Maddocks Farm: Leaves, Lettuces, Herbs and Flowers

Chris Archambault zeroes in on the fabulous salads produced by Maddocks Farm Organics

A good chef can spot a top ingredient at 100 yards. The first time I found myself at Cullompton’s Farmers’ Market, I zeroed in on these fantastic and vibrant salad bags. It speaks volumes that before Jan agreed to supply the hotel where I worked at the time, she secretly came to eat, to check if I was worthy! Thus began a long and fruitful relationship and friendship with one of Devon’s top producers. Salad leaves can often be such an oversight in a restaurant and, heaven knows, the supermarkets don’t shine on this one.  Hand on heart, I can state that these are the best tasting, freshest and most diverse range of leaves, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers that I have encountered.

The story began ten years ago for Jan and Stuart (her professional philatelist husband/farmhand), and it’s one shared by many – London dwellers, the pitter-patter of little feet, too many glasses of wine whilst watching River Cottage and an ache for ‘The Good Life’. Well, the Billingtons are case in point for what a slow and steady plan, hard graft and total commitment to quality and detail can reap. The irony of the situation is, of course, you actually end up with less downtime than back in the big smoke. When does the watering, weeding and planting stop? Their stunning ‘plantation’ on the edge of Kentisbeare is a little slice of heaven, with listed farmhouse, acres of greenery, duck pond and their fab ‘The Haybarn’ holiday let.

Certified Organic, Jan has a lot to say on the topic and we have had many a heated discussion about the whole matter.  Essentially we agree. There are so many misleading food buzz words out there; someone does something good, and right, and then the marketers and money men grasp hold ot it in their grubby hands. Organic to Jan is an ideal, not just a soil sample and relevant certificate. Jan states: “Organic should be about quality, freshness, integrity and miles. A thought to the environment around you – cause and effect. It isn’t just about supplying what people want or what was ordered, it is about providing what is best on the day.”  Maddocks Farm delivers goods that are picked that morning... period. The salad bags aren’t pumped full of nitrogen and the leaves aren’t washed in a chlorine solution. When you buy lettuces or leaves that are ‘just picked’ they will last five days in the fridge without unwanted and artificial aids.

Force Jan to sit down a moment over a cup of tea and she can wax lyrical. “When all is dewy and a bit foggy in the morning, when I go out and survey the crops, it’s about intuition. An innate sense of what is at its very peak of perfection. Those are the lovelies that find their way into the bags that day.” When I see the obsessive attention Jan puts into each leaf, I coin a new term – ‘organically certifiable’. 

Dare I wade into the organic debate? Are fresh-picked, non-organic yet naturally grown vegetables from just down the road better than fancy wrapped organic products at your local hypermarket? Probably. Taste the food; let your tongue make decisions, rather than packaging, food trends, ad words or price. Remember, we are lucky down here in Devon. The South West has little issue with poor animal welfare, pesticides or chemicals. The UK is one of the safest places on the planet to buy food due to past crimes and hard lessons learned.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Never mind the backache, the never-ending days and the soiled hands, it is the weather that poses the most difficult challenge. Climate change seems obvious when snow starts ravaging this little island and you have both the driest and hottest spring on record. Luckily, Maddocks Farm have their own borehole for watering, and reams of fleece to blanket the crops on the odd –15�C night.With the summer months now upon us the team is full-steam ahead. Jan and her lieutenant, Mandy Christie, start early and finish late to ensure all is picked, washed, bagged and delivered. Much of Jan’s business is to Posh Nosh, one of the South West’s top event caterers, and with weddings also in full swing, the edible flowers are a real favourite for these events, adding class and colour to festive functions. 

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For my own use, I use a tailormade, uber colourful and herby mix for the Southernhay House salad and a mix of green lettuces for a simpler side dish. The flowers are great for spicy and aromatic compound butters that jazz up any vegetable, grilled fish or meat dishes. Now is the time for courgette flowers, which I like to stuff with a scallop mix, dip in tempura and fry. Jan and I came up with this great Pimm’s jelly, utilising her ginger mint and borage flowers, which we showcased in a demo at the Dart’s Farm tent at the Exeter Food Festival. It’s all about relationships, obsessive individuals and the cross pollination of enthusiasm and ideas.Keep the faith and lead the way, Jan.

Chris Archambault is head chef at Southernhay House, Exeter 

Pimm’s JellyMakes one large Victorian jelly mould

Ingredients500ml water300g caster sugar200ml Pimm’s8 leaves gelatine (soaked in cold water)Mint leavesCucumber, small diceOrange segmentsSliced strawberriesGreen apple, small diceBorage flowers

Method1 Bring the water, a few leaves of mint and sugar to a simmer, stir to dissolve the sugar.2 Remove from the heat, strain and pour in the Pimm’s.3 Once tepid, stir in the drained gelatine until dissolved.

4 Line the jelly mould artfully, one layer at a time, refrigerating to set in between layers with the fruit, flowers and Pimm’s mix.5 Let set fully for an hour or so in the fridge and then fill a large bowl with boiling water.6 Dip the mould into the water for a minute or so and tip upside down on a large plate.7 Decorate with more flowers and serve with clotted cream, pouring cream or orange zested whipped cream.

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