Standard bearers: Chegworth Valley

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 Vikki of Chegworth Valley

Bite into the crisp, tart flesh of an apple from Chegworth Valley, and you are biting the fruit of hard labour—labour not of a machine, but of the Deme family’s fair hands. They’ve been farming the fields of Kent since 1983, and three decades later are still very much involved. “They are hands on,” says Vikki Eames, one of the small team that helps out with the daily running of the farm.

Owner and farmer David Deme, needless to say, is out picking apples. It’s harvest time, and for Chegworth as for any organic farm that’s been approved by the UK’s Slow Food movement this means getting physical: inspecting the crop, deciding what’s ripe and what needs to be left a while longer, and picking everything that’s ready for sale at the Market by hand.

This is not a quick process, as you can imagine. “Over the course of the harvest, a field can be picked two or three times,” explains Vicky. David or his son Ben will go out and decide the size and colour of apple (or pear, tomato, cucumber and so on, it depends on the season) that’s good to go, and instruct the pickers accordingly.

“Unlike machines, which pick indiscriminately, this allows us to work with the plant. If it’s not ready we’ll leave it. Machines pick everything.” As a result, she continues, fruit is picked prematurely then wasted, having been graded and deemed unfit for sale.

Passionate about taste
Chegworth’s fruit is on sale the next day—“one of the perks of Borough Market,” says Vikki. “You’re not selling to stores that want stock then and there, or have to factor in travel time. You’re also selling to customers who are passionate about taste.” That’s something Chegworth does well, being organic.

“We rely on good management and beneficial insects, not pesticides to keep the plants healthy. Healthy plants means fruit and veg with flavour,” she adds. In contrast, intensive farming is a compromise of variety (often only two or three crops will be grown on a farm) and a compromise of taste.

“We don’t grow huge amounts,” says Vikki, “we don’t want to overstretch the land, but we have a range”—including salad, strawberries, plums, pears, courgettes, and other produce grown from seedlings supplied by a nearby nursery.

Once again, it’s about working with the plant. If something grows well in a particular area, they’ll grow it again there next year. If not, they’ll try something else. “There’s no real method,” Vikki laughs. “We’re organic in every sense of the word.”

Chegworth Valley apples

Undeterred by pesticides
At no time is this more evident than in April and May, when you walk out into the fields and see “ladybirds everywhere. It’s a natural environment, undeterred by pesticides, so they are able to thrive.”

On the farm there’s a beekeeper, who claims the honey their bees make there is the best he gets, Vikki says proudly—a sweet testimony to the ecosystem Chegworth has enabled. “Of course we hope that being organic helps the natural world, but to have it reflected in the bees and the honey is a lovely thing.”

Being ‘slow’ means being sustainable—in waste as much as in growth and management. In view of that, says Vikki, “juices are a really important part of what we do.” Never mind the fact that they are by far and away the tastiest on the market.

Every year, the farm-based juicer presses fruit that can’t be sold (too small or misshapen) into two million of Chegworth’s now-iconic glass bottles. “We sell straight juice or blend apples with soft fruit from other local farms. Our juices have won Great Taste Awards and, this year, an award from Slow Food.”

Heritage matters
As you can see from the quaint apple varieties they sell, heritage matters here. “David likes to plant the older, more unusual types that larger stores might not see as commercially viable.” For many people, particularly of an older generation, their apples are a taste of times gone by.

Egremont russet, Worcester pearmain, spartan, “it’s like a blast from the past biting into them,” says Vikki—not least because when they reach you at Borough Market they are barely 12 hours off the tree. In short, an apple from Chegworth’s stall is as fresh, sumptuous and slow an apple as those of us not blessed with orchards are going to get.