Life

Organic grower Alicia sets out her exotic stall

A lucky lift meant Polish hitch-hiker Alicia Breslan pitched her tent permanently in Northern Ireland where, as well as being a stall holder at Belfast's markets, she grows organic goodies and produces her own preserves. Roisin Armstrong is impressed

Alicia Breslan and her husband grow vegetables – including what are for Irish people exotic varieties – on their organic farm near Dungannon

I LOVE to meet inspirational people, so I was really happy recently to have the opportunity to chat with Alicia Breslan, a stall holder in St George's market, Belfast.

Originally from Poland, Alicia has been resident here since 1998. She first came here on a hitch-hiking holiday and met her husband when he gave her a lift. How providential for both.

Having returned to Poland to complete her studies as an environmental scientist and engineer, Alicia came back to marry and set up home on her husband's organic farm close to Peatland's Park and the Blackwater River, Dungannon.

On the farm the couple and their young son produce a very wide range of quality vegetables to service the ever-expanding demand for exotic and unusual selections sought by our increasing number of foreign nationals.

As well as growing regular root vegetables and brassicas, they offer: several radish types, including black radish and horseradish; gherkins; a wide variety of squash and pumpkins, including patty pans; physalias, also known as Inca berries or Cape Gooseberries, often used here as a very pretty garnish; yellow and purple beans, and edible flowers.

Her salad leaves include perpetual spinach, Japanese mizuna, Amaranth leaves and sage flowers. They also grow some interesting herbs like chocolate mint and pineapple sage, and exotic fruit including Kiwano, or horned melon, which I'd never heard of. Described as an annual vine from the cucumber and melon family, native to southern and central Africa, it is said to taste like a combination of banana, melon, cucumber and lime. Sounds like a complete fruit salad in one fruit!

Another exotic food they produce is the tomatillo. Known as the Mexican husk tomato, it's a plant of the nightshade family, a small, spherical green-purple fruit about the size of a cherry tomato. The inside is white and meatier than a tomato. They grow inside a husk which needs to be removed before use. It is often called “tomate verde” in Mexico where it is a staple food.

Alicia decided to grow this for the many Mexicans living here and of course for the increasing number of Mexican restaurants. The company also supply their produce to other restaurants and delis including Devine's and Ventnor's in Belfast.

Alicia imports many of the seeds they use directly from Poland, mostly because artificial fertilisers are rarely used there, which she finds works better with their organic approach – the seeds just seem to be more successful. On their farm they use natural fertilisers like potash, kelp and other seaweeds, natural lime and boron. They use neem as an antidote to aphids and she ferments her own comfrey as a fertilizer.

As well as growing such a wide range of fruit and vegetables, Alicia is a keen forager and makes a fantastic selection of jams and preserves. She uses xylitol, a natural sweetener extracted from birch trees, to produce some of her fabulous preserves. These can be safely consumed by diabetics. Her collection includes dandelion syrup, jasmine and orange syrup, elderberry syrup while her jams currently include Irish strawberry with wild rose petals and French apricot with Mirabel plum – but since their products are all seasonal obviously these will change.

I love Alicia's basic premise for what she does – she says: “I love to eat and I hate waste”. Girl after my own heart. She practises what she preaches and is the absolute picture of health.

Alicia produces quite a rage of fermented foods, including pickles, kombucha, a fizzy fermented drink made from tea, and sauerkraut. In Poland, she explained, fermented foods such as sauerkraut are an everyday food, whereas here, as we learn more about the health benefits of such food, they are now becoming increasingly popular.

Probiotics are a common buzz word, with many people taking tablets or increasing their use of yoghurt. We should be widening our scope of such beneficial foods. Most commonly used, aside from those Alicia sells, are miso, a paste often made from soybeans but other grains are used too. My own preference is brown rice miso.

Tempeh is a fermented soybean that is a complete protein, similar to tofu and, finally, kimchi which is a Korean fermented cabbage. Sauerkraut is usually made with white cabbage, although Alicia mixes hers up a little with the use of some grated carrots.

She makes her own pickles including her own home-grown gherkins, with just the right amount of dill – delicious. She makes these fermented foods as she is really encouraged by the growing move back to slow foods, raw milk, and unrefined foods like grains, milk and honey.

The family's brand name is Amberline and is describe as “speciality preserves and gourmet eco farm produce”.

Alicia has a stall is in Saturday's market in St George's and in Folktown Market, a farmer's and artisan producers' market, every Thursday from 12pm beside Kelly's Cellars bar, also in Belfast. You can contact her directly on 0793 5915 000, or email alicia.amberline@yahoo.com.

r.armstrong@irishnews.com

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