Down in ‘Fannet’ food has taken a space age turn. Nick Harman visits the UK’s biggest greenhouse complex to find how our red, yellow and green peppers are produced.
I can’t get rid of it; ‘This is Planet Earth’ by Duran Duran keeps looping around my brain as we wait for security clearance to enter the world of Thanet Earth. Damn those catchy 80s popsters and their irresistible ‘hooks’.
I soon lose the beat though as we round a corner and I get my first sight of the massive greenhouses covering the rough equivalent of four Heathrow terminals, or 40 football pitches if that helps. Very, very big, is perhaps the best way of putting it.
Before the greenhouses fell to earth all this land in Thanet, the bit of the UK that includes Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, grew brassicas – cauliflowers mostly -which apparently ‘smelt a fair bit.’
Now four clean, bright and odour-free greenhouses occupy the space instead. They stand on compacted earth with as little concrete as possible used in their construction. This is what modern farming looks like; efficient, virtually waste-free, ecologically as sound as possible and with no mud or muck about.
Green is good
The greenhouses are each used for specific crops; two for tomatoes and one each for cucumbers and sweet peppers. It’s the pepper house I’m visiting to meet Pleun van Malkenhorst the managing director of the operation for Rainbow UK, which is a Dutch company, you probably won’t be surprised to learn.
The Dutch of course have been growing things in large greenhouses for a long time, but now by growing peppers hydroponically in the UK they cut down on the expense of shipping them to our hungry market, as well as the pollution involved in mass transport.
Pleun’s job is not that of any ordinary farmer. He gets around his 20 acre farm by bike, not tractor, and with around a quarter of a million producing plants to look after he has to be a smart scientist to keep everything happy.
Computer systems make sure nutrients like potassium, nitrogen, calcium, iron and magnesium are precisely delivered to the plants, along with carbon dioxide. Systems outside keep an eye on the temperature, the strength of sunlight and even the wind and where it’s coming from in order to work the vents efficiently. And uniquely Pleun also has to buy and sell energy.
Generating no waste
‘Every day I look at the price of gas and electricity,’ he explains. ‘We use gas engines to generate our own electricity, when gas is cheaper to buy. Any surplus electricity we produce is put into the national grid, which we get paid for. So it’s a balancing act. We want to consume as little energy as possible, as well as resources, and also waste as little as possible. The heat from the engines warms the greenhouses and the carbon dioxide produced is pumped to the plants.’
Plants of course love carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen, as we all remember from our school biology lessons. The massive glass roofs channel up to 50 million gallons of rainwater a year into giant storage tanks, free water that’s used to carry the nutrients to the base of each plant sitting in its rockwool trough. Any water that runs off from the plants is captured, filtered and used again.
Nothing bugs the crop
By growing the pepper plants up strings, Pleun achieves an average height of 12 feet and they’re producing fruit all the time they are growing. Green (unripe) peppers and the fully ripe red and yellows. Teams are picking regularly and reporting back via terminals stationed around the rows on yield and any problems. Like bugs.
‘We use pesticides only as a very last resort,’ says Pleun bending down to show me a sachet attached to the base of a stem. ‘This contained ‘good insects’ like wasps and macrolophus, which prey on the ‘bad insects’ like whitefly, caterpillars and spider mites. In this way we don’t need to spray, nature balances it out for us.’
And of course the generous light levels in this part of the UK do the rest, delivering the ultraviolet and, in the summer, the warmth too. Production of peppers runs from March to November and then the exhausted plants go to compost and the whole thing gets ready to start again.
The peppers that come off the plant are uniform in size, shiny, healthy, traffic-light bright and crisp and juicy. Not just the familiar Bell Peppers but also Large Pointed Peppers and Baby Peppers too. They’re packed by a state of the art operation on site and dispatched to supermarkets swiftly and efficiently.
And do they taste good? Over at the East Kent College Cookery School the students are away for the summer break so chef Guus Vredenburgtakes me into the teaching kitchen and we knock up some simple pepper dishes: Stir fried orange pepper with chicken, Pepper salad with goat cheese and walnuts, Gazpacho and Peperonata.
They all taste great and I would defy anyone to tell the difference between a pepper grown in the greenhouse and one grown in a field, even assuming you could find the latter in the UK and which hadn’t been flown miles to get to your mouth
As we ate I learnt that sweet peppers are remarkably healthy and apparently contain a lot of vitamin C, more than almost any other fruit or vegetable. In addition to vitamin C, sweet peppers also contain vitamins E, B1 and B2. They also provide essential minerals such as calcium, sodium and iron and a pointed sweet pepper contains a lot of folic acid. All these facts, as well as more recipes can be found at the colourfultaste website.
So next time you’re buying peppers, look for the ones that have travelled from Thanet Earth. They’re eco-friendly, tasty and not at all alien.
Foodies talk a lot about balsamic vinegar and its amazingness, but in the South of France there’s an artisan making something a drop more interesting and rare.
‘You need good wine to make good vinegar,’ says Nathalie gazing watchfully over her militarily ranked wooden casks. The south of France sun is beating down on the covers that shade the casks from the full heat, her dog is flopped out on the road outside. It’s too hot to do much. Time moves slowly here.
The vinegar she makes at La Guinelle, above the hamlet of Cosprons, overlooking the bay of Paulille on the Mediterranean, is made slowly and uses only Banyuls sweet wine, an AOC fortified apéritif or dessert wine made from 50% and up to 75% Grenache grapes from local vineyards.
This in itself would all but guarantee a good result, but Nathalie chooses carefully to get the flavours she wants. She then uses an organic process of double fermentation, alcoholic and acetic, with the barrels open to the air and natural bacteria. Then follows ageing in oak barrels for between 4 to 8 months with further resting after that in glass demijohns in that shade. To put it into perspective an industrial vinegar might mature for only eight days before being sold. No wonder it’s just sharp and boring
A simple life
The vinaigerie is at the end of a long dusty, bouncy single lane with no housing and only a few simple, small wooden structures to be found when the track finally does peter out. There’s a kind of Bedouin open sided tent where the vinegars live, a small hut serves as an office and shop and another as a place to hand bottle the vinegar.
This is artisanal for sure but Nathalie is also making a highly respected product. Her vinegar is sought after by many top Michelin starred chefs in France and only around 10,000 bottles are produced a year.
‘I also have one chef buyer in England,’ says Nathalie, ‘have you heard of XXXX?’ She’s speaking French and while I understand her words, I simply can’t catch that name, so I nod and we carry on.
Splash it on
She shows me a one year aged red vinegar and I have a teeny taste. ‘Splash it onto just picked sliced tomatoes or some local oysters’, she recommends.
It has less than 6.5% acidity so it’s not viciously sharp and while I don’t care for fruited vinegars as a rule, these vinegars only contain wine and so I pick up raspberry aromas, along with hints of spice and vanilla, but it’s all about the original wine and nothing else. As she says, the end vinegar can only be as interesting as the wine it was created from and her vinegars are very interesting.
She mentions the UK chef again, I still don’t get it. She elaborates: ‘The restaurant is called ‘edon’ It is in West London?’ Ahhh, the centime drops, Hedone is the restaurant and the chef is Michelin-starred Mikael Jonsson so no wonder we struggled with pronunciation. If he’s using this vinegar that has to be a good endorsement as his restaurant has received nothing but rave reviews.
Pearls of the Mediterranean
As well as various aged red vinegars, Nathalie also makes a white vinegar from 100% grey Grenache that has a lemony freshness, and she has recently branched out into more esoteric styles. She shows me a red vinegar that has undergone spherification, the El Bulli promoted method of turning liquid into tiny pearls that pop in the mouth.
‘Imagine that scattered over roast lamb!’ she enthuses, ‘or sprinkled into a salad’. She has also created a solid, almost rubbery vinegar block that can be grated finely onto dishes. Again something that can inspire creative chefs.
Well what could I do? I bought a bottle; apart from anything else it was just so damned cute to look at I just had to have it. Now back in England I am splashing it on sparingly but lovingly, just the way it was made.
Virtually visit La Guinelle
Red, red, wine, it goes to my he- eh -eh ed’, except that it doesn’t here because neither red nor white wine are an option at The Big Grill in Muslim Dubai.
However I do have a compensatory stacked plateful of grilled lamb, Lebanese mashawis and other food treats to gnaw on as I tap my toes to the bland white reggae beat from the UB40 boys up on stage.
The Big Grill at Dubai Emirates Golf course is a 2-day celebration of everything BBQ; packed with BBQ cook-offs, burger eating competitions and BBQ picnics amidst live performances from world-class artists and local DJs. It’s not perhaps what people usually expect from Dubai, but that’s the point,
It’s all part of the Dubai Food Festival, a new idea for a city more famous for soaring tower blocks, supercars on the street and money, money money than it is for food.
Dubai is a massively multicultural city of course and the food available reflects that. Over 200 cuisines are being represented at the Festival, which takes in everything from shipping containers at ‘Beach Canteen’ – where I ate locally caught fish while the setting sun pinkly illuminated the amazing Burj al Arab hotel – to the highest of high end restaurants. Whatever your pocket, you can afford to eat widely and well. Read more…
60.2 billion cups of tea are drunk a year, many of them by Nick Harman personally. He goes down to visit 300 year old Twinings Tea in Hampshire to discover more about their take on our national drink.
‘Shlooooooooooooorpppp!’ It’s a very loud sound and seems odd coming from Philippa Thacker who for the last ten minutes has been, dare I say, behaving in a perfectly ladylike fashion. ‘Slurrrrrrp’ she goes again and then accurately directs a jet of brown tea into her spittoon on wheels.
‘You don’t have to spit it out of course,’ she says, ‘it’s not like wine tasting where you’re avoiding the alcohol, but if you don’t spit then by the end of a tasting you will have drunk an awful lot of tea!’
As a Master Blender it’s part of Philippa’s job to ensure that each box of Twining’s black ‘breakfast tea’ or ‘everyday tea’ you buy in the shops is of the same quality and taste as the last and is true to the secret blend, which can contain up to forty separate teas.
Unlike wine, which is a once a year crop, tea is picked every day with the leaf quality varying every time so it’s the blenders’ job to assess each shipment of tea that comes in and create the correct blend for sale. Each blender has his or her own unique tasting spoon engraved with their name, a sweet touch that is so quintessentially British. Read more…
At the Phoenicia Hotel they take luxury and food very seriously. Nick Harman goes into their garden to meet the head chef and to taste the Maltese difference.
Saul bounds away up the vegetable patch like a puppy in an apron, still talking to me over his shoulder. Then, after grabbing a few tomatoes off the vine, he comes hurrying back. ‘The freshness is fantastic,’ he said biting into one ‘and with the kitchen just over there it gets straight to the plate.’ Saul could be any keen cook enthusing over his vegetable plot, but this particular patch is a massive seven and a half acres in size. It’s the back garden of the Phoenicia Hotel, Malta and Saul’s the Head Chef. Read more…
A mastery of Swedish, gained from watching TV crime dramas, means Nick Harman is well prepared for a great food weekend in Gothenburg
I’m using it all the time since arriving in Sweden; ‘tack’ means ‘thanks’ in English. It’s the only Swedish word that TV has taught me and it’s coming in handy as I try to eat in as many places in Gothenburg as I can.
There is great food to be found all over when wandering the streets of Sweden’s second city, just under two hours flight from the UK. No longer is it all about the herring and the meatballs, although those are still done very well.
At lunchtime in a small square I come acrossStrömmingsluckan(Magasinsgatan), a food truck dispensing fried herrings served with parsley butter, mash and lingonberries, to people of all ages.
It’s a traditional dish, the young man at the fryer, Thomas, tells me from behind his high counter, and much beloved by all. I stand eating and talking to him as he serves fast and efficiently, the sweetly sharp lingonberries cutting the oiliness of the fish perfectly, while the mash is a billowy sponge for all those juices.
It’s not fine dining but it is fun dining. For a taste of something special I head off that evening to Kock & Vin(Viktoriagatan 12). Here there is no menu, you only get what’s in season with a focus on the region’s superb fish and shellfish. The West Sweden themed cooking here from Head Chef Johan Björkman is artistic and creative and it’s no wonder it’s one of Gothenburg’s premier Michelin starred restaurants, but of course it has prices to match.
For something cheaper there is the ‘Fish Church’Feskekôrka(Rosenlundsvägen). Inside this ancient fish market is the small Restaurang Gabriel run by Johan Malm who took over the restaurant founded by his father.
Johan is an imposing presence with his bushy hipster beard and big boots, but he’s a friendly giant and while we drink bitter, powerful espressos and the kitchen sets up for lunch, he explains that with all the remarkable fish stalls downstairs he can always give his customers the freshest of the day’s catch, all cooked with beguiling simplicity. ‘The cold water around Sweden really develops the flavour of local fish,’ he says and swallowing a local oyster I find he is absolutely right.
Of course all this fish can get a bit much so I head over toGourmetkorv (Södra Larmgatan 6). This tiny hole in the wall sells over fifty kinds of sausages to be greedily eaten on the spot with mash, sauce and rather curiously, a slice of baguette that’s been squashed in a sandwich toaster. The average price is £7, including a can of soft drink, and it’s a bargain in this town, especially when you consider that all their sausages are made locally and contain between 85-95% meat and no additives.
Needing some art therapy I found the Art Museum was well worth a visit, especially as the handyGothenburg City Card I was rocking gives entrance to this and many other museums and galleries, as well as travel on buses, trams and ferries.
The restaurant next door to the museum, Mr P (Gotaplatsen 6) was the real masterpiece though. I expected the usual tatty museum café bad food and screaming children, but instead found a wonderfully modern place full of cool locals serving inventive fusion food from a terse small plate menu. Steak tartar with trout roe strewn with a crisp layer of sliced radish was a textural and taste delight and the local impossibly sweet squid with tomato, chilli, lime and avocado was stunning.
In Sweden afternoons are always ‘fika’ time, a coffee break taken very seriously. Over in the pretty old Haga district with its grid of streets of ancient wooden houses and bohemian shops, there are a myriad of coffee houses serving the cinnamon roll that it’s almost obligatory to eat at fika time. At Café Kringlan, (Haga Nygata 13) the home made roll is a welcome sugar rush which, combined with the heavy caffeine hit, had me ready to take on even more walking and eating.
By the time I’d reluctantly left town I had also feasted on superb saltwater and freshwater crayfish, had my fill of quality meatballs, dodged death from a really quite unbelievable number of Volvos, and yet barely scratched the food surface. So tack you Gothenburg for all the food, I’ll be back to dive deeper soon.
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San Sebastian may be the unofficial food capital of the world, but for three days this year it went more than a little London. Nick Harman gets a taste of Gastronomika 2013
Jose Pizarro is three rows in front, Fergus Henderson appears to have nodded off in his seat in the middle, Nuno Mendes is peering pensively past his fringe and out the window, Junya Yamasaki of Koya is with the bad boys at the back, Bubbledogs/Kitchen Table lads are all chatting excitedly and the Clove Club are members of the happy band. On board are plenty of other brit chefs who are bywords in the blogs, plus a couple of food writers and at least one of those is desperately trying to remember if he’s been rude about any of these chefs recently.
We’re barreling through the darkness en route to a mass dinner at Elkano, a restaurant in the seaside fishing village of Getaria about 24km from San Sebastian (Donostia). We’re going to eat turbot-rodaballo. It’s a simple dish, a whole turbot, or in this case about twenty turbots, cooked on enormous oakwood fired grills outside the entrance.
Nothing more than salt, cider vinegar and oil is added and the fish is served in three defined parts – the bottom side that never sees the sun, the top half with its dark skin and, on the side, a rack of gelatinous bones. The texture and taste contrasts are clear and defined and you drag the local bread through the glorious mess your plate soon becomes and you greedily suck the skin off those bones. Outside, roasting in the heat from the grills ourselves, we gather for cigarette breaks and agree that it is possibly the best fish we’ve eaten anywhere
It’s certainly a long way in style from tweezers and Thermomix cooking; it’s basic Basque and the assembled chefs lap up the simplicity, so refreshing after a day of food art. We’re all in town for Gastronomika 2013, three days of learning and lecturing and this year there’s a strong Brit presence because the festival is flying the London flag, literally, because London has come to Spain, innit.
You’d think San Sebastian, a city that has become a byword for great food would be too cool to like London grub, but far from it. Outside the conference center, a modern structure next to the old town and perched like a giant bathing hut just a few yards from the beach, James Knappett has set up a food truck selling his eponymous Bubbledogs. Within a few hours it proves so popular they have to create a zig zag queuing system and locals and attendees of all ages happily stuff hot dogs into their mouths while dribbling sauce on their shirts just like any London food blogger.
Inside they’ve seen Heston open the show and heard from Jonny Lake of the Fat Duck and Ashley Palmer-Watts of Dinner, they will go on to see Anna Hansen(The Modern Pantry) cook fusion, smell the spices of Atul Kochar (Benares), marvel at the erratic Lundun accent of that man Knappett and watch Jose Pizarro (Pizarro’s) and Cesar Garcia (Iberica) demo. Over the next few days Nuno Mendes (Viajante) will also demonstrate, as well as Fergus Henderson (St John) and Tom Kerridge (Hand & Flowers), the latter to be found wandering about backstage hugely happy with the success of his book, TV show and now UK’s Best Restaurant Award.
Attending these events is both fascinating and frustrating. You get to see, and smell, some remarkable dishes being created but you never get to taste any. The hall is hot and a bit stuffy and during the Spanish chefs’ performances you wear translation headsets which make your ears hurt and sometmes deliver Spanglish. For the chefs it’s about seeing what could be on the menu stylewise next, to see heros in action and go out on the lash in the evening. For me it’s work and pleasure combined but you can only watch so many demos.
Luckily there is the food Disneyworld of San Sebastian to explore. So many tabernas, so little time, and picking the right ones isn’t easy. You peer in and try to judge by spotting who are locals and who are tourists. The latter are easily identifiable, they are taking endless pictures and are filling large plates with pinchos as if at a wedding buffet. With a shudder you withdraw.
Some bars in the beautiful old town have got lazy and serve bad food but get a good guide, and I recommend John Warren of San Sebastian Food, and you will be steered right. In San Sebastian the good and the bad and the ugly are not fixed, so you need the most up to date info if you’re not to blow your euros on the wrong pinchos.
John is scathing about some tabernas and waxes eloquent about others, particularly in the Gros area of town an area little visited by tourists. Here he deftly steers me from place to place, drinking the sparkling txakoli wine, very dry and pleasantly low in alcohol, as we go, while I wonder how much more food I can take before exploding like Mr Creosote.
I also wonder if I am going to get scurvy. John assures me that in their homes the locals eat as many green vegetables as anyone else, but in the tabernas the closest you come to green veg is an olive. If it’s not fatty or fried or both, the Spanish don’t want it. Here in Spain it’s best to forget about your five a day and just concentrate on trying to get just one a day.
Back at the conference centre it’s good to see London being hailed as the most exciting food city in the world. The talk is all of our multi-cultural melting pot and how, having never really had much of a cuisine to defend, we have been omnivorous in our welcome to everyone else’s. Yes we fall for crazes rather too easily, and fall prey to silly hype occasionally, but we keep our eyes open as well as our mouths.
Maybe next year we’ll be the ones holding our own Gastronomika, that’s if all the chefs made it back safely home of course.
Photos taken with the HTC One Mini