Walled garden grower tickling the tastebuds of Northern Ireland's top chefs
David Love Cameron tells Linda Stewart how turning a walled garden in Co Down into a business has become a real labour of love
Local, local, local has been one of the biggest mantras within foodie circles in recent years - so you'd think it would be easy for a restaurant to source fresh organic vegetables and salads grown nearby.
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But it's surprisingly difficult in Co Down according to horticulturist David Love Cameron, who is reviving a Victorian kitchen garden in Helen's Bay.
When he took over the walled garden at Craigdarragh early last year, he quickly won prestigious new customers in Niall McKenna of James Street South and Patrick Leonard of The Merchant Hotel, who were looking for something different.
"There was no availability of local organically grown vegetables in the area - most of the restaurants were getting their produce from bigger food companies," David says.
"Niall especially had been looking for a supplier of vegetables of the kind and quality that I am growing here and he didn't have anyone who could supply that regularly."
The two-acre walled garden was created in the 19th century by Thomas Workman, founder of the Workman and Clark shipyard in Belfast, and it supplied the kitchens of Craigdarragh House.
The present owners were keen to see the overgrown plot restored to its original role as a kitchen garden.
And David was the man to do it - a horticulturist who trained at agricultural college Greenmount before winning a scholarship with Raymond Blanc to create a heritage garden at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford.
His mission is not only to supply locally grown organic vegetables to local restaurants, but also interesting varieties that will enhance their menus - such as the scarce Carruthers purple podded peas which David has long championed.
"These vegetables are grown for flavour and picked on the day of delivery. Some of the produce is even on the dinner plate within an hour of being picked," he says.
"It means they are able to use things like courgette flowers which are normally really perishable - they can go straight into the fridge, where they last for a long time."
One of his biggest fans is Tim Brunton, head chef at fine dining restaurant The Boat House in Bangor.
"The biggest claim at the moment is local food and eating with the seasons - with the walled garden you can't go wrong. It's not often that you find somewhere like this," Tim says.
"I would change my menus to suit what David has, because it's that good. I would tweak the dishes to use what's grown here - beautiful rainbow chard and so many different types of kale," he says.
"I brought two chefs down here while I was still checking it out - two young lads - and I have pictures of them walking around and trying different things, and it inspires people being in places like this. It inspires you to want to cook better food."
David says the project initially had a low turnover - he grew salads and foraged wild onions, sorrel, nettles and gorse flowers from nearby fields.
"It's a no-dig system, which is way more intensive than most farmers use, with closer spacing and higher yields per square metre. It's very labour intensive, but it will get better," he says.
"My plan is to really get on top of growing in the walled garden and use the adjacent field, move out there and replicate what I'm doing in here to increase production.
"I've been teaching this year to supplement my income. I think that the garden, in terms of just vegetable production, will be enough to support one person on a fairly decent salary, but it will take a year or two to get to that point."
David says he has to think in terms of each crop and the financial yield it will supply - short-cropping salads are the most lucrative in terms of value per bed.
"If I was really commercially minded I would probably just grow salads and nothing else, but it's a kitchen garden and I want it to be used as a resource for chefs," he says.
David has been experimenting with all sorts of heritage varieties, including Ragged Jack heritage kale, which yields leaves in winter, sweet succulent shoots in spring and flowers in summer.
"We have really favourable growing conditions here - pretty much all the kitchen garden veg do well. Beetroots and chard do very well and artichokes grow brilliantly. The micro-climate we have within the garden probably puts you down about 300 miles to the south," he says.
"The next stage of the garden is to start offering classes in horticulture and use this lovely setting for events."
For example, David has teamed up with the Open House Festival and the Bullitt Hotel in Belfast for an outdoor event this August, cooking Wagyu beef over the campfire with veg from the garden to serve 40 people seated in the garden.
"We're looking to replace the glasshouse and reopen the site up to people as a tourist destination. It could be used as a learning resource for chefs and catering students to learn about seasonality," he says.
"But what I am trying to do is create an authentic modern market garden which is really productive and a model for food growers."