Purple basil, pineapple sage, chioggia beet, white aubergines and cavolo nero. These are just a few of the many unusual herbs and vegetables I encountered during my stay at Epicurean Supplies in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.
Set up in 1994 by Clyde Potter, an enthusiastic pianist and expert on all things organic, Epicurean provides its customers with a diverse range of speciality produce. Whether it’s a new type of pumpkin, a purple capsicum or edible flowers, Clyde is a man who likes to delve deeper into nature’s pantry than most farmers.
“The multiplicity of different plants we grow here is an expression of my interest in the plant world,” said Clyde. “If there is something I’ve never heard of then it’s great to grow it and see whether it has some commercial viability.”
Clyde’s creative flare for growing uncommon crops began as child where his passion for plants spurred him on to read until he ‘could read no more’.
His knowledge of plants grew and eventually attracted Weleda NZ, the local branch of the international herbal medicine manufacturer. Here he grew their medicinal herbs while filling any empty space with his choice of crops.
As chance would have it some local chefs heard about what Clyde was growing and soon began to buy his produce. News then spread across New Zealand where Clyde found a lot more chefs knocking on his door.
Several years later Clyde set up The Chef’s Garden @ Epicurean where he sells his organic vegetables across New Zealand.
I spent six weeks working throughout Clyde’s operation – in the fields, factory and at the farmers market. It was an incredibly rewarding experience where I was able to be part of the entire process of growing unusual organic vegetables, from field to fork.
Each crop was grown for restaurants, supermarkets or organic stores while they were also sold directly to customers in the form of veggie boxes or at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Market.
Each Sunday at the A&P Showgrounds in Hastings, Clyde sets up his stall in a colourful manner that often incorporates eye catching creations such as a giant bouquet of chard, a mountain of multi-coloured carrots or a pyramid of micro macro salad.
“Setting up our stall is something I love doing, it ties in with music too. There is an artistic sense involved.”
During the progression of the market, the bouquet, mountain and pyramid will dwindle in size as customers flock to Epicurean’s stall to get their weekly shopping. Each week people from all around the world can be seen enticed by their first glimpse of purple and yellow carrots or by the mighty 20kg musquee de provence pumpkin that sits proudly at the front of his stall.
It’s also common for visitors to have a chat with Clyde about his unusual produce. He will often advise them on cooking advice and recipes or share his knowledge of growing such rare and delicious vegetables.
“I try to represent organics, introduce people to new things and build up a group of customers who love what I do and respect it. That is a lot of what the farmer’s market has been for us.”
It’s also possible to order veggie boxes to get, as Clyde puts it, ‘a portable farmers market’. Each box contains a wide selection of produce that covers all the needs of a family, couple or just a passionate foodie. I prepared these veggie boxes for two weeks so I can confirm that each customer gets great value for the amount of food they get.
When I wasn’t helping out with the veggie boxes or the farmers market, I’d be out in the fields planting, harvesting and preparing beds for new crops. As I got a feel for all the different parts of the operation, it became clear that wwoofers were an important component to the farm.
“The basis of WWOOFing was that organic agriculture needs help. We struggle in a difficult market, we struggle to do the hands on work so additional help is really important to us. It would be good if the whole understanding could be put into the mind set of potential wwoofers.”
Some wwoofers came for a week, sometimes two, while others stay for two to six months. Each wwoofer is different, but they often leave with a similar feeling.
“I like to think wwoofers leave with a deeper understanding of what’s involved with organics so they can have an appreciation of where our food comes from,” said Clyde. “People who have lived here would often say that this experience has been a life changing one.”