A Lunch With: Julius Roberts
The chef, smallholder and Instagram sensation invites Inigo for a spot of pasta in his Dorset garden, in celebration of his new book. As well as sharing his sumptuous recipe for sardine puttanesca, Julius tells us his top veg picks for getting started on your own farm-to-table adventure
- Grace McCloud
- Elliot Sheppard
- Harry Cave
The sun has finally come out. But while we’re in raptures over the late summer rays (as is a pair of lurchers, languid on the lawn), Julius Roberts is waxing lyrical about the wonders of winter, of all things.
Wait. Did we hear that right? “Oh yeah,” he says, his enthusiasm palpable. “There’s such beauty to that time of year, a real magic. As a cook, I find it a really exciting, hopeful time – all that stocking of the larder, making the most of the garden before it goes. Part of me is always yearning for winter, I think.” We’re walking round his gargantuan veg patch, transformed from a disused tennis court at his home in Dorset. Down a winding farm track (and then another one) this entirely organic farmstead, which he shares with his parents, is about as rural as it gets, set amid 50 acres of undulant green.
On every side, the nearest neighbours are animals all – among them, 100 incredibly hardy Hebridean sheep, who at the end of their life will be butchered as hogget and distributed by the ethical suppliers Pipers Farm; 40 British Primitive goats; and 180,000 bees, who spend the summer filling their furry boots with the pollen from Julius’ wildflower meadows. The chickens, sadly, are no more after a bloody run-in with the fox, and Julius is taking a break from pigs, despite his love of the creatures. “We’re incredibly protective of the land here and they can be so destructive. I just need to find the right space for them.”
In fact, for all the day’s sunshine, winter does feel an appropriate place to start today, for it’s on those darker, dying days of the year that Julius’ new book opens. An anthology of recipes designed entirely around the seasons, The Farm Table is, he says, all about “trying to connect the dots between the growing of food and the cooking of it, the relationships between nature, growing, animals and what feeds us.” It is of course an outwardly straightforward premise. But, when you learn that only five per cent of Britons know when a blackberry is in the prime of plumpness, the task seems, to put it mildly, a bit of a challenge.
That’s the just way he likes it – and his half a million Instagram followers too, who come for the tiramisus and the poached rhubarb, but stay for the nitty-gritty of Julius’ day-to-day: the tales of midnight lambing, the lows as well as the highs. For Julius, the ideas of eating, growing and rearing (and all that’s involved) are inseparable. And that, quite simply, is the message he hopes to convey with The Farm Table. “I’m not trying to say I’m perfect or that you should be too; what I’m saying is that we can all try a little harder.” He’s keen to stress that we can eat seasonally from supermarkets too; you don’t need to shop in fancy delis, you just need a bit of knowledge. “The cooking is the easy bit.”
He certainly makes it look so, as we learn when, seemingly out of nowhere, a pan of cavatelli alla puttanesca with sardines arrives on the table, where mere moments before Julius and his girlfriend, Ellie, also a chef, had been showing us how to roll the very pasta. And it’s over a plate of this deliciousness (the recipe for which, from the book, you can find below) that we ask Julius what his plant heroes are when it comes to farm-to-table growing.
“If I could grow just one thing, it would be herbs. They look after themselves, they self-seed and come back year after year and they transform your cooking. They largely last for most of the year, particularly the more hardy ones, and growing at home means you can get hold of less common ones. When was the last time you saw chervil in a shop?
“Buying herbs in the supermarket is madly expensive, whereas if you have a garden, you can plant a rosemary bush for very little and you’ll have the stuff for years. You don’t need a garden though – a pot on a windowsill will do.
“Don’t worry about growing them from seed; you can just easily buy a small plant from a garden centre. Though there is something nice about sprinkling a packet of seeds about the garden and watching them come up and into flower (pollinators love them). Now I’m picturing how wonderful it would be to have a garden just for herbs…
“I cannot hero the courgette enough. There is no more generous plant in the world. They’re unbelievably easy to grow, even in pots, which, if you’re a beginner, is particularly satisfying and proud-making, and they’re almost impossible to kill. They also yield huge amounts, which is wonderful. I can barely keep up with mine.
“As an ingredient, they’re great. You can have them raw or cooked, you can eat the flowers, the leaves, the stems and the fruit. And they’re just brilliant flavour sponges, as well as being beautiful. What a plant.”
“I’m cheating a bit, as nasturtiums really fall into the herb category. These wonderful flowers can be grown as easily in a window box as in a veg patch. And, like a courgette, they just keep going. Use the flowers, which have a faint peppery kick, to add a shot of colour to salads, and keep the seeds, which make wonderful capers; just pickle them in brine. You could even stuff the leaves, like dolmades.”
“I’ve grown both the Swiss and rainbow varieties for years but, until recently, I think I was only really growing it because everyone else was, serving it on the side of things as an extra veg. And then, this summer, everything changed.
“My neighbour asked me to lunch and served Swiss chard, boiled, with just some olive oil and salt – almost as the main dish. It was a revelation. Since, it’s become my favourite vegetable: chewy, minerally, sweet, crunchy, juicy. I can’t get enough.
“It’s also one of the easiest things to grow – and almost all year round too, depending on the variety. It’s quite vigorous and, no matter how often you pick the leaves, it somehow continues to sprout. Absolutely magnificent.”
Julius’ recipe for sardine puttanesca (serves 5)
“Puttanesca is the ultimate store-cupboard dish… Everything comes from a jar or a tin, and it’s one of my all-time favourites, a perfect marriage of richness, acidity and salinity that packs a punch and explodes with flavour. There’s chilli, handfuls of garlic and deep undertones of anchovy. But this version has the added bonus of tinned sardines, turning it into a properly hearty meal that can be rustled up in no time without having to head for the shops. Rich with flavour and simple to execute, expect bowls licked clean and the pot scraped bare.”
1 large red onion
5 cloves of garlic
1tsp chilli flakes
1tbsp tomato purée
2 x 400g tins of plum tomatoes
140g pitted Kalamata olives
½ tbsp sugar
2 tins of quality sardines
500g pasta (try the recipe for cavatelli from the book)
A bunch of fresh parsley
Finely dice the onion and fry in a heavy-based pan with lots of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt until sweet and tender. When ready, finely chop the garlic and add to the onion along with the chilli flakes and the anchovies.
Cook gently for a few minutes, smushing the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they melt and infuse into the oil. Then add the tomato purée and cook out for a minute before pouring in the tinned tomatoes. Rinse the tins with a splash of water and add half a tin of this tomatoey water to the pan. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the sauce has thickened.
At this point, drain the capers and olives and rinse under a tap. Shake dry, then add to the sauce with the butter. Mix well and continue cooking for a few minutes so they become one with the sauce; taste to check your seasoning, only adding salt carefully as many of the ingredients are quite salty. Add the sugar to balance out the acidity.
Drain off the sardines, then add to the pan and gently break them apart – I don’t like to smash them up too much. Turn the heat off and crack on with the pasta.
Make sure to properly season your pasta water and cook the pasta until al dente. Bring the sauce back up to heat just before it’s done. Reserve a mugful of the pasta cooking water before you strain it off. Add this little by little as you whip the sauce into the pasta. Finish with the finely chopped parsley, mix again and serve with a drizzle of really good olive oil.
The Farm Table: A Cookbook is published by Penguin and is available now
Ffern’s new fragrance, created in collaboration with Julius, is also available now
Julius on Instagram
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