Short and squat but with tremendous flavour, Chantenay carrots used to be the carrot of choice in the UK until they fell out of favour after the Second World War. Martin Evans believes it’s time for a revival.
Thanks to childhood memories of growing Chantenays with his dad, Martin Evans, CEO of Freshgro is reintroducing us to this treat of a vegetable. He explains to Flavour what makes this particular carrot so special, what it means to grow them again, and how “flavour can’t be measured by a tape measure”.
How did you rediscover Chantenays?
Carrots fascinate me. I don’t know why. I was growing luxury vegetables like mange tout and thinking about carrots. A lot of people grow Chantenay carrots on their allotments and I remember growing them with my father as a boy – they were very common before the Second World War, but they’re difficult to grow on a large scale. I started looking at ways to diversify the carrot industry and got trying lots of different types. We needed something we could grow in fields and handle mechanically to keep the price down. Chantenays are more cylindrical in shape than ordinary carrots, and they can get as thick as 4cm or 5cm. We kept ruling them out and then coming back to them – even though they were a difficult size, we couldn’t rule out Chantenays because of their flavour. Eventually we started to look at ways we could work with their shape and grow them on a field scale.
What did you do to get around their different shape?
We threw away the textbook and started again! You have to grow them differently to ordinary carrots. The nutrition has to be right and they need a different regime of fertilizer. We used crop rotation and farming techniques to reduce carroty spot, which is a blight they’re prone to. We had to make our own drills and we’ve got special brushes to clean them with. We’ve done it through altering our farming techniques and being innovative and I’m very proud of that fact.
How did you persuade the supermarkets to take them?
Flavour can’t be measured by a tape measure. Retailers accepted that Chantenays are a ‘natural’ product. We farm it based on whether it looks right and ready rather than by referring to a piece of paper that says what size it should be. You need to be able to flex so that when the carrots are good with the season you can take them when they’re at their best. It’s a big barrier we’ve overcome, and now we’re free to work with the naturalness of the carrot. Consumers aren’t idiots – they understand that last year the crops were small because of the lack of sunshine. This year we had a normal summer so they’ll be normal size.
So what’s special about Chantenays?
We grow them because they’re the nicest tasting – we started from a kitchen perspective of what’s good, rather than a commercial perspective. Most vegetable breeders are concerned with disease resistance, maturity and yield. They’ve not grasped the greengrocering of vegetables. Somebody used to tell us what was nice and suggest we try it. Now it’s not surprising we’re not eating as much fruit and veg as we should. Our approach was to ask does it taste alright and is it easy for people to use. It’s done with passion.
Do we really need more carrots in our lives?
We know that people eat carrots with a roast dinner. People aren’t going to eat more roasts, but they are experimenting with eating food in different ways. So, for example, you can snack on our carrots. They’re healthy and accessible. If you undercook them they taste fine, and if you overcook them they’re still okay too – they don’t go to mush. We do the work for them in the field so that it’s not a chore for consumers at home.
Why do you think they’ve become popular again?
There are four reasons I think: The flavour, which we value above everything else; their convenience – people can open a bag and use them straight away, however they like; the shape, which makes them distinctive; and the name itself is lovely to say! Chantenays take the sunshine out of the summer and store it in their flavour for you to enjoy through the winter.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here