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Bike-mad Bob is geared towards helping chefs work their magic

Maintaining Beech Hill House Hotel's award-winning standards is all part of the job in motorcycle enthusiast and horticulturist Bob Peaker's Walled Garden. Bernie Mullen takes a stroll within the confines of the former US Marine base.

He may not be a Hairy Biker but the gardener at Londonderry's Beech Hill House Hotel is in top gear cultivating organic produce for the chefs at its award-winning restaurant.

Motorbike fanatic Bob Peaker is no ordinary horticulturist and the fruit and veg grown in the hotel's Walled Garden is a far cry from the humble cabbage and turnip of yesteryear.

Bob has one of the more unusual 'office' locations during Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016, on the site of the US Marine Corps' Base One Europe during World War II.

There could be fewer more unique plots for Tourism NI's recent Landscape and Places theme than the hotel grounds where the US Marines were billeted in the early 1940s.

US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry are among former VIP guests to have tasted produce grown in the Ardmore Road hotel grounds.

A native of Shipley in West Yorkshire, green-fingered Bob has lived in Derry since the age of seven when his father came to the city to work for Du Pont in 1967.

The former Model PS pupil has worked as the gardener at the Beech Hill for the past two years and it's clearly a labour of love for the Yorkshire man who loves the great outdoors.

Bob's gleaming 77 BMW bike - one of his prized collection of vintage motorcycles - is parked up nearby as he tends to the impressive array of produce to be harvested for the Beech Hill chefs to work their culinary magic on.

Bob sits down with head chef Ryan Burke at the start of the year to plan what's required from plot to plate on the award-winning restaurant menus in the weeks and months ahead.

Naturally, you can expect top quality produce at the Beech Hill which was awarded Georgina Campbell's Hotel of the Year 2015 and Hotel Restaurant of the Year at the recent Irish Restaurant Awards.

You'll find not just everyday staples such as potatoes, onions and cabbages sprouting in the hotel allotments, but exotic sounding Kohlrabi (cole-rah-bee), part of the cabbage family described by BBC Good Food as "looking something like a Sputnik in vegetable form, with a squat bulb and antennae-like shoot".

Of German origin, the name translates as 'turnip cabbage' and "the mild, sweet flavour is somewhere between a turnip and a water chestnut, with a crisp, crunchy texture."

Bob also grows Salsify (sal-suf-eye), a root vegetable belonging to the dandelion family, "also known as the oyster plant because of its oystery taste when cooked."

Hamburg Parsley is another off-beat root vegetable similar to parsnips, popular in Beech Hill recipes, which has a very nutty, celery-like flavour.

Asparagus, globe artichokes and practically every other green vegetable you can mention are to be found in tidy rows, together with all the popular herbs - chives, thyme, mint, rosemary and basil - as well as a wide selection of fruit including a number of recently planted Irish apple trees.

Bob is delighted with the recent spell of fine weather - plenty of warm sunshine and a healthy sprinkling of rain to keep everything watered - for keeping it all so lush.

He said: "Gardening is a great job to have in the summer but it has its charms in winter too. I love vegetables myself - the humble cabbage is as good as anything - but the chefs can take a bland thing and make it very nice.

"Like a lot of things in life, people were put off eating vegetables as a kid because of the way they were cooked. I don't know what school dinners are like now but when I was growing up things were totally overcooked."

Bob's twin passions in life are gardening and his beloved vintage motorcycles. He has seven of the dream machines and it's very much a family affair as his wife Sharon, a well-known wedding flower arranger, and their daughter Jane, who works as a chef in Belfast, are also bikers.

When it comes to cooking, Bob confesses that he's happiest providing the home-grown produce and prefers to leave the heat of the kitchen to the professionals.

"I'm really not into cooking too much. I'm not very adventurous - it would just go all in one pan. My wife Sharon luckily does the cooking at home. We have an arrangement - I do the dishes," jokes Bob, who also admits preferring the traditional meat and two veg option to anything more exotic on his plate.

While he's full of admiration for the amazing dishes Beech Hill head chef Ryan comes up with using fresh produce from the hotel's Walled Garden, Bob likes to keep things as straightforward as possible on the culinary front when he sits down to his own evening meal.

"I'm fairly omnivorous, I like meat and two veg. I'm a very bland eater, I like plain, honest food - with lots of veg of course!"

In his spare time - when he's not tinkering with his beloved bikes or planning his next garden allotment - Bob also likes to play acoustic guitar and is a big fan of American blues, especially Slim Harpo and Howlin' Wolf.

Patsy O'Kane, owner of the Beech Hill, is also passionate about the role the hotel's home-grown produce plays in its reputation for great food - and drink!

Patsy, who likes to get her own sleeves rolled up in the Walled Garden, said guests can't get enough of the hotel's thirst-quenching rhubarb cordial during the hot weather.

She adds: "Lots of hard work has gone into getting it so well established. The passion that Bob and the chefs have for what we do is fantastic.

"Our international visitors just love the freshness of our home-grown produce; people really want to eat what is grown here, not flown here in a crate.

"Our vegetarian dishes are really special, totally organic and gluten-free, using a wide range of seasonal produce such as our fabulous butternut squash."

Mary Blake, tourism development officer with Derry City and Strabane District Council which is supporting NI Year of Food and Drink through a range of events and initiatives to mark the monthly themes, was full of praise for the Beech Hill Hotel's commitment to local produce across its ingredients and suppliers.

"The Beech Hill Hotel is a shining example of the 'plot to plate' ethos which Tourism NI, Food NI and Council advocate when promoting everything that is delicious about Northern Ireland and the north west as a visitor destination," she added.

Belfast Telegraph


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