THELMA Sanders Sweet Potato Squash has probably never been part of the culinary repertoire of most families in south Lincolnshire, but that may be about to change.
Vegetables more commonly associated with Asian cuisine – think bitter gourds and okra – along with what now seem old-fashioned as well as unusual fruits, are being grown in a small corner of Bicker Fen.
Jonathan Pearson runs what is currently a small business there, Fen Berry Fruit, where, in his spare time from the day job, he is experimenting with a wide variety of produce that he hopes in time will shake up our attitudes to the type of food we eat. If he succeeds, the long-term goal is to turn what is currently something he is passionate about but has to restrict to evenings and weekends, into a larger, full-time business.
“In this country, because of the different cultures and ethnicities, people eat all kinds of things, and that is filtering into the mainstream,” said Jonathan, who lives with his family in Donington.
The large pumpkins that were a familiar vegetable to many of us in childhood have been joined by squashes of all shapes, colours and varieties and Jonathan is now growing between 20 and 30 different types. He’s also trying out globe artichokes, kohlrabi and aubergines, challenging the accepted techniques in order to produce crops of the type of vegetable not normally associated with English soil.
This approach was applied to his more humble crop of potatoes, and Jonathan was thrilled to have potatoes ready to eat during the Easter weekend, an early harvest produced as a result of micro-management.
Jonathan explains: “We are always trying to be different. We wanted to see how early we could produce potatoes in polytunnels without using heat or electrical lighting. Many growers are achieving that much earlier in glasshouses where they have heat and light, but we are doing it naturally, challenging the techniques basically.”
Ideas are swapped backwards and forwards between the day job, in which Jonathan runs vegetable trials for an agricultural company, and the eight-acre smallholding. Jonathan admits he has had a love of anything to do with growing since he was a boy and his grandfather was a farm manager before becoming a smallholder at Quadring Fen.
Jonathan would help out whenever he could, but it was four years ago, when Fen Berry Fruit was started, that he was able to put everything he had learned, particularly at agricultural college, into practice and, in his words, “try to do something for the future”. While Jonathan is at work, his father Richard looks after watering, but at weekends it becomes a family affair, with everyone mucking in.
Fruit was the first crop, and his fields are filled with bushes that are familiar, as well as the more unusual tayberries (a black raspberry/loganberry cross), loganberries, boysenberries, yellow raspberries and, new this year, jostaberries, which are a blackcurrant/gooseberry hybrid, and honeyberries, which are a bit like a blueberry, but a different shape. He also has a variety of melons in polytunnels.
Quite early on Jonathan came across Elaine Ayre’s jams and preserves, which are made in Spalding under the Saints & Sinners label, and Elaine now takes a lot of Jonathan’s fruit and vegetables. Other produce is being sold at the Red Lion Quarter food hall in the town, at the Van Haag garden centre at Peterborough and to someone who supplies the restaurant trade, as well as on a stall outside the house.
In time, Jonathan hopes that many more of us will share his enthusiasm for locally grown unusual fruits and vegetables.