VEG man Ken Holland is something of a legend in his own lunchtime. A true local food hero, Ken has made his name with his super-fresh organic veg and salads, in particular his weird and wonderful heritage varieties, and more recently the micro living baby vegetables, which arrive in restaurant kitchens still in trays, their roots embedded in soil from Northumberland.
Now that’s what you call fresh ... almost straight from the field to being artfully arrayed on a diner’s plate and then devoured.
For all Ken’s burgeoning fame, this quiet, rather shy man, has never lost the plot but remains totally grounded. He’s now supplying Michelin-star restaurants up and down the country, including Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, and his new Roganic restaurant in London, as well as Tom Kitchin of The Kitchin in Edinburgh.
Ken says: “I work with Simon Rogan who has a little farm at Cartmel. And with Tom I’ve been supplying him for the last few weeks with some living vegetables. Chefs pick them out of the trays.”
Chef Steve Smith at Michelin-starred The Devonshire Arms in North Yorkshire takes Ken’s heritage tomatoes and baby carrots.
That’s in addition to the string of top restaurants he supplies in the North East.
Ken’s really rather reserved about the starry development as he’s very loyal to his local customers, many of whom have become friends over the years.
Catching up with Ken at a special veggie dinner he was hosting at Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle, he tells me his favourite time of year is when the new seed catalogues come out!
He loves nothing more than leafing through the glossy pages and plotting the next year’s veg and salad patches.
And he even consults with chefs over the varieties he grows, so they also have a say.
Ken launched his business, North Country Organics, about six years ago, and he has more than made his mark in that time.
Ken, 46, is married to Tracy, and they live in Newcastle with their children, Kayleigh, 15, and Kyle, 11.
The family business is a growth area with wife Tracy and brother-in-law Mark also involved in the running of the venture.
He grows his in-demand vegetables and salads at his rented four-acre plot at Vallum Farm at Eastwallhouses, and his farm tenancy patch at Little Harle walled garden at Kirkwhelpington, in Northumberland.
He says: “I get excited at the start of the year when the seed catalogues are out. I get a buzz from it. It’s all trial and error.
“For us it’s about planning. The more we plan the fewer mistakes we make. And we’re trying to be a bit different. The walled garden plot at Little Harle is more specialist baby veg. It’s like a micro climate. We have a lot of raised beds.”
Among the restaurants in the region he supplies are Jesmond Dene House Hotel, The Feathers Inn at Hedley on the Hill, Dave Kennedy at Food Social at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, Close House at Heddon on the Wall, Terry Laybourne’s Café 21, Caffe Vivo and The Broad Chare, in Newcastle, Six restaurant at Baltic, the Duke of Wellington at Newton and Tony Binks at the Barrasford Arms in Barrasford.
He has a waiting list of about 40 restaurants rooting for his sought-after veg.
Ken explains: “We only have a certain capacity but supply about 20 restaurants up and down the country.
“But for me it’s about building up a relationship with the chef.
“We haven’t forgotten our roots in the North East and I will continue to work with them. We feel part of what they are doing and vice versa.
“I know I supply a few top restaurants but I really want it to work up here. My heart’s up here and I will stay loyal to my customers up here.”
He adds: “Jesmond Dene House takes boxes of living radishes, leeks, fennel and carrots. The difference is they are micro, so small, and super fresh.
“We have done them for a few years but are having big success this year with them.”
As well as all the regular varieties of veg, Ken grows a good number of heritage strains, from carrots to pretty, candy-striped beetroot, tomatoes, courgettes, leeks, lettuces and cucumbers, some varieties of which date back to the 1700s.
The appeal is that they look different, are often vibrantly coloured, and offer the most intense flavours.
Ken guarantees to have produce to chefs within 24 hours of picking, but usually within 16 hours.
He says: “We can harvest on an afternoon and a restaurant can have it the next morning.”
He supplies produce daily to head chef Michael Penaluna at Jesmond Dene House.
Michael’s inventive dishes using Ken’s produce, which appeared on the veggie dinner last week, incorporated offerings such as dragon’s egg cucumber soup; North Country Organics’ vegetable salad, summer truffle and sorrel emulsion; beetroot risotto, mixed young beetroots and Stichelton cheese; Pecorino millefeuille, young vegetable and roast butternut puree and baby fennel panna cotta, candied beetroot and carrot cake.
Ken says: “I work very closely with Jesmond Dene House. I’ve been supplying them about three years. We have something on the menu that no one has had before ... micro veg. Tiny turnips, baby leeks, fennel and radishes, served up raw. There’s no one doing these veg. It’s a mix of new and heritage strains.
“It’s been a lot of experimenting. They have a strong flavour when they are very young. You are having the whole plant and therefore an intensity of flavour.
“For us it’s working together with the chef. I work with Michael very closely. He comes up every couple of weeks and tastes stuff. He sees where it comes from. I even get the seed catalogues and ask chefs what they would like and I will consider everything and try growing them!
“We don’t just think like growers, we think like chefs as well.
“We are recognised now around the country. It’s more specialised. The baby veg we do are proving more popular. They have a big flavour. We grow eight or nine different beetroots and the majority are old-fashioned varieties.
“We are going into the past and bringing it into the future. It’s all about flavour and in the majority of cases it’s old-fashioned heritage veg.
“Everything is getting standardised, the big supermarkets control, so there’s not many people doing what we do.”
Running the family business is hard work – juggling the harvesting, packing and delivering – but clearly a labour of love for Ken.
Time off is rare, he says.
“For the first time Tracy and I took a week off just recently and we always have two weeks off at Christmas.
“We’re on a journey. I’m 50% there,” insists Ken.
I even get the seed catalogues and ask chefs what they would like and I will consider everything