Michel Roux Jr back in Shipbourne

Michel Roux Jr

Michel Roux Jr - Credit: Archant

Kent Farmers’ Market Month gets support of its celebrity patron

Mingling unobtrusively with the many other shoppers at the weekly Shipbourne Farmers’ Market on a sunny Thursday morning, the lean, handsome chap with the keen eye and greying stubble could have been anyone.

But this wasn’t just one of the Shipbourne faithful, it was the Market’s patron, Michel Roux Jr, and if he looked thoroughly at home it’s because he was.

The young Michel not only spent his first eight years in Shipbourne, where his father Albert Roux worked as a private chef for the Cazalet family, but he was nearly born in the kitchen at the ‘big house.’

“My mother went into labour while working with my father at Fairlawne Estate, so I was rushed to Pembury Hospital just in time and back the following morning. From them on, I was in the kitchen,” he smiles.

“I remember playing under a massive wooden table in the middle of the kitchen – well, it seemed massive to me as a child – and a tiny stove and an area where the butler used to polish silver and make tea. The butler’s wife used to make some great English sponge puddings and crumbles.”

And it was that food-filled beginning that led to Albert opening Le Gavroche, his son following in his footsteps and, who knows, maybe Michel’s daughter Emily (“an excellent chef,” according to her proud papa, continuing the family tradition.

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Michel and I are speaking in in the Vane family vault area of the crypt of St Giles Church at Shipbourne where, unusually, the weekly market takes place both in and around the ancient building.

Neither he nor his father Albert, who worked as a private chef for the Cazalet family, have ever forgotten their roots nor lost contact with the village that played such a formative part in their lives.

“It really was a perfect childhood and of course the village hasn’t changed: the green is still unbuilt on, the church and the pub are still here, it’s exactly how I remember it as a young boy.

Michel continues: “I remember the grandeur and splendour of Fairlawne very well, walking around the great grounds with my grandmother, who also worked there as a lady’s maid. The whole village was very warm and friendly to the ‘Frenchies’, as we were regarded, dad and mum, being so likeable and loveable and for them it was no different to being in rural France. It was a wonderful time.”

But Michel is not here to reminisce about the good old days. Last time the renowned chef of Le Gavroche visited his childhood village it was to celebrate Shipbourne Farmers’ Market’s tenth anniversary by cooking a fundraising dinner based on produce sourced just from the stallholders.

He also agreed to become patron of Kent Farmers’ Market Association and, speaking of that memorable evening at The Chaser, which raised £25,000 towards the restoration of St Giles church, Michel says warmly: “It was a joy to do, it brought the community and the village spirit together.”

Now market manager Bob Taylor has invited their high-profile patron back to Shipbourne to remind him just what Farmers’ Markets in the Garden of England have to offer and to finalise arrangements for a second, even more important, visit.

On 5 June, Michel Roux Jr officially launches the very first Kent Farmers’ Market Month. Aimed at promoting the local, seasonal produce sold at Farmers’ Markets, it’s a mission after his own heart.

“While it’s great to see that villages and markets like this one in Shipbourne are having a bit of a renaissance, they do need help and they do need people to be aware that you can buy great produce in a market as opposed to going to a supermarket and doing a one-stop shop,” he tells me.

“Why not support local people, local producers and also have fun and socialise? You can meet up with your neighbours and have a chat, whereas it’s just impersonal going to a supermarket. Shopping at your local market is a hugely rewarding experience – supermarket shopping isn’t.”

A keen advocate of seasonality, Michel believes that’s where markets really come into their own. “Going to markets certainly makes you more aware of the seasons – you’ll never see asparagus at a Christmas market, for example – whereas you could walk into a supermarket and not know what time of year it is. It’s rather like going into a casino where you don’t know what time of day it is because there are no clocks.

“It makes you realign your whole body because you are seeing the produce that has literally just been dug out of the ground for you and brought to market by the actual grower or the producer. It’s not been flown from the other side of the world and because you’re missing out the middle man, it should be cheaper. Nine times out of 10 it will also be fresher because it comes from just around the corner.”

“Seasonality brings back the ‘treat’ element of special foods. And that’s how it should be. There have been at least three generations where shopping locally has been lost and we need to get that back – and remind people how much fun it is.”

I ask Michel about the perception that Farmers’ Markets and independent stores are more expensive than your average supermarket, and he is quick to defend.

“A true professional butcher not only knows his meat inside out but will also be able to give you a real indication of how to cook the meat, get the best out of it and maybe sell you something to go with it.

“So you have in mind that you want a rib of beef but you leave with potatoes, your duck fat to cook them in, the Rosemary to add and maybe a little jar of stock. That’s the sign of a real master craftsman. And you’ll go back to that independent shop.

“We need to support our markets and our independents with our pennies. They can be more expensive, but you have to think of the service you’re getting and the pleasure compared to going to a supermarket.

“At rural markets it’s the grower bringing the produce straight to the stall, there’s no middle man, no food miles. They should all be applauded – and supported.”

Kent Farmers’ Market Month

The idea of Kent Farmers’ Market Month is to persuade more people to come and shop for local produce at their farmers’ market, explains Howard Porter, a member of Kent Farmers’ Market Association (KFMA) management committee, as we chat outside in the sunny churchyard.

“Like a lot of other retailers, over recent years Farmers’ Markets have had a difficult time and footfall fell post-2008. Now with the economy picking up again we want to remind people about Farmers’ Markets and what a great place they are for local food and bring them back if they’ve been before and introduce them to them if they haven’t been before,” says Howard.

“The month is an opportunity to bring people to Farmers’ Markets to see what’s on offer. We also want to encourage people to visit a market they haven’t been to before to realise that there are other types of experience to be gained from other producers. If the weather’s nice, make a day of it with the family – there’s lots more involved than just buying fruit and veg.”

In June all the 40-plus Farmers’ Markets in Kent will be putting on special events, such as live music, cooking demonstrations and tasting tents, to give people an opportunity to sample local produce and see how great it is and such great value too.

“In-season vegetables and meat are competitive with supermarkets and people don’t necessarily understand that,” says Howard. “Some things will be more expensive because they are artisan products, not mass produced, they’re made by people who grow their own food and make their own crafts.

“If you really want value, quality and uniqueness, then you will spend that little bit extra – but in terms of the day-to-day stuff, you’re not going to get fruit and vegetables in season cheaper than at your local Farmers’ Market.”

The local multiplier effect

Howard gives me a bit of a maths lesson. “If you buy from a local producer the money you spend will circulate within the local economy, so everyone benefits – it’s called the local multiplier effect.

“When you buy something at a Farmers’ Market and the produce comes within a 40-mile radius of that Market, that money circulates within that radius and you are multiplying the effect of every pound spent.

“There are 500 producers in Kent which equates to more than £3m a year into the local economy – that’s a significant figure for any business.

“Supermarkets of course have a place but most of that money tends to go out of the local economy. For the big supermarkets, the locality is not as important as the figures on their balance sheet.”

Howard points out that if you are operating locally you are literally tied in with the local community, so if you let a customer down they aren’t going to come back because they know who you are and what you produce.

“In that sense it’s personal, and that’s really good,” he says. “It’s all about provenance at Farmers’ Markets, you know what you buy has a very short supply chain, you’re buying directly from the producer and supermarkets just can’t compete with that, their

business model is entirely different.”

Whereas of course the business model for a Farmers’ Market is to do entirely with a direct relationship between the producer and the customer. “We all know about the horsemeat scandal, well here you can talk to the person who is doing the sausages and mince and they can tell you precisely where it’s come from.

“And if you want something special, they will most likely go out of their way to ensure you get exactly what you want, whereas a supermarket is impersonal and they are thinking right across their business,” points out Howard.

“The local producer’s livelihood depends on giving each customer the best possible experience, quality and service they can have. At KMFA we want to build the production of produce in with how you cook and even present food, so it all becomes part of people’s lives.”

Farmers’ Markets Month is just for Kent at the moment and in that sense a test case, but if it’s successful then KMFA will look to rolling it out and and making it an annual event. We are the Garden of England, after all, so we should be leading the way!

Why does Howard think the Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink awards are important? “Food is all about taste and quality and we want people to understand that food is one of life’s great pleasures, not just something you refuel on,” he says.

“Farmers’ Markets are helping people to connect to their food, where it comes from and how they cook it. And awards are really good at recognising excellence.”

He adds: “It’s great that Michel Roux Jr is our patron because he’s known for his appreciation of quality and freshness of ingredients. Put those two together and it sums up what a Farmers’ Market is.” n

Nominate your favourite Kent Farmers’ Market in the Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Awards at: kentfda.co.uk and see also page 60.