You know you’re a long way from London when members of the public raise a polite and friendly hand as you drive past them. You also catch them in the rear view mirror stopping to turn around as if they somehow know you’re going to come to an abrupt stop, reverse quickly back up the lane and plead for directions. Or perhaps they’re just wondering what business a Mini Cooper has on the mud-strewn back lanes of Dorset?
At the second time of driving past, I finally catch a glimpse of the sign I’ve been looking for - it reveals the entrance of a long and chassis-challenging farm track which eventually, after traversing a couple of cattle grids so bone-jolting they could be chiropractic therapy, leads me to the farm of one Julius Roberts, the former chef turned sustainable farmer who has built quite the following on Instagram, brilliantly documenting his idyllic, wholesome, commendable and at times very challenging life in this ancient and fertile pocket of English countryside, alongside sharing a smorgasbord of delectable recipes.
When I arrive at the farm, a beautifully ramshackle old building which sits at the foot of a steep fold in a wide and verdant valley, no one is at home. I park up in the yard and introduce myself to a party of goats who seem genuinely interested in some banter, before a troop of hens, led by a puffed up cockerel, swing by to see what all the fuss is about. The farmhouse straddles the drive with an archway, creating a building with a sprawling footprint. It’s covered in climbers and creepers on the one side, while facing into the yard there is a small covered wood pile next to which has gathered a dishevelled parade of frog-green wellies. The metronomic thud I keep hearing behind me is the sound of two billy goats colliding head-on in the far field as the females carry on heads bowed, chowing grass.
Julius pulls into the yard in a battered old red Defender not five minutes later with co-pilots Loki and Zephyr, two grey lurchers who look as if they have been preternaturally hewn from storm clouds, wind and earth. Dressed as you would imagine someone who runs a farm dresses (trousers splattered with mud; boots that look like they've been on a chain gang; sensibly warm layers on top), Julius - much like the lurchers - sports a fabulously wild head of hair - dark blonde curls tumbling from his crown like twisted ears of corn. He has a big, friendly smile on his face (which as I discover is a near permanent feature) and a bag of crab meat in his hands which is to form dinner later that evening, once we're done shooting the new winter collection on the poor lad.
Julius grew up between London and Suffolk, but is very much a "first generation" farmer, which means he's winging it, or rather learning on the job. When it comes to the tending of animals, of which he has plenty, that requires the ability to learn quick but he seems very much the natural. In fact, seeing him here in his element, in the elements, one wonders what on earth he was doing in London in the first place. To aptly borrow a pair of farm idioms, the fish out of water has become the pig in mud! I'm half joking of course - he flourished in London too, learning his trade in the kitchen of the brilliant Noble Rot, a neighbour of Oliver Spencer on Lamb's Conduit Street.
"I had an amazing time cooking in London, culminating in a year at Noble Rot, a fantastic restaurant. I got really lucky there and was cooking some amazing stuff with a lovely team. I learnt so much, lived and breathed it. The passion and intensity of a job like that is so exciting but it takes a lot from you and I could feel myself imploding so I decided to make a change and move to the countryside, to reconnect with nature. So that's what I did. Moved to Suffolk, bought four pigs on a bit of a whim, and it has taken me on this incredible journey. I am now living full time on a farm deep in Dorset, totally in love with it, and would never go back. Living off the land, growing my own food and spending my days tending the flock. My cooking and working routine is entirely inspired by the seasons and to be so in touch with nature in such an intimate way is an absolute joy.”
The joy of cooking is invariably inherited from one's family, as any Italian will be at great pains to tell you, or in my case from one's family's inclination to butcher even the simplest of meals. It's a push-pull thing, with Julius's epicurean passion coming very much from the pull of his grandmother's esteemed culinary repertoire.
"Food has always been a huge part of my family and how we socialise. My granny was such an incredible cook and I have such fond memories of sitting next to her on the aga, her passing me wooden spoons laden in all these different flavours for me to taste."
But the kitchen didn't immediately figure in Julius's first career plot, despite the innate passion for it. "I originally studied sculpture at Brighton and had an amazing time but got back to London a bit daunted by the prospect of becoming a conceptual artist and didn’t really see that path leading in front of me, so I got into cooking because it just felt like the natural thing to do and was lucky enough to be able to work at a few different restaurants."
How to describe Julius's style of cooking? He uses the term "hyper-seasonal", whereas I prefer the term "fucking beautiful", uttered with a mouth full of food and a nice glass of wine within a forearm's reach of my elbow, but that's just me.
"The seasons are the biggest factor in what I’m cooking and how I’m cooking it," he says. "It very much dictates what’s coming from the garden or what I’m able to get from the local farm shops. So summer is fresher, lighter, a lot of cold food, zingy salads, whereas winter is much more unctuous and hearty because you’re trying to keep yourself warm. I’ll have a chicken broth going most nights in the aga and often have that for breakfast. I mean I love both but winter cooking is pretty exciting to get back to after summer food for so long. I’m definitely a better summer veg grower than I am a winter veg grower but we’ve still got loads of food in the garden. All my sweet corn is looking amazing at the moment. We’ve got pumpkins galore which are one of my favourite vegetables and are so fun to cook with, from making ravioli to soups and stews. I’ve got tonnes of potatoes so dauphinoise, gratin and Rosti’s are on the menu. Jerusalem artichokes, onions and cavolo nero which is probably one of my favourite things to cook with because you can make amazing pesto’s, soups and risottos. I think winter produce is in some ways a lot simpler, but it’s amazing what you can do with it."
Which leads me nicely on to the meal which Julius cooked for the shoot crew, which was hugely appreciated, as I imagine that after a day of being told "no, don't stand like that," "smile!" "don't smile", "legs together please," you'd be inclined to put a couple of pizzas in the oven and be done with it. Of course, that was never going to happen.
"I decided to make a crab risotto - it was actually a first time dish so I was very excited to cook it for everyone. I initially wanted to make a squid risotto but couldn’t find any squid in the local fishmonger so crab was a worthy replacement. The local Devon crab around here is amazing. It's a simple dish with some of the last tomatoes I harvested, along with garlic, chilli and saffron, quite a wet, unctuous and rich risotto. Finished with tons of parsley and lemon zest at the end to brighten it up and give it a bit of zing. I thought it was delicious!" We heartily concur.
If you've ever spent any time in Dorset then you'll know that while summers can be quite glorious affairs, winters have quite the bite. It takes a special type of person to be able to rise with the cockerel's call and feed the animals, or brave horizontal sleet at 2am to untangle a sheep from a wire fence. One really has to love it with a capital L.
"Winter on the farm is actually a beautiful time of year, the colours are just amazing and the weather is intense," Julius says. "You’re kind of tucked in and really ensconced in the environment. I’m not going to lie, it is challenging. It’s cold and brutal, the elements feel very raw. It’s when the animals need you most. You’re moving a lot of hay and doing a lot of feeding, and you’ve got such short days to get everything done. On the other hand, I love the food that comes with that time of year. I yearn for cold frosty dog walks and the amazing sea mists that roll in and hang in the trees all day. I guess the joy of winter is only enhanced by the hardships. You get a lot of time to be on your own and think in that way farming is quite meditative. I'm someone who has always needed solitude quite a lot. I’ve got wonderful animals and dogs that keep me company and keep me busy, but I really need my peace and headspace and I relish that."
Sure enough, wherever you're standing on the farm you're rarely more than 10 metres away from a stout little goat looking for conversation or somewhere to playfully lodge his horns.
"My goats! I mean I love my goats. They are so much fun. They are the most curious and charismatic animals - there’s so much intellect and individuality in them. They’re so naughty and spend a lot of time escaping. They sneak inside and eat all the flowers in the house, strip the paint off the walls, climb my car, eat my shoelaces and generally keep me very busy. I don’t know what I’d do without them."
After spending the best part of 24 hours with Julius on his farm, I can see why he made the shift. With a burgeoning social media-fuelled career that he can grow from his kitchen right here in Dorset, he has indeed nurtured an idyllic set-up, one that not only nourishes him but also inspires hundreds of thousands of others to eat and live more sustainably.
"Why this life? Well I’m trying to live as sustainably and thoughtfully as I can, very much in tune with nature, trying to live in harmony with the seasons, and making the farm biodiverse and an amazing habitat for all sorts of plants and creatures."
And a brilliant job of it he is doing, too.
So inspirational. Love it.