August 18, 2008

Every Meal is a Celebration

W andering down the garden path picking fresh peas, colourful salad leaves and vibrant edible flowers for a supper salad would be a rare treat for most of us, but at the Schumacher College at Dartington it's a regular part of the daily routine.

For the average home cook, sourcing ingredients for an evening meal often means a quick dash round the supermarket on the way home from work or, at best, a leisurely trip to the local farmers' market, but most of the fresh produce they use in the kitchen here is grown right on the doorstep.

The forest garden - nurtured by applied ecologist Justin West and his willing team - not only acts as the college greengrocer's shop, it also inspires the tasty, nutritious and aesthetically pleasing vegetarian dishes that are prepared and enjoyed by staff and students.

It's a peaceful place, reclaimed from an overgrown bramble patch, where nature is gently teased into providing a huge variety of edible offerings bursting with vitamins and minerals, many that rarely appear on a posh restaurant menu, let alone in a family salad bowl - sweet cicely, mallow flowers, sorrel. At one point earlier this year Justin could supply a choice of at least 50 salad elements, many of them from perennial plants.

What they can't grow on home soil is supplied by the celebrated Riverford Organic Vegetables just down the road, with free-range eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt all sourced locally.

Part of the forward-thinking, yet old- fashioned ethos here makes cooking and eating together an integral part of everyday college life - a fitting ritual for an educational establishment with sustainable living at its core, which attracts students to Devon from across the globe.

The no-nonsense functional stainless steel kitchen at the charming Old Postern building on the Dartington estate, while resembling that of any hotel or school, has a friendly open-house atmosphere where all students and staff pitch in on a rota basis as part of the timetable.

And at the heart of the kitchen's menus is a cookbook that takes the challenge of cooking for large groups of hungry folk and turns into a pleasure to share. Gaia's Kitchen was written by Julia Ponsonby, who was the college's head chef for many years, with contributions from a host of friends and colleagues.

Its first edition was published in 2001, but it's been updated and reissued this summer by popular demand. It's a veritable treasure trove of inspiration and information for anyone who loves good food.

And it's also full of warm and inspiring stories of how the recipes came to be cooked and served at Schumacher.

There's a full repertoire of soups, main courses, salads, desserts, breads, cakes and biscuits, and the pages of the college copy are well-thumbed and reassuringly tarnished with cooking spills. Alongside regular family sizes, the recipes include community-size quantities, making it invaluable for anyone who wants to prepare a vegetarian banquet for a party or large group event. It draws on the best of Mediterranean, Californian, Indian, and Mexican vegetarian traditions and celebrates old favourites rich in cheese and eggs, and offers a variety of tempting new vegan dishes using ingredients such as pulses, tofu and tempeh.

Julia has handed her head chef's hat to catering manager Wayne Schroeder, a South African and former Marks & Spencer food technologist, who, like Justin, came to the college on a course and got hooked.

He is firmly entrenched in the eco-conscious Schumacher way and loves using the best fresh ingredients as simply as possible, constantly challenging his own imagination as well as his students.

Wayne always follows advice given to him by college director Satish Kumar. "He told me never to put anything on the table that isn't the tastiest, most beautiful-looking thing I have ever made," he explains. "It's all about harmony of colours and flavours. Every meal becomes a celebration."

Julia still puts on a pinny and spins her magic in the kitchen a couple of days a week, often rustling up dishes from the book - which will soon have a follow-up sharing a new raft of recipes that are demolished by the hungry hordes here.

One of Julia's old favourites is the substantial Spinach and Mushroom Plait (see recipe, right), which she and her willing helpers prepared for us to photograph.

It involves what on first glance is a tricky bit of pastry manipulation, but is actually pretty simple to make, and absolutely delicious.

It does "cheat" by using frozen puff pastry, although you can easily use home-made if you have time to make it.

Julia adapts the filling according to what is available from the garden and serves it with freshly dug new potatoes, boiled and served with generous handfuls of chopped fresh mint and an enormous bowl of aromatic, flower-infused salad leaves.

Gaia's Kitchen, Vegetarian Recipes for Family and Community, is published by Green Books, priced pounds14.95. A wide variety of courses are available at Schumacher College, exploring and designing solutions for local and global problems such as climate change. For further details call 01803 865934 or visit the website

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