Small is beautiful at Southern Fresh’s factory, near Cambridge.
Crates of hand-harvested baby leeks and baby fennel are waiting to be trimmed, graded, washed and packed on this Friday morning. The vegetables are newly arrived from the adjoining paddocks; they’re just little guys, perfectly formed, squeaky fresh and brightly green. The fennel is richly fragrant with anise.
After processing, the young leeks and fennel will join the company’s other baby vegetables on flights and road trips to Bidfresh depots around the country.
In the next day or so, they’ll show up in the kitchens of top restaurants and eateries where small vegetables are rated for their delicate flavour and good looks. They’ll be carefully roasted or steamed, pickled or chipped, glazed or candied, and stylishly laid out on plates with salmon, duck breast, scallops, pork belly and more.
Garth Dunn, Southern Fresh’s sales manager, says, “We’ve all got the same goal here. We want to be a trusted provider of distinctive, high quality outdoor vegetables – every time.”
Garth’s taking a mini-tour of the plant today, and he’s telling a family business story that started in 2000 when his uncle, Pat Dunn, a man who loves good food and was “always growing things”, saw a gap in the market for baby vegetables.
Pat had previously owned a flower nursery; he started in baby veggies with carrots and red beetroot, and the business sprouted as fast as some of his seedlings. Nowadays, Pat is the director of Southern Fresh Group, along with a tight-knit management team to run the operation. The company crops 200ha of fertile former dairy land at Bruntwood, near Cambridge, employing staff of different nationalities, and its processing factory can run 24/7.
Baby vegetable crops include carrots in four different colours, three styles of beetroot, plus baby turnips and the leeks and fennel. There is a petite veggie range (extra small) as well. This was almost a happy accident when vegetables that didn’t fit the baby specifications were developed for their own tiny charms.
The company also grows several different types of stylish salad greens and herbs. There is a mesclun mix, a new piccolo blend, baby spinach, baby cos, wild rocket, baby kale and more. Top of the herb range is basil, mint, coriander and Italian parsley, and Southern Fresh specialises in outdoor-grown herbs for food manufacturers.
Garth says food trends start with top chefs and filter down, and baby vegetables have captured a niche market.
Southern Fresh is constantly researching produce, looking for new ideas and ranges, like the gaily striped choggia beetroot added a few years ago and now very popular among chefs.