Food and Drink: Call a spud a spud? Purple Congo, more like: 'Modern British cooking' proved the salvation of two amateurs on a smallholding in Devon, says Emily Green

WHEN Edward Kain was 45, he left the steel industry. He had been general manager of a Somerset foundry. His wife, Penny, 46, was a piano tuner. They had two children to support. The Kains considered fish farming, dealing in concrete garden furniture, even selling life jackets. Then they saw 20 acres of windswept Devon hilltop for sale near Totnes. It had seven fields and stunning views across to Dartmoor. They bought the land and became farmers.

The move had all the hallmarks of disaster. The Kains had no agricultural experience outside of their back garden. Even if they had been expert farmers, fitting into village life can be tricky. The locals differ on whether the name of the village where the Kains settled should be pronounced 'Diddishum' or 'Ditsum'; the Kains, happy to be newcomers, say it as it looks: Dittisham.

One gambit to draw visitors to Dittisham, initiated by the Kains's predecessor and maintained by them, is as touching as it is silly. They run an 'Iron Age museum': a small hut, with flint found in the fields laid out in mouldy display cases. Some of it looks more likely to have come from 1974 than 1100BC. 'Basically,' says Mr Kain, 'it's rubbish left behind by 10,000 years of people living on this place.'

Farming has been tough. Today, the Kains are 'solvent - just'. Two things saved them from the fate awaiting most amateurs who seek a living in the countryside: character and luck. The Kains have resilience. In summer they work from 5.30am to 9pm; in winter the working day shortens to 12 hours. But they have found time to slot into the small community. He is a regular bell- ringer at the church; she tunes the odd piano.

As for luck . . . by settling at Dittisham and taking up their smallholding, the Kains stumbled into the vanguard of the movement the Good Food Guide dubbed as 'modern British cooking'. They grow to order for a local chef. Not any chef, but Joyce Molyneux, one of the best in the country, whose 19- year-old restaurant in Dartmouth is aptly named the Carved Angel. She had taken produce from the Kains's predecessor, but in the newcomers she found keen amateurs, game to grow rocket, exotic mustards, baby radicchio.

Touring the fields with the Kains, Joyce Molyneux gollies them along - 'Golly, all that chervil]' The gollying has paid off. The Kains grow 23 herbs and 32 different vegetables. They supply her with, among other things, basil, spring onions, dill, coriander, chives, garlic chives, borage, radishes, fennel, parsley, cress, artichokes, sweet peas, chicories, squashes, broad beans, courgettes and asparagus.

Within many of the groups they grow dozens of varieties, one of the newest being a hot Indian cress that Molyneux requested. When they began, a potato was more or less a baker, a boiler, a chipper or a new. Not any more. For Molyneux they planted La Ratte potatoes, which they grow along with pink fir apples, Desiree, Pentland Javelin, Pentland Blue and a real oddity - Purple Congo. 'When Joyce asked for pink fir apples,' says Penny Kain, 'I just said 'What?' '

Today the Kains are variety-mad: ask for basil and you will need to know whether you want green, purple or Greek. They seek out unusual seeds from the Henry Doubleday Foundation and are coached by Frances Smith, a Kent farmer. Mrs Smith, too, was a lucky discovery. She is the undisputed expert on what gardeners call 'queer gear' and has pioneered a farm-to-restaurant supply movement in London and the South-east.

Seed-swapping ensued. 'Penny immediately contacted Frances, who wrote back with seeds attached to the top of the page with Sellotape,' recalls Mr Kain. Delighted with a head of garlic, a mystery variety, Mrs Smith sent the Kains one clove. Both farmers are now growing it on. 'It's large, tasty and absolutely superb,' says Mrs Kain. In turn, she obtained eight seeds for a rare tomato called the potato leaf white. She kept five and sent Mrs Smith three.

Mr Kain's experience in management undoubtedly helps. He writes detailed charts to keep track of what is growing on his seven fields. There are charts for sowing: 'If you don't do that,' he says, 'you get all your lettuces coming up at once and none in the middle of July.' Chervil is sown from March to May, basil in April and May, coriander from March to October . . .

He can tell you there were 36 inches of rainfall in 1990. The following year is a bit of a sore point: 40.7 inches of rain fell in 1991, five inches of it in June. Their strawberry harvest fell from 11,244lb to 6,067. 'We had a superb field of strawberries,' says Mr Kain. 'By the third day, they were just pulp. Once you accept that you are at the mercy of the weather, you can take protective measures. That is where the planting schedule comes into it. You can lose a main crop, but recover with a late one.'

The Kains had a lot of recovering to do. When they bought the farm, the soil had not been fertilised for 15 years. They dug in horse and cow manure carted over from local farms, and kept digging. The strawberry harvest rose from 6,328lb in 1988 to 10,472lb last year, raspberries from 647lb to 3,565lb, asparagus from 34lb to 211lb.

Soft fruit comprises much of their business. There are blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants, tayberries, loganberries, gooseberries, raspberries and a plum unique to the area, similar to the Victoria, called the Dittisham. The improved yield owes as much to the ingenious wiring system for the brambles as to the muck. The bushes can be easily reached from either side of a row, which is essential as much of the Kains's fruit is sold on a pick-your-own basis. The rest goes into a thriving new business in fruit liqueurs.

Smocked up in his bottling shed, winching jelly sacks as he drains off a batch of plum liqueur, the normally forthright Mr Kain turns a bit cagey. When it comes to the recipe for his sloe gin, he is downright sly. No one is divulging 'the botanicals' involved. He has reason. It is superb.

He will admit this much of his method: the fruit is frozen, not pricked, then steeped in pure alcohol, bought under licence from Plymouth Gin. The botanicals include juniper and coriander. Only after steeping is the alcohol level adjusted.

Drinking Dittisham fruit liqueurs, what registers most strongly is the fruit itself. Mr Kain has reduced the sugar by half, which means they are agreeable even when drunk neat.

The Kains sell the liqueur to local off- licences and a chain-owned hotel in Dartmouth which offers it to guests as a welcoming aperitif and in a miniature bottle as a parting souvenir. Mrs Kain laments that they cannot supply the hotel's chef with greens and fruit: he is locked into a centralised-purchase system that sends produce to Devon by train. Not so long ago, Joyce Molyneux had to import chicories and the like because no one local grew them. Luckily for her, those days are history.

Dittisham Fruit Farm, Capton, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 OJE (0804 21452). Fresh vegetables in farm shop. Fruit liqueurs pounds 6.40 for 37.5cl; pounds 7.40 for plum and sloe gin. Open daily from 1 March-31 October, 10am- 5pm. Pick your own strawberries from mid-June.

The Carved Angel, 2 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon (0803-832465). Light lunches from pounds 10.50. Set-price lunch pounds 22.50 or pounds 27.50, dinner pounds 37.50 or pounds 42.50. Meals including wine, coffee, service and VAT approx pounds 30- pounds 40 lunch and pounds 45- pounds 60 dinner. Open lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, lunch Sun. Vegetarian meals. No credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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