For Julius Roberts, the journey from burnt-out London chef to first-generation farmer (and Instagram fame) started with four hairy piglets: mangalitsas, purchased on a whim. ‘It was the middle of winter and I couldn’t grow veg,’ says Roberts. ‘Chickens felt like too easy a step… so I made this huge leap, bought some pigs, and I just fell in love.’
Now 30, he left his restaurant job in 2016, ‘pale and stressed to my core’, he recalls. ‘As fun as that job is, it is also incredibly gruelling. You’re turning up in the dark, leaving in the dark.’
In stark contrast, the restaurant’s suppliers would arrive each morning looking ‘tan [and] bright-eyed’, laden with tomatoes or artichokes. ‘Hearing the passion these people had for [their work] basically made me want to do it.’
Roberts moved down the road from his grandparents in rural Suffolk to try his hand at farming. ‘I’d always been really into nature and it was a chance to get back to something that truly inspired me,’ he says. For any other 20-something Londoner, living alone on a smallholding save for a few pigs and a lurcher would be a little lonely.
‘I kind of love solitude,’ he says. ‘There’s always something to do. When you’re outside in nature with a little project, that stillness is very special. Even with my family around me now I still seek that out.’
For in 2020, in the middle of lockdown, Roberts moved to a larger farm in Dorset along with his family, who now help out. ‘I woke up the other morning to my Dad in a dressing gown running with a mop through the fields, chasing a billy goat away from my girls [the does].’
Roberts now has ‘about 80 sheep’, a flock of goats, a sizable vegetable patch – and legions of online fans, including 450,000 Instagram followers and another 365,000 on TikTok. And he has written a cookbook, The Farm Table, from which these recipes are exclusively shared. His are purposely simple, hearty dishes. ‘Yes, I have a little bit of restaurant experience, but ultimately I’m just a home cook,’ Roberts says.
The recipes that garner the most attention online are also the simplest, he says, such as courgette fritters and broccoli pasta. He is one of a crop of young farmers documenting the ups and downs of rural life. ‘I’m sure people look and think, “he’s got it good.” And yeah, it’s a very bucolic, lovely lifestyle. But winter is tough – you’re battling the weather, it’s dark and gloomy and takes its toll.’
There are other challenges, too. ‘You’re confronted with life and death,’ he says. ‘I feel it’s a privilege to be so connected to my food. But it’s tough at times.’ It never gets any easier, he says, to take a beloved animal to the abattoir. And he gets ‘exposed to a bit of flack’ from vegan and vegetarian followers (perhaps lured in by the courgette fritters) for taking his animals to be killed and continuing to eat meat. ‘The truth is that I feel like we’re on the same side,’ he says. ‘I’ve taken animals in [to the abattoir] and wept at the moral dilemma of that. Every single time, it’s a massive struggle.’
It has transformed his relationship with eating meat and Roberts says he now eats ‘significantly less. And when I do it’s damn good quality,’ he adds. ‘I treat it as a luxury. For me it’s totally subjective whether you think eating meat is right or wrong. But what is not subjective is that animals should still live a good life.
‘What I try to do is reconnect people with where their food comes from: nature, the seasons, and thinking about what it actually means to eat meat. That’s fundamental to the future of it all.’
The near future, for Roberts, consists of trying to keep the Billy goats out of the girls’ pen and looking forward to the first pumpkins of the season. This time of year is for ‘tinkering, preserving and picking, supporting the animals as the grass begins to change’, he says. ‘And then doing some lovely cooking. It’s all about the food, at the end of the day.’
The Farm Table by Julius Roberts (£27, Ebury Press)