Grown by chefs, for chefs. That’s the concept behind HydroPhoria, a new supplier of hydroponically-grown micro herbs and micro greens in Dorset, which has set out to deliver a living range of exciting new flavours, 365 days of the year. Produce Business UK caught up with the innovative group to find out what it can offer chefs, as well as wholesalers and foodservice operators
Established in February by two couples and selling within six weeks, HydroPhoria has been quick to market thanks to high demand for its unique offer. Run by friends Clare and Baz Williamson together with Niki and Jez Barfoot, the company emerged from two very different ventures.
“We were living in France, selling commercial size hydroponic systems (for animal fodder) to the farming industry in Europe and North Africa as Premium Fodder,” explains Clare Williamson. “We were testing beans and chickpeas.”
During that time Niki and Jez lived in a neighbouring village in France before returning to the UK to open a restaurant and deli in Wimborne, Dorset, called The Tickled Pig, which also incorporates an events business and cookery school.
When Clare and Baz also moved back to Wimborne, the four got talking about food and realised an opportunity to merge their worlds and plug a gap in the market – to supply UK restaurants with live (as opposed to harvested) micro herbs and micro greens.
“One of Jez’s wholesalers used to supply him with a beautiful box of salad greens but he only used half because the other half was tasteless,” Williamson explains. “Jez felt strongly that if a chef had had an input then the contents would be vastly different.
“It’s one thing to grow something that looks nice in a punnet but it’s another for it to taste nice once you’ve washed it and dressed it,” she points out. “If it doesn’t look good, hold the dressing and tastes nice, then it’s useless. It has to taste as good as it looks and have texture.”
The two couples began trialling production of micro herbs and micro greens; installing units in a barn near Nicky and Jez’s house. Everything is hydroponically-grown and supplied as a living plant for chefs to harvest and use as required.
The real secret to success, however, is that each variety is tried, tested and selected by chefs before its release. “Jez is a chef; he thinks like a chef, so he’s already thinking like the end user,” she explains. “From my background in development, if you develop anything you have to have the end user in mind or it won’t work. Produce is no different.”
HydroPhoria uses The Tickled Pig as its testing ground to ensure everything it produces stands up to the rigours of foodservice. Once a new variety has been grown two or three times, it goes to the restaurant for the chefs “to play with” and see how it works with different dishes.
“They test the herbs with their own dishes and all the staff try it too,” says Williamson. “If it passes their test and looks well, we send samples to wholesalers to see what they think. If it’s popular we start supplying from there.”
For the restaurant trade, the group is focusing on flavour, texture and the ability to remain fresh on the plate in addition to the obvious need for consistency. On top of that, because the range is supplied locally and as a living plant, it ticks the provenance box too.
“All chefs want something different, plus they want to know its provenance and they need it to last,” notes Williamson. “You can buy harvested herbs and greens and keep them in the fridge. But they’re not that great for chefs. Chefs are happy to have herbs in saucers on their windowsill. You can’t get any fresher than that – and it’s freshness that they’re after. They last for five days; leave them any longer and you start to lose their goodness.”
As well as being a very effective and efficient growing system, Williamson points out that hydroponics is also a clean and fast way of growing. “There are no pests, no pesticides and no soil. It’s all grown on white felt which is recycled wool and cotton,” she adds.
“We will be growing 365 days per year because of the climatically controlled conditions, and I grow under cloches which shortens by about two or three days the growing cycle of the herbs, which can be anything from five to 10 days.”
HydroPhoria’s current range features 10-12 different micro products: including: affilia cress (which is similar to pea shoots), pea shoots, lemon basil, garlic chives, green amaranth, Red Lion mustard, Red Zest mustard, Rioja radish, Sangria radish, Victoria salad rocket, Bulls Blood red beet, plus broccoli shoots.
The company supplies approximately 16 boxes of affilia cress per week and about six boxes of a mixture of micro herbs (although this fluctuates depending on supply needed for any demonstrations and special events). Each box, which measures 40 x 30cm, contains eight punnets and includes a note on how to best care for the living plant.
Currently, most chefs adapt their menus to whatever HydroPhoria provides, unless a request is made for a box of just one herb. As part of its service, the firm also explains the taste of the herbs and what other people use them for, although Williamson is quick to point out that they don’t presume to offer chefs advice.
With chefs constantly seeking new ideas and flavour combinations, Williamson says the latest requirement she is receiving is for red varieties. “Everyone seems to want red herbs or red greens at the moment – whether it’s red mizuna, red mustard, red amaranth or red radishes,” she says. “It’s very in vogue.
“Everyone loves red amaranth and the green variety too. Visually, it’s very pretty and very delicate so it’s used in sandwiches or it’s lovely as a garnish on fish. One chef says it gives a nice, subtle aftertaste.
“Red mustard is really peppery – it’s almost like wasabi and chefs love it. The Rioja radish has really dark purple-red leaves interspersed with bright green leaves, and has a nice radish flavour.
“We have a green radish with pink stems too, called Sangria radish, which is not quite so ‘radishy’ but it’s not too mustardy either, although it has a bit of a kick. One of the chefs is addicted to it.”
Other popular tastes are different flavoured basil, according to Williamson. “Chefs love our lemon basil – the flavour is amazing. It lends itself well to different dishes and it’s great for homemade lemonade.”
Another unusual yet interesting taste sensation for chefs is garlic chives, which have quite a strong flavour and work best with lighter dishes like fish. But one micro green Williamson is keen to really get chefs into is sunflower sprouts.
“They are slightly fleshy and have chunky, crunchy stems like a chunky cress,” she reveals. “They do well in salads – in Lithuania everyone grows them and they’re eaten all the time in salads. But here I can’t get people to take them and it’s disappointing because they grow brilliantly and they’re really tasty, crunchy and fresh. You just have to eat the shoots very young or they turn bitter as they grow bigger.”
Originally, HydroPhoria planned only to supply The Tickled Pig but business has boomed after an unplanned and successful appearance at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May, in addition to word of mouth, including Twitter.
“As well as The Tickled Pig, we supply Harvest Fine Foods in Christchurch, Woodsford Leaves in Poole and Faast Fruit in Bournemouth,” explains Williamson. “Our chefs customers include: Brett Sutton from The White Post near Sherborne, Lisa Osman from Provisio and All Hallows Farmhouse here in Wimborne St Giles and Mark Hartstone at La Fosse in Cranborne.”
HydroPhoria either supplies local chefs directly, or it looks to find a local wholesaler who can supply on its behalf. “Just last week we had a request to do mail order. It’s not impossible and I’d love to say yes but realistically I can’t at the moment,” Williamson notes. “First we have to find out what is required (one or two boxes a week) and whether it’s feasible to deliver ourselves.”
Niki and Jez have also talked to local wholesalers who are interested in taking as much as the group can grow. “We’re being fairly flexible but to a point – as we’re only geared up to handle a small turnover of crops at the moment,” Williamson notes. “It’s growing and alarmingly so!
Indeed, at the end of this month [July], HydroPhoria will begin another exciting new venture when it embarks on a contract with an exclusive new London restaurant. “After hearing about us via word of mouth last May we were contacted by a restaurant that has a presence in the US and Canada. They are opening in London and they want hydroponic herbs – rather than hydroponic micro herbs.
“They want a specific herb for a specific purpose. We did some trials, which they absolutely loved, and we got the contract. So, we can do some bespoke work with restaurants, and grow to order. It wasn’t the way we planned it, but it keeps it fun!”
With only one small hydroponic unit with one growing environment, plus a polytunnel with a second hydroponic growing environment, HydroPhoria is eagerly kitting out another barn with a third unit for a third hydroponic growing environment. This will allow for greater diversity and capacity, and will be ready within the month.
In terms of the range, Williamson is already “playing around” with some other micro herbs but cannot reveal more as they are not ready yet, and plans to further develop the line for the London restaurant.
“They’ve asked us if we’d be interested in growing two other very different products which they currently fly in from Europe. One I’ve never heard of and isn’t grown in the UK but it can be produced with hydroponics.”
Despite the demand, Williamson says HydroPhoria must not move too quickly, however. “We’re making haste slowly,” she states. “We’ve been thrilled by the reaction so far – it’s tells us that we’re doing something right.”