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Top of the crops: Transforming an Italian staple with sustainable farming

 

By Stevie Parle | Published on 12 April 2019

Like all chefs, I’m constantly on the lookout for new suppliers, often travelling around the country checking out new leads. I scour the food pages of broad sheets, search out any name-checked suppliers on menus of restaurants I like, gossip with fellow chefs and restaurateurs, and increasingly check things out on social media - which is what inspired my latest voyage with Great Northern.

Running five successful sites across the UK means I’m constantly in need of inspiration for dishes and recipe development but I’m also working hard to ensure we’re always using top notch British produce that’s sustainable to create great value, simple yet original dishes.

Sustainable suppliers

I recently had an image pop up on my feed posted by Tomos Parry from the amazing BRATR in Shoreditch of Flourish Farm – a small farm based just outside Cambridge - of a handsome horse pulling a rusty old plough and my intrigue took over. A little digging informed me that Flourish Farms use working horses and historical equipment to cultivate land, all whilst remaining environmentally friendly and minimising fossil fuel use (as well as having an unlimited supply of ‘natural’ fertilizer!). It’s more than just a green mission though, working on this scale with basic equipment really connects the growers to the land.

As a Line Resident for Great Northern, I seized the opportunity and decided to jump on a train from Kings Cross up to Cambridge for a visit. The journey is almost too fast, just 48 minutes, barely long enough for a whole podcast or anything but the briefest of naps and a quick gaze out of the window.

Arriving at the beautiful Flourish Farm, I met with Calixta who runs the small holding, as well as Bill and Ben - a handsome couple of working horses that are so stout and strong, they look like they have something of a gym bunny about them. These beasts are expertly trained and hardworking, performing tasks more delicate than modern machinery can cope with, and Calixta uses a traditional plough to create a new type of agriculture (or re-create an old one).

Organic, and moving towards biodynamic is almost an aside for Calixta - she is incredibly focused on the soil. And soil, as we all should know, is absolutely key for flavour. Each spring they plough the green manure into the soil (‘green manure’ in this case is vetch - a kind of wild pea, and rye). It’s planted in September and grows through the winter helping to fix in nitrogen - a crucial ingredient for healthy soil. The green matter is ploughed into the soil by strong Bill and Ben, and the soft greens quickly rot into the soil, increasing fertility and helping with water retention through the summer.

There is very little that is inputted from the outside world; the horses provide manure and the compost heap which is then fortified by various biodynamic teas and potions, providing the rest of the necessary nutrients for healthy plants. Seeds come from multiple sources with many having been developed by Dan Barber - a revolutionary chef grower in the US who breeds for flavour above all else.

Strangely enough, for generations, seed hasn’t been bred for flavour- instead producers have focused on looks, ease of production and disease resistance, but not flavour. Calixta knows that by looking after her soil and carefully choosing her seed she can create amazing flavour all you need to add is a lot of hard work.

The best chefs in London right now can tell she knows what she is doing. They’re falling over each other to get their hands on the Flourish Farm produce and right now Calixta, Bill and Ben can’t keep up with demand (for good reason).

Inspired by sustainability

As I wandered the fields of Flourish Farm, I couldn’t help but pick a few leaves, a little trevisso here, the shoots of collard greens, the flowers from cavolo nero, winter purslane, wild sorrel, mustard leaves of all varieties, florets of kale, a little blossom. I left the farm inspired by the dedication of Calixta and her small team, inspired by the way agriculture can be transformed by hard work and focus, and truly inspired by the results. Flavour so good you won’t know what hit you.

And so was born one of the latest specials appearing on the menu at Pastaio – one of my pasta-centric restaurants based in Soho, London. A bold twist on an Italian classic, this dish perfectly uses the end of season winter salad leaves that have slightly overgrown as the season comes to an end.

Tagliatelle with lemon crème fresh and spicy salad leaves

The pepperiness of the rocket and mustard leaves really makes this pasta sing. I always love dishes that over-deliver, this one really is equal to more than the sum of its parts.

INGREDIENTS

  • 400g/14oz tagliatelle, ideally fresh
  • Zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 250ml/ 9 fl oz crème fraîche
  • A pinch of dried chilli
  • A handful of Parmesan, plus extra to serve
  • 4 handfuls of rocket and other green salad leaves, roughly chopped

METHOD

  1. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. While it’s cooking, zest and juice the lemons
  2. Place the crème fraîche in a large bowl and add the Parmesan, and generously season with salt and pepper. Stir through the zest and juice. Give the rocket a few chops to break it up a bit
  3. Drain the pasta well and pour into the bowl with the crème fraîche. Sprinkle over the rocket and toss well so all the strands are coated. Transfer to plates and sprinkle over a little extra Parmesan before serving

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