Pick & mix: The joy of great meals sprung from the garden

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From viola flowers in the salad to gnocchi made from potatoes sown by the light of the moon...

My mum used to have a collection of Cordon Bleu magazines that you collected week by week until you had a prize guide to the highs and lows of 1970s cooking. Crêpe Suzette! Beef stroganoff! You know the drill. (She still has them, actually: the pages are a carnival of curly Good Life fonts, chickens-in-baskets and intricate rice dishes. What was it about Watergate and Vietnam that brought out everybody's inner pilaf?)

Anyway, Lucy Boyd's mum was a different kettle of fish. Slightly tastier fish, to be honest. Salted Italian anchovies, for example. Maybe a lobster. Possibly even oysters. Because Lucy Boyd's mum was Rose Gray, who went on to start the River Café, and who presumably didn't have a Cordon Bleu magazine in the house. "No, she sort of felt her way with cooking. She just looked at everything so carefully. When she left art school, she became a teacher and she was an observer; she would go to the market, or into the kitchen and talk to the chef, and point and manage in a mixture of half-Italian, half-English."

As a result of this culinarily atuned upbringing, Boyd is today the kind of holiday guest who can make mayonnaise on the beach with nary a blender in sight. The sort of person who takes Sam Clark from Moro off to hunt wild thyme for ravioli. The kind of working mother who's the head gardener at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey, but is also out at dawn with the chefs from the nurseries' much-fêted café, nicking rose petals from owner Francesco Boglione's flowerbeds to put into the salad.

All of which she makes clear in her first cookbook, Kitchen Memories (£20, HarperCollins), a reminder to all us culinary enthusiasts that the garden is where almost all great meals begin.

Spring has come late, in Petersham as everywhere else, this year. The day I visit, the walled kitchen garden has only the mildest signs of coming life. Veg beds are still warming under horticultural fleece, and rows of tulips are only just beginning to pick up their heads. Yet Boyd is still full of spring-themed growing ideas. Today, it's little viola flowers in the salad: "Sea kale, some blood oranges, lamb's lettuce and home-made mayonnaise; decorated with these lovely, tiny purple and violet flowers."

And she's already excited about the first tomatoes, grown at Petersham under substantial ranges of glass. "Those first tomatoes are such a delicious thing to walk past and shove in your mouth," she says. "They have a taste that's so different from summer varieties; they're still tangy and acidic, because of the lack of sun. Serve them with prosciutto, and the sweetness comes from the fat on the meat rather than the tomato." She makes a salad with coppa di Parma (dry-cured ham), ricotta and tomatoes dripped with marjoram and oil, which leaves me dribbling. As a result of all this, her book is one of those that makes you veer between wanting to be sick (with envy at her apparently blissful life), and wanting to beg (for details of those tomatoes).

At Petersham, Boyd works with the chefs to produce the best fresh stuff for the kitchen, but also participates in their ridiculously-reasonable-while-remaining-completely-glamorous gardening courses. I went to one recently and ended up learning how to make gnocchi from potatoes actually sown by the light of the moon. And, more importantly, I was sitting next to Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes. Keeley showed me iPhone pictures of her chickens as I was eating lunar gnocchi, and life doesn't get much better than that. Unless, of course, you can get me the name of those tomatoes.

For details of Petersham's spring courses: petershamnurseries.com

Three recommendations for spring sowing

Rocket

"Supermarkets mostly sell the narrow-leaved, strong-tasting wild rocket," says Boyd, "which won't grow well in English spring weather. Try broad-leaved rocket – it is mild in flavour, germinates in three to four days and can be picked after a few weeks." Rocket Pegasus, £1.99 for 150 seeds, unwins.co.uk

Beetroot

"I love unusual beetroots: in shops it's really difficult to get hold of Chioggia, for example, with its striking pink stripes." £2.99 for 300 seeds, thompson-morgan.com

Tomatoes

Incidentally, those toms are "Marinda" and "Camone". £2.95 for eight Marinda seeds, plantsofdistinction.co.uk

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