AUTHOR: TOM TANNER
Come in out of the cold and walk up to the bar at The Wheatsheaf and apart from the warmth provided by the welcome of co-owner Lauren Hunter and the wood burning stove, visitors can’t help but notice a certain pride in this Wiltshire pub’s recent achievements. There, slap bang in the middle of the bar, stand the two trophies won at November’s Food Made Good Awards, including the much coveted one for Business of the Year, presented to the operator with the highest score in this year’s Sustainability Rating.
This being the SRA’s staff Christmas party, having spent a moment to thaw and dry out, drinks were high on the priority list. A handsome selection of local ales, organic wines and homemade cordials for the sensible members of the team, set the scene.
These were not though the first drinks of the day as those had been served hot and spicy five miles down the road by Richard Paget, founder and owner of My Apple Juice, the headquarters of which was the third stop on the insightful, whistle-stop morning tour Lauren and partner Ollie had taken us on. The trip round this beautiful nexus of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire was effectively a guided look around the larder that supplies The Wheatsheaf.
Twelve years ago, Ollie’s parents took on Hungerford Park Farm. Now its magnificent Victorian walled garden, lovingly and skillfully tended by Emma Hunter, provides up to a quarter of all the fresh produce served just five miles away in the pub. Certified organic and with an adjacent poly tunnel, Emma and Ollie are using the acres of clay and chalky land to educate as well as feed. Local school children regularly visit and leave with a newfound knowledge and enthusiasm for food, learning not just where it comes from, but the time, effort and love that goes into growing it. And yesterday’s driving rain failed to dampen Ollie’s clear enthusiasm for setting the foundations for a better food future. Plans for 2020 include a heating system for the soil fuelled by rotting wood chips, as well as even closer communication between mother and son to ensure the kitchen and garden work in harmony.
With a deep understanding of the value of food, Ollie and his family have hit on a brilliant way to feed the farm’s pigs. The Oxford Sandy and Blacks feast on surplus from Abel & Cole, whose depot is only a short drive up the road. Ollie swears that their fatty, tender meat really does hold the flavour of their rich and diverse diet which includes avocados, mangoes, peppers and salad leaves (although the latter is not their favourite). Butchered on site, a whole carcass gives Ollie huge flexibility to prep and serve a range of porcine treats, including the charcuterie his Dad now makes.
The Hunters’ passion for minimal waste and maximum bang for your food buck, is shared in abundance by the aforementioned Richard Paget – the apple man. His juicing operation was the final stop on our farm tour. As we sipped on the crisp, aromatic mulled apple juice, Richard revealed his masterplan for saving the nation’s fruit. Sick of seeing thousands of apples rot on the ground every late summer and autumn he devised a plan. Owners of trees in a ten-mile radius bring their fruit to him, he juices it and returns it to them in their own label bottles. In 2018 he rescued 110 tonnes of apples, making 70,000 bottles of delicious juice – from way more than the meagre four varieties of apple you’ll find in the average supermarket. Richard’s master plan is for a local juicer like his every 20-plus miles to make the most of the 1000 tonnes that grow with a ten-mile radius.
As we reflected on a microcosm of a better food system in this corner of southern England back in the warmth of The Wheatsheaf, lardo pizzas and apple crumble were just two tasty reminders selected from the daily changing blackboard menu of how things can be. The homemade crisps (plastic packet-free), the oyster shell salt sellers, old tomato tin vases and understated homemade seasonal decorations (including a green ladder ingeniously doubling as a Christmas tree), were subtle, smart hints of the attention to sustainable detail. And for any readers with a whiff of worry that this is some gastro pub that’s left its traditional customers behind, fear not. Sat at the end of bar was one of the pubs oldest regulars, still enjoying everything his local pub has to offer 50 plus years on from the fine photo on the wall in which he features with three young mates, another of whom visits often. In short, it’s impossible not to enjoy a trip to The Wheatsheaf and see just why it’s a deserving Food Made Good Award winner.