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On the farm with Simon Rogan

On the farm with Simon Rogan

by Tom Shingler Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Tom Shingler takes a trip to the Lake District to visit the two-starred chef on his farm, which supplies his restaurants in Cumbria, Manchester and London with the freshest produce possible.

Tom Shingler is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Leafing through seed catalogues, planting thousands of seedlings, finding out carrots taste better if you leave them in the ground all winter; all things you’d normally associate with a farmer, not a chef. But this is exactly what Simon Rogan, the brains behind Cumbria’s legendary L’Enclume, Rogan & Company, Fera at Claridge’s and The French in Manchester (among others) seems to love doing whenever he has the chance – ever since he set up his own farm just down the road from his two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Cartmel.

On paper, it sounds like quite a small operation. Twelve acres of land is tiny compared to a typical commercial farm. It’s only when you see how much work goes into producing ingredients that simply cannot be bought from suppliers that you realise how passionate (almost bordering on the obsessed) Simon and his team are with quality, freshness and flavour. ‘We run a very precise and tight ship,’ says Simon. ‘The techniques we use have been perfected over the last three years, and everything's run a bit like a production line. It can be quite a monotonous job at times, but we’re all very protective over the plants and treat them like our children.’

Just three years ago the farm was nothing but fields, but since then it has constantly grown to make room for more polytunnels, planting space and projects. This is certainly no kitchen garden – the latest expansion has seen a whole new area crop up towards the back, where raised beds and fertile soil are used to their full potential. There’s also an orchard which, while still young, will eventually produce apples, damsons and pears (among other things), as well as a barn used for storage, refrigeration and packing. Plans are currently in motion to build a smokehouse and possibly a meat curing room, too. There are hundreds more ideas whizzing around Simon's head – he just needs the space to make them a reality.

The farm
The farm is just a few miles from Simon's two-Michelin-starred restaurant L'Enclume, in the beautiful Cumbrian countryside
Simon Rogan
Simon set up his farm three years ago – and it has been expanding ever since

Variety show

 
 

As you can probably guess, the farm at L’Enclume puts quality before quantity. However, the number of different varieties being grown is staggering. Eight different types of cucumber in all shapes, colours and sizes; herbs all but unheard of even in the most knowledgeable culinary circles and almost fluorescent radishes in shades of pink, purple, red and yellow – just a tiny taste of what’s being lovingly harvested.

‘Our polytunnels are full year-round,’ says Simon. ‘We tend to grow the same basic stuff each year, but then look at different varieties or dropping certain plants to make room for new ones. For example, this year we’re growing a special type of Japanese parsley called Mitsuba which has a subtly distinct flavour, and a variety of coriander called Confetti which has fine, feathery leaves.’

 
Pak choi
Trialling heritage and rare varieties of ingredients means the team has access to produce unavailable from suppliers
Radishes
Radishes and other small vegetables are used to garnish or finish dishes
We’re not crossbreeding herbs or playing God, we just want to grow the most amazing ingredients and then try not to do too much to them before they get to the plate. Why change them if they already taste perfect?

Simon Rogan

Because the majority of what the team grows is used to garnish and finish dishes, it has to be precise and perfect. If it doesn’t meet their very exacting standards, then it gets rejected. ‘This makes everything quite time-consuming, but you just can’t buy the quality of fennel we’re growing, for example,’ explains Simon. ‘The apple marigold isn’t available from any British supplier, and we grow our own pea shoots because we think they’re the best. They're sent to the restaurants still growing in their punnets, so they can be snipped at the last minute and the freshness, flavour and quality are as good as they can be.

‘It’s easy to grow your own window box in the kitchen at home – all we’re doing here is that on a massive scale with the highest attention to detail,’ he continues. ‘The apple marigold might sound exotic but it’s as easy to grow as parsley. We’re not crossbreeding herbs or playing God or anything like that; we just want to grow the most amazing ingredients and then try not to do too much to them before they get to the plate. Why change them if they already taste perfect?’

It’s not just crops Simon grows – he rears his own meat, too. From the cattle at the farm’s entrance to the roaming sheep and rare breed plumed chickens (of which the team are about to get many, many more of, along with some guinea fowl), it’s clear every aspect of farm production is being looked at. ‘We used to have a lot more pigs but they are incredibly high maintenance and we just couldn’t cope with them. However, we’ve got someone to look after them now, so we’re upscaling production.’

 
Keith
Head gardener Keith looks after the day-to-day operation of the farm
Edible flowers
It's not just fruit and veg being grown – edible flowers are a very important crop too

Moving forward

 
 

Consistency is at the heart of any good restaurant, and being able to serve the exact same dish again and again is key to winning top awards. This means having a constant supply of produce that can meet an ever-growing demand is vital. ‘Anything we can do to boost productivity is fantastic,’ says Simon. ‘We supply a lot of people across the different restaurants, and if we ever expand in the future then we’ll need to supply the new businesses too. Just a few more square metres in a polytunnel can make all the difference.’

Of course, cooking with the seasons means certain produce is only available at certain times. But Simon and the team use polytunnels to increase the amount of time they have in a particular season. They also cover root vegetables like carrots and beetroots with sand over the winter – when fresh ingredients are harder to come by. ‘Not only does this prolong the season, but it results in a sweeter flavour as everything becomes concentrated in the root,’ he explains. ‘We’re always pickling and fermenting whatever we can to use over the colder months, but as long as you have leaves already planted in the ground, you can continue growing things like lettuces or cabbages – it just takes a little longer. We’re hoping to grow a type of carrot called Eskimo this year, which you can leave in the ground all winter, so long as you cover it with a bit of straw.’

Using innovative new equipment and farming methods is another way Simon tries to boost production – provided it doesn’t clash with the team’s all-natural ethos. ‘We’re not certified organic but we would be if we wanted to get the accreditation,’ explains Simon. ‘To increase production, we’ve started using a biodegradable paper which bonds with the soil, keeps the moisture levels consistent and prevents weeds from sprouting. We then directly sow seeds into the ground with a machine called a Jang. You just push it along and it plants the seeds at the perfect depth with perfect spacing between them. It takes two minutes to do a job which is traditionally very laborious and time-consuming, and the paper means we don’t have to do any weeding either.’

 
Sheep
Sheep, pigs, chickens and cows are also reared on the farm
Micro herbs
The growing of micro herbs is run like a production line, with dozens of different varieties harvested weekly

This year has seen a huge increase in the amount of ingredients being grown – so much so that Simon is hoping to sell the surplus to the public. ‘Being able to offer salad boxes to guests to go away with would be great,’ he says. ‘We’re also planning to offer complimentary tours to people once the farm is all spick and span, with a few picnic tables up here so they can get involved in some barbecuing, or perhaps we’ll set up a wood-fired oven.’

Simon is by no means the first chef to setup his own farm, and he won’t be the last – he gets constant requests from others in the industry eager to come and take a look at what he’s doing. But what sets his operation apart is the dedication to perfection, and his eagerness to discover varieties of ingredients unknown in the rest of the culinary community. Chefs can often be quite highly strung, and the pressures of the kitchen mean they rarely take time to relax and slow down. But hearing Simon talk passionately about his farm as we casually meander from plot to plot proves it’s something more than just a means of supply. It’s also a therapeutic retreat when he and his hard-working chefs can take some time out, get hands-on with the food they’re cooking and appreciate where it comes from.

 
 

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