Ever heard of leek blooms? Fleabane? Electric daisy? Let alone tasted such weird and wonderful things! Well, not to worry! In fact most people just doing their shopping in the supermarket or even at organic shops don’t even know the half of the rich variety of types of plants Nature has to offer. That goes for us too. We think it’s a great shame because the hidden natural flavours of wild plants are so intense but delicate. Suddenly everything you’ve tasted before seems artificial and rather dull. There are thousands of different plants and vegetables and their flowers in the world, each with delightful aromas, flavours and colours. More than enough reason to send this joyful message to the world. At Le Monde des Mille Couleurs – they couldn’t have come up with a better name! – we got the chance to discover all these plants growing and see them blossom.
The man behind this unusual project is Dries Delanote. He’s succeeded in getting his flower and vegetable garden to blossom into a true organic farm. Dries is like Alice in Wonderfarm in the way he wants to give nature her freedom. The result is quality, evolution and an enormous amount of biodiversity.
We went along with Ann Van Steenkiste of Curiosithee to visit Dries to find out more about his vision and approach. We also wanted to hear his plans for the future. Before we were let loose in the garden, meadow and the greenhouse we all sat round a table on the grass to get to know each other. Mathieu was there too, from Paris. He’s a chef and now works with Dries. Some delicious organic juices and a slice of meringue with fresh raspberries and rose petals immediately created a homely relaxed atmosphere and the chat flowed easily. And thanks to Ann and her daughter for the lovely freshly baked treat! You’ll find the recipe here.
Hungry for More: How lovely! It’s a hidden Garden of Eden! How on earth did you get started?
Dries Delanote: Well, I’m from a farming family myself, near Ypres. So I’ve been involved with agriculture all my life, really. But I must say I realized very early on that I had a rather less than conventional approach! I began in a small way with an allotment when I was still working as a teacher, and I let nature have its own way there. The whole idea was that human intervention was supposed to stimulate nature to blossom and reveal itself in all its diversity. People today only know ‘products’. They’ve separated what they eat from where it comes from, in nature. But people are part of nature too. This voyage of discovery is like my little private war!
Hungry for More: To be honest, at first sight this garden looks a bit overgrown…?
Dries: (with a smile) I often hear that sort of remark! But you know it’s perfectly normal, because nature always does its best to get plants growing. Mother nature never wants to be naked, which means that at the right place at the right time the right plant will grow. Here, the different varieties all grow mixed up with each other, and that’s just what makes our plants and soil stronger and healthier.
All the same it isn’t actually a wilderness; we’ve got a definite breeding programme. That doesn’t mean we’re afraid of losing control, we don’t want to manage every phase of growth. Quite the opposite! We’re quite happy to leave room for manoeuvre. Every plant has enough intelligence and wants to reproduce itself and we’re absolutely delighted to give them the space to do so. That’s how plants get a nice life – more lives in fact! For example, to begin with you might plant cabbage or leek, but then you get flowers that are edible. And we’ve noticed that certain areas of undergrowth evolve over the years. So sometimes you end up harvesting some by-product instead of what you really planted. That’s because something comes up from the year before, or even a cross-breed. If you weren’t open to that sort of thing you’d be shutting your eyes to such a lot of different plants, all beautiful and delicious, as well as seed-stock and herbs. You hadn’t been expecting to see them but they’re at least as lovely as what you’d had in mind originally. We work with the plants; We work – they work.
Hungry for More: So you work completely organically, without any pesticides at all?
Dries: Correct! Actually it’s just pure logic. You’ve already mentioned flavour, quality, and healthiness. That’s actually just a few of the arguments in favour, because there are a lot more, things like sustainability, for example; and the question of ethics. And let the plant be itself; even if they have a struggle. We don’t want “nice little garden plants” here.
Ann Van Steenkiste: think what Dries and Mathieu are doing here is marvellous! We must all keep trying hard to make as many people as possible aware of all this. I think Michael Pollan wrote about the same thing beautifully in In Defence of Food, where he warns of the importance of natural foods. Straight from the field and full of nourishment, instead of the “fake food” we so often get shoved onto our plates. It’s crazy that so often after a meal we feel exhausted and listless, when we ought to feel full of energy.
Mathieu: Why do so many people see an organic philosophy as a sort of anarchism? When in fact it’s good for people and the planet? Some people look surprised when we tell them about our decision to both live and work more in harmony with nature. Actually it ought to be the other way round. When you buy from the supermarket, the standard thing ought to be that it’s organic. It should have a label on it if it’s not! That sounds a bit extreme, but that’s because we’re not used to it. But actually, that’s what’s normal.
Ann: It’s time we got to grips with the idea that you don’t have to eat strawberries and cucumbers all year round. We ought to have as much seasonal organic produce , fresh and full of flavour. It’s just such a pity that it seems everything has to be available all the time. Especially if you know unnatural techniques are involved like aquaculture, or growing herbs under artificial light. And then there’s the constant supply of produce from countries in the south of the world. That often leads to pollution and abuse.
Hungry for More: It must require a completely different approach to be able to work like this?
Dries: Well of course, it needs a lot of commitment to work fully organically. Definitely in a system where there’s so much pressure on prices. If they only think about it, farmers and distributors are already seeing their margins being reduced. Here at Le Monde des Mille Couleurs we work every day of the week, in effect. At least we do a lot of “healthy food-miles” in the fields! You see, we might have to pick six cabbages in one place and twenty tomatoes somewhere else. And we can always find plenty of wild herbs and flowers right ready for picking – all over the place. Then the next day we have a good look at everything and start again. We work by instinct really, that’s how we do it. It’s a bit like how a wild animal manages to find the best food every day. And that’s why we’d rather invest in people than machines. We don’t want to automate things. Natural farming’s a people project, not a robot’s job.
Hungry for More: But I can see plastic in the pasture? What do you need that for?
Dries: Yes, well; we’d like to move away from using plastic, but at the moment there are two reasons why we need it in a few small areas. Firstly, it helps with the picking, because the bushes are covered so there’s less mud and dirt. That’s good because it means the produce doesn’t have to be washed before it’s delivered. If you wash stuff it affects the quality, you lose flavour, and it costs energy. The second thing is that there’s competition from wild plants. You run the risk that they might take over the whole allotment. Maybe that sounds a bit contradictory because it’s precisely those plants that we find absolutely priceless. In the meantime we’re working hard to find alternatives to plastic. So in the future we are going to work more with compost or straw to replace the plastic. It’s all about looking for the mulch (a layer of vegetable matter covering the soil; Ed.) that makes for the most powerful bedding soil. Or producing it ourselves. It’s very costly stuff. So, (with a laugh!) there are enough challenges for us here at Le Monde des Mille Couleurs.
Hungry for More: How do you get your goodies to your customers? Who are they, and why do they buy from you?
Dries: We’ve made a conscious decision to bring our products to market ourselves. Of course we work with people in the transport and distribution sectors too. Because at that level too you’re working on a “people project”. It’s important that everyone in the chain on the way to the end consumer sees the whole picture and understands that it’s more than merchandising. Markets and veg-boxes aren’t really part of the scene here we haven’t started with them yet. It’s mostly chefs who come here. Their sense of mission drives them – and us – to look for the best, purest and tastiest things. And they find them here at Le Monde des Mille Couleurs. Incidentally, the chefs are very good about sharing their knowledge and what they discover here with their customers. It’s a valuable and quite traditional energy-cycle; Mother Earth to Humankind.
Hungry for More: How’s the future looking?
Dries: Seeing that we started this farm here from scratch, we’ve got to keep working and improving to find a good balance. But we never get tired of it because there’s still so much to discover. We’re continually evolving and trying to grow food on soil that’s as natural as possible. Next year we’re going to experiment more with trees and shrubs, leaves, flowers and fruits. And we’ll be happy to look beyond the usual edible varieties.
And we want to stay focused on working with people. By that I mean not just the hands that do the manual work but people who are involved in the project in other ways. I mean, I think it’s great so many people can find out about new varieties from the chefs who come here to get produce. Even for me, every day’s a new discovery. I hope our customers will continue to believe in this project. You know, we’re working hard on the process, not just the produce. And we want to spread the word as much as we can. I really hope more and more people will be able to hear about Mille Couleurs in restaurants and that we can do something even nicer with this project.
On a bigger scale it would be a step forward if we could replace various small pieces of land with small organic plots like this one. People are looking for authentic, equitable land use. Fresh produce, straight from the field onto the plate. Step by step we can work together to make this happen. Let’s invest in this small dot of Flanders and make a lively ecological oasis of it. We can be a wonderful example here for the future of the rest of the world.