The recently opened Farm Collective in Farringdon, London is proving to be a remarkable showcase for UK farm sourced products, including an amazing range of sandwiches. Nellie Nichols endures the agonies of a cutesy log seat for a glimpse of heaven.
I have always found everything about the Sex Pistols pretty ghastly. This opinion was possibly contributed to by Sid’s rendition of ‘My Way’, although if you can ever get through the first 50 seconds of it on You Tube it does improve considerably and has a sort of very weird and captivating catchiness.
Poor Sid, some of you may recall, then died of an overdose. John Lydon however is still with us and went on to redeem himself, certainly in my eyes, by recently advertising Country Life Butter. The admirable thing about this ad is it drills home the fact it’s only made with British milk. In fact Country Life is the only major British butter brand, every other one originating in New Zealand or Denmark and most of us don’t really get a bigger choice than that in our typical weekly shop.
The norm in sandwiches as we know is to use ‘spread’ – sorry I’m not a fan of its complete lack of naturalness. Pret, on the other hand, use nothing at all as a barrier in over 90% of their range. Any butter that is used in UK sandwich production probably isn’t British at all.
But the sandwiches I’m going to taste today in the recently opened Farm Collective in Farringdon are made with traditionally churned British butter from Netherend Farm in Gloucestershire. It’s made with only two simple pure ingredients: local cream and salt. When I taste it later it clearly stands out on its own merit, tasting just like butter ought to taste, rich creamy and delicious.
The Farm Collective is a simple enough concept – one I am amazed no one’s had the good foresight to think of doing in London before. Started by Craig and Dom, who met at university, they set out to represent a new movement in food. All their ingredients are UK farm sourced, complying with good honest sensible criteria: local sourcing within a five hour radius, sound animal husbandry and welfare, 100% natural, made to taste not made to last.
In order to make the grade as one of their suppliers any farmer or producer has to be able to fulfil criteria over and above their ‘UK’ness’, criteria that ensures a joint partnership and common goal – a collective approach to high standards. Craig and Dom undertake endless visits all over England and will continue to do so to ensure the food they sell has true credentials they are happy and comfortable with.
At first I’m extremely sceptical about what appears to be an abundance of rural fluffiness. Surely this is just a great big marketing spin of commercial opportunity? Open a themed shop, call it the Farm and stick some cutesy milk churns outside with hydrangeas in them and some wooden benches to sit at. All that’s lacking is some authentic straw strewn about the street perhaps?
But the overall face of British agriculture is a depressing one. The number of farm holdings in England and Wales has fallen from nearly half a million to closer to 170,000 and farm workers from a million to 180,000 – most of this has taken place in the last fifty years. 37% of our food is now imported, compared to 27% in 1995. I hugely support the idea that there are caring people trying to chip away at these figures in whatever way they can.
So here I am sitting on one of the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever come across in my life, having a latte and talking to Craig. A seat is actually far from being the right description for this horrid chunk of wood I’m trying hard to perch on, the sort that is just begging to be axed into logs and put by the fire. There’s nowhere for your feet to rest, and mine, due to the shortness of my legs, dangle. In no time at all I’ve got raging backache and can’t stop constantly fidgeting, quite wrongly implying boredom.
Craig is, after all, quite fascinating to listen to and, despite my total discomfort, is captivating in his explanation of his childhood of family allotments and now brand values. Suddenly he’s apologising for the uncomfortable tree stump and recognises they were a bad design moment. I’m eternally grateful we’ve got that out of the way and can move on to more important things.
The rest of the shop is hard to fault, though a little on the dark side for what’s required ideally for buying food. The overall feel is simple (wood) and modern (stone) with the food very much in abundance piled over the counter: big plates of pastries and Alice in Wonderland coloured cupcakes, far more attractive than the norm; a heated glass cabinet full of very welcoming bacon baps, and what I later discover is probably the most delicious sausage roll in the kingdom, literally stuffed with perfectly seasoned meat in just enough buttery pastry to hold it all together long enough for you to eat it. Trust me, you need to go and try one, the amount of fat in something as delicious as this is, without doubt, completely irrelevant.
There is a very honest range of thirteen sandwiches, all hand wrapped in cellophane, one half laid on top of the other, fillings facing forward, all made on Flourish Bloomer Bread. There is a simplicity to this and a strong feeling of handmade craftsmanship involved in the production of ingredients for each one. Each sandwich is made with one main UK supply named ingredient, which is then matched with the freshest seasonal produce they can find.
I try four and the Welsh Patchwork Chicken Liver Pate with Cornichons and English Preserves Red Onion Marmalade is probably my favourite. It’s the sort of sandwich you would best enjoy sitting on your jacket on a grassy hill far about the sea in Dorset on a really windy day. This is a sandwich that just makes you very pleased you’ve had the chance to eat it.
There’s a dearth of chicken and bacon sandwiches out there but here at Farm Collective they make their version with Merryfield Devon Chicken and Roasted Dorset Farm Bacon.
The chickens are reared carefully in barns by an environmentalist and the bacon is cured to have a truly deep flavour. Then maybe it’s the slow roasted tomatoes and the crunchy Little Gem lettuce that help to make this so different, but again I have to say this is a proper farmhouse version, on wonderful fresh soft bread. If I’m going to be fussy I don’t like bacon cut this thickly in sandwiches making it almost impossible to bite through, but overall it’s very good.
When it comes to vegetarian sandwiches these can so often be everyone’s afterthought. A kind of ‘What can we add to the range to fill the criteria and keep them happy’ situation. One of the first things I look at in a range is whether this is the case and here I am surprised when I try the Waverley Farm Roasted Field Mushrooms with Slow Roasted Tomatoes, Basil, Spinach, Little Gem and Watercress, this time on a Flourish Ciabatta. I’m not thinking where’s the meat, I’m thinking … well, I could probably be very naughty and eat most of another one and then miss supper.
Moving on to Roebuck Farm Red Ruby Beef and Horseradish with, again, a mix of lovely bouncy leaves and they’ve totally ticked the ‘keep it simple using great ingredients box’ here. The beef is rare, succulent and full of flavour, all three being in my opinion monumentally difficult to deliver in a sandwich without endless issues. The Flourish bread is, again, so just baked, soft and fresh and without a sign of the ubiquitous coring so evident today.
I try a salad too and choose the Dartmouth Smokehouse Kiln Roasted Salmon with Potato Salad. A familiar cardboard box with a good window to see into the mountainous pile of goodies within, this is heaven.
I just wish I had tried it before all the sandwiches, which have left so little room. Apart from the high calibre of the salmon, I love the simple but ‘sharp as a knife on the taste buds’ lemon dressing and the totally innovative way they’ve cut their cucumber slices.
Okay, I’m on my way down to earth again now because, as we all know, not everything in ‘sandwich world’ is this perfect. Unfortunately there’s an up and down side to most things in life and I am at heart a food realist.
It doesn’t take rocket science to work out none of this is going to be bucket shop pricing, the lion’s share of the range being the wrong side of £3.00, in what I will call a ‘hesitant to spend’ market. Having said that, you will always get what you pay for in life and here are sandwiches at their very best from a quality and ingredient standpoint. I for one would prefer to invest less often in one of these than daily in a more affordable but less enjoyable option.
Every new concept will always suffer from a volume point of view until the second and third branches are open and getting to that point is always a tricky juggling act with brand building and trying to encourage consumers to buy a great sandwich more than once a week.
But my money’s on this one being a success story. It won’t be easy by any means and will be rife with challenges. There are improvements to be made and made quickly, but I do believe the nature of the team is one that will take this on board and act with the wind. That magical wind that blows that marvellous fresh air all the way from Dorset.