Herbs in general are pretty underrated aren’t they and wild herbs seem to get an even wider berth afforded to them. This doesn’t make any sense at all does it? Today’s average supermarket punter is quite happy to buy cut salads in a bag, with a shelf life of a couple of days, rather than a lettuce head that last 4 times as long. We buy, in vast quantities, carrots, ready peeled and chopped into little batons for us – all of this at a vastly higher price than err, a carrot!
Why? We suffer don’t we from “busy life syndrome”. We are sooo busy that we often waste 20 minutes a day trying to convince and impress others about just how very busy we are. Don’t bother, just do 20 minutes extra work and your to do list will be a bit shorter at the end of the day.
But, when in comes to picking something out of our own gardens, for free! Well, that is challenging. So much of what we see in our garden is not only edible and free, it’s also delicious! You would think that we would feeding our kids shovel loads of Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) if only the presence of hog in the name alone….
Like so many forage species, the rule is pick them young and so look out for Hogweed in the late spring and summer. Pick the emerging leaves (still folded) at the base of the plant. The leaf and flower buds are usable too, just pick them and open the bud case and take out the contents. The magic happens when you fry it in butter until just a little crispy and then season with lots of salt and pepper. Even the seeds can be dried and used in sauces and chutney’s very much like you would use coriander seeds.
We rave about new season Asparagus and yet here is something, like Samphire, that is even better with a very similar taste.
The one other plant that you’ll need to know about if looking for Common hogweed for food is it’s relative – the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). In flower it’ll be taller than you are with flower heads as big as serving platters. It’s poisonous and an irritant particularly if you get the latex from a broken stem on your skin. None of which stopped the good old Victorians from introducing it to our sceptred isles as a decorative garden border plant. If you have it in your garden you will know that already by the queues of “Garden Police” at your front door shouting “that plant is illegal” at you.
As always in forage, if you are not 100% sure of what you have then heed the advice of comedian Sarah Millican advice and feed it to your least favourite bairn first! Only joking.
Poland is 1053 miles from Tibberton with a 17 and a quarter hour journey time plus the time it takes to roll on and roll off a cross channel ferry. Not that we at WyeDean Deli Confidential have ever driven from Tibberton to Poland or from anywhere else in the UK for that matter. But the mushrooms in your fridge probably have!
Why, because Poland achieved world domination in the supply of mushrooms. They wrested the accolade from Ireland who in turned had deprived the Netherlands of this prestigious first place. And so, you can see that the force of globalisation is strong in the world of wholesale fungus.
But why this cut throat worldwide scramble for a dominating market share in mushrooms? One of the reasons is that mushrooms have for a long time been the crop with the highest margin and return for growers. Added to that, relatively quick growth time to be mature for market for their first crop, they provide a second and often third flush from the same mycelium impregnated compost blocks in which they are grown. And, they can be grown all year around – perfect then in most every respect for big corporations.
For fungis like us, we recently had the privilege of spending a short time with Dennis Nutting, who together with his son Simon, are the last of Gloucestershire’s mushroom growers. In this industry, which has no middle ground, you operate either a small and niche business or you grow on an industrial scale into multi acre warehouses measured in football pitches. This is an industry for whom the cash driven relentless sector by sector globalisation is poignantly illustrated.
In the UK there where once 500 growers. There are now not enough to keep a trade association alive and that has folded too. For the UK at least, it’s an industry in decline and we are staring into the abyss of having no UK based mushroom growers at all.
Dennis and Simon’s farm in Tibberton illustrates this well with insulated mushroom tunnels lying empty. The two lifelong farmers are now very much in the niche fungus market for the time being at least. They specialise in Chestnut mushrooms which if left to mature become large open cap Portobellos. All of the mushrooms are grown on long trays at three or four different levels. The mushrooms don’t need light to mature so what lights there are serve only the pickers which again in this case is now just Simon.
But fungi breathe like us, the need oxygen and an atmosphere at specific humidity and temperature levels. So warmed fresh air has to be pumped into the tunnel in winter and sometimes cooled in summer. When it comes to picking for market, mushrooms have, so far, managed to outwit the industrial robots replacing proper jobs across the globe. When you pick them from the substrate you need to do so gently and with a slight twist rather than a pluck. Pickers also have to decide which ones to pick. Size is obvious but if, like Dennis and Simon, you also want to grow Portobellos then thinning out is needed and that takes a cognisant human.
In fact, one of the hardest things to source in the mushroom growing business, even for the industrially sized operations, is labour. In a bitter twist of irony, even Polish growers so long the net exporter of labour to the mushroom growing world is struggling and now employs a significant number of Bulgarian and Romanian pickers.
This is something Dennis and Simon have struggled with in the past and brings to life those political arguments about how we need immigrant labour for some industries and the impact Brexit may have on us.
So now knowing that the vast proportion of the mushrooms you buy in the shops and supermarkets come from Poland, spare a thought for Dennis and Simon who grow the most exquisite brown capped Chestnut and Portobello mushrooms anywhere in the world. They do it with love and passion and they do a day or so before market. They are the last bastion of one aspect of local food production in Gloucestershire whilst incidentally saving 1000 food miles per harvest.
Hook up with Simon himself at the fabulous Stroud Farmers market or buy their produce from the stalls at Gloucester and Bristol Farmer’s Markets. With a typical rash of farming conservatism, their produce doesn’t even carry a brand name. But if someone tells you these Chestnut and Portobello caps are locally grown – you can thank Dennis and Simon!
I bought some tomatoes the other day. To be honest they were as ugly as sin itself. They were lined and wrinkled and had a few little black spots on them. Not really very pretty at all and they were all shapes and sizes – not one the same as the other.
Obviously I didn’t buy them from the local supermarket. These little blighters would have been strangled at birth, given the boot by the automation that sizes and grades fruit and vegetable and be now littering some landfill somewhere.
No, I bought these from a greengrocer running her own small shop in a little back street. I paid a very small amount of money for something that has taken weeks of care to bring to bring to market. When I got home I put the ugly bunch on the kitchen worktop and went back to work. They were so ugly that they would have made small children cry, old ladies feint, turn milk sour or made the Elephant Man gasp in amazement.
But, and here is the thing – they tasted fantastic! Out of this world in fact! The kitchen smelt wonderful because of them and they made amazing and super tasty bruschetta, and Caprese salad and the next day with a light grilling they made the breakfast kitchen smell wonderful as well, full of warm tomatoey goodness. They also made the grilled bacon taste even better. Who knew that bacon could be made to taste any better?
“Hello” magazine readers should look away now – As in life, it’s always in the quality and not the looks so give a lot of love to the ugly ones too.
Forest of Dean legend Pete Symonds has finally hung up his wassailing top hat and waistcoat and handed the baton to his successor. For many years Pete has performed the role of Butler at wassailing’s all over the Forest of Dean and beyond. From Twelfth Night onwards his “master of ceremonies” confident baritone voice could be heard ringing around the counties orchards and apple barns. Wishing everyone “Wassail!!” and educating as many of us as possible in the process. But all great things change and Pete is moving on. There couldn’t have been a better bookend to our recent Wassailing piece at Apple County Cider’s Monmouthshire orchards.
In the foulest of weathers well and truly off the Beaufort scale, Pete’s bonhomie was sorely needed for the hardy bunch who had braved the winds and the stair-rod rain of storm Imogen. The resultant flooding which had turned the valley road into a lake and the inclined road to Ragmans Lane Farm into a mountain stream that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iceland! But brave it the bunch did to see Pete on his Butler’s best form for his last ever wassailing.
Ragmans Lane Farm is a 60 acre site around a cluster of farmhouse and outbuildings. It is a beacon of permaculture farming training as well as offering a myriad of complimentary agricultural courses. Matt Dunwell, who has owned and run the farm since 1990 had (in the circumstances) set aside the Mushroom Shed for an indoor ceremony – much to everyone’s relief. Once inside the Mushroom Shed, all the visitors began to overheat under the many layers they had assumed necessary and quickly started shedding outer layers of fleece and down jackets before hanging them on the rack by the door. From the other side of the room the sweet smell of mulled Ragmans apple juice wafted from stove top pots and there was a jug of Kingstone Black cider on hand to fuel the crowd and prime Ragmans own wassailing bowl. In the centre of the shed was an apple tree in a pot. The very healthy looking sapling was very nicely decorated by Matt’s team, who had also provided straw bale seating around the edge of the room, but it was nevertheless an anti-climax.
Don’t misunderstand; the crowd were in good spirits. Pete was imparting about 0.01% of his local knowledge to a couple sipping on Kingstone Black transfixed by his enthusiasm and .com-like access to anything anyone ever wanted to know about wassailing, apples, cider, orchards……Really, someone should record Pete Symonds!
The folk music track of The Life of Riley band of Morris and Penny (the latter being, Pete’s accomplished and now blooded successor) set the scene against the chatting crowd, waiting for proceedings to begin. Impatient for action, the kids had already started and were careering around the cider apple tree centrepiece in a dizzying blur. Matt suggested that we all brave the weather for the traditional orchard procession. Cue furtive glances out of the windows and door and he didn’t, let’s say, have the most enthusiastic take up. But with overwhelming enthusiasm, and his offer of wellingtons to anyone without, the crowd had nowhere to go but the orchard.
Just what it all needed really. Although now wet and windswept the assembled “good healthers” exhaled their collective sighs relief at being out of the storm and the rest of the ceremony continued in the welcome warm and dry. Good music, lots of singing, party poppers (to represent the traditional shotgun noise), adorning the tree with toast, all handed out by the wassailing “fair maiden” and the blessing for the health and wealth of the orchard for the coming year and the ceremony was bought to a close so that the Ceilidh could begin.
Bringing the wassailing year to a close, and in a final personal and heartfelt thanks, Matt paid tribute to Pete Symonds’ contribution to the Ragmans harvest and ethos in the many wassails conducted at the farm. There were attempts to get him to commit to one last year, but to me he did not look like he was going to budge on retirement.
And the anti-climactic sapling – well that will takes its place in the orchard planted in Pete’s honour as a thank you.
Are you happy in your work? And by that we mean really, really happy? We know four people who are. We met them for the first time on a glorious Forest of Dean day on a small parcel of land rented to them by Matt Dunwell of Ragman’s Farm. These four young entrepreneurs Ben Hanslip, Danny Fisher, Natalie Baker and Jon Goodman have grasped the opportunity to fulfil a shared dream, to grow a delicious and nutritious range of herbs, salads, cut flowers, veggies and fruit. They have grasped the opportunity with all of the vigour that passionate and enthusiastic young people are capable of and they are happy! They are growing produce of the finest quality, in an organic and sustainable way in one of the most beautiful part of the south west – what’s not to like? Together they are called Ragman’s Lane Market Garden.
These young tenant market gardeners share the modest farmhouse on the plot, work (very hard) in the fields, eat from the plot and sell the very best of their produce locally to make a modest living. All still have to take work outside of the market garden at the moment, but they all hope that as sales improve they will be able, finally, to work that little patch of land full-time. It could all be a romantic documentary on a bygone rural idyll, but it’s not – it’s today. And this partnership of four young people with a dream is making it all come true for a new generation. Due in part to soaring land prices the average age of UK farmers is 59. The “Fab Four” are working hard to put a dent in that scary statistic.
The genesis of all of the tasty green shoots is a great story, of serendipity, recognising opportunities and seeing the possibilities, in its own right. Jon and Ben studied together at SOAS University – The School of African and Oriental Studies http://www.soas.ac.uk/. Further inspiration came from the four WOOF-ing together (the exchange system for worldwide opportunities on organic farms as well as volunteering on community market gardens).
Jon spent two years as a Soil Association Apprentice and Danny has some previous experience of handling working horses – the prospect of seeing a Suffolk Punch at work in Lydbrook is just a tantalising dream though, unfortunately. Jon met Freya Davies of Ragman’s Farm when he visited their Permaculture Open Day at the well-known and award winning juicing orchard. There he saw (buried in the wild greenery) several poly tunnels in a sea of rampant undergrowth. Freya had mentioned in passing that Ragman’s were on the look-out for any takers to bring the land back into production and here they all are!
So, on the thinnest of shoestring budgets, but with the whole hearted support of Matt Dunwell and full use of whatever was already on the land in terms of infrastructure and equipment – they began. The plot comes with the use of a two wheeled tractor to ease the burden which, wouldn’t look out of place in the finca’s of the Spanish countryside, but which is exceptionally efficient for small scale market gardens like these. There is also a very practical and also very beautiful irrigation pond to provide water for the crops and habitat for the wildlife. The resident mallards and geese help to keep the slug population suppressed whilst the cute black and white cat heads up the pest control department.
The value of this support to a brand new business such as this can’t be underestimated. To have had to invest in that equipment and infrastructure at start-up would have been a death toll to the very germ of the “fab four’s” dream. That support, from an existing successful business, acted as an incubator for the new complimentary adventure and we think is a message lots of local businesses should think a little bit more about.
Spade met ground in February last year with frantic work by all four to turn an overgrown corner of a larger landholding into something where they could start to plant and grow both their crops and their fledgling business. Jon told us, “The ethos is to provide some job security for ourselves; to do work on something that you believe; to be able to feed yourself and do it in a way that’s sustainable, organic and FUN!”
Walking around the market garden is an absolute pleasure. Although, if you ever do see the approach road to the farm, you’ll understand why visitors are dissuaded at the moment! The four tend their “cut and come again” salads to reduce waste and extend the life of the crop without reducing taste. Wild and cut flowers punctuate the market garden with vibrant colours and large Comfrey patches provide the raw material for organic, farm made, plant feeds. Natalie handles the flower department with an eye to supplying florists and designers with wild and cottage garden flowers to add an unusual twist to bouquets. This pollinator’s paradise place is just a-buzz with the sound of insects and birds – It’s how agriculture used to look in that respect.
You can buy Ragman’s Market Garden produce, all picked fresh on the day, via the Dean Forest Food Hub. Popular and informal Walford foodie pub, The Mill Race buys from the fab four and Hayley Coombs of the Mill Race told us “We are committed to using local quality produce and the majority of the ingredients we use come from within 30 miles of the Mill Race. Ragman’s Lane supply us with amazing vegetables and is less than 3 miles away – you can’t get more local than that!”
If you are a local chef who demands freshness and quality produce and you like local suppliers – this one is for you. Why not talk to the “Fab Four” or better still visit. If you do we’d love to cover the story and Ragman’s partnership with you.