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Birland artichokes: small beginnings

So it begins... with de la Torre's, I was always running to catch up! Now with a slightly gentler pace of life befitting an old chef and grower, a new chapter will be documented and photographed with time on my side. When we moved to the Bere Peninsula five and a half years ago, I had no idea about its rich horticultural legacy. The tell-tale packing stations for daffodils can still be seen throughout the landscape as the rusty bits of corrugated steel slowly disintegrate back into the earth. But look a little further and talk to some of the old growers who are still around, and you'll find out this little spit of land was home to some of the best market gardens in the UK.

So now I hope to meander into semi-retirement at a slower pace, growing and cooking and sharing food - albeit part time. So why artichokes? Well, apart from loving them for their beauty and taste, they are a very good crop for the elderly grower. You plant them once and they will crop for 3-5 years; harvesting is done standing up at waist height (no bending!); and it's all over in June/July (so no cold winters to endure). I am of course simplifying things, as there is weeding, feeding, pests and diseases to worry about as well. We will grow in an organic way with no pesticides or artificial chemical feeds.

We have about 20 plants on our allotment, but the plans for Birland artichokes is to grow 200-300 plants producing 2000 to 3000 heads for direct sale, with another 500-800 smaller heads for preserving and perhaps even a truffle and artichoke cream for pasta/ bruschetta. All the plants will be grown from seed by me in 2022, then potted on to await final planting out in 2023.

As I rub potting compost and vermiculite through my hands like making sable (pastry), I am reminded of the connection between growing, cooking and sharing food. An artichoke is one of the most involved shared food experiences one can have. Sharing a huge bowl of artichokes, tearing down the leaves to eagerly get to the heart, having dipped them in garlic or lemon butter, lots of napkins, a little mess, but what a treat!

I am growing Carciofo Romanesco artichokes tinged with purple tips, loved in Italy, smaller then French varieties, but with a great nutty flavour. There will also be Green Globe, an ancient descendant of artichokes from Brittany. It's a big artichoke with a large heart (in fact the largest heart in the artichoke family) and succulent leaves, growing up to six inches in diameter and with a nutty, slightly sweet and buttery flavour. Then there's Fiesole, a smaller artichoke which features a tulip-shaped flower with deep violet-wine colored skin. This is the most delicious of all baby artichoke varieties and can be eaten whole. We may also use it for preserving.

Birland artichokes will be harvested and sold on the day of picking through quality local retailers, into good restaurants and direct at Farmers' Markets and will of course feature on Friday or Saturday nights at Birland Feasts when in season. There even will be young plants for sale for those who want to add the magical pleasure of globe artichokes to their own garden. As we get established, there will be recipes and instructions on how to prepare and cook the different varieties.

As I type, I still don't have the 1/4 acre of land I need, so if you know anyone who would like to rent me (at a modest cost) some land, please do get in touch.

You can read more about this project as the journey continues and I look forward to sharing the pleasure of eating artichokes with you.

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