Plans, Potager and Peace: Winter at Thyme at Southrop

A trip to the beautiful Southrop Manor estate in December made me realise how its owner, Caryn Hibbert, does not sit still for half a minute. There is little time off for Christmas. The Thyme food and cookery school has had a very busy year, and the 2012 diary is looking just as busy. Despite teaching a slow, holistic and artisanal approach to food, drink and horticulture, you will not find staff here resting on their laurels. Caryn explains:

“The whole team here has been working very hard, and the run up to Christmas is always hectic. We have lots of plans for the New Year, and what is exciting is that all the different parts of the estate are working together, across specialisations and skills. During the course of 2012 I really want to integrate everything even more.” From organising photo shoots to dealing with the media, new customers and ongoing renovation works, Caryn’s day is never done.

Looking still green and undefeated by winter even in the most pallid, pewter grey light of December, the kitchen garden has a new head gardener, Joff Elphick, who used to work at Barnsley House. He tells me how he and Caryn have been busy planning a new fruit, herb and vegetable patch nearer to the cookery school than the existing potager, so that the chefs and students can just step outside and collect the produce just minutes before the cooking starts. Joff has given me the chance to come and visit him across the seasons in 2012, to chart the life of the kitchen garden and to pick up hints and tips for The Foodie Bugle readers. He is generous with his knowledge:

“I always plant extra seeds and plants because we also use produce for flower arrangements indoors. When the chefs come out to chop what they need I always need to have spare plants and seed heads somewhere separate from the kitchen. This new year I will be looking at a number of new heritage varieties of seeds. I did really well in 2011 with a leek variety called “St.Victoire”, a shallot called “Cuisse de Poulet” and an onion called “Cipolla Borettana”. I also love the “puntarelle” (a wild bitter chicory, with jagged edges). We tend to buy our seeds from Franchi and we stock them also in the shop because they are such good value and there are always lots of seeds in every packet.”

The Tithe Barn boasts a brand new shop, open by appointment, filled with artisanal wares for the whole house. From the Teasel production team you will find tweed, herringbone and twill woollen cloths for upholstery, there are English oak chopping boards made by a local artisan, there are pots, pans, glassware, cutlery, knives and books for sale as well as linens and candles. There is also an entire dresser filled with preserves made by Chefs Daryll Taylor and Marj Lang, who are the two main course tutors.

The classes of charcuterie, Best of British, artisanal bakery, seasonal foraging and preserving, kitchen suppers, “Men at Work” and fish and shell fish are now being run by the kitchen team as well as chefs that are brought in, such as Bob Parkinson from Made by Bob in Cirencester, Clive Mellum from Shipton Mill, Bunny Guinness the garden designer and Jose Pizarro.

The huge glass shop windows look out onto a very big farmhouse which the Thyme team are going to convert into accommodation and a Spa. From corporate events to weddings, parties, receptions, lectures and travelling sales, the management team here have been organising company meeting rooms, buffet lunches, business dinners and holiday lettings around the estate.

Yet, despite the phones ringing in the office, Caryn organising the latest product launch from brand Thyme and the bustle of the Chefs preparing and presenting a cookery demonstration in front of a class, when you leave the building you are immersed in total quiet. It is as if there is another world outside the timber barn doors: planet inside and planet outside.

The village of Southrop lies hidden in the depths of the Cotswold countryside, in grazing farmland to the west of Lechlade.  Hundreds of acres of grassland, trees, sheep and Cotswold stone walls lie between your base here and the nearest road. In the cold sky a kite swoops to the ground and rises, only to disappear silently behind stone stables. The slow clip-clop of horses and busy bird song are the only sounds you hear. It’s like that at Thyme: despite the activity and choice, both the foodie and the gardener can escape to peace. A wrought iron bench, a cup of coffee, shade from tall fennel and robins pecking through gravel in search of fallen seed: this is the holiday retreat for the hard working cook.

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