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Fern Verrow-Nigel Slater’s Biodynamic Farm Favourite

Fern Verrow Farm

Here is Nigel Slater’s 17 May article from the Guardian: Fern Verrow has been growing brilliant organic food for 20 Years: what’s its secret?

In the foothills of the Black Mountains lies a small 15th-century farm, whose water comes from its own deep well, and whose 16 acres of fields are home to black Dexter cattle and organically grown vegetables and fruit. My one visit, on a hot, bright summer’s day, has remained in my memory as clear and bright as a bell, a day of bees and butterflies, sweet peas and roses, young carrots and broad beans. A large table in the garden where friends, family and farm workers shared a meal where everything had been grown or raised on the fields that surrounded us. We sat in the sunshine, the table strewn with glass jars of wild flowers, sighed at the surrounding landscape and ate.

The heart and soul of Fern Verrow is its soil. No sooner had I got out of the car than Jane Scotter, who runs the farm with her partner Harry Astley, whisked me off to the bank of compost heaps. I couldn’t help but marvel at the layers of slowly wilting vegetables, leaves and grass composed as thoughtfully as a cook might go about a recipe. Sweet smelling and in fine fettle, you knew only something good would eventually come from these piles of decomposing vegetation.

My interest in Fern Verrow is personal. It is where I buy most of my vegetables and fruit. The farm’s arch in Bermondsey, alongside the Little Bread Pedlar, La Grotta Ices, Coleman Coffee Roasters and Neal’s Yard Dairy, is home to trestle tables creaking with tin tubs of purple-fringed kale, neatly arranged wicker trays of asparagus and buckets of tulips and cherry blossom. It is a weekly affair that gathers a tender loyalty from far and wide. Here, every Saturday, Jane sells her own fruit, vegetables and, in autumn, meat, and the products of a few carefully chosen biodynamic growers.

My daily bowl of salad comes from the farm. Opening the bags of infant leaves of rocket and oak-leaf lettuce, basil and nasturtium, hot mustard and cool butterhead is a daily ritual that is as much a part of my life as a morning espresso. Why those leaves should stay in perfect condition for days longer than the packed bags of mixed salad I can buy at the supermarket is probably down to a little Black Mountain magic.
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This year sees the publication of a book about Fern Verrow written by Jane and Harry. More than a cookery book, it is the story of the landscape and the people who make this special place work. It is also a celebration of Fern Verrow’s inextricable ties with the rhythms of nature.

The narrative tells how Jane, one of the originators of Neal’s Yard Dairy, upped sticks and moved to this distant, ravishingly beautiful valley in between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye. How she set up the farm as a home for a group of young people from all over the world to work their summers tending the soil, gathering eggs, feeding the pigs and sorting salad leaves.

The farm is run using biodynamic methods, according to the holistic thinking of Rudolf Steiner. Yes, it is principally about the soil, its fertility and the lack of chemicals and pesticides used, but it’s also about “the unseen forces and energies of life and growth that permeate all living things”. And yes, from the striking quality of the vegetables alone, I would say there are unseen energies at work here.

Sharing recipes from the farm makes sense. The collection answers the endless questions of what to do with the tiny turnips, pink-flushed Florence onions, purple carrots and broad beans the size of a little finger that those of us who use box systems or shop at farmers’ markets often find in our kitchens. It also shows how to use the farm’s ingredients in the spirit the owners intended, where the produce needs very little done to it in order to shine.

The recipes in Fern Verrow are at once both familiar and new. There is an onion tatin made with long, slender pink onions; a summer trifle like an Ascot hat, brimming with berries and currants, and a cheap and sumptuous dish of chicory sauteed with smoked bacon.

There is something both proudly old-fashioned and fiercely modern about any farmer who flies in the face of mass food production. This is the way that, I suspect, most of us would like our vegetables to be grown. Greens grown on soil in good heart, salad leaves produced without the aid of chemical sprays, animals that have lived a good life and eaten good food. Where everything that can be recycled and composted is, and where fruit and vegetables are grown, picked and sold with care and respect. Heaven on earth? Yes, I think so.

 

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