An everyday tale of farming folk

If you like to know where your meat’s from, follow Rosie McGlade to Knitsley, where the distance from field to plate is measurable in yards

Five years ago, Rachael Jewson was a lecturer at Houghall agricultural college in Durham and was about to have her first child. There was no pitter patter as yet, and the farm shop remained a twinkle in her and husband Edward’s eyes.

Today, they employ 22 full-time and 19 part-time staff and have three children, the youngest of whom is five months. It’s a fairly exponential change in anyone’s book.

Five years ago, Edward was what he was born to become; a sixth generation farmer of 260 acres between Consett and Lanchester, his sheep and cattle fed in winter by crops grown on the same land. He certainly wasn’t a cook.

Now, while Rachael is front of house in their farmshop, Edward’s helping to make the pease pudding, the terrines, corned beef and the like. Just as an aside, he wasn’t a midwife either, but he delivered middle son Tom in the car in the middle of the night, five degrees below freezing, relying on his experience with livestock to guide him through the procedure.

He also did all the internal joinery for the shop. Rachael certainly fell on her feet there, it seems, but then so did Edward; theirs is a partnership of equals with both putting in enormous effort and finding it similarly rewarding. They’re not a couple shy of turning their hands to something new.

“It’s truly joint effort,” Rachael says. “He does all the leg work and I talk to people out front.” Today, a busy Saturday with the cafe manager off sick, she’s doing it with her baby happily glued to her hip; the other children are in the courtyard with Laddie the old sheepdog, playing among the visitors.

In many ways, what’s so lovely about what Rachael and Edward have created at Knitsley in this incredibly short time is that you still feel you’re on a farm. The shop and cafe are in the farmyard opposite the pig shed, which is home to Tamworths and Saddlebacks. There is a very direct link between these piglets and the sausages, home-cured hams and pork pies on sale a stone’s throw away. They sell eggs from the chickens outside, the Aberdeen Angus cross cattle go on to become the beef, and the lambs – well, they’re the lamb.

There are no swings and slides outside; this is a farm, and children are welcome to visit the pigs or feed the chickens through the fence. There’s also a pleasant walkway which takes you down to Lanchester a mile and a half away. There are no gifts or trinkets in the shop; in pride of place is the butchers counter with its fat sausages, home-cured bacon and pork, beef and lamb.

These days, you see farm shops all over the place but some, in their haste to make the figures work, have to open up bigger and bigger eating spaces and buy a lot of the food in. It might be locally sourced, but it’s no longer what you’d like to assume; a shop where the lion’s share of produce comes from the farm it’s named after.

Knitsley is the real thing, with its own butchery and bakery, sourcing meat grown to its own standards only when their own beef and lamb has run out, and where all the bread, cake, pies, sausages, black pudding, haggis, soup, scones, hot cross buns, etc are produced and / or made on the premises.

What’s more, it’s really good food, and not overly priced (which, let’s face it, can happen). There are too many awards to list; but to give an idea, they’ve just won the Farma Best Own and Local Retailer of the year national award (which they also held three years ago), and having recently entered 16 products in a regional tasting, they won awards for the whole lot, eight of them golds.

So what made them do this in the first place? “We just got tired of all the price fluctuations in the market; the price of prime lamb was diminishing all the time back then, and it was a struggle. We had a range of buildings on the farm that weren’t really being used, and we just decided to give the idea a go.

“We didn’t bother doing farmers’ markets or anything, so it was a risk, and we opened in November 2008 just as the world’s markets crashed and thought God, what on earth have we done!”

Last year they added a bakery, with a master baker who arrives at 2am each day to make the artisan bread that populates one end of the large shop. There’s walnut bread, sourdough, onion bread, cappuccino brioche, pizza with sausages and egg ontop, cheesy rolls, and the fattest hot cross buns I’ve ever seen. This morning alone, he made 37 trays of bread.

The food in the adjoining cafe, where there’s a queue every day of the week over lunch (you can book for Sunday lunch), is all homemade. We order gammon steak and egg, which is delicious, tender, succulent, and not overly salty, and a ploughman’s lunch starring home-cured ham and homemade pork pie. There’s an enormous slice of chocolate indulgence cake to follow.

How on earth do they manage it all? “We just juggle,” Rachael smiles. “The kids have fantastic grandparents, and Edward’s father helps on the farm while my mother helps in the shop. And we’ve got really good staff. They’re professional and we get a lot of customer feedback about how friendly they are.

“The whole thing’s been thrilling; now we just have to work out how to expand the cafe without losing the cosy farm feel.”

East Knitsley Grange Farm Knitsley, Consett, Co Durham, DH8 9EW, tel 01207 592 059

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