In the second In The Moment Magazine podcast, we spoke to Rachel de Thample about how she gathered and grew the ingredients for a very unusual Christmas feast – and discovered a love of foraging in the process.
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Rachel says: “The idea came to me after I’d finished writing Less Meat More Veg. I think sometimes when you finish a project, you crave the intensity of something new.
“Less Meat More Veg has a really strong message about connecting with your food and knowing more about where it came from.
“I live in the city and don’t have my own garden and I wanted to have a very hands-on food project. I’d read loads of books researching Less Meat More Veg including Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
“She is based in the States and moves from an urban area to the country and lives off the land very River Cottage style. Basically it follows her whole year of growing her own food and I wanted to do something similar in an urban area and explore how that would work in contrast.”
Rachel decided that she wanted to focus on making a meal and the Christmas dinner seemed the ideal choice: “It seemed like the perfect meal, because the idea hatched at the end of one year, so I had a whole year to do the project, which is pretty much how much time you need to follow it through.”
Growing a Christmas feast
At first, Rachel planned to grow all of the ingredients for her Christmas feast. Her mother and grandfather were avid gardeners, but she regretted not taking the opportunity to learn from them in her younger years.
“When I was a child and they would say ‘Come out and garden with us’, I would say ‘No, I want to read my magazine and listen to music’.
“I regret that now.”
Growing her own Christmas dinner was quite an ambitious first gardening project. She began by taking a gardening course at her local allotments and they were able to give her a small patch of land.
Rachel also set up a community garden in her local park and started growing food in window boxes in her home.
She found that January was a good time to start: “A lot of gardeners really love January because there aren’t a lot of active things you can do, so you basically sit on the sofa with endless mugs of tea and plot your gardening plans.”
Planning the feast
Initially, Rachel planned a quite traditional meal with brussel sprouts, red cabbage and potatoes, but the dinner evolved into something quite extraordinary.
She worried at first that she was going to end up with “the most dull Christmas dinner ever” – that nothing would work and there’d be lots of crop failures.
But the project led her to discover lots of new ingredients – 50 per cent more than she would normally use in preparing a meal.
“That’s really when I got into foraging,” she says. “I gathered a lot of ingredients and there was some kind of hands-on connection to everything that was on the table.”
Rachel’s finished festive meal
Her finished meal included had a fore rib of beef from Laverstoke which was rubbed with ground bay leaves and a plant called alexander. Alexander has an aniseed flavour which Rachel describes as “a cross between a clove and black peppercorn and star anise”.
The meat was accompanied by home-grown potatoes – similar to a variety known as Rudolf. According to Rachel, it makes the ultimate roast potatoes as they go perfectly fluffy inside and “outrageously crispy” on the outside.
Rachel also served foraged sumac (a tangy, lemony spice) and rubbed the powder from the sumac by hand. “It really makes you appreciate these pots of sumac you buy in the shops, because to produce a whole pot by hand is not an easy feat.”
She also used fennel seeds and Hungarian hot wax chillies grown by the window in her kitchen. She dehydrated the chillies in her oven and used them to make her own chilli flakes.
The sumac, fennel and chillies were used to season the potatoes.
Rachel also braised and froze red cabbage in advance in early October. She found that growing cabbages was not her forte: “I had three attempts because they kept getting eaten by the pigeons and the slugs – and the wind would knock them down.
“I learned that you have to have a few cabbages in the wings in case something happens to the ones in the ground.”
Preparing her own foraged and gathered meal set Rachel on a new path. “A lot of the things I’m doing now are as a result of that meal,” she says.
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