Chefs and farmers are forging new relationships – and it’s a win-win for diners, says Richard McComb.
It may not be the best way in the world to make money.
In fact, Daren Bale calls it a “good way of watching fresh air go by”.
But the country house chef wouldn’t have it any other way. When he’s got a couple of hours to spare, Daren escapes the heat of the kitchen for a quiet wooded Worcestershire valley where he works wonders with the fruits of a herd of British Toggenburg goats.
Daren, head chef at The Elms, Abberley, may well be unique in his profession, making his very own cheese for the hotel’s two restaurants. Delicatus is a hard goats cheese, reminiscent of Parmesan, and is served on Daren’s cheese boards or on salads.
He makes Delicatus a short drive away at St Michael’s Farm, Great Witley, turning out three truckles each week during the summer. Daren is a great advocate of supporting local producers and believes in leading by example. “It is not a money-making scheme. It is the ethos of the thing that attracts me,” says the chef.
He is among of growing band of professionals who are keen to revive the traditional links between the farm and the kitchen, promoting local economies and giving diners what they want: fresh, seasonal food with full traceability and provenance.
The issue was highlighted in a recent report, The Nature of Food, by Natural England, the government’s environment adviser, backed by cook and healthy food campaigner Prue Leith.
It was also coming under the microscope this week at the Soil Association’s annual conference in Birmingham.
Among the topics being addressed at the two-day event are food security and the need to develop new food and farming systems for the 21st century.
The political and practical demands of sustainable food production have a tendency to be portrayed in Armageddon-type terms but the lessons to be learned from The Nature of Food, and the message emanating from practitioners in the field, is surprisingly positive, albeit there is much work to be done.
Natural England, which administers environmental stewardship, or “green” farming, schemes, pumps more than £40 million a year into the West Midlands’ rural economy. The region has almost a million hectares (3,900 sq miles) of farmable land, of which 62 per cent is in some form of environmentally-friendly stewardship scheme, managed by farmers and landowners.
The money provides investment in initiatives such as habitat restoration, hedge laying, restoration of ancient orchards and educational projects, as well as promoting sustainable food production.
The work is in part being driven by subtle changes in food culture. Consumers are keen to seek out menus that showcase local food. As Daren points out: “Diners have a lot more knowledge now and they are pressurising chefs in a good way. There are so many food programmes on the television and we [chefs] have to keep our fingers on the pulse.”
Guests now expect to see producers in the Abberley/Worcester area represented in dishes prepared by Daren’s team. As well as making his own Delicatus, the chef buys artisan cheeses, such as Old Worcester White, from Alison and Colin Anstey, who have a herd of Holstein-Friesians, fed on home-produced fresh grass, at Broomhall Farm, near Worcester; seasonal asparagus comes from Goodman’s in Great Witley; and Harvey Richards, of Lower Thrift Farm, Clifton upon Teme, supplies meats, including the hotel’s Christmas turkeys.
Daren says: “I have relationships with these guys. If they have something, they will phone me up.” So the chef is more than happy to take some of Lower Thrift’s less popular “secondary” meat cuts, such as blade of beef, which his cooks can turn into a superb dishes after seven hours’ gentle braising and the addition of some tasty sauce reductions. “We’ll use the shins, the beef cheeks, the oxtail,” adds Daren.
“As a chef I think it is vital to support and voice the values of our local farmers and focus on natural produce from our beautiful natural Worcestershire.”
The Ansteys, third generation farmers, have been in a Natural England higher level stewardship agreement for a year and a half. Colin says: “This
enables us to manage the land better, more sensitively, including reducing fertiliser levels, grazing less intensively and laying new hedges and planting trees.
“There’s a turnaround with consumers now and the provenance of their food is a real issue even in an economic downturn and they want to know that we are farming with real care.”
At Lower Thrift Farm, Harvey Richards is keen to promote education as well as produce high quality meat. “I am really concerned about how distanced people are from the production of their food,” says Harvey.
Grazing at the 250-acre farm includes ten acres with access to the River Teme at Whitbourne, which is a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI). The holding has been in the countryside stewardship scheme since 2001 and abuts a Special Wildlife Site (SWS).
The principal livestock is a 400-head ewe flock but Harvey also keeps rare breeds such as Tamworth pigs and 90 traditional Hereford cattle, all recognised by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The farming is distinctly non-intensive with emphasis on slow maturing, total traceability and the exclusion of artificial additives and antibiotics. This is Slow Food in action.
Last year, the farm hosted 16 farm visits by schoolchildren and Harvey believes educating children about the links between farming and the food on their plate is crucial. He says: “We want to target inner city kids. We had one group from Merry Hill and they were delightful. Some of them had never been out of their suburbs. Can you believe that?”
Such visits help to combat cultural misunderstandings and prejudices towards farming practices, not lest the dispatching of beasts.
Harvey says: “So many of the children who visit us are going to be vegetarians because they think it is cruel to kill animals. We have a viewing spot where you can see the patchwork of fields we have and if we did not have animals they would not be there. It would be open arable land.
“We have beautiful countryside because animals have been kept here for hundreds and hundreds of years. All the animals here have a good life, they are quiet and contented. You get the children on side very quickly.”
The same philosophy rules at Newton Court, where father and son Tom and Paul Stephens have turned some of Herefordshire’s oldest orchards over to organic cider production as part of their mixed farm. They have entered a higher level stewardship scheme and are convinced that “farming for the environment,” rather than against it, is the way forward at the 200-year-old holding and the industry as a whole.
Tom says: “One of our bigger priorities is establishing, maintaining and ‘gapping’ our orchards, planting a new perry orchard and improving our ancient buildings. Timber-framed buildings are an intrinsic and historic part of the farm which must be preserved. We have also undertaken fencing and hedge laying and general improvements to the fabric of the farm.”
The majority of Newton Court’s 6,000 gallons of cider and perry is sold at the farm gate – organic fruit is also sold to other organic cider producers – and Paul, an agricultural mechanic by trade, is convinced that natural farming is the future, rather than a fad.
“I think it is important for people to identify where their food comes from,” says Paul, aged 39. “I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the implications of organic farming and of how important it is, but we are trying to make people aware.
“Organic farming is going to play a big part in sustainability, whether we like it or not. We are great believers that the way farming is being done at the moment is not sustainable,” adds Paul.
However, he concedes that adhering to ethical farming and food practices can mean walking an economic tightrope. Paul says: “The downside for us is the credit crunch because we are feeling the pinch. We are finding it very difficult to sell at a premium.”
The farm has a 22-head suckler herd of Hereford crosses but can only get the same price at market as non-organic beef, despite the additional rearing costs. Fortunately, Newton Court has its own organic feed for the cattle as Paul says it would cost an extra 25-30 per cent to buy this in. Similarly, the farm cannot sell its organic oats in the current market. It needs to sell at £120 per ton but is being offered just £80. “We are hoping someone will want it. In the meantime, we have got to sit on it,” adds Paul.
There are then considerable short-term obstacles to the type of food/farming relationship that chefs and farmers are eager to develop, fulfilling as they do both ethical considerations and a desire for “homegrown” produce.
It is a war that Prue Leith, for one, considers worth waging. She says: “The food our farmers grow is not only some of the best in the world but it is also a vital part of our culture and heritage. It is also important to realise that food produced in harmony with the environment is not just for the well-heeled. Inexpensive, locally grown ordinary veg often has more flavour than the priciest imported stuff.”