JANE SCOTTER - FOUNDER OF FERN VERROW
“We want to produce the very best tasting food, that is what motivates us in the end.”
Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Black Mountains lies Fern Verrow, a charming 16-acre biodynamic farm. Drawing inspiration from the idyllic surrounding landscape, solitude and fresh country air, owners Jane Scotter and Harry Astley spend their days cultivating their seasonal organic British vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruits and tending to their livestock. It is a romantic image that belies the reality that it has been a long hard road establishing the life they have always dreamed of.
Jane first moved to Fern Verrow in 1996 after growing tired of city life running her business Neal’s Yard Dairy. At the time Fern Verrow was a rundown farm house surrounded by a few acres of tired pasture and Jane had no experience of farming or growing. Twenty years on, Fern Verrow is flourishing and renowned for growing some of the finest seasonal organic produce in the country. Fern Verrow’s star now shines so bright that Skye Gyngell, the acclaimed chef, approached Jane and Harry three years ago about supplying her new restaurant Spring.
I spoke to Jane about where her interest in food and growing stems from, how she ended up at Fern Verrow, transitioning to country life, the main challenges for growers, her partnership with Skye Gyngell and her interest in the artistic side of her work.
Where does your interest in food and growing stem from?
My mother was a wonderful cook and did her very best to cultivate our interest in food. As children we spent our summer holidays travelling around France and Italy and would often go to lovely local restaurants. I wasn’t terribly good at school so managed to persuade my parents to let me go to a cooking school in France for a year. It was a very inspirational time for me as the lady whose house I was staying in was an amazing cook and would only ever use the very best ingredients.
How did you end up at Fern Verrow?
I was owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy, the famous cheese shop. After fifteen years, the dairy was growing in such a way that I spent most of my time managing staff and travelling the country, buying cheeses and visiting farms. I always loved the countryside and practical, physical work so came up with the romantic idea of leaving London to start growing food in the Black Mountains, an area I enjoyed visiting as a child. It was not anything like I expected to be honest; that is probably the biggest surprise for people who come and work with us; it is not as idealistic as it seems, it is hard work but at the same time there are wonderful rewards.
Did you always plan to move to the countryside or were you simply fed up with the city and longing for a slower pace of life which would bring you closer to nature?
I can remember walking down Old Compton Street on my way to pick up my children from school in Soho and thinking I have had enough of living in the city. Six months later I was gone but it was certainly a roller coaster; I had no experience of growing but really wanted to do it, had a lot of will to learn and determination to make it happen.
Was it hard transitioning to country life?
Yes, I was really surprised how cold the winters are; it is often freezing cold and wet and you have to rely on the fire to keep warm. Also you can’t just pop around the corner to get a pint of milk it involves a whole day out and when you walk in to the shop everyone knows who you are. But while it can be a bit grim sometimes, the solitude, the quiet, the clean air, and the clean water make living here worthwhile. Ultimately we really love where we live.
It is an idyllic setting where you live; you must get a lot of inspiration from the surrounding landscape…
The landscape is amazing, absolutely amazing. When we drive home from being away there is a little point where we go over a hill and you can feel the air change. We know we are home then. Our office is the fields with the mountains in the background and beautiful plants that we are cultivating all around us. We feel very privileged to do what we do.
Did you always plan for the farm to be biodynamic?
It was the mid-nineties when we moved to Fern Verrow and the organic movement was becoming fashionable again after a couple of public health scares. We approached the various organic certifying bodies and the Biodynamic Association was by far and away the most helpful and friendly. The Soil Association would not talk to us until we had sent them a cheque for fifty pounds. But the Biodynamic Association positively welcomed us with open arms. We tried the biodynamic preparations and sprays and they had a very positive impact on the land and plants. There is always more to learn about biodynamic farming and it encourages you to think about nature and the world we live in in a different way; it is a lovely thought process and something we carry with us every day while we are working.
Do you focus mainly on seasonal British vegetables?
Yes, it is hard not to really because if you don’t the produce is not going to be very good. For instance, I tried to grow aubergines once because I think they are a beautiful plant and we have a big greenhouse but it just doesn’t work, they don’t taste very nice. Generally speaking we do not have the length of season that they require, the Black Mountains are just not the place for it.
Beautiful green leaves and soft fruits like raspberries, currents and strawberries are what we do best because they are quintessentially British. Everything is grown at the right time of year in fresh air, in good soil, with clean water, and without pesticides so it goes without saying that it is going to taste delicious and have good nutritional value. We want to produce the very best tasting food, that is what motivates us in the end.
What is the biggest challenge you need to overcome each year?
The weather is definitely the biggest challenge as almost everything is grown outside. For instance, our strawberries are not in poly tunnels or covered so we have absolutely no control over the amount of rain they will get. That can be very difficult. We have also had years when winter was severely cold and wiped everything out and severely wet summers when it rained solidly from the middle of June to the end of October. But it always comes out in the wash, what is not good for one thing will be good for something else. We know our tomatoes will taste great this year because they have had so much sunshine. Ultimately you have to be very patient, which is difficult in the modern world as we are used to having what we want at the flick of a switch. Sometimes our strength is tested considerably.
Is it a 24 hour seven days a week job running Fern Verrow?
We work all the time I have to say, there is not a day which is not involved with the farm. We rarely go away but if we do we have to be sure that someone is here; the animals, an essential component of a biodynamic farm, need to be checked all the time and in the winter have to be fed. We no longer have to travel to London for the markets every week so have more time to go away now which is nice. We really enjoy going to the city to look at beautiful things. We are very happy with our lives, we love where we live and it is all going well in general.
How did your partnership with Skye Gyngell come about?
She wrote to us three years ago asking if we would be interested in supplying her. I knew about Skye because she had a wonderful restaurant at Petersham Nurseries for many years. I was aware that she was an ingredient based chef and that her food is considered very beautiful as well as tasting delicious, something that is also important to Harry and I.
At the time we were writing a book and going down to the market every single week, which was a very big undertaking. We always said we just need a chef that understands what we are doing and the value of properly grown food. Skye was exactly that chef. We are completely on the same page. She doesn’t ask us for micro this or baby that, she is after that moment when each vegetable is at its best. She writes her menus according to what is available from us and really values our produce, which is a gift to a grower. She has a special intuition for the ingredients; she can look at something and see how it will fit with her style of cooking. It is wonderful for us to have contact with who is using our food. The relationship with Skye is going very well so far, not only does she cook like an angel she is also a very inspiring and interesting woman.
The artistic side of your work is clearly very important to you, can you explain what you mean by that?
The beauty of our farm is really important to us; we want to make it very beautiful to look at as well as producing good, healthy crops and running a financially viable business. We are very proud to walk into the fields with neat, tidy lines of plants that look very healthy, full of colour and vibrancy; it is a beautiful thing to see. You give it your all and the produce will give back to you. Then to have someone like Skye who is a true artist cook with it is amazing.
What inspired you to write a book and what did you hope to achieve with it?
Tessa Traeger, who was the food photographer for Vogue in the 60s, helped us create a book that we are really proud of. She is a lady in her 70s with the most incredible eye for detail, light and colour but in a very natural way. She completely understood Fern Verrow; we wanted it to be a book about our lives here but also capture the beauty of where we live and our work so in many ways it is more an art book than a cooking book.
Do you think people expect to pay too little for their food?
Yes, I think that people generally do not value food, spend too little on it and spend too much on other things. Harry and I would much rather spend money on food than on a new television or car. People these days do not know how to cook food properly because they have not been taught how to. I also think it is very important to sit around and eat meals together.
I am interested in the health benefits of gardening and spending time outdoors, is it something that you also recognise?
A medical secretary volunteered with us recently and when she arrived she looked a bit glum. Now her skin is glowing, she has lost weight, is bright blue eyed, and generally looks absolutely amazing. She is a completely different person and has found what she wants to do with her life, teach handicapped people to garden. It is a wonderful thing to see, the transformation in people who come and work here.
What is your favourite season?
Spring is really special, coming out of hibernation and seeing the green appear. I also love the summer when it is warm and we are on top of all of our work. It is like flowers, you think you love tulips and then the sweet peas come and you think they are your favourite.
What does the future hold for Fern Verrow?
We are hoping it continues to go well with Skye and are part of her future plans. We also want to continue our vision of creating lots of gardens within the farm. Harry works on that any free moment he has. Everything we do is about building here and making it lovely.