Clare Finney drops into the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show’s Dig in Live Cookery Theatre to chat to Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds about the importance of biodiversity and provenance, and see food writer and regular Borough Market demo chef Ursula Ferrigno cook up an Italian storm using some of the varieties of vegetables and herbs growing in the Borough Market Kitchen Garden stand, created for this year’s show
“They say in Italy when you are using your hands, you are pumping blood to your heart,” beams Ursula Ferrigno, as she kneads dough flecked with basil at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show’s live cookery demo. It’s a phrase which, if true, must make her heart a very full one, Ursula being both a keen gardener as well as a pasta-making queen.
She’s here with Borough Market which, in collaboration with Franchi Seeds of Italy—the oldest family seed company in the world—and the iconic Eden Project in Cornwall, has created a kitchen garden, resplendent with feathery herbs and deeply-hued vegetables. Together, they hope to inspire and educate visitors to this year’s show on the importance of seasonality, diversity and provenance when it comes to fresh produce.
On first glance, the Kitchen Garden resembles Borough Market, complete with red brickwork and filigree columns. Look closer, however, and you’ll find that in place of freshly picked herbs and vegetables, these are living plants: luscious and fruiting, but still firmly rooted in the soil.
This week the show’s judges awarded the Borough Market Kitchen Garden a silver gilt medal—a prestigious accolade that reflects the superlative work of its designers, a team of horticulturalists from the Eden Project. Yet while it looks, and indeed tastes beautiful, the purpose of this garden is not to impress but to inspire: cultivated from the range of seeds developed by Franchi Seeds for the Eden Project (and available to buy at Borough), each and every crop you can find there can be grown from seed at home.
Ripe, tight, glossy
“When everything is sun-ripened and good, there is very little that needs to be done,” Ursula continues back at the Theatre, as she presents the main ingredients for her pasta sauce, taken from the Kitchen Garden: ripe, tight, glossy aubergines; san marzano tomatoes, native to the slopes of Vesuvius; and basil from Naples, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna’s renowned red cows.
“I can do that in one word,” Paolo says, when I ask him to explain what underpins Franchi’s 15-year-old relationship—and the Hampton Court collaboration—with Borough. “Locality. We don’t do any of the standard varieties you’ll find in larger shops.” What they offer, he continues, is seeds with stories. “Every seed we sell has a history and is unique to the region from which it’s come. We are all about regionality, biodiversity and provenance”—like Borough Market, he continues. “We’re just one stage earlier, because we’re seeds.”
It’s the quality of these vegetables that make Ursula’s sauce: their seasonality, their sun-ripened freshness, and their (incredibly underrated) specificity. Take the courgettes, for example—dried, fried, and preserved in extra virgin olive oil with mint for us to sample, “the type of courgette we used for this is romesco,” Paolo informs us, while Ursula continues with the pasta dough. “They are picked when small, with the flower still on.”
Ursula’s dad was a farmer, who brought Italian vegetables over to the UK. Paolo is a seventh-generation purveyor of seeds. Both grew up growing things: “It brings you back to earth, growing something from seed. In a world of phones and emails, it makes you feel at one with nature again,” Ursula explains. On a more personal level, having lost her father some years ago, her small plot of vegetables connects her to him. “Please tell your students to always degorge their aubergines, he would beg me,” she laughs, as she generously salts the purple-green medallions and weighs them down with a heavy-bottomed pan.
Borough Market’s presence at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show matters because “it clarifies the importance of growing, and its bearing on quality. Growing your own is great of course, but if you don’t have the time or the space, the next best thing is Borough Market.” When you buy from there, she continues, “you know it has been grown on a small scale—not industrially produced and then flown in.”
It’s sampling time at the Cookery Theatre. Ursula’s preserved courgette, mint and lemon is snaffled up eagerly by the audience. “This is grapefruit mint, from the marquee in front of us. It has a nice citrus quality, and a lovely acidity,” Paolo explains. “Mint and courgette are such good friends. Don’t just go for standard varieties—there are so many!” Ursula interjects excitedly.
Implicit in this, however, is a warning: there is a growing and dangerous indifference towards biodiversity these days, with serious ramifications for seed producers. “Seeds are like the white rhino,” Paolo tells me after the demo. “We have lost more than 90 per cent of all our vegetable varieties in the 20th century, and compared with numbers prior to World War Two, today there are very few British producers of seeds.”
Buy seeds in the supermarket or even down your local garden centre and the chances are they are standard varieties produced in China, Chile, or Vietnam. “These climates are totally different to ours. In the alpine region of Italy where we produce our seeds, we have the same rainfall as Cardiff. Our varieties grow in Britain,” Paolo continues, “and we’re Slow Food accredited, so we align with Borough Market’s values.”
Borough Market and Franchi Seeds are at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this week to highlight the connection between land, growing and produce—but make no mistake, says Paolo. “This is food. Not gardening.”