United States Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater was reaping herbs, fruits and vegetables at her home, whether back in her native Virginia or here on The Rock, long before First Lady Michelle Obama made backyard gardening fashionable. "I'm much older than Michelle," she counters when Thursday Food asked whether Mrs Obama had inspired her to plant the basil, tomatoes, lettuce and banana trees growing on the spacious lands at the rear of her official upper St Andrew residence. "I always planted things in the backyard...from strawberries, lettuce, parsley, cilantro... the kind of things I like on my food," Bridgewater shares. "I love my food to be seasoned with herbs; it's much better than salt."
The ambassador's gardening revelations are well timed, coinciding as they did with a field trip by tiny tots (think scampering and naturally curious three- to five-year-olds from the Centre for Language and Culture) to her home. The 13 visiting children, accompanied by some of their mums and caregivers from CLC, are on a Monday morning outing to the ambassador's to see her garden, share a cooking session with in-residence chef George Matthews, and have lunch.
The playfully rambunctious kindergarten set arrive at minutes to 11 am. They are given a learning tour of the garden before heading into the well-appointed kitchen to join chef 'Big George' and help him to make a vegetable pizza. "Me, my turn," the more eager of the young 'uns pipe up when it's time to spread homemade tomato paste, then bell peppers, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses onto the dough. The children, obediently forming a semi-circle around the pizza-in-progress, take turns putting the ingredients, excited as the layers build. "Who knows what colour these peppers are?" Chef Matthews asks, leading a loud chorus of "orange" to erupt.
Ambassador Bridgewater, who attended an early-morning appointment, returns home and saunters into the kitchen. She's elated at the buzz of activity involving the overly excited little ones in her midst, and soon calls on them to help fill the bite-size tomato basil pies — a beloved foodie fave that has been in her family for decades. As with 'Big George', the children clamour to give a helping hand to the ambassador who, with deft maternal patience, copes with the mini-bustle of "Me! Me! Me!"
Bridgewater helps the children, one at a time, take scoopfuls of basil-flavoured tomatoes and then a medley of mozzarella, Parmesan and cheddar cheeses and fill each mini-pie shell.
Retiring outdoors for lunch under a tent, the children are feted with a health-focused meal replete with grapes and cantaloupe, lettuce with vinaigrette dressing, and the pizza and basil tomato mini-pies they helped make earlier.
'Big George' is on hand, sporting a red, white and blue chef's hat, to help serve lunch. He divulges that the ambassador has always placed an emphasis on maintaining a health-conscious diet. For the past two weeks, the chef shares, she has been on a cleansing, no-meat diet, which means lots of greens (arugula, spinach and lettuce). Breakfast is oatmeal, cornmeal or bulgar porridge, toast, and eggs (scrambled, boiled and omelette). Lunch is a garden salad; coconut water or sorrel; and a fruit snack; while dinner is sometimes salmon or no-meat fare. Ambassador Bridgewater's meals are never fried but always baked, broiled or grilled. Virgin coconut or olive oil is a must, and only sea salt is used.
The ambassador tells Thursday Food she refrains from being "preachy" in promoting healthy eating habits, but as the children seated around the table bite into their vegetable pizza, she says she's thrilled to host them at her home and allow them to learn about vegetables and healthy foods. We're quietly impressed that the diplomat is a woman who walks the talk where her diet is concerned. But then again, those of us who've had the privilege of attending her intimate dinner parties have long known the importance of the ambassador's garden.