The perfect sprout

We took the high road to the Scottish borderlands and Drysdales Farm – the home of the perfect Brussels sprout.

Get the basics right! Every chef worth their salt will tell you the very same thing. Every product matters and for me it’s the basics that really set the bar as I feel these are often forgotten. Take the humble sprout. We could use a local farm because it’s easy and then we’ve ticked the box – ‘sprouts done – move on’. But that’s not how it works at Wellocks. We want to give you the best of everything and that starts with the basics. And for sprouts – as well as swedes and leeks – that means the Scottish borders and Drysdales Farm.

It’s a long drive from Wellocks HQ but the reward is a magnificent view of the North Sea and one of the most picturesque approaches to a farm I’ve ever seen. Just a stone’s throw from the coast, Drysdales is perfectly located for producing the perfect sprout. Being close to the coast protects the land from hard, sharp frosts – which, contrary to popular belief, actually make the sprouts taste bitter. Here, on the east coast just south of Dunbar, the temperature can go down to zero but that’s it – go inland just a few more miles and it can get down to -15 oC.

The weather here is also perfect – with less rainfall than anywhere else. Combined with a light, gravelly soil that drains well, and the result is dry soil that sprouts – and swedes – love.  The air is also very clean with no pollution from heavy industry. The final benefit of this wonderful location is the massive underground stores of water that Drysdales taps into through bore holes to use in the washing and packing factory. The water is tested before it comes into the factory, so it’s guaranteed to be perfectly clean. The fresh water is used only once before draining into settlement ponds and reed beds where it is naturally cleansed before finding its way via natural streams into the sea.

At the farm, I met Kenny Blair, Drysdales’ Transport Manager, who soon had me enthralled with the intricate planning that goes into sprout farming. The farm works on a five-year crop rotation cycle in synch with other farms all along the coast from Newcastle to Aberdeen. Why you may ask? Well, you have to do it large scale to make it work. Farmers who produce cereals or livestock need to have a regimented crop rotation, so it makes sense to work together. The big benefit to all of the farmers is that a crop of sprouts or swedes leaves huge amounts of nitrogen along with other nutrients in the soil. Drysdales manages other farmers’ lands which in total means they annually farm 1,000 acres of swede, 800 acres of sprouts and 300 acres of leeks – with target yields of 15 tonnes of swede, eight tonnes of sprouts and six tonnes of leeks.

To achieve this – and create the perfect sprout – they can’t rely totally on Mother Nature though. Planning and lots of hard work is also needed! The soil is very closely examined before planting and the results are then carefully studied before Drysdales decides what the soil needs for maximum fertility. That might be a single application of nitrogen, lime, potassium, potash or a mixture of all – the aim is to keep the soil as natural as possible.

Fertilising and planting are done using GPS to guide machinery, making for controlled application and ramrod straight rows of plants. The young plants are covered in mesh – a massive outlay cost wise –  but the results over a 10-year period more than make up for the initial investment. It also means that no pesticides are sprayed on the sprouts after the mesh is put on. No birds, bugs, deer or crows can get at them and snow and frost are kept off the crop. Genius!

Growing the perfect sprout is only part of the job at Drysdales; they go to great lengths to make sure that when it reaches customers, it’s still perfect – and in this race they are winning it by miles. Gorgeous green sprouts are harvested and collected in special containers, like a sealed tanker with a false floor. On arrival at the farm, a pipe is plugged into the trailers which pumps cool air into the tank to keep the sprouts at an optimum temperature.

Trailers are unloaded into a hopper which takes the sprouts into the factory. Yes, it is a factory, not a barn – what they do in there is mind blowing and very logical. Simply put, the sprouts are cleaned and graded into seven sizes before being either packed or sent for further processing. After the grading, they are hand-peeled and trimmed, then regraded and packed.

Take a look at the video and you’ll see how labour intensive and how accurate the grading process is – all to ensure that the sprouts are pristine and the same size. It’s a crisp, clean, efficient, straightforward and highly accurate process – and another reason why Drysdales consistently delivers the perfect ingredient.

Both the quality and consistency were appreciated by our customer at the magnificent Floors Castle in Kelso about 30 miles south of Drysdales. Mike Mathieson, Consultant Chef at  Albert Roux Consultancy,  finely shredded our freshly picked sprouts,  lightly sauteed them in butter before adding a splash of fresh orange juice to make the perfect accompaniment to home-cured salmon fillets and buttered baby turnips.  “Treat sprouts like mini cabbages and you can do so many things with them,” he said. He’s right – and with the salmon it was simply a marriage made in heaven. Mike kindly shares his recipe here.

I feel very privileged to work with growers such as Drysdales. It reminded me that its the simple ingredients that make an operation successful: care, planning and drive. This is why Wellocks scours the country to find the perfect ingredients for our customers. I firmly believe that our passion and hunger to constantly search for ‘the perfect ingredient’ are the key ingredients in our business. Harnessing the knowledge we gain from meeting the growers and producers keeps the fire burning and our journey to the Berwickshire Coast really brought that back into focus.

Did you know?

  • Sprouts are originally from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan
  • Named after Brussels, the Belgian capital where sprouts became popular in the 16th century
  • Sprouts appeared in Britain in late 19th century
  • 5,000 years ago sprouts were prescribed by Chinese physicians for bowel problems
  • The world record for the most sprouts eaten in a  minute is 31
  • Cousin to cabbage, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi, the sprout is also a brassica