Regular readers of the blog will know how much I love Kew Gardens, which are local to me, just a couple of miles down the road. I’m currently recording a ‘year at Kew Gardens’ in mainly photos on the blog, month by month, and feel so privileged to have these world famous gardens on my doorstep. So any programme about Kew is going to excite me, but add one of my favourite TV chefs, Raymond Blanc, to the menu and then a slice of TV heaven was delivered – ‘on a plate’! – to my home last night.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, were founded in 1840. The 300-acre site houses one of the world’s largest collection of plants. It is renowned worldwide for its botanical research, its preservation of plants at risk of extinction and its educational facility. Many of our well-known TV gardeners, like Alan Titchmarsh and James Wong, trained at Kew.
Kew on a Plate follows a year in the life of Kew Gardens during which Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc and TV presenter Kate Humble re-establish the long-lost kitchen gardens that existed during the time of George II, George III and Queen Victoria. As we follow Raymond and Kate through the seasons, they plan to tell the unknown stories behind our everyday fruits and vegetables and Raymond, of course, will show us the best way to cook what is grown. Of course, Raymond Blanc is well known for his wonderful kitchen garden at Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in which he grows produce for his restaurant, so this makes him the ideal chef for the series. His extensive knowledge is evident as he discusses with the gardener in charge of the project the 250 varieties of the 50 vegetables they will grow.
The show is a pleasant mix of things: from the decision of what to grow, the planting, the momentary panic of dealing with potato blight and how the crop is saved, to the actual harvesting of the spring – in the first programme – crop. Both Raymond and Kate head off to trace the stories behind their chosen fruits and vegetables. Raymond visits the famous rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire to see how forced rhubarb is grown, the method ensuring its tender sweetness, then later comparing this to the kind you pull up in your garden. Kate follows the watercress story back to 5-year-old Eliza James selling watercress in Covent Garden in Victorian times. Kate also looked at the orchids grown at Kew. For those of you who have been to their annual Orchid Festival, you’ll see that what’s on display then is very much the tip of a huge orchid iceberg. There are over 26,000 species of orchids in the world and a lot of space is given to their cultivation at Kew. What surprised me was finding out that vanilla comes from an orchid. We learnt how a 12-year slave found a way of pollinating them in the 19th century, which meant they could be grown outside their native Mexico and travel to Europe and thus become one of our favourite and most used spices.
Back in the kitchen – a temporary kitchen set up in one of the conservatories – Raymond does his magic. Rhubarb and custard – even if the rhubarb and vanilla were Kew grown – didn’t sound very exciting but one should never underestimate Monsieur Blanc. Oh my word, what an amazing dessert he prepared. See this and you will never be satisfied with simple rhubarb and custard again. As he prepared asparagus and peas he talked of the ‘delicate and gentle’ flavours of spring, comparing them to the robust and bright colours of summer. This was an interesting thought too: how seasonal flavours match their season. And then we learnt about potatoes. So how do you boil potatoes? I bet you think there can’t be a wrong way. But there can! Raymond tells us that having so carefully grown, tended and harvested our crop of gorgeous little new potatoes – why would we not cook them in the best way possible? And that isn’t just throwing them in a pan with some salt and leaving them to boil till soft. Oh no! They must be treated with care; gently brought to a simmer, never boiled. The cooking must be timed. Then you will have the perfect potato.
Kew on a Plate was packed with lots of wonderful information, presented in a great way by two of TV’s most enthusiastic and likeable presenters. How could you not be excited by food when Raymond Blanc is talking to you about tender asparagus stems, fresh peas from a pod, or the delightful varieties and tastes of different potatoes. The programme aimed to do a lot and it achieved a very watchable but also delightfully informative show. I can’t wait to see what next week’s programme has to offer!
Kew on a Plate is a 4-part series on BBC2, Tuesday at 9.00pm.
To find out more about Kew Gardens visit: www.kew.org