Turnover, new leaves

Cuts the mustard ... Tony Mann nurtures rare herbs at Petite Bouche in Ingleside.
Cuts the mustard ... Tony Mann nurtures rare herbs at Petite Bouche in Ingleside.

To everything there is a season. When June Henman sold the Salad Farm in 2010, her abundant crop of leaves entered its winter. It had been a thriving supplier of rare and decorative leaf varieties to some of the best restaurants in Sydney, but under the new owners, the property fell into disrepair. The plants died.

Then, in September last year, Tony Mann, a Flemington Markets salad agent, bought the Ingleside farm, near Mona Vale, and renamed it Petite Bouche. Now, in spring, a lush carpet of herbs thrives beneath the greenhouse canopy, Henman has come back as an adviser and chefs are once more clamouring for produce.

''I wanted to create something different,'' Mann says. ''A lot of the chefs are going to the market now a lot more than they used to. It's about producing something new.''

Petite Bouche is a dedicated herb farm, with exotic seeds imported from around the world. Many of them are not grown anywhere else in Australia, and they are treated delicately, grown hydroponically using recycled rainwater and harvested with hairdresser scissors. Wandering down the rows on a sunny morning, Mann and Henman fall upon each of their treasures with naked pleasure.

''This is my baby,'' Mann says, pointing to an ice plant, which is named for the illusion of frost on its succulent leaves. ''We didn't know if we could do it, we didn't know if it would germinate. We put some samples into the market and the chefs are like, 'Oh my god, this is something else.'''

Stridolo, also known as ''the forager's herb'', is a wild Italian herb with a flavour as meaty as mushrooms. ''It's just completely alien, isn't it?'' Mann says.

Land seaweed, or okahijiki, grows in Japanese marshlands and looks like skinny worms. The texture is crunchy.

Borage - ''the herb of gladness'' - dates from the 1400s and was used to flavour ales. Henman likens the flavour to oysters.

Mustard plants grow in England and France, and to eat them is to experience the odd sensation of munching a table condiment. ''There are just so many different types of mustard, and we're the only ones doing it,'' Mann says.

The prize for the herb least likely goes to the sweet cicely, known more exotically as myrrh, which grows wild in England. With growing conditions at odds to its natural environment, Mann and Henman had no idea whether it would germinate on Sydney's northern beaches, but they decided to try.

Their success rate for germinating untried herbs is about 70 per cent, but they start with low expectations. ''We kind of, like, don't expect it to happen,'' Mann says. ''It's very much pot luck.''

Once the sweet cicely seeds arrived, Mann and Henmann planted them in soil and put them in a freezer set at minus 6 degrees. After a few weeks, they brought the temperature up to zero , then plunged it back to minus 6, then finally brought it up to 4 degrees.

To their surprise, the seeds started to shoot. ''When we saw the sweet cicely come up, we were blown away,'' Mann says.

O Bar and Dining (formerly the Summit), Est, Quay and Oscillate Wildly are among the restaurants that use herbs from Petite Bouche.

While most of his customers are providores, Mann has noticed more chefs at the markets and buying direct, possibly as a result of difficult economic conditions.

He alerts them to the latest produce via Twitter. A recent post reads: ''Chinese flowering greens, tiny yellow flowers, sweet choy sum flavour, available at the market tomorrow.''

Mann and Henman bring complementary skill sets to the business. Henman is the green thumb. She reads seed catalogues like novels and is emotionally invested in the farm. When she saw its state of disrepair before Mann bought it, she nearly cried.

When the sweet cicely germinated, they cracked open the chardonnay. Mann is a former chef, and spends months putting together salad mixes.

The owner and chef of O Bar and Dining, Michael Moore, is often asked where he sources his herbs, particularly after using them on television shows.

Petite Bouche has been a boon to chefs looking for unique herbs of a consistently good quality, he says.

''They're gorgeous, they look fantastic and it really adds to that element of freshness.''

This story Turnover, new leaves first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.