It was only a matter of time before we stumbled into H.E. Bates country, and the fact that the charming TV series of The Darling Buds of May was filmed, according to Nicci Gurr, “just down the road” from Starling Cottage Farm, Cranbrook – Bates also spending his married life in Kent where he loved gardening – makes the location of the six acres she has with husband Julian and children just about perfick.
Another marriage made in heaven has been the way they have put their individual skills together to create an inspiringly distinctive way to run a smallholding. Although their business name ‘Home Gurr’own’ makes you do just that – Nicci blaming the pun on her mother-in-law – it describes perfectly how the livestock and produce from Julian’s gardening are all used by Nicci (a chef for 25 years) in the cooking of delicious meals.
Albert Roux fine dining
Their pride in their animals is obvious. “We just had five pigs born on Mother’s Day,” Nicci announces proudly when I call in early spring, as the first flowers received bees and hedgerows their first touch of green. Armed with that most potent of marketing weapons, a classy CV (she worked for Albert Roux of Roux Fine Dining), Nicci is formidable opposition for anyone else brave enough to set up a catering business in south-east England.
It has proved a perfect formula. Would-be customers planning weddings and parties of all kinds know that they can expect exquisite food that is not only the work of a masterful chef but made from fresh ingredients plucked often that very day from her garden. “Asparagus we pick and use immediately,” Nicci says. “We have 30 heritage varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers in a greenhouse which we pick when they’re really ripe. You can’t buy them so we grow them.
“We build our menus around what we grow
“We build our menus around what we grow, and in winter we go through seed catalogues to plan what to grow.” Nicci tells me that all the meat they produce they see as valuable ingredients for her cooking. “We eat well,” she says. This is mouth-wateringly evident. After one phone call she reveals that while I was scribbling she’d been making a chicken and tarragon pie and roast vegetables for a function, oh and gammon and sausages, as well as answering my questions.
“I make pies, quiches, patés and charcuterie,” the catering listed on their website (homegurrown.co.uk) adding lamb spit roasts, garden canapés, salads, desserts, smoked food, edible flowers – nasturtium butter anyone? – herbs, and apple wine whose quality control and regular testing falls happily to Julian, the wedding season being every weekend between May and September.
Cared for animals
Their 50 Southdown sheep (small breed: tuck in November, lamb early April), 10 Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs (famously good pork and bacon), chickens, vegetables and flowers are all tailored precisely to gourmet specifications. For example, Nicci explained that they let their lambs linger in the fields a little longer to ensure a better flavour. They grow lots of soft fruit but don’t grow what’s readily available. “There are great potatoes round here,” Nicci says, “and we work with local farms so we can use them.”
Country Wise Kitchen Episode
Nicci was on an episode of ITV’s Country Wise Kitchen. The episode featured local producers in Kent.
Farming knowledge in the Kent Community
Nicci cites “the wealth of knowledge among local farming families. They always have an answer. We have bartered catering a birthday party or two for a ditch to be dug or a nice slab of cheese.” A local beekeeper supplies them with honey in return for having five hives on their land. And Julian is Nicci’s man on the land, his specialty growing flowers when they first moved onto part of his parents’ farm a decade ago and started a nursery and weekly veggie box (₤10-15) scheme delivering to houses, sold quiches at farmers’ markets and had an honesty stall at the farm gate.
The idea of targeting their smallholding towards catering came when children came along. “It kind of made sense,” Nicci says. They weren’t making enough money with that work and they realised that with their respective skills they could go much further financially. “Though we’re a smallholding we’re a business,” she says, and for both of them it is a full-time job, even if it means sometimes getting up at 4am and going to bed at 10pm, their normal week being 60 to 80 hours.
Our smallholding kitchen
Charmingly, their smallholding now has a free-standing commercial kitchen next to it which they created by converting a pole barn, the work approved by Environmental Health. The operation of their business has the rough and smooth of any other, Nicci referring to “both adults in a household relying on the money they bring in rather than a wage… and things we have to go without.”
Apparently, the real fun starts in the summer. “We have two girls who also love the outdoors,” Nicci says, remembering her fractured hip last year and doing “five weddings with a walking stick and a lot of Tramadol.” Their staff is 3 full-time staff plus 30 casual staff for waitressing and working bars.
Daisy Gurr holding a lamb
Could others follow their example if one is a cook, the other a farmer? “It depends on your expectations,” Nicci replies. “I love being a chef and can’t think of any other way I could have complete control over my finished product. Being a smallholder is not an easy life. For instance, our children don’t get as much time with us as they would like, and holidays or days off are few and far between. Clothes are generally second-hand and compromises have to be made, but I don’t know what family doesn’t have to make sacrifices these days.”
Back to organic basics
As for machinery, Nicci says that six acres need little more than a rotavator and a ride-on mower. They do their own fencing and get in contractors when needed, such as shearing. A touching selflessness that seems common among smallholders has touched them too, in that they run farmers’ markets and help other small businesses where they can. I am sure they would love swapping tales of pest control.
They run farmers’ markets and help other small businesses where they can.
Nicci and Julian introduce nematodes, invisible microscopic transparent worms that feed and multiply inside the slug. Their recipe: “Dilute with water and water on. An infected slug stops feeding within 3 to 5 days. The nematodes multiply inside the slug and when it starts to decompose, a new generation of nematodes emerges.” Also, Nicci says, “chickens and geese naturally root around and eat slugs (our biggest enemy) and we find our wine trap is quite effective: Fill a jar with apple wine and bury in a heavily sluggy (Adjective of the Month) patch. The slug finds it impossible to resist, tumbles in and drowns: a happy slug.”
Lori Gurr ‘watering’ the chickens
Love the work
Inevitably wayward thoughts creep in. “I sometimes wonder if going back to a more conventional life would work for us,” Nicci muses. “I usually have these thoughts when one of our particularly bolshy pigs doesn’t go in the trailer in the morning and there will be 100 wedding guests that will want to know where their elegant rustic meal is! But I always come to the conclusion that my husband and I genuinely love what we do and are around for our children: our great expectation out of life.”
The only things Julian would like to run away from are the VAT returns, “not to mention the endless paperwork from DEFRA,” he says. “I have yet to meet a farmer or smallholder who doesn’t feel like this. We have always looked at cutting overheads such as being less dependent on other suppliers to see a greater return on the hours invested. I think some days everyone wants more from life and some days you’re grateful for what you have got.” Luckily, a few brides and grooms have been pretty happy about what they have got, too.
Written by John Wright