Sean O’Neill hands me a tiny, insignificant looking leaf.
“Try this,” he says.
I’m looking at the two pinched-out top leaves from a green sprout he has handed me. Or, perhaps it’s an insignificant baby shoot he’s weeded out to let the stronger plants have space to grow strength? All around me, there are endless trays stacked upon shelves, row upon row of intensely bright, yet rather uninspiring looking seedlings. Apparently these infantile plantlets are the crop; harvested just as they reach salad cress height. Does my scepticism show? Surely there can be no flavour to this?
My un-cued response to its fragility is to tentatively nibble a neat fraction – a half-leaf – and I’m gob-smacked! It’s a surprisingly powerful punch of concentrated sweetness like a saccharine pillule is to a tablespoon of treacle.
“The sugar-plant,” Sean informs me and in an instant I’m a convert. He hands me more and more deliciously different micro-herbs to sample and each one owns a definite and distinctive taste that is unique from one another.
I’d always viewed slugs and snails as nothing more than slimy, rampaging thugs who munch out vulnerable, tender plants on some kind of and gluttonous, gorging feast. Now I see them as garden gourmets, sophisticated connoisseurs who know that the precise moment to ‘pig out’ is just when the seedling’s flavour is most intense. Why has it taken us humans so long to catch on?
Sean has developed a peculiar specialist skill with his ‘growing’ passion, pushing the boundaries and looking for new tastes in different micro leaves and herbs. Tenderly grown, lovingly watered with pure spring water and nurtured in top quality organic compost, and available 52 weeks a year. He now supplies Fifteen Cornwall and great chefs like Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park‘s two Michelin Star Restaurant in Devon and Mat Follas at The Wild Garlic (Masterchef 2009 winner) in Dorset who said, “We’re loving the micros, they make all the difference to the presentation.”
Keveral Farm has supported a community of growers, using organic methods since the early seventies becoming one of the first Soil Association Certified farms. It sits high above the South Cornwall coast near Seaton, around five miles from Looe, and is an interesting place for many reasons. There are nine families currently living there. The farmhouse, farm buildings and 30 acres of land are owned and managed by their own co-operatives, and parts of the farm are rented out to members of the co-op for personal use and to generate income. Bill Knight looks after the housing co-op, is an ecological consultant and explains how all the growers, himself included, are self-employed, and how the land is managed according to ecologically-sound principles; for example, the need to keep fallow areas, which are not cultivated, but cut to make compost. “Without animals and the intensive growing of vegetables,” he tells, “the need to make our own organic compost is essential.”
Keveral started it’s own organic ‘veg box’ scheme in 1997 and now supply 80 families in the local area with fresh produce once a week. Sean describes Keveral as “the tail-end of the pioneers. We were not the first, but we were still five or ten years ahead of the current trend in caring about how we grow food and our impact on the environment.”
The fruit and vegetables that go into the boxes are mostly grown at Keveral by the individuals who live there, or from other innovative farms in South East Cornwall, namely Skye Grove and Buttervilla. Skye Grove is also unique, a partnership between two growers: Brian Cavendish, who has evolved a system for growing vegetables using a pair of Comtois draft horses and biodynamic principles that is practical, economical and sustainable; and Kevin Austin, who is a horticulturalist and outside crop manager at the Eden Project. However, in the ‘hungry’ months and very little can be harvested, they need to rely on organic produce from wholesalers, namely Riverford, to maintain their ‘veg’ boxes all year round.
The packing barn, that has been used for many years to pack produce, sits in the middle of the action on the farm, surrounded by the apple press, chickens and a range of other buildings that the community have big plans for. Meanwhile, Bill shows me how he is growing Shiitake mushrooms on logs in a corner of an old and crumbling farm building. It is both an example of how to be enterprising with a space that is unsuitable for anything that needs to be kept warm or dry and inventive brilliance. Having drilled holes in which to plant the spores contained in little plugs, all over the log, the wood them has to be soaked and kept wet. Encouraging the mushrooms to grow is slow and careful process as the spawn takes around 18 months or more to colonize. Growth then starts by the beginning of a cold spell in the weather or in his case, accelerated by immersing them into very cold water for 24 hours to shock them into production. There is something magical about mushrooms and the marvelous delicacy in which these tempting Shiitakes cling to a stack of damp and shaded logs.
Sean is particularly keen to encourage people to grow more. “It is much better for the environment if more of our food is grown locally, but the problem for small growers is finding a reliable market for their produce. Whereas the advantage of being part of an expanding community of growers is in the sheer diversity of the different varieties of fruits and vegetables that we can grow between us,” he explains, “and by being able to experiment with growing new crops we have a ready market to try them with but don’t suffer a big knock if they fail.”
Down a short and winding lane from the packing barn, a series of poly tunnels huddle together. This is where Sean grows his micro leaves, and in a similar way this inside space is also rented to other growers in the community who are able to grow their own tasty salads, vegetables and fruits for the box scheme.
Keveral’s boxes are delivered to within a 20-mile radius, from Bodmin to Saltash and from Callington to the coast. Currently they supply 80 families but they have the capacity to increase their production to supply 100 more. The boxes are priced at £8, £10, £12.50 and £15 for a family of 4-5. They are careful to check these are competitively priced against the supermarket’s organic produce, which can’t be as fresh or as local.
“Our customers,” Sean says, “are people who are interested in supporting local businesses and reducing their environmental impact. They may buy organic for health reasons or because of a chemical sensitivity, or just because they like to cook with the best and freshest produce they can get their hands on.”
I agree. It’s this simplicity that guarantees us edible diversity.
For Further information:
Keveral Community of Growers , Keveral Farm, Looe, Cornwall , PL13 1PA
Bill Knight: Telephone: 01503 250343
- Fruit and vegetables: The seeds of an organic revolution (telegraph.co.uk)