Southern stars: the producers of Sussex

Southern stars: the producers of Sussex

by Chloë King 17 August 2016

Chloë King takes a look at three food producers in Sussex that are taking the country's culinary scene to new heights.

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Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books. A member of the Guild of Food Writers and a Royal College of Art graduate, Chloe is happiest working on projects that combine her love of food and cooking with her interest in art and culture, people and places. Based in East Sussex, Chloe's freelance portfolio spans graphic art, journalism, events management and lecturing.

With its enviable landscape of coast, downland and weald, the southern county of Sussex is close to France in geography and full of excellent food producers to rival its neighbours. Probably most famous for its sparkling wines – the Sussex soil is said to closely match that of the Champagne region in France – Sussex also boasts a plethora of cheesemakers, charcutiers, farmers and growers. Here follows but a small selection that set the standard.

Springs Smokery

Springs Smokery in Edburton, West Sussex, has been producing top quality oak-smoked fish and meat using traditional methods for over fifty years. Their repertoire is broad: from classic smoked salmon and Nordic gravadlax to smoked cod roe, kippers and duck.

Directors Simon Owen and Len Leeson bought the company eighteen months ago, attracted by the quality of the produce and the company story. The smokery has been a family-owned firm since 1964 and, in its earlier days, attracted the affections of Delia Smith. Len and Simon have given the company a beautifully crafted rebrand worthy of a coveted D&AD design award, and are working to lift the smokery back to its former heights, when its salmon was stocked at Harrods and in British Airways’ First Class.

‘I love the heritage,’ says Simon. ‘Springs was a very well known brand, and we’re trying to get it back out there again. We have kept the essence of smoking our salmon exactly the same since the business was founded.’

Springs have a small shop frequented by regulars, and at Christmas people go on a pilgrimage to buy their products. Their head smoker Nick has worked there for thirty-five years along with other employees. On site they hand-fillet the fish, which is then traditionally dry-salted and cold-smoked over Sussex-sourced oak in brick kilns. ‘It takes four to five days to produce and it’s all done by hand and sight,’ says Simon. ‘If it’s not ready, it stays in. It’s not done by the push of a button.’

It’s pleasing to see an old Sussex business being given a new lease of life, particularly when you can see old production methods being celebrated and introduced to a new generation. ‘We have staff that have been here a long time,’ says Simon. ‘It’s hard work but that shows it’s a nice place to be. We are all proud of the product we produce.’

Springs Smokery
Springs Smokery is an old favourite of Delia Smith's, and the salmon has been stocked in Harrods
With a Soil Association organic accreditation, Barcombe offers a huge range of vegetables grown in the nutrient-rich soils of Sussex

Barcombe Nurseries

Barcombe Nurseries near Lewes, East Sussex, won their Soil Association organic certification in 1997 and have been growing beautiful fruit and veg ever since. Throughout the year, they nurture a large range of produce: from chard, herbs and green garlic to purple sprouting broccoli, aubergine and kohlrabi.

Barcombe Nurseries’ Adrian Halstead and Maggie Harvey are passionate about growing organically, which Maggie says is firstly about nourishing the microbiology in the soil. ‘Healthy soil nurtures healthy vegetables which are better able to fight off pests and disease,’ she says. ‘There is a future in farming this way and we believe the vegetables taste better.’

Barcombe Nurseries find that a box scheme is the most sustainable way to sell their produce and they now deliver over 400 throughout East Sussex. They only pick what customers have pre-ordered so there is no waste, and growing plans are based on what people need.

The farm is probably best known for their salad crops, which they grow all year. ‘In the winter the hardier leaves create a stronger, more mustardy-tasting salad,’ says Maggie. ‘In the summer it is sweeter, and we include edible flowers such as Nasturtium, Marigold and Pansies when we have them.’ The heavy clay-based Sussex soil is less ideally suited to root vegetable crops, which means Barcombe work with other specialist growers locally and further afield to supply customers with the full spectrum of veg they desire.

‘When people visit, they are amazed at how much is being grown by so few,’ says Maggie, who invites customers to visit the farm when they sign up. Barcombe proudly employs people within biking distance of the nursery, which supports the Sussex economy, another big reason why, if you can, it’s good to buy veg from growers like Maggie and Adrian.

‘By buying from us people are investing in the environment and supporting local biodiversity,’ says Maggie. ‘We’re small, so you’ll get through to us on the phone and the person you speak to will not only know about your box order, but they will have mud on their boots, and can also give suggestions of how to cook your kohlrabi – they may even have delivered it!’

The vegetables grown by Barcombe nurseries are managed by a small team of dedicated people
Charlie's Farm Shop
Charlie's Farm Shop grew out of a dairy farm that originally sold raw milk at the farm gate

Charlie’s Farm Shop & Southview Farm Dairy

Charlie and Sarah Hughes have been running the award-winning Charlie’s Farm Shop in Pulborough, West Sussex, since 2013. It’s a big development on what was formerly an honesty shop selling the raw milk, cream and eggs from Southview Farm Dairy, which has been the Hughes’ family farm for three generations.

The Hughes’ still sell raw milk ‘directly from the farm gate’ as well as pasteurised milk, cream yoghurt and their own luxury ice cream. ‘Our dairy produce is as fresh as it can be,’ says Sarah. ‘Within twenty-four hours our milk may have gone from udder to our customers’ cornflakes!’

The butchery sells their own twenty-one-day-aged beef, rose veal and milk-fed pork as well as lamb, poultry and game from other suppliers. Add to this fresh fish, bread from Jengers of Billingshurst and Hungry Guest, wines, spirits, fruit, veg and groceries, and their customers have all they need from a supermarket – without the food miles.

As Sarah says, ‘We believe in good quality, local produce and supporting other producers like ourselves. We are lucky that there are lots of great food producers in Sussex so this has made stocking the shop with lots of lovely produce an easy task.’

Charlie and Sarah believe that traceability is among the most important things to consider when choosing food. ‘We all know that food is more nutritious the fresher it is and the fewer miles it has travelled,’ says Sarah. ‘An organic product, if grown abroad and travelled to the UK, is not going to be as nutritious as something grown down the road.’

Charlie’s Farm Shop is a favourite with nearby villages and its position on the busy A29 helps bring in passing trade. It’s a labour of love and old-fashioned hard work, however, as the Hughes are essentially responsible for three businesses in one: the farm of fifty cattle and 110 milking cows, the dairy and the shop.

‘The low milk price is a constant challenge,’ says Sarah. ‘We only pasteurise half our milk and the rest has to be wholesaled at a price lower than the cost of production.’ It’s supermarket policies like this that makes it even more important that we support enterprising producers like the Hughes, who are passionate about what they do.