For many top chefs, small is beautiful when it comes to vegetables – and the smaller the better. Produce Business UK looks at some of the micro-vegetable trends and challenges that are exciting chefs
Nurtured in Norfolk has become one of the leading suppliers of micro-vegetables responding to a trend in the marketplace that owner Allan Miller first spotted when he worked as a chef. “Food portions are becoming smaller and there are more tasting menus available,” he says. “Micro-vegetables fit this trend perfectly. They are popular with high-end restaurants. Chefs have asked us to provide vegetables that are small, the size baby vegetables used to be. Chefs are always looking for something new and exciting. Our niche is where chefs get excited and we have created a market in micro vegetables.
Micro or baby?
Micro vegetables are not baby vegetables. Miller is very adamant on this score placing baby vegetables side by side with their micro equivalents to demonstrate the difference and explaining that micro-vegetables grow for no longer than three weeks. Micro carrots, shallots, turnips and leeks are among the lines currently supplied by Nurtured in Norfolk, although the company is willing to try creating any form of vegetable micro-sized and it already sells around 8 tonnes of micro-vegetables each year.
From left to right are micro, baby, and standard turnips
Miller says: “Anything that is edible can be used as a micro-vegetable. We have been selling micro-vegetables for around three to four years. Turnips are the most popular, then come leeks and carrots. The micro-beetroot is provided with the top left on, it is fully edible. We first tried pea shoots and spinach four years ago and the demand for them has been phenomenal. Pea shoots are one of our biggest crops – we send out 5,000 boxes a week. They are grown on a two-week cycle in our on site polytunnels. It is a very reliable product.”
Out of Africa
For many in the market, Nurtured in Norfolk is regarded as somewhat controversial because many of its micro vegetables are grown in Africa. Miller says “We set up the business some years ago. My wife and I were both chefs in Norfolk and we noticed that the consistency and quality of the product was not what we wanted. We thought we could grow some ourselves. We brought a greenhouse and started to grow some produce. Within two months we had put up four greenhouses and a polytunnel and were running the business on a serious basis.”
Next came the time when a serious commercial decision had to be made: “We knew that micro vegetables and edible flowers were both commercially viable and eventually had to decide what we could do best on our site” explains Miller. “Here in Norfolk we grow herbs, edible flowers and conduct trials on plants. Most of our micro vegetables are grown on four farms in Africa. We know the owners personally and work closely with them. We give them guidance on the sizes required, the know how and bring back the produce for distribution into the UK market.”
Nurtured in Norfolk also grows edible flowers in Dereham
Shipping costs are kept to a minimum by using cargo space on passenger planes. This ensures that the period between harvesting and delivery to customers is kept as short as possible. It also enables the company to ensure a reliable supply of produce. “The low light levels in Norfolk in winter make it harder to grow micro vegetables here,” says Miller. “It is important to provide a consistent level of produce, good quality and price efficient. We aim to achieve this for all our produce. We pick cucumber flowers from our greenhouse plants here in Norfolk at Christmastime – something that has not been done before. It has allowed us to open up the market still further. We always strive to provide the best products possible. The product is always there. Chefs need reliability.”
UK production at Nurtured in Norfolk is under glass and in polytunnels
It is a sector with few competitors. James Seymour of Westlands says: “Westlands no longer grows micro vegetables. We trialled it for three years, but for a number of reasons we have moved onto other products. They were very expensive to grow as they took a surprisingly long time to grow and therefore a lot of room on the nursery. Also we felt that the customer perhaps didn’t fully understand the benefits of the product. So we’re not saying we won’t look at it again in the future, but I think perhaps the customer has moved on for the time being. There are lots of other more interesting plants to grow.”
Nevertheless, Miller is confident about the long-term prospects for the niche, gourmet market. “Micro vegetables are not going to be a massive market,” he admits. “It is not something we would to sell through the supermarkets or mass markets. Chefs want something special, something that is not available in the retail sector. “
Something special: micro-leeks
Grown to order
Consequently Miller and his team are constantly searching for unusual vegetables, new ideas that can create a new market that will appeal to their gourmet chef clients.
At its premises in Dereham, Miller is trialing a variety of produce some of which have not been grown in the UK before such as Indian spinach and fresh chickpeas. The business is also trying new concepts such as celluce; miniature lettuces. “We are taking vegetables from elsewhere and seeing if they can be grown in here,” he says.
The company even grows items to order – one chef brought back some tomato seeds from a visit overseas. It was not a commercial crop, but had a lot of flavour and Nurtured in Norfolk now grows a regular supply of produce from those seeds for the chef.
“Chefs are always interested in what’s new. The UK at the moment is the most exciting place in food production in terms of the type of food and the way chefs are pushing barriers,” says Miller. “People are coming from all over the world to learn from chefs in the UK. They used to go to France, now they come to the UK. There is still a big, untapped market and we are a flexible, family-run business that can adapt rapidly to changing demands. We listen and work with chefs, they tell us what is going to be new and if we can grow it, we will.”