Stowey Rocks is a small organic farm nestled in the beautiful Quantock hills at the end of a long track, off a tiny country Lane, off a B road, off the M5. As with many farms in the West Country, the scruffy yard and ubiquitous, not-sure-what-that’s-for items of farm machinery that lie there belie the vigour and lively function of this marvellous place and it takes a second look to see the function, abundance, life and precision that this farm teems with, behind the cheerful immediacy of the earth and greenery and golden light. When we visit, it is the first of June and already there is talk of disruption to crops caused by dry ground from the hottest May on record and a month’s delay caused by the snows that fell in late winter.
The idea was that we would whizz down to one of our suppliers with the new Whippet oven in tow, to see what they do and whether a field of courgettes is as magnificent as I imagined, and then cook them some pizza on site with the produce at hand. We care a lot about sourcing veg that is a reflection of real farming and husbandry, so it seemed nice to go and show the people at Plowright Organic what we do with their veg.
Upon arrival we were briefly introduced to Remke, who confessed to being ‘stressed’ as we’d caught the departure rush for the inbound school run whilst Richard was nowhere to be found, driving a tractor in a far off field. There is something comforting, authentic and inspiring about people who are juggling the school pickup, nurturing fields of broccoli and managing vegbox subscriptions for Greater Bristol. We set up the pizza oven in the garden of the farm cottage among strewn toys and cherry trees, and headed out to the fields to meet Richard and the rest of his team.
The Brassica field was a marvel: at one end, beneath low nets, perfect amethyst kohlrabi nestled in the ground on shallow roots, young broccoli peeping up in a line beyond them. At the far side onions had been planted, red and white distinguishable by the slight variation of hue in their teal shoots. Working down the middle of the field a group of four people were hoeing the gaps of soil between cauliflower plants, meditatively poised with slight repetitious movements in the expansive arc of farmland. A different field, full of organic lettuces, was another marvel. The vulnerability of growing crops is astonishing- these perfect lettuces, waxy and glossy under the blue skies, seemed so open to damage, so available for some plant-eater to come and devour or the weather to interrupt.
What was striking and a little embarrassing was the fact that for a crop of cauliflower, a very small number of people would have to cover an entire field in order to deal with the weeds. It’s so easy to lose track of how a cauliflower ends up in our fridge or on our plate, though I suppose that if it wasn’t organic you’d just spray something on the ground to kill the weeds. Not sure how you avoid killing the caulis when you do that, but maybe it’s a question for a visit to a non-organic farm sometime. A tunnel thick with young aubergine plants, trained upwards on strings, or tomatoes grown in the same manner, is beautiful and easy to appreciate. I forget, though, that these strings were all tied by hand. They will all be tied by hand next year and the years beyond. Further reminder that this is not auto-output by any means.
There is more to be said on the value of variation and intuitive processes, but working responsively can be one of the most rewarding ways to engage with what you’re doing. Thus, the best thing about the day we spent at Stowey Rock's Farm, from my point of view, was cooking pizzas with access to all the things that were growing. The beauty of it all is that when a crop has finished for the season, it doesn’t just get eliminated, but leaves traces and clues. I found it tremendously enjoyable gleaning purslane and mustard from the edges of the various strips that had hosted these crops earlier in the spring. Podding broad beans straight onto pizzas and into the oven, or shredding fresh onions onto them; thin slices of peppery kohlrabi or courgette… endless combos. We even tried a cherry and ‘nduja pizza with the lovely almost-sweet cherries that were growing around us in the garden.
So we cooked and laughed, the assembled farm community sat drinking beer, strumming guitars, chatting. We had taken a film camera with us and there were jokes about how certain workers' hoeing might be mistaken for having been shot in slow motion. I enjoyed the idea that someone weeding a field could be mocked for their lack of pace- the sort of fun that could only be poked among a close community working in such a place as this. We’re pretty aware that organic food is closer to reality than that which is chemically nurtured or controlled, but perhaps the organic gags over pizza at Plowright Farm remind us of just how far along the food chain reality can stretch when you keep things small and do things well.