Every so often I get the urge to become a self-sufficient Earth goddess, growing gigantic marrows and making jam from fruit I have nurtured from a pip. Sadly, the only things which get to munch on my apples are worms and, once again, the rhubarb has wilted all over the path.
Which is why I feel humbled, fascinated and thrilled to meet Charlie Stayt; a home-grower who utilises every nook and cranny of her pretty cottage garden as a bountiful larder which supplies food for her family and forms the basis of a thriving food business, Charlie’s Country Garden.
In a whirl-wind tour of the lush, multi-level garden on a hillside in Bakewell, Charlie tells me why her shrubs, trees and plants are more than their leafy, flowering parts.
The plant pots by the door contain everything Charlie could ever need for an instant salad. The clump of hot pink daisy flowers is echinacea; used as a tincture to treat family colds. The over-grown shrub is not simply there as shade for the patio – it’s a rosehip which Charlie plunders for fruit and turns into a syrup which has become a must-have for her older customers.
“They remember it from their childhood and love its traditional flavour,” Charlie (40), says while showing me a green, as yet unripe, Rosehip berry. “But some of my customers say it has a beneficial effect on their joints. It’s also a good source of Vitamin C, as is my raspberry vinegar. You can use a dessert spoon of it in boiled water and gargle. It’s also great on salads.”
And if Charlie’s own garden cannot come up with the goods; she’ll take a trip to her allotment – currently home to 30 fine lettuces – or embark on a foraging mission accompanied by partner Lee Woodall and children George, who is three and Robin, who has just turned one.
“The Peak District is such a great location for us; we practically live outdoors,” Charlie says.
“There are around four or five places along the Wye Valley which, in the Spring, are great for picking wild garlic. My customers cannot get enough of it. But we’re responsible foragers – we only take what we need and only a few leaves from each plant. Using this method, rather than taking from a few plants, can sometimes take up to two hours to collect five kilograms of wild garlic which is enough for a two-litre batch of pesto or salad dressing.”
Talking to Charlie, you sense how important it is for each and every ingredient to be home-grown, foraged or donated by willing friends and neighbours (often in exchange for a jar of chutney or bottle of dressing).
“We used to live in Devon but I can’t see us moving south again because people have been so friendly and supportive. For instance, I have a friend near Chesterfield who has an orchard and she lets me pick apples, pears and blackberries in return for a few lifts as she doesn’t drive,” Charlie explains.
“I also have neighbours and customers who let me have their apples or rhubarb. I try to give them some of the finished products as a thank you – but they’ll usually only take one. I think they can see I’m just running a small company and people are happy to help.”
Charlie is also keen to pass on support to other local businesses; “Lee and I hardly use the car as we like to support independent local shops.
“I like to use local suppliers. My herbs come from Hathersage, I’ve picked berries at a nursery in Dronfield and the cold pressed rape seed is by Brock and Morton, who are based in Ashford in the Water. They don’t spray the crop and it’s got a lovely earthy, nutty flavour.”
It’s clear Charlie puts her all into each and every product. Charlie’s jars and bottles are crammed with good stuff – her jam is 65 per cent fruit – and low in cheaper ingredients like vinegar and sugar. This explains why some customers arrange their holidays to the Peak District around Charlie’s appearances at local markets and food festivals.
“I’d say 60 per cent of my customers are regulars – both locals and tourists. One lady plans her holidays around the wild garlic season in the spring so she can buy my pesto and dressing,” Charlie says.
“The feed-back we get has been amazing.”
Charlie has always had a fascination with the countryside and cooking; “My mum and gran inspired my love of cooking.”
“I was the youngest of three and, when my mum went back to work part-time, I’d stay with my gran who lived in a picture-perfect Cotswold’s village called Laverton. My grandparents were farm workers and lived a traditional country life. They didn’t have a TV, telephone or car so we’d cook for hours often using berries we’d foraged on our walks.”
Charlie’s gran died in 1996; “I inherited one of her cook books.”
“It’s a National Trust cookery book and must be one of the first of its kind. It’s full of traditional recipes like the one for the rosehip syrup and something called ‘Imperial Pop’ which is a drink using ginger and spices made just after the war. It also shows you how to make jams, preserves and chutneys using ‘old fashioned’ fruits like quince and meddlers. I cherish this book so much, it’s full of her hand-written comments.”
Charlie used her gran’s recipes as a basis for her own cookery; “I worked as a nanny for 18 years. One of the couples I worked for were big foodies and I’d help them cook for dinners and parties,” she explains.
“They also had a huge orchard so I’d make things with the fruit like stewed apples, tarts, pies and sloe gin. I couldn’t bear fruit going to waste so I’d even take apples and pears to give out when I collected the children from school.”
Charlie also made some produce to raise funds at the school fete. “I made jams and chutneys and decorated the jars with scraps of fabric. We completely sold out,” she smiles. “At the school’s markets, I made up some hampers – putting in some homemade fudge and tiffin – and decorated everything with dried oranges, chilli and holly leaves. People asked if I’d take their orders as they wanted some for presents.”
Once again, Charlie’s stall was a sell-out and her employers encouraged her to keep up the home-produce business – which she called Charlie’s Country Garden – in her spare time.
“My employer held a senior post at a Devonshire hospital and every year would give a bottle of wine or chocolates to around 92 nursing staff,” Charlie recalls. “When I started my little business, I was asked to do some handmade gifts for them to a £10 budget on each one. I was doing everything by hand including the free-hand drawings on every label and decorating the jars but I loved it. I’ve always been quite arty. I’m dyslexic so I think I express my creative side through the jams and chutneys.”
In 2011, Charlie and Lee moved to Sheffield; “Lee was awarded funding to study for his Masters in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield,” Charlie says.
“After we moved, I decided to give up nannying and do my business full-time. We did lots of markets – everything from farmer’s markets to school fetes. I only had a little inner-city garden but it was full of around 150 pots, all my friends said it was like stepping into the countryside.”
Charlie and Lee also spent a lot of time exploring the beautiful countryside around their home and would often head off into the Derbyshire peaks.
“When Lee finished his degree, we knew we wanted to move to the Peak District. We looked at houses in a lot of villages but when we found our Bakewell cottage we knew it was the one as it had pretty views from every window,” Charlie recalls. “Bakewell also has a famous farmer’s market every month to showcase local products. When we moved, four years ago, I rang the organisers and was told there was a long waiting list but I rang so many times – I think I wore them down. Eventually, they gave me a stall in the following January and we went all out to make it look really pretty using hemp cloth and custom-made boxes.”
Even in the quietest month of the year, Charlie’s stall was a big hit; “My third customer was Lady Edward Manners of Haddon Hall,” Charlie smiles.“ Like many of the people I met that day – she’s gone on to become a loyal customer.”
As Charlie started to expand her business into more markets – and putting her goods into local delicatessens and shops – she realised she needed help.
“I was pregnant with George and, as both mine and Lee’s parents live miles away, he offered to join me in the business,” Charlie explains. “Lee helps with the cooking, bottling, labelling and he’s really popular with the customers at the markets. Having us both around works really well with the boys. We can sit and stick labels on the bottles while Robin plays with his toys. It’s the reason why we don’t want to expand the business at this stage. We’ll keep things bubbling along until both boys are at school and Lee will resume his own career.”
Watching Robin toddling around – he’s fascinated by Charlie’s neighbours who are out doing some pruning – it seems like an idyllic childhood. If the boys ever get bored of their magical garden, the family simply stroll up the hill to nearby fields which look over the Bakewell countryside.
“We come here to have picnics in the summer, to watch the fireworks in November and to sledge when it snows,” Charlie reveals whilst we survey the surrounding, breath-taking, views. “George loves it because the local farmer brings his sheep here when they’re lambing. He even names them. It made us laugh as one of the lambs was almost bald and he named it ‘fluffy’. I love it up here and it’s the perfect place to pick elderflowers.”
Back at the cottage, Charlie invites me into the kitchen to sample a refreshing elderflower cordial and some of her dressings and sauces. They are all full of vibrant colours and dense flavours but one – English Garden dressing – is an embodiment of Charlie’s own garden as it’s light, summery, fresh and jam-packed with herbs.
“It’s one of the most popular sellers. Our regular customers say it’s delicious and use it as a dip and marinade as well as on salads,” Charlie says. “That’s why it’s important to use high quality cold-pressed rape seed oil, cider and wine vinegars and fresh herbs. I know some companies keep their costs down by using more vinegar and fewer herbs. I’m sure no one would even notice if I used cheaper vinegars – but I would. It’s why I like making small batches in an open pan. Something is always lost when you’re not there to watch the pot – it must be the love.”
At this point Luke Osborne arrives to pick up stock from Charlie, which he sells, principally through his website Sauced Here, with other quality products made in and around the Derbyshire Peaks.
“This batch is destined for a hamper which will be put into holiday cottages,” Luke smiles. “The owners tell us a welcome basket, stuffed with local goodies, helps the guests start their holidays on a positive note – so they’re more willing to forgive that unexpected blown lightbulb or the like.”
Charlie’s Country Garden products can be found at the following markets;
Bakewell Farmer’s Market – held on the last Saturday of the month
Belper Food Festival, the next one will be held on December 9th
The Winter Artisan Market at Haddon Hall which takes place on November 17,18,19th.