Suffolk’s Tim Hen Man

You’re flush, and searching for the pink Suffolk cottage you’ve long hankered after. Then comes 9/11. Your business shrivels, the bank’s after your current home and that thatched dream becomes a 1960s house with dodgy windows. However, thanks to his family, food, chickens and the publication of his first book, Tim Halket is smiling. He chews the fat with Steven Russell

TIM Halket was packing his bags for Switzerland when he got the nod. That was last January – a few months after rekindling his architectural training. His body went on the study trip, but his mind was often back in England. “I was looking at all these buildings while all I had in my head was that someone wanted to publish my book!” He can be excused. Tim had submitted Five Fat Hens a couple of years earlier. After that it had all gone quiet. But now independent London-based foodie publisher Grub Street wanted to bring it out. Time to pop the champagne corks and rustle up some chicken soup with dumplings.

Five Fat Hens is more than a cookery book, though packed with seasonal recipes. It’s also a glimpse of the family’s life in 2003, as Tim, wife Annie and their young children shift across the border from Cambridgeshire to Cavendish in Suffolk.

They’d once entertained hopes of moving into a chocolate-box cottage with roses round the door, but the awful terrorist attack on America in September, 2001, devastated their business. Dreams had to be cut down to size and they ended up with something a bit more modest.

Nevertheless, life has proved rural and pleasing enough. Tim’s a content househusband, cooking for the family virtually every day and tending the chickens in the garden. He buys meat from butchers and gets vegetables from farm shops or fellow villager Stumpy – who has a sizeable veg patch and a polytunnel up the road. Stumpy’s excess produce goes on a little table and he operates an honesty-box system.

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When he introduced poultry to the household, back in Cambridgeshire, Tim started compiling a record of proceedings.

“When you’re keeping chickens, you need to start keeping notes and little diaries for when you put things like eggs under a broody hen. They hatch 21 days later and you don’t want to be away. The notes started getting longer and longer. It was never intentionally a case of ‘I’ve got nothing to do; I’ll write a book.’ I just started making these diaries.”

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Of course, a supply of fresh eggs was wonderful for his cookery. “Someone across the road said ‘You’re obsessed with food. Why don’t you turn it into a book?’”

He took the hint.

Five Fat Hens takes readers through a calendar year. Each month features nine, 10, 11 or so seasonal creations – Persian Chicken Supper in cold January, for instance, and Prairie Oyster in friendlier June – via variations on Italian and French classics, and taking in simple and comforting “nursery fare”.

There are also musings on food and poultry issues, and on life generally.

These range from the best way to enjoy a stag or hen do (the human kind) – don’t waste money on a jolly to Prague or Amsterdam, he exhorts – and the practical challenges of moving to Suffolk when you’ve accumulated lots of stuff.

“I’d decided to limit myself to taking one box of cookbooks – the rest are in storage. But, do you take Delia and pack Nigella – or vice versa? There’s no room for both. Hugh came with me – Rick’s in a box somewhere. Jamie had to go, Sophie stayed.”

Tim’s not a trained chef or a small-holder; the recipes are inspired by his everyday experiences in the kitchen – producing food for family and friends.

The 43-year-old didn’t learn about cookery at school, either

“The first time I remember cooking (was when) my mum went into hospital for two or three days. We were living in Cambridge – I must have been 12, 13 – and I couldn’t face any more meals of corned beef hash!”

(Sorry, Dad – your signature dish didn’t cut the mustard. “When my dad cooked, if my mum was away for any reason, it was corned beef hash. He was a scoutmaster and that was it: tin of corned beef, tin of beans, in the same pot – guess what’s for dinner?”)

Anyway – back to his mother’s hospital stay. “I got her Good Housekeeping book and started working through that for my dad, one of my brothers, my sister and me. I can’t remember what I first cooked – probably stew. That’s the time I remember first cooking proper food.”

His mum, like many women of the day, was an expert at standard British fare. “She did the classics well. You knew if it was Wednesday it would be steak and kidney for tea. And the idea of wasting something, even now to my mother, is abhorrent. It‘s quite right.”

Tim met Annie on his 17th birthday, in a Cambridge pub, and they’ve been together ever since. He credits his wife – who at one time studied cookery as part of a hotel management course – and his mother for laying the foundations of his knowledge. After he and Annie got together, Tim became the regular cook.

With both parents being prep school teachers, his childhood had been spent in several places – such as Bromsgrove, Guildford and Cambridge – because of job-related moves.

He found employment in the drawing office of Acorn Computers in Cambridge, then selling the BBC Micro in numbers. After a few other jobs – including making a bit of money as a freelance – Tim decided to open an art gallery.

As you do . . .

“I’d started buying a few bits of art, prints and things, and thought ‘This will be fun.’

“It’s one of those romantic notions: you think you’ll open a gallery and put on these beautiful shows and people will somehow fall through the door. It doesn’t happen like that: it’s a sales job. You’ve got to know people; you’ve got to know if someone’s genuinely interested in buying or not. I didn’t have that ability to read people.”

The gallery operated for about 18 months to two years. In quiet times Tim and Annie had started a recruitment business. Their first tiny ad in a national paper cost �300 and sought software engineers to work in Cambridge.

“I think we got three responses and she placed two of them. That instantly made us more money than we’d made in the past six months with the art business!”

In the mid-1990s Tim began training at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, studying for a couple of years before putting things on hold to earn some money, including working with Annie in the recruitment sector. Their business did very well.

The couple were living – and working – in a terraced home just behind the boathouses in Cambridge. “It got to the stage where there were five of us working in this two-bedroom house!”

After a while they moved into an office in the city and had about 30 people based there. Times were good for a long period – the now-growing family graduated to a big house in a satellite village – but weren’t to last.

Tim cites a handful of reasons for the implosion, including trying to break into another area of business and hiring the wrong person – poor management on their part, he accepts. The biggest problem, however, was the terrorist attacks in America.

“We had a payroll of �70,000 or �80,000 a month for all these staff, and right after September 11 happened everyone out there went ‘Woah.’ George Bush was saying it’s a new war on terror and suddenly everyone stopped hiring. We had three months’ payroll in the bank, or something, but that takes you up to Christmas, when nothing is happening anyway, and then you’re into January; and I think we closed the business in February.”

Annie got another job in recruitment while Tim stayed at home and looked after the children. (Today there’s Honor, 10; Hamish, nine, and Kitty, five this month.)

During the bountiful times they’d begun looking to move to Cavendish, where Annie’s father lived, to give the children a more rural upbringing.

They’d looked at big houses – that archetypal pink thatched cottage or a big one on the green – “and in the space of about two months we were phoning up the estate agent and saying ‘Er, what’s the smallest, cheapest house you’ve got in Cavendish?’”

So instead of a chocolate-box home with an old barn, and pigs snuffling under an apple tree, they moved during the summer of 2003 into a family house built during the early 1960s.

There were headaches – such as one of the not-very-robust bedroom windows falling out during a storm! – but it’s a happy home. And a �20,000 extension out the back – an open-plan kitchen and dining area – has doubled the downstairs floorspace of what would otherwise have been a tightish house.

Tim, who pens a monthly food column for his local community magazine, plans a second book. Similar to the first? “Six Fat Hens!” he quips. Actually, he’s got a number of ideas on the go “and one of those is rising to dominance”.

Whatever happens, he’s pleased he started the jottings that led to his first book.

“One of the things that kind of kept me going was being able to write just about the happy bits. When the bank’s taking your house, it’s pretty horrible stuff to have to live with. All the certainty of what you had planned in life is ripped out from underneath you.

“I’m not suggesting it’s writing as therapy, but there’s an element of just celebrating the good stuff.”

n Five Fat Hens: The Chicken and Egg Cookbook (ISBN 9781906502881) is published by Grub Street at �18.99

It’s about being savvy

YOU can’t turn on the TV without stumbling across a cookery programme. With obvious public appetite for culinary knowledge, you’d think we’d all be eating well and healthily. Tim Halket isn’t convinced.

“I think what’s happening with food is what happens generally: things polarise. On the one hand you have the people who cook from scratch more often and they’ll get evangelistic about it; and, on the other, people are eating worse than they’ve ever before. I think those who eat well are eating better and more varied, but the people who don’t cook for themselves eat more and more processed food.”

Changes in society that see many parents working long hours won’t encourage the preparation of fresh meals, Tim accepts. “Having said that, people sit down and watch TV for three hours every evening . . . watching TV chefs knocking stuff up and then asking ‘Is the pizza ready yet?’” He shakes his head at the incongruity of it all.

He admires many well-known chefs, but tuts at aspects of a show like Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals.

“It astounds me that it’s about going to the supermarket, buying a packet of this, getting another jar of something else, putting it in the blender . . . That’s not family cooking. It is a job running a household kitchen and not spending a fortune on it.”

If you went to a supermarket to buy ingredients for lasagne, to make it from a standing start, “it would cost 15 or 20 quid or something”.

“The one thing I would try to persuade people about more than anything else is that leftovers are essential in running an efficient household.

“If you try to cook everything from scratch, every day, you’re standing there at the bottom of the hill every single time you cook in the kitchen. So you make a bit more than you need and put it in the freezer.”

Tim talking: Extracts from Five Fat Hens

Why do we buy books by Michelin-starred chefs and then try and recreate their restaurant food in our own kitchens? Who are we kidding? If you or I could cook like that, then we would also be three-star chefs!

Have you ever stopped and wondered why you’re busting a gut in the kitchen when friends and family are sat round the dining table, missing the company of the host? Meanwhile you’re packing garlic-scented crushed potatoes into a little pastry ring in the middle of a plate. I say, just cook them some good food, put it on the table in big bowls, or generously cover a big plate, and sit down to enjoy their company. Let them help themselves and pass it on.

Tuesday 25 March: Gave up on building the coop. Phoned a local chicken shed dealer. He delivered at 6.30pm and put it together for me. It took 10 minutes. I will never again bother with building a coop.

After moving to Suffolk: When the nights are, to us, so newly dark (they have no effective street lighting here, in the countryside) and silent you really notice when the sun and the birds get up in the morning. In fact, if there is a new moon on a cloudy night, you can’t see the person you’re lying next to – it’s that dark.

Tuesday 18 November: A distant neighbour knocked on the door 10am. Asked if I kept hens, and was I missing one? Took the landing net – after chasing Big Bo through three gardens – finally caught her.

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