Heckfield Place: A weekend discovering the value of nature
Last month I was invited to take part in a discussion about The Value of Food at Heckfield Place, one of the most forward thinking new hotels to open this year. Heckfield Place is an elegantly restored Georgian house in a 400 acre oasis of rural Hampshire where both inside and out, you experience a sense of the natural world – hand-woven baskets hang on the walls, flowers picked from the garden fill vases in the rooms; the menus in the two restaurants, Marle and Hearth (under the culinary direction of Skye Gyngell) serve vegetables and fruit grown organically, soon to be biodynamically, in the huge kitchen garden; for breakfast you will eat eggs from their hens and homemade butter spread on chewy sourdough or buckwheat pancakes with plum jam from the orchard. Here I discovered more than a modern and luxurious place to feast and unwind. I spent a weekend walking the grounds, listening to talks and experiencing and learning about their sustainable approach to the land and its soil.
During the hotel’s first year, weekend guests or day visitors are given the opportunity to take part in the Assembly, a series of carefully curated discussions, workshops and events focusing on a range of topics from sustainable food and farming to gardens, literature and art. On September 22nd, the autumn equinox, The Value of Soil and the Value of Food were the themes for the Assembly. It began on Friday evening with a fascinating discussion between my favourite biodynamic vegetable producer, Fern Verrow’s Jane Scotter and Tom Petherick author and Biodynamic inspector and mentor, about the benefits of this growing method. The Fern Verrow farm in Herefordshire has a partnership with Skye Gyngell’s restaurant Spring in London, supplying it with vegetables, fruit and flowers and now has also taken over the kitchen garden of Heckfield to grow food for the hotel.
They spoke of the basics of biodynamic methods – a step beyond organic, where the soil is encouraged to be alive with organically generated nutrients, added in the form of herbal-based treatments and careful observation of its needs. Having always been persuaded by the ‘natural’ approach, I was further inspired by the firmly science-based benefits: improved balance of core elements in the soil that go on to produce vegetables and fruit in rude health. From a gardener and cook’s perspective it seems like a no brainer as a way to grow the best tasting, healthiest and sustainably produced food without using fertilizers, pesticides and other harmful products.
Saturday began with an early morning walk, led by Allan Jenkins whose recent book, Morning – A Manifesto looks at the beauty of those precious hours, available to all of us, before the world’s busyness sweeps us away. How it can be a time to reflect, write, walk and think without any pressure of productivity; half an hour, an hour, all to yourself. We explored the woodlands and walked around the lake, the emerging dawn light silhouetting the ancient oaks, giant redwoods, cedars and sweet chestnuts which fill the pleasure garden of the estate.
Other events running through the day included a tour of the art collection, a flower workshop inspired by plants grown in the grounds, a look through telescopes at the skies of the Autumn Equinox led by a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a discussion of The Value of Soil. The panel included myself, Skye Gyngell, Rory O’Connell, founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School and Allan Jenkins, editor of Observer Food Monthly. We continued the conversation begun the evening before, taking it from field to table: how we choose what we eat, the implications this has and what we might be able to do to improve our choices and their impact on the environment.
We talked about the importance of buying well and buying less if necessary, especially chicken and meat, the cheaper prices of which can disguise a much greater cost to our health and the environment. We shared our thoughts on respecting ingredients and generating less waste; the joy we derive from cooking with good quality produce and how that makes us value food so much more.
The good implications of buying organic or biodynamic produced food have an impact on not just the community, the landscape, the health of the soil and biodiversity, but most importantly this food is better for our health.
What people can afford, both time wise and financially is always the biggest question but better transparency of food production and cooking education will help this.
Dinner that evening was at Marle restaurant where the menu is rooted in the seasons and has the light touch that Skye is famous for. Produce I had seen earlier on a tour of the garden was transformed into elegant dishes laid in front of us. A simple salad of red oak leaf dressed in Beenleigh blue cheese; smoked cod’s roe and grilled sweet pepper; roasted beetroots and carrots served with creamy burrata. There was guinea fowl with braised kohlrabi and parsley sauce; line-caught sea bass and late summer salsa verde with borlotti beans. I pictured the damsons that had been made into icecream for pudding arriving in the kitchen in one of the hand woven baskets the day before.
We wandered to our rooms past fireplaces glowing with embers and thoughts of food and the soil and returning to this wonderful place filled our heads: the luxury of being inspired.