True taste of the Chilterns

THE distinctive Chilterns landscape has been shaped by centuries of agriculture – and food and drink remain an essential feature of our local heritage.

From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a working countryside home to quintessentially English pubs, ancient woodlands and picturesque chalk streams, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to countless episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

It many no longer boast “bodgers” in the woods, or as many watercress farms and cherry orchards as it once did, but the landscape known as London’s larder is still home to many artisan food and drink producers, as well as the historic coaching inns, upmarket restaurants, farmers’ markets and food festivals.

On the doorstep of the nation’s capital, an hour from central London, this is a haven for flourishing wildlife populations boasting a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

From fine dining, famous chefs and Michelin stars in Bray, Chinnor, Cookham or Marlow to ancient inns like the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, this is a world where you can take your pick from heartwarming soups to signature dishes.

Smart gastropubs jostle for your attention with sleepy village locals with carved beams, sunny beer gardens and 12th-century churches when you fully expect to bump into Inspector Barnaby.

This is a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and morris men, but without the tourist hordes of the Cotswolds or West Country.

Farm open days across the region allow visitors to come face to face with the local livestock, with cattle and sheep the most widespread and visible farm animal, with pigs and poultry also present in large numbers – not to mention goats and some more unusual livestock like red deer, alpacas and even European bison.

From Sandy Lane Farm near Thame to the Crazy Bear farm shop at Stadhampton, there may the chance to get close to some of the animals, especially during lambing season.

Many of the larger farm shops also have their own cafes or dining areas, offering everything from snacks to cream teas.

Why not explore the wood-lined dining area at the Crazy Bear (above) or the welcoming yurt at the Wild Strawberry Cafe at Peterlea Manor Farm (below).

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards particularly those growing cherries and during the 19th century parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Take a look at one of the local tourism websites for more details about fruit farms offering pick-your-own opportunities.

The Romans were the first to grow vines on the thin chalky soils of the Chiltern slopes and vineyards and breweries still thrive here, now including a gin distillery, all producing a range of award-winning wines, liqueurs, gin and ales. Visitors can sample home-grown brews in local pubs and restaurants or try them and buy them on the spot.

Most local vineyards offer tours and tastings, often hosted by the winemaker, giving you the chance to share in their passion and knowledge of wine. Check out individual websites for more detail, like Daws Hill at Radnage, the Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Henley-on-Thames, Brightwell Vineyard outside Wallingford, the Harrow and Hope Vineyard near Marlow and, for gin lovers, there’s the Puddingstone Distillery just outside Tring.

And if you enjoy a pint of craft beer brewed with passion and skill by real-ale enthusiasts rooted in their local communities, the Chilterns boasts 10 breweries listed in this online guide.

From the watercress beds of the Chess Valley to the footpaths around Buckmoorend Farm, part of the Chequers Estate, a 16th century Elizabethan country house and the official country residence of the serving Prime Minister, local food tastes at its best when bought direct from farmers markets or just at the farm gate.

There’s also a chance to meet many local food producers at the Love Food festivals in Great Missenden in April and August.

For more information about local food and drink, check out Visit Buckinghamshire and Choose the Chilterns. There’s even a video on Youtube you can watch. The fascinating story of the history of the Chilterns landscape can be found on the Chilterns AONB website and in a guide downloadable here.

Kate goes back to the land

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SEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

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RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.