by Silvana de Soissons•15th May 2011
With each issue of The Foodie Bugle we feature seasonality, the changing rhythms of Mother Nature’s clock rotation, in the kitchen garden, in farms, in the larder and in the food markets. One farm shop that epitomises the compartmentalisation of the seasons, their arrival and their offerings across all these four categories, is Daylesford Organic Farm in Gloucestershire (www.daylesfordorganic.com).
In early May I wanted to find out first hand what goes on behind the scenes. How does an estate that employs over 200 people across 1500 acres of agriculture, food production, marketing and merchandising, prepare for summer? I contacted Camilla Wilson, the Head of PR, to get a personal tour of the entire operation, and Keiko Oikawa, the photographer of The Foodie Bugle (www.keikooikawa.com) and I went along to meet her. Keiko took all the photographs, and was amazed at how many photo opportunities there were.
We are standing in the courtyard in front of the farm shop, ready to begin the tour when Camilla sets the scene. “Everything at Daylesford is led by and is centred on seasonality. From the animal breeders, the market gardeners, the chefs, the cookery school, the visual merchandisers and right through to the writers of the Newsletter, the website and the Blog, there are four driving forces that inform all our daily work: spring, summer, autumn and winter”.
The sign at the entrance of the farm shop spells the list of what fruit and vegetables should be taking centre stage on our plates: there are bright scarlet bunches of radish, lily white and emerald green leeks, muddy jersey royals, the very first of summer’s baby carrots and the very last of spring’s pink rhubarb .
This shop presents the real face of organic farming, untouched and unfettered: gnarled fruit, misshapen vegetables and earth covered wicker baskets, still moist from the morning’s dew. I explain to Camilla the difficulties I have of staying cheerful in the depths of winter, when all I cook with are root vegetables. “Which gives us all the more reason to rejoice, celebrate and give thanks for all the little spring shoots, the knobbly Jerusalem artichokes, the grassy asparagus spears. When they arrive it’s magic” she replies. There is a season, turn, turn, for everything a time and purpose under heaven, is what we used to sing at school, and you cannot help but feel buoyed by this simple exhibition of nature’s chronological imperative.
All the seasonal vegetables that are grown on the farm are sold either through the farm shop, the café restaurant, or used as raw ingredients in the cookery school or foraging courses. The seasons’ gluts are preserved, pickled, salted or maybe even used in the bakery, turned into smoothies, yoghurts, compotes or seasonal salads to take away.
Piles of handmade sourdoughs, rolls, loaves and buns are stacked in wooden crates. Summer brings sundried tomato bread, fig rolls, rhubarb loaves and muffins flavoured with new baby beetroots. The chiller cabinet is filled with tomato, cucumber and fennel soup, pea and mint soup and spicy lentil and spinach soup.
Outside, animal troughs are planted with baby salad leaves and wildflowers and weeds are left to flower and scatter seeds in situ, providing nectar for bees and butterflies, as well as salads and decoration for the restaurant, an ingredient store for Vladimir Niza’s cookery course recipes or used by Tim Field, the Environmental Scientist, to show the symbiotic relationships that exist in the farm’s eco-system.
Camilla explains that the subtleties of the season are instantly noted on the palate: for example, early summer milk from the dairy herd tastes much creamier and richer than later milk, owing to the crisp new clover, dandelion, buttercup and grass component of the herd’s diet.
As we walk out into the market garden section of the estate, we see a huge field has been planted with ten different strawberry varieties. At Daylesford they are able to extend the growing season of strawberries naturally, by choosing varieties that bear fruit across June, July, August and September. The soil is a rich, red clay, and mounds and mounds of rotted manure have been heaped at regular intervals, and sheets of blue plastic laid out across the planted rows, to help conserve the moisture.
Long poly-tunnels, heated only by the sun, stretch out before us on the black earth that is the market garden engine floor. We step inside one and it is quite remarkable how warm it is inside. We see rows upon rows of tomatoes, chillies, salads, beans, peas, mange tout, rocket, sorrel and squashes, all still quite small but with bright green leaves and already jostling for position under the water sprinkling system overhead.
For the next part of the tour we are driven by car to visit the various herds. First we come to the closed Friesian dairy herd that is out to pasture, foraging. The herd is being bred back to pure British Friesian, and their milk is piped straight into the dairy, with a journey of approximately 10 metres. The Gloucester herd was originally bred as dual purpose, but the cows are now milked to produce Single Gloucester cheese. The male calves are used for veal.
Across an open, rolling Cotswold landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see, we think this is the estate that Lancelot Capability Brown would have designed had he been an organic farmer. Hedgerows are already coming to life with hawthorn blossom. The Poll Dorset lambs that lie in the shade of giant oaks, rowans and beeches, are a native breed and were born just a few weeks ago. 1200 ewes gave birth, each three or four times, and these new season’s lambs will be finished at anywhere between 4.5 months and 12 months old. Daylesford is also home to Mules sheep, with their long, motionless faces staring at us inscrutably as we drive gently by at a stately pace. Their wool is used for cloth, and their meat, I know, tastes gamey, rich and tender.
Camilla explains that in Staffordshire the sister estate to Daylesford is home to the UK’s largest herd of organically farmed deer. Their meat is the herald of autumn: piping hot stews, casseroles, pies and roasts enter the Menu repertoire of the kitchens at that point. When any animal is killed, all of it is used: the pelt might be used to make a rug, a cover or a throw, the horns are used to make door knobs and the antlers to make coat hooks.
Even the chickens have a seasonal offering. We are taken to see the baby chicks that are sleeping under the rays of an infra-red lamp in one of the stone barns on the farm. They are Cotswold Legbars, and will soon join the flocks that are fenced into huge grassy runs, with wooden shed houses and shady pergolas, out in the fields. Geese, ducks and chickens all run to greet us as we arrive, and we can see one of the workers coming round with what looks like a small golf buggy, to collect the eggs in cardboard containers, accompanied by her sheep dog, who, she says, rounds up the chickens. Minutes later we buy those eggs on the shop floor.
At the farm, during the warm season 1500 organically reared chickens and 500 quails lay 1800 eggs every day. Food miles do not exist: workers here carry the produce into the shop with their hands.
Back at base in the café, the Menu is short and simple, and, of course, completely seasonal. Keiko chooses the spring risotto, with asparagus and pea shoots and I opt for the Ploughman’s Lunch, which comes with Daylesford award winning cheeses, breads and handmade pork pie. The star dish is the seasonal salad bowl: new baby beetroots served with feta cheese, a spelt and asparagus salad, and a carrot salad with chilli, soya and honey dressing. In the restaurant there are small salad pots and purple allium heads in glass bottles as decoration. At the bar there is a huge bucket filled with billowing cow parsley, and on the walls are blossoming pussy willow branches shaped into hearts, all a nod to what is available for cutting from the fields, hedgerows, woods and curbs.
Seasonality continues upstairs: the homeware section is filled with the wherewithal for alfresco dining and picnics, with baskets, blankets, tin crockery and outdoor candles. The garden shop is filled with small marguerites planted in tin containers, fresh herbs and kitchen garden seeds.
The teams at Daylesford are all talking about their individual preparations for the Summer Festival, on 21stMay 2011. They will be showcasing the extraordinary things they do on an ordinary day through farm walks, talks, cookery demonstrations and the chance to meet artisanal producers, from all walks of life.
So how far ahead does Daylesford plan for the next season, and what more can be achieved within this one? Camilla says “We live within the moment, but we always work to spread the message wider. More and more people are coming on these farm tours and on our courses, and are interested in healthy animal husbandry, sustainability, seasonality and the organic way of life. We cherish the seasonal moments and we want to make this experience available for absolutely everyone.”
Daylesford Organic Farm
Telephone: 01608 731 700
Follow Daylesford Farm on Twitter: @DaylesfordFarm