One way and another I have done more and more writing over the last few years and I’m really enjoying having time to focus on this. I am contributing regularly to magazines such as the Caterer and Just About Dorset, but the blog is a chance to cover more diverse subjects – visits to growers, some of our travels, new recipes, occasional book reviews and some pieces about the work I am doing are a few areas I will be covering.
The guest blog section is where I prevail on friends and colleagues, most of them in the food industry, to share their thoughts, stories and experiences with us. Exciting, vibrant and diverse are words I’d use to sum things up on the guest blog and it isn’t all food related either!
I want to say a massive “thank you” to all those who have agreed to participate and I am sure that these contributions will be a big part of the interest in this website. Lots of these people have their own websites, blogs and books so please follow the links to see much more. If you are interested in guest blogging please email me at russell@CreativeAboutCuisine.com
No matter how many times I am lucky enough to visit a quality grower or food product, I am always amazed at the level of detail applied in these businesses. Running restaurants is all about the detail and a passion for what you do but this attitude really does start at the beginning of the supply chain.
The New Forest Fruit Company and its owner, Sandy Booth, epitomise this. Over the years Sandy has run the business as an employee, jointly owned the business with John Boyd and since November 2017 has been sole owner. Farming over 200 acres, the company employs upwards of 450 staff at the height of the season. Hourly pay, good staff facilities, dedicated work camp managers, a programme of social events, a volume-based picking bonus and a nine month season all help the company to achieve an 80% return rate for staff year on year. Even with labour accounting for 45% of costs this is an area that doesn’t really trouble Sandy.
Although the company grows blueberries, raspberries and asparagus, it is the strawberry that Sandy is totally passionate about. I chatted to him recently at the annual ‘strawberry day’, organised by wholesaler Country Fare Dorset, and was fascinated by the tour of the farm that he led. Listening to him run through the process of putting strawberries in our kitchens and on our tables, it was that detail that really struck me. This is summed up by one fact; they will test around 40 different varieties of new strawberries in any given year, with only one or two being deemed good enough to move on to larger production.
The following are just some of the details shared about the business and the way it operates:
- 4000 tonnes of strawberries is the estimated harvest for this year
- The berries are grown in a mixture of glasshouses, French and Spanish tunnels.
- The farm, just outside Beaulieu in the New Forest, has a unique micro climate. The way the Isle Of Wight acts as a ‘wind break’ is a significant factor.
- Most of the strawberries are grown using the table top method which presents the berries to pickers at 1.2m above ground level, making for minimal movement in the picking process.
- Warm days and cooler nights with an 8 degree temperature difference provides the ideal growing conditions.
- Red spider mite is a common pest and this is controlled with a predator species of insect. These biological controls are widespread on the farm with the predatory bugs now being dusted onto the plants by machine. A clove of garlic is sown every metre in the rows of strawberry plants; breaking the leaves on the garlic plants wards off aphids.
- The plants are individually watered, with the soil metered to provide exactly the right dose. An on site reservoir was recently created, all 45,000 square meters of it, to catch winter rain for summer irrigation, a project supported by the EU and DEFRA as part of the rural development programme.
- Bumble bees are used as pollinators. They go to work at much lower temperatures than our native honey bee so are a vital part of the process.
Six different varieties of strawberry were available for tasting; Altess, Harmony, Sweet Life, Murano, Furore and Malling Centenary. The last of these is a relatively new British variety from breeders at East Malling research in Kent. It is a larger berry, bred with its flavour at the fore and is predicted to be the death knell for the ubiquitous Elsanta. My favourite? It would have been a tough choice but the Furore edged it for me; lots of sweet fruit up front but with enough acidity to balance, firm but yielding texture and a complex flavour with quite floral notes. That being said, I don’t think you would have turned any of them down. New Forest supply to several of the major supermarkets so these are all varieties to look out for in retailers as well as from restaurants and caterers.
Many thanks to Sandy for such an interesting tour and to Country Fare for the invite to a great event.
Click the image below for my recipe using summer strawberries.
I’ve been thinking about this guest blog for the longest time. Russell first asked me to write something over a year ago. I didn’t think many people would be interested in the machinations of a TV programme. Like making sausages, it’s best left unexplored. But yesterday I tweeted Russell to say I’d be sending him a blog. And what is said on twitter just can’t be taken back. I could put it off no longer. I decided to block out a cheery piece about the first episode. A few behind-the-scenes anecdotes and musings on the subjective nature of wine connoisseurship.
But this morning I caught myself staring at a flower stall and wondering if working there wouldn’t be a better use of my time. And now, as I start to write, I feel something else bubbling up. I’m pondering why any of us who work in what I broadly term the ‘creative’ industries do it? Why do we put ourselves out there when we could so easily hide away doing something no-one ever sees? Why do we continue trying when even our best, and that which is empirically good, isn’t enough for one group of people. I talk of those whose sole job is to comment on what we do. The critics. And let’s face it, these days, everyone’s a critic.
Why am I saying this now? Well, last night The Wine Show launched on ITV4. It’s the culmination of 19 month’s work by a small but dedicated team of people. We had only one mission; to entertain and inform people about a subject they may not know much about. We were in a tough slot – 7pm on ITV4 (it will repeat on ITV this Saturday). But this morning I see that one critic admitted to watching the show having already decided to hate it.
Now, let me be clear. In the piece amidst the bile he attempts to make some humorous observations. In the end, he grudgingly says he likes it. But like many people, I soak up the negative in inverse proportions to the positive.
Much of the review is factually ‘fluffy’ at best. Matthew and Matthew didn’t have the ‘heft to get the show made’. The show was largely financed before they were even cast. ITV never released a trailer. We did that ourselves on YouTube.
But what’s odd is that the trailer isn’t really a trailer. It’s just the first minute of the programme, which is in the same show he then decides is quite nicely made. It’s a bit like saying you hate the canape but served up on a plate it somehow tasted different…but whatever. He liked it.
I suppose I should take the criticism of my ‘stilted narration’ with a pinch of Maldon from someone who is so unhappy with his lot. I am particularly irked by the lazy Top Gear analogy (it’s presented by 3 people with penises. I get it.) but not bothered enough to use Disraeli’s comment ‘How much easier to be critical than to be correct’.
So why am I writing this on a food blog aimed at food folk at the top of their profession? Well, here’s where our worlds collide because I think the same thing can be said of chefs. I’ve spent years working with and observing chefs at fairly close quarters. I’ve often wondered what it is that makes them tick. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the common character traits of the most successful chefs are a massive ego and a tiny id. Huge self-regard baked on to low self-esteem. But there’s something else they all have in common. A desire to make people happy. That’s it. Nothing more. You can dress it up with the need to nourish, showmanship, performance or power. But I’ve never met a great chef who doesn’t care if his customers are happy.
It’s the same if you’re an author, a gardener, a musician or a hundred other jobs where sharing your talent is key to the point of your existence. And it’s especially true if you’re a TV producer. You might be able to write for personal gratification, or paint in a garret to feed just your soul. But as a TV producer you have to put it out there. If you don’t, you might as well pull the duvet over your head and stick a copy of TV Choice down your throat until you suffocate.
Like a chef leading a kitchen, a TV producer has to have a huge amount of confidence to turn a vision into reality. You have to communicate that vision to a large number of people. Some may need convincing because of their own experience and skills. But even the most successful producers question themselves. They doubt the wisdom of their own decisions. Like chefs, I’ve never met a producer I admire who doesn’t feel that way. Unlike chefs we rarely get the chance to start again if it’s all gone wrong.
Whether you’re launching a TV show that millions of people will see, or serving three bowls of a soup, our motivations and fears are the same. We live in a world where everyone with a twitter account is a critic. Every blogger thinks they are the next Giles Coren. It’s become particularly difficult for those of us with tender ids and less than monstrous egos to cope. I suppose it’s the same for everyone in some way or another. Even doctors are rated on websites these days.
As a TV producer I accept that not everyone will love what I do. I just try and make as many people as I can as happy as I can. As a chef or cook I know you do too. I know many chefs hate what the TV business has done to their profession. But perhaps we can afford to be a little kinder to one another. We must remember that the challenge we share is meeting our critics head on. There is always a place for well informed and thoughtful analysis. And learning from that is easy. It’s believing our best is excellent in the face of cynicism that’s difficult.
Now, does anyone have a flower stall they’d be interested in selling?
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