Browsing Beaulieu

One of the most visited spots in the New Forest; Beaulieu has everything locals and tourists could possibly want. Carole Varley met some of the people who have made the village their home for business and pleasure

Farm freshIt’s been less than three months since Les Bowden and John Jordan opened the Beaulieu Organic Farm Shop, but already they’re rushed off their feet selling a wide range of organic produce. The two, trained butchers both, worked together at the multi-award-winning Warborne Farm,  Lymington, which closed at Christmas, and they felt that there was still an organic niche in the market to be filled and that they, with all their experience, were ideally placed to jump into it.So far, they seem to be right. “It’s going even better than we envisaged,” says Les, who started off as a Saturday boy in his native Ware, Hertfordshire. “People are more aware of what goes into their food these days,” he says. “They want good produce, and they don’t mind paying for it.” So when they get pork from Beaulieu “they know that it will have been ethically raised and well-butchered and will always crackle when cooked, and that the chicken has spent 16 to 20 weeks scratching outside for its food. The animals grow as they should do, and it really does make a big difference,” says Les.Although he didn’t start out as an organic butcher, Les is now totally committed to the idea of producing food as close as possible to what nature intended and he finds that many people, particularly those with young children, are anxious to avoid feeding them unnecessary chemicals, such as colourants.  “When everything is looked after properly, you feel so much better about the whole thing,” says Les, who sources some of his organic meat from devotees such as former Formula One racing driver Jody Scheckter, who farms organically at Laverstoke Park Farm, near Overton, and River Cottage farmer, broadcaster and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall. “Everything we sell is as fresh and local as possible,” says Les. As well as lamb, matured beef, pork, poultry, game and venison, the shop also sells a range of sausages made to its own recipe, from pork and leek to lamb and apricot and homemade pork and apple and lamb and mint burgers, with locally-sourced fruit, vegetables, organic soups, cheese and bread. So what does Les, who says he’s quite happy in the kitchen, like cooking best for himself?  “Lamb stir fry, or lamb chops, just simply grilled”. After all, when the meat’s that good, there’s not much you need to do for every bit to taste brilliant. Yes chef!When he was offered the opportunity to work in a Michelin star restaurant  with one of his hero chefs, Alistair Craig jumped as quickly as you can say ‘sautee’. So now 32-year-old Alistair, who studied catering at Worthing College and spent some time in the kitchens at Bayliff’s Court Hotel, Sussex, is happily ensconced as sous chef at the Montagu Arms Hotel, Beaulieu, where, to use his words, “we don’t mess around with food. Obviously, we employ a few modern techniques, but we try to keep as close to the true flavours as possible in our dishes”.Craig, who says that he has “always loved cooking, loved eating, loved everything to do with food”  is one of a team of 10 at the hotel under the leadership of head chef Matthew Tomkinson, a 2005 Roux Scholarship winner. The hotel was awarded the star just months after Matthew took over the kitchen in January 2009.“One of the best things about working here is that all the produce is of a fantastic standard and everything changes with the seasons. We’re very lucky because there is such a wide range of top-quality farm shops, suppliers and producers, such as the Kitchen Garden Co [in Exbury] available nearby, and more and more are coming forward all the time. We even get foragers arriving with armfuls of wild herbs – and it’s great fun to see what we can do with them,” says Alistair.“We have also started keeping chickens for their eggs and growing our own organic herbs, fruit and vegetables – in fact the first of them are coming in now and I’m really keen to start to cooking with them all. We have also cured our first ham, which is exciting, too.”Alistair’s favourite style of cooking is traditional French. “The classic recipes work for a reason,” he says. His favourite dishes to cook for the restaurant are “something light and tasty” like fresh trout from the river Test, bass from the Solent, John Dory or turbot, for which he might also make a gratin of razor clams and mussels. To eat, his favourite meal is squab pigeon. As for celebrity chefs, Alistair thinks that many of them fall more into the category of entertainers than cooks, but he does like Jamie Oliver because “he makes a very good ambassador” for the food industry, and Rick Stein “for the whole picture of food, cooking and lifestyle” that he paints.The team at the Montagu Arms don’t seem to be doing too badly on that score themselves. Right at homeFirst established in 1876 by the great-grandfather of the current owner, Frederic Norris, as an animal feed, saddlery and country store, the F. Norris & Son Home Farm business now has a staff of 25 and three outlets  – a gift shop on the site of the original store, which now sells, among otherthings, textiles by Cath Kidston, and pottery by Emma Bridgewater, the Forge, which purveys all the clothing for hunting, shooting, fishing and riding that you could ever need, and Home Farm, where they still sell animals feed and are master saddlers with a mobile saddle-fitting service. And that’s not to mention the recently-launched online store.All of which keep Frederic and his wife, Paula, very busy. But all this outdoorsy, country living sounds like a world away from a woman who studied fine art at the University of Newcastle. So did Paula ever imagine the course her life would take? “I certainly didn’t intend to become a retailer,” she says. “But over the years I have found that I really enjoy many aspects of it.” Her husband Frederic, on the other hand, who studied for an agricultural degree in Exeter and spent some time as a grain trader in the City of London, always “knew that he wanted to come home again”.Not that Paula’s sorry, of course. Far from it. Having been brought up in Hampshire herself and a rider and animal lover with two Border collies, she loves the country community life in Beaulieu. “Every week there’s something going on that you can get involved in,” she says, “whether it’s a concert at the church or a flower festival. There’s certainly something for everyone.”That Frederic’s 94-year-old father still lives in the original family premises behind the gift shop, coming into work at 7am every day, is not only testament to how much of a family business Home Farm still is, but to the dedication of all involved. As Paula says: “The staff are all animal mad, and riders themselves. They live and breathe animals. They are all really knowledgeable – you could ask them anything on the subject.”With all this activity around, there isn’t a great deal of spare time for Frederic and Paula but, in any spare moments they get, Frederic likes to try his hand at growing his own vegetables while Paula reverts to her former life and gets out her easel and watercolour paints. It’s just that the landscape has changed a little.