask and a "cold collation". Brrr.


  1. Mmmm, whiskey and walnuts are a fantastic way to start a dinner...

  2. Was the cupboard chock full of ancient preserves "cleared"?
    Enjoyed reading about your visit to Great Dixter.

  3. The jam cupboard was still full; it gets added to but not completely cleared. It features in a fascinating seven minute tour around the house on the Dixter website: http://www.greatdixter.co.uk/about/films/.
    Also starring the notorious medicine cabinet.