Monday, 1 August 2016

The secret world of banking

Walking along the Strand in London you might wonder what goes on behind the doors of the famous Coutts Bank.  A few lucky Open Garden Squares Weekend ticket holders had the chance to find out when their names came up in the draw for an exclusive visit.  I hurried along to join them at the start of the weekend and we were stunned to find out what happens on the roof above the bank.

Executive Chef Peter Fiori and his Head Chef Toby gave very freely of their time that Saturday morning to showcase the bank's secret. They led us up to the roof where we had a personal tour of the bank's astounding kitchen garden. Coutts Skyline Garden is there to serve the restaurant at the bank. Conceived by Peter Fiori, and with the invaluable help of the late Richard Vine, his horticultural consultant, we were led along a series of narrow walkways.

Looking down, London's double decker buses passed along the Strand, and the views of Charing Cross and its neighbouring buildings were framed with flowers and vegetables.

The purple flowers of potatoes were out. The gardeners and their helpers from the Clink Charity at HMP High Down, are proud to supply a wide variety of heritage and traditional potatoes for the restaurant at Coutts.  Over 100 kilos of potatoes are grown here each year. Amazing what you can achieve when you turn an idea into reality. The bank's clients get a very delicious and organic meal when they receive an invitation to dine - not an invite to be refused if you love good food and sustainability.

Although the walkways are narrow and squeezed in between the roof and the street boundary, they were just big enough to enable a disabled visitor to join the group as we walked along more than 300 metres of raised beds, with the first strawberries of the year sprouting at our ankles.

Every vegetable was meticulously labelled and the display was such that I wanted to rush back to my veg patch to emulate some of the very pretty salad varieties grown. 

Up above fruit was ripening, and the peas were climbing.  

The society garlic shown here was just one of a dazzling array of unusual vegetables and herbs up on the roof. I spotted pepino melons, Turkish and Persian cucumbers, pinwheel and cocozelle courgettes, strawberry spinach, blackcurrant sage, tangerine sage with red flowers and sea kale with white ones.

And as we walked along, jaws dropping at every new plant we saw, we were also treated to some of the recipes and tricks of the chefs - who make their own lovage oil from the tall lovage herb grown here, and are liberal in their use of flowers from all their plants, including the sea kale, to adorn their dishes. There's an edible flower for all seasons at Coutts.

The different aspects of the garden have led to the creation of four zones, a fruit garden, country garden, kitchen garden and meadow garden.  There is white tea, lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander and edible violet. They didn't give up trying to grow wasabi, and although it wasn't easy to do, they succeeded, as well as growing the Szechuan pepper you see below.

Inside, we passed through a magnificent boardroom, whose walls were adorned with wallpaper brought back by the UK's first ambassador to China. As small worlds so abound, we took in our stride the fact that one of the members of the tour was a relative of said ambassador. 

I imagined reclining in an armchair like this, with a tantalising view of the garden, after a meal in the dining area.  

You can find out more about the garden by watching episode 12 of this year's Gardeners' World or checking the Facebook page of Coutts Skyline Garden, just in case you're not one of the lucky names drawn out of the hat for the tour next year.  Facebook gives a good update on developments on the roof above the bank.