Back from visiting a remarkable market garden in deepest Cheshire, I did three things – rewatched the Netflix Chef’s Table episode on US ‘farm to fork’ guru Dan Barber, Googled ‘Singing Frogs Farm’ in Sonoma County, California and trawled the Internet for deals on celtuce seeds. Damn you spellcheck for repeatedly swapping in ‘lettuce’.
It wasn’t instant. I didn’t actually go straight home following my exploration of sandy-soiled Cinderwood, outside Nantwich. After Arriva had whisked me and Richard Cossins from Crewe into Manchester, I stopped off at New Islington Marina for a few dishes at Flawd natural wine bar, of which Richard is co-owner. We came bearing gifts for his business partner, Joseph Otway – turnips we had picked from a polytunnel an hour before for this much-travelled chef to slice into translucent discs to shelter smokehouse mackerel.
Further Cinderwood produce followed in canny assemblies that belied the limited cooking facilities at Flawd. Particularly lovely was a halved gem lettuce topped with Garstang Blue Cheese and leek with a pungent sprinkle of crunchy stuff. Chilled juicy Gamay chosen by Flawd’s ex-Noma sommelier Daniel Craig Martin added to the ultra-fresh appeal of dining this way. Al fresco would have added but a stiff breeze subverted the Ancoats sunshine.
Many contemporary Manc restaurants are now buying from the Flawd team’s one acre growing arm 40 miles to the south. The distinguished likes of Mana, Erst, Elnecot, 10 Tib Lane, The Creameries. Honest Crust pizza king Richard Carver has placed a huge order for regular fresh basil a. It demonstrates a burgeoning commitment to letting the freshest of ingredients tell their own story.
Which brings us back to that trio of reflex reactions I opened with. Dan Barber was Richard and Joseph’s boss when they worked at his (literally) groundbreaking restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, a converted barn just 30 miles (or maybe a million) from Manhattan.
As with other restaurateurs/chefs of their generation, forward thinking yet respective of tradition, Barber’s 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, is the duo’s bible.
The Third Plate champions organic flavour-driven produce as a meal focus. Shift to fewer slabs of protein, elevate the finest quality veg and grains to centre stage, respect the earth is the message. The movement has been mirrored over here by Simon Rogan’s Cumbrian farm, and the urban growing project of chef/patron Sam Buckley at Where The Light Gets In, Stockport, where Joseph Otway became head chef.
It’s all about connections. Quite dizzying connections. Richard, who worked for Rogan at his London ventures Roganic and Fera, was general manager of Blue Hill at Stone Barns when Joseph arrived as fish chef there before working at Relae in Copenhagen, where he met Daniel, then a sommelier at Noma. Sounds like a culinary equivalent of ‘Rock Family Trees’, but you get my drift.
So how does ‘Singing Frogs Farm’ (above left) join the narrative? Enter the man destined to be head grower at Cinderwood. Trained at a long-standing organic farm in Southern England, Michael Fitzsimmons (right) moved back to be nearer his native Liverpool. At one point he worked at Michelin-starred Moor Hall near Ormskirk, complete with its own walled kitchen garden. Yet it was thanks to an unlikely cheffing stint at WTLGI that he was steered back to his first love, horticulture.
The seeds were sown at a late night wind-down in the Stockport branch of Wetherspoons when he bonded with Joseph Otway and sommelier/natural wine expert Caroline Dubois, later to be Cinderwood’s first customer through her Levenshulme cafe, Isca. All three were keen on establishing a true farm to fork link, a commercial sustainable, growing project geared to generate maximum flavour. The Sam Buckley influence was obvious and the innovative Stone Barns Center, while Singing Frogs offer practical inspiration for Michael on how to work with soil. The key? No tillage.
Tillage is the mechanical manipulation of soil. In its place you should: Disturb the soil as little as possible. Keep as many living plants in the soil, as often as possible. Grow as many different species of plants as practical. Keep the soil covered all the time. Incorporate animals.
According to the Singing Frogs website, “When one understands the myriad scientific reasons for each of these principles, one quickly sees how tillage in all its forms is the complete antithesis of soil health.”
There is a long way to go for for Cinderwood to match the productivity of their likeminded Californian cousins but it is early days yet. It took a further year after that Wetherspoons summit for the twist of fate that helped make the dream come true.
Higher Ground was the new seedbed. That was the pop-up kitchen Otway, Cossins and Co launched at Kampus, the ‘garden neighbourhood’ of diverse apartments being created across from Canal Street in Manchester city centre. Their restaurant showcase in the site’s inherited ‘bungalow on stilts’ was scheduled to last four weeks but was cut short by the arrival of the pandemic. Which, as it turned out, gave them plus Michael the chance to assemble Cinderwood – via a lot of hands-on graft.
There was land to be cleared, sheds and two polytunnels to be erected, water and electricity supplies to be secured and a ton of pressure on Michael to put his horticultural principles into practice. With success he now has an assistant grower, Mike McCarten, who brings his own cheffing nous from working at Richard Carver’s Altrincham Market side-project, Little Window. The network tightens.
Yet still none of this would have been possible without the arrival of their future landlords at Higher Ground’s launch night in February 2020. Bearing steaks. Their own reared sirloin. As a kind of organic calling card. Jane and Chris Oglesby had turned over their land at Poole Hall near Nantwich to raising Longhorn, Dexter and Belted Galloway cattle in the most natural possible way.
As Richard Cossins recalls: “Chris Roberts (a chef specialising expert in cooking with fire and author of For The Love of Food) had told the Oglesbys they really ought to meet us, we’d really get on, so they just turned up out of the blue. Jane produced this pasture-fed beef from her handbag and Joseph, after opening the windows, cooked these amazing steaks.
“Jane really knew her stuff, had read The Third Plate and it had inspired her quest for regenerative beef. We bonded at once and they offered to lease us land to start Cinderwood on the estate. One acre would be enough for us to get going, though there is an option for a further four, which me might use for soft fruit. The soil is rich from being dairy pasture in the past. It was just perfect for us to work with.”
Family money from the Bruntwood property empire is behind Jane’s 120-strong rare breed herd. Few ‘farmhouses’ are as lavish as Regency mansion Poole Hall, but this is no Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess vanity project. It’s very hands-on. On our visit I was hugely impressed by the ethical commitment of farm manager Ste Simock, proud that his beef herd benefits from total freedom to roam wild plant-rich pastures. The animals are never kept indoors, never tread on concrete even; the bulls stay with the herd; to avoid any stress in the beasts he accompanies them in pairs to Callum Edge’s small scale abattoir on the Wirral.
Twice a week Michael Fitzsimmons makes his own delivery journey into Manchester, finishing up at Flawd. En route to Cinderwood I had popped into Another Hand on Deansgate Mews for brunch and just missed his drop-off of the radishes of your dreams. The chefs there Julian and Max are huge fans of the produce.
Michael’s own dream would be of a cluster of small-scale nurseries surrounding the city, selling to and fuelling a thriving indie restaurant scene. For the moment we just have Cinderwood.
So what about my third quest – in pursuit of the elusive celtuce I saw Michael carefully tending outside polytunnel 2? That’s a story for the future. Read about it via this link.