Usman is a Mauritanian organic vegetable farmer with an allotment in the Jarama valley – a beautiful bit of local countryside with clay, terracotta soil, which I know well because I find it in the nooks of my freshly picked purple carrots.
After spotting Usman’s A4 poster in the window of an okupa in Lavapiés, I’ve now been buying my vegetables from him for just over half a year, and have watched Madrid’s seasons change on my dinner plate – from purple lettuce and bright-yellow cherry tomatoes, to sweet squash and cabbage that actually tastes like cabbage.
FROM EARTH TO OKUPA
Every weekend, Usman heads out to his allotment right next to the Jarama river to tend to his vegetables. It’s hard work, but he’s making a living in a city where the odds of finding work are hugely stacked against him.
After Usman picks, cuts and digs up whatever’s ripe, his friend helps him bring back his weekly harvest to La Canica in Lavapiés, which is where his growing circle of customers and I pick up our 5 kg or 10 kg bags of mixed organic vegetables directly from Usman.
Perhaps you remember that this community space used to be a bank. The recent financial crisis forced it to close but it didn’t sit empty for long. The two-storey space was quickly opened up by members of the local community, who turned it into the anarchist neighbourhood space that it is today. Workshops, classes and local meetings are now held here, and it’s also where Usman sells his vegetables on Thursday evenings.
I look forward to every Thursday because it’s a little bit like Christmas day. I have no idea what I’m going to get this week: beetroot, squash, leeks or potatoes? Or red chard, purple carrots, cherry tomatoes and fresh oregano? It depends on what’s in season, of course, but also on whatever seeds Usman planted one year ago and how well they fared in this year’s weather.
What I love about not knowing is the way it challenges how I cook. Usman’s vegetables make for more adventurous meals and reconnect us with the seasons – something we’re increasingly losing thanks to year-round access to Mediterranean vegetables.
SPAIN’S DARK GARDENS
Many of us know that much of our supermarket vegetables are grown in Almería on the south coast of Spain, but what many of us don’t realise is that they were farmed by modern-day slaves, who fled their countries in hope of a better life.
A few years ago, on a trip around southern Spain, I took a bus through the city of greenhouses below. I saw a sea of white plastic tents that extended until the horizon dipped, and men living in slums made from wooden crates and old plastic sheets – the same sheets that cover the vegetables that they’re farming, which are the very vegetables sold in our supermarkets.
Like Usman, many of these men are fleeing a climate crisis in their home countries. Poverty, slavery and fighting are day-to-day life for many, so being trafficked from Africa to Spain becomes an optimistic adventure. Once here, they struggle to find work, and many are roped into modern-day slavery, which is hard to escape.
Fortunately, Usman isn’t one of these farmers, and his vegetables are not sold in supermarkets, nor were they grown around pesticides, nor will they be rejected if they don’t meet industry standards of shape, colour and weight.
THIS IS WHAT VEGETABLES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE
Usman’s vegetables are organic, pesticide-free and chemical-free . They vary in shape, size and colour and, as my Dad always told me when cooking:
You don’t taste the shape, you taste the ingredients.
Usman’s vegetables are delicious: the tomatoes and carrots are like candy, and the pumpkins caramelise perfectly when roasted.
Watch this wonderful short video about Usman, his farm and his farm cat, Simba:
HOW IT ALL WORKS
Usman sells his bags of freshly picked mixed vegetables in either 5 kg (€12) or 10 kg (€24) bags. Send him an email to place an order, then he’ll tell you everything you need to know about where and how to collect and pay for your vegetables.
Usman will give you a heavy-duty bag for you to take them home in, but don’t throw it away: bring it back for the next time!
You can also collect your vegetables from Usman at various other places and times of the day or week – just arrange it with him. And you can visit him and his cat Simba at their sunny farm if you like – he’s there every weekend.