‘Of This Land’: Ramsbury Estate
"The smokehouse provides a wealth of disgracefully alluring produce, from beef, gravadlax-style trout and pigeon to venison, partridge and duck breast"
“Local”, “artisanal”, “craft”, “small-batch”. Heard these words before? Of course you have – very few distilleries, breweries, charcuteries and smokehouses worth their pink Himalayan salt don’t utilise these kinds of clichés as part of their marketing spiel, in an attempt to conjure up a sort of warm, homely feeling that leads you to believe that their products are a cut above the rest.
If you’re sceptical about this sort of now-ubiquitous language and think of it merely as self-congratulatory salesmanship, then may I humbly suggest that you take a visit to the Ramsbury Estate, where everything that the new wave of boutique food and drink producers claim to be is actually put into practice.
It’s difficult to put into words just how beautifully the ‘closed-loop’ philosophy of the Ramsbury Estate works. The estate has been under its current ownership for 20 years, and includes its flagship dining pub The Bell, which I visited and subsequently raved about in a previous edition of OX Magazine.
The custodians of the home farms, nestled in the heart of the Kennet Valley as part of 19,000 acres of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Hampshire land, use their open country and rolling fields to produce barley for traditional real ales, single estate vodka, smoked fish, game, rare breed cattle and rapeseed for cold pressed oils, with several other projects intertwined. Using their singular, uncommonly flavoursome vodka as an example, I let Will Thompson, head of sales at Ramsbury Estate, explain how their “all inhouse” philosophy works.
“Our vodka is probably the best example of what we do. It’s made from our own grain, our own water from a borehole on our estate, yeast from our brewery, and nothing else. Because all of the vodka’s components come from the estate, it means we control every step: we control the water going in, what variety of wheat we use and what part of the harvest we use. This creates something which isn’t just incredibly smooth, but also has a lot of flavour. We believe that’s the way vodka should be – nothing has been added or taken out, so the raw ingredients truly shine through. We use a very controlled, high-tech method and have incredibly skilled distillers, and that means we get the best out of those ingredients.”
Will’s philosophy of ‘closed loop’ production doesn’t just extend to food and drink either. As stewards of the land, the care afforded to the local environment by the Ramsbury team includes woodland, biodiversity, and more. “Effectively, Ramsbury Estate is a big ecosystem,” Will explains. “It’s completely interlinked. Everything we produce has a knock-on effect on everything else, and we try to use all of our resources in the best way possible. If you take the beer for example, we farm the barley, the barley is then mixed with our own water, the yeast from the beer is used in the distillery, and the solid barley waste then goes to feed our cattle. The cattle are fattened up on that and then go into our smokehouse, and then are sold at our pub, The Bell. The liquid waste from the distillery then goes into nourishing our reed bed system, which is fantastic for wildlife, and that wildlife then encourages game, which again comes off the estate and into The Bell. Everything is interlinked, even down to how we plant flowers at the distillery in old troughs and grain elevator buckets which come from the estate.”
“Another example is our woodland,” Will continues. “We’re planting more broadleaf English woodland, and when we do that we’re taking out non-native species and chipping them for use in our biomass boiler. The heat from that is then used in our brewing and distilling process. It’s one virtuous but hugely complex circle. Everything has a positive impact on everything else, and the end products of that mean that we have super high-quality beers and spirits and a pub that’s serving fantastic food. Even when redecorating The Bell, we used our own oak for window frames. We’re very privileged – there are very few places like this.”
The smokehouse, a stone’s throw away from the distillery, brewery, and reed bed complex, provides a wealth of disgracefully alluring produce, from beef, gravadlax-style trout and pigeon to venison, partridge and duck breast – all sourced from the estate itself, naturally. These smoked delicacies are then used by The Bell’s head chef Jonas Lodge to create some of the best modern British food available in the area – take it from me.
Not just looking to create delicious products, Will takes a holistic view of how he and his team look after this exceptional slice of rural England: “We’re ‘of this land’, the products are ‘of this land’, and if you work with that in mind it’s just the right thing to do. We farm, produce and sell in this way simply because it’s just the correct thing to do.” Hats off to them – you’ll find me propping up The Bell’s bar with a Ramsbury gin and tonic.
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