Big fish in small pool about sums up W.S. Bentley’s.
Its success is built on tiny crops for a market most of us are barely aware we are in – the little bag of garnish which gets thrown in with the vegetables.
Jan Bentley’s dad found the way into this niche with ‘salad cress’ – essentially the ‘mustard and cress’ schoolchildren still grow on blotting paper, as an introduction to the magic of seeds.
It has been gardened and gathered forever as the perfect pepper-upper for an egg sandwich or a salad. Now most of us pick it up from the supermarket.
Getting it there, in a pack which will keep it fresh for a couple of weeks, or still living in a punnet, designed so it will not get crushed at the bottom of a shopping trolley, has been Bentley’s speciality for half a century.
So it was ready to respond when chefs and their followers started adding to the list of little extras which a serious cook will have at hand as a matter of course.
Jan is the managing director. His dad, William M. Bentley, was a mechanical engineer who adapted and invented packing and planting machinery to help squeeze an income out of the five-acre family smallholding known as Cliffe Hill Nurseries at Gomersal, near Cleckheaton.
From 1956 he ran it as a market garden, named W.S. Bentley’s after his own father, supplying onions, beetroot, radishes, and so on to wholesalers.
But in the 1960s, he started responding to the needs of the fledgling supermarket sector and by 1968 he was growing nothing but salad cress. Bentley’s has been the sole supplier of cress to Morrisons since 1972 and also supplies Asda and Lidl.
The growing and packing of its tiny crops employs between 20 and 30 people – including casuals taken on for the salads season – to produce 10 million punnets of cress a year, from three harvests a week, plus some newer ranges.
Half of the original five acres is nowadays fallow because the growing is done in half an acre under glass, with ancillary buildings occupying another acre or so.
Mustard and cress, sometimes known as hot and cold, is a flexible definition, it turns out. The mustard family includes rape and the usual mix is of rape and ‘garden cress’ – a relative of watercress.
“In Holland it would be nearly 100 per cent cress – very spicy,” says Jan. “In this country in the 1970s it was nearly all rape. But over the past few years we have increased the percentage of cress from five per cent to 20 and the market is probably ready for another jump.”
Jan William Bentley knows a bit about Dutch tastes because his mother, Tineke, was part of the considerable Dutch injection into Yorkshire – although, as it happens, she knew nothing about horticulture until she married her English husband.
She took over the business when he died, in 1992, and ran it until Jan, now 38, came home from Lancaster University to work with her. She continues to work a day a week, on the accounts, and Jan’s wife, Nicola, helps out when she is not busy with their three young boys.
Jan’s degree, in environmental science, was a bit of a break from the specific needs of the business, although he says: “It does mean I can talk chemistry with the water people and biology with the seed suppliers.”
There were no books on the edible seedlings business to study. He learned it from his father and from trial and error since. There are always new seeds to try and balancing the artificial heat and light with the sun’s contribution is a never-ending lesson, he says.
It was a good move on the whole but it led them into the eye of a storm which battered the salads business a year ago. A number of strains of the stomach bug E. Coli are tested for as a matter of course but a rare one slipped through the net somewhere and caused a nasty outbreak of illness in Germany and France, for which sprouted seeds were blamed.
Jan has been involved in discussions feeding into a new set of European standards which are still in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, all he can say is that everything which can reasonably be done is already done if, like Bentley’s, you meet the requirements of the Red Tractor certification agency and the British Retail Consortium.
Customers seem to have recovered from the scare. But this year, it is hard to tell. The rotten summer has meant using the heaters to take humidity out of the indoor atmosphere but more importantly, it has depressed demand for salad ingredients.
Last year Bentley’s acquired and renovated an old glasshouse at Snaith, near Goole, to meet a growing list of orders for pea shoots – another salad ingredient and garnish which has quietly become a fixture in foodie kitchens. Jan is not much of a chef himself but a fifth of his business is supply to wholesalers and the catering trade and he listens when his contacts ask for something new.
The pea shoots were first of a new range of products he sums up as ‘microleaves’. We are talking about mini versions of celery, garlic, radish, coriander, parsley, and a dozen other standard herbs, which might be sprinkled on a piece of fish or meat or a salad for presentational purposes, plus a surprisingly strong hint of the flavour of the full-grown item.
The venture is still at the trial-and-error stage and the cress operation at Gomersal has been tightened up to make room for most of it, while Snaith concentrates on the pea shoots.
So far, most of the harvests go into the catering trade but Booths, Morrisons, the Co-op and Yorkshire Waitroses are stocking the pea-shoots and Booths and some farm shops, including Keelham Hall at Thornton, Bradford, and Fodder at Harrogate, sell some of the rest of the microleaves.
Heat, light, watering, nutrients and humidity, are all controlled by computer. But somebody has to programme the computer and that is Jan’s job. So is enforcing the strict rules on testing of all inputs – seeds, water, peat, fertiliser – and product washing and packing hygiene.
As in other food preparation centres, inspectors insist on paper towels for drying hands, by the way. The air driers which have replaced them in most public washrooms are a no-go, because they might blow bacteria into the atmosphere.
“It is all about systems,” says Jan. “We have hundreds of procedures which are all important. We do not need pesticides because we tackle the insect risk at source. All the kit stands away from the walls, for example, so there are no dirty corners for them to breed in.”