Rural Food Retailing in a Modern World
Surrey is a county of contrasts, which is part of its endearing appeal. Guildford where I live is full of designer shops smattered with a few independents and a small but growing fine food culture made so by the likes of Surrey Hills Coffee Shop, Partisan Deli and Smokey Joes at the Boileroom. But a lot of the great finds are ‘not on the high street’ and Ockley Farmers Market is a prime example. Situated between Dorking and Horsham it’s close to Leith Hill and the borders of Sussex and Surrey in some of the most stunning countryside that Surrey has to offer.
This market only started in April 2017 and it’s a collaboration between two Surrey hard core food heroes. Michaela and Neil Allam who are the producers of Surrey’s most famous cheese Norbury Blue and Dirty Vicar and James and Catherine Dampier of Village Greens (Farm shops in Coles Lane Ockley and Denbies Vineyard).
They have been selling on the farmers market circuit throughout Surrey since Michaela (who grew up on a farm) started making the cheese in 2001. Michaela met her husband Neil who was a watercress grower at one of the markets she attended and he joined the business when he said ‘I do’. Recently they moved into a house on Coles Lane in Ockley which came with the former Ockley Nursery. Situated next to Village Greens Farm Shop in Coles Lane was a great move. Farm shop owner James and Catherine Dampier have been selling Norbury Blue and Dirty Vicar in both their farm shops since they started their business 10 years ago. With a shared passion for the local artisan food movement and the fact that Village Greens sells their cheese they started to chat about working together. Village Green holds a food fair every September and last year for the first time it was held at the Ockley Nursery site. With even ground and cover it was a safer bet than the field opposite the shop particularly when you factor in our unpredictable English weather.
Neil and Michaela hosted Village Greens Food Fair in Autumn 2016 in a covered area on their land. As the food fair was such a success they decided to launch a monthly farmers market in collaboration with Village Greens. The location of the farm shop was perfect as it has already collected a handful of awards for its ‘local, natural & ethical’ ethos and many of the products sold are local too. Their aim was to create a regular event for the local food community.
In April this year the first Ockley Farmers market took place. It was a soft launch giving local producers an additional retail outlet to sell their produce. Now local here is an interesting term and there is a lot of debate around what this really means in food terms. Is it 5 miles, 10 miles or perhaps 50 miles? Everyone has a different view on this and a lot of the food festivals I go to seem to attract producers from all over England. But at Ockley local means local. Most of the traders here are within a 15 mile radius of the market and some literally less than a mile.
This market has its own unique personality. It isn’t like any other market I have been to in Surrey. Many of the traders come from farming families and producers who have been in the game for many years. They don’t necessarily have the business savvy, techie skills of city start ups who are whizz kids on social media and website design but they do sell real food in a chilled out environment. Its not wrapped up to be something it isn’t but it is good honest traceable food. Michaela of course sells her cheese while Neil mans the barbecue using sausages from nearby Home Farm who also have a stall. He also roasts a large pork joint supplied by them of which thick juicy slices are served in brioche buns. These are from Chalk Hills a fabulous artisan bakery who bring with them their wonderful sour dough breads, pastries, meringues & rolls.
Fresh coffee is served by local roaster Surrey Hills Coffee , who is based just down the road in Forest Green (with a coffee shop in Guildford too). Surrey Hills Coffee have made quite a name for themselves in the relatively short time they have been around. You can buy coffee from them to prepare at home or a freshly made cup to enjoy while perusing the stalls. There are lots of wonderful freshly baked pastries to go with this from Chalk Hills and if you want to sit and relax you can wander across the road and behind the car park you will find the ‘Bee Garden’ with seats and tables. On market and non-market days you can also buy Barista Coffee from the farm shop who use coffee from ‘Coffee Real’. This longer established brand have been ethically sourcing and roasting to perfection, single estate coffee from the most extraordinary small coffee producers globally. This element of the market is fantastic for the many keen cyclists who frequent the Surrey Hills. It’s a perfect pit stop with great food and drinks to recharge on a challenging cycle trip.
Other stalls include Jam Packed a small cottage industry business making traditional jams, chutney and piccalilli for their growing band of followers. Their tag line is ‘hand stirred in Surrey’ which after spending a lovely morning in their kitchen I can vouch is true. Big Blue Biltong is also a new start up selling a range of delicious, unctuous textured cured meat. A former chef at another local food hall he found his niche with his new range of products which are also on sale in the farm shop next door to the market. Olives and things complement the biltong for pre dinner nibbles. For a serious meal there are products from nearby Etherley Farm who are the closest producer to the market. They bring their free range poultry, duck, lamb, eggs and honey to the market. At Christmas their turkeys are top quality and sold by as many local butchers that can get there hands on their limited supply. You can also buy directly from them.
On the alcohol front beer is from a couple of local breweries and change from month to month but last time I was there it was Firebird Brewery. Well known locally they teamed up with Jam Packed who produced chutney featuring their beer. Silent Pool award winning local gin makers also attend this market with their growing catalogue of intriguing flavour mists, fruit cordials and seasonal specials.
There are around twenty stallholders at each market and I really urge you to go and this give one a visit. It’s a glimpse into the life of food producers who work really hard under adverse conditions to bring delicious products to the marketplace. You will leave feeling more connected to your food and the people who make it.
Ockley Farmers Market, Coles Lane, Ockley, RH
This article previously appeared in Essence Magazine