Aaron Bertelsen, the vegetable gardener and cook at the iconic English country house Great Dixter has plenty of room to grow almost any crop he desires.
If you’ve visited this beautiful place, a couple of hours south of London, you may well have admired Bertelsen’s beds in the grounds, or enjoyed the fruits of his labours in Great Dixter’s café – or Refreshment Loggia, as it is known on site.
However, blueberries only thrive a pot in the house’s kitchen courtyard. Bertelsen started this potted garden on a whim, to have something nice to look at from the kitchen door, yet the project soon developed into a more substantial aesthetic and gastronomic undertaking, with pot after pot of beautiful, useful plants finding their way into Bertelsen’s brick-floored backyard. Chief among these is the blueberry, which actually wouldn’t do if it were planted out in the house’s grounds.
“These acid-loving plants struggle on our clay soil at Great Dixter,” he explains in his new book, Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots, “so by growing them in a pot I am able to control their environment and give them exactly what they need – in this case a 50:50 mix of John Innes soil-based compost (potting soil) and ericaceous (acidic) compost.”
The gardener and cook also waters them with rain water rather than tap water, and gives the plants a weekly feed, though otherwise he says they’re relatively easy plants to grow, and, given their delicious fruit, “reason enough to have a container garden.”
His new book features a number of recipes for blueberries, but perhaps the most impressive is this baked custard dessert. To make it you’ll need 350 g/12 oz of blueberries; 400 ml/14 fl oz of double (heavy) cream; 200 ml/7 fl oz of milk; a vanilla bean; 10 egg yolks; 65 g/2½ oz of caster (superfine) sugar; and two teaspoons lemon or orange juice.
Preheat the oven to 140 degrees Celsius (275 degrees Fahrenheit, Gas Mark 1). Put the cream and milk into a pan. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until creamy. Remove the vanilla bean from the cooled cream mixture before pouring it into the egg yolk and sugar mixture. Stir well. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a shallow ovenproof dish and put into the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, then check to see if the custard is set; if not, give it another 5 minutes before checking again. Remove the custard from the oven and let cool.
Meanwhile, increase the oven temperature to 230 degrees Celsius (450 degrees Fahrenheit, Gas Mark 8). Put the blueberries into a separate shallow ovenproof dish and roast in the oven for 8 minutes, shaking the dish once during cooking to ensure that they are cooking evenly. You want them to be tender but not completely collapsed. Remove from the oven, immediately sprinkle with the fruit juice; then poon over the baked custard before serving.
There. In a little over an hour you’ve gone from pot to plate. For a more detailed version of this recipe, as well as more tips on growing artichokes and much more besides, order a copy of Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots here.