A Lunch with… Kitten Grayson
Known for creating floribunda for the darlings of the food, fashion and art worlds, Kitten Grayson has lately been trying out a new tactic. Who says fresh is always best? As she tells Inigo about her forays into flower-drying over a sumptuous squash salad, we declare her latest creations blooming marvellous
- Ellen Hancock
It may be September, but in Kitten Grayson’s cutting garden near Bruton, Somerset, it feels like the dog days of summer. The air feels clotted with the heat, though the abundance of bees buzzing around (a little more leisurely than usual) are rewarded for their struggles with a crop of explosive dahlias as bright as fireworks to drink from.
Until lockdown, the florist, who grew up in Bruton, had been so busy with her business in London – parties, weddings, home installations – that she’d never been able to pursue her cutting-garden dream. She’d done work for Vogue, Skye Gyngell and Liberty, among others, but for around 15 years, she says, “I had wanted to grow our own flowers. It’s for sustainability reasons, really – not only would we be supplying our events with biodynamic flowers, but we’d be giving back to the soil too, bringing the waste back and putting it into our composting.” In March 2020, as all her jobs – and income – began to fall away, instead of panicking, Kitten realised that the time had come. “I had to make sure it happened.”
At the time, her company was working as the floral consultant for Hampshire hotel Heckfield Place. She needed a way to provide flowers for them all year round. “And that’s quite hard in England – even with polytunnels!” In November last year, she bedded the first tulip bulbs; since then, triumph has followed triumph. Lately, she’s been exploring drying her flora and verdure: gomphrenas and cone hydrangeas, lichen branches and sea statice, hanging them in the shed at the farmstead where she rents her land. She’s even been drying those dahlias with great success. Having used them to create everlasting arrangements for her clients – “it’s like bringing the summer inside for winter” – Kitten enthuses on their beauty and romance. As she artfully illustrated when she invited Inigo to lunch, they also look wonderful scattered on tables and set in pretty bud vases.
An air of unstuffy glamour suffused the table Kitten had set up for our visit, which was shaded by trees on the perimeter of a field overlooking Alfred’s Tower, a folly on the Stourhead estate. Strings of strawflowers were strewn like daisy chains among frilly napkins, while glistening glasses of elderflower were brightened with borage. Serving up a late-summer feast of chewy-crusted sourdough with local butter and brie, and jewel-coloured salads – the star involving sticky roasted squash and hard goat’s cheese (recipe below) – Kitten shared her tips for drying flowers and using them yourself.
Consider conservation methods
Before you dry your flowers, you have to pick them at their peak. Not all varieties will dry well, but those that do – ranunculus, hydrangeas, thistles, for instance – are best dried individually or hung in small bunches that give them lots of space to breathe. Get them too close to one another and they’ll mould. In terms of colour, you should always dry your cuttings in as dark a space as possible. The sun will bleach them. Be aware, however, that they will change over time, taking on more woody and golden hues. I love the ever-changing personalities and phases of dried flowers.
Go big but stay simple
I tend to stick to one species or variety per look. I like to go for what’s really abundant in the garden, the hero of the moment, and go big on that. If you mix it up too much, you run the risk of losing the essence of the individual flower, but if you’re careful, you can combine a few varieties together: here I’ve got a few gomphrenas dancing between the strawflowers, which I think looks just right.
Think outside the box
Don’t feel wedded to bunches in vases. Because dried flowers don’t need water, you can be more flexible with them – try scattering them directly on tables to start with. At the moment, we’re making a lot of everlasting installations for mantelpieces and even hanging ones. Having their faded beauty overhead is incredibly romantic, and it keeps them away from the sunlight too.
Butternut squash with bitter leaves (serves 4)
1 small butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm cubes
1 brown or white onion, finely sliced
4 tbsp rapeseed oil (plus more if needed)
1 tsp soft brown sugar
120g pine nuts, lightly toasted
300g bitter salad leaves, such as rocket, wild mustard, ladies’ smock, mizuna or watercress
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Small pinch of sugar
A block of Somerset goat’s cheese, such as Quicke’s goat’s cheddar
Heat the oven to 190°C fan
Toss the diced squash with 2 tbsp of rapeseed oil (or enough to lightly cover). Season with salt and pepper before roasting for 40-45 mins, or until soft
Meanwhile, slowly caramelise the onion in the remaining rapeseed oil in a frying pan, adding soft brown sugar to help the process
Once both the squash and onions are sticky and yielding, let them cool before tossing them in a salad bowl with the leaves and pine nuts
Make a dressing by whisking the mustard with the olive oil, before adding the vinegar, sugar and some salt and pepper. Gently fold this through the salad before shaving cheese to taste
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