Words Craig McLean
Photographs James McNaught
Fern Verrow has become a byword for biodynamic farming, forming a relationship with high-profile clients including Nigel Slater and Skye Gyngell that is built on ‘loyalty, honesty, constant communication and, at times, really hard work’ – but one that marries a hardy earthiness with more celestial considerations…
It’s dusk in the foothills of the Black Mountains. Blackbirds chatter, sparrows dart, crows caw and two excitable young lurchers called Lettuce and Winifred are haring hither and thither on the 16 up-and-down acres of Fern Verrow. Secure in their field, the season’s five lambs remain unconcerned, despite being destined for the abattoir in three days. The geese are honkingly flighty but, then, geese always are.
It’s the first week of November, a whiff of winter chill in the air, and for farmers Jane Scotter and Harry Astley, autumn’s fruitfulness is less mellow than bursting. We’re in the hilly parish of St Margaret’s, on the cusp of the Golden Valley that inspired CS Lewis’s Narnia, midway between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye. Here, four miles from the England-Wales border, produce is thrusting forth from the soil or plopping gently to the earth. For a couple who grow between 300 and 400 different products each season – fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers – this most abundant time of year is keeping them on their toes.
Yesterday, for example, Scotter and Astley dispatched a van of approximately 50 freshly harvested items, among them salad leaves, claytonia, land cress, chickweed, ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce, hard white cabbage, sauerkraut cabbage,‘Hispi’ cabbage, salsify, ‘Delicata’ squash, ‘Candy Roaster’ squash and Florence onions (‘marker-pen thick’). There was a bunch of edible flowers, too: viola, snapdragons, ‘Queen Sofia’ and ‘Jester’ marigolds, nasturtium.
Then, per the delivery docket, apples: ‘apple seconds, other apples, Bramley apples, russet apples’. If you think that’s a lot of apples, how’d you like these tomatoes: at Fern Verrow they grow 15 varieties.
‘I’m rather seduced by the tomato seed catalogue,’ confesses Scotter as we consider the photographs of ‘Coeur de Boeuf’, ‘Indigo Rose’ and green tomatoes on these pages. ‘There’s a buzz about growing tomatoes. I like the shape, the colours. And I do like a lettuce.’
Astley, though, is more of a cabbage man. ‘‘January King’, ‘Red Drumhead’…’ he hymns, adding that his favourite meal is baked potato with thin, mandolined slices of raw cabbage, crème fraiche and mustard. ‘But really, any cabbage. Although I’m not a big fan of Savoy.’
The destination of yesterday’s vanload was Spring, the restaurant opened in 2014 by Skye Gyngell at London’s Somerset House. Fern Verrow sends two deliveries weekly to Gyngell’s kitchen, the orders placed on Saturdays and Wednesdays and driven overnight the four/five hours to London for breakfast-time arrival on Tuesdays and Fridays. A lettuce will leave the soil and be on a plate within 24 hours. Lovingly sown and grown to organic and biodynamic principles, the farm’s seasonal fruit ’n’ veg is exalted by the Australian chef to the extent that she names its source on her menus. This is the foodies’ beloved ‘farm to-fork’ ethos in actual, real, traceable practice. The proof of the warm bread pudding (‘served with a spoonful of Fern Verrow gooseberry jam’) is very much in the eating.
‘Fern Verrow and I have just passed the three-year mark of working together,’ Gyngell tells me. ‘It’s an incredible relationship that is built on loyalty, honesty, constant communication and, at times, really hard work. It is a really beautiful and deeply fulfilling way to work.’
Even before she opened Spring, the provenance of her produce was of foundational significance for Gyngell, formerly of the Michelin-starred restaurant that she opened at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond.
‘It was really important for me that I found a farm that I could work with really intimately,’ she continues. ‘I’d fallen in love with working with gorgeous produce at Petersham and I couldn’t bear the idea of having to buy from mainstream suppliers – the only relationship you have with them is a phone call at midnight! I wanted to be able to have the produce that I dreamt of: truly fresh, full of flavour, grown in clean soil.’
Jane Scotter has been speaking that language since she bought Fern Verrow in 1996. As the former co-owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy she’d travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles. She knew Herefordshire, too, from holidays, ‘and just thought it was a beautiful, unspoilt part of England’. Looking for a life change and to ‘live the urban fantasy of growing my own food and blah-blah blah’, as she self-mockingly puts it, she came across this farmhouse and smallholding dating back to 1732. What kind of farm was it then?
‘It was nothing,’ she replies over cups of tea and homemade flapjacks in the farm office. ‘It was just horses and I don’t think the land had ever been ploughed. We’ve got an old boy neighbour who said, “Oh no, never been touched”. It’s known as an LFA – less favoured area, which means it’s classed as very poor land, very poor quality soil for growing. People are supposed to just graze sheep here.’
But Scotter was, and is, nothing if not determined. ‘I didn’t think it was poor land. I thought it was beautiful land because it hadn’t been spoilt by the use of pesticides or over-cultivation, untouched and natural. It was old fashioned. I knew from my cheese days that the best cheeses came from the so-called poorer meadowland, producing milk with more character and flavour,’ the 53-year-old adds. ‘It was pure. But then, you do want your crops to grow, and you want them to be a certain size and you want them to be very healthy.’
Setting out to establish her farm from literally the ground up, Scotter asked around, seeking the advice of those ‘old boy’ neighbours and writing to the Soil Association and the Biodynamic Association. She had no firm intentions of running her newly acquired land according to their principles, but the organisations proved helpful, ‘sending me instructions on things like how to make sheep drench’. Plus, it just seemed logical to treat nature in natural ways.
‘There’s a buzz about growing tomatoes. I like the shape, the colours. And I do like a lettuce’
Advised that potatoes were a great root crop, in both senses of the adjective, Scotter planted those first. ‘They have a wonderful root system that digs down and brings up all the nutrients, and they really clean out the soil,’ she explains. ‘The roots act a bit like a mole, aerating the soil and giving this fine, sieved compost.’
But she also needed actual compost. That is, manure. ‘What people have known for 11,000 years, maybe more, is that if you want to make a bit of ground fertile, you have to make it more alive,’ begins Astley. A former chef, the 40-year-old came to Fern Verrow 11 years ago as Scotter’s apprentice in biodynamic agriculture. As it says on the flyleaf of their titular 2015 cookery book (‘A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen’), ‘Harry and Jane are now partners, both in business and in life.’
Astley resumes talking, well, shit: ‘You have to put matter in there that has been alive. You need things that are animal derivates or plant products. And in a nutshell, that’s how you start to make a bit of ground more fertile: by putting in well-rotted materials. In effect you are enlivening that soil.’
Scotter contacted an organic dairy farm down the road and bought manure from them, ‘and 20 years later we’re still buying manure – about 150 tonnes a year. Always cow manure,’ she clarifies. ‘It’s very powerful but it’s the most balanced and most neutral. Chicken manure is very fast – very good for grass growing – but it’s very, very high in nitrogen. You don’t want too much of that.
So, when you’re running your farm along holistic lines, compost management is as important as crop management? ‘Definitely,’ nods Astley. ‘In the same way as when you’re cooking, a sauce needs to be made from a really good stock. If you’ve got a good beginning, you’ll have a good end. That approach to the land and the resources available to you are the backbone of organic farming. It’s learning how things work and how they behave and where to get them and how to combine them. I always liken it to… not a supermarket, but a beautiful larder, full of all these amazing wild ingredients about the place. You just need to know where to look for them.’
The night of my visit to Fern Verrow is a Full Moon. As we stand in one of the fields in the gathering gloom, this is both illuminating and apt. Biodynamic farming means both the obvious – no pesticides, no insecticides – but also the less obvious: cultivating your plants according to planetary rhythms and lunar cycles.
Its principles were first espoused by Rudolf Steiner (he of the Steiner schools). In June 1924, the great Austrian thinker gave a series of eight lectures – entitled ‘Spiritual Foundations for a Renewal of Agriculture’ – at the Koberwitz Estate in Silesia, Poland. Astley, for whom Steiner is an avowed hero, explains that his thinking was the precursor to what we also now know as organic farming.
The philosophy, Astley paraphrases, ‘is to think beyond the soil, and not to just think of a plant in its immediate environment. A plant isn’t just growing out of the ground, it’s growing out of the air. It’s growing out of the whole universe, effectively.’
It’s about understanding the broader influences, beyond sun and rain, that work on a plant. ‘The moon is our guide to what to do at any time,’ he says, pointing out that in the lunar cycle of 27-and-a-half days, the moon rotates around the earth while passing through the constellations of the zodiac. There’s a correlation between the four elements (earth, water, air, fire) and the four parts of a plant: root, leaf, flower, fruit.
‘What Steiner says is that the moon is a lens that is raying the whole of the solar system back on to the earth… It works on the four principal parts of a plant. So if you want to make the most of these broader influences working on your manured, composted ground, you work on specific crops on different days according to where the moon is. You’re trying to enhance that plant’s chance to become more like what it [fundamentally] is.’
‘A plant isn’t just growing out of the ground, it’s growing out of the whole universe’
Sensing, perhaps, that he’s losing me in the creeping darkness, Astley points to a thrusting bed of celery. ‘The celery is a leaf of the plant. The root is in the ground, there’s no fruit, and by the time it’s flowered and going to seed, it’s gone too far. So we want that to be leaf crop, so we sow the seed on a day that the moon is in a water constellation – or a leaf day, as we call it – which gives it this impulse for it to become a leaf crop.’
If that sounds a little out there, literally and figuratively, the proof, again, is on the plate, or in the farmers’ market box: Fern Verrow continue to sell, as they have done for almost two decades, a weekly selection of produce to a band of loyal customers (including Observer cookery writer Nigel Slater, who’s typically rhapsodic about their produce) at Spa Terminus, the fresh produce hub in Bermondsey, southeast London.
But the bulk of the couple’s natural bounty is destined, from earth to crockery, as quick as humanly possible, for Spring. Skye Gyngell tells it straight: ‘Fern Verrow’s produce defines the way we cook at Spring and also what appears on the menu. It would be unthinkable now to work without them.’
It is, she adds, a two-way street. ‘All the chefs in the kitchen really enjoy working directly with the farm and every member of staff, front-of-house and back-of-house, pay a yearly visit. And Jane and Harry come to the restaurant each season to eat, which I think inspires them and pushes them on when they see what we have done with their beautiful ingredients.’
And if all of this sounds airy-fairy-foodie-lovely, it’s important to note: the farm-to-fork-to-farm cycle involves back-breaking work at both ends, for kitchen brigade and for Jane Scotter, Harry Astley and their small band of helpers. For all the assistance bestowed by lunar cycles and zodiacal belts, Fern Verrow’s abundancy is the product of simple, natural, old-fashioned, getting-your-hands-dirty graft. And the produce is its own reward.
‘We do want to make money, and we’d love to have a Bentley, of course,’ smiles Scotter. ‘But the work and the artistry and the beauty, and the colour and the forms, is why we do it. That said, sometimes we hate it. You do get humbled quite a lot, by the elements in particular.’ Indeed, true to form in this rainy part of the great British shire, a short while later it starts pelting it down.
Still, ‘the companionship of the plants is what you get in exchange,’ concludes Astley. ‘You can’t put a price on that. It is,’ he beams, biodynamically, ‘an experiential existence.’