Six years ago the last thing on Ken and Tracy Holland’s minds was vegetables. Yet today the couple specialise in growing and selling varieties with a true taste of history.
It’s like walking towards The Secret Garden. A short and unkempt track deep in the heart of Northumberland lined with brambles, clumps of cow parsley and matted grass leads to a pair of weathered wooden doors set in a high wall.
The expectation rises the nearer you get. What will you find on the other side of the entrance? This must have been how Mary Lennox, the young heroine in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden, felt the first time she furtively passed over the threshold into Misselthwaite Manor’s forgotten enclave.
The sight that greets you when you eventually pull open the doors is no less magical than that faced by Mary a century ago – although this south facing garden that has admittedly seen better days could never be described as forgotten and wild.
Enclosed by terracotta brick walls, the heat from the midday sun radiating out, row upon row of neatly planted salad leaves and vegetables fill virtually every inch of ground in the massive two-acre plot.
Far down the bottom end three people are hunched over a long line of multi-coloured lettuces, pulling weeds by hand and throwing them into an over-flowing wheelbarrow.
Beyond them the view is pleasantly bucolic. Acres of rolling grassland and informal groups of mature trees resplendent in their verdant summer greenery, dominate the vista.
All is quiet except for birdsong, the buzzing of bees and the gentle sighing of a warm south westerly breeze.
It’s the perfect vegetable patch.
“Welcome to Little Harle,” intones a man’s voice. It belongs to Ken Holland, who along with his wife Tracy has for the past six years run North Country Organics. Based at Vallum Farm at East Wallhouses in the Tyne Valley, the family-run vegetable business beloved of the region’s top chefs, four years ago created an outpost for itself in the 18th century walled garden at Little Harle.
Set just off the A696, this is Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown country. England’s greatest gardener was born just a stone’s throw away at Kirkharle and went to school in Cambo. It is here that he cut his landscaping teeth among the woods and pastures of his birthplace. These places are now one of the number one reasons that people from around the UK come to visit Northumberland.
The deeply satisfying view to the south of the walled garden that appears to display Mother Nature at her creative best could well be one of Capability’s early designs. But so clever was he at imitating nature that it’s hard to tell for certain.
Indeed, one anonymous obituary writer opined on his death in 1783 that, “so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.”
And Sir William Chambers, a contemporary of Capability’s who also considered himself a garden authority, complained that his rival’s designs “differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them.”
Ken likes to think Capability had a hand in the panorama he never tires of drinking in along with his mid-morning cup of industrial strength tea (an apt beverage as the 46-year-old used to be a builder before he and his 42-year-old wife turned to the land to make their living).
The Capability Brown link alongside North Country Organics’ ‘rescuing’ of a Georgian walled garden that had lain virtually disused and forgotten since the 1940s save as home for a few pigs and sheep, feeds neatly into the horticultural firms latest venture: heritage vegetables.
The team – Tracy’s brother Mark and dad Alan Purvis as well as family friend Brian Hunter are all involved – has taken a leaf out of our forebears’ book and added a number of heritage varieties to their already impressive vegetable repertoire.
“It’s like walking towards the Secret Garden”
On the menu are carrots (Ken expects to grow up to 200,000 this year, many of which will be non-orange strains), candy-striped and white beetroots, 15 old varieties of tomatoes, courgettes, leeks, lettuces, spring onions and cucumbers to name but a few, along with edible flowers such as violas, nasturtiums and dianthus.
Some of the vegetables like the Kuttinger carrot which is white and looks more like a parsnip, can trace their roots back to the 1700s.
As Ken says: “It’s very satisfying growing something that has its origins in the 18th century in a walled garden that first came into production at that time and which sits in a landscape that Capability Brown was so familiar with.
“He may well have come to this walled garden in his youth and many of the vegetables we are now growing may well have once flourished here.”
The heritage vegetables which are in their first season have caused a flurry of excitement among the region’s chefs – many of whom already take North Country Organics’ produce. Terry Laybourne, former North East Chef of the Year David Kennedy, Tony Binks of the Barrasford Arms and Rhian Cradock of The Feathers at Hedley-on-the-Hill are all customers, along with top end hotels like Jesmond Dene House and Close House.
North Country Organics is also hopefully about to break into the Michelin market. They have signed a distribution deal with fresh and prepared food suppliers Wellocks that will see their high quality produce offered to Michelin establishments in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland.
Indeed, so popular is North Country Organics’ hand sown, weeded and harvested produce that there is a chefs’ waiting list.
Which is surprising as continuity is rarely guaranteed. “We operate an old-fashioned veg of the day system here,” Ken explains. “We literally roll up at the restaurant with whatever has been harvested that day and that’s what the chefs have to work with.
“But they are the sort of guys who can react quickly and are prepared to change their menus to suit what’s coming into their kitchens.”
“The heritage vegetables have caused a flurry of excitement among the region’s chefs”
Ken sees what he and the rest of the team are doing as helping to preserve our heritage and offering choice where for so long none has existed. “Some of our produce, like the Chioggia candy striped beetroot and baby Paris carrots, are very unusual but very aesthetically pleasing,” he says. “Everyone is looking for something new they can offer their customers these days – even if that means turning the clock back.”
North Country Organics had never planned to be a saviour of rare and near extinct heritage vegetables, though. It was supermarket competition that eventually forced their hand. “We can’t compete against the big players and the supermarkets,” Ken says bluntly. “It’s as simple as that.
“When it comes to vegetables likes swedes and cabbages there’s no point us growing them. We are a small operation and everything is done by hand. We have as a team taken the decision to pull up all our swedes and cabbages as there is no market for them and give the space over to heritage vegetables.
“With so much produce coming from abroad, we have instead set ourselves the challenge of growing for this country and offering something that is completely different and, if you like, has the novelty factor.
“But where the supermarkets can only offer four varieties of leeks, we can offer eight. And because we are only a small operation we can also work directly with chefs. All the chefs come up here on a regular basis so they can see things from our side. Terry Laybourne was here the other day; that is something we encourage.”
One of North Country Organics’ current winners’ is boxes of living micro Paris carrots. “It’s an old-fashioned variety that is big on flavour but which you rarely see in this country,” Ken says. “We are also doing boxes of living baby leeks.”
Flavour is something Ken maintains heritage vegetables offer in abundance. “I know some people say heritage vegetables don’t taste any better or worse than the standardised offerings, but I eat what we grow and for me the old varieties have 100% more flavour.
“Commercially grown vegetables are not produced with flavour in mind. They are hybridised to maximise shelf life and survive shipping. Hence we have seen the dwindling of many varieties to a few sturdy-yet-tasteless specimens of tomato, lettuce, carrot, potato and onion.”
Ken continues: “By its very nature what is available one day may not be the next. But taking delivery of an eclectic box of freshly harvested produce that has been grown, picked and packed by hand is an exciting prospect for a chef. It allows them to really get the creative juices flowing.”
North Country Organics has cannily tapped into the current trend for funky new flavours and colours, the culinary backlash against uniformity and a desire to link into our past – hence the term ‘heritage’.
It describes plants and their seeds that pre-date the Government’s National List of approved plant varieties. For centuries it was common for farmers and growers to keep back seed at harvest time to grow the next year’s crop, as well as to swap and sell local strains.
But industrialised farming changed everything and in the 1970s European law made it illegal to sell seeds not registered on the National List or in the EU Common Catalogue. Many smaller seed companies had neither the time nor the money to register their varieties and as a result once common vegetables began to die out to be replaced by standardised versions.
Since the 1970s around 2,000 heritage vegetable varieties have become obsolete in the UK and Europe. The future of many more is now in the hands of the Heritage Seed Library, a charity based in Ryton near Coventry, and growers like North Country Organics.
Ken says: “A heritage variety is one that has stood the test of time. If it is still being grown 100 or 200 years after it was introduced, then there is a good reason why.”
- North Country Organics, The Old Barn, Vallum Farm, East Wallhouses, Military Road, Newcastle, NE18 0LL, 01434 672 822, www.northcountryorganics.co.uk
The Pick of North Country Organics’ Heritage Vegetables
- Artichoke, Chinese or Crosne, (1882) Japan: Rarely seen these days, the tubers grow to between 5cm-8cm long and have a thin edible skin. It has a delicate, slightly sweet taste.
- Beetroot, Chioggia (1840s) Italy: From the Venice region, this has large round red roots with alternate red and white stripes on the inside. It looks very pretty on the plate and has tasty sweet flesh. The young leaves can also be eaten like spinach.
- Beetroot, Albina Ice, (1885) Dutch: A white beetroot that doesn’t bleed when cut with an excellent flavour and texture that can be eaten raw, steamed or added to casseroles. The waxy topped leaves can be used like spinach.
- Carrot, Paris (1800s) France: A delicious, tender, bite-sized baby carrot with an outstanding flavour and lovely crunchy texture.
- Carrot, Kuttinger, (1700s) Switzerland: An old variety with white roots and a pronounced flavour.
- Cucumber, Crystal Lemon (1894) American: Small and round with a lemon coloured skin and a mild and sweet flavour. Thought to be kinder on the digestion!