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Gaia's Kitchen with Julia Ponsonby

With over 10,000 copies already in circulation, Schumacher College’s cookbook Gaia’s Kitchen, has been re-printed for the third time since it was first published in 2000.

Gaia’s Kitchen author Julia Ponsonby talked to Anna Lodge about why the cookbook remains popular.

As far as I know Gaia’s Kitchen is still the only cookbook which deals with party or community sized quantities on the one hand, and family sized meals on the other. This reflects the needs of Schumacher College and other communities in feeding a varied number of participants and visitors, as well as providing for the more modest needs of those who will be using the cookbook most of the time.

I think the personal quality of the book is something that people really enjoy. Many elements of the cookbook come from the participants and staff. Some of the recipes are the result of participant meals cooked together on a Sunday evening. Participants, volunteers, staff and the Old Postern itself feature in the documentary style photography that runs throughout the book. So people see the book Gaia’s Kitchen as a souvenir of their experience at Schumacher College.

The second reprint, only last year, saw some changes to content and up dating about what was going on at Dartington. One thing I was quite pleased about working on the third reprint this year was how the section on Dartington’s Harvest I had struggled to re-write early last year was now becoming truer. Now, just over a year later, much more is happening and the wishes for Dartington that had seemed more like a dream than reality have begun to be manifest sometimes quite abundantly. For example the organic market garden that used to supply Schumacher College and the White Hart is now up and running again under the wings of Nick Gooderham and Peter Patrick. The projects set in motion by the Landscope initiative are really beginning to take form. Our own think tank about the future of Schumacher College had a strong ‘take home message’ about transition culture and the opportunity for Dartington to play a lead role in this. And the aims of the charitable trust of Dartington are much more clearly expressed – as is their relevance to today’s social, and geo-social situation. You could say that the changes that have been happening at Dartington have been like the ripening of fruits – ready for harvest.

Going back to the second reprint last year, we included two new recipes. These were our cheese scone recipe, which is a favourite at lunchtimes at Schumacher College and also a contribution from Wayne Schroeder the College’s, Catering Manager. I hope to include something more about Wayne’s approach in the next cookbook – both his ‘anti-plastic mission’ and desire to have zero waste from the kitchen and the way he approaches food awareness.

Tell us more about the next cookbook, that you are currently writing. What other approaches will it take?

When we first wrote Gaia’s Kitchen the college was much inspired by a style of cooking known as fusion cooking, which was pioneered in California. This approach rides on the wings of many air-miles. On the one hand, it is a joyous fusion of ingredients from all over the world – a bit like world music is a synergy of many styles of music. On the other hand, it is completely lacking in any consistent rootedness in any ecological domain. The next cookbook will look much more at local and seasonal cooking. I hope this cookbook will be evocative of a more embedded style of cooking but its not a local cookbook for Devon or even England. The College’s catchment is still very international so the book will appeal more widely and encourage people to discuss for themselves how to chose what to eat and when to use certain ingredients. There will be sections on preserving, soups and salads, and stories that reflect an embedded relationship with food – harvesting stories and such like.

As I said before, many people enjoy Gaia’s Kitchen for the personal element. The next cookbook will include stories to capture the enthusiasm that people bring through food from all over the world. Perhaps I’ll include the stories Satish Kumar, Anne Philips have about caring for their house-cows; or Karen Blincoe’s stories about childhood collecting food in Denmark with grandparents; or Frank Cook gathering wild plants for food. If you don’t know what I am talking about you will have to get the next cookbook! There is a wonderful soup I first had at the White Heart at Dartington Hall, which I have tried to recreate for the cookbook. I had some tips from Archie, the Head Chef there, to get it just right.

Many of the contributors to the kitchen at Schumacher College are the teachers who come from around the world. What do they add to the experience of being in the college kitchen?

It is fantastic. Many of the teachers bring much to the kitchen. Wayne is always being inspired as am I. It is the teachers and the participants who inspire us! Because so many sustainability issues reflect the context in which food is grown and how it is distributed we are connected to the values of food movements like Slow Food and local food – even the biodynamic movement. Vandana Shiva who comes regularly to teach at Schumacher College holds courses at her centre on cooking and is involved in the slow food movement. I never thought working in a kitchen would become so central to the way we need to change the world; for harmonising the distribution and processing of resources.

Andrew Whitley, founder of the Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters, has been very much inspired by E. F. Schumacher. He gave sessions at an independent bread festival run at Schumacher College. We use his book and have some of his Borodinsyk rye bread leaven that he brought back from Russia in the 1980’s. We continue to use it – in fact one of our volunteers, Voirrey has made a weekly habit of preparing bread with it and people are starting to call it Vorodinsky bread! Other people in Totnes have also gone away with some of the leaven, and have told me they’ve passed some to someone else. So, the slow bread baking habit is spreading. Andrew, a fervent campaigner for slow bread, is very pleased. He is due to come back again to teach in November.

Frank Cook, an MSc student in 2007-08 brought a new perspective and set of practices with regard to preserving and wild food. I am not a botanist and therefore have learnt a great deal. We all have. He has introduced the habit of sauerkraut and kim chi making. I’m glad to say he’ll be back teaching on a course in the Autumn so more people can share his knowledge and go on fungal forays with him.

Not only is it inspiring to share in the expertise and experience that holistic science Masters students, participants, volunteers and teachers bring to the kitchen, it is also validating for the college. The almost unequivocal pleasure people continue to express about working in our kitchen and the sense of meaningfulness gained from this activity, confirms that we are on the right path, with the values of both participants and teachers very much at the heart of what we do.

July 2009

Cookbook Gaia’s Kitchen, third impression, was released in June 2009. To buy a copy from the publisher Green Books.

Frank Cook and Andrew Whitley, both featured in this piece will be teaching at Schumacher College this autumn on two courses.
To read more about Exploring Ethnobotany: Plants as Healers with Frank Cook, Nancy Turner, James Wong
To read more about Baking for the a New Food Culture with Andrew Whitley

All participants at Schumacher College, regardless of course subject, enjoy time in the kitchen with Julia, Wayne, Sarah and other staff and volunteers.