I was in Lincolnshire and I thought I could combine the day with another supplier meeting on the way home after my farm visit. I therefore duly turned up in suit and polished shoes, clutching a Filofax (long time ago!) not stopping to think that I might actually be asked to see something growing in a field. I was met with a raised eyebrow and immediately asked to get into a battered Land Rover and driven into the middle of a bog. It was an overcast, windy day, with heavy clouds, rooks cawing and seagulls wheeling overhead. We reached a point on the edge of the bog where the driver stopped and pointed to a figure examining something sprouting from the mire. By this time a smirk had replaced the raised eyebrows, as it was explained that the figure was the grower and he was waiting for me to join him.
I didn’t get more than 10 yards before I lost my right shoe. It was quickly followed by my dignity and any confidence I had that I would be taken seriously. I was right, I wasn’t. And what self-respect I tried to maintain dissolved completely when a bloody seagull bombed me. Happily I survived the experience and now turn up with all the necessary attire, not to mention some Wet Ones, just in case.
One such visit recently was to a collection of farms mainly in and around the M25.
I was met by friendly faces with eyebrows in the correct position, given coffee and a brief on what I was about to see. It was going to be quite a day, as the team I met were very proud of what they grew and wanted me to see as much as I could. Coffee drunk, wellies on, the first crop we drove to was a field of sugar snaps, full of sweetness and great taste. All were to be picked over the next few days and were destined to be packed into little bags for school children. Then on to fennel, which was ready for cropping, with half the field already harvested by a team of about 15 pickers and it wasn’t yet 11.00am. These particular pickers work for the growers full time and travel round the various farms picking whatever is in season and also planting certain crops which cannot be mechanised in the planting season. I was shown the proper way to cut fennel. It is backbreaking work, which can only be hand cut. Pickers are paid by the weight they harvest and the sums involved and the amount an individual can pick in the day surprised me. It was a warm, still, dry day and the scent of the fennel was incredibly powerful and tasted fantastic. We then moved on to the asparagus fields, where the stems were so tender you could eat them raw. It seemed strange plodding round asparagus and fennel fields with views of Docklands and the Shard in the background. During the peak growing season the number of pickers grows to over 200. These are mostly migrant workers, all of whom come over every year and are housed and fed by the farm and stay in exceptional accommodation.
We moved on to other farms and to one of the group’s pack houses where I saw the fennel being processed and packaged. I also saw the latest in hydroponics, where crops are grown in nutrient enriched water with no soil. We went through strawberry fields, tunnels of basil, fields of spinach, chives and wheat, which, as part of their crop rotations they grow and plough back the stalks to enhance the soil.
In total the farmer has built the business to the extent where they now own a number of farms and contract to other local farmers in the area. 20 farms in total. It’s a family business. All farms are within 70 miles of London, in Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and the most northerly being in Bedfordshire. It’s interesting to think that many of our customers will commute through land owned by these farmers and where the crops grown could well be on the menu in one of our dining rooms. Over 60 products are grown by the group and all crops are processed and packed in their own pack houses and then delivered overnight.
It was an excellent day, seagull free, I’m glad to say. I’m taking Pete, our Exec Chef there in a couple of weeks, as we want to work on creating some dishes and recipes which take full advantage of the season and of the spectacular produce available.
Can’t wait. I’ve already polished my wellies!