Keith Bennett keeps his pigs and sheep on a farm just 23 miles from Trafalgar Square. The owner of Chiltern Farm Food talks to Anna Sbuttoni about the spirit of farmers’ markets and how to find the best meat.
It’s Sunday morning at Blackheath farmers’ market and Keith Bennett is a busy man. He serves up all kinds of what he calls ‘slow grown’ sausages, old-fashioned dry-cured bacon and thick-set burgers under a green-and-white striped awning, chatting to regulars and daring new ones to try his new-season partridge.
Keith has been trading at this south London market for nine years, and it is just one of many across the capital and beyond where he sells his top-notch meat. “Markets like this prove there is a real desire for quality local produce,” he says. “I am 61 and have been a farmer all my working life, but the best thing about it is to come here and meet the people who value what we do and want to support local producers. You see all life here.”
Keith and his wife Elizabeth live and work on Stockings Farm in the Chiltern Hills, north-west of London. Together they farm a herd of Gloucester Old Spot and Tamworth pigs and a flock of Hebridean and Suffolk sheep, at their 130-acre site. Alongside this they have shoots for game in season, as well as venison, rabbit and pigeon. All their animals are reared traditionally and fed natural diets to give them the best possible lives.
“They are born outdoors, live outdoors and spend their lives rooting around in fields at the top of the Chiltern Hills,” says Keith. “This is the traditional way. Our piglets roam together and live in family groups until they go. They are not force-fed, they are not kept in the dark. They go at six months, whereas factory farmed pigs go at 18-20 weeks. I like to think that the animals I take to the market have had the best life they can have. And you can taste the difference.”
His no-nonsense products have a following at farmers’ markets including Blackheath and Swiss Cottage in London, as well as Windsor, Ascot, Maidenhead and Tring to name a few. At the same time he supplies London cafés and restaurants including Hand Made Food in Blackheath, Clerkenwell Kitchen and up-market Bradleys in Swiss Cottage. And the husband-and-wife team plan to open a shop at the farm next month, “mainly as a butchery” for their own products, along with of local eggs, milk and rapeseed oil.
The pair know their stuff, having switched over from large-scale commercial farming ten years ago, after making the decision to sell direct to the public rather than through major retailers, and are keen advocates. “If you go for a value offer at Tesco or Asda, I can’t and wouldn’t want to compete. If you want quality and something you can trust in the way it was reared, choose a local producer,” says Keith.
“Look out for farmers’ markets, look out for meat that is slow grown and free range,” is his advice. “Find out where it comes from and perhaps even go and have a look – our customers, for example, can walk through our farm on a public footpath that runs around the Chiltern Hills. We encourage people to try new things and I am famous for my cooking tips. I get people who have never bought pigeon breasts coming back for more. I get people looking forward to seasons that they didn’t even notice.” That’s what it’s all about.
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