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Harvest: UK's most innovative crops

Chillies; cherries; apricots; truffles; harvester

Britain's harvest is being brought in from the fields, but as well as familiar crops like potatoes, peas and onions, many growers are experimenting with new or exotic products including devil's onions, peaches and the elusive truffle.

Wild truffle hunting is a passion and a pleasure for Marion Dean.

She harvests summer truffles for private land owners in Hampshire where the combination of perfect chalky well-drained soils, woodlands and dappled light allow the fungi to flourish - usually close to tree roots.

"The last professional truffle hunter retired in the 1930s, and truffles had just about dropped right out of our culture."

"While Italy and France are both known for the expensive, luxury commodities, British truffles have fallen somewhat off the menu," she says.

France has seen cultivation of the black Perigord truflle, while experts in Italy have sites cultivating the exclusive white truffle.

Marion Dean and other enthusiasts are attempting to bring the cultivation of truffles to England - but planting a tree impregnated with truffles is no guarantee of success.

Black truffles Growers hope to cultivate truffles in the UK

The crop is notoriously difficult to grow which is why it is rare and carries a premium price.

She is experimenting with 650 trees, planted in a secret location.

"There are a lot of orchards planted in England and most people are highly secretive about them."

"My orchard is only three years old - it could be five, ten, 15 years before I see a truffle - if I ever see one," she says.

"I have no doubt many of the truffle orchards planted will fail. I am just praying mine won't be one of them."

Ever since man first adapted from hunting to farming more than 10,000 years ago, we have been refining and improving crops and how they are grown.

Climate, soil and topography all play a part in what's produced where. Take English cherries. Why do they do so well in the south east, in counties such as Kent? Because the summer fruits avoid the heavy rainfall that occurs in other regions.

James Martin's UK Food Map:

James Martin's Food Map

See where your favourites come from

Chef James Martin explains where our favourite foods are grown in his Food Map of Britain. "Most of the UK's wet weather is brought in from the Atlantic on our prevailing westerly winds. But by the time that the wind has brought rain to Wales, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and so on, there's little left in the air to drop onto the south east."

But many British producers are keen to take advantage of our evolving tastes and food knowledge to experiment with new crops.

Over the last 20 years, chillies have taken off. A dazzling array from all around the world are now produced: from the mild Hungarian hot wax, to Mexican poblano and the super-hot Dorset naga, dubbed "Britain's hottest".

Quinoa is an imported grain originally from the Andes. But plant science PhD student Stephen Jones is working in Shropshire to be the first producer of British quinoa for human consumption.

Find out more:

Watch Harvest on BBC Two on 11, 12 and 13 September at 20:00

Watch James Martin's Food Map of Britain on BBC Two on 16-27 September at 18:30

Feast your ears on farming issues on Farming Today on Radio 4 weekdays at 05:45

Hear more on Otter Farm on R4's Food Programme on iPlayer

Fava beans are a small broad bean, currently grown in Britain for feed and crop rotation but they were a staple for around 2,000 years, mainly as the key ingredient in pottage, explains Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedod.

"We realised that there was absolutely nothing wrong with them, it was simply a kind of a cultural quirk that meant that we'd stopped eating them, and stopped seeing them as a useful food stuff," he says.

His firm is also looking at "black badgers" or maple peas.

"With a lot of these peas and beans that we've sort of forgotten about, they're still quite important parts of national cuisines in other parts of the world, like Sudan and Egypt, and Middle East."

From field to fork

Spiced cauliflower

Make a delicious side-dish of spiced cauliflower

Compliment sea bass with herby quinoa salad

Go posh with truffle shavings on eggs

Add saffron to sizzling lamb tikka kebabs

Another bean attracting interest is the navy or haricot bean, more commonly known as the "baked bean". It is not really suited at present to grow in the UK so scientists at the University of Warwick are looking at its DNA to see how it could be adapted.

Alternative crops

"Some years ago everyone was talking about "novel crops," says agricultural botany consultant Dr Sally Francis, who also grows saffron.

"Several of them had once been quite important crops that were abandoned here for various reasons, then re-established, but others are truly new to the UK."

"Alternative crops" as she prefers to call them include hemp, spelt, wasabi, echium (an oilseed crop), artemisia (an anti-malarial medicinal plant), soya, apricots, sea buckthorn, grape vines, corn gromwell (for seed-oil), and woad (for textiles dyeing).

"Lentils and chickpeas were trialled a few years back, but are not commercially grown. I'm guessing there's been a lot of innovation amongst vegetable growers too to satisfy demand for novelty," she explains.

Lincolnshire farmer, Andrew Burgess travels all around the world trying to find new ideas for crops to grow.

Farmers like Andrew Burgess have fields dedicated to trialling new vegetables

He helped re-popularise the neglected Chantenay carrot. He also has some real innovations including an as-yet-unnamed cross between a lettuce and a cabbage - which slices and shaves like iceberg and has a... peppery taste".

He also grows "devil's onion", a cross between an onion and a leek, orange cauliflowers, and purple kohlrabis.

Harvest time in the UK

  • Around 481,000 people worked on farms in 2012
  • Fruit and vegetables produced in the country were valued at almost £1.8 bn last year
  • Peas harvested dry have shown a large decrease in recent years. This is largely due to their replacement with crops such as cereals and oilseed rape, which bring a higher value return
  • The number of potato growers has shrunk in recent decades. In 1973 225,000 hectares were used to grow the crop, compared to 149,000 in 2012
  • 50% of "croppable" area is occupied by cereal crops in UK. Wheat is the main one of these, occupying an area of 2 million hectares in 2012

Source: Defra

"European plant breeders breed for yield, quality, disease resistance, and shelf life," he explains on BBC Two's Harvest, "but the Japanese and Asian market really revolves around flavour and eating sensations."

He has an experimentation field where he plants a small plot of a new variety, then scales it up to a bigger trial, "then a bigger commercial area if it takes off".

With a success rate of three out of 100, he spends £100,000 on research and development a year, which he says is small fry compared to big plant breeding firms, which can spend hundreds of millions.

"Alternative crops don't appeal to everyone as there's often a high risk element in growing them," says Dr Francis

But unusual produce is "worth a gamble" according to Mark Diacono, whose Otter Farm in Devon is also known as "the climate change farm".

"Almonds are doing really well. Peaches and apricots are doing fine," he says. His experiments with olives however, have proven more challenging. "Olives are tricky... I think you need a really good site."

He also grows dwarf kiwis, sweet cicely, pecans, quince and sichuan pepper.

"I didn't think there was any point in growing anything perfectly ordinary," he tells BBC Food.

In the future he expects British-grown grapes to do well: "I think that there are other varieties of grape for wine that we'll see being grown here increasingly, as our skill levels have increased."

Wheat timeline

Wheat timeline

Discover how has wheat evolved over 12,000 years

Huggit's Farm on the Isle of Oxney in Kent is also growing olives - planting Italian varieties of olives in the hope that changing weather patterns may see the area's climate become more like Italy.

"Going against prevailing wisdom... our ambition is to one day produce British Extra Virgin Olive Oil." a spokesperson says.

While some growers are looking at long term climate trends, most are focussed on more immediate weather patterns.

"Climate change is not expressed in a straight line," says Andrew Burgess. "We are seeing extreme weather conditions. Last summer was cold, wet and miserable and crops had to grow in that, and the year before was a drought.

"To enable plants to keep growing in those conditions - we are broadening the area and variety of soils, varying the conditions as much as possible to ensure they are hardier."

As Josiah Meldrum says: "All in all it (crop diversity) helps create more sustainable farm systems, which can only be a good thing."

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