Pig farmer-turned-TV-personality Jimmy Doherty knows a thing or two about artisanal food, but now he wants to hear about yours. The foodie farmer tells Kate Whiting about the Flavours Of The Neighbourhood competition and why owning a farm isn’t as romantic as it sounds.
Farmer, entrepreneur and TV presenter, Jimmy Doherty has proved himself to be far more than a one-trick pony, winning a well-deserved place in the nation’s hearts since his trials and tribulations setting up Jimmy’s Farm were first documented on screens back in 2004.
Since then, he’s appeared in a string of programmes and had success with countless foodie projects, but he’s the first to admit that none of it would be possible without his hard-working wife, Michaela.
“It helps having an understanding wife, who’s prepared to run the business when you’re not there,” he says with a laugh.
Next up, he’s heading on a mission to discover the nation’s greatest artisanal foods, as part of a competition called Flavours Of The Neighbourhood, run by Hotel Indigo, a celebration of the best of British bakers, gourmet burgers, coffee makers and butchers.
And today, he’s hung up his wellies to call for last-minute entrants to upload pictures of their produce to the hotel chain’s Facebook page by February 15, and to get the general public voting for their favourites from February 16-23.
“After that, it’s up to me and the other judges to visit them and nominate the winner,” says Doherty, who turns 40 this spring.
“The food culture in Britain has really changed, with farmers’ markets here to stay,” he adds. Now you’re seeing supermarkets catching up and copying local food areas, which is a good thing.
“And we need our food diversity, because that’s where all the inspiration and ideas for new products come up.”
There’s a £1,000 cash prize up for grabs, plus a professional photo shoot of the produce, which, says Doherty, is “worth its weight in gold”.
And he should know, having put in the hard graft to make his farm a roaring success.
What started as a few rare breed pigs on some scrubland in Sussex, has grown to include an award-winning restaurant, butterfly house and wedding venue.
“Our business grew organically,” he says, smiling at the pun.
“Out of necessity, it became lots of different things. We started off by having a number of pigs, and then opening a shop twice a week, and then three, four times and now every day. Our field kitchen has become a full restaurant, and then people came to see the animals, so you have the farm park.
“Then people asked about getting married at the farm, so we’re doing 30 weddings this year.”
There’s also a food and music festival, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing...
“At the beginning, you have a bit more of a romantic vision of tending your animals and walking around in the evening with a glass of wine, watching the sunset. That all goes out the window as soon as you get the first invoice. You go, ‘Oh, the feed bill needs paying’, and you forget all that romantic nonsense!
“But without that romantic element, you don’t push forwards - I’m obsessed with growing vegetables and herbs at the moment. Now our turkeys have gone from the free-range turkey tunnels, we’re using that for growing all our vegetables for the restaurant, so you’re always moving on with new ideas.”
Doherty grew up in Essex, and was the self-professed “Doctor Doolittle of the village”, recalling how, as a schoolboy, he used to “breed and sell snakes and lizards”, and washed his neighbours’ cars, in order to save up and buy an aquarium.
He has two daughters of his own - Molly Rose, four, and two-year-old Cora May - and says Molly’s already getting the animal husbandry bug.
“I bought her some big fish and she’s got some grasshoppers on the go at the moment. We have a walk-through tropical butterfly house in summer, and then we’ve got everything from reindeer to alpacas and emus, and a village of guinea pigs.”
Doherty’s own idyllic childhood also involved having Jamie Oliver as a mate, and working in the Oliver family pub.
“One of the first jobs I had, it was probably slightly illegal actually, when I was about 11. I used to work in the kitchen [at Jamie’s parents’ pub] washing up, and Jamie used to do bottling up and then he started doing the food prep. At a very early age, you could see that that’s where he was heading.”
The pair are starring together in Channel 4 series Friday Night Feast, which sees them entertaining celebrities at their Southend Pier cafe.
“You’d never dream back then we’d be working on a show together - not those two kids running around with hair gel on their heads!”
To enter Flavours Of The Neighbourhood, or to vote for your favourite artisan producer, visit www.facebook.com/HotelIndigoEurope