Hola TKP readers – big news from my corner of Spain – kale (and collards) are now available for purchase at Zagaleco, the local organic grocery in downtown’s Plaza Santo Domingo! How did this happen? Today’s post will bring you up to date, but first a quick recap for anyone new to the story.
I’m an expat American now living in Murcia’s huerta (literally a place with orchards, but we have lots of vegetables too) just outside of the capital city, and after a pathetic 2102 attempt to fight insects in some pots out front I “imported” Lacinto, Red Russian and Dutch Darkibor seeds that found a happy home in the huerto of a friend of a friend in Cehegin. That was spring 2013, and we celebrated the harvest with a special “comida of kale” at Salva and Marisen’s house, the details of which appear a few posts below this one.
Sixteen months and several lucky occurrences later, we have locally grown organic kale for sale, some of which is pictured above. Here’s how:
On return to NYC (I was still doing 6 months in each place) my friend Shelly sent an email announcing something called National Kale Day – she knew of my attempts to grow the vegetable in Spain and thought I might be interested. On perusing the website I came across Kristen’s bio, saw that she had successfully brought kale to Paris, and decided to get in touch. We met in a coffee shop in December and agreed that I would, at least in my little corner of Spain, try to get kale “noticed.”
In February 2014 I moved here “for real”, leaving an awful lot behind but bringing several packets of “farm pack” kale seeds in the hope that I would again find a willing farmer. It took about two seconds, and our growers turned out to be the parents of Salva and Marisen (see photo below) who have worked a “huerto” (personal garden) in Cehegin for many years. They showed me how to plant kale like a Ceheginero – scatter, rough up, water and wait – and a couple months later we had another harvest and another comida in Cehegin for friends and family. This time I tried more adventurous dishes: Kale with Quinoa and Goat Cheese and Kale with Beets and Orange. Risky for introducing a new vegetable, but it worked – everyone loved the taste combinations and especially the healthful properties of kale, which was a good thing because the plants yielded leaves all summer long and we needed lots of willing eaters.
Somewhere in the middle of that effort my husband forwarded an email from his university announcing a lottery for small plots of farmland as part of the school’s “eco-campus” efforts. I checked out the project website and deduced enough in my limited Spanish to find the name of the project director, Profesor JM Egea, a specialist in ecological agriculture. Marisen (she works at the uni too) kindly arranged a meeting which, happily and quite unbelievably, ended with Prof Egea agreeing to germinate seeds in July / August for a fall harvest.
I think it helped that I was able to forward a journal paper that reported the results of a study of more than 60 varieties of kale — and all the research took place right here in Spain, at the Mision Biologica de Galicia. Yup, it’s true. Spaniards study kale, and big agro even grows it for export to Europe, but outside of Galicia (where it is commonly known as Berza and frequently added to cocidos) the country is not in the custom of growing or eating kale. Hmm. But I get it. First, kale likes cooler weather and lots of Spain is hot, and second, small farmers work super hard and face a ton of risk. They aren’t going to be inclined to try something new that they don’t know about, that might not like the climate, and that might not have a market. It’s a delicate balance, and at the very least requires someone who knows a little something about (a) farming and (b) the vegetable to get the ball rolling.
Luckily Prof Egea seems to be that person, with a little bit of help from me, Salva and Marisen. He spread the word through a seminar, shared the “imported” farm pack seeds with several people, and poof: kale is now growing (ecologically) in Murcia and Bullas and of course again in Cehegin. Scarily, we had a near weather disaster – torrential early october rains ruined several farmers’ crops – but most of the kale survived and it seems we still have about 300 plants growing away.
How big are they now? Really big, which means it’s time for education and distribution, and – again luckily – we have a built-in distribution outlet. Prof. Egea’s son Jose is the owner/manager of Zagaleco, the local organic that I mentioned above, and he’s already got lots of product in the store. To assist I wrote up a three-page “Intro to Kale” for his website and clients, and also translated 5 recipes for any adventurous cooks. Jose has already sent the recipes around to his distribution list through Whatsapp, and last Friday I dropped by to demonstrate a raw kale salad. How fun!
We were lucky to have several clients in the store at the same time and everyone took great interest in how to treat the leaves, how to cook them, and which varieties were appropriate for which dishes (ensaladas, cocidos, salteados, etc). Best of all, three of the clients who tasted the salad bought big bunches of kale. I’ve always been on the “operational side” of any business so it is really nice to let someone else do the “work” this time around and just be able to cook and sell.
Next up we will go to Bullas to cook a kale dinner for the Profesor’s friends – check back in the next couple of weeks to see how we do! And if anyone else out there is trying to get kale noticed in Spain feel free to get in touch. Lessons learned so far? Explain that kale is part of the broccoli family, explain that it has better health properties, explain which leaves go best with which dishes, and demo, demo, demo!!