‘I’m nearly out of them’, Conn greets me. ‘Just enough of them to get to the week-end’. That, of course, is Halloween week-end.
I was paying a visit to Conn Gaffney’s Pumpkin Farm in Lusk, Co. Dublin.
There was a good crop this year, but the wet October meant careful harvesting and dry storage, before the pumpkins were ready for market.
Conn also runs a shop on his farm and had a constant stream of callers selecting and collecting their personal pumpkins.
Almost all of these are going to end up as “Jack O’Lanterns”, whose main job is to keep the ghosts and ghoulies of Oíche Shamhna away from the house. A small few will be turned into soup or pumpkin pies.
Irish tradition was to carve Jack O’Lanterns from Swede Turnips, quite a laborious process. Postcards arrived from America in the 1960’s with spectacular pictures of pumpkins with grotesquely carved faces on them. These were the American version of the Jack O’Lantern and were so much easier to carve than turnips.
While Halloween and all its traditions, was exported from Ireland to America, over one hundred and fifty years ago, the practice of pumpkins for carving came the other way. In the 1960s/70s, pumpkins started to arrive on these shores and the lowly turnip was dropped in their favour.
The early pumpkins were imported but local growers quickly found out that certain varieties were ideally suited to the Irish climate. Now, most of what are used here are grown here.
But, as Conn told me, ‘On the 31st of October, the demand for pumpkins stops dead’. He would love if some of our TV chefs encouraged us to use more pumpkins in our meals and so, prolong the season a little.
There are also the pumpkin seeds; every year we import tons of these and every year we send the seeds from the carved pumpkins to the dump!
My mission was to get a supply of, what is, probably, the fruit, with the highest content of Vitamin C and Antioxidents, of any fruit grown in Ireland -Blackcurrants.
Blackcurrants, particularly those grown in Ireland,also have an intense flavour that is pure nectar and is just not matched by any other fruit.
I missed the harvest by a week!
When I arrived at Des Jeffares farm, in Wexford, all of his blackcurrants had been picked, prepped, fast frozen and packed away in his cold storage facility.
Des has a unique position. He is Ireland’s only major blackcurrant producer. I had hoped to collect some fresh blackcurrants, but as Des explained, that because of the quantities involved and to protect the quality of the fruit,mechanical harvesting and freezing were the best options.
Harvesting takes place between mid-July and mid-August,depending on the variety and the weather conditions.
When the majority of blackcurrants on the bush are at peak ripeness, the whole field is harvested, in a single day,using special equipment. The fruit is then Individually Quick Frozen (IQF).
IQF preserves the fruit in peak condition and ensures noneof the flavours and nutrients deteriorate.This means that if you want to get a supply of World Class, Irish Grown Blackcurrants, they will almost, of necessity, be frozen but available for 12 months of the year.
Des supplies his blackcurrants to Jam Makers, YoghurtMakers and directly to end users. He also produces a sugar and sweetener free blackcurrant cordial, with a lusciousflavour and markets it under the Mr. Jeffares label.
He is, also, currently developing a retail pack of fruit,for the freezer shelves of the major supermarkets.
His website is also packed with recipe ideas for getting the most from your supply of blackcurrants.
Growing up in Rush, North County Dublin, meant Summers spent working in the fields and glasshouses by day and evenings swimming in The Harbour.
The town of Rush is built on sand. For hundreds of years, this made it an ideal location for growing a wide variety of vegetables. Unlike clay, sand doesn’t become mucky after heavy rain as it does not retain moisture. This makes it easier to work with, lessens the effects of frost and allows for an extended growing season.
The arrival of glasshouses, in the middle of the twentieth century, allowed for a longer growing season and resulted in the widest range of vegetables in Ireland being farmed here.
Most of the growers cultivated crops both in the open fields and under glass.
This gave the benefit of farming the fields in good weather and the dry glasshouse if the weather was inclement.
The field crop was potatoes, while tomatoes formed the bulk of what was grown under glass.
The main variety of potato was Queens. Rush Queens have a countrywide reputation for the being best there is. The first batches would be sent to market in chip baskets, covered in potato leaves, which helped prevent their soft skin from turning green. The true taste of ‘Summer on a Plate’ had arrived: boiled Queens with a pinch of salt and a knob of butter.
As I loved heat, I really enjoyed working in ‘The Glass’ as it was called. There was immense satisfaction in tending the tomato plants as they grew from tiny seedlings, through producing the yellow blossoms and then developing fruit – green at first, then, over a period of days, ripening into rich red fruit.
There was always the anticipation, waiting for the first fruit to ripen, in early June, when it would be picked and ceremoniously eaten.
There is nothing nicer than to pick and eat a ripe tomato, straight from the plant, full of summer freshness.
Generally, just one variety of tomato was grown in Rush. It was called Moneymaker and it produced medium sized fruit, which was picked and sold loose, in chip baskets.
The expression ‘On The Vine’ was not heard of at this time.
The flavour was intense.
During Winter and Spring, tomatoes were imported from The Canary Islands, Spain and Holland. The flavours of the tomatoes, from these countries, seemed bland compared to those grown in Rush.
There were three people that I worked with, at this time. They were Pat Fynes, Kit Collins and Joe Landy. Each of these had a passionate love for the land and took pride in the quality of the produce they grew. They wanted the people, who consumed their tomatoes, to experience a taste, that would have them coming back for more.
What About Today?
While production methods have changed a little since those growers were working and some producers have increased their yields enormously, over recent seasons, I still believe that Irish tomatoes harvested between the middle of May and the middle of September, are the most flavoursome in Europe.
I personally believe that this is due to three things: the longer daylight hours we have here in Summer, the fact that temperatures are milder than most of Europe and the care taken by The Rush Growers.
This makes me wonder, why do retailers want to stock non-Irish tomatoes during this period.
Could it be that the people, who buy and eat tomatoes, need a little prompt every now and then.
That applies to all fruit and vegetables grown in Rush and throughout Ireland.
In the picture on the left, all of the produce, in the box, was grown in Rush and on the retailers shelf, within hours of being harvested.
I bought these yesterday in my local ALDI. Apart from the sprouting,they looked good and would, definitely, add colour to any salad plate.
The are also quite crunchy, so, must be reasonably freshly picked.
But where is the taste? The pack advertises ‘Peppery’, yet these tasted of nothing. Proper Radishes should add a piquancy to any dish and these failed, miserably. The fact that they are sprouting, I will address on another occasion. But not all is lost, there is some flavour – from the leaves!
Green Potatoes should never be offered for sale. If you find them in the pack, even partially green, either bring them back to the shop or bin them.
The reason for this is the green advertises the presence of SOLANINE.
Solanine is a substance that can cause upset tummies, and more, in humans.
The green, itself, is Chlorophyll and is not harmful. Potatoes produce Chlorophyll, when exposed to light. For potatoes, turning green is useful as a defence against predators, such as birds and pests. These predators are attracted by the white or pink skin of the potato. While growing in the fields, potatoes are attacked by birds and pests, if they peep through the surface of the ground. The exposed parts of the potato will, quickly, turn green in sunlight and this makes them less appealing to predators.
As an extra defence, when they turn green, potato tubers produce Solanine. This is a natural poison that is a pest killer. Humans, who consume even small amounts of Solanine, can develop severe stomach aches and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Children and babies are very susceptible, and symptoms can persist for 7 to 10 days.. Cooking will not eliminate the Solanine in potatoes.
The green can also occur when potatoes are exposed to artificial light. This means that retailers must store potatoes in a suitable environment to prevent this happening.
Unwashed potatoes fare better. The clay, attached to unwashed potatoes, acts as a protector, just like sun screen on human faces. For this reason, companies that process potatoes, such as crisp and chip makers, demand, that their potatoes are not washed, before delivery.
At home, washed, or even unwashed, potatoes should be stored in a dark press or paper bags. Storing in a fridge is not necessary.
So, before you buy, take a closer look at what is being offered.
It’s out there, it’s abundant, it’s full of flavour and it’s free. It is Wild Garlic.
Large clumps of it grow on river banks, in corners of fields and in woodlands.
The star-like flowers beckon from a distance.
The flowers look like they could be at home in a posy vase, but, as soon a you pull one of them, the garlic aroma permeates the air. Not, then, a flower for display, but one for eating, cooked or uncooked.
Where to Use
Described as both a vegetable and a herb, the flowers and leaves of this plant can be used everywhere clove garlic is used. In cooking, add both to soups, mashed potato, stews, omelettes, curries and Italian dishes. Uncooked, add the flowers to salads, chop the flowers and young leaves into dips or use the leaves in place of basil, to make an excellent pesto. While having the flavour of clove garlic, wild garlic has a mellow freshness of its own. The younger leaves and flowers are also that bit more subtle.
Please note, that when adding to a hot dish, best results occur when it is added in the final cooking stages.
All garlic is known for its antioxident and anti-inflammatory properties. It, also, seems beneficially effective in the treatment of colic, diarrhoea, wind and loss of appetite. In addition, studies have shown that Wild Garlic is particularly effective for the treatment of High Blood Pressure. This, apparently, is due to the high sulphur content of Wild Garlic. (Ref – The Cardioprotective Actions of Wild Garlic, Rietz & Others; Mol Cell Biochem 1993)
I paid a visit recently to the farm run by Thomas Collins and Jim Carthy, in Rush, Co. Dublin. They have been working together since the 1970’s and having grown a variety of crops in the early years, now concentrate solely on cucumbers. Thomas & Jim are, probably, the largest producers of cucumbers in Ireland. Thomas gave me a run-down on their year.
The Production Year
After the last crop of the year has reached the final production phase, the glasshouses are completely cleaned out. All of the support systems are overhauled. Then new hydroponic packs are laid on the floor. Using these means that the plant roots do not need to bed in the soil and all the feed and minerals given to the plants travel through the irrigation system.
Due to the extra resources, needed, to bring seeds to suitable size for planting out, Thomas and Jim have found it more effective to buy ready-made stock from specialist nurseries. These nurseries exist to provide growers, like Thomas & Jim, quality certified plants, at whatever stage of maturity best suits that growers production schedule. This also allows them extra space to have a crop continuously ready for consumption. This is important, as the best growing cycle, for cucumbers, is to rotate with new plants, every fourteen weeks.
Thomas & Jim use a CO2 enhancement system to promote the growth of strong full-flavoured fruit.
This extra CO2, allows the plants, to use all of their energy, to produce their fruit and use less of their energy extracting CO2 from the ambient air. Plants, like cucumbers, need CO2 to grow.
Watering is carried out on a continuous basis using computer controlled systems along with the application of trace minerals.
The plants grow vertically for about 2 metres, trained on hanging cords. They are then trellised horizontally. This allows the fruit to freely hang, vertically, and develop to full maturity without obstruction. It also makes for easier harvesting.
Bug Control – Using Biorational Pesticides
One of the most interesting discoveries was that plant pests are controlled biologically, using predator bugs. Packs of these predator bugs are attached to the plants. Once they sense the presence of pests, such as spider mites and thrips, the predator bugs leave their packs to attack them. Pests, like these, can destroy a Cucumber plant in hours. Having taken care of their prey, the good bugs return to their packs to wait for their next meals. This process means that no chemicals are used to eradicate crop damaging pests.
Off to the Consumer
After ten weeks, the first cucumbers are ready for harvesting. Packing consists of simply shrink-wrapping, before labelling, putting into boxes and shipping to the shop, market or storage depot.
The question of using shrink wrap came up. Thomas insists that cucumbers will keep fresh for at least a week in this packaging, without the need to refrigerate. When using, only strip off the wrap from the section you are going to use. The remainder will happily sit in the wrap for another day.
The healthy, fresh cucumbers, should be on the shelves of the retailer next day.
I thanked Thomas and Jim for what was a very interesting visit
It was very interesting to learn that Irish Cucumbers are available from Mid February to Mid November. That’s a nine month season in which to buy Irish cucumbers! They are grown in a very controlled environment, in glass houses.
While other countries produce numerous varieties, with various colours, shapes and sizes, there is only one variety grown in Ireland. They are those dark green ones, stocked by every vegetable retailer and the darker the skin colour, the better, according to Jim. If the cucumbers are turning yellow, they have passed their best before date. Amongst the growers, they are known as ‘English Cucumbers’.
The ideal weight of the fruit varies between 300 and 450 grammes
95% are eaten raw, either sliced or chunky as part of a salad, or added to yoghurt or sour cream, with seasoning and/or grated garlic to make excellent dips or sauces. A suggestion is to serve slices in a bowl of cider vinegar, to be added to salads or cut into julienne slices and serve with dips.
The there are the uses of cucumbers as a natural beauty treatment. Tired eyes and dark circles under the eyes benefit greatly from about 10 to 15 minutes with a slice of cucumber over each eye. Purreed cucumber can also be used as a mild facial astringent.
Cucumbers have virtually no fat, are low in carbohydrates and have a beneficial range of vitamins and trace minerals. They have a high proportion of Vitamin K, which helps with bone strength. Remember, most of the vitamin content is in the skin!
I should mention the other variety of cucumbers eaten here. These are the pickled types, variously known as: Gerkins, Pickles and Cornichons. As these are not grown here is any quantity, but come here already processed, I will leave them out of this post.