L’Enclume is owned by Simon Rogan, a busy two-Michelin starred chef who takes growing his own produce incredibly seriously. Simon’s research and development centre, Aulis, experiments with produce, and this high-tech approach to developing food is both exciting and unfamiliar. His farm, called ‘Our Farm’, is both a working plot and a veg grower’s heaven – an array of polytunnels, raised beds and crates of seedlings. The uniformity and quality of produce are truly inspiring. Amid it all is the talented chef and grower Dan Cox. Dan taught himself to cultivate crops here, which is no mean feat given the difficulties with the soil and exposed position of the farm – not to mention the exacting standards demanded by Simon in the kitchen. Dan won the 25th Roux Scholarship, and when he is not knee-deep in mud at the farm he is Simon’s right-hand-man and the Chef/Director of Aulis.
While some chefs are happy with a kitchen garden, Simon Rogan has his own farm to provide fresh seasonal ingredients for his restaurant empire. This six-acre plot in the Cartmel Valley in Cumbria is testament to his desire to grow organic produce to near-perfect quality. If your cooking has been awarded two Michelin stars, you would inevitably demand the very best produce. (Indeed it was the varying quality of produce from his suppliers that spurred Simon to grow his own.) However, for Simon, growing is part of a wider ethos concerning produce, ensuring it is local, seasonal and organic.
Influenced by chef Mark Veyrat, who bases his food around the flora of the Haute-Savoie region in France, Simon aims to use Cumbria as his larder.
An inspiring approach
When it comes to growing Simon talks about precision, which is not a term often used to describe sowing, growing and harvesting. But it is this approach, along with Simon’s talent and creative flair, which enables the kitchen at L’Enclume, just two miles from Our Farm, to support fifty covers a night of the most exciting, exquisite food.
Simon is a visionary too – he was using seasonal local food long before many could see its value. For him it is key that his team shares the same goals, dynamism and passion.
As well as being an accomplished chef, Dan has proved extraordinarily green-fingered. While a head chef in London he began by growing the ‘unbuyables’ in his own small garden and conservatory: borage flowers, anise hyssop and nasturtiums. In 2011 Dan was brought in to run Aulis and, despite being selftaught, oversaw the relationship between the kitchen and a local organic farm that provided produce for them. Expansion led to a change of plan, and Dan found himself at the helm of the project to set up Our Farm.
His uniform rows of lush crops, all thriving in raised beds, are astonishing and inspiring in equal measure. It only goes to show that if you have enthusiasm, commitment and a desire to produce great vegetables... everything is possible.
The stunning site is surrounded by the rolling Cumbrian hills of the Lake District and comes with issues that would overwhelm most growers: poor clay soil, waterlogging, and exposure to harsh easterly winds. Dan’s approach was pragmatic: identify the problem and find a solution – most often from reading or researching on the internet.
He chose raised beds as the best way to work with the farm soil, and he filled these with a mixture of topsoil and green waste from the local area. He initially built the raised beds in a polytunnel, on a layer of membrane, but quickly regretted the decision as it created a barrier between the growing medium and the earth, thereby closing off the benefit of microbiotic activity. The following winter he lifted all the raised beds, removed the membrane and rebuilt them directly on the earth.
Among Dan’s first crops was a L’Enclume staple – good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) – which is a key element of a signature duck dish; lovage (Levisticum officinale) too is always on the menu. Using the traditional method for an emulsion, Simon blanches lovage leaves and blitzes it to make a lovage oil and then feeds in a soft boiled egg, blending it all together. He pairs this mixture with potatoes, onions and onion ashes (acombination of browned onions, rapeseed oil and maltodextrin).
Following the philosophy of ‘if we have grown it, we use it all’, the kitchen cooks the lovage stem too: chefs pull apart and blanch the stems before deep frying them to make lovage twigs.
Oyster plant (Mertensia maritima) is a recent success for Dan. An indigenous sea vegetable from the west coast of Scotland, the kitchen previously sourced it from a Dutch company as it could not be found in the UK. After dogged research, Dan tracked down a UK source for the plants.
Today the restaurant creates dishes without using citrus (or bananas for that matter). But acidity is an essential ingredient to balance or lift dishes, so this is a considerable hole in the taste cupboard. This is where Aulis, the research centre, comes into its own. They discovered that pickles and vinegars bring the same acidity to a dish without having to rely on a lemon or lime.
Starting from scratch
Dan raises most of his crops from seed, and his propagation tunnel is like the heartbeat of the farm. It is beautiful, with row upon row of emerging seedlings. Uniformity rules in here too, with a rotation of seedlings that can be cropped as microleaves, including green orach and red Russian kale. Interestingly Simon and Dan prefer to grow on the shoots a little more than normal. It gives the roots and stems a more developed flavour, which they much prefer.
Simon and Dan encourage L’Enclume’s chefs to help at the farm and to see what is in season. However it is Australian chef Lucia Corbel who is responsible for most of the harvesting and who runs the farm when Dan is off site. The combination of chef and grower works well: Lucia understands how the crops will be used – vital for timing harvests – and suggests ways to encourage younger chefs in Simon’s team of twelve to respect the growing process and the produce.
Sustainability is a mantra for Simon and Dan and for their vision for Our Farm. A local spring provides the water, and a wind turbine produces the electricity for the polytunnels. Ever keen to progress, they are moving towards a biodynamic system of growing. This is not just because Simon sees this as an opportunity to have more control over sowing and harvesting crops – given that this is governed by the cycles of the moon when you grow biodynamically – but because of the potential benefits of crop health, yield and, of course, taste. Cows and pigs are the next on the list to receive the inimitable Our Farm treatment.
Dan & Simon’s Kitchen Garden Secrets
Be resourceful: Using materials he found on the farm Dan made his own cloches to cover the raised beds. They help to protect crops from rain.
Research well: Dan spent about 60 hours sourcing oyster plants, and it was well worth the time.
Waste not: If you have run out of room for your seedlings, think about other ways to use them. Dan plants spare red pak choi seedlings in growbags and leaves them to bolt so he can use the flowers.
Taste regularly: Try crops at different stages to identify new flavours, and optimum times to pick. Dan discovered that turnip tops, for example, grew quickly after a heavy rainfall, resulting in a thick stem, but these stems were packed with flavour.
Harvesting: Place your gathered veg in a bucket of cold water. This helps with the cleaning process andpreserves quality, especially on hot days.
Protective heat: Use a heat mat to propagate young shoots and young plants in modular trays. Using very gentle heat improves germination rates.
Kicthen Garden Experts, by Cinead McTernan, £20 Frances Lincoln