Crumbs cooks with: Kathy Slack
31 March 2016
That’s how this dish should look: effortless, but so irresistibly delicious everyone will marvel at it.
From London advertising exec to local entrepreneur, blogger, allotmenteer and private chef, Kathy Slack has come a long way in a short space of time. Here she rustles up lunch and spills the beans…
Gluts and gluttony? With sincere apologies to Jane Austen, it might sound like the midlife follow-up to Sense and Sensibility, but that, dear reader, is where you would be wrong [breathes sigh of relief]. This is actually a vibrant foodie business on our patch, offering private catering, classes, supper clubs, a blog and much more. It’s run by allotmenteer and chef Kathy Slack and her business partner Mandy, and we’ve dropped by Kathy’s for lunch and a chat to find out more.
Arriving on a rather bleak midweek morning, Kathy and her spaniel, Hadley, welcomed us warmly into her rambling Cotswold cottage, and ushered us through to her modern-rustic kitchen in the glass extension at the back of the house. Think raw brickwork and stone flags as the backdrop for some serious kitchen kit – but this isn’t just culinary eye candy, as this is the G&G creative hub. It’s where recipes are devised, planting planned, menus written and where some of their popular cookery courses take place.
On the menu for our light lunch is pea and mint crostini, a recipe from G&G’s recently-published book – to give it its full title, The Gluts & Gluttony Cookbook & Growing Guide – which takes you through the seasons with tons of practical planting advice and recipes for ‘coping’ with the excess fruit and veg bounty from your garden. For our crostini, the miseen-place was as pretty as any picture, the fresh green and yellow of peas and lemon on the board paired with an enamelware mug of herbs gathered from the garden.
Talk turned to the unseasonal temperatures we’ve had this year, and Kathy pointed out the feathery fronds of herb fennel in the mug alongside the chives and mint. Having made it through the winter so far, it’s very late in the day for it, she says, but its anise flavour would bring another herby note to the mix – and we couldn’t wait to taste it.
Unlike a certain new Top Gear presenter who doesn’t appear to be able to multitask at the wheel, talking and cooking is a breeze for Kathy. She’s blanching the cooked peas to keep them green, finely chopping herbs and slicing generous crostini from the fresh crusty bread while explaining how the whole ‘Gluts and Gluttony’ thing came about.
‘Grow it. Cook it. Eat it.’ Now, that’s a mission statement we can get our heads around, but running a local business that grows its own, and then turns it into delicious dishes for private clients, is a far cry from living in London – “in a shoebox, but it was still Zone 1” – and working full-time in food advertising for over a decade, we think you’ll agree.
It was a busy time, working with clients who were big names in the FMCG sector (‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods’, or most of the stuff you’d find in a supermarket), but always in food – often the likes of chocolate and olive oil. But, as so often in big business, the decision-making wheels ran pretty slowly so, over time, the frustrations increased. Which is why, on her commute one day, she decided to quit. Just like that.
“It was pretty terrifying not having anything to go to,” Kathy tells us. But temping, and ultimately upping sticks to the Cotswolds, gave her the time and opportunity to change tack. Deciding she wanted to ‘grow her own’, she did what any rookie should do when they’re retraining from scratch – and ask an expert. Aylesford Farm just happens to be down the road, and it was there Kathy met the kitchen gardener – a natural teacher – and ending up working for him in the gardens, picking up loads of hands-on experience, which was ‘hugely varied and I learnt a massive amount’.
Eventually a job in the Cookery School came up, and she stayed at Daylesford for two years, assisting in classes and managing all sorts of behind-the-scenes prep.
“I learnt so much from Daylesford,” she recalls. “The integrity of their farming is amazing, and they really care about provenance.”
The peas have cooled by now so, with a few deft strokes, Kathy folds them and the prepared herbs into the soft ricotta, freshly grating the zest of the lemon into the mix and pausing only to taste and adjust the seasoning. “This recipe can take a lot of seasoning,” she adds, not holding back on the salt and pepper.
Moving on to the crostini, she places them on a baking tray, generously drizzling them with oil, before putting the tray in the hot oven. First, though, she rubs them with a peeled clove of garlic, which not only totally perfumes the kitchen with its appetite-whetting aroma, but “lifts the dish with a divine hint of garlic”. Into the oven to bake, and we get back to the story, where the two years at Daylesford really got the ball rolling.
With her allotment well underway (more of that later), the ensuing gluts in the garden led to “gluttony in the kitchen”, where Kathy devised rafts of recipes to make the most of her precious homegrown veg – and wrote about them on the blog. Result.
Working as a private chef right here in the Cotswolds, running the blog, tending the allotment, and doing cookery classes and demos, you could say life was pretty busy. So busy, in fact, that in April last year Kathy took the big decision to go full time with Gluts and Gluttony – plus a day a week at Daylesford, cooking for the café – and hasn’t looked back.
Still, the learning curve continues. Time spent at River Cottage HQ with Gil Meller and Steve Lamb – “I learnt lots there, too; they are so nurturing and creative, with absolutely no ego” – as well as some professional cookery courses at Ashburton in Devon, have also added hugely to Kathy’s expertise.
“Their week-long courses taught me lots of principles,” she says. “In fact, it was more about culinary principles than recipes, and I still refer back to my Ashburton notes when I’m cooking and devising recipes.”
Looking out on the neatly tended garden, Kathy has several small raised beds for soft fruits and herbs, but the main growing patch is just a few minutes’ walk away. Her first plot was at Stone Farm (the clue is in the name, readers), through the now sadly defunct Landshare scheme, but it was hard work to tame the land. “I spent a year dragging rocks out of the soil and, although therapeutic, it was time to move on.”
Enter, stage left, her neighbour Ben (aka Farmer Brown), who came to the rescue with a walled garden plot behind his farmhouse. This is now a seriously productive allotment, with six 8 x 4-metre beds, and an unheated greenhouse with two 1 x 8-metre beds, all of which provide fruit and veg for the G&G private dinner parties and supper clubs, as well as inspo for the blog.
And, even though Farmer B’s pigs get out sometimes and once ate an entire crop of butternut squash in a night, such incidents are small hiccups in the otherwise productive plot.
Piling the ricotta high on the warmed crostini, we’re pleased to see it’s nearly lunchtime. An extra twist of pepper, and a generous drizzle of olive oil over the top, and they’re done.
“This? Oh, I just threw it together,” Kathy says. “That’s how this dish should look. Effortless, but so irresistibly delicious everyone will marvel at it.”
And it’s spot-on. Perfect for long lazy lunches in the sun, or casual canapés over croquet. Or, indeed, a rainy lunchtime at the beginning of spring. Soft, creamy ricotta infused with homegrown herbs on a crisp, garlicky crust – this dish will bring sunshine to any day, and we’ll be making it at home, that’s for sure.
Find out more at www.glutsandgluttony.com