Open the Box

Want to know the story behind the veg in your veg box delivery? We sent Mark Diacono out into the brutal frost to discover.

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

One ridiculously cold December morning I was forced from my lovely warm bed to drive the 25 miles or so to Shillingford, a village a few miles from the centre of Exeter, Devon. Here, at 7.15am, I was to meet Martyn Bragg, organic vegetable grower and main man behind Shillingford Organics.

Martyn’s been farming here for almost 25 years and organically for the last dozen of those. Martyn and his team of half a dozen or so use around 40 acres for growing award winning vegetables, mostly for local restaurants and cafes as well as their flourishing veg box scheme.

I was five minutes late and he’d already headed to the fields. Time and kale waits for no man, apparently. When I finally caught up with him in a field of brassicas, the sun was rising but the temperature wasn’t. This, Martyn tells me, is what comes with being a grower - early, cold starts in winter, and long long days in the summer.

This is hard physical work. There are the pressures of business and employees relying on you as well as what seems to be an increasingly unpredictable climate in which to try and grow your vegetables. It is a huge challenge but growers are a peculiar lot. As Martyn says, he feels part of something fundamental to life, to a more sustainable future, and the sunsets and sunrises seem to balance out the chilly starts.

Martyn grows three types of kale, each of them delicious varieties that I grow at home. Perhaps such attention to detail is the secret of his success and the awards: he prioritises flavour and looks after the soil. The rest is out of his hands.

Kale Brassica oleracea Acephala

I’m overfond of kale. I know it seems something of a workhorse, an easy, low maintenance, high output brassica, something to be eaten when there’s not much else around, but there are not many vegetables I would not sacrifice before it. It can give you delicious irony leaves in winter, or light, succulent salads in summer and neither snow nor sun will stop it producing. Keeping cutting the leaves and the plant will keep growing you more. It is as versatile as it is delicious. And, as if you care, kale is packed with vitamins too.

You must grow at least two of Cavalo Nero, Pentland Brig, Red Russian and Red Bor - all are delicious varieties, very different from each other and quite beautiful in their vegetably way.

Red Russian is definitely one for an early sowing, its young succulent leaves are excellent in a leafy salad. Cavalo Nero is perhaps the most robust, perfect for strong flavoured recipes such as the one below, with olive oil, chilli and garlic. Growing kale is pleasingly simple. Sow kale anytime from March (for summer picking) until late June (for autumn and winter harvest). Start seed off in modules, and plant out when they’re a few inches tall - allow 50cm between plants. Kale takes a while to get to size, but it has a long season for picking and keeps on producing if you pick off individual leaves. Three sowings spread over the year should keep you in constant kale.

If cabbage whites or pigeons are usually a pain where you grow, consider netting your plants. Keep picking off the caterpillars and have a go at companion planting with nasturtiums to attract the caterpillars away from your brassicas. Or just getting out the blunderbus. For the pigeons that is, unless you’re a very good aim.

Stir-fried kale with garlic and chilli

A recipe as delicious as it is simple.

  • Several large handfuls of baby kale
  • 2 cloves garlic,
  • minced 1 chilli, seeds removed and diced finely
  • Sunflower oil for frying

You can either leave the kale leaves whole, if they are small, or chop them a little. Heat the oil in a wok and throw in the garlic, then kale, then chilli, and cook for a few minutes until the kale softens. Serve immediately as a side dish with noodles.

(From The Speedy Vegetable Garden by Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz)