With a real focus on organic and homegrown food, more and more people are turning to making their own products. AASMA DAY talks to ‘home farmer’ Ruth Tott who says you don’t have to move to the country to snatch a piece of “The Good Life”
There are certain “foodie brag points” you can score when you produce a dish at a dinner party with a flourish and say: “Here’s one I made earlier!”
Laughingly, Ruth Tott admits there is an element of intense satisfaction and pride at making your own things and replicating what you can buy in the shops for a fraction of the price.
However, she believes there are many reasons why the nation is becoming more focused on homemade produce and rediscovering skills from days gone by.
And Ruth says making things from scratch isn’t just something reserved for “earth mothers” and culinary wizards, but is something anyone can have a go at.
Ruth, who lives in Fulwood, Preston, with husband Paul Melnyczuk, explains: “You don’t need to have loads of land, a smallholding or a farm to snatch a bit of ‘The Good Life’.
“You can do plenty using what you already have to hand. The main thing is to just have a go.”
Mum-of-one Ruth says she and her husband used to dream of moving to the country and doing the goat and pig thing – just like in TV sitcom The Good Life.
However, after realising that wasn’t going to happen without a lottery win, Ruth discovered there was a lot she could do in her own home.
Ruth now creates many recipes from her self-described “small and nothing grand” kitchen and she often tries to recreate things that can be bought in shops.
Her under the stairs cupboard now serves as a pantry and, in the run-up to Christmas, she even turned it into a “cheese cave” where she created her own homemade Stilton-type cheese and Lancashire creamy blue.
Ruth says: “There is a lot you can do in your own home without winning the lottery and moving to the country.
“You can do things like keeping chickens in your back garden, growing your own veg, making your own food and preserving your jam.
“You have to recognise that it isn’t possible for everyone to move out to the country, so if you have a bit of a garden, you have to make the most of what you’ve got.
“There is nothing to stop you making your own cheese or butter just because you haven’t got a cow.”
Growing up, Ruth remembers her own mother always made her own things.
Ruth recalls: “My mum was in her early 20s during the war and was from the: ‘Make, Do and Mend’ era.
“I can remember her taking sour milk and making it into cheese and she would use the cheapest ends of meat and cook them so they were tasty.
“She made her own marmalade and I remember, one time, she decided to make her own horseradish sauce and she and my dad were sat there crying as the horseradish root is worse than onions!
“My dad made his own home brew and I grew up used to everything being made at home.
“However, when I was in my 20s, I thought life was too short for spending time making your own things and didn’t bother with any of that. But it gradually came back and I became interested in making things. I think a lot of it started after I had my daughter and not wanting to buy everything and wanting to make my own baby food.”
Ruth now makes all sorts of things at home, including her own bread, her own ice cream, butter, jams, marmalades and chutneys, sausages and burgers – and she even makes her own dog food instead of buying it.
She grows her own herbs and used to keep chickens for eggs, but decided to stop because of foxes in the area.
Ruth says: “The eggs from our own chickens were beautiful and I was stunned by the difference. The yolks were wonderfully yellow.
“Now I have gone back to buying eggs, it is not the same. No matter how fresh they are, there is a difference.”
Ruth says there is a real focus on making your own things nowadays and people are enjoying the growing aspect as well as making their own food.
She says: “People want to feel the earth beneath their fingernails and allotments are oversubscribed.
“A lot of it is out of necessity as it is a lot cheaper making your own food than buying everything.
“But it is also about knowing what is going into your food and food security.
“There is so much food that is so cheap, that it must come at a cost. The horsemeat scandal was one of these costs.
“I never understood why some people were so surprised by this. When you are paying 61p for a lasagne, where do people think the meat has come from?”
“When you make your own food, you know exactly what is going into it.
“I buy my meat direct from the farmer at Bury Market. I don’t like buying cheap meat. I know people have budgets, but I would rather save money in other areas and have better quality meat.”
As well as steering clear of things that are “too cheap”, Ruth also doesn’t like paying over the odds for expensive food items.
She says: “Some food is too expensive and you can make it yourself at a fraction of the cost.
“I don’t normally buy artisan food, but I went to a garden show and bought some lovely high end salad dressing.
“It cost about £2.95 for a 250ml bottle. I looked at the ingredients and managed to recreate it myself for less than £1.
“I do the same with ice cream and many other foods.
“You are not going to be able to make a white sliced loaf at home cheaper than a supermarket value one.
“But you are going to be able to make an artisan loaf at home for a lot cheaper than in the shops.
“Anybody can do this. It is not some special skill.
“It is all about having the confidence to have a go.
“I enjoy making my own things, but there is also an element of: ‘Can I do that?’ and pushing myself.
“Making my own Stilton and Camembert-type cheeses was a real ‘wow’ moment for me.”
When making your own things, Ruth says you have to be forgiving on yourself.
She explains: “You have to recognise that homemade is homemade.
“When you make butter, it’s not going to turn out perfectly square shaped. But it is tasty.
“There is a lot of pride and self worth in making your own things.”
It’s not just food items that Ruth makes – she also makes soaps and perfumes and even her own dishwasher tablets.
Ruth also does crafts such as knitting, embroidery and patchwork and used to make her own clothes when she was younger and has recently started doing so again.
She says: “I make my own perfume. You can actually make perfume with vodka, but I use a cosmetic alcohol with essences.
“I make my own Bounty-style chocolate bars, crumpets, butter, different kinds of breads and all sorts of sweets and gifts for Christmas. I cooked a ham over the weekend and, with the surplus, I made a big chicken and ham pie.”
Foraging is another one of Ruth’s interests and she often forages in woods near her home and makes use of things she finds such as wild garlic and fruit.
Ruth says: “There is wild garlic in some woods near my home and I have made a beautiful wild garlic soup with it.
“I have also made elderflower wine and, a few years ago, Eastway in Fulwood was awash with wild plums and we ended up picking 20 kilos of them.
“If we hadn’t picked these plums, they would have just gone to waste.
“It got to the point where we were sick of plum jam!
“There is also a tree with hazelnuts nearby which is absolutely dripping with nuts. You can use these to make a Nuttella-type chocolate spread.
“I always keep a plastic bag with me just in case I see something I can cook with when I am out and about.”
However, Ruth says, when foraging, people should remember to stick to rules and regulations and should not take everything, just what they need.
Television programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, River Cottage and The Big Allotment Challenge have added to the nation’s fascination with growing and making their own food and Ruth says this is an interest she can’t see abating.
She says: “A lot of people are trying to learn skills we have forgotten. There is a generation now who want to find out how to do all these things but don’t know where to learn them.”
It was tapping into this desire to find out more about making things that spurred on Ruth and husband Paul to launch Home Farmer Magazine, a national magazine aimed at home growers and producers which Ruth and Paul produce in their garage.
Ruth says: “Home Farmer is a niche magazine for anyone who wants a piece of ‘The Good Life’.
“It is a monthly magazine and we sell around 5,000 to 8,000 copies a month and it has now been going about eight years.
“This magazine bridged the gap before things like The Great British Bake Off.
“At that time, there was nothing for people who wanted to make their own things.
“Now, making your own things is all coming back in and people want to be able to make the things their grandmother made.”
Although Ruth enjoys cooking and crafting, she is keen to point out that she is not preaching to people about not buying ready meals.
She says: “I am sensible and try to be thrifty and not waste things.
“But we don’t make everything and we do buy things. I still sometimes buy ready meals and jars – I am only human.
“Although we make our own Indian food, we still enjoy Indian takeaways.
“What I am trying to say is people should not rely so much on the supermarkets for providing all their meals.
“If all people have ever known is buying quick convenience foods, they do not know how to do anything else.
“Because everything is laid out for us in the supermarkets, we have lost our common sense and skills.
“However, making your own things is something anyone can do using what they already have to hand.
“The important thing is to have a go.”