Celebrating a bumper crop of organic produce on our plates

    In the first of his regular food columns for the Times, Bruce McMichael, Farmers’ Market Manager for Tunbridge Wells, explains why there has never been a better time to start buying fresh, natural, pesticide-free ingredients, and why our local markets are the best place to source them

    Organic Food

    Buying organic food and drink is no longer an expensive trend for a handful of foodies – it’s becoming mainstream, with the demand boosted by falling prices and worries about pesticides in our food.

    Across our region, growers are reporting a strong interest in learning about and eating organic fruit and veg. It’s taking up more and more space in our fruit bowls and fridges as increasing numbers of us look to eat food grown without the use of pesticides.

    Bombarded with food scares and confusing health stories about what we should or what we shouldn’t eat (butter, red wine, processed meats?), many of us are increasingly cooking with organically-produced foods.

    To celebrate this interest, the Soil Association – the country’s largest organic certification scheme – runs an annual month-long celebration called Organic September. The Association predicts sales of organic produce will be at £2.5billion by 2020, up by 25 per cent on today’s sales.

    Growers such as the charity farm Bore Place, a few miles west of Tonbridge, are reporting bumper crops such as French beans, tomatoes, courgettes, sweetcorn, cucumbers and peppers, while Tunbridge Wells Farmers’ Market stallholder Metske van der Laan of Pannel Organic says his cauliflowers, green beans, radishes and fennel are currently selling well.

    This year’s theme is swapping – choosing an organic ingredient on your plate instead of a non-organically grown one. As Helen Browning, the Soil Association’s Chief Executive, explains: “Swapping everyday items like carrots, chicken or yogurt for organic alternatives can make surprisingly large differences. Choosing organic means helping protect our vital wildlife and reducing your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and chemicals.”

    Pannel Organic has one of the longer queues at the Tunbridge Wells Farmers’ Market. Metske’s organic vegetables are grown at a smallholding near Winchelsea, and his growing fields are surrounded by marshland and a bird sanctuary offering clean air and soil.

    He grows on his plants from seed in his glasshouses before transplanting them out into the fields, where they are nurtured and harvested for sale at farmers’ markets and farmshops.

    His colourful stall overflows with bright purple-coloured baby beetroot and the vibrant greens of leeks, fennel and spinach leaves.

    Organic September ambassador and celebrity chef Anna Jones says: “Organic September is a month of celebrating all things organic – from simple recipes that make eating well both easy and delicious to the people who make our amazing produce. I believe eating should be joyful and good organic ingredients are at the centre of this joy.”

    It’s not necessarily grown locally, but produce found at farm shops and farmers’ markets is generally sourced from within a 40-mile radius. Jo Jeffries, of Naked & Ready, makes scotch eggs flavoured with ingredients such as chorizo and black pudding, and uses organic ingredients as often as possible, especially for the vegetarian ones for markets, including Tonbridge, Penshurst and Tunbridge Wells.

    There are many myths surrounding organic food, one of the most common being that no pesticides are used in the production of fruit and veg and other crops, such as cotton. An absolute minimal amount is used with the Soil Association providing a list of approved products that can be used without the food losing its organic label.

    Likewise, up to 20 per cent of non-organic chicken feed and ten per cent of cattle feed can be fed to organically-raised animals.

    Another myth, although this has some truth attached, is that organically-produced food costs more. Check prices on the stalls of organic producers at farmers’ markets such as Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as prices are often cheaper or very competitive than on offer at supermarkets. An added benefit of buying from a market stall is that you can talk with the grower and learn about how the produce is grown on their farm or smallholding, and pick up cooking tips and recipes.

    However, if the price is slightly more, it’s likely to be because labour costs are higher as extra weeding is needed and organic feed for animals is usually higher.

    So, get down to your local farmers’ market and farm shop and enjoy the taste and benefits of organic produce from artisan bread to gourmet coffee and flavour packed, nutritious fruit and veg to melt-in-your-mouth organic cheeses and meats.

    WHERE TO FIND YOUR LOCAL ORGANIC FOOD

    PRODUCERS & SUPPLIERS
    Look out for these producers and suppliers and their delicious, organically-grown food and drinks at your local farmers’ markets and farmshops:

    Chegworth Valley, Tunbridge Wells
    Farm shop selling fresh and dried goods

    Cherry Gardens Farm Shop, Groombridge
    Selling produce from the farm, and seasonal Pick Your Own

    Naked & Ready, Tunbridge Wells
    Homemade patés, houmus and scotch eggs

    Pannel Organic, Winchelsea
    Seasonal vegetables

    Riverford Organic Farmers, Bromley and Kent
    Fruit and veg home delivery box scheme

    Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard, Sedlescombe, Nr Robertsbridge
    Red, white and sparkling English wines from rural East Sussex

    FARMERS’ MARKETS
    Find your local farmers’ markets:

    Tunbridge Wells
    (Town Hall), 2nd & 4th Saturday of the month, 9am-2pm

    Tunbridge Wells
    (The Pantiles) 1st & 3rd Saturday of the month, 10am-4pm

    Tonbridge
    (Sovereign Way) 2nd Sunday of the month, 9.30am-1.30pm

    Cranbrook
    (Vestry Hall) 4th Saturday of the month, 9.30am-1pm

    Hildenborough
    (St John’s Church Centre) Every Thursday, 9am-11am

    Lamberhurst
    (Memorial Hall) 1st Wednesday of the month, 9am-12noon

    Penshurst
    (Penshurst Place car park) 1st Saturday of the month, 9.30am-12noon

    Shipbourne
    (St Giles Church) Every Thursday, 9am-11am

    West Malling
    (High Street) 4th Sunday of the month, 8.30am-9.30am

    For a full list of Kent farmers’ markets, go to www.kfma.org.uk and for Sussex go to www.placestovisitsussex.co.uk/places/farmers-markets

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