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Long Live the Queen
31 08 2009
Michael Kelly meets Lar Flynn, a fifth-generation potato farmer, who is singing the praises of Rush Queens, those old-fashioned “balls of flour” that are at their best just now.
HERE’S A SHOCKER for you. It seems there is a whole generation of Irish people that doesn’t know much about spuds. Sure, we can tell you whether we like them boiled, baked, mashed or chipped. But beyond that? Ask your mother or father which variety of potato they prefer and they could probably bend your ear all night about the enduring appeal of their favourite spud. They will tell you which of the varieties are best suited to particular types of cooking, and when each variety is in season.
But this new generation of pasta-, rice- and tofu-loving infidels don’t know their waxy from their floury, their Records from their Golden Wonders. How many of us, for example, are aware that we are currently in the middle of the season for one of the great potatoes - the floury marvel that is the British Queen?
Rooster and Kerr’s Pink now account for 60 per cent of potatoes grown in this country. The reason? They are hardy, perfectly uniform, available almost all year round, store well, and can be washed before being packaged, which means supermarket owners and time-pressed consumers love them.
The Queen, on the other hand, is only in season from July to September, and she lacks uniformity in the shape department. Most importantly, because it’s an early variety (more accurately described as a second early) it hasn’t completely formed its skin, which means it can’t be washed before being packaged, and is therefore sold with the dirt on. Basically, the Queen is a little bit more work in the kitchen. But the phrase ‘’ball of flour’’ was invented for her. Peeled at the table and served with plenty of butter and a dash of salt, it’s a delectable taste of what potatoes used to be.
‘’The Queen wants to be cooked in its jacket,’’ says Lar Flynn, a fifth-generation potato producer from Rush. ‘’If you peel a potato, you are peeling all the nutrition and flavour out of it. Queens should be boiled and, just before they are cooked, you pour off the water and let them steam for 10 minutes.’’
North Leinster, where the Flynns have their farm, is serious potato territory. In fact, more than half the national production is based in counties Meath, Dublin and Louth. Most of the Queens sold in Ireland come from north Co Dublin, and most of them are subsequently sold outside the Pale.
‘’The reality is that Dublin people want a potato that’s clean and washed,’’ says Flynn. ‘’We stay away from the supermarkets, by and large, because they won’t entertain a dirty potato. We deal with greengrocers and corner shops in counties such as Donegal, Galway, Sligo, Meath, Cavan and Kildare, where people are looking for a traditional Irish potato.’’
Some Irish people are turned off by the ‘’British’’ tag, so Lar’s father, Paud, long ago took to calling his potatoes Rush Queens. It was a stroke of marketing genius - sales doubled almost overnight.
Paud’s own grandfather started growing potatoes on a few acres in the 1880s, at a time when they were sown and harvested by hand, with the help of a spade and a pair of horses. The farm now stretches to nearly 1,000 acres, spread across north Co Dublin and Meath. Incredibly, there are now three generations of the family involved in the business. Though Paud retired in 1994, he admits to still being involved from time to time. ‘’I am the gofer,’’ he says. “They tell me: “Go for this, go for that"." His five sons - Lar, Gerry, Vincent, Paul and Fergal - now run the business. ‘’It took five of them to replace me,’’ says Paud, with a glint in his eye. Four of his grandchildren now work in the business, too.
Such a large farm is part of a wider trend of consolidation nationally. In 1996 there were more than 1,600 potato growers in Ireland. Ten years later, that number had shrunk to about 600. Demand for potatoes has dropped, but so too have margins, which means growers have to produce more and more spuds just to stand still. Rather than join the race to the bottom, as supermarkets continue to push prices down and take bigger margins, the Flynns have chosen to emphasise the uniqueness of their product. It’s a strategy that is working so far, though he admits that increasing summer rainfall has made life difficult in the past few years. At this time of year - their busiest - an 18-hour working day is not uncommon.
With so many members of the family involved, how do they keep the peace? ‘’We all bring different skill sets to the table. We all know what we have to do, and we get on with it. The alternative would be to split the farm up and go our separate ways, but this way we pool the machinery and labour, which keeps our costs down.’’
Before I leave, I have to ask: is pasta ever on the menu in any of the Flynn households? ‘’No,’’ says Lar. ‘’A dinner is not a dinner without potatoes.’’
25 07 2008
Lilli Klint runs Lilly’s Eco Clean. Read Michael Kelly’s interview with her here.
Shopping at my local supermarket recently I was drawn to some quirky looking cleaning products, called Lilly’s Eco Clean. I say quirky because the packaging is brightly coloured with lots of funky eco slogans (think Innocent Smoothies). Lilly’s washing up liquid is made from a blend of detergents derived from coconut oil, citric acid, sodium chloride, vegetable glycerine and lemon oil. It is free from nasty phosphates, EDTA, enzymes, chlorine bleaches, synthetic perfumes, formaldehyde, synthetic glycerines and dyes.
The owner of the company, 36 year old Lilli Klint from Finland was a cabinet maker but established her own contract cleaning business in Wicklow about four years ago. She had built up a successful business when she started to get very ill indeed. Initially she dismissed the symptoms - chronic sinusitis, uncontrollable sneezing and a rash - as hay fever but when it didn’t ease up after four miserable months of “eating antihistamines”, she started to wonder if the cleaning products she was using might be responsible. “Like most people I loved using the products because you always felt a place was really clean when you were finished. But they were so toxic. One of the products, a spray for bathroom cleaning would actually corrode through my rubber gloves.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency found that pollutant levels in the home can be up to five times as high as outside and that one of the key causes of these indoor air pollutants are conventional cleaning products which can be loaded with petroleum-distilled chemicals and fragrances.
Klint read the book Cleaning Yourself to Death, Pat Thomas’ guide to the toxicity of household cleaners. “It was a real turning point for me. I knew I had to change everything if I was to keep going with my business, which I really wanted to because I had built up a really good base of customers. I found recipes for natural products and started making them myself and within a month my symptoms had cleared up.”
She also noted that whenever she mentioned to people that she made her own cleaning products, they would always ask her where they could buy them. I started to think; there really could be a business in this.”
To say her business had humble beginnings is an understatement. “O God,” she laughs, “I was so bad. I was filling old milk cartons and plastic bottles with the liquids and printing out labels on my computer. It was fairly amateurish. My friend owned a health food store in Wicklow and she started stocking them and there were people coming down from Dublin to buy them. I was getting calls from people who would be explaining symptoms to me and I knew they were similar to mine.”
The business has grown substantially since ("it was crawling along for a while but now it’s learning to walk” is how she describes it) to the point where Klint points to increasing brand awareness, particularly on the east coast. In 2005 herself and her partner moved out of Wicklow and bought a property in Eskivaude, County Cork. Her business is now based in a rented unit in Castletownbere. “I fell in love with this area about two years before I moved here. And of course it’s so much cheaper to run a business. The prices were going up all the time in Wicklow whereas we can rent premises here for about a fifth of the cost.”
Lilly’s Eco Clean currently employs 3 people but could hardly be considered mass-market. “Far from it. All the bottling and labelling is done by hand although I am hoping to get a bottling machine soon as we are more or less at the limit of what we can do. We are producing about 400 bottles a week at present so it’s labour intensive.”
Interestingly these products are now available in more mainstream stores including some Supervalu stores in Munster, Dublin Food Coop, and Ardkeen in Waterford. “When I started we were mainly focussed on health stores which was great but they have limited floor space. It’s brilliant how positive the multiples are starting to be towards these products.”
I mention my concerns about effectiveness and in particular my Belfast sink challenge. Has she a product up to the job? She recommends her degreaser liquid with a little bit of baking powder added. “It’s vinegar based so it will bubble up when you add the baking powder. It’s very effective. There’s also a natural alternative to bleach called sodium percarbonate which is very good. I think we get hung up on the notion that we need bleach to get a surface really clean. I mean you could throw acid in your sink and it would clean it up nicely but you wouldn’t do that because of the dangers. You should be thinking the same way about bleach.” Fair point.
For details on stockists, see http://www.lillysecoluv.com
Cleaning Yourself to Death: How Safe Is Your Home? by Pat Thomas is available from Amazon and all good book stores.
25 07 2008
The Juicemaster Jason Vale - read Michael Kelly’s interview with him here.
I start my conversation with “Juice Master” Jason Vale with a confession. Yes I own a juicer, I tell him, but it hasn’t seen the light of day in years and I can’t even tell you which cupboard it now languishes in. Vale is sympathetic and tells me that the appliance manufacturer bears at least some of the responsibility for this sorry situation. “Nothing will put a nail in the coffin of your plans for juicing quicker than a crap juicer,” says Vale. “You must be able to put an apple in whole without chopping it up and there should be a maximum of four components that need cleaning.”
I’m not alone in failing to convert good intentions in to long lasting healthy eating habits. As Vale points out, we have access to more information on what constitutes healthy food than ever before, yet we are getting fatter, not slimmer. We have celebrity chefs and recipe books coming out our ears but we are eating more, not less, junk food and for many of us “eating” is all about forecourt stodge and takeaways. Vale paints a bleak picture of the impact these processed foods have on our bodies. “Our digestive systems are like the M50 on a bank holiday Friday.”
Many of us give up on juicing because of the perceived hassle factor. Vale doesn’t buy it. He calls it CBA Syndrome. Can’t Be Arsed. “People tell me they don’t have time to juice but can tell you what’s going on in Eastenders. It’s all about priorities.” So how often does he juice? “I juice for breakfast and lunch about four days a week,” he says, noting my raised eyebrow. “I know that scares people. People on my three day juice plan ask ‘how come I don’t feel hungry?’ Of course they don’t feel hungry! They are getting all the nutrition they need from the juice.” He recommends drinking juice on an empty stomach. “When your stomach is free of food, your digestive system can process the vitamins and minerals quickly. Within 15 minutes the juice has left your stomach and is starting to be absorbed in to the body.”
The foundation for Vale’s juicing empire (juice bar franchise; six books; celeb devotees) is his own experience. A heavy smoker, drinker and fast food junkie he was seriously over-weight and suffered from psoriasis, asthma and eczema. You would never believe it to look at the ridiculously healthy and lean looking individual sitting across from me. “I started juicing because I was already ill but my mission is to get people juicing so that they won’t get ill in the first place.”
He’s here to launch the first Irish Juice Master bar at Ardkeen Quality Foodstore in Waterford. “The obvious choice for our first bar would have been Dublin but we have been trying to do something different. I just love the ethos of this store and I can’t believe that an independent supermarket is thriving with Tesco just around the corner. We are able to use locally grown fruit and veg here and Ardkeen have flexibility with the menu, unlike regular franchises where they would be tied in. If they have lots of fresh strawberries available locally they can put on strawberry smoothies.”
There has been an explosion of juice bars in recent years but Vale is quick to point out that they are not all the same. “Most juice bar chains infuriate me. At least when you go in to Burger King they are honest about what they are selling you. If you go in to a juice bar you expect everything to be 100% healthy but in most juice bars the base juice is nearly always from concentrate or pasteurised. They put a banana in and then call it fresh.”
Shop-bought juices are another bugbear. “It’s obviously better than buying a soda but in order to make juice last, they have to pasteurise it to reduce the enzyme activity. That means the life-force in the juice has been destroyed. Juice should always be consumed straight after it has been made as it immediately starts to lose enzymes, vitamins and minerals once exposed to light. If you want to keep it, put it in a flask to keep out light and try and use it within a day.”
One thought I’ve always had about juicing - wouldn’t you be better off eating the fruit whole? “Well, juicing allows us to get raw vegetables in to our system that we just wouldn’t eat normally and raw food is vitally important for us - it’s the way nature intended us to eat our food. You are not going to say after a hard day’s work, I really want some raw broccoli.” Fair Point.
Lemon Ginger Zinger
Contains every vitamin known to man according to Vale.
1/3 of a lemon, unwaxed
Slice of ginger
Start with an apple, then add the carrot, lemon and ginger and finish with another apple.
Getting fruit and veg in to your kids can be a challenge but not when juiced according to Vale. This juice will maintain healthy skin, eyes and bones, boost the immune system and aid brain and nerve function. It could also replace certain expensive “one a day” drinks in their diet. They will love the green colour - just don’t let them see you put the spinach in.
1 large handful spinach
¼ medium pineapple (peeled)
1 inch slice lemon (unwaxed if possible, if not peeled)
Juice everything and add ice.
1. Never show your juicer the inside of a cupboard. Leave it out on the counter.
2. Do not drink your juice until you have cleaned your juicer.
3. Drink the juice slowly - this gives your body the chance to absorb the juice properly and allows you to savour the taste.
4. Try and drink your juice on an empty stomach - preferably three hours after your last meal or as your breakfast.
Colin Stafford Johnson
25 07 2008
Colin Stafford Johnson is an Emmy-award winning cinematographer and wildlife documentary-maker. Read Michael Kelly’s interview with him here.
Some people are just wired differently to the rest of us. Say you’re swimming off the coast of Cork and you see an enormous fin approaching. Feeling very much alarmed you put your head under water and suddenly out of the gloom you see an enormous white mouth approaching. You’ve seen Jaws. You’ve watched Open Water. You’d be terrified, wouldn’t you? Well, not if you’re Colin Stafford Johnson. The Emmy-award winning cinematographer and wildlife documentary-maker swam with 20-foot basking sharks for his new RTE documentary series Living the Wildlife and describes the experience as fun. Fun? “It’s a good feeling,” he deadpans. “Very exciting.”
Basking sharks, he tells me, are relatively harmless. And besides the Cabinteely native has had scarier experiences in a 20-year career which has seen him travel the world with the BBC’s Natural History unit, tracking and filming everything from big cats in Africa and India to anacondas in Guyana. He has a habit of downplaying the potential dangers of his work but admits to have being rattled by a tiger in India. “I was going for a walk in a river bed, not really minding what I was doing and I came around a corner and there were tiger cubs there. The mother charged me and stopped around 20 feet away and let out a roar. I knew she wasn’t going to kill me because it was the same charge they use to frighten away other tigers but at the same time there was that primordial terror there. I was quite literally rooted to the spot. It took my body about two hours to recover. I’ve been chased by bears and other things before but that was the most terrified I’ve been.”
His first BBC assignment, having graduated from the University of Derby with a degree in Biological Imaging, was a year spent in India tracking tigers and he has returned there repeatedly throughout his career to film big cats. He is by his own admission, besotted with tigers and in particular a tigress called Machhli that he has tracked since she was a cub. “If I am totally honest, it’s a very one-sided relationship. I’m mad about her and I’d like to think she likes me but really she just tolerates me. She doesn’t see me as a threat. I have filmed her lying out on her back in the sun with her paws in the air, and you would love to go over and lie beside her like you would with a dog in front of the fireplace. But you can’t because she would kill you. I filmed tigers fighting which was amazing because of the noise and just how rare it is to get to see it. I also filmed a tiger mating on Christmas Day - that was my Christmas present that year.”
Stafford Johnson points to the extraordinary investment of time, effort and money that goes in to producing wildlife documentaries - where months or even years of work gets condensed in to an hour of television. He followed an individual tiger for 600 days in India and in another instance spent four months in Guyana trying (unsuccessfully) to film jaguars for Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth - not a single reel of footage made it to screen. “It is common to spend up to 200 days in the field to get a one-hour documentary and you are working 15 hour days, seven days a week. After about sixty days I usually try to come home to re-charge because I am just burned out. You have run out of energy and enthusiasm.”
The wildlife cameraman’s lot he says is to spend fifteen hours sitting in a hide waiting for something to happen. “You can be sitting up in a tree in a rainforest and that can be pretty solitary. But on the other hand you are seeing a view of the forest that no one else has ever seen before. You see extraordinary things. I climb out of a hammock in the morning in a rainforest and I can’t believe that someone is playing me to do this.”
Living the Wildlife sees him focus his lens on Irish wildlife for the first time and move in front of the camera as presenter. There’s an element of the wanderer returning home to get some much needed time with his family but he is also deeply passionate about Irish wildlife and believes that the exotic is all around us, if we know where to look. “This series is about Irish wildlife for Irish people, things that we can all go out and see for ourselves. We all have this tendency to think of wildlife as being something we just see on TV but we have lots of fascinating animals to see right here in Ireland.”
A case in point, he says, is the Sea Lamprey which he filmed in Annacotty in Limerick. “They are a sort of leech or vampire, they live off other fish. When they are building a nest, they use their suckers to move literally hundreds of stones around. I was filming this extraordinary underwater sight and you just utterly lose yourself in it. You forget where you are. When I stood up out of the water and took off my mask, there was a bridge over my head and people were commuting to work completely oblivious to this wildlife event happening underneath them.”
In another episode, he went diving off the coast of West Cork and swam with tens of thousands of mackerel, dolphins and the aforementioned basking sharks. “That day was as good a day’s filming in the water that I have had anywhere in the world and I mean this is something that anyone can do. The next time you are thinking of heading off to Bratislava on a cheap Ryanair flight for a weekend, why not go swimming with sharks in Cork instead?”
Nigel and Carol Harper
25 07 2008
Nigel and Carol make Cramer’s Grove Ice Cream. Read Michael Kelly’s interview with them here.
It can be difficult if not impossible to completely switch off from work when you’re self-employed, as anyone who runs their own business will tell you. But when a married couple run a business together, there’s a real risk that every conversation in the relationship can become work-related.
Nigel (28) and Carol (26) Harper started selling homemade ice-cream in 2005 and readily accept that the lines between personal and professional can blur all too easily. “We were out for a meal recently,” says Nigel “and after we had eaten we saw the chef sitting at the bar having a drink and I was so tempted to go over and try to get him to take our ice-cream for his restaurant. But Carol said, ‘we’re off tonight’. We called him a few days later though.”
After studying at Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim, Nigel returned to work on his father’s farm just a few miles from Kilkenny city. Like all dairy farmers, they struggled with the twin difficulties of increasing costs and decreasing revenues. “There are so many restrictions on how much you can produce and all the while costs are going up. My parents are still young so there are a lot of people to be supported from the farm.”
The food science module he studied while at agricultural college offered a potential solution. “I saw real potential in commercial ice-cream making. When you sell milk to a creamery wholesale, they make all the money on it. If you start making a product like ice cream yourself, and sell direct to the consumer you can make that little bit more.” Standing in the milking parlour one day, he mentioned the idea to his father. “He’s very forward thinking and if he sees merit in something he will go for it.”
At that stage Nigel was engaged to Carol who was managing a pharmacy in Kilkenny following her graduation from a Legal Studies course at WIT. She confesses that she had no idea what she wanted to do when she left college and more or less fell in to a job with a pharmacy, having worked there part time while studying. In the summer of 2005, she left the pharmacy and worked on the farm for a few months. “I’m a real townie so I’d say I wasn’t much help. I was feeding calves and that sort of thing and of course the summer is a very pleasant time to be on a farm. It was very different to what I was used to but I loved it.”
Having married, the couple moved in to a one-bedroom converted barn beside Nigel’s family home. How did she feel about living so close to the in-laws? “I didn’t mind at all. They are very easy to live with.” With Carol at a lose end and Nigel thinking about ice-cream making as a way to improve profitability, they spotted an opportunity. “We did a lot of research on the internet,” says Nigel. “We went to Holland and met a lady who was doing exactly the sort of thing we wanted to do, making good quality home-made ice-cream.”
It would be wrong to assume that because Cramer’s Grove ice-cream is homemade, it’s made on a stove in their kitchen. “Before we could sell anything the Department had to come and ensure the premises met regulations and take samples away to test them. It’s a huge risk financially because the capital costs to get started are so high and because my father is still involved in the farm, he is taking the risk with us. But we just thought, ‘we’re young, we’ve no kids, if we don’t do it now, we never will. We didn’t want to look back in ten years time and regret that we hadn’t tried it.”
Their first customer was the Marble City Bar in Kilkenny. “We focussed initially on restaurants because it’s year-round trade and is not weather-dependent. We did some farmer’s markets as well which was great because you get feedback straight away from customers, which is useful in deciding which flavours work. Only more recently we started to go retail. It is now sold in two shops in Kilkenny and one in Waterford.”
Their ambitions for the product are relatively modest. “We will never compete with the big guys but we just want to be able to earn a decent wage, take the odd holiday and above all make a really good product. Since the fifties ice-cream has been made commercially and I think we’ve forgotten what the real thing tastes like. Commercial production uses the bi-products of dairy as opposed to dairy itself. Because we have the herd here, we only use fresh milk”
Does working together at such close quarters cause its own stresses? “To be truthful, it does,” says Nigel. “When you are self employed you think of business 24/7 and it’s difficult to switch off”. Carol agrees: “We have a new rule - when we finish up at night we have to stop talking about ice-cream. It doesn’t always work.” Both agree that the benefits of their new life outweigh the negatives. “When I was working in town we didn’t get any time together really. He would be up early milking so we would only see each other for a few hours in the evening. There’s also a great sense of achievement when we are in a restaurant or a supermarket and we see someone ordering or picking up our ice-cream.”
25 07 2008
Denis Shannon runs a smallholding in Mayglass, Co. Wexford. Read Michael Kelly’s interview with him here.
One of Dennis Shannon’s greatest bugbears is the notion that you need lots of land to survive in farming. For three years the Wexford man has been making a living by supplying vegetables to farmer’s markets in Enniscorthy and Wexford town and currently dedicates only four acres to this enterprise. “If you ask farming organisations how many acres you need to be viable they will tell you at least one hundred. But smallholders in Portugal make a living off a couple of acres. I think we are really bad at utilising land here.”
Farmer’s markets are becoming an increasingly important part of the avid environmentalist’s lifestyle, but Shannon has embraced that lifestyle more completely, and for much longer than most. He was a stay-at-home Dad when such a thing was unheard of twenty years ago and built a Scandinavian home ten years ago despite being advised against it at the time. He and his wife have always grown vegetables and reared animals for the table even at a time in the eighties and nineties when society was more concerned with convenience and the joys of the 24*7 supermarket.
Shannon’s father ran an intensive dairy farm in Wexford but encouraged his son to go off and get an education rather than remain on the farm. “I studied engineering in Bolton Street for two years. My father died when I was 19 and it had a major impact. Things were bad on the farm, there was a lot of debt and my mother had no income. We had a family meeting and we agreed that I would take over the debt and deal with the banks if I got the land while my mother kept the house.”
These financial problems led him to look for work outside farming. “I was working shifts in Cow & Gate in Wexford. It was a terrible job. I had just got married and my wife was also working shifts as a midwife. When our first child arrived we sat down to discuss what to do next. We had this beautiful baby but with our shift-work he would be with a babysitter most of the time. When we did the figures we realised it made more sense for one of us to stay at home and while my wages were slightly better, my wife’s job was full-time and pensionable. So we agreed that I would give up work.” Meanwhile after years of wrangling they settled their debts with the banks and emerged with ten of the forty acres originally farmed by his father.
He recalls some of their friends breaking off contact because of their strange domestic situation. “Some of our friends didn’t like the idea of the man being at home but we were determined and liked the freedom it gave us. I remember my son coming home from school upset because someone was slagging him that his Daddy cooked dinner instead of his mammy.”
When the new ring road was built in Wexford town it effectively hemmed in their land. “We didn’t like living there anymore so we sold the land and bought twenty acres near Mayglass about twenty minutes from the town. We were country people at heart so it suited us.” When it came to designing their new home, Shannon’s engineering background allowed him to research alternative building methods and they happened on Lars Pettersson’s Scandinavian Home design. “It was very cutting edge at the time and even though we built ten years ago, we are still light years ahead of the building regulations. It was the best thing we ever did.” He adds proudly that it costs 150 euro per annum to heat.
While their three children were growing up, Shannon had little time to indulge his passion for growing vegetables. “I grew just enough to feed ourselves but looking after kids, cooking dinners and cleaning, there just wasn’t time for much else.” As the children got older however he found he had time to spare and was looking for a fresh challenge. “About four years ago, I met some women from the ICA and they were giving out that they couldn’t get any vegetables for their markets. I had a glut at the time and said I could sell them some. I started thinking that I could make a few bob from it.’
Shannon became involved with newly established farmer’s markets in Enniscorthy. “The IFA was approaching small-holders to see would they get onboard. Everyone said it wouldn’t work and that you couldn’t compete with the supermarkets but by the first Christmas we were selling enough to justify being there. It takes time to build them up. People have to know they will be there every week and they have to be good enough to represent a genuine alternative to the supermarket.” The Enniscorthy market, widely praised as one of Ireland’s best, is open three years this summer.
Shannon now supplies the markets in Enniscorthy and Wexford each week as well as a number of restaurants in the town. “Things are improving all the time. If I could grow more, I could sell it. This year was the first time I was growing all winter. And I still make the dinner at home too!”
25 07 2008
Jimi Blake runs Hunting Brook in Wicklow. Read Michael Kelly’s interview with him here.
Jimi Blake’s dog Fred enjoys possibly one of the finest views of any dog in Ireland. He lies in the morning sun on a battered old couch on the deck of his owner’s County Wicklow home and takes in the views of the remarkable garden and the majestic Wicklow Mountains hulking in the distance.
That chilled out scene probably best sums up the atmosphere at Hunting Brook, which the 34 year-old opened three years ago near Blessington. There’s a booming business operating here; tour buses climb up the narrow country roads bringing curious garden lovers from as far a field as France, Germany and America; each weekend there are courses on offer in gardening, food, lifestyle and crafts; and there is Blake’s garden design consultancy. But despite all this the prevailing mood is of an oasis of calm.
His love of gardening comes from his mother. “She was a great gardener and always made gardening fun. I was about seven when I had my first tunnel and I sold plants at the side of the road.” While at school he spent his free-time working in garden centres and herb farms and then trained at the National Botanic Gardens. “I loved it there. It was great to be in a place where everyone was in to gardening.” Having completed his training, Blake landed a job as head gardener at Airfield in Dundrum and in an eleven year period undertook a mammoth restoration and redesign.
The move back to his native Wicklow was all about getting back to basics. “I was tired of the politics and how commercial things were. There comes a point when you have done as much as you can do and it’s time to move on.” Hunting Brook was created in a frenetic period between September 2003 and June 2004. “I was a bit of a stress-head,” he says with characteristic understatement.
The 20 acre site he acquired for his project is breathtaking. “It’s at 900ft so it’s a little cold in winter but the land is so good here and almost totally untouched. Some of the beds are in the same shape as they were during the famine. If I was on a flat site I would be more reliant on hard design but the slopes and the views here are a built-in design feature.”
The garden is based around a winding driveway which climbs up towards his house and there is an exotic feel to the planting. “I’m not all that interested in native plants. I love pushing the boundaries and trying to grow things that might not have been grown here before. A lot of the travel I do is about plant hunting. Places like China, Australia and South Africa are like college for me.”
He points out with obvious pride a row of Aralia Eclunocaulis trees sourced on his adventures in China. In the corner of his tunnel there’s a spectacular Vietnamese Schefflera Macrophylla which looks like it could come to life and make a Day of the Triffids-esque grab for poor Fred. “It’s great isn’t it? It will probably die when I put it outside.” In keeping with the relaxed approach, there are no manicured lawns in Hunting Brook. “Life’s too short for cutting grass.”
On a south facing slope beneath his kitchen window are neat rows of herbs, vegetables and fruits. At the back of the site we walk through a woodland garden where you can just about pick out a 7th-century ring fort and on to a spectacular wooded valley through which flows the titular Hunting Brook. It could have been used as a set for Elvish utopia Rivendell in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
From almost every part of the garden, the eye is drawn to Blake’s sun-drenched house, a log cabin imported from Poland. For the moment all courses are taught there with the gardens used as an outdoor classroom for practical demonstrations. There are plans for a dedicated classroom. There’s an eclectic mix of courses on offer - everything from garden design, French Country Cooking to Transcendental Meditation and Watercolour Painting.
What characterises a Jimi Blake garden? “I think the planting here is very modern and contemporary. I don’t like old traditional design and I really don’t like the trend of using hard landscaping - gardens are about plants so I let them do the design. Every plant here tells a story - where it came from, who I bought it off.”
He is committed to keeping the garden interesting for returning visitors. “I don’t like the idea of a garden being static so nothing is permanent. The garden was known for being about grasses but now I am getting really in to plants and trees. I rip things out in winter and start again. The plants here live in mortal fear.”