ANNA GREENLAND - HEAD GARDENER AT SOHO FARMHOUSE
“Seeing the produce that I had grown leave the kitchen beautifully presented on a plate was a eureka moment, it gave me such a buzz. I knew then that I wanted to be an organic grower.”
Born and brought up in the countryside by parents passionate about cooking and growing their own vegetables, Anna always appreciated fresh seasonal produce as a child. However, it was not until she moved to Cornwall in search of a more outdoors lifestyle in her early 20s and started working at Jamie Oliver’s Restaurant Fifteen in Watergate Bay that she developed a passion for organic growing. After meeting some of the local Cornish farmers that were supplying Fifteen with organic produce, Anna was inspired to start growing her own vegetables and before long was also supplying the Fifteen kitchen. Seeing the vegetables that she had worked so hard to nurture being transformed into beautifully presented dishes that were full of flavour made it clear to Anna that she wanted to be an organic grower. After completing her horticulture training in California, a paradise for organic food lovers, Anna returned home and worked for Raymond Blanc at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford for three seasons before joining Soho Farmhouse as head gardener in 2015. Anna took a break from extracting honey from her bee hives one afternoon in September to speak to me about how she developed a passion for organic growing, studying horticulture in California, her time working for Raymond Blanc, how growing is undervalued as a skill and her current role at Soho Farmhouse.
Where does your interest in growing, gardening and nature stem from?
My family have always been really passionate about growing their own food and cooking. I grew up in the countryside and my parents would grow vegetables in the garden and the local allotment. For our summer holidays we always went to France and my parents would cook us delicious food using fresh produce from the local markets. While I loved eating all the delicious food I never set out on a path to become an organic grower. I studied journalism at university and did a bit of modelling for a while in London but soon grew tired of living in the city. I wanted to live nearer to the sea where I could surf, go on long coastal walks and generally lead a more outdoors lifestyle. So I moved to Cornwall as I had a few friends living there and got a job waitressing at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen.
When did you become conscious of your interest in organic growing and decide to pursue a career in it?
Fifteen was championing the use of fresh produce from Cornish suppliers, which really resonated with me. One day a local organic farmer called Robert Hocking came to the restaurant to give a talk about organic growing. We had some of his heritage tomatoes, which were mind-blowingly delicious, and I found his talk really inspiring. I was chatting to Robert afterwards and he mentioned that he had some land that I could start growing on. By the end of that season I was growing vegetables in the day, then harvesting some of them to supply the chefs at Fifteen before getting changed into my waitressing outfit for my evening shift. Seeing the produce that I had grown leave the kitchen on a plate beautifully presented and full of flavour was a eureka moment, it gave me such a buzz. I knew then that I wanted to be an organic grower. After a while the chefs started asking me if I could grow them particular varieties of vegetables so I got a job at The Lost Gardens of Helligan, a beautiful old kitchen garden in Cornwall run by Tim Smit (Founder of The Eden Project), to improve my knowledge.
Why did you decide to go and study horticulture and organic growing in California rather than in the UK and what did you learn from the experience?
It was really hard to find a course in the UK specifically on organic food production so I applied for the ecological horticulture apprenticeship programme at The University of Santa Cruz. That part of California is an inspirational place to be for an organic grower; they are miles ahead in their thinking when it comes to organic growing and sustainability. There are so many great restaurants with their own market gardens like The French Laundry, it really is a foodie mecca. The programme was an intense six-month course that significantly widened my knowledge. We lived and worked on a farm that was in a stunning location overlooking Monterey Bay. While the work was hard it was a very inspirational place to be. After completing the course, I was not ready to return home so got a job working at The Huntington Botanical Gardens in LA for a year where I helped set up a food based project to educate people on how to sustainably grow food in their own back gardens.
Why are you specifically passionate about organic growing?
I have always thought that it was right to grow organically because it is better for human health, the environment, the flavour of the produce, and the quality of the soil. I cannot bear the thought of chucking loads of chemicals on the soil, there is no reason to do it.
What was it like working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir?
Working with Raymond was a real joy. He is a lovely, kind soul but his mind is constantly jumping from one thing to the next so while it was very inspiring to work with him it was also quite intense. He was very involved in making sure everything was perfect and we always had a million projects going on all at the same time. He is very knowledgeable and has been at the top of his game for some time so it was a great learning ground. I had three seasons with him and learnt so much about different varieties of vegetables and flavour. The relationship between a grower and a chef can be quite special; you can inspire each other, collaborate and have that personal connection. Raymond was very appreciative of the work that goes into growing.
What persuaded you to join Soho Farmhouse?
Tom Aitkens, who was a culinary consultant for Soho House at the time, approached me about joining the project. Tom is great, he is such a passionate character and a real perfectionist. He sold me the dream but I remember getting there on a rainy, cold, miserable morning and seeing the area where the garden was meant to be; the wind was howling and when I put a spade in the ground for the first time it immediately hit a stone. However, I had made the move at that point and I am so glad I did because it has been an amazing opportunity. Soho House had never done gardens before so they needed someone to guide them through the process. It was fantastic to have a blank canvas but also quite terrifying because I had not set anything up on this sort of scale before. Thinking back, it was quite a bold step but I was definitely ready for it. Le Manoir was very much Raymond Blanc’s garden, it has been there for 30 years and there was not much scope to do anything radical because it is really lovely the way it is.
Do you mainly focus on growing seasonal British produce at Soho Farmhouse?
The main vegetable garden is seasonal British produce but we also have a Japanese restaurant called Pen Yen so we grow some more unusual South East Asian produce like shiso leaves and pak chois. Then in the herb garden we grow interesting things like stevia, yacon, lemon verebena, pineapple sage, blackcurrant sage, and rose scented geraniums. In the green house we have citrus trees, pineapple guavas and lots of exotic fruits. There are so many lovely scents and flavours.
Do you have a special fondness for any particular vegetable or herb?
I love lemon verebena, the scent is incredible; that in hot water as herbal tea is lovely. It is hard to pick out one vegetable, there are so many great ones. I enjoy harvesting the squashes in autumn and roasting them in the oven. Then in the summer I love the heritage tomatoes, courgettes and basil; that Mediterranean vibe is really good. Kale is also great because it grows and grows and grows. We do a lot of courses with the cookery school so people will come and pick our produce and then cook it back at the school. That is a really nice connection, the different colours of the vegetables in their basket look really beautiful. You forget how pretty vegetable growing can be, I think it is quite an ornamental thing.
Do you think food growing is undervalued as a skill?
There is a misconception sometimes that working as a grower means you are just pottering around outside. In reality it is quite a high pressure job, especially if you are growing for a restaurant that is building its menu around what you grow and everything has to always be of the highest quality. Gardens that are open to the public like the ones at Soho Farmhouse and Le Manoir also need to be weeded really well and always look very neat and tidy. Growing can be quite scientific as you have to know about soil biology, pests and diseases. Ultimately if you want to grow really quality produce you need a huge amount of skill. Growing is not really promoted at school and it is not exactly seen as a cool, exciting career choice. But there are some amazing new initiatives like the Soil Association Future Growers Scheme that are engaging young people with growing.
Do you think you have found your calling in life?
Growing is such a joy for a job, I feel very lucky to work outside every day and hear the birds singing. Even on a cold rainy day you can still take great pleasure in simply looking at the vegetables and seeing the beauty in the garden and nature. I love nature, being outside and cooking so I would say growing is the perfect job for me. I don’t think I could go back to sitting behind a desk in an office all day.