Since having my allotment I have to admit my passion for productive growing has taken over my interest in ornamental gardening. So much so, that I’m always slightly disappointed if I visit a garden and it doesn’t have a veg patch for my perusal. The idea of kitchen gardens has always fascinated me. The first type of kitchen gardens were probably those created by the monks in the grounds of their monasteries but they were at their peak in the Victorian and Edwardian periods supplying large houses with all their fruit, vegetable and flowery needs. They went into decline fairly rapidly during the First World War as the men who worked in these gardens were called up to fight, and they never really recovered, that is until the last decade or so when their potential has been rediscovered. Not only are old kitchen gardens being restored but new ones are being created. I’d heard of somewhere local to me that had embraced the idea of establishing a new kitchen garden and I was really intrigued. Even better, the owners agreed to have a quick chat about their project.
The Bell, a 17th century coaching inn and now a restaurant with rooms, in the pretty village of Skenfrith, is a great example of the food revolution that has taken place not just in Monmouthshire but across the country. Celebrating local producers is the ethos behind the food served in the restaurant. This, in itself, is no longer that unusual but what does make The Bell different is that it has taken its interest in food production to another level. It had always been the dream of owners William and Janet Hutchings to have a kitchen garden that would produce organic, fresh and tasty produce for their chef. The dream became reality over 7 years ago when Helen Westendorp of Essence Garden Design took William’s ideas and sketches and translated them onto the fields behind The Bell. Raised beds were created and an irrigation system, fed by a spring, was installed by William.
Initially, it was very much a learning process experimenting to see what worked. They discovered their raised beds were much better utilised for baby veg than the perennial vegetables, such as rhubarb and asparagus that they planted at first.
Of course, all gardeners know how addictive growing your own is and it wasn’t long before the kitchen garden had extended into neighbouring fields. They moved away from raised beds as they realised the quantities they needed to grow of crops such as leeks and brassicas were more practicable in open ground. Espaliered apples and pears were planted along the boundaries but it was the addition of two polytunnels that have made the biggest difference to what they can grow. With Candi Smith as their new head gardener they are experimenting with heritage tomatoes and aubergines. The tunnels have also been invaluable in allowing the gardening team to extend the growing season. In fact, Janet explained how they have actually acted as a natural larder, allowing them to pick baby vegetables throughout the winter whilst the ground outside was hard with frost or covered in snow.
Once a year, William and Janet sit down with their chef and gardeners and plan what to grow for the forthcoming year. Baby vegetables of crops such as leek, beetroot, carrot and turnip are particularly popular with the chef, as are herbs, edible flowers and unusual varieties which are otherwise difficult to get hold of, like Pink Fir Apple potatoes.
Every week they create a kitchen garden menu using whatever is in peak production at that time. Last week, for instance, there was a courgette and mint soup, a curry using runner beans, green beans and peas and a variety of side dishes including beetroot and home grown salad leaves.
I really loved how the kitchen garden was such an integral part of the business. Slops from the bar are used in beer traps to catch slugs and getting through hundreds of eggs every day provides plenty of egg shells, used as another effective method of slug control. Any waste from the kitchen garden is composted or fed to The Bell’s own pigs. Janet explained that from the very beginning they grew their own cut flowers for the restaurant and other public areas. It also felt that the kitchen garden had connected a building and business to the land around it and also the local community. Within the grounds of The Bell are two large, Monmouth Burgundy, perry pear trees, one of which is believed to one of the oldest in Wales showing the connection between the land and produce goes back a long way in this village. The pears will be picked later in the season and made into perry.
There’s also an inspiring bartering system with the local community where fruit such as plums and damsons from other people’s gardens and farms is brought to The Bell and exchanged for vouchers. The surplus fruit is then turned into jams and chutneys by the kitchen for use in the restaurant and for sale to guests.
This is a working kitchen garden and a really inspiring place. There are no airs and graces, no feeling that aesthetics are more important than the food they are producing. I came away with some ideas that I could quite easily use on my allotment and I especially loved the idea of growing thornless blackberries over a pergola.
William and Janet welcome visitors to the kitchen garden with an honesty box at the entrance and any money raised is donated to charity. With local produce playing such an important role at The Bell it is no surprise that they are taking part in the Abergavenny Food Festival this September. Xanthe Clay, the Daily Telegraph’s food writer, is hosting a special lunch which will include the opportunity to have a wander around the kitchen garden and enjoy some local Welsh wine.
For more information about The Bell and their kitchen garden take a look at their website skenfrith.co.uk.