Tag Archives: growing your own food

Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

Ribollita
serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.

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For the love of kale

There’s something so dreary about the word ‘kale’. Trying dragging it out – kaaaaale. Depressing. Boring. Dull. Virtuous. Farty. Tough.

Wrong, it’s none of those*. And at this time of year, it’s a godsend to the vegetable gardener. We’ve had a couple of sharp frosts and right now it’s trying to snow – again – so my kale is in prime picking condition.

IMG_1332This year, I grew it by accident. Almost.

It’s a toughie: it withstands conditions like these in 2010 (the kale is the leafy lump, foreground, right), and shrugs off the worst effects of the weather, laughing all the while. It can be eaten to the stalk by caterpillars during the summer but spring right back in winter. Nothing, but nothing, kills it. And as a result, I’ve suffered from kale-glut syndrome.

The symptoms are easily recognisable: a freezer full of frozen kale, a tendency to put kale in everything, to contemplate making kale ice cream and flavouring chocolate mousse with it, a desire to be really close friends with everyone and give them presents. Of kale. So last year I decided I wouldn’t plant any, and stuck to my resolve. (Shh. I missed it. A bit.)

Earlier this year I was inveigled into taking home some small cavolo nero plants at the Green Fair and plant swap in Penrhyndeudraeth. I didn’t want to, but I most emphatically did want to get rid of some tomato seedlings in exchange, so I took a tray. I shoved them in a corner of the veg plot and left them alone. The caterpillars didn’t; they had a fantastic time. But I remembered that a bare kale stalk can mystically regenerate, and left them in. They’re now the only thing standing, and they are DELICIOUS.

cavolo neroBut what do you do with kale, even if it is the sophisticated cavolo nero, given that the kale ice cream was not a hit?

This little lot is being shredded and added to a stir fry this evening. It’s also been in stews and baked with pasta, and it’s been in a lovely Tuscan ribollita in the past, though not yet this year. There are lots more possibilities, too, and of course it can take really strong flavours and stand up to them, face them down, even. Watch this space.

My latest favourite is a pasta sauce. The recipe came from an Italian neighbour and was scribbled on the back of a receipt from the local farmers’ co-op (once my shopping receipts urged me to try perfumes; this one’s slogan informs me that ‘quality bull semen is now in’). It was pinned on my kitchen noticeboard for ages but has finally made its way safely into my notebook. It serves one, due to unreasoning prejudice in the kale stakes.

Orachietti con cavolo nero
Serves 1

80-100g orachietti
a big handful of small cavolo nero leaves
half a tsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
6 anchovies
chilli flakes, to taste

Put a large pan of slightly salted water on to the boil. As soon as it boils, add the orachietti. Time it – when the water returns to the boil, allow the orachietti to cook for half the time specified on the packet (this usually means about 5 minutes). During this time, chop the cavolo nero and discard any tough-looking stems. Add the leaves to the orachietti once the 5 minutes have elapsed, and allow it to cook for the rest of the specified time – generally 10-12 minutes in total.

Warm the oil in a small frying pan over a gentle heat. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon. Add the chilli flakes and stir – cook very briefly.

Drain the pasta and cavolo nero well, and return them to their warm pan. Tip in the contents of the frying pan, stir everything together and serve immediately, with plenty of black pepper. Enjoy!

kale

* Confession time. Honesty makes me admit that kale can be difficult. Pick the wrong variety and cook it wrongly, and it can be every single one of the negative things listed. I once sowed an obscure heritage kale out of interest and respect for generations of north-of-Scotland crofters, and it was possibly one of the toughest things I’ve ever grown. It was beautiful to look at, very prolific, and shoes, it would have been fine for. Eating – meh…

Chutney time!

There’s something about making chutney. I end up feeling virtuous because I’ve used up the last of my crop – inevitably, green tomatoes are involved –

tomatoes

and there’s a beautifully stocked cupboard to admire. Well, OK, it’s a box or two under the stairs but I still come over all Laura Ingalls Wilder: ‘Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things!’

Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of things: fresh chutneys, chutneys that are directly Indian in inspiration, traditional ‘British’ chutneys, chutneys using unusual or foraged ingredients (elderberry: very good). I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the lot. Cold meat, baked potato and chutney, oh yeah. Chunks of warm home-made bread with strong cheddar and chutney on the side, even more oh yeah. I’ve amassed a small library of recipes, some of which are sketchy in the extreme and some of which slide into picccallli territory (oh no).

I have now come up with a basic formula and just play around with it. It’s simple: 2kg vegetables / dry ingredients; 250g soft light brown sugar; 250ml cider vinegar and 125ml water. Spices to suit what I’m doing. I can fit this into my biggest Le Creuset casserole, and end up with (roughly) seven 300g jars (I eat a lot of Gaea’s wonderful Kalamata olives, and the empties are ideal).

steam risingThis year my two kilos were made up of 700g assorted tomatoes, mostly green; 350g finely chopped white onion, 200g sultanas and 750g apples (peeled weight). I added two chopped chillies and three scant teaspoons of tamarind paste, and made up a spice bag with cardamoms, plenty of coriander seeds, dried ginger, a few cloves and cumin seeds. That went in, followed by the sugar and the liquid, and I filled the whole kitchen with steam.

cookingI bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. It cooks down for maybe two hours, maybe longer, depending – but the consistent thing is regular stirring to ensure that absolutely nothing sticks, whatever ingredients I’m using.

I check it more frequently as it reduces and changes colour, and soon it becomes more and more rich (and smells delicious). I know it’s ready when I draw a wooden spoon through it along the bottom of the casserole, and it leaves a clear trail – the inside of my Le Creuset is white, making it really clear. I’ve had my jars, freshly washed, drying out and sterilizing in a low oven, and the lids have been in boiling water.

Fighting the urge to change into a Little (Li’l?) Pioneer frock (happily, there’s no longer any Laura Ashley in my wardrobe), I start potting.

chutney jarsFirst, I retrieve my jam funnel from wherever I put it last time I used it. This was inevitably months ago, and the search can a) take time, ideal for cooling the chutney a little, and b) reveal all sorts of interesting things, like a pastry rings and an espadrille which had fallen behind a drawer (??). Then I carefully fill the jars, pop the lids on and, when they are cool enough to handle, I tap them firmly to fill up any gaps. Well, some gaps.

And then they disappear into the box under the stairs to mature. They need to be left until Christmas at the very least, and preferably until this time next year; earlier, and they are but a pale shadow of what they will later be. It takes time to develop a real depth of flavour.

I tend to use the Garden Club’s summer show as a marker, because that’s when I go prospecting, pulling jars out and tasting to determine which one has the honour of being entered into one of the most keenly contested classes. I only won a third this year – possibly because I’d eaten most of last year’s Apple, Date and Ginger and only had half a jar left:

IMG_0489

I really couldn’t enter half a jar and had to put in the Green Ginger (green toms, courgettes, apples, onion, LOTS of ginger) even though I knew it needed more time. The AD&G is delicious, but unfortunately I can’t find the notes – they’re probably in the drawer with the other espadrille and the pastry rings, hang on while I go and look… and maybe the notes for my orange chutney from 2012 will be there too.

I know I should be more organised, but for me part of the enjoyment of making chutney lies in never making the same ones twice. It’s impossible anyway, as far as I’m concerned. This year, for instance, I didn’t have as many green toms as usual and my apples ripened incredibly quickly; last year I had left-over courgettes to go in, and even a few beans. I believe in going with the flow when it come to chutneys. Plus I won’t know what this year’s contribution is really like until next August. Good, I hope. Fingers crossed!

Optimism, vegetables and the gardening gods

Every year it’s the same. I plant more of almost everything than I need for the veg garden and give some of it away. Then the rest of it weakens or gets a terrible disease or is eaten by slugs or just keels over for no apparent reason – rather like sheep, incidentally, though sheep are less likely to be eaten by slugs – and I have to find replacements from elsewhere.

This year, it’s the tomatoes: my first lot developed early blight. Astonishingly early blight. Straight into the bin; wash everything in sight – and no tomatoes. Due to a mixture of friends’ generosity and some swift ecological elbowing at a Green Fair and plant swap, I now have replacements. Seven Gardener’s Delights, one Marmande, one Alicante and two complete mysteries because the person who brought them to the plant swap didn’t bother to label them. Hey, it’s an adventure.

veg patch waitingThen there’s the weather. All my plants have come on beautifully in the last couple of weeks, and it was time to put the windbreak up around the veg patch, put it up again after it blew down the first time, put it up a third time with new stakes and more swearing, accept that ground-in dirt doesn’t come off hands easily and that all jeans have muddy knees. I was a bit late, and it had to be done.

The yellow mangetout were muscling the lid off the cold frame and the beans were making a bid for freedom. The dill and flat-leaved parsley suddenly decided to behave like strange herby versions of Jack’s beanstalk and all the spuds burst out of the ground at once. The spring onions put on a couple of inch in growth overnight and the kale I’d been prevailed to take at the plant swap broke its pot. I swear I can hear the garlic growing. Everything which wasn’t already out got planted out over the weekend. I was chuffed; the veg patch looked good. But the gardening gods were watching out for horticultural hubris. Yesterday was a day of one thunderstorm after another, as if they hadn’t made their point with the first one, and today looks set to be the same. Damn.

So why do I bother?

Simply, because I’d hate myself if I didn’t, given that I have the space and (sometimes) the ability. I can grow the varieties I want and I can make economic decisions which make sense. Take, for instance, the humble onion. I can buy decent onions at a reasonable price, but decent shallots are a different matter (as, given some spectacular recent price hikes, are spring onions). So I grow them instead. I’m picky about potatoes, and my favourites are Ratte. Used to get them at Borough Market; Borough Market now 250 miles away and 12 years in the past. So I grow them.

And when you grow your own, you make the decisions about when to harvest. No cricket-ball-sized beetroot here; no giant furry broad beans that taste of cardboard. Oh yes, the beans. I do like beans – even if I always overdo it – and there are some delicious varieties out there which never see a shop. Until recently I grew Borlottis, but I’ve stopped now; instead the space is devoted to Cosse Violette, a new gold bean (called ‘Gold Bean’ – hm, wonder what colour it is, and could it be – shh – a bean?) and the small and sweet Cherokee Trail of Tears. Try asking for that in the Co-op…

tomato parentsAnd then there are happy accidents. I save seed and sometimes this can produce interesting things, like the year I produced the Costoluto Russian – or possibly a Black Fiorentino – tomato. They were delicious, but further attempts at deliberately crossing Black Russians and Costoluto Fiorentinos produced nothing exciting. Or, indeed, edible. Fluff. Not good. But you never know; I could have made tomato-breeding history.

These, by the way, are the parents, separated by a plant pot, and the unintended cross had all sorts of advantages. The plants were not as temperamental as the CFs and the fruit not as vine-breakingly enormous as the BRs, though I did miss the opportunity to repeat silencing the pub with a single 500g tomato, as I had the previous year. Again, you can’t recreate that experience in Tesco.

But I’m missing the most obvious advantage: taste. A warm tomato, fresh off the plant, eaten on the quiet when you’re supposed to be harvesting for the pot – nothing beats it. Those baby broad beans are packed with nuttiness; the potatoes actually taste of something; the beans each have a different feel and flavour. OK, so I may be picking caterpillars off the Cavalo Nero for ages but it’s worth it to have a ribollita with real punch. And when it comes to furtive picking, you have to go a long way to beat the sneaked pea. Or several. Now all I have to do is work out how to protect an entire veg patch from the vagaries of the weather.

Unseasonably cold? That means soup!

As a gardener, I do keep a sort of record – and so I know that it’s often chilly and stormy at this time of year, here on the west coast of Wales. I’ve often ended up having to replant things which I was rash enough to put in the veg beds, and I generally have the last fire in the woodburner about now. This year, however, I seem to have forgotten all that and have been taken by surprise. My immediate reaction, though, wasn’t to go out and chop logs. It was to make soup.

I don’t tend to have soups in summer; it seems wrong, on some sort of fundamental level. Don’t get me wrong; I like cold soups but it seldom occurs to me to make one. Whereas it’s almost the first thing I consider for lunch on a cold, rainy, windy day – in May. Grumble.

So I hit the recipe books and notes in search of inspiration, given that I’d also just come back from Aldi with a supply of veggie bargains. No more shopping; time to adapt and improvise and come up with something which would work. Because it is, ostensibly, spring I went to various Italian recipes – Italian food somehow seems less depressingly wintry than what’s happening outside – and ended up with a variation on an old favourite…

One word: I usually have home-made tomato and herb passata in the freezer; it’s a godsend if you grow too many tomatoes, as I always do (they’re as bad as the beans). By now I’m gearing up for the new growing year, and am keen to use what’s in stock; I’ve got another three boxes of this to go. But a bottle will do just as well, though adding a little basil would be good.

Emergency Minestra di Ceci
serves 4

Soup yum1 small red onion
1 banana shallot
5g butter
1 tsp olive oil
3 sticks of celery
2 small carrots
1 red pepper
350ml tomato passata
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme

Peel and finely chop the red onion and the shallot. Put the butter and oil in a heavy pan or casserole and heat them gently, then add the chopped onion and shallot. Sweat them over a low heat for 5 minutes or so, making sure that they don’t catch. Chop the celery and carrots finely while the onions are cooking, and then add them to the pan too. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the onion and shallot are transparent and softening. De-seed and chop the red pepper, also finely, and then add it to the pan as well. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, still making sure that nothing is burning by stirring regularly (and keeping an eye on the pan, of course).

Add the tomato passata and increase the temperature; add some water to bring the level of the liquid up to cover the veg. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Put the bay leaf in the soup and pull the leaves off the thyme and scatter them in as well. Bring the soup almost up to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer it for about 10 minutes, or until the carrot and pepper are beginning to get nice and soft. Tip in the chickpeas and cook for a further 5 minutes or so – longer if you want the chickpeas to disintegrate slightly; you may need also to add a little more water to get the soup to the consistency you prefer, but it should be thick. (If intending to freeze portions, bear in mind that they will be cooked more when reheated and don’t overcook the chickpeas at this stage.) Add seasoning to taste and serve as soon as the vegetables are done to your satisfaction, accompanied by chunks of bread.

not a good ideaNow I have the freezer bulging again. Nothing better than soup for freezing. And nothing better for freezing gardeners than a bowl of hot soup.

But there’s a lot that’s better for cameras than trying to photograph soup while it’s actually cooking… happily the new camera seems to have recovered. Not sure about me, but there you go.

In the hungry gap…

Every year I end up in this position come April and May. Nothing to eat. Er, except for a huge stash of frozen green beans, and they’re beginning to pall a little.

dig for victoryIt may seem surprising to anyone who doesn’t grow vegetables – though obviously we all should (!) and this is an accurate depiction of me, by the way – but this is the time of year when home-grown produce is thin on the ground. Traditionally, it’s the season when labourers and peasants’ resources were at their most stretched and starvation was a real possibility.

Happily that’s not (quite) the case now, but it can still be an issue for anyone who likes to grow as much of their own veg as possible. There just isn’t that much available. Brassicas and the like are mostly over by now, going to seed as the temperature increases, and nothing else has yet come on stream.

Admittedly there is a variety of kale which fills the gap – introduced to Britain in 1941, when it was most desperately needed – but I’ve lived on kale at this time of year before now and I’m not keep to repeat the experience. And that’s what it does: repeat. I shall say no more, but my decision has been a popular one. If you’d like to test it for yourself, Chiltern Seeds usually have Hungry Gap Kale. It’s frost resistant (not a problem for me), and it does have a good flavour, but… oh, yes; I said I would say no more. Instead I’m just going to stand in the garden and sigh.

We are still lucky though. Not only can we garden without the risk of enemy parachutists landing in the potato plot, we can supplement our stock with food from the shops. And even if we try not to fall back on that to any great extent, we do not have to actually can anything, though apparently one in five US households still do. Listen to Betty MacDonald on the perils of home canning in the late 1920s:

First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so it won’t be wasted. Frankly I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all of my spare time reading up on botulism…

That risk still exists today: between 1996 and 2008 there were 48 outbreaks of botulism in the US that were directly linked to home-canned food, and botulism kills – nastily. To me, this doesn’t sound like something I should be doing; I’m thinking the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, but with a jar of home-canned cauliflower.

beans dryingThank goodness we have freezers now (admittedly freezers full of french beans). Incidentally, the same over-production addiction – Betty MacD. noted that her neighbours were eating the season before the season before’s produce, and were still planting and planning on canning the current season’s stuff – applies today. I know I don’t need quite so many climbing beans this year, but guess what’s in the cold frame, ready to go out?

And in a few months time they’ll have been blanched and be drying off, ready for packing and putting in the freezer…

I’ve seen all sorts of alternative suggestions for things to fill the hungry gap but I’m not sure I could live on asparagus – and though I wouldn’t mind trying the season is short and doesn’t actually fill the gap. However, these ‘options’ mostly come down to other brassicas – purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, and more kales – and in my experience most of these are already bolting. Squashes, if seasoned well in a good autumn (and that’s a big ‘if’ for me here in Snowdonia) will keep, but even they are failing now, going a little squishy at the base or stalk or, alternatively, getting so hard you have to take an axe to them. Leeks can stay in the ground so they’ve been recommended, but by late April they’re generally sending up spectacular seed heads or are so woody as to be unusable. It’s that HG kale or diddly squat. Diddly squat, then.

Despite this, I rather like the hungry gap in a perverse way, even if I am fed up to the back teeth of frozen beans. It connects me one of the main reasons I bought a house with a decent garden: feeding myself. It reminds me that food should never be taken for granted, and that seasonality should be a factor in my diet. The more I rely on out of season foodstuff from a supermarket, the greater the negative impact on the environment. I know it’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a bigger thing. And in my case, a giant vegetable soup. Or Spanish green beans. Or green beans with tomato. Or a green Thai curry featuring – you guessed – green beans. Or just plain green beans with tomato sauce and fish fingers (getting desperate here). Green bean terrine?

Hang on a second – there is something other than frozen beans, though I’m not quite sure it’s a substitute for tomatoes, spuds, onions, beetroot, courgettes. The rhubarb looks promising…

Really real seeds

I’ve always tried to grow at least some of my own food, even if that’s only been herbs in a window box. Now I grow much more, and last week I had a deep disappointment over beetroot, but at least they weren’t mine. I know that for some people the very existence of beetroot might be a deep disappointment, but I’m not one of them. I love beetroot, the earthy taste, the sharp fruity sweetness (if that’s possible), and most of all I love roasted beets chopped into a feta salad. Unfortunately I didn’t grow any myself this year – illness at planting time restricted my activity – and so when I saw some at the local produce market, I grabbed them. They were smaller than most, about the size of a golf ball, promising concentrated flavour.

Wrong. Texture, yes. Flavour? Nah.

You can grow things beautifully, with great care. You can harvest them when they should be tasty and succulent. But if you don’t have a good, tasty variety in the first place, what’s the point? And if you buy seed from the Big Boys your chances of getting a tasty end result are dimininshed. That’s because the Big Boys have to sell approved seed, and approved seed means commercial varieties. Varieties designed for the supermarket, by and large, where taste is not the first priority. Often the seeds on offer are F1 hybrids, so you can’t save the seed because they won’t come true, and they won’t have been bred to suit the domestic grower anyway. Oh, the copy on the packets or the in the catalogues may make them sound good, but stop a mo to consider what some of the wording means. ‘Good for freezing’ for instance, on a packet of French beans. All French beans are good for freezing. What this means in this context is that they’ve been designed (bred or engineered) to all ripen at the same time, which is what commercial growers need. Gardeners do not; we generally prefer our mad, insane, ripening season to be spread out a little bit, if only to ease the stress on our nerves and picking hands. Nor do most of us demand ‘good uniform fruit’ – another strap line – but supermarkets do. Flavour, they’re not so bothered about. And, almost inevitably, many adaptable and delicious (often local) strains of vegetables have been lost in the past 40 or 50 years.

This brings me to a company who are the first of my local food heroes. I’m stretching ‘local’ a bit here, but they are in Wales. South-west Wales, but Wales nonetheless: The Real Seed Catalogue. I try and order most of my seed from them, at least in the beginning – and that’s at their encouragement, because one of their aims, at the cost to their own profits, is to get people to save their own seed. So what’s different about them? That would be almost everything. They specialise in heirloom and heritage seeds, seeds for plants that have been shown to really work, seeds for plants that are packed with flavour.

kaleTake one example, Sutherland Kale. I first grew this a couple of years ago, and it’s a smasher. It’s also a perfect illustration of the philosophy behind Real Seeds. It’s a real heirloom variety, now thought to be extinct except for individual gardens – and the Real Seeds seedbank. It can withstand almost anything in my exposed garden (even cabbage whites, which have been hellish this year), and still perform. And it tastes great, so several ticks for this variety already. Then there’s how it came to be offered through Real Seeds, which illustrates the collaborative community they have built up. As the packet says: ‘This variety was saved for years by Elizabeth Woolcombe of West Drummie in Sutherland, who is now 93. She got it from a kale researcher [who knew there were such jobs?] called Angus Simmonds in the 1950s…’ and it was sent in by someone called V. Shilling. Not exactly a product of intensive development, then, designed to produce lots of kale for a giant supermarket distribution centre in, say, the third week of February. Maybe this year they’ll be adding Shetland Kale, as they have had seeds submitted for trial and it’s currently doing well. And they do trial; nothing gets in the catalogue or on the website unless it works. Everything is grown at their place in Pembrokeshire for family use; if it’s fiddly, fastidious or tasteless it doesn’t make the cut. But it’s not parochial; there’s a wide selection of oriental vegetables, for example, or tasty Bulgarian tomatoes alongside the more familiar Cosse Violette climbing beans and the Verde di Italia courgettes. And they all work.

Adaptability is vital; growing your own vegetables can be chancy enough without unconsciously trying to replicate commercially grown varieties. The small team at Real Seeds also make sure that they select the best seed in the first place, something most gardeners used to do but which is impossible on a highly commercial scale. They also continuously assess the range of seeds they offer, looking at areas which are a little light – runner beans, for instance, or endives – and deliberately going in search of appropriate possibilities. Some of the things they offer might be an acquired taste (I’m not quite sure why I ordered the cucumber I did one time, but let’s just say it didn’t make my cut, though some friends loved it), or completely unfamiliar – but I follow the advice of one of the River Cottage books and grow something unfamiliar every year. And I know that if I fancy growing huauzontle*, there’ll be decent seeds available, clear instructions and even a few recipes delivered with my seeds.

*A Mexican contribution, otherwise known as ‘Aztec greens’, Chenopodium berlandieri. Now you know…