If you thought Florence fennel was grown in Italy, or that pak choy came from China, think again. Sybil Kapoor profiles the British market gardeners now catering to our every exotic desire. Photographs by David Gamble
I can still remember the look of horror on my father's face as my mother presented him with some tender young courgettes to accompany his supper. He was willing to try most things she made, but, in 1968, this was beyond the pale. British cooking was changing and a man could no longer depend on being fed his meat and two plain veg. Imported sweet peppers, aubergines, avocados and artichokes were appearing in the shops, tempting wayward cooks to try Elizabeth David's ratatouille and Robert Carrier's artichokes vinaigrette. It was the dawn of a new era, a brave new world where anything was possible. Food was becoming fashionable, it was a means of self-expression, and serving moussaka was as radical in some circles as burning your bra.

It was to take nearly 10 years, but Peter Barfoot was one of the first to break from traditional vegetable farming. The son of a Hampshire strawberry grower, he went to a local agricultural college in 1968 before leaving to work on an Australian cattle farm. Then, in 1977, he returned and set up his own company. "I rented 10 acres in the Hampshire basin, close to my father's farm," he remembers. "I had relatively poor soil, and nothing but a warm micro-climate going for me, so I couldn't hope to compete with the mainstream vegetable growers of the Fens. They have fantastic sandy soil and operate on a huge scale. If I had grown anything ordinary like cabbages or carrots I would have been finished within the year." Instead, he opted for those baby courgettes. "I decided that exotic produce was the way forward. The British market was becoming more sophisticated as people widened their taste with travel." He adopted the age old-premise of market gardening - grow small quantities of specialist crops for high prices. Within two years, Marks & Spencer had contacted him to grow the ultra- chic baby courgettes for them.

"If you want to succeed, you have to remain at the leading edge of technology and development," says Barfoot. "You either run with the supermarkets and come up with new ideas, or you lose their business." Always fond of a challenge, he began to experiment with other outdoor crops. "Marks & Spencer suggested I tried growing sweetcorn. You can only grow it in certain parts of England as it needs more units of heat and light than most areas can provide. They recommended the south coast, near Chichester." He rented more and more acres as chillies, squash and pumpkins all grew with equal success. Soon locals found surrounding fields swaying with luscious sweetcorn or glowing orange, blue and green with pumpkins, Crown Prince squash, butternut squash and kabocha squash.

Baby courgettes were one thing, but in 1978, greengrocers were startled to find their customers asking for a "flat parsley that tastes of liquorice", in other words coriander. The British hunger for novelty had been reawakened. Madhur Jaffrey had used it in her first television series on Indian cookery and suddenly everybody wanted to try it. Ironically, fresh coriander had been grown in Britain from Roman times, although it had fallen from fashion with the Tudors. Medieval cooks liked its aromatic leaves in salads, sauces and green porrays (a pappy cereal dish, halfway between a soup and a stew).

Charlie Bransden, a specialist outdoor vegetable grower in Middlesex, was one of the first to feel the effects of this new demand. "We supply the wholesale markets and they began to ask us if we could grow it." Since they were already growing Florence fennel, which belongs to the same botanical family as coriander, the Bransdens decided to try. "You have to move quickly, otherwise your competitors will steal the market share," he says. "Ten years ago, we used to grow a lot of rocket, but it became so fashionable the salad pack growers decided to include it in their mixed leaf bags. That was the end of our market - they grow it under glass and the only way you can compete is to do the same with lots of other salads."

The Bransdens experimented with black cabbage, cavolo nero, at the same time as the rocket. "It was what you might call a very, very niche market. In fact, I only managed to sell one box in three weeks, so we gave it up," he says. It took 10 years for chefs to catch up, and now the Bransdens supply them with boxes of succulent home-grown cavolo nero. Bransden become remarkably adept at nurturing Mediterranean and oriental plants. "I tend to stick to similar plants, mainly umbellifers [which include coriander and fennel] and brassicas [which include kohlrabi and black cabbage] because they grow well together and like the sandy loam of the Thames Valley, although you have to watch out for mildew, as sometimes the air can be slightly muggy." He sows coriander, kohlrabi, fennel, black cabbage and big Chinese spring onions each spring, covering the soil with fleece to encourage early germination, then hopes that the weather will be kind. With luck, he will continue to sow twice a week until his crops finish with the first frosts.

Like Peter Barfoot, Charlie Bransden never intended to grow vegetables. As a young man, he worked with his father on their traditional farm near Staines in Middlesex, growing wheat and barley, but by 1974 it was proving impossible to compete with larger farms. After some debate, the family decided to convert to specialist vegetables, thus following in a long tradition of market gardeners who chose plots of land with easy access to London.

According to Malcolm Thick, in his book The Neat House Gardens (Prospect Books, pounds 12.50), the custom began in the 16th century with the development of hotbeds using "night soil", and glass, which allowed gardeners to grow exotic crops out of their natural season and sell them at a good price. By the 18th century, it was de rigueur for fashionable tables to serve broccoli, the mangetout of its day, along with out-of-season artichokes, asparagus, cauliflowers, French and kidney beans, green peas, lettuce, mushrooms and spinach. As Richard Steele, a passionate supporter of roast beef and traditional English cooking, wrote acerbically in Tatler, "They eat every Thing before it comes in Season, and leave it off as soon as it is good to be eaten."

These market gardens were sited around the city. Some were sown along the Thames, so that the produce could be transported using the river, others were strategically placed in the east and west. As London expanded, they gradually moved further out, along its main arteries. The eastern gardens of Hackney, famed for their turnips, finally ended up in the Lea Valley in Essex, which is where Brian Hibberd now grows cucumbers and aubergine.

"It's not the best place for glass houses," he remarks. "Even Clacton has better light than us, but it's near to home so I don't want to move." Like all growers, he is not a man to be daunted by a few technical problems and he is already building a new hi-tech environmentally friendly greenhouse for his aubergine. When he was young he worked with his father in Covent Garden. "In those days, I used to act as an agent between the supermarkets and the cucumber growers in the Lea Valley. When the supermarkets opted for a more direct relationship with the growers, we moved out of Covent Garden and began to grow our own." Four or five years ago, Brian Hibberd decided to diversify into aubergines as few are grown in Britain, which meant that as a small grower he would have more influence. He plants them in rockwool at the beginning of January, confident he will be able to pick them for Sainsbury's throughout the summer in his carefully controlled greenhouses.

The supermarkets, always hungry for new, home-grown produce, look to small producers such as Hibberd to supply them with ever more exotic produce. Working out what is going to be the next "in" vegetable is not always easy. Occasionally, Delia Smith or another TV cook will highlight an ingredient, but normally it is a question of watching restaurant menus, cookery columns and small growers.

Colin Hill is a perfect candidate for supermarket scrutiny. He grows such exotica as green and white pak choy, choy sum, water spinach, hairy gourds, green mustard and green radish alongside his mint, dill, coriander and baby spinach. After training at horticultural college and working for two other farms, Hill chose to rent 170 acres outside Reading in 1989. Initially, he grew leeks, Chinese cabbage, iceberg lettuce and fenugreek alongside his coriander, which he supplies to supermarkets in conjunction with Charlie Bransden (outdoor growers can be very susceptible to weather problems and this agreement acts as an insurance policy for them both).

Then three years ago, a Chinese wholesaler asked Hill to grow more Chinese vegetables. Since he believes that "you have to adapt and change with new crops, otherwise you will go out of business", he packed up his bags and flew to California to visit like-minded growers. "The trouble is nothing is written about how to grow these vegetables in Britain, so you have to teach yourself." Having studied the planting distances, pollination techniques, temperatures and training systems for his oriental greens and exotic gourds, he returned home to plant some trials. A friend agreed to grow the hairy gourds and water spinach, as these needed glass and more attention than Hill could afford to give them.

The resulting crops were a success and he now supplies the British Asian market, in much the same way as the Bransdens supplied the Greek market with fennel, coriander and kohlrabi in the early Seventies. There is a quiet excitement in his voice as he talks of increased demand in the English market for white-stemmed pak choy and he ponders whether his latest trials for the exquisitely delicious pea tips could be made financially viable. Like many growers, he hopes that an enterprising television chef will promote some of these new delicacies for the British market.

There is no doubt that the British are gradually adopting many of these "foreign" vegetables into their diet, in much the same way as they embraced the Roman red beetroot in the 16th century and Italian broccoli in the 18th. It is easy to forget that it took 200 years for the tomato and potato to be widely eaten in Britain, so why shouldn't pak choy be as British as Brussels sprouts in the 21st century.

Perhaps the ultimate twist of fate is that farmers such as Peter Barfoot now travel the world to teach better farming practices to the original growers of these exotic vegetables. As a leading exponent of Integrated Crop Management (a more environmentally friendly method of farming) he is changing the way butternut squash are grown in Africa and courgettes are farmed in Spain.

If you would like to visit either Peter Barfoot's or Charlie Bransden's farm, both of which practice Integrated Crop Management, contact Leaf, The National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ (01203 413911).