Speaking to Jenny on this glorious morning, one thing is apparent, she loves British produce, whether it's farmed on land or caught from our coastal shores. Jenny has compiled two cookery books celebrating the Best of British and talks with us about how and why her books came about.
Interview by Susan Davies
I read that until you married your husband, a farmer, that you hadn't thought too much about how food was produced. Has living on a farm changed your perspective on how we produce food in the UK?
Yes, definitely. Witnessing my first ever harvest, when I first moved up to live with my husband John, a farmer here in South Cambridgeshire, I saw the incredibly hard graft and passion required to produce a box of cereal or loaf of bread for a kitchen table. John and other farmers around the country work incredibly hard, and I wanted to share that story.
How did you come up with the idea for both books?
The idea came from the shameful ignorance of food provenance and where food generally comes from.
It happened over the course of a couple of years. It started with my marrying my husband and then weaning my daughter, who's now five and a half. I had a revolving kitchen door, with my husband out on his tractor all day and weaning my daughter; I wondered, what am I supposed to feed my family?
I wanted a source of information where I could go for recipes. Also, recipes that match our farming lifestyle and being able to see the whole process from the beginning until it reaches our tables. It stirred something inside me, and that's where the idea came from. I had this new farming background and a family to cook for!
I've always been passionate about food anyway, and coming from St Albans, where they have restaurants on your doorstep, I took all that food for granted. I'm a real foodie and love entertaining and the social connection; it's the only time we stop what we are doing.
I wanted to bridge the gap between town and country, between producer and consumer, and food and technology. I want to celebrate and highlight where our food comes from. We are an island nation, yet we can be ignorant about the hard work that goes into where our food comes from. I wanted to produce or compile a book that illustrates the stories behind how our food is made and how it's produced, how it gets from net to plate and farm to fork. The book needed to be accessible, informative and entertaining, and essentially shares where our food comes from.
Is it time for us all to consider more where our food is from?
Covid highlighted the importance of farmers and how they kept us fed throughout the pandemic. As a result, we are all more aware, and it has given people time to reconnect and take stock about things that are important for them; it's not just grabbing food on the go but cooking and sharing meals at home, something that we may have forgotten.
How did you choose your contributors?
My husband and I made a list of fantastic producers from around the country, which was a perfect place to start. It's quite geographical, with arable farming in East Anglia and seafood and fishing around the coast. Originally it was one book, but the title change suggested by our publisher, For the Love of Land, meant we developed the idea into two books.
I wanted it to include the whole of the UK and have a perfect spread around the country, so we have a lavender farm in Kent, a dairy farm in Yorkshire, lamb farming in Wales. I did a lot of work on the internet; it's a great way to communicate. Social media and the internet used respectfully is a fantastic tool in reaching out and learning about others.
For instance, Bigton Farm on the Shetland Islands is run by two young sisters. They've just won an award for enthusiasm and entrepreneurship - that is how I found out about them.
When compiling the book, was there more of a focus on the recipe or the story behind the food?
It's both; the recipe is the background to showcase the produce, but the story behind it is of equal importance. As a book they make a nice marriage together, for me, you can't have one without the other.
Do you have a favourite dish from the book?
They have all become special to me, and I cook them all at home, it's impossible to say. Some lovely highlights are the quintessentially British black beef bolognese from a traditional lowland farm in Leicestershire, a rustic mutton soup from Bigton farm in the Shetland Islands or an asparagus bake from a family-run game farm.
I love that the book has such a vast array of different produce, from meat, dairy, and something extra like lavender or edible flowers and chillies. The book has a good mixture between main meals and desserts, and vegetarian and meat dishes. They are special to me. There is so much emotion, tradition, heritage and culture that go into these stories, and really evocative images too.
Mezze Publishing has done a fantastic job producing the books, with fantastic photography from Paul Gregory, Simon Burt, Claire Irwin, Tim Green and Matt Crowder. They all went out just before the pandemic, spoke to everybody in their natural environment, and came back with some stunning photos. Paul shot them himself, he's a talented photographer, and I hope we have made farmers and fishermen proud.
The book is nominated for a Great British Food Award. So how does this make you feel?
Yes, we've been nominated best cookbook and in such lovely company as Mary Berry, Jamie Oliver, James Martin, and Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone. I feel like I've won already. I don't find out until the end of October. I'm not expecting anything; it would just be the icing on the cake. It's just fantastic to have the public's support.
Also, It has given us credibility, and it seems to have touched the hearts of people and that they are enjoying the books. It's so exciting to see people's meals that they have cooked at home and share on social media. It's very special and touching.
How can the British public support the food industry?
Love British Food is an organisation that highlights how great British food produce is! I am now a Food Hero, and we encourage the public as much as possible to buy locally, buy sustainably, buy seasonally, and most of all buy British.
Do you feel optimistic for the Agriculture and Fishing Industries future?
I feel optimistic, but the Fishing Industry is currently reeling from the Brexit delays that have severely hampered exports to Europe. The British Government could do more. One of the UK's largest fishing vessels is currently in the dock; as we have made no trade deals. As a result, fishermen, especially at the moment, are losing their livelihoods.
I am passionate about this. People are going out of business. On top of the pandemic, Brexit has hit them badly. The thing you and I can do to help is to eat more fish, buy more sustainable fish. Eat it at home, choose it at the restaurant.
In regards to Agriculture, again, Brexit has made a considerable impact. The Australian trade deal is also very concerning for British Agriculture. We have Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmer's Union, who has been a brilliant ambassador for British Farmers. Yet, it's unknown how such trade deals will impact us.
I hope that our Government starts listening to what we want, which is to make the high animal welfare of our country not be exonerated and under demised by imports from other countries where they don't meet the same levels of animal welfare and productivity. It is a very delicate issue and one that we will all become more aware of as time passes.
My husband speaks in the book about Conservation Agriculture, which looks at regenerative farming and a new pioneering farming method. It's environmentally friendly and looks after our wildlife. Going back to more traditional methods, looking after the crops by having sheep on farms, fertilising the soil naturally means less machinery and chemicals. It is using nature, and it is affordable. Conservation Agriculture is all about the health of the earth and looking after the soil. I'm optimistic about farming generally, and politics is what may hold us back.
So many farmers and fishermen feel let down by the Government. To not get too political, I am optimistic about it all, but we need more help and more subsidiaries. The Government needs to listen to the fishermen and farmers.
I wonder if there are plans for a new book?
Never say never. I have no new plans at the moment. It's important to realise when we think of harvesting, we think of the farm and the seas. The books accomplish this. I've left a little legacy for my children and hopefully have been able to educate people on where their food comes from. We are so lucky to have this massive array of produce that it needs to be celebrated and shared!
Life on the farm is generally busy, but how do you spend your free time?
We had a lovely day off, from the farm, for my husband's birthday. It was an inset day at school, and so we had the children at home. We had a baking class with the Happy Kitchen Food Company and we had a family session with her which was lovely.
We love eating out at local restaurants and supporting local businesses, and now we can all meet up and see grandparents, and friends and family is wonderful. It was such a tough year not being able to see people.
We couldn't agree more! Jenny, we wish you lots of luck at the Great British Food Awards!
Buy Jenny's Books Today
Not only are Jenny's books beautiful, but they are also incredibly successful at sharing all the fantastic produce Britain's land, and coastal shores have to offer. Grab a copy today.
Chatting Food Contributor: Susan Davies
I re-trained as a chef in my forties, it was tough, but I love cooking. I studied at Westminster College and worked at Food by John Lawson; both were amazing experiences. Now I run a monthly supper club local to where I live in Leigh on Sea and more recently set up Eat Well Together, to post recipes that anyone can cook. I love growing my own vegetables and if I’m not in the kitchen, I’m in the garden.
During the lockdown, I wanted to share stories of those thriving at this challenging time.