Tag Archives: Kent

Support Your Local Farmer

First, let me declare an interest: I’m a bloke. And blokes like tractors, which is why a couple of weeks ago I could be found with a soppy grin on my face walking around a display of vintage tractors and steam engines at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match.

1930s Oliver 70, row crop tractor

Ploughing matches and point-to-point racing are some of the countryside’s best-kept secrets, and for a townie like me a terrific day out getting immersed in tweed and dogs.  We took a basic picnic and at the show bought St Michael’s Blue cheese from Silcocks Farm, pickled walnuts and cider  to eat later in the stubble.

It was the end of the short hop-picking season and among the trade stands (more, bigger, tractors!) there was a display of old farming photographs, some showing hop picking in the days when tens of thousands of Londoners, including children that should have been in school, would descend on the hop gardens for a working holiday staying in corrugated iron huts and picking hops.

By the 1950’s hop picking was becoming mechanised, and the annual migration from London gradually died out.

from the collection of I.Coomber and D.Ludlow

But its not all tractors doing the ploughing, pairs of heavy horses were stoically pulling especially polished ploughs; and for £5 you could have a go at driving horses and plough whilst trying to carve a straight furrow. The tractor match is judged depending on the type of plough, and points are scored for well-cut and straight furrows, uniformity, firmness, accuracy and the curiously-named ‘ins and outs’. Points are deducted for finishing the wrong way and leaving double wheel marks. The rules of horse ploughing are even stricter but the winner can look forward to the first prize of £12!

The Bolebrook Beagles trotted around the arena in a disorganised fashion, and later a pack of foxhounds from the Ashford Valley Hunt ran around following the huntsman and two whippers-in, before the ritual invitation for children to come into the arena and meet the dogs. I realise hunting is controversial, and the commentator repeated several times that the hunt operated within the law, but obviously no one at this show was offended in any way and the ring soon filled with children. Contrary to what you might think a foxhound is not an aggressive blood-thirsty animal but is extremely friendly, unlike some of the dogs in my local park. To be surrounded by twenty foxhounds licking and wagging is a happy experience, but then I’m not a fox.

Three years ago I took a friend to the East Kent Ploughing Match. As a confirmed Guardianista he saw foxes as the cuddly animals he fed in his back garden. Farmers, he thought, were all rich and right-wing,  sponging subsidies from the rest of us and driving around in 4x4s.  They’re just ordinary people I told him they just get muddier, and they work longer hours seven days a week, putting up with endless inspections from government officials and spending their evenings filling in the mountain of forms demanded by the EU.  He couldn’t bring himself to stroke a foxhound but he grudgingly admitted he’d enjoyed himself, apart from the extortionate price of the venison burger (£3-50), and remarked that everyone had been very nice and polite, and he’d not heard a four-letter word all day. I bought him a “Support British Farmers” mug which once he was back at home went straight to the back of the cupboard and was never seen again.

Ian Florey of Liquid Pleasure in Tenterden

Walking past one of the beer tents a voice called “David!” It was Nicky Aldhouse from Wadd Farm, helping Ian Florey sell local beers. Ian runs Liquid Pleasure an online wine merchant with a shop in Tenterden. Ian’s favourite small local brewery is the award-winning Old Dairy Brewery which he promotes at shows and charity events,  decorating the tent with Nicky’s hops.  Nicky and her husband Guy rear prize-winning Suffolk sheep at Wadd Farm, and try to be as self-sufficient as possible growing every sort of vegetable and soft fruit imaginable.  Wadd Farm is one of the oldest farms in Kent, going back to the 1540s. “We never have a holiday,” said Nicky, “there’s always something to do, but this is the best job in the world!” Like many Kent farmers they still grow a few rows of  hops, for the sake of tradition and for their homemade beer. Here’s Nicky in her polytunnel with her tomatoes…

Nicky Aldhouse

Every year they hold ‘Wadd Fest’ a music festival on the farm in aid of Demelza childrens’ hospice. I was really impressed with Nicky’s larder, stuffed with homemade wine, beer and preserves; each year Nicky makes over 30 bottles of wine, mostly from over-ripe fruit. “It’s important not to waste any fruit,” she said, “and it’s so simple to do.” It was Nicky that told me about ‘Farmhouse Fare‘, a collection of recipes from the readers of Farmers Weekly. I went home and ordered it on Amazon, it’s a simple, easy to use and unpretentious collection of recipes and one of my all-time favourite cookbooks.

We’ve a hop growing around our front door, and a nearby pub has hops growing in its garden, if you look around carefully there are wild hops growing here and there.  The Hop Shop at Castle Farm in Shoreham near Sevenoaks sells hop plants, that’s where we bought ours, and if you’re feeling ambitious they sell old hop poles and wonderfully enormous balls of thick rough hop string that wouldn’t look out of place in The Conran Shop.

The hop garden at Castle Farm. Picture ©Thomas Alexander

Castle Farm is an old hop garden, now more well known for the lavender fields than the hops. When the price of hops collapsed as brewers turned to cheaper imports, Caroline (above) and William Alexander diversified into lavender, herbs and rare apples, and their son Thomas Alexander is a talented photographer.  Caroline developed a lavender oil just for cooking, something we use in cake-making and always have at home. Castle Farm is local enough for me, just 14 miles down the road, and the farm shop is always worth a visit. I came across an interesting blog about making beer using hops from Castle Farm, you need surprisingly few and Castle Farm sell hop bines, the complete stems with hops attached, during the season.

Next to Nicky’s beer tent was the hog roast, offering roasted pork in huffkins. The queue was too long for me, but huffkins are worth making at home.  The huffkin is a traditional Kentish teacake, unique in that the baker made dent in the top with his thumb, and they have a slight beer flavour.  Some Kent bakers still make them, but they are becoming quite rare. We only make them a few times a year, and at this time of the year Clarissa likes to push a green hop into the dent in the huffkin to add to the flavour.

Huffkins-Kentish-Hiffkins-recipe for Kent Huffkins

Kentish Huffkins

Kentish Huffkins

Preparation time about 1 hour 45 minutes including the resting times.

Cooking time 20 – 30 minutes depending on the size of the individual huffkins.

Ingredients (makes 6 – 8):

10g dried yeast

2 tsp sugar

225ml warm water

110g lard

2 tsp salt

225ml scalded milk. That is milk that has been heated till it almost boils. This disables some proteins that would stop the yeast from properly fermenting.

500g plain flour, sifted

Flour for dusting


Activate the dried yeast in a little warm water with a pinch of sugar added. When it froths it is ready.

Cream the lard, salt, a pinch of sugar, add the yeast and then the sifted flour, making a dough.

On a floured surface knead the dough till it feels ‘springy’ to the touch. Then put the dough to one side in a bowl covered with a clean dry tea towel. Leave the bowl of dough to rise in a warm dry place for about 1 hour.

Then roll out the dough again so it is about 15mm thick and use a knife to cut-out oval shapes about 85mm across the length (the traditional shape), or larger circular shapes if you wish. Some bakers make larger huffkins.

Put your pieces of dough onto a greased baking sheet, well-spaced, and cover with some damp muslin, then leave to rise for further 30 minutes. Pre-heat your oven to 220C.

After they’ve risen, using your thumb make a large dent in the middle of each huffkin. Dust them lightly with a little flour then put them into your oven. How long you bake them for depends on how big they are, but remember they are soft crusted, so don’t over do it!

When they are cooked, remove them to a wire rack to cool, covered with a dampened tea towel to prevent the crust from hardening. Finally dust with a little flour. The dent will have almost disappeared, Clarissa likes to push a green or dried hop into the dent, you may have to make it larger to do this. I’d serve sliced in half and spread with homemade jam!

Warning: May Contain Nuts…

We’re just back from Polly and Jon’s wedding in Kent. I wasn’t the wedding photographer but Polly is the daughter of very old friends and we’ve known her all her life, and I wanted to take some pictures. Disaster struck, all my cameras suddenly decided enough was enough and ground to a digital death, and my pocket digital had disappeared into the matmos I call home.

So I had to take the Holga to accurately (!) record Clarissa’s arrival at the church.

And her shoes…!

A Holga is a light-leaking plastic camera with a plastic lens that uses 120 film. Some might say it misuses 120 film.

It has a cult following because it can be relied upon to produce pictures that are blurred, out of focus, haphazardly framed and (by light getting into the camera) fogged . Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to use after the relentless perfection of digital with the endless opportunities and compulsion to manipulate, ‘improve’ and ‘correct’ to make reality even more real, but at the same time less true. I agree with Martin Scorcese who reckons digital effects may look ‘real’, but they lack that ‘used’ feel, the fortuitous unplanned reality of life.

Polly’s mum and dad, Barry and Karin, used to live in Brockley, but some years ago they decided they needed a new challenge and took the brave step of selling their huge house and buying the 180 acres of beautiful Kent countryside known as Farnell Farm. From the beginning they planted Kentish cobnuts, Filberts and Gunselberts, about 700 trees altogether on a sloping 4 acre field leading down to their barn.

They thought cobnuts would be in tune with the landscape and a traditional local crop,  something that was very important to how they saw their life on the farm.  On our first visit we were unprepared for the sheer beauty of the landscape; while the dog dashed around in lurcher heaven Barry and Karin showed us around the orchard, Barry worrying about the squirrels eating the nuts, and later Karin bringing us some freshly picked green cobnuts.

The cobnut harvest starts at the end of August after St Philbert’s Day, the first cobnuts are green, and eaten as fresh as possible. The taste was amazing, the green cobnuts were moist, sweet and soft.

Even the wonder-lurcher discovered a passion for green cobnuts. “People become addicted to green cobnuts,” said Barry. “If you taste them green the flavour is unique and subtle, once they’ve been cold-stored or chilled they lose that flavour.” Karin thinks they taste like raw fresh peas. Green cobnuts are only available for a few weeks from about now, then they’ll turn dry and golden and are delicious roasted. The field yields about 2 tons per hectare depending on the squirrels who account for about half the crop. Then there’s the badgers. Farnell Farm has 75 acres of ancient bluebell woods, peppered with badger setts, the badgers climb up the trees after the nuts and flatten them!

Now a few years on, they’ve a small flock of Portland sheep, and they’ve recently planted 5 acres of vines, hoping in 3 or 4 years to be producing their first Farnell Farm wine.

The couple are licensed by DEFRA to sell bluebell seeds, I didn’t know it was illegal to collect the seeds without a licence, but apparently this is a serious business, and Barry and Karin were two of the first people to be granted a licence to gather and sell the seeds.  They’ve added wild garlic and wild broom seeds to their stock and sell everything by mail order through their website.

The whole family, Barry, Karin, Polly, her brother Harry, and now Polly’s husband Jon, all help with the cobnut harvest, picking the nuts by hand then dehusking them and laying them out on tables turning them once a day.  “Our cobnuts aren’t cheap,” said Karin, “but they are as near perfect as we can get them, we don’t use any sprays or chemicals and rely on birds to keep insects at bay. We haven’t gone for organic registration because of the cost, but our cobnuts are as organic as anyone’s.”

The hazel tree dates from the end of the last Ice Age, cultivated hazels known as Filberts have been grown since the 16th Century, named after St Philbert’s Day which falls just as the nuts are ready to eat. The Kentish cobnut is also known as the Lambert Filbert which was developed in the 1800s. Other traditional varieties are the Gunselbert and the Frizzled Filbert.

Before the last War there were 7,000 acres planted with cobnuts, now there might be just 250. People have lost the taste for cobnuts as small greengrocers have disappeared and supermarkets refuse to stock fresh cobnuts. Some Turkish shops stock green cobnuts from abroad, I’ve seen them in the Lewisham Food Centre for instance.

The Kentish Cobnut Association, led by Alexander Hunt are working to preserve this tradition.  Alex was at the wedding, we’d met before at the Canterbury Food Fair  and at Produced in Kent events. I told him about the blog and we self-consciously exchanged cards.

Ah yes ,the wedding, the Holga was doing its best, every so often I  changed the film and replaced the batteries back into their clips, they kept falling out and rattling around inside the camera so the flash wouldn’t work. The official photographers moved smoothly on, their laptops glowing confidently; as dusk arrived they suggested taking some pictures of the bride and groom with the bridesmaids and ushers in a field the other side of the woods. I thought I might get something memorable, but when I reached the field after negotiating the odd electric fence it was quite dark and I had to rely on the puny built-in flash. The photographers set up umbrellas and flashguns and fiddled with radio transmitters while I happily shot away. Later back in London I took the films to West End Cameras for developing, explaining the shots were taken in near darkness from about 20 feet away and I didn’t think they’d come out…? They specialise in cameras like Holgas and their cousins Lomo and Diana and are really enthusiastic about the fun of film photography. When I got the prints back I was really pleased, this is what is so exciting about Holga photography, the unexpected results the double exposures and the over-lapping frames. The snaps remind me of one of the happiest days,  the fun of photography and the companionship of old friends.

Here’s a recipe for cobnuts, with marrow and plums from the Kentish Cobnut Association. I bought my plums in Lewisham Market, walking around the back of the fruit stalls scrutinising the labels on the crates of fruit till I found some English plums from a farm near Sittingbourne in Kent.

Stuffed Marrow with Plums and Kentish Cobnuts


Ingredients (serves 4):

1 large marrow

2 onions, sliced

2 – 4 cloves of garlic

350g plums

450g cobnuts (that’s the weight in their husks)

175g mushrooms, sliced chunkily

4 tomatoes, sliced

110g butter

30g grated fresh ginger

Some mixed herbs, fresh or dried

Salt and pepper


Clean the marrow and slice it in half lengthways. Scoop ,out the seeds leaving a hollow in each half of marrow and then put them into a suitable ovenproof dish.

Halve the plums and remove the stones. De-husk the cobnuts and chop them roughly, not too small. Take half the butter an in a pan gently fry the onions. Then combine all the ingredients, adding the garlic to your own taste, an scattering with a few mixed herbs, but remember not to overpower the subtle flavour of the cobnuts. Divide this mixture in half and put equal amounts into each half of marrow. Dot with the remaining butter, cover the dish loosely with tinfoil and bake in your oven preheated to 180C for 90 minutes.

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