Farm-grown herbs spice up the sauces
Deborah and Alan Fowler have turned
a dream into a reality, spiced it with
sauces and dips and created some
local employment in the process.
Tessa Gates discovered how
T HE whitewashed house was eye-achingly bright against its backdrop of azure blue sea and sky.
A cicada warmed itself on the sun-drenched gate to the walled garden and a tantalising smell of herbs scented the air, conjuring memories of Mediterranean holidays and alfresco meals. Yet Halzephron Farm sits not on some foreign shore, but on a cliff at Gunwalloe, near Helston, Cornwall, and on such a day it seemed there could be no better place to grow herbs.
"The beautifully drained soil is perfect for herbs and it is cicadas that we hear on summer evenings, they breed here," says Deborah Fowler but…
"The wind is a nightmare. It brings great dollops of sea 300ft up the cliff and dumps them on us."
Deborah and her husband Alan, grow herbs for their own brand marinades, sauces and dips, and to sell as plants. The cliff-top setting of the farm is glorious in the sunshine, but it has been known to cause people to question their business sense in less clement weather.
* Mad Englishmen
"A Dutch couple came here and kept laughing and laughing. They said you mad Englishmen, what possessed you to have a herb farm here?" recalls Deborah. In fact it was the realisation of a dream, rather than the herb growing potential of Halzephron Farm that brought the Fowlers and their three youngest children to the spot. "This is our dream house, we have known about it for 20 years and now we have it. J M Barrie, Compton Mackenzie and A A Milne all have connections with the place and it once had a tropical garden, now sadly eroded by the sea," explains Deborah, who has had several books published herself.
Deborahs roots are Cornish but the couple moved to the county four years ago from Oxfordshire and have been at Halzephron for two years.
"When we first started we realised we needed to take it on a stage from growing herbs. We started to make marinades, sauces and dressings but when people came to buy these they asked if we sold the plants so we were back to selling them," says Deborah.
"We have a little unit in the village where we make the sauces and we employ a girl full-time on production."
The sauces are made to recipes that Deborah has cooked up and tested on family and staff. Then they are put to the customer taste test in the farm shop where a daily selection of titbits is freshly made for people to sample and comment on. Saucy Sally, a hot spicy marinade with Thai origins has proved a top seller.
"It is delicious with scallops or prawns and a bottle of Chablis," says Deborah.
As fresh fish is readily available in the area, Halzephrons dill sauce as been put to the test on some educated palates. "Locals say it is just like mother made, and one chap uses it on avocado pears."
The philosophy behind the products is to provide very easy cooking with sauces that taste home-made. "They are made from fresh ingredients and do taste fresh. I have cooked at all hours of the day and night to get things just right," says Deborah.
Seven marinades (£2.75/bottle), five herb sauces (£2.95), including a cranberry and sloe gin sauce that Deborah was serving with lamb when Farmlife called, four herb dressings (£2.20) and dried herb mixes (£1.45/26g) are among the products available by mail order* from the farm. Even more are available in the farm shop, many of which are sold in gift packs or pretty ceramics. "We even do a herb honey. This uses our herbs which a local beekeeper adds to his honey," says Allan, who does all the accounting and keeps Deborahs ideas for the business within practicality.
The farm shop has expanded rapidly and quickly outgrew the horsebox it started in. It has taken over two ground floor bedrooms and a sitting room of the rambling property. A bathroom has been turned into a tiny kitchen to service the coffee shop where customers can taste the various marinades and sauces on sale, as well as indulge in a cream tea.
"We try to offer people the full works here no matter what the weather or the season. If they have made the effort to get here we dont want to disappoint them," says Allan, adding that people have a jolly time tasting sauces and complete strangers get chatting together.
"We deliberately dont offer what the local pub or the cafe on the beach sells. This way everyone can make a living," says Deborah. "You cant just come and take from an area, you must put something back. I think we have integrated into the community, and we are drawing visitors here, where it used to be the pub that people came for."
The Fowlers grow all their herbs from seeds, on their own land and in the village where a farmer grows fields of caraway and dill for them. The enterprise has created a few much needed jobs in the area and now employs two full-time and five part-time workers as well as the Fowlers. A school leaver will also be joining the team soon.
Until now the emphasis has been on culinary herbs, but the couple are keen to grow herbs for medicinal use and bring out their own range of products. To this end Deborah intends to take a degree course in the subject. At present though, traditional culinary herbs are the 10 best sellers in the conservatory where the potted plants are sold. "We try all sorts of basil, but all people want is sweet basil in huge quantities. However, it is important to have a full range."
Before choosing their plants, visitors can wander in a small garden where they can see the herbs full grown. They are encouraged to touch, taste and smell them and in the shop they can learn more about how to use them from Deborahs useful booklets.
More and more visitors are returning to the farm and in coming years Halzephron Farm could become quite a landmark along this lovely piece of Cornish coast. The Fowlers are trialling varieties of lavender along the cliff top. Those that survive the winter will be planted field-scale along the cliff beside the coastal footpath.
What a glorious sight and smell it will be, and no-one will question the wisdom of a cliff-top herb farm if these plants succeed against the wind.
• Inquiries (01326-240652).
The Fowlers, seen here with son Michael, sell herb plants and products from their cliff-top farm.