Dean Bailey travels from podiatry to fine dining via the intricacies of vegetables growing, foraging and spice blends with Hamish and Vanessa Dow
The Art Deco-inspired home of Hamish and Vanessa Dow is one of flavour magic and horticultural wizardry. Trays of seeds and tiny bulbs are spread over the dining room table, a cabinet sparkles with bottles of gin and rum infused with wonders grown on their allotment.
In the kitchen is a cupboard filled with jars of spice blends; one developed for Peace & Loaf’s chef/patron Dave Coulson, another for double Michelin-starred James Close at the Raby Hunt, three more promising a holy trinity of chilli blends. Others have been despatched to the likes of Rick Stein and Carmela Sereno-Hayes, among others, earning high praise in response.
The fridge shelters bottles of Byron’s Hot Sauce infused with more spice blends, and on a shelf, Hamish’s ‘Wor-Shy-Sista’s’ Sauce, inspired by the classic Worcestershire, awaits its next trip to table, where it will reveal a whole new level of flavour.
In their allotment close to their home in Heaton, Newcastle huddle all manner of things – eau de cologne mint; electric daisies (similar to licking a nine-volt battery…); lovage; sea cabbage; and sweet mace among numerous others.
A good deal of the plot’s produce goes to Dave Coulson at Peace & Loaf, where it is paired in baffling and wonderful ways by one of our region’s best chefs. Others are added to gin or sent to friends – many of them leading chefs.
Podiatrists practising on Chillingham Road, Heaton, Hamish and Venessa’s joint passions for experimentation and growing are perfectly combined. While Hamish challenges the mundane with his spice blends and sauces, Vanessa’s love for all things which grow – whether nurtured by her hand or foraged – inspires experimentation.
“We ended up with more than 100 edibles last year,” says Vanessa. “I love spending time in the garden – you’ll find me down there late into the evenings.” And theirs is a fine plot, high on a hill, Jesmond Dene in the distance. They have to keep an eye on the invasive and deep-rooted mare’s tail, but there’s abundant afternoon sun, the soil drains well and it is remarkably productive. “The key is to just crack on with it,” says Hamish, recalling their first few months on the plot 10 years ago. “As long as you understand the seasons and give it plenty of time, you can get amazing rewards.”
Produce from the Dow garden has been popping up on restaurant plates for years now. “When we started out we had huge surpluses; we knew Nick Shottel and Terry Laybourne, who were at Jesmond Dene House at the time, and we thought they might have a use for it,” says Hamish. “We popped in with a boot full of stuff and ended up in the kitchen with head chef Jose Graziosi. It’s grown organically from there.
“Dave Coulson is one of the most creative chefs in the North East and he’ll work with anything we send him, making stock syrups for desserts, garnishing plates with just about everything; we’re so excited to see what he does every time we send him something new.” In return, the restaurant kitchen provides valuable waste for the composter, while its egg shells help to fend off slugs.
On top of veg, herbs and flowers, Hamish’s spice blends and sauces are so popular that he’s soon to launch his own brand, Mr Wolf Urban Spice Man, with an initial 12 varieties. His experimentation with blends and sauces began when the famed French chef Pierre Rigothier hosted a chilli jam challenge at Jesmond Dene House. “I came third, having not known what a chilli jam was or ever even made jam before,” says Hamish. “I looked at recipes, thought they were boring and just threw things at it until I got something that worked. I went on to make my own bitters and then a Worcestershire sauce. I ended up with 200 recipes and spice combinations which I’ve been developing since.”
Mr Wolf Urban Spice Man products each take their name from a Geordie interpretation – Worcestshire sauce becoming ‘Wor-Shy-Sista’s’ sauce and fine-ground powders branded ‘poodas’. “I’ve made stuff for chefs including Jose Graziosi, Pierre Rigothier, Carmela Sereno-Hayes, James Close and Roy Brett,” says Hamish. “I’m not trying to make masala the way it has always been made, I’m not interested in copying the pure form. I want to make hybrids which are complex and add something new. That’s how we develop what we know.”
Hamish and Vanessa call this their “glorified hobby” and will remain happy amateurs, at least for now. “Though I do dream to develop the garden into a micro business which I could run in my semi-retirement,” adds Vanessa.
Hamish, in turn, will develop the Mr Wolf brand. “I’d love to see people moving away from formulaic cooking and doing their own thing in the kitchen with mixes of the Mr Wolf products,” he says. It’s remarkable how much he and Vanessa achieve without formal training and with hard work and trial and error. Watch this plate…