Lunch with High Sheriff William Kendall
PUBLISHED: 09:47 16 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:47 16 August 2016
Tessa Allingham talks to Suffolk's new High Sheriff about farming, entrepreneurship and championing volunteers
Sometimes, reflecting on an interview, you can truly give thanks for the rich feast of a conversation you have just enjoyed. So it was with William Kendall, Suffolk’s new High Sheriff, organic farmer, and wildly successful entrepreneur.
We swoop from swifts (“we must encourage their numbers”) down to the soil (“it’s a vital, living thing, needs to be cared for,”), from pilates (he has a class later, much needed after a glute-punishing 37-mile weekend cycle ride) to parties (“yes, other people’s especially”) and poo bags (“no, no, no”). We ramble through ‘rewilding’ with a nod to wolves, hedgehogs and sea eagles before lingering – of course – over food and in particular monkfish, kombucha and Sophia’s Very Delicious Honey. “Our daughter has never looked after a bee in her life, but the bees are kept in her wood!” he says.
A brief foray into blue velvet, lacy ruffs and antique buttons, the sartorial paraphernalia of the High Sheriff, precedes a less edifying dip into gut microbes. It turns out we are reading the same book, The Diet Myth by scientist Tim Spector, an extraordinary tract that makes the case convincingly that it is the condition of the bugs in our bellies that determines our overall health.
Our bellies are certainly well looked after at Darsham Nurseries. The delightful, light-filled café, where simply laid tables look out over nursery beds full of spring vitality and colour, is a favourite of William’s wife, Miranda. “I don’t get out much,” William says, mock forlorn. “This is a treat.” I wonder for a moment if Suffolk’s new High Sheriff, he with the diary packed to the gunwales, is joking, before he qualifies the statement. “Well, I don’t get out to eat, anyway.”
It’s a shame, because food is his thing. As a committed and campaigning organic farmer, and one of the founder members of the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival, he is as close to the Suffolk food scene as you can get. At home, he does most of the cooking.
“I love ingredients, provenance, I love being in the kitchen and providing food. I’m not a great cook but I’ll look through one of our hundreds of cookbooks and always find something.” Tonight, it’s a monkfish coconut curry, a Peter Gordon recipe dating back to the chef’s Sugar Club days, for a kitchen supper with friends. “I found some shrimp paste in the cupboard. It’s best before 2004 but it’s sealed so I’m sure it’ll be fine. There’s some fennel seed going in too, sesame oil, garlic, chilli, lime, ginger, star anise, coconut milk. And I’ll serve it with a salsa verde and red rice.” It sounds tasty, and colourful. He talks about his own cooking while scanning the Darsham Nurseries menu.
“Do you eat calves’ tongue?” Of course. Small plates of deliciousness arrive. The tongue is salted, soft with just the right acidity from a light, fresh, tomato and mint dressing. Rhubarb compôte similarly cuts perfectly through a glorious wedge of pork belly. We are too polite to fight over the roast cauliflower with herby yoghurt and pine nuts, but the platter is licked clean. A dish of kale is the epitome of dark green health, but has a delicious depth of flavour from generous amounts of garlic and punchy anchovy.
The problem solver
William, who made his High Sheriff declaration in April, is taking his year in office extremely seriously. It’s an ancient role, one that dates back to Saxon times, and that makes him the Queen’s appointment in the county with particular responsibility for the administration of justice. High Sheriffs will also naturally bring issues close to their own hearts to the fore in such a way that they benefit the county as a whole. For William’s predecessor, Judith Shallow, the arts was a priority. For William it’s about business and entrepreneurship. He doesn’t want to over-promise, he says, but if he can make things a tiny bit better for people living in Suffolk, by using his role to support local businesses, then he will be happy. He will no doubt draw on the 54 variety-packed years that have preceded this one. He grew up on the family farm in Bedfordshire, and spent a year in the Army before heading to Cambridge to read modern languages, then law. It was at Cambridge that he met Miranda, also a linguist – “but far cleverer than me” – and who inherited Maple Farm and its gracious house from her great uncle. Briefly a barrister, William worked in the City, got an MBA from INSEAD, flirted with the idea of politics, but settled for a mix of entrepreneurship and developing Maple Farm as a local supplier of organic eggs, produce and pork. It was here that the couple brought up their two daughters, now in their early twenties.
“I’ve always been a problem solver,” he says. “I like changing things for the better. On the farm when I was growing up, if the cattle got out at night – and it always was at night! – you got up and dealt with it, solved the problem. Business can fix problems too. Britain is very good at creating businesses, but rubbish at encouraging owners to hang on to them. We need to help good family businesses stay successful so that they can in turn solve a wider problem by creating jobs.” He reflects candidly on his own experience.
“I got the job at New Covent Garden Soup not because of my languages or legal background or MBA, but because I was a farmer and knew where to get cheap carrots.” Two months later he was running the business, one that he ended up selling in 1997. He did the same with Green & Blacks, eventually selling that business too, something he deeply regrets.
“I found it hugely gratifying to help create brands that became household names,” he says. “And there’s huge pleasure to be had in setting up a business that people want to work in. I think that’s why I keep doing it.”
His latest venture is Cawston Press, the brand of grown-up soft drinks and mixers. It lost its way since launching in the late 80s, but now, with William’s guidance and the expertise of former New Covent Garden Soup and Green & Black’s directors, and its Suffolk-based founder behind it, is targeting a tidy £50m turnover in the next few years.
Ever driven by potential opportunity, William is now intrigued by kombucha, the fermented tea drink long recognised in Japan and China for its health-giving properties.
“I’m always thinking ‘what are the possibilities, how could this be scaled up, how could it become a viable business?’ I’m plugged into the drinks market with Cawston and I know how full the market is, but this is very different and taps into the need for low-sugar options.” He has to love a product, he says, and believe that it will sell profitably. If it’s not going to make money, what’s the point?
Business aside, we can also expect to see William championing community volunteers, a key part of the High Sheriff’s role. He was barely declared before being invited to join the Ipswich Town Pastors and other volunteer groups to find out about their vital work in the communities of Suffolk. “I’ve met a fireman who helps run an Army Cadet group. He was still in his fireman’s uniform when I met him. He’d come straight from work and was about to spend his evening in a cold hut in Leiston with 20 cadets. That’s impressive. It’s people like that that make a difference and I want them to think about the good they are doing and encourage more people to do that sort of work.”
He’ll no doubt invest energy in drawing attention to Aldeburgh Music too. He is a music-lover, one-time cellist, trustee of the organisation, and is surrounded by creative, musical women. Miranda is an accomplished singer, as is his daughter Emily, while Sophia was at drama school in London before reading English at the University of Sussex.
“I want to raise awareness of what Aldeburgh Music does. I’m sure lots of people think it’s about Benjamin Britten and if they don’t like his music then Aldeburgh Music is not for them, but that’s not the case.”
As we leave Darsham Nurseries, William shows me a black and white picture of him in his full velvet regalia replicating the exact pose that Miranda’s uncle, High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1976, struck for an official portrait. Maybe he was destined for this role? “It’s a real honour to be asked to be High Sheriff, and I think I’m also not very good at saying no!” he sighs. “No, I’m looking forward to the year immensely. It is a role that brings responsibility, and I will big it up. I will use the convening power it has to the best of my ability. It’s a cool, powerful thing to be, and a year is just about long enough time to make a bit of a difference.”