As the summer starts to wind down it’s time to start thinking about stocking up with those little items that will turn root vegetables and autumnal fruit into heartwarming dishes in the cooler months to come. A few jars of pesto and paste to enrich winter casseroles, a tin of quality sardines to whizz into a pate to accompany hot buttered toast, or a few venison sausages to tuck away in the freezer ready to be enjoyed with a rich gravy and mash.
One of the appeals of farm shops is the retro atmosphere of a visit to the individual butcher, baker, and greengrocer, in person. They offer a return to simpler times when the options were almost entrely seasonal, local and without so much plastic packaging.
And, here’s the thing. Each farm shop is individual and you are never sure exactly what you will find. It’s that sense of the unexpected that appeals to jaded palates used to everything being available 24/7 and year-round.
In the second of the hashtagtravelling series on farm shops, I visited the decidedly up-market Cowdray Farm Shop in search of interesting seasonal and store cupboard ingredients, as well as some late season Italian lemons.
In the same way that some people have a passion for stationery shops (all those shiny new pens and crisp, fresh notebooks), the haberdashery (buckles, buttons and frilly bits), or the hardware store (plugs, paintpots and brushes), farm shops have a special charm of their own with an electic mix of fresh produce, dairy, wines, fish and meat, even pet food or charcoal and logs for burning. Their very nature ensures a more conscious shop. In complete contrast to the ‘no-humans required automatic check-outs’, where you can shop without speaking to a single person, part of the attraction is a chat with staff who are actually involved with the fresh food production what’s good this week.
Cowdray Farm Shop is undoubtedly high end within its genre. According to the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) farm shops do not need planning permission to sell their own produce (at least 90%) in a suitable existing building. In addition, “Farm shops which intend to sell anything that has been processed, including meat and poultry (which are not regarded as fresh produce) will need planning permission.” FARMA supports applications where 40% of goods are own produce plus local foods, 40% regional and 20% from elsewhere, a formula they believe will lead to a more viable business.
Cowdray Estate has clearly made a big investment in the shop, where there is a mix of fresh meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables and storecupboard ingredients, and the adjoining cafe, as well as a couple of independent shops selling homewares and gifts.
Fruit + Veg
The fruit and vegetable section was varied but there was a good selection of mostly seasonal, although not generally organic, produce including colourful yellow courgettes and big fat marrows. Packaging was mostly plastic-free although more compostable boxes for berries and other small fruits would be welcome.
As for the aforementioned lemons, juicy Italian varieties have the best sweet, yet tart, citrusy flavour. The harvest season can last until October but the ones available were past their best. That’s how it is when you’re eating seasonally and there’s plenty to look forward to in autumn.
Artisan made bread made by local Sussex-based Real Patisserie included the requisite sourdough as well as French baguettes, croissants and scones. Apparently, the secret to a good chewy crust on the moulded loaves is baking in a stone decked oven. The yeasty aroma was delicious.
The chill cabinets contain a good range of delicatessen items such as hummus, yogurt (including Neal’s Yard, surely the creamiest Greek-style ever) and similar type products. There is an excellent selection of butters, both plain and flavoured varieties, including handmade Irish butter Abernethy churned from cream from grass-fed cows. This freezes well, sliced and wrapped separately so you can take out a small pat for your breakfast toast, or to melt into warm vegetables or pasta.
At study of the map of the British Isles on the wall illustrates where the cheeses displayed are made. In addition, handwritten labels provide further details on pasteurisation status, type of milk used and (very helpful) tasting notes. Someone is on hand too to offer a sliver to taste and further advice. Wine, coffee, honey, olive oil and so on, are all influenced by the terroir in which the raw ingredients grow, and cheese is no different. Whatever the animal has eaten will affect the taste and quality of the end product.
The butchery counter was stocked with Cowdray Home Farm free-range beef (Hereford and Sussex). It didn’t, however, appear to be either organic or grass-fed and finished. A generic statement on the web site states that Cowdray farm aims ‘to improve soil structure and health’ and ‘Actively avoiding the use of perceived harmful chemicals’ without further detail.
If you are wondering about fresh fish this is apparently available courtesy Johnsons Fresh Fish a family business based in Portsmouth who offer a mobile stall in the region, and currently at Cowdray on Tuesdays and Fridays 11am to 2pm.
Estate honey, preserves and eggs, including quail’s eggs, traditionally a spring treat, sat alongside a comprehensive range of staple items. The focus was on artisanal and handmade products, with well-known wholefood organic labels like Biona and Infinity on the shelves.
There was also a freezer stocked with Cowdray branded ready-meals (from cottage pie to venison bordelaise) and local ice cream, so if you visit take a cool bag to transport your goodies home.
Cowdray Farm Shop is more like a food emporium than a farm shop. Think mini Harrods Food Hall or Cavistons at Glasthule, a few stops on the Dart down the coast from Dublin, an epicurean experience so beautifully presented it is practically impossible to leave without succumbing to a purchase, however modest.
A quick Google search will show that products, such as ‘designer’ granolas, have a high mark-up. While real food, produced sustainably, generally, although not always, comes at a price, it’s worth doing your research. Whether a handmade cheese or single-estate coffee, it’s also true that a little goes a long way due to the intensity of flavour.
Sadly, quality food is fast becoming a luxury. Rather than a supermarket trolley-load, farm shops offer an alternative way to shop, focusing on a judicious selection of delicious, quality ingredients. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune or buying in bulk, although that’s something worth looking into with a group of friends or family to share the costs.
Eating well can be as simple as the indulgence of a pat of handmade butter and a jar of estate honey, to slather on a slice or two of yeasty fresh bread. Savour with a cup of coffee made from freshly ground, single-estate coffee beans. Keep it simple. Life in the slow lane.
Another attraction of farm shops is their location, set right in the landscape, with open spaces and trees. In addition to the farm shop at Cowdray an attractive cafe features an outdoor terrace and a couple of small shops with carefully curated household items and gifts. It’s not a ‘day’s worth’ of attraction but certainly a morning or afternoon if you stop for a light lunch or afternoon tea. www.cowdray.co.uk
Stay at the historic The Spread Eagle Hotel or check out the boutique B&B at Visit Midhurst. This is Goodwood country and there are plenty of small accommodation options in the area that cater to the annual big events. Other local walks include St Anne’s Hill where you can explore the medieval motte ruins or indulge in a spot of forest bathing. The cathedral city of Chichester is around 20 minutes away by car or just over 40 minutes by local bus if you are seeking a more sustainable option.
Main blog photo: The entrance to Cowdray Farm Shop painted in the estate’s colour.
Note: please check opening hours and fish deliveries on the Cowdray Farm Shop web site before visiting.