Wild rocket science, watercress and herbs in the Wirral
PUBLISHED: 13:26 02 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:21 20 February 2013
If chefs want the best watercress, wild rocket, herbs and salad ingredients to enhance their menus they turn to Childer Thornton's Peter Jones WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIRSTY THOMPSON
What Peter Jones doesnt know about growing isnt worth knowing. Michelin-starred chefs have dubbed him Yoda of the green stuff and his produce is enjoyed by diners in some of the regions top restaurants.
It was only seven years ago that Peter, a third generation market gardener who worked for his familys business since childhood, set up Wirral Watercress at Woodside Farm in Childer Thornton.
He said: The quality available was very poor so I thought I would have a go myself, Id never done it before. As soon as chefs started having my watercress they appreciated the quality of the product.
Today he grows watercress, the main staple of the business, as well as wild rocket, edible flowers, oyster leaf and a host of herbs and micro salad including red frills mustard, chervil, coriander and amaranth. He is also growing unusual-looking white strawberries and bucklers sorrel as a trial.
He sources, grows and develops his products for Michelin-starred chefs across the north west and North Wales including Marc Wilkinson, chef patron at Fraiche, Tyddyn Llans Bryan Webb, the Chester Grosvenors Simon Radley and Northcote Manors Nigel Haworth. He also supplies other restaurants, cafes and sells from the farm gate and his watercress received praise from Antony Worrall-Thompson and Ainsley Harriott when it was featured on Ready Steady Cook.
There is a lot of pleasure in seeing the product of your efforts growing, said Peter, a member of the steering committee for the Wirral Food and Drink Festival. I love learning how to plant and grow something new. I have to go out and try and find all of these things the chefs ask for.
Some of the things, I have never heard of before. Its a very exciting process and it certainly makes life interesting.
Watercress is classed as a superfood and is packed with iron and zinc. It is believed it cleans the blood and detoxes the liver. Recent research has suggested it can prevent the precursors of leukaemia and other cancers. In the 1700s watercress was also in eaten cones, like an ice cream, and used as a breath freshener.
It is usually grown in a spring-fed, chalky bed and is traditionally produced in Hampshire. Peter is the only watercress supplier in Cheshire and Wirral and is one of a very small number in the country who grow it indoors.
The 52-year-old, who also produces a little honey from his own bees, said: Growing indoors really lengthens the season for me which runs from March to December. The way I harvest is a lot gentler on the product too. Machine harvesting just bruises the watercress but mine is tender from top-to-toe.
A trip around his glasshouses, which Peter restored after they had been out of use for almost two decades, is a delight for the senses. Blasts of citrus come from one herb, intense peppery notes from the rocket and watercress and creamy hints from edible flowers. An intense waft of mint also drifts over from one corner. Peter is trying to reintroduce two old Wirral varieties of the herb.
He said: There was a time when loads of market gardeners operated over at Wallasey and their produce would be sent to the Liverpool and Manchester wholesalers markets. The land there was the best in the world. But the advent of the supermarket has meant that gradually these businesses have died off so this production stopped.
I managed to get some of the mint from one of the old growers. I want to bring something back from that time. Im proud of where Im from and growing is a part of who I am. Hopefully it will do well and Ill be able to sell it.
The print version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Cheshire Life
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