Naked Chef heads down to the farm

CELEBRITY chef Jamie Oliver ditched his kitchen and culinary creations for the woods of Wherstead and a rare breed of pig as he opened his childhood friend's farm shop.

CELEBRITY chef Jamie Oliver ditched his kitchen and culinary creations for the woods of Wherstead and a rare breed of pig as he opened his childhood friend's farm shop.

Jamie, originally from Clavering, near Saffron Walden, made a welcome return to East Anglia to officially launch the Essex Pig Company in Suffolk on Saturday .

His friend Jim Doherty, who he has known since the age of three, has taken less than a year to turn the derelict farm at Pannington Hall, Wherstead, just outside Ipswich, into what promises to be a thriving business - rescuing the humble Essex pig from obscurity on the way.

Jamie explained why he was eager to promote - "friends or not" - the enterprise, which sees the 130 pigs roaming freely on acres of woodland eating natural materials.

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"I suppose farming in general is passed down the family and sometimes it has its negative side, like a lot of trades, and kids these days do not want to take on the family business," he said.

"Jim is actually from a family of Cockneys but he has always had a passion for nature. This was a dump a year ago and to take it over and specially to take on such a rare breed of pig, which is a wonderful eating pig, is great."

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When Jim first looked into launching the farm shop there were only 50 Essex pigs registered which, he said, made it rarer than the large panda.

Jamie said: "I think it is quite brave to take on a derelict farm and a derelict breed. What's brilliant about what Jimmy has done is he follows from the farm to the consumer and you have to have a lot of common sense about breeding and growing the product but also the market."

He added: "A lot of the industry is quite scared of that and there are a lot of middle men so he has been very brave and I'm sure he will succeed as he's passionate."

Jamie was also full of enthusiasm for the "great region" he sees as his home, despite living in London with wife Jools and children Daisy and Poppy.

He said: "It's home. It makes me chuckle. Like anywhere, it has its peaks and troughs. I love it."

He remembered with fondness growing up with Jim in Clavering, where his parents run The Cricketers pub.

"Jimmy was my best mate. I was always cooking and he was looking after tarantulas."

He added: "In Clavering, as it was not accessible to many towns, it was like a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle. It was about appreciating nature and making things happen. If you got bored you made a tree house."

And Jamie, who returns to the region at least once a month, is keen to protect his rural home, which he described as "one of the most beautiful parts of England", and has signed up to the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign.

He said of the runway plans: "It is typically English with short answers and no innovation, no fantasy. I knew they had signed up to it already but you still have to have your say."

It looks like Jamie will be visiting East Anglia more often in the future to gain some top-quality supplies from his friend for his own venture - the restaurant Fifteen, which gives unemployed youngsters the chance to train as chefs - as he wants Essex pigs on the menu.

And Jim plans to use his zoology background to build on the woodland conservation aspect in his farming as well as hold a fortnightly farmers market.

He also hopes to sign up Essex pig stocks in Harlow and Hadleigh and to add dry cured hams to his range, which includes speciality sausages with a very high meat content, made from prime cuts, as well as traditional bacon.

So the launch, which will be featured in a BBC documentary, is only part of a bigger story - although it does help to have a celebrity endorsement.

Jim said: "I went off in a different direction and did my PhD and everything while Jamie worked in these fantastic restaurants. Our paths have crossed again as I got fed up with the academic world and went back to nature.

"Now I supply regional quality food and Jamie is interested in cooking it in his restaurant."

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