Living in a bustling household with the stresses of life can oftentimes make the idea of cutting up carrots or paring parsnips for a meal seem more of a chore. Launched in August, a new cookbook written by Mat Pember and Jocelyn Cross, will let you into a little secret.
You no longer have to stress about cutting the pesky ends off carrots – you can just eat the whole thing, if prepared the right way. Root to Bloom: A Modern Guide to Whole Plant Use divulges on 35 different edible plants and their edibility as well as giving the reader a full ‘veggiecation’ on key-related topics. It’ll give you a run-down on flowers, roots and weeds as well as their medicinal purposes, their herbicides, how they can be used in skin care and how they can be preserved. We got to talk to the two authors and chatted motivations, healthy lifestyles and – you guessed it – vegetables.
What motivated you to work on Root To Bloom? Was there a particular tipping point that made you decide to write it?
Mat Pember: Working within food-related industries and recognising just how much waste we were creating (out of perfectly edible and delicious food) we kept wondering, “What about a nose-to-tail movement for our plants?” And forget the waste generated on commercial-scale farms and within the supermarkets to which they supply. Even at the household level, we are wasting so much of the food that we grow. There was also a lot of curiosity at how our perspective of food had changed over the years. So when you’re curious… write a book, right?
The current culture is so convenience-driven. What, in your minds, are the most pressing problems with this trend?
MP: The fact that we’re getting lazier and lazier! Who doesn’t feel that itch of frustration when you realise there isn’t an app to put on your pair of fresh underpants in the morning? We are increasingly putting our everyday lives into the hands of our smartphones and disconnecting to such a level that we fear it’ll be hard to come back. We want it all, now, and we’ll be damned if we need to wait for a software update to have it. Technology is taking away from the value of experience, and the biggest motivating part of food is its experience.
If you could wave a wand and change one thing in our current food system, what would it be?
MP: The forces of supply and demand. Is the reason there are so few varieties and parts of the produce put on the shelves a result of our demand or of eating only what is put in front of us?Root To
Bloom highlights the need to revise our perspective of the concept of edibility, and what our idea of food is – not just from supermarkets. Can you elaborate a little more on this narrowing of perspective and how things have come to this point?
MP: This comes back to that supply versus demand conundrum. Even with the most basic understanding of business, we realise that it is more profitable to focus on making one thing as best you can at the lowest cost. So there’s a reason we are presented with very limited varieties of produce, rather than the 1,000s that exist, and there’s a reason they are grown to the ‘ideal’ shape and size.
Our human nature makes us favour the perfect produce and so the odd stuff gets left behind, which then motivates the maker to perfect things even more. Our appetite for perfection continues to swell. Suddenly, perfecting edible produce is dumped because it’s unprofitable to put it on shelves. Suddenly, our idea of food is what exists on those shelves.
Root To Bloom also addresses the issue of food waste. What is causing this to happen?
MP: Because food has always been produced without regard for our natural resources and the limitless nature of them. We are, however, getting to a point where waste or environmental cost is being put into dollars and cents, and with that will come a stronger incentive to reduce waste. But it will also hinge on our perception of what is food. If no one wants to eat crooked carrots or broccoli leaves, there’s little point in offering them… so that’s why we think a book like ours is important, to help correct this trend.
Food waste is an huge problem, with the stuff that’s left on our plates or expired in our fridges just the tip of the iceberg. What actions can we all take to alleviate this issue?
MP: Planning meals better, being tougher parents (I know I never leave a scrap of food on my plate, my kids however. ..), living above the grocery store or… GROWING YOUR OWN! Imagine if we all had a fresh food smorgasbord growing at our own homes where we could pick only as required, meaning the things we left behind would not turn into a pile of sludge at the bottom of the refrigerator; rather it would flourish for the next meal or the one after that. We could call this fresh food smorgasbord “The Veggie Patch”…
What do you think is the most underrated plant or part of a plant?
MP: Every part of the plant that goes unused is underrated! But the real A-listers of the Root To Bloom movement for us are plants like coriander, broad beans and nasturtium. Nasturtium, in particular, has such a unique peppery flavour and is just so plentiful and palatable, we feel like it could feed the world.
Jocelyn, you’re the founder of Petit Ingredient, an organic edible flower business. What is one thing thing that you wish more people knew about edible flowers?
Jocelyn Cross: That most flowers are edible and that they taste great. Too often our flowers are mistaken as “garnishes” but like their greener siblings further down the plant, flowers are packed full of flavour and nutrients.
Root To Bloom contains detailed information of around 35 edible plants, including the history and origin of the plant. Why do you think this knowledge is important? What was the research process?
JC: We pulled on so many resources and delved deep into the plant world of knowledge to develop this book. It was interesting how much I would learn from just talking to fellow plant nerds about edible plants we were profiling. We also both have always had a passion for plants, so our libraries are full of plant books that we’ve collected over the years, some out of interest and some out of necessity for business. In fact, some of the texts in my bookshelf inspired the idea of Root To Bloom in parts.
I think in order to familiarise ourselves with our Root To Bloom hero’s, it’s important to get to know them well first. Understanding their origins and a little bit about why they are the way they are broadens our understanding of the plant and hopefully encourages us to be more confident to grow and eat their many edible parts.
What are you hoping the readers get out of reading Root To Bloom?
JC: We hope that Root To Bloom not only gives our readers the courage to get out there and grow their own edible food in whatever space they have available, but to also just stop wasting our precious (and delicious) plants. Composting is a great way to save your food from landfill but eating it and buying or harvesting on an as-need basis is the ultimate in sustainability.
There are some really delightful recipes in the book, such as Rose Geranium Lemonade and Herb Flower Pesto. What is your process of creating these recipes?
JC: Writing the recipes was the fun bit because we are both passionate cooks and have so many recipes floating around in our heads. I think food is something that really excites both Mat and I; to me, cooking feeds my soul and is almost a form of meditation. With bookshelves laden with recipe books and scrap books full of hand-written recipes, finding inspiration for our recipes was easy. Many of the recipes had been handed down to us or drawn on from our favourite chefs’ recipes. My mother inspired many of the recipes I wrote, as well as chefs who are customers of mine. Mat’s Italian heritage was also, of course, a major inspiration for him.
What are a few of the recipes that you are most excited to share with the world and why?
JC: I am biased but I just love the Crystallised Flowers as they are so easy to make and add the most incredible finishing touch to desserts (plus the sugar preserves the flowers for up to a year).
This recipe came from a flower grower I correspond with in Norway. She found me on Instagram and asked for my knowledge and help in setting up her edible flower business. As a trade, she shared this recipe with me.
I think I could safely say that for me, the recipe for Pickled Green Coriander Seeds and for Mat, the Citrus Leaf and Chill Paste recipe are largely what inspired this book and are at the heart of what Root To Bloom is all about; fresh ingredients where alternate parts of the plant are the heros. One of my chefs approached me to keep the green coriander seeds after the coriander plants had finished flowering in late Spring, he wanted to pickle them. He gave me the recipe so I tried it and was amazed by their intense flavour. I remember when Mat and I first talked about Root To Bloom, he told me with great excitement the story of the customer who came to the Pop Up Patch at Fed Square for lemon leaves to make the Citrus Leaf and Chill Paste that features in the book.
How can those living in an apartment lead a more sustainable and homegrown lifestyle?
JC: You can have a mini orchard and a veggie patch on a small balcony or an herb garden on a window sill; all you need is a few pots and some sunlight. With so many miniature tree varieties around these days, many citrus and fruit trees will happily grow in a pot. With even the tiniest garden, you can have a few seasonal greens on constant rotation, save on sludgy salad greens in plastic bags by growing seasonal greens year-round and pick leaves as you need them. One thing I always have growing in my garden is spring onions; they are so easy to grow from seed or seedling and you rarely need more than one or two when you’re cooking, but if you buy them at the supermarket, you have to buy a whole bunch that largely goes to waste. Remember too that the fresher the plant, the more vitamins and nutrients available.
Are there ways in which urban communities in particular, can come together more in terms of having a greener philosophy on life?
JC: Absolutely. We have so much underutilised council land that could be growing food for our communities. Where I live in the inner north of Melbourne, there are many official and unofficial community gardens down back laneways and on nature strips. We even have a huge fig tree on the railway line near my house that is stripped by locals in the know when it’s fruiting. Local councils need to be more supportive of food growing initiatives; I feel like they are still policing rather than encouraging this style of guerilla gardening.
What’s next for you both?
MP: It’ll be mostly working on my business The Little Veggie Patch Co and hopefully, some exciting new garden projects. I do have a suspicion, however, that I’ll find myself distracted with creating some kind of local composting collective in my neighbourhood. There is such a groundswell of support for better waste systems and I am still mystified by how we ignore the potential of the organic waste we create.
JC: The last couple of years have been extremely busy for me personally; with having a baby in 2016 followed by breast cancer treatment last year and writing Root To Bloom. So at the moment, I am really enjoying working at the heart of my business, with my staff and the plants. The dried range of flowers is a hugely popular range for us that is rapidly growing, so I am putting a lot of focus into expanding this range. What I love about our dried organic edible flowers is that they mean we don’t waste any of the flowers that grow in our greenhouse. So they really are a Root to Bloom hero. When we have surplus flowers in Spring and Summer, we pick everything and dry it. The best part is, once dried, they have a two year shelf life so it’s a great way of preserving.