It has been my intention to log our endeavours, to share our efforts with our guests in a journal format. The truth is that running a restaurant and attempting to maintain a growing space that will supply us with fresh produce has left time for little else.
I feel that as well as giving an update on our crop and it’s development, here is a good point to introduce the farm giving some history and a little insight into our direction.
This whole tangle started in the early days of the restaurant when we met a man named Gerry, a local beekeeper producing honey only 4 miles up the road. It had always been our intention to turn our hands to the field, a wholesome and inclusive approach to cooking. For me, building my own restaurant, was a chance to start at the very beginning. It meant we could involve ourselves in the very genesis, starting with the land, starting with soil.
When I met Gerry for the first time, explaining our plans, I watched his countenance slip into a sort of curious and sympathetic look. I told him about our plans for foraging, for starting from the ground up and that we wanted to go back to the root of everything. Whole animal butchery, preservation, growing. ‘Whats wrong with going to Aldi?’ He asked.
Each time he dropped off our honey we’d talk. He’d ask questions about the food and I’d ask questions about bees. After a few visits he invited me to come and explore the land where he kept the bees. He said we might find something to eat. Since that day, around the farm, I have been affectionately known (or not) as ‘the weed eater’ and anyone who joins me takes the same title.
Gerry is from a simpler time. Where his mum would always have a pig, cut up, in a bed of salt in an old Belfast sink in the cellar. He grows veg to take home where his wife Gwyneth cooks whatever he bring. He uses no chemicals, never has, never needed to. He doesn’t understand the need for labels like organic and sustainable because he has never partaken in the process in between what was and what came.
In the early days we would take trips though the woods and the fields, me showing him the edible plants that we would use at the restaurant and him pointing out birds, their nests, the landscape that made habitat for all. I’d offered him a handful of sorrel or yarrow, he would take it pensively and chew thoroughly and thoughtfully. ‘Not bad’ he’d say. ‘What yer gonna use that for like?’ I’d explain an idea for a granita or a foraged salad. ‘You spoil em’ he’d say teasingly referring to the guests.
In that first year Gerry taught me to trap crayfish that we used on the menu intermittently, when there was enough to go around, helped me pick blackberries and showed me other areas where we might find other plants and new ideas.
That summer, After we’d been open 6 or 7 months he asked me if I’d like a little space to grow. Of course I would. I was so excited at the prospect of having a little piece of land, in beautiful surroundings where we could learn to grow and get even closer to the concept of our food. I started to make plans, I’d go and see him and Gwyneth in his local on Saturday afternoons before our evening service and go through the kind of crop I’d like to grow and amounts.
I had never grown and knew nothing about it and Gerry, in his cryptic and measured way started to teach me what would and wouldn’t be possible but always letting me lead by making my own mistakes and discoveries.
The first year we prepared a bed around 30 by 20 feet to grow herbs and a few smaller roots. He gave me some space in the poly tunnel where we grew beetroots, kohl rabi, fennel, radishes, turnips and beans.
In the winter of the second year we brought an old patch back to life down on what Gerry called the cabbage patch. He hadn’t touched it for a few years. His dad had fallen ill and, as he said, he had concentrated on looking after his old man instead of the farm.
We worked whenever we had a spare half day, an hour or a weekend, weeding a tangled network of raspberry cane, nettle and thistle and we cleared enough room for 15 beds. The work was hard in the cold months but we would go down as a team on days the restaurant was closed and inch by inch clear the site for our dream plot.
Slowly things started to take shape. We built the 15 fifteen beds direct into the ground, a two section compost bin and filled it with horse manure, green grass, hay and mulch. All the time learning. Even the simplest tasks come with the right technique. We got more proficient with weeding, trading a knife for a spade but keeping the same attentive eye and same final intention.