As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Kent Downs, writer Harriet O'Brien discovers vineyards, hops gardens, orchards and fruit farms on a whistlestop tour of innovative local food producers and microbreweries in the Kent Downs
The story goes that it was Henry VIII who named Kent ‘The Garden of England’. He is said to have been fittingly inspired after consuming a bowl of Kentish cherries with lip-smacking gusto. Whatever the truth of the tale, that the sobriquet stuck is a reflection of how apposite it was – and continues to be.
You get an especially striking sense of that natural abundance at Chegworth Valley fruit farm. It lies in intensely rural reaches close to Leeds Castle which, suitably enough, was once a property of Henry VIII. Indeed, Chegworth wasn’t originally a fruit producer so much as the dairy farm of the royal estate. David and Linda Deme moved here in the 1980s from London, and with no farming experience – and with huge amounts of enthusiasm – they set to, at first planting just 15 acres with apple and pear trees. Business developed, they added soft fruits, and with a bucolic sense of confidence they realised they didn’t want to supply supermarkets with uniform-looking produce; they wanted, instead, to provide great-flavoured fruit (and, in time, veg) to a market that would relish it. Today almost all their, now, 100-acre farm is organic. And from tomatoes and salad leaves to rainbow chard, their business continues to be all about taste.
Chegworth has become a thriving family enterprise, too: the Demes’ daughter Charlotte now oversees the shopping outlets (as well as supplying local restaurants and farmers markets, there are dedicated Chegworth shops at Borough Market and Notting Hill in London and in the summer there’s a pop-up shop by the farm gateway) while their son Ben manages much of the day-to-day farm operation and is the driving force of innovation. Apples remain an enormously important crop: Cox’s, Bramley, Braeburn, Russet and many more varieties including the little known Boskoop Rouge and the home developed Chegworth Beauty. Meanwhile apple juice, every batch of which is tasted by a family member, has become an ever-more applauded product – the farm won Best Juice Producer in the Taste of Kent 2015 awards. Thanks to Ben’s pioneering efforts new lines such as apple and rhubarb juice and apple and beetroot have become very popular. And the market for organic apples and related products keeps growing: over the next couple of years the Demes will be planting 1400 more trees to keep up with demand.
From innovation to tradition: up near Faversham, Pawley Farm also presses its own crops of apples. Here, much of the end result is cider. And here they revel in time-honoured methods – as did Rick Stein when he nominated Pawley Farm and owner Derek Macey among his food heroes. Sold in farmers’ markets and offered at local pubs, the cider is made to a family recipe about 250 years old and is matured for up to two years in oak casks.
Of course, given Kent’s centuries-old role as major hop-producing land, no trip here would be complete without sampling beer, too. Make that a pint of award-winning Green Daemon Helles which you’ll find in many pubs in the Kent Downs, including The Bowl Inn at Hastingleigh and The Plough at Stalisfield Green. It’s one of five beers by Hopdaemon microbrewery, also near Faversham, which was set up in 2000 and lists East Kent Goldings and Kentish Cascade among its favourite hop varieties – both of which are grown very locally.
There’s been a tremendous come-back for hops over the last six or so years, I was told at Brenley Farm nearby. And that’s because of the great growth of microbreweries such as Hopdaemon. A family enterprise for generations, Brenley Farm grows apples, pears and cereals as well as hops – and also operates as a B&B (see under where to stay).
Reflecting demand, this year a new hop garden was added, which is a significant investment in terms of the elaborate structure and wirework required for the plants. They grow East Kent Goldings here, prized for a delicate aroma and now in demand all over the world. Planting hops usually takes place in winter or early spring, with shoots appearing by April and bines on the climb up the wirework thereafter. By August the hop gardens have become curtains of green, and towards the end of the month feathery flowers, or seed cones, appear – and these are harvested about a month later. Alongside the hops, Brenley Farm has also diversified into vines, producing Bacchus grapes for wine made by Chapel Down winery at Tenterden.
In the Kent Downs AONB, Terlingham Vineyard on the farmland of historic Terlingham Manor near Folkestone is Britain’s smallest commercial winery. Vines were planted here in 2006, from which the first wines were produced in 2008. The vineyard produces sparkling white from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, rose, and still wines of which White Cliffs made with Bacchus grapes won a silver medal in the 2011 English and Welsh Wine awards.
Another Kentish crop also growing in demand is the cobnut. This variety of cultivated hazelnut was introduced to Kent in the 1830s and proved such a commercial success that orchards of nut trees were established. However demand started faltering after the First World War when imported foods became more readily available. Today Alex Hunt of Potash Farm has been among those reviving interest in cobnuts and pioneering new product lines too.
Set between Sevenoaks and Maidstone, his farm includes 30 acres of cobnuts and 10 acres of walnuts and it also offers a nursery business of nut trees – from cobnuts to almonds. He produces a range of nut products, from cold-pressed oils (intensely flavoured cobnut, walnut and hazelnut) to cobnut soaps and balms. And of course he also offers fresh nuts – all his goods being available at farmers’ markets, at Potash Farm Shop, and nationwide at high-end stores such as Daylesford. Cobnuts, he says, are wonderful eaten fresh either salted on their own or sprinkled in salads – a true taste of Kent.
Written by Harriet O'Brien
Harriet stayed at Brenley Farm, a handsome Georgian property offering three bedrooms, fabulous local breakfasts, swimming pool, garden, orchards and stables for those bringing their own four-legged transport.