Sharing the seeds of Britain’s cooking cultures

A Dorset-based entrepreneur is tantalising the nation’s taste buds with an offering of ‘British ethnic’ seeds inspired by immigrant cooking recipes, picked up from his travels around Britain

Cooking and growing traditional foods are two of the most vital ways an immigrant community can maintain their links with ‘home’. Someone who understands this better than most is Michael Michaud, who describes himself as “a domestic plant hunter and culinary ethnobotanist.”

A French-Lebanese American who has lived in the UK since 1989, when he first arrived in England he started a market garden with his wife Joy, who, like him, has a PhD in Agriculture.

In 1994 they created Peppers by Post, the first company in the UK to grow and sell fresh chilli peppers by mail order. And in 2006 they hit the headlines when a new chilli they had developed, the Dorset Naga, was recognised as one of the hottest chillies in the world.

For the last five years they have also run Sea Spring Seeds, which currently offers 50 different varieties of chilli pepper seed and many other vegetables. Everything is developed – trialled, tested, and tasted – on their smallholding in West Dorset.

This year, growing out of Michael’s research and interest in the way British immigrant communities grow and cook their native vegetables and herbs, they launched a range of seeds called British Ethnic.

“People don’t think of the countryside as being multi-ethnic,” says Michael, “But every small town has its Indian and Chinese restaurant. I spend a lot of time travelling around the country talking to people and going round their allotments. We work with Bangladeshis, Italians, Japanese, Thais, Africans. There is a lot of camaraderie. We share values about food. And we share seeds.”

“People don’t think of the countryside as being multi-ethnic, but every small town has its Indian and Chinese restaurant”

Raj Koomar, a retired engineer from Guyana who has lived in the UK for 53 years, grows all the usual British vegetables on his allotment in London. He also grows 10 different varieties of chilli, many of them from the Michauds, including Weri Weri, a hot pepper from his native country. “Whenever the Michauds produce something new I try to grow it,” he says. “The tropical plants need a greenhouse, but apart from that, they grow here very well.”

Recently, Raj’s sister-in-law, who lives in Canada, was given the seed of a chilli called Rugosa Scorpion by a friend who had brought the seed back from Trinidad. She sent the seed to Raj and he gave it to Michael, who is trialling the chilli in Dorset at the moment.

The famous Dorset Naga was also developed in this way. The original seed stock was discovered in an oriental food store in Bournemouth. Joy and Michael took the seed – a variety called the Naga Morich from Bangladesh – and, over several years, developed the distinctive shape, size and colour that became their own version of the chilli. This was eventually certified as a new species by the Community Plant Variety Office of the EU. And now it is even listed in the Collins Dictionary.

Helen Harmattie, who has run the Taj Mahal restaurant in Bridport for 30 years, also looks out for seeds whenever she is travelling. She brought back the seed for a chilli called Fire from a holiday in Surinam. It is now in the Michaud’s catalogue.

She also uses all the British Ethnic range in her cooking, “We used the Dorset Naga to create a very popular and very hot curry for the restaurant called The Dorset Blast. I use this chilli when it is ripe and red for curry. But we love to eat it raw, green and unripe at home with family and friends,” she said. For her, the great advantage of having such exotics grown locally is not only that they are so fresh, but that she can choose exactly at which stage of ripeness to have them picked.

The British Ethnic range of seeds currently includes Calalloo, a caribbean spinach; Poi Saag, a variety of tropical green popular in Asian, Chinese and Thai cooking; Kerala, a bitter melon resembling a cucumber, which is loved by the Bangladeshis and good for diabetics; and an aromatic herb, Kasuri Metti, a close relative of fenugreek. Many more are in the pipeline.

These days, Joy and Michael travel to food fairs all over the country. They regularly attend Asian festivals, or ‘melas’. Michael writes and gives talks on ‘The Immigrant Allotment’. They judge curry-making competitions and host tutored chilli tastings. They continue to produce thousands of Dorset Naga seeds every year and in 2013 have added 23 new general varieties of plant to their catalogue.

As plant hunters and breeders, they are always on the look-out for new and exceptional varieties. As Joy says, “It’s all about producing good real food. But, above all, food which really means something to the people who grow, cook or eat it.”