The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader From Field and Flower
At Borough Market, you get used to hearing Damascus-level food conversion stories. Traders delight in them: speak to Tartufaia’s Mario, or Danny at Richard Haward’s Oysters and they will regale you with stories of how customers passionate in their dislike of oysters and truffles turned on a sixpence upon tasting their wares. It is less usual, though, for these conversion stories to involve the traders themselves.
Sam, the co-owner of From Field and Flower, had no great love of honey—now she runs a business selling the stuff, together with flour and rice. What makes Sam’s journey from honey-hater to trader is the enormous role that the principles of Slow Food played in her transformation.
As a child, growing up with a Greek cousin, Sam used to enjoy wild thyme honey imported from Greece. For years she could not understand why supermarket honey, which she kept on standby for guests or cooking purposes, was so different from the honey she remembered enjoying as a child.
Then she met her partner, Stefano, an Italian who had been raised on honey sourced from local small-scale beekeepers. “That was my Eureka moment,” she says. “As soon as I started trying those honeys, I realised the reason I liked them was because they were produced in a slow and natural way.”
Sustainably produced by individual beekeepers who know and love their bees, the raw honey sold by From Field and Flower is a world away from its supermarket counterpart. For one thing, industrially produced honey is pasteurised—heated until all naturally occurring bacteria are killed. “Raw honey, which is what we sell, is not heat treated. It’s allowed to filter naturally, which takes a very long time,” Sam explains. “When you heat it up, it becomes more runny and flows faster, which is what manufacturers producing hundreds of thousands of bottles a week need.”
Raw honey is both flavoursome and highly nutritious. Heat it up, and you end up with a product that is “uniformly sweet, with no nutritional benefit and nothing to differentiate it from the next jar on the shop shelf”.
The flour and rice imported by Sam and Stefano from Piedmont—a region of Italy steeped in the production of grains—is imbued with similar principles. “Our suppliers are small family producers who have been selecting only the finest grains, milling them in a traditional way, and continuously checking for quality for over 100 years.”
The idea of bleaching the flour or using grains which are anything less than top notch is as alien to the Margherita and Enrici families (rice and flour producers respectively) as the idea of heating honey is to Sam’s beekeepers.
Respect, care and quality
For Sam, it all comes down to the ethos of Slow Food. “Their philosophy, like my philosophy, is not about cutting corners. It’s not about profit margins. It’s about respect, care and quality; understanding that, in order to create good stuff, there has to be good stuff going in.” To filter and bottle raw honey takes weeks of intensive manual labour and an extensive wait as the sweet gloop passes through filters—to remove bits of honeycomb and pollen—and, as slowly, into jars.
The Enrici family, who started their flour business in 1933, and the Margheritas who began even earlier, rely very much on their traditional stone mill and a lot of hard work. “Growing the crop, drying the grain, traditional stone milling, and packing—all of it takes place on their farms. There are no short-cuts, no large-scale industrial processes,” Sam explains. “And if there were, they would be able to taste the difference. They are that passionate about their food”
Sam and Stefano’s suppliers all “accept that speeding a product up with any artificial method is just not an option”. When Stefano once asked an Italian beekeeper if he used sugar to help the bees over winter, he was furious. “The idea of interfering with the processes is alien to them.” Their suppliers “care about the cycle they are in and they work with it to get quality.”
They know what their food means to those who sell it, cook with it and consume it. “I don’t want to deal with anonymous people where I am just another customer—an order number that starts with several zeros,” says Sam. “I want to know we have a relationship where I really respect what they do and they respect what I do, and we help each other in that way.”
The country’s oldest honeys
Viktoria Bassani’s Swedish pearl honey, so called for its translucent, luminescent quality and texture, is a case in point. One of the country’s oldest honeys, it is produced early in the season when all the fruit trees have just blossomed. Its ancient, artisanal method of production epitomises why From Field and Flower has been accredited by Slow Food; in fact, Sam and Stefano actually met Viktoria at the Salone del Gusto, the world’s largest Slow Food event, held annually in Turin.
“We went there partly for fun, partly to find some new suppliers. You speak to so many producers there and try so much honey, you literally get a buzz from it all,” Sam grins. It is both rare and slow in the making. As oysterman Richard Haward would no doubt confirm, there’s no rushing a pearl.