Something happens when you reach a certain vintage. Something that is in equal parts distressing and life-affirming. You develop an interest in horticulture. Where it comes from no-one can be really sure. One minute you’re all fingers and thumbs around a plant pot, the next you’re acquiring green-fingered lucidity via the dulcet tones of Monty Don. Cardigans make their first appearance in your wardrobe, views harden and patience shortens. Equally there’s contentment with your lot and a preference for taking life in the slow lane. It’s a new phase in one’s inevitable decline but it should be embraced and enjoyed whilst still in possession of one’s own faculties and teeth.
Perhaps it was this realisation, or perhaps it was aborted attempts at growing my own lockdown herb garden that drew me to the Garden Museum and its in-house café. It did, at first, feel like an Alan Partridge pursuit – the only thing missing being a visit to a cracking owl sanctuary afterwards. Indeed, on arrival it became clear that my lunch companion and I didn’t exactly fit into the retiree demographic. However, our fellow diners, whilst predominantly in the autumn of their lives, certainly appeared to be enjoying the Garden Café’s pared-back contemporary cuisine.
Speaking of autumn, on this particular lunchtime the restaurant was bathed in that late September sunlight, the golden rays seeping through gaps in the healthy branches which will soon become calligraphic. Set amongst the converted St-Mary-at-Lambeth church, which is the final resting place of several archbishops and John Tradescant (c1570 – 1638), apparently “the first great gardener and plant-hunter in British history”, it’s a peaceful setting that is a literal reminder of life and death.
Due to Covid restrictions, the menu was on a solitary blackboard which we were encouraged to photograph and read at leisure on our phones. Short but sweet, it’s the kind of rustic but flavoursome cooking in the same ilk as Rochelle Canteen, The French House, Noble Rot and Llewelyn’s – and to be compared with those is the compliment it is meant to be.
The starters, or small plates, all looked wonderful so we went for a selection, tapas style. A wild rabbit terrine and a salt hake brandade with soft egg and sorrel were consumed all too quickly. Braised courgettes with shavings of pecorino sounded and looked simple and yet it was so glorious – with a little drizzle of olive oil, the whole combination just melted in the mouth (no teeth, false or real, required).
Lamb chops with braised beans and tapenade was another trio of glorious simplicity whilst the non-advertised sausage and fennel pappardelle was another hit: the sausage meat roughly chopped, the ragu perhaps a shade dry but still delicious, the ribbons of pappardelle al dente and eggy, a snowfall of parmesan coagulating from the heat of the pasta.
Whilst my dining compadre went for the chocolate mousse I caved in with the plum and rye sponge served with “school custard”. Perhaps evocative of the past, and undoubtedly popular with the older clientele, this was just the right size, moist and light rather than stodgy, and not cloyingly sweet. The custard alone should be bottled and available for sale separately. As we approach a potential Winter of Discontent I can’t think of a more comforting dessert.
And the bill? Three courses, a glass of wine, coffee and service came to about £40 each, all in. You can’t say fairer than that.
The museum is well worth a visit too. It’s the UK’s only museum dedicated to the art, history and design of gardens and whilst it has been in Lambeth for years (renovated in 2017) it’s one of those places I just didn’t get round to going to. Well, I just wasn’t that interested in gardens back then. I learnt so much about botany, irrigation systems, tools, and it sounds obvious to say it, but how the pruning, nurturing and artistry of these green spaces is ultimately a human endeavour that deserves the utmost respect.
PS: we didn’t make it to the owl sanctuary.
5 Lambeth Palace Road
by J A Smith