Autumn recipes from Otter Farm in Devon - Telegraph:
The seed for Otter Farm was hidden inside the first mulberry I ate, the summer before we came here. Eaten perfectly ripe from a friend’s tree, it was the finest fruit I’d ever tasted. Imagine a blackberry, a raspberry and a handful of blackcurrants with a teaspoon of sherbet and you’ll have the mulberry – the perfect fruit.
I’d started growing food a couple of years before, when we were living in mid-Devon, and had done everything wrong. I’d cultivated too much land, grown too much on it, chosen predictable varieties of common vegetables; in short, I’d dedicated my weekends and evenings to growing mountains of unspectacular food. Our first pigs were very grateful.
The experience taught me that there are many things I’d rather be doing than growing ordinary food. Those mulberries, eaten at the end of that initial veg-heavy summer, showed me there was another way.
A few weeks later I paid my first visit to Martin Crawford’s forest garden near Totnes, Devon. It was one of those rare moments when your usual pattern of thought about something turns a right angle. His two-acre patch flipped the idea of a kitchen garden on its head, adding a third dimension and modelling the growing space on a natural forest. From there grew the idea of a largely perennial, diverse farm, with every inch dedicated to flavour.
When we moved here, I made a list of everything I loved to eat or liked the sound of. This wish list of possibilities was long and not limited by practical limitations of growing in Britain – partly because I wanted to make a dream list and partly because I hadn’t the faintest idea what was viable here.
When Mark started growing vegetables he made a number of common mistakes, including focusing on unspectacular foods
I was all enthusiasm and little knowledge. I whittled the possibilities into a shortlist with three categories: the best of the familiar; ‘forgotten’ food that was once popular here; and climate change food. The first list included the most delicious varieties that had done well for me in my first few years of growing: Hurst Green Shaft peas, Sungold tomatoes and Annie Elizabeth apples were familiar favourites. The ‘forgotten’ list comprised fruit, herbs and vegetables that had once been popular but had either gone out of fashion or fallen out of favour as they didn’t suit the supermarket supply chain – parsley root, Chilean guava, mulberries, quince and medlars among them. The climate change list was perhaps the most exciting but also the riskiest. With the expected rise in temperatures over the coming decades, I wondered whether peaches, nectarines, apricots and other foods that thrive in neighbouring, slightly warmer, countries might become viable to grow in Britain.
Seventeen acres is a vast space. Half an acre, less even, is plenty to keep a family in fruit, veg and herbs. It presented the opportunity for growing some from that wish list on a small commercial scale, but what? I decided on a range of small harvests rather than dedicating the whole farm to one or two, the idea being that in any given year – wet and windy, sunny and dry and everything in between – I could hope for seven or so out of 10 crops to be productive. I liked the model: it built in some edible insurance against imperfect conditions and made the idea of failure less absolute. So, a plan of sorts. And a piece of land to try and turn into a farm.
The farm is bounded to the east and south by the River Otter and split into two fields by a tributary that flows into it. To the north is a small farm of cattle and apple trees; to the west, a line of houses, including ours. Within those boundaries I’ve planted orchards, a vineyard, a forest garden and a perennial garden, put up polytunnels and created a veg patch. A few unplanted acres await either the next new idea or the expansion of an orchard or vineyard.
There has been no master plan executed with precision, nor a bucketful of money to invest. I’ve learnt and added things as I’ve gone along, and planted when money and opportunity allowed. In return we have enjoyed homegrown peaches, almonds, apricots, sparkling wine, Szechuan and Japanese peppercorns, the finest asparagus and much more besides. Slowly, everything is getting established, and there is, I hope, plenty more to come. In truth, it feels like I’ve just started. The first three years were spent finding my feet, making obvious mistakes, learning and deciding what to grow; three more were consumed in making large mistakes and undoing some of what I’d done in years one to three; and the last three have gone pretty well.
When it comes down to it, Otter Farm is all about flavour. It starts and ends with the question: what do I really want to eat?
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