Melissa Blease talks to Neil Mortimer of Lovejoys, who has been growing and supplying seasonal produce to restaurants, hotels and cafes for 21 years…

Nominations, anticipation, announcements, gongs, celebrations: we all know how awards ceremonies roll. And as a brand new year dawns, many folk in the food industry will be keeping their fingers crossed that 2016 is going to be their year, either in their own town or city (January/February seems to have become local awards season), or setting their sights higher (the Michelin men are rumoured to be particularly active during the spring; votes for the Observer Food Monthly awards usually open in April and are collated in June).

But without the local growers, producers and suppliers who underpin the foundations for the success of any modern restaurant or – of course – chef, no amount of wishing, hoping and finger-twisting will get any wannabe food world superstar within chopping distance of the charts.

At The Bath Magazine, it is our aim to applaud the brilliant efforts by the high profile names who are doing wonderful things for Bath, and to perhaps more importantly – recognise and introduce our readers to the folk who are quietly making a huge difference away from the limelight… and Neil Mortimer is one such unsung local hero.

Neil is the head of wholesale local produce specialist Lovejoys, based in Melksham. The lively Lord of the Green Stuff has spent more than half his life growing, supplying and sourcing produce that has adorned many a restaurant table in the Bath/Wiltshire area for many years, and boasts a CV that incorporates two decades running a 250 acre family farming business before he lay down permanent roots for Lovejoys 21 years ago this year. As a result of Neil’s experience, his company’s roots are firmly planted in the locally sourced ethos, striving to support the local economy and keep food miles low by largely using growers based within a 10-mile radius, and aiming to only supply produce to businesses in an approximately 90-minute radius of its Melksham base.

Lovejoys-6As well as supplying the region’s top restaurants, including the famous Bath Pump Room, Lovejoys ensure students at Monkton Combe School and patients at Circle Hospital get their fresh, healthy five-a-day.

So, Neil: are menus that boast about provenance and seasonality a relatively new phenomenom? “Actually, no,” says Neil: “In my early years as a grower, most people were automatically aware of what fruit and vegetables were in season in this country, and cooked accordingly. But when the supermarkets started stocking all kinds of produce all year round, the seasons were forgotten. The return to using seasonally sourced produce and a growing awareness of how far food has travelled is, to me, the end of a round trip back to basics – for many reasons, it had to happen.”

But demand, awareness and our increasingly sophisticated palates means that Neil has to keep moving with the times. “My experience as a grower and the personal contacts I have with others in the region who have a real knowledge and passion for the industry we’re in has been of the greatest value to my business today, and the secret to our longstanding success.

“We can respond to a particular request from a chef for a certain specialist crop like ruby red chard, stripy beetroot or pink fir apple potatoes, and arrange to have it grown to order, just down the road. We’re on hand to fulfil emergency last-minute deliveries, and our on-site prep room keeps chefs with limited time and/or no budget for a full brigade very happy indeed – we can supply peeled potatoes, fully prepped mixed vegetable selections, hand-cut chips, all to order. But I always offer my time to discuss future menu plans with the chefs we work with and offer advice on cost effective produce, as we have the expertise to know when prices will be affected by the weather, or high demand – there are a lot of behind the scenes factors that go into creating those perfect menus that arrive at the restaurant table looking effortlessly simple!”

Alongside a lovely opportunity to ‘meet’ Neil yourself via the unique Why Choose Us video on the Lovejoys website, there’s a raft of rave reviews and testimonies from the restaurants, hotels, farm shops, village shops and school kitchens that rely on Neil’s service, including a glowing personal endorsement from Lucknam Park’s Michelin-starred executive head chef Hywel Jones.

Lovejoys-5But Neil’s hands-on approach to a job that’s really a vocation is far removed from any kind of glamour. Mother Nature can be a tough boss. “By necessity, my day starts very early, often way before dawn in the winter,” he says. “But I like that time of the day the most – it’s always beautiful, whatever the weather, and there’s no traffic on the road. The worst part of the job is getting the vans to everyone on time in the mornings – negotiating roadworks, dealing with congestion; it’s all a very long way away from the peace of the fields where it all begins.”

And a very long way from the relaxing, cosy table for two where Neil’s produce eventually ends up. That produce is not all and only about the great green growing stuff, either; there’s dairy produce on the Lovejoys menu too (all sourced from farms in Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Somerset), alongside eggs laid just three miles away from Lovejoys HQ and fresh bread courtesy of The Bath Bakery – and everything Neil sources and supplies revolves around his absolute commitment to the service Lovejoys offers.

“I love the food industry, and in particular I love working with chefs who care about sourcing local produce with great taste,” Neil says. “My personal food heroes are the growers who get out in all weathers, all year round, for very little reward, but still remain passionate about what they grow – I know that this is how they work, because I’ve been one! There are a lot of threats to deal with too, what with so many ‘deals’ being thrust upon us in the supermarkets every day, and the worrying prospect that many local producers will be forced to start diversifying into crops for the bio fuel market too. So, I urge everybody reading this to appreciate our growers more and buy local – or at least English – produce wherever possible.”

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