In the early nineties my mother started to complain that her local Indian grocery store was always running out of fresh coriander. It would seem that non-Asians were buying it; outrageous behaviour, coming into our stores and taking our herbs....
Back then an increasingly well travelled, culturally informed, domestic population was waking up to the pleasures of this delicate and versatile herb. Today pretty much all the main supermarkets stock 'ethnic' produce from eddoes to galangal and alphonso mangoes, much of it air freighted and in the shops in just a few days from harvest. I don’t hear any complaints from my mother now and what’s more she doesn’t agonise over the details like transportation and how exactly we in the West are able to enjoy produce of a better quality than people in the country it is grown in.
I, however, still do and so when I discovered that there was a farmer in Lincolnshire growing not only coriander but also small aubergines, chillies, mooli, saag and bitter gourds for the UK market I was intrigued. That was ten years ago but when I met Colin Martin I was amazed to discover that he had been growing these 'specialist' crops for three decades. Colin is based in Spalding, the heartland of Britain’s potato and onion production. Back in the early 70’s Colin received a telephone call from a Pakistani fruit and vegetable company based in Bradford. Could he, they wondered, grow vegetables favoured by Asians?
“They were already buying spinach from us and it just so happened that the market for the salad crops that we grew was going through a downturn. So I took their request very seriously.”
Small aubergines - great for stuffing
Colin travelled to Bradford to meet Rafi, the late owner of Rafi and Company Ltd. By then Bradford has established itself as the main centre for Pakistanis in the north of England and demand for fresh, familiar produce was high at the household level and starting to increase in the restaurant trade. So, having established what varieties were to be grown and just how feasible it all was, a business friendship was born that has spanned 4 decades.
So fruitful has it been that from the original 5 acres set aside for them, Colin now farms 700 acres in Lincolnshire and Portugal, with 80% of his herbs and vegetables for the ethnic market. The rest goes to ASDA. To put this into perspective, for the same period of time Colin has been supplying Bradford with his British coriander, horticultural production in the UK has halved - self-sufficiency is not part of the UK government’s food policy. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring access to healthy food is. Colin does both, allowing consumers to buy vegetables just one day after harvest. And it's grown in British soil with all that implies for the UK's water footprint and other environmental considerations here and abroad.
Colin is a real farming entrepreneur. He diversified when he had to, takes an interest in both his product and clientele, and does his best to minimise resource use while maintaining an honest product. Honesty is a quality demanded by consumers, campaigning groups and (some) retailers.
Less so by our policy makers. In their drive to meet greenhouse gas targets recent Governments have been happy to talk up how much UK emissions have fallen in recent years. However this has been met in no small by our importing much of our horticulture leaving other countries to shoulder most of the environmental burden.
Lincolnshire Saag - a Punjabi staple