Highlights of the freshest produce

Clare O'Donnell
Clare O'Donnell

Ask any grow your own enthusiast to name an establishment they most associate with garden-to-kitchen fresh produce, and would wish to visit, and the answer is likely to be Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, the iconic, two Michelin-starred base of chef Raymond Blanc.

One local person who has just made the dream a reality is Clare O’Donnell, senior gardener at The Alnwick Garden (TAG).

Le Manoir crops.

Le Manoir crops.

To Clare, who has responsibility for the brilliant Roots and Shoots set-up at Alnwick, which hosts essential courses for inner city schoolchildren, families with a disabled member and people suffering from the onset of dementia, it seemed a natural progression to visit the best in the land and compare notes.

For the uninitiated, Le Manoir is a beautiful old manor house in Oxfordshire with a walled garden for the organic produce used in the restaurant.

Clare’s experience there is but one example of TAG’s philosophy in encouraging staff development en route to a school of excellence in horticulture.

There was pure enthusiasm when she stepped up to offer her 15-minute contribution at our recent garden club meeting. After all, it’s not everyone who gets to stay at Le Manoir, shake hands and chat with the charming owner and enjoy the delights of his restaurant.

Crops in the micro-leaf room.

Crops in the micro-leaf room.

She was keen to discover how the organisation managed to grow vegetables and fruit on a large scale to meet the demands of such a high-profile restaurant. Her plan was to concentrate on production methods, quantity, quality and variety.

On arrival, Clare found a very large garden with three full-time staff, two Soil Association students, there because of the certified organic status, and a placement from Northern Ireland who’d won a competition to set up a heritage garden on site.

But two cost-cutting initiatives based in poly-tunnels really appear to have captured Clare’s imagination. These were a micro-leaf production facility and growing courgettes for their flowers – not fruits.

Apparently micro-leaves are sold by the boxful within the trade and are expensive to buy. Cultivating courgettes for their flowers also saves money. They cost £1.50 per bloom! Micro-leaves are harvested at or just before the first true leaf stage, soon after germination, and almost any herb including fennel can be used, plus a whole range of common vegetables. Water cress is also popular.

In one of Clare’s photo images of the experience, the system is set out on moveable benches which hold the seed trays – this helps turnover.

Thirty trays per day are sown to keep the system flowing. To the right are recently-sown subjects, to the left are those ready for kitchen. A bench in the foreground is used for cleaning the leaves prior to use.

Seeds are broadcast on capillary matting, moistened by the irrigation system, and lightly covered in polythene sheeting. They are germinated in darkness and taken to the kitchen freshness personified.

In the growing houses devoted to courgette flower production, Clare found they had been planted through slits in a weed-suppressing membrane.

At the height of season, 200 flowers per day are demanded by the kitchen, and they are picked at the swollen bud stage. Apparently there is a high degree of wastage in preparation which can be expensive if you’ve bought them. The chief executive chef at Le Manoir produces a weekly wish list of vegetables and this is reviewed daily with the head gardener.

“You helped plant and grow the food for a week but did you manage to sample any?” I asked Clare. “Yes,” she said, “I enjoyed a delicious five-course meal which for quality, freshness, variety and presentation was amazing.”

“What about ideas you’ve brought back to Roots and Shoots?” I asked.

Her response was rapid. “Successional sowing is key. Having everything ready at different stages is something we must work on here. Le Manoir’s variety range was also inspirational, eg. field beans ostensibly used as a green manure, were grown there as micro-leaves. There’s an excellent red variety used as garnish.

“The flowers of vegetables taste just like the vegetable. Eat a fragrant broad bean bloom and it tastes like the bean. There were lots of tips on how to protect precious crops in an organic way, and growing micro-herbs is something that can be transferred to your own windowsill. Le Manoir’s system is very simple in essence but they are so well organised.”

Clare has gained much more than personal experience from this week-long work-study. She has made sound contacts from which both organisations can benefit. If you can find time visit TAG Roots and Shoots garden, which is open daily from 11am until 4pm. I find it inspirational.