In recent years I have shopped less and less in supermarkets. Instead, I choose to seek out the farm shops, genuine produce markets and artisan makers for those authentic food experiences. Not all farm shops are created equal, however, with more and more becoming glorified delicatessens, offering products otherwise available at the supermarket or online. The Heckfield Home Farm, part of the larger Heckfield estate in Hampshire, hosts occasional markets offering seasonal produce grown on the farm, or made by local artisan makers.
This week I dropped in to the August market in my ongoing search for real food. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Not strictly a farm shop but more a pop-up produce market, Heckfield Home Farm is organic, using the biodynamic method of growing, a practice that cultivates biodiversity. During a tour of vineyards in the Languedoc region of southern France a couple of years ago, I discovered how grapes are grown in this way to produce award-winning wines. From smallholder to larger wine estates the passion for the grape is part of a slower, more discerning lifestyle, encompassing honey from the estate hives (kept to help pollinate the vines), olive oil, food and culture, all coming together holistically in appreciation of real food.
Offerings at the Heckfield Home Farm seasonal market when I visited in August was small but beautiful. The coffee ‘shop’ was in a re-purposed shipping container. As an aside, there were a number of these containers in a little ‘street’ of what appeared to be staff accommodation close by (all with matching white front doors).
Having left home early my first concern was breakfast, a cheese toastie made with Heckfield artisanal bread and the most cheesey cheese; intense, nutty, and slightly sweet and biting at the same time. So delicious, I didn’t stop to photograph it! And in all honesty it was dripping with fragrant cheese so the sight of me scoffing it down wouldn’t have made the most elegant shot.
Fruit + veg
More fruit and vegetables would have been welcome even though we’re getting on in the season. This wasn’t a dealbreaker though as far better to have a modest selection of genuinely local produce, than stacks of unseasonal products brought in from elsewhere with the aim of filling up the stalls. There is such a thing as too much choice. Rather than loading up a trolley randomly at a supermarket, and with research indicating that much household food is thrown out at the end of the week, it’s far easier, and enjoyable, to anticipate what you will cook faced with a small selection of deliciously fresh produce.
A Biodynamic Farm Is a Living Organism
“Each biodynamic farm or garden is an integrated, whole, living organism. This organism is made up of many interdependent elements: fields, forests, plants, animals, soils, compost, people, and the spirit of the place. Biodynamic farmers and gardeners work to nurture and harmonize these elements, managing them in a holistic and dynamic way to support the health and vitality of the whole.”Biodynamic Association
There were finger-sized, shiny purple aubergines, firm ridged courgettes, bright red peppers, tomatoes and smoky garlic bulbs. There weren’t any gooseberries or other seasonal berries that I was hoping to find to freeze for the dark winter months. But that’s the thing about eating seasonally, the variety and enjoyment of food when it is available. How much better than buying strawberries all year round, so that they become everyday and lack the intense fruity sweetness of June. I made a mental note to visit the Heckfield market earlier in the season next year!
As you might expect the three flocks of chickens run around free-range. The organic eggs are sold in mixed sizes by the tray or box of half a dozen.
The dairy herd of 50 Guernsey cows at Heckfield Home Farm are currently pasture-fed from start to finish. Milk, buttermilk and cream are bottled in glass rather than plastic. The farm produces both salted and, my favourite, unsalted butter with the creamiest flavour, I actually ate a small lump just as it was. The Use By date on the butter was 31 August but this freezes well in tightly-wrapped portions. Did you know that milk has its seasons too? Milk produced from cows fed on summer grass has its own character so I look forward to enjoying a taste of summer in December.
The main purpose of Heckfield Home Farm and market garden is to produce fruit, vegetables, honey and flowers for the luxury hotel Heckfield Place. So while there are also British Saddleback pigs, as well as Suffolk, Hampshire, and Southdown sheep at the farm, these were not available at the market.
Artisanal cheeses available (five varieties) were handmade b Village Maid in Berkshire. I adore Spanish Manchego, so I was delighted to discover two cheeses made from ewe’s milk; Spenwood, a hard variety, creamy texture and an intense nutty flavour that develops in the mouth; as well as a flavoursome soft, Camembert-like cheese. Spenwood is made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk and has no additives apart from vegetable rennet and a little salt. The makers suggest it as a perfect alternative to Pecorino so I look forward to trying that in a basil pesto or aubergine parmigiana.
There are seven greenhouses at Heckfield and in one of these plants for sale featured a selection of basil plants, including a colourful purple variety, and other herbs and plants. I have grown basil successfully on a balcony in the past as it likes a warm, sunny environment to thrive. This late in the season I wasn’t sure it would survive even on a kitchen windowsill but the smell of the leaves was heavenly.
Village Maid was started by microbiologist, Anne Wigmore. Anne began making cheese at the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD) in 1984, having worked as a microbiologist. After travelling for six months she returned to Berkshire and formed her own company under the government Enterprise Allowance scheme. This initiative paid participants £40 per week and offered short training courses in administration for the budding entrepreneur. Anne began her business in a garden outbuilding in Spencers Wood near Reading in 1986.
The array of jams, jellies and chutneys all looked tempting but I was especially focused on fresh products. Had I to choose though I would have tried the Beetroot & Rose Geranium, Gooseberry & Vanilla or Apricot & Elderflower jams.
In the early summer months there would hopefully be a wider range of vegetables, and some fruits available. Chatting with a member of the dairy herd team at the market, I learned that demand for Heckfield dairy is growing and they’re looking to increase yield, and therefore considering adding maize (corn) feed to supplement the herd’s diet, so be sure to check before you buy at future markets.
Other than those two considerations this little market is a joy and well worth a visit to stock up specifically on fresh basics.
The fact that the pop-up market is held outside in the fields adds to the atmosphere. Everyone serving at the market were friendly and helpful, including the attendants directing the ‘car park’ (in an adjoining field). The overall feeling was relaxed. It felt rather like visiting a friend’s garden to relax with a coffee under a shady umbrella. Chat with the knowledgeable helpers and amongst customers, revealed a shared passion for good food. A food-lovers’ market for sure.
Whether you live within reach of Heckfield or you are visiting Hampshire check for forthcoming Heckfield Home Farm produce markets heckfieldhomefarm.com. Dates are not released too far in advance. Entry is free but pre-booking online is essential.
I’ll be reviewing more farm shops over the coming weeks so sign up to receive these direct to your inbox (no third party sharing) or follow @hashtagtravelin on Instagram.