A field of greens

The idea of a waiting list for lettuce may seem absurd.

But, after one taste of Patrick Panton’s crisp, delicious baby greens, it is easy to understand why this unassuming vegetable has suddenly become one of the most in-demand foods on island.

As a regular vendor at Camana Bay’s Weekly Farmer’s Market, Patrick has gained a reputation for his incredible lettuce blends, featuring such exotic flavours as arugula, Chinese cabbage, and mustard greens.

Although Patrick seems amused by his newfound status as the Lettuce Man, the growing popularity of his produce is a serious matter.

“A demand has developed for our lettuce,” explains Patrick, the owner of East End Gardens and Gifts.

“We have a list of people who want our lettuce, and often they turn up to the market and say ‘You have my lettuce?’. They already own it before they’ve purchased it. There is such devotion.”

Patrick has single-handedly elevated lettuce from a humble ingredient to a taste sensation. Every leaf is picked fresh on the morning of the market, and often the blend incorporates up to 25 different greens to create a distinct flavour and texture.

Patrick believes the popularity of his lettuce lies in its taste and quality, which is unlike any other lettuce in Cayman. Indeed, many customers, used to the somewhat bland lettuce typically available on island, have had to acclimate to the robust flavours.

“We don’t want to tinker with success, but we have had some people who think our blend is too spicy and too powerful,” says Patrick.

“They’ve been brought up on iceberg lettuce, so all of a sudden, lettuce has flavour. But people from England are remembering those flavours, because they know what arugula tastes like straight from the garden. Joel Walton [owner of Plantation House Organic Gardens] once called my arugula ‘Scotch Bonnet rocket’ because of the flavour.

“My baby greens last for two weeks,” he continues. “I often push them to the back of the fridge and I can pull them out two weeks later and they’re still fantastic.

To appease his customers’ wide range of palettes, Patrick has created a milder blend of greens that does not compromise on taste. An avid salad lover, he recognises the importance of fresh, crispy lettuce, whether in a salad, on a sandwich, or in cooking.

Patrick’s arrival on Cayman’s burgeoning produce scene was a happy coincidence that opened a new avenue for the trained ornamental horticulturist. Patrick initially began selling plants at Market at the Grounds in Lower Valley in 2009, but within a few weeks, he noticed business had dwindled as most customers flocked to the fresh produce stands.

It was clear that Patrick had to change direction. Yet, rather than emulate the same range of produce available at other stalls, he decided to focus his efforts on a niche in the market, by growing and selling Asian greens, beans and eggplants.

“Fresh produce is such a draw in Cayman, but people already had their favourite sellers, who they were going to every week,” Patrick says. “I knew I needed something different. So I decided to focus on baby greens.”

Aided by his colleague, Azon Sabile, who spent more than 10 years in Bermuda working on an organic farm, Patrick began cultivating baby greens, including mustard greens, baby romaine, baby mizuna, and arugula, on his 10 and a half acre property in Bodden Town.

“In Cayman, you can’t grow a head of lettuce because the climate is too warm and the head just welts,” explains Patrick, who admits that growing produce was an unfamiliar concept for him.

“Mustard greens and arugula grow really well here all year.”

Patrick’s baby greens are organically grown, and he would rather lose a crop than use chemicals to combat pests. This holistic approach is appreciated by his customers. It is a rare day when he does not sell out of produce, and any surplus is often sold to chefs at local restaurants, including Thomas Tennant from Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink.

For his part, Patrick says it is a pleasure to be able to provide his customers with a product they know is fresh, nutritious and full of flavour.

“We often say that we are proud of the holes in our lettuce,” he admits with a smile. “It is a pleasure to bring our lettuce to the public. I love seeing a customer’s smile, the vigour they have for the lettuce. I really appreciate it.”

That is lettuce worth waiting for.


Stephen Clarke