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The Caterer

How to… grow your own veg

07 September 2012
How to… grow your own veg

The new president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), Raymond Blanc, is in the privileged position of running a hotel and restaurant in large grounds. And his team of gardeners work hand-in-hand with the team of chefs to grow 30% of the vegetables served at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

Few restaurants are so fortunate. But many are switching on to the huge benefits of growing your own produce - on whatever scale.

With demand for local and seasonal food growing ever larger, what better way to fulfil both of these consumer requirements than growing your own?

Restaurants across the UK, rural and urban, are discovering the joys and benefits of producing their own fruit, vegetables and herbs. At the top end of the scale, restaurants fortunate enough to have land at their disposal are planting full-scale kitchen gardens, providing a year-round ready-made supply of the finest produce.

But, even if you're not blessed with the luxury of copious space, where there's a will, there's a way to grow. A flat roof space is ideal for some raised beds or, perhaps, a beehive or two. For those with even less outdoor space, microherbs or window boxes can still yield a good crop. A nearby allotment is another way of engaging staff, and possibly the local community, in cultivating the lowest-carbon, freshest, tastiest, cheapest and most reliable produce for their kitchens.

Hard work, a willingness to experiment and a close working relationship between kitchen and garden are key to making growing your own work, as three SRA member restaurants are finding.

Two of those restaurants - Battlesteads in Wark on Tyne, Northumberland, and Felin Fach Griffin, near Brecon, Powys - are fortunate enough to have land on site; while the third, Urban Beach, which also operates a sister restaurant, Urban Reef, has taken on a plot in the New Forest eight miles away from its Bournemouth base.

All three operators acknowledge that it involves graft, and all employ a gardener, but insist that the better quality, freshness and enhanced flavour make it well worth the effort.

Ross Bruce, chef at the Griffin, says he can see the difference it makes to the attitude of his kitchen team. He adds: "When you see the lads working with a pile of carrots they've just picked from the garden and compare it with how they work with a bag we've had delivered - it just totally changes everything. We do feel blessed, but every kitchen should operate like this - if they can."

Ross estimates that 70% of fruit and veg on the menu is home-grown and says the garden dictates the menu - changing it constantly.

Richard Slade, owner of Battlesteads, grows salad, herbs, vegetables and fruit, including some varieties he never thought possible. Japanese varieties of onion and salad leaf are growing throughout the year - with the help of some under-soil heating provided by the restaurant's biomass boiler. What's more, compost is produced on site so that Battlesteads can achieve zero food miles.

He says: "It is sustainable, ethical and hugely increases the reputation of our food. We grow a large proportion of the salad, herbs, fruit and veg we use in our kitchens, but I would advise people to start with herbs and leaves and then find their level."

Hundreds of miles away on the South Coast, Urban Garden is providing customers and staff at Urban Beach with not only fresher, tastier food on their plates, but also an education.

Owner Mark Cribb says: "As the staff play a bigger part in the growing and planning, they then explain that to the customers, and everyone is appreciating the benefits of the process."

For more information and advice about growing your own, contact the SRA at www.thesra.org

Five tips for growing your own veg

1 Assess your potential growing space. If it's seriously limited, consider options for growing fruit and veg off-site, such as hiring an allotment.

2 Plan what produce the restaurant would like to serve and match it with the available growing space.

3 Engage the team in planning the planting, maintenance and harvesting of the produce - if possible around the seasons.

4 There's something to fit any space: consider vertical growing walls, window boxes and microherb trays.

5 Be sure to tell your customers about the products you're growing and, if on site, offer to show them.

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