Heritage food in The National Trust for Scotland's gardens
Fife's historic houses have organic kitchen gardens and orchards
The work of the National Trust for Scotland doesn’t stop at the back door of the historic properties in its care. Across Fife it spills into kitchen gardens, flower beds and ancient orchards, as Hannah Ewan found out
‘There used to be six or seven thousand different varieties of apple native to Britain. Now there are only around two thousand.’
As Kellie Castle’s Head Gardener, Mark Armour maintains its fully organic, traditional walled kitchen garden. Just as in the days when it was home to the earls of Kellie, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) property near Pittenweem grows an array of vegetables, with borders of flowers that can be cut for the house.
What the earls wouldn’t recognise are the kiwi fruit that have been growing in a sheltered spot for at least 30 years. ‘They can grow outside quite happily in Scotland,’ explains Armour. ‘We do tend to pick them in December, but they taste much better than shop kiwis.
‘These houses used to have pineapples, melons – if a head gardener couldn’t produce a melon for the table there and then, he was fired on the spot.’
There are no pineapples at Kellie any more, but there are 75 different varieties of apple, 50 of potato and 30 types of rhubarb. These include rare and unusual varieties such as Coul Blush, a nineteenth century apple originally raised at Coul House in Ross-shire; the red-fleshed Bloody Ploughman apple from Perthshire; and Shetland Black, a potato famed for its purple-black skin.
All four of Fife’s NTS houses grow some sort of heritage food in their gardens. Culross Palace attracts visitors to its reconstructed seventeenth century grounds, with their medicinal herb terrace, vegetable garden, and orchard filled with traditional Scots pears, apples and Dumpy hens. ‘We can’t grow enough for the visitors,’ Head Gardener Mark Jeffery says of the produce they sell from the gardens, though he remains agnostic about some plants’ long term prospects. ‘Some of these varieties don’t grow too well, or taste that nice. It’s probably why they started to die out in the first place.’ He cheerfully describes the ancient Alexander root as ‘revolting’.
Hill of Tarvit, an early twentieth-century family mansion, is currently limited to a small amount of fruit but plans are afoot to bring the kitchen garden back into production. And Falkland Palace’s large orchard is stocked with many Scottish varieties of apple, as well as the ancient Jargonelle pear. Replanted during the Palace’s restoration in the 1800s, Head Gardener Sonia Ferrás Mañá recently introduced varieties likely to have been grown in the original sixteenth century orchard, including medlar, quince and cobnut trees, with heritage apples coming soon.
Falkland takes part in annual apple days. One is held at the property itself, while several are run by local community groups, including the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust. The trust is working to reverse the decline of traditional orchards, 95 per cent of which have been lost across Britain in the last fifty years. The 260 fruit trees planted across schools and community sites in Fife are still too young to harvest, so Falkland Palace provide their apples to give pupils a taste of what’s to come.
As well as the cider Kellie’s gardeners rustle up for their own enjoyment, the produce is sold through their shop, in the tearoom and at a local restaurant. Armour hopes more people will come to recognise the charms of these often unfamiliar fruits. ‘Supermarkets think people want perfectly uniform apples without any marks on them, so other varieties are more commercially viable for the big production growers.
‘Some of the older varieties are more susceptible to spots and canker,’ he admits. ‘But visitors don’t seem to mind misshapen apples; they certainly sell well from our shop. After all, beauty’s only skin deep.’