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Fussels Fine Foods: The farmer with a heart of gold

Melissa Blease talks to food hero and farmer Andy Fussel

There are few times in our lives when we thank the powers that be for a downpour. For had it not been for the fact that the heavens opened just as we were approaching our magazaine deadline (in the middle of a heatwave, too), this feature might not have made it to our pages at all. For whatever Andy Fussel of Fussels Fine Foods – purveyors of high quality, single cold pressed extra virgin oil (and related products) and the brains behind the Fussels Kitchen initiative – represents as a Food Hero, he will always be a farmer. And on the day we spoke, he should have been out in the fields, harvesting. But it rained. So here we are.

He told me as we sheltered from the deluge: “As a a farmer, my rotation of crops around the farm every year is very important because it allows the soil to gain organic matter and build up nutrients – and that pretty much goes on whatever the weather.”

“As my land – at Rode in Somerset – is predominately wet, heavy and clay-based, oilseed rape allows me to make the most of that crucial time between the cutting of the crop and the planting of the next crop – ie, wheat. A dozen or so years ago, oilseed rape was a key part of our farming strategy, but the price suddenly dropped so dramatically that it became unviable to grow. I had to add value to my crop, and so I settled on pressing it myself and selling it directly to the general public . . . and Fussels Fine Foods was born.”

Although the concept was well-received, cold pressed oilseed rape oil was relatively unheard of at the time, as most of us associate cold pressed/virgin oils with olives. But not many of us were aware that oilseed rape oil contains half the saturated fat of olive oil, has ten times the amount of essential fatty acid Omega 6 and tolerates heat to a much higher temperate than olive oil is capable of. This makes it ideal for a variety of different cooking applications including baking, frying, roasting, salad dressings, dipping oils, mayonnaise and even pastry.

Who knew? Well, thanks to Andy, lots of people know all this and more now. “Once we get people to understand our oil, they use it for everything and keep coming back for more,” he says. “The fact that we directly sell a quality product from a crop that we grow, process, bottle and label on our own farm adds to the all-round appeal; it really does do exactly what it says on the tin (or in this instance, the bottle!) and we’re very proud of the fact that our customers love it as much as we do.”

So far, Andy’s making it all sound so easy. “If there’s any secret to what we’ve done, it really is a very simple one,” he says. “From the off, our branding depicted honesty, locality and simplicity; our labels feature the little Andy character wearing his overalls . . . and it’s actually me. That personal identity hopefully denotes the trust and reliability behind the brand. We get around too, supporting local farmers’ markets and shows both big and small, and I regularly give talks to groups, clubs and food-related organisations, doing seminars or cookery demonstrations with leading chefs. It’s a busy life, but I love it.”

And love it he most certainly must, because his hard work doesn’t stop there. The Fussels Fine Foods Kitchen opened in new premises on the A361 between Rode and Beckington last year. Offering cookery demonstrations and courses on all manner of themes including bread and pasta making, Indian and Mediterranean menus and specialised courses in fish, game and chocolate hosted by guest chefs, it’s the kind of facility that makes foodies excited at the prospect of going back to school.

“I wanted to create a space where people can experience how and what to create using our oil,”says Andy. “We’re even able to offer visits and trips for parties, groups and schools to see how we press, bottle and label the oil – the full journey from field to crop to bottle. It’s all really exciting to me, because I’ve always been on a bit of a mission to bring the world of farming and what farmers actually do to the general public. And it turns out that people really do want to know what we do, and why and how we do it, but it’s up to us as farmers to do as much as we can to engage that interest.”

Before long, we’re discussing our indoor menus for autumn, with Andy waxing lyrical about the game season: “that gamey flavour, served with late spuds, carrots and parsnips from the garden, and thick gravy made from the juices of the bird – one taste and I’m all set to settle down and enjoy the long dark nights ahead. Blackberries, raspberries and apples from the tree at the bottom of the garden are also big favourites for me this time of year, as are pears and plums. Oh, and don’t forget the wild mushrooms – just make sure you know what you’re doing if you’re going foraging; you really don’t want to pick the wrong ones.”

So when he’s not in the field, hosting a seminar or turning his own non-oil related crops into an autumnal feast, where might Andy go for a blow-out prepared and cooked by somebody else? True to form he keeps it local, recommending The Talbot at Mells (“fantastic food with great atmosphere”), the Longs Arms at Monkton Farleigh (“steaks that make my mouth water just thinking about them”) and his local, the Cross Keys in Rode: “a really great pub with a wonderful atmosphere at the heart of village life.”

He’s keen to big up his own food heroes too: “Lesley Waters is a wonderful chef, and has the really important ability to engage and translate cookery of all types to an audience on a one-to-one level with humour and sincerity at her Abbots Hill Cookery School just outside Yeovil – she inspires folk to go out and try ideas and recipes for themselves with confidence. My mum was a food hero for me too – I’m sad to say that she’s no longer with us, but her ability as a cook was phenomenal and she was never afraid to take on a challenge. Whether she was cooking just for the family, a massive party or a wedding, she excelled and seemed to do it with consummate ease (oh OK, and perhaps the odd little panic). Rachel Demuth is also a legend in the cookery world – her Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath is a fantastic place.”

Andy Fussel really is a local food hero with his wellies firmly on the ground. Go on, Andy: tell us you’re as proud of yourself as we are of you? “I have to admit that I love going into a shop, pub, restaurant or market and see that they use or sell Fussels,” he says, quietly; “That will always be a very special for me.” Fussels: you’re fabulous.

Fussels Fine Foods, Church Farm, Parkgate Lane, Rode, Somerset, BA11 6AA.
Tel: 01373 831286; web: fusselsfinefoods.co.uk.