By Lauren Taylor
“I think events of recent months are going to be an impetus for change, in all sorts of ways, but specifically in the way we live and eat and think about the natural world,” says chef Gill Meller. “The slowing down, having that opportunity to be able to appreciate the simpler things in life…”
Of course, collective consciousness around the ethics of food production and a demand for food chain transparency has been growing for some time now. The chef and cookery writer, best known for his work with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage, says: “Our outlook on food is changing; how it’s produced, how it’s grown, how we source it, what we pay for it. At least for people who enjoy cooking, they are asking these questions more and more often.”
After all, he asks: “What’s more important than the food we put into our bodies? It keeps us healthy, it keeps us alive, it keeps our friends and family alive, it’s surprising that we don’t value it as highly as we should do, really.”
These are all issues he seeks to address in his new cookbook – Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How To Cook With Vegetables And Other Plants – a real celebration of seasonal, home-grown vegetables and fruit. There’s no meat or fish in sight but Meller prefers the term ‘veg-centric’ to vegetarian. Don’t think of it as being about depriving yourself of anything though; it’s “nourishment for the body, nourishment for the mind, nourishment for the soul,” he says.
“I’ve always been a big advocate for seasonal cooking and nothing embodies seasonal cooking like cooking fresh fruit and vegetables, salads and herbs,” Meller adds.
Like many people, he’s consciously cut down on his own meat consumption. “I’ve slashed the amount of meat and fish-based protein, we might only eat meat once a week now, on occasion less than that.
“There’s no need to feast on rich meat when you’ve got exciting invigorating, lively, colourful, crunchy, fantastic vegetables, at the peak of freshness being harvested every day.”
Besides, he says: “We can’t eat meat every day, no matter how good it tastes, because our planet is not able to sustain that volume of meat consumption, there’s just not enough land to produce that many animals to produce that much meat.”
Salted Chocolate Pumpkin Tart
For the pastry
45g icing sugar
150g plain flour
20g cocoa powder
85g unsalted butter, cubed and chilled, plus extra for greasing
1 egg, whisked
1tbsp chilled water
For the filling
100ml whole milk
250ml double cream
200g peeled pumpkin or squash flesh, cut into small dice
50g unrefined caster sugar
1 egg yolk
300g 70% dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
1/2tsp flaky sea-salt
First, make the pastry. Combine the icing sugar, plain flour and cocoa powder in a medium bowl. Rub in the chilled butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add half the whisked egg and all of the chilled water, and stir through to combine.
Tip out the dough and bring it together with your hands, kneading lightly to achieve a smooth finish. Wrap the pastry in parchment and rest it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 180C.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry until it is about 2mm thick. Grease and flour a 25cm loose-bottomed, fluted tart tin, then lay over the pastry, tucking it into the corners and leaving an overhang.
Blind-bake the tart case for 25 minutes, then trim the overhang, give the pastry a light brush with the remaining egg and return to the oven for 10 minutes, or until the base is just starting to colour. Remove and set aside.
Make the filling. Pour the milk and cream into a pan and add the pumpkin or squash. Set over a medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring regularly for 15-20 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender. Puree the pumpkin and cream mixture together in a blender until it is lovely and smooth and silky, then add the sugar, eggs and egg yolk and whiz for a few more seconds to combine.
Place the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Allow the chocolate to melt slowly, then remove from the heat. Pour the pumpkin puree into the melted chocolate and stir well to combine. Pour the filling into the tart case. Bake the tart for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle the top with the sea-salt flakes before serving.
Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How To Cook With Vegetables And Other Plants by Gill Meller is available now