Alongside his sister Charlotte, Ben Deme is the latest generation of the Deme family to run the Chegworth Valley farm in Kent. “Our parents took over the farm in the 1980s and my sister and I grew up here,” he says. “I’ve been interested in farming since I was five years old and started growing things at very young age. From the ages of about 14 to 25 I worked on our stall at Borough Market, selling our produce almost every weekend.
”Ben’s time running the farm has coincided with a surge in popularity for one particular brassica: purple sprouting broccoli. According to Ben, the season for this colourful crop is now much longer than it used to be and the reason has very little to do with the weather.
“We have been growing it for about 10 years or so, but in the past five years purple sprouting broccoli has become hugely popular,” he explains. “Traditionally it was only really harvested through January and February, but the season now runs into early April. As with any in-demand crop, a good farmer will try to stretch the season for as long they can without compromising the quality of the produce. With purple sprouting broccoli, this has been done by testing and developing different strains which you can plant earlier and continue planting later.”
Growing high-quality purple sprouting broccoli is not easy. “This can be quite a fussy plant,” says Ben. “It doesn’t like the wind or snow, which can be tricky for a winter vegetable, so there are definitely good and not-so-good years. The harvesting is also more labour intensive than with the more familiar green broccoli. With regular broccoli, you plant in blocks and harvest the whole plant, meaning you can clear the field in one hit. With purple sprouting, you return to each plant several times, harvesting individual spears, which we then combine into bunches for the stall. This means they need more space to grow and there is a bit more labour time involved.”
Ben says that when shopping for purple sprouting broccoli the feel is the most important thing. “You want it to be nicely firm and crisp. As it gets older it loses that crispness and the stalks start to get a bit bendy and lose their snap. The colour is not really an indication of freshness, though an older spear might not look as vibrant next to a fresh one. When you get them home keep, them in the vegetable compartment of the fridge and they will last a few days. But to enjoy them at their best I wouldn’t leave them there too long.”
To find out more about Paul and his stall, click here
Looking for inspiration about how to cook your purple sprouting broccoli? We recommend this delicious purple sprouting broccoli tian recipe - satisfying, seasonal comfort food.