Saltie Cooks with Rachel from The Good Life Ain’t Easy
For this month’s Saltie Cooks we catch up with Rachel from The Good Life Ain’t Easy to dig deeper on her love of gardening and foraging.
Not sure where to get started with home growing? Rachel steps us through some top tips for those home cooking adventures.
To celebrate International Day of Forests she’s sharing a delicious and simple recipe that centres on foraged garlic and mushrooms, and lets us in on some of her favourite woodland walks.
Over to Rachel...
What was the first thing you grew that ignited your love of growing your own food?
I'll always remember my very first pea from the pod. In truth, I don't think I even really liked peas as a kid. But that pea in my grandparents' garden was the sweetest pea I had ever tasted. And as a result I always knew I wanted to grow my own food when I grew up. That pea, well it had me hooked. In rented London flats my fascination with growing food took over many a windowsill, until nine years ago I got my first garden. We promptly dug up a section of lawn to make way for beetroot and broccoli. Six years ago we got our first allotment - and that was when the ‘grow your own’ addiction properly took hold. My aims are pretty simple - to grow, organically, as much food as I can. And, given that the allotment is one minute away, to reduce my carbon footprint.
Combined with your love of allotments is your love of chickens. Why and when did you start to home hens?
When I was about 10 our school took us on a trip to a farm and I saw battery hens. I don't think I was meant to. But that image stays with me now, and I always wanted to rescue some hens when I could. What I didn't know is how charming their company is and how quickly I'd become the crazy chicken lady. We have one hen who is as affectionate as the dog, something I wasn't quite prepared for. The garden doesn't seem right without hens pottering (and ultimately destroying things) alongside me and I feel very privileged to enjoy their company and give some chickens a happy retirement.
What is it about gardening and growing that you love?
How long have I got? Gardening is the ultimate therapy. It teaches patience - faced with adversity plants always want to find a way to live. And if you nurture them they will thrive. It's a chance to slow down and connect with nature, away from the 24/7 of busy life. I love how the hens in particular force me outside whatever the weather to connect with the seasons. I'm naturally one of life's great worriers, but I forget everything when I'm gardening and you can't put a price on that.
For growing novices, what tips do you have for starting a little plot?
First off, I always think grow what you enjoy eating - that way you're much more inclined to grow it again!
If you're starting a new vegetable patch, too many people spend lots of money on plants and seeds, but you should invest in your soil. Soil health is the most important thing when you're gardening, in my opinion!
Courgettes are one of the easiest things to start with - they can be incredibly productive in a large container. The same with salads as they'll grow in most spaces. If you select 'cut and come again' varieties you can harvest leaves all through the summer.
I'd also say don't forget to make the most of vertical space in any garden, especially if you're growing in a smaller area. Little squash varieties, beans and peas will happily scramble upwards. Hanging baskets can be productive planted with tumbling cherry tomatoes and strawberries too.
We know you’re a keen forager. What are some of the delicious things you make from your foraged finds?
My foraged essentials largely focus on elderflowers and elderberries. Every autumn I make a 'cough' syrup with elderberries, cloves, ginger and cinnamon. Elderberries have incredibly high levels of vitamin C and making a fresh syrup is considerably more delicious than any shop-bought tonic - though homemade blackberry syrup is also up there.
Do you have any recommended gardening reads - the books you turn to again and again?
Generally anything by Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty, and they have a fantastic selection of online resources. I really recommend 'Veg in One Bed' by Huw Richards and my copy of 'The Ornamental Kitchen Garden' by Geoff Hamilton is very well loved.
With Spring (almost) in the air it’s an exciting time in the garden. What in your garden (or allotment) is currently putting a big smile on your face?
It's all about potential right now - the shoots of tulips which I know will bring so much colour in a few months. The crocus and iris are welcome pockets of colour, while the garlic shoots are standing tall in the vegetable beds. I've just pruned our shrub roses and in the last few weeks they have signs of new life - it won't be long before they're in full bloom and I just can't wait.
What’s currently on your garden To Do list?
March for me is the month where all the seed sowing really kicks off. I’ll be starting off salads, peas, herbs and beetroot in the greenhouse - though you could easily start off herbs on a sunny windowsill. Later in the month I’ll start my tomatoes off too as the days get longer. Right now I’m focusing on soil health and giving all my beds a nice thick layer of compost or mulch. I love growing vertically to make the most of every space, and will be putting up any new arches or structures for beans and squash to scramble up.
This weekend marks International Day of Forests. We’re as much fans of the forest as we are the coast and sea. Do you have any forest walks or forest foraging recommendations?
At this time of year it's all about woodland walks collecting wild garlic for me. I love wild garlic risotto, but wild garlic oil is also delicious to make and use throughout the year. I would just say always make sure you know what you're collecting, and don't take too much. The young leaves of wild garlic can be confused with 'lords and ladies' which isn't edible. I would love to be able to confidently forage mushrooms, but I definitely need to do another course! I love exploring Ashdown Forest and local to us, my favourite walk is to head up to the viewpoint on Reigate Hill
How do you style your Salt-Water Sandals?
I like to style my salties with dungarees and, where possible, my favourite hen by my feet. I've always been drawn to mustard yellow and think they bring some cheer to any outfit.
Wild Garlic and Mushroom Risotto Recipe
Wild garlic and mushroom risotto - feeds two hungry people, nice with a fresh side salad.
One large shallot
300g risotto rice
50g wild garlic, finely chopped
1 litre vegetable stock or mixed mushrooms
1.25 litre vegetable stock
250 ml white wine
1. Finely chop your shallot and fry it in half your butter until translucent. I like to use a heavy, wide pan on a medium heat. Roughly chop whichever mushrooms you’ve picked (I've picked morels as they're in season now) and fry these off too.
2. Add in your rice and keep stirring so that all of your rice is coated in the butter.
3. Pour in the wine and give it a good stir - it should evaporate quickly. Reduce to the heat to a gentle simmer and slowly add in your vegetable stock a little at a time, constantly stirring. Never stop stirring - the number one rule of risotto. If you run out of stock then add a little water.
4. It will probably take about 15 minutes for the rice to cook - you want it soft but still with some texture. Once it's cooked, take the rice off the heat and add in the grated parmesan and butter.
5. Stir it through until it's lovely and oozy. Season well with salt and pepper and stir through the finely-chopped wild garlic, then let it settle for a minute or two. Decorate with any leftover garlic and grated parmesan.
6. Eat, preferably enjoyed with another glass of white wine.