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Standard bearers: Hook and Son

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Steve Hook, owner of Hook & Son

A quaint farmhouse. An old sheepdog. Lush meadows rich in red and white clover, and beyond that, a fresh flowing river, a natural boundary to the herd of Jersey dairy cows. If Hook and Son wasn’t a Slow Food producer, with such a natural bounty on their doorstep, you might wonder what it means to be accredited—but of course, they are.

In spring and summer cows feed on the organic, flora-rich pasture, roaming freely. Come winter, they eat the silage with nothing but organic sunflower, lucerne and sugar beet mix to supplement it, under the shelter of a spacious barn.

“Our method of farming is geared to producing what our customers want, not great big volumes of milk,” says Steve Hook, “and what they want is raw, organic milk from grass-fed cows.”

Vitamins and good bacteria
This means two things: firstly, that the diet of the cows is as natural as possible “no corn or wheat and no use of any chemicals or routine antibiotics”; the second is that the grass in turn imbues the milk with vitamins and good bacteria, “so the milk’s nutritional content is greatly increased”.

When milk is pasteurised, many nutritional qualities are rendered impotent. Pasteurisation, heating milk for a brief time to a very high temperature, kills the good bacteria; homogenisation, an industrial process that breaks the fat globules into smaller particles so that they stay suspended in the milk, prevents cream from rising and alters the structures of the otherwise natural, digestible fats.

Mixing milk from many farms, as is standard practice in the dairy industry, means seasonal variation is indistinguishable. But milk, like coffee and whiskey, is all the better for being single origin. “The weather, where the cows have been grazing and what’s in season—you can taste them in our milk,” he proclaims proudly.

Cows at Hook and Son

Milk palate
Indeed, if you’ve Steve’s milk palate, you can taste the variations almost from one week to the next. “The more intensively you farm, the faster your food production, the more taste you lose. Slow Food tastes better because care has been put into it,” says Steve.

Rather than intensive farming, Steve farms ‘extensively’: the herd is small, cared for (“the average cow in the British dairy industry lives six years: ours average nine”) and the milk you see at Borough Market has come direct, fresh from the farm, with no time spent in warehouses and “nothing added or taken away”.

“Taste and a story. That’s what the consumer wants, that’s what Slow Food is about and that is what we do,” says Steve. Hook and Sons didn’t explicitly set out to be accredited by Slow Food, they just realised that “in doing what we were doing to produce raw milk, we ticked those boxes.”

Rich, rare and supremely nutritious
They needed to be slow: raw milk is a rich, rare and supremely nutritious natural product, but being ‘live’, it has risks associated with it and great care and attention needs to be paid to manage them. “The cows have to be healthy to fight infection and milking must be hygienic.”

An intensive farm will milk hundreds of cows an hour, on the assumption that pasteurisation will take care of pathogens. In contrast, “we manually strip the fore milk out the teat of each cow to remove any bad bacteria,” Steve explains, “and we milk no more than 30 cows an hour, ensuring each one is healthy and everything is spotless and sterile as we go.”

Such attention to detail—the polar opposite to that found on most intensive dairy farms—“blew away the Food Standards Agency,” Steve smiles. “They’d no idea we’d such a thorough understanding of the risks and how to mitigate them. It galvanised them: they know raw milk is increasingly popular, and it’s their responsibility to ensure people have that choice, and that it’s safe.”

Hook and Son's farm

A Hook man
Steve’s father Phil also works on the farm, as his father did before him. Cut a Hook man and milk comes out: “The Hook family has been farming in Sussex for 250 years. We’ve had big farms, lost them, and we’ve started again,” Steve recalls, “but we’ve stuck our heads above the parapet now with raw milk, and it’s not always easy.”

They’re on good terms now, but Steve has had ups and downs with the Food Standards Agency and various other political bodies on the way. Raw milk is “almost perfect, as a food”—but it is political. It’s under constant threat and scrutiny.

“That’s why Borough Market matters,” Steve says. “It is an internationally respected fine food market and as the largest producer of raw milk in the UK, being associated with it is a great endorsement.”

Stamp of Slow Food
It’s drawn new customers, put raw milk in the spotlight and ensured Steve’s milk has the stamp of Slow Food approval it deserves and needs—for, as Steve warns: “When old food skills are lost, they are very hard to get back again.”