Cabbage is kool, from farmer to plate

Let’s take a journey from the biological bearded farmer in West-Flanders to your plate in a Brussels top restaurant. It is not an evidence, but small scale farming can survive in Europe and top-chefs like Nicolas from the vegetarian restaurant Humus x Hortense can flourish using these products.

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Farming with care
From early January until late November, all kinds of cabbages are being grown in the farm of Dries in Dikkebus (Ieper). At this farm, harvesting is done manually: carefully picking out what is needed for today’s orders and only harvesting the vegetables that are at their exact point of being ready to eat.

Special attention has been given to growing old Belgian varieties of cabbage and growing different types all year round. Six different types of cabbage have been grown for the seven course dinner, such as red cabbage, pointed cabbage, kale, chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, sprouts and palm cabbage.Next to cabbage, “Le Monde Des Milles Couleurs” grows all kinds of other vegetables and fruits with the help of a small team of young farmers. They spend long days working on the fields, in the greenhouses and packaging for shipment in the warehouse.

Cabbage is sewn all year round. At this farm only water is given, while no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are being used at all. In a traditional farm, only the cabbage itself would be harvested. In this farm part of the plants are harvested, but the flowers and other parts of the plant are also harvested as exclusive ingredients. Contrary to industrial farmers, most plants are harvested by hand just before shipping to the restaurant.

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Reggea green house
The vibe in the greenhouse and warehouse is intriguing: some reggae music surrounds a beautiful wilderness of plants. Stefanie is packing all kinds of flowers for the next shipment, while Jasper is going through his harvest planning for this morning. A couple of meters away Dries is on the phone with a chef that asks if they can supply zucchini: “There’s no zucchini today, but I can offer you an alternative, this week we have a good cabbage”. Chefs trust Dries on his recommendations and are expected to be creative with the vegetables that are available at this very moment.

“There are only three types of real agriculture producing vegetables with the best possible taste” says Dries. “There’s people growing their own food in their garden, there’s the small urban farming demonstration projects in cities, and there’s the small scale farmers like us that give plants their time to grow in a natural way. All the rest is not to be called agriculture but is food industry: all consolidation, monoculture and big farms having no link with the terroir or with craftsmanship. I work with people that share this vision of growing food as a craft: my employees, my clients and my suppliers believe in this particular way of working.”

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A day at the farm
A typical day at the farm is full of variation: mornings are typically spent harvesting and preparing shipments, afternoons are used to sew or plant. In the course of the day plenty of people stop by: a neighboring farmer brings some products while a client comes pickup a shipment. It’s a sunny day so everyone eats outside in the courtyard: clients, suppliers, employees, whomever is there at lunchtime joins at the table.

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Even though work is non-automated and hard, farming is done with plenty of energy and commitment. The cabbage that was grown at this farm was picked up by a small truck and driven all the way from West-Flanders to Humus x Hortense in Brussels.

From the farm to the restaurant
Together with the Terroir team, Nicolas uses this cabbage to cook a 7 courses menu for the guests of the Terroir project. When arriving in the restaurant a couple of hours before the guests, Steven and Nicolas are busy discussing the menu and preparation. “Shall I put the small vase on the left or right side of every table?” Asks Steven to Nicolas. “It’s important that you put the vase on the left side, slightly over the middle so there is enough space for the bread plate”. Every detail is thought through at Humus & Hortense.

As from the morning, a maximum of preparation work is done before the guests arrive: sauce made, cabbage baked in the oven, bread made,… but even then there’s a certain tension in the air and it is growing by the hour.

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Challenging team work
This is the first time this exact team shares the kitchen to cook together, which naturally comes with a certain level of stress. But this is what makes the experience so unique, both for the personnel and the guests: going on a culinary adventure and trying something new. Nicolas’ wife rolls in with her folding bike shortly before the opening and joins the team to
serve the guests. While the restaurant is filling up with guests, a blogger asks some questions to Steven. The house photographer of Terroir is already taking his pictures of the first course and the kitchen. This project surely starts to get some media attention by addressing issues of food waste and bringing undervalued local products back under the attention. The restaurant is fully booked for the seven course menu based on cabbage.

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Even though the restaurant serves vegetarian food only, some guests come with a small operational question telling the chef they are vegan. A small panique in the eyes of the waiter is countered by the solid voice of the Chef: “We’ll indicate what’s vegan, but
there’s no time now to change the menu” . Everything is under control.

Bringing the stories around the food
First course, second course, third course,… Everything runs smoothly. Before every course is eaten, Nicolas and Steven give a short explanation on how the meal was prepared: “The cabbage has been baked in a salt bread crust for an hour, so that the cabbage itself remains crispy and fresh”. Fourth course, fifth course, sixth course and a desert… The pressure remains high. Plates are prepared on the central table in the restaurant. The waitresses and waiters run around to bring all dishes to all tables at the same time.
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Once the dinner is over and the coffee is served, the chefs start chatting with the guests in the restaurant. What started as a cabbage in the fields of West-Flanders was transformed in impressive food on the plates of Terroir.

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This article has been written for the Terroir project of Eatmosphere, based on a visit to the farm “Le Monde Des Milles Coulleurs” and participation at the Cabbage is Kool dinner at Humus x Hortense. Photography and text: Louis Lammertyn