The family table: urban nature

Categories: Expert guidance

In this series, Nicole Pisani, formerly of Nopi and now a school chef at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, answers food questions asked by parents and offers a family-friendly recipe to try out

Dear Nicole, we live in the city and don’t have a garden, but we’d love to show our children where food comes from, how can we start?

If you grow up in the countryside you see crops growing, you see tractors and combine harvesters, you see cows and sheep in the fields. In urban areas we do have to be more conscious about making this connection—simply going to markets to see all the colours, shapes and textures of food is a great start.

I am always so impressed by city farms. Just by seeing the animals up close in these environments, the children gently start to develop their understanding. And it’s the same for botanical gardens like Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden, and there are community edible garden projects popping up in cities all over the place.

Children love to go blackberry picking in late summer and any way we can get children outdoors is a good idea—getting their hands dirty in the soil, watering their little plants and watching them grow. These are all great, healthy activities that also foster a relationship with food.

Growing their own
I have noticed at school how much the children enjoy being involved in growing their own herbs and being given the chance to pick them and sprinkle them over their salad. I once accidentally ordered too many pea shoot plants, so we put them on the dining tables and encouraged the children to snip off the green shoots and serve each other. They had great fun—and didn’t notice they were eating greens.

Another day, after a charity event the night before, I served the children edible flowers with their salad. I’ll never forget walking past a smiling child who had a flower protruding from the corner of her mouth.

Whether you have a garden, patio, window box or windowsill, growing your own herbs and edible flowers brings wonderful flavours to your cooking in an instant. We also grow strawberries in our window boxes—they might not yield much more than a few handfuls, but it still brings great joy.

Surprised and intrigued
Children are surprised and intrigued by the smell of different herbs when they rub the leaves between their fingers. There are some great mint varieties available in garden centres, like chocolate mint and pineapple mint. At school lots of the children especially enjoy pesto made from fresh basil with pasta. Another simple idea is to make a tomato salad with finely sliced shallots, balsamic pearls and borage flowers.

You do need to point out that not all flowers are edible, just a few special ones, but it does bring a lovely sense of creativity to food. When I did a soup workshop with teenage schoolchildren at Borough Market, I described how they could each make their soup individual with the garnishes they chose. One girl looked at me and exclaimed: “Like fairy dust!”

Here are some of my favourite herbs and edible flowers:

Soft herbs:
Lemon balm
Thai basil

Woody herbs:
Lemon thyme

Edible flowers:
Borage flowers
Broad bean flowers
Chive flowers
Courgette flowers
Fennel flowers
Radish flowers
Wild garlic flowers

Read Nicole’s recipe for a family-friendly dish of summer new potato salad with flowers