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I had been hoping for some follow-up from the ‘meeeja’ after The Independent wrote a very positive review of my little book ‘Crushed, My NHS Summer’.

The following simple email appeared in my inbox.

‘Dear Jan,
I wonder if you might consider doing an interview on ‘Saturday Live’, Radio 4’s weekly magazine programme broadcast on Saturday mornings,
kind regards,…’

I didn’t want to gush too much about how much I admired The Reverend Richard Coles for his gentle wit, Sian Williams for being, well, for being, both brilliant and gorgeous, there! I’ve said it… and Corrie Corfield for having one of the most sensuous voices on the planet, as well as being an accomplished Ipad daubette. J.P. Devlin’s voice carries the memories of my Irish influenced childhood. I first became hooked on Saturday Live in the days of Fi Glover, her unique quirkiness made me smile so much. Put simply, it is a truly great programme.

I was even more thrilled that my presence was actually required, live, in the studio. I have done a few radio interviews over the years, mainly BBC Radio Leicester with Ben Jackson, Tony Wadsworth, Jonathon Lampon, and Damien St John. I have done a fair bit of telly with my friend Clarissa Dickson Wright, Great British Food Revival on BBC2, and more recently Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on BBC4. In 2001 I filmed a Foot & Mouth special with Tony Francis and before that had huge fun working with Aaron Patterson of Hambleton Hall on both series of Wild About Food. But, Radio 4 has a special place in my heart as it saved my business back in 1998 with its ‘On Your Farm’ broadcast with Oliver Walston. Six months or so after having started Northfield Farm Shop, following my redundancy from banking, and before the existence of the re-born Borough and Broadway Markets in London, the business was just not reaching enough customers. That Radio 4 broadcast, early one Sunday morning, had customers beating a path to our door within a couple of hours. Many of those customers are still with us today all these years later.

On the Saturday morning, December 2012, I walked the short distance from a nearby hotel to the bright new BBC Broadcasting House, and was redirected to the original building next door. Rookie error at the time. Already waiting in the reception area was Emma Kennedy, unknown to me then, but, I soon discovered, a superwoman for modern times. Emma writes, acts, amuses, entertains, tweets and is addicted to BBC 4’s ‘The Killing’. In fact, so addicted, that she has taken on the self-appointed role of official stalker to the series’ star character, Sarah Lund and written ‘The Killing Handbook’. As if that were not enough, she dropped into Masterchef in 2012, and won. Emma and I were quickly shown upstairs to meet Chris Wilson, the executive producer and shown into the studio where I was introduced to the two presenters. They, Richard and Sian, are really just as I had anticipated and have described above. The four of us sat in a slightly gloomy, but very atmospheric room, gathered around an octagonal desk kitted out with screens, microphones and headphones. My back was turned to a large plate glass window behind which the production team sat and weaved its magic. This was the BBC at its sparse best, think the retro newsroom feel of ‘The Hour’ , late and lamented, on BBC2, without the fishnet stockings, cigarettes or Single Malt. Some of the lights appeared to be held together with sticky tape and post it notes, definitely no over-spend here. The room exuded what the programme achieves namely, relaxed, refreshingly old-fashioned professionalism.

Listening again to the broadcast, I realise that I failed miserably at answering Sian William’s questions. I seem to be a master at answering part of the question and then rambling away in my own direction. I hope she forgave me.

It really was huge fun to have become even a tiny part of the history of this great show.

You can listen to it here about 18 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p027s

You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908684194/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

Available in Paperback or Ebook form

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Producer profiles

I wrote this article as pasrt of a series of producer profiles for Great Food Magazine. Photos are by its editor, Matt Wright

The story of Rutland’s famous miller

Published May 28, 2012

By Jan McCourt

Fifty years ago, a boy climbed onto the back of a pony in rural Leicestershire and rode out into the countryside. The little boy lived in the city of Leicester. Ponies are conducive to childrens’ dreams. This dreamer’s dream was quite unusual. On his regular route lay the Fenney Windmill at Shepshed. The mill towered above the little boy as his pony ambled by. From the first time he saw it from his pony, much as it would have been viewed more than a century earlier by any traveller on horse-back, Nigel Moon decided he would become a miller.

Childhood dreams come and go. Nigel’s dream was shared by his parents. As it became clear that young Nigel was very serious indeed, so his father, a fresh water biologist for whom the countryside was a passion, and his mother, started driving around the country with him, looking for mills in need of rescue.

Having tried to buy Whissendine mill in the early 1970s, the family bought derelict Soham mill, Cambridgeshire, in 1974, which they restored. Nigel’s mother ran a shop in a caravan selling flour and frozen ready-mixed dough. Their aim, was to encourage people to bake their own bread using real flour.

Nigel restored the mill at Soham and rebuilt its sails, his first attempt at doing so. Paradoxically, Nigel, having adopted the most traditional of crafts, embraced the future. He decided to use a steel arm in the new sails as a stronger option instead of the traditional wood. When the sails were finally ready to turn in the wind, he let them gather speed. The great new sails came slowly to a halt as the wind died down. Nigel’s mother stood back to admire her son’s great achievement just as the weld on the new steel join cracked. The whole sail sheared off and, falling, impaled itself in the ground a few feet from where his mother was standing.

History does not record how Nigel’s mother reacted, but she is still to be found, now in her nineties, hard at work supporting her son in his lifelong endeavour. Nigel learnt his lesson from his flirtation with modernity. He went back to wood.

Although Nigel’s early attempts to buy Whissendine Windmill had been rebuffed, he maintained contact with the building by helping  in the restoration of its windows over several years.

The family’s quest remained beset by the curse of the drive to convert mills into houses as an alternative form of a rural-housing dream. This in itself was a threat to the remaining mills’ chances of ever regaining their original purpose.

Nigel still had his heart set on taking on the Whissendine mill and negotiated with its owner at the time for three years.

Between 1981 and 1986 Nigel was commissioned to rebuild Wymondham Mill. He managed to buy Whissendine Windmill in 1995. Too few of us ever really realise our dreams. Nigel was determined to be what he has since become: the proprietor of one of England’s few remaining fully operational nineteenth century windmills. For Nigel though, he had to be a very particular miller. Not for him the glistening steel of modern, sterile, equipment, or the link in the chain of creation of mass-produced bread.

Nigel’s views are clear. To preserve our mills, we must stop viewing them solely as objects to be preserved. They must earn their keep.

Outside Whissendine Windmill lies one of the many scale models of a mill that Nigel made as a boy. If you were to conjure up an image of a typical miller, your vision would be of Nigel. The miller, covered from head to toe in a light dusting of organic flour, his blue eyes dancing and shining brightly above a smile, surrounded by his thick beard.

More on Whissendine Windmill…
The 60-foot tower mill was built in 1810 and restored by Nigel in 1996, having stood idle for 74 years. The mill produces a variety of flours. Address: Melton Road, Whissendine, Rutland LE15 7EU, 01664 474172

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The lunch for the Melton & Rutland Conservative Association lunch at Northfield Farm sold out very quickly after tickets went on sale. The obvious draw was Clarissa Dickson Wright as guest speaker, and she did not disappoint.

Her theme was ‘A Life of Honest Food’. Honesty in food remains such a huge issue and for many people a complete mystery.

I received an email the other day which set out the numbers within bar codes showing from which country a particular item originates. China, whose government declared half of it rivers as being too polluted to drink from, supplies some 70% of the fish consumed world-wide. The email showed photos of a Chinese chicken processor sending staff out to collect dead birds from small farms, take them back on bicycles, pluck & wash them in vile, unsanitary conditions & finally die them with a colour rendering their appearance appetizing again. Fish, Chicken & pigs are all capable of thriving to a certain extent in the most vile of conditions.

There is only one way to buy & consume these meats safely. Observe the ‘Rule of Least Remove’. How far removed are you, the consumer, from the producer of the food you eat? Think about it. The fewer steps you are removed from the original producer, the more certain you can be of a product’s honesty and quality.

I suspect the other less obvious draw was a degree of curiosity, not just about Northfield Farm as a venue for such an auspicious event, but also for the opportunity to observe one of the party’s more colourful characters at close quarters. In the event, Alan Duncan proved a charming and very amusing presence and speaker.

It would be fascinating to host a similar gathering for our other major party and to see how appreciative they would be of the food and surroundings.

Our night of music with the Atlantics and Laura Swaine was attended by nearly 100 people. Our next on Friday 13th November with the Hounddogs promises to be even bigger & better. We already have one booking for a party within the party.

Clarissa will be back for our Christmas Fair on 21st November.

Last night I attended a conference dinner at PERA in Melton for the Market Towns debate on surviving the recession.

Our hosts had made a huge effort with the meal and sourced virtually every ingredient from local producers including Northfield Farm. These producers were invited as guests and gave a talk of varying length about their businesses and the food they had supplied. It was a difficult audience to gauge in terms of their genuine interest, but they did clap with enthusiasm after each speaker had finished. At the end of the evening my neighbour shook my hand and told me how much he had enjoyed the event. He made a particular point of saying how interesting he had found the emphasis on the quality and the provenance of the food. ‘Until now’, he said, ‘I did not think I was interested in food. This evening has changed that completely’. The conference organiser had followed the Rule of Least Remove and deserves huge credit for doing so. I think that simple statement was one of the greatest compliments that could have been paid to any of the producers in the room. I, as a food producer cannot conceive of how anybody could fail to be ‘interested’ in what they eat. Yet I must learn that this is so. The challenge therefore for me and other producers is to go out, missionary-like, to convert the disinterested masses. The after dinner entertainment was by the Melton Musical Theatre Company founded 90 years ago by Sir Malcolm Sargent. They were brilliant. They are in desperate financial trouble. They must be saved. See http://www.northfieldfarm.com for more on everything. Visit us soon. Jan McCourt jan@northfieldfarm.com

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