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Farming, Soldiering & Cheffing: Mark’s Story

Veteran chef Mark Vines, 49 years, is South Ormsby Estate’s new cheese creamery operator. Hailing from Louth, Mark comes from farming stock and brings a love of good food and traditional agriculture to his exciting new role.

“I was born in Louth and grew up in Burwell and Tathwell,” said Mark. “I’ve got a multi-generation farming background. I remember my granddad driving through the village in an old-fashioned, open-cab combine harvester with a white hankie over his mouth to keep the dust out. My other granddad was a shepherd who still used working shire horses well into the 1980s. When I was five or six, they really towered over me and I had to jump up to grab their reins.

“I grew up with the farming life. We didn’t go away during the holidays as dad would be on the land, working. As a kid, I helped with lots of jobs, from planting trees to weeding sprouts, and from trimming kale to beating for shooters. I did everything but drive the tractor. My dad’s farm manager had a progressive attitude in all sorts of ways. Where the land had been completely stripped for crops, he wanted to put nature back in the picture. He planted tens of thousands of trees he’d never get to see mature. Every year, the farmers organised ditch-clearing between themselves to make sure the land could drain effectively.

shire horse & sprouts

“My eight-year-old son, Isaac, loves going down to the farm with his granddad. Even though my dad’s retired, he’ll never stop being a farmer at heart. I love taking Isaac to see thriving woods that were ploughed fields when I was his age. I’m starting to see wildlife in Lincolnshire that I haven’t seen since I was a kid. It’s a thrill to see a weasel cross your path.

“After finishing school in the 1980s, I qualified as a chef. I couldn’t see many ways of improving my skills and making progress near home so in 1990, at the age of 19, I joined the British Army, just in time for the Gulf War. I was trained as a chef but my technical course was skipped and I was sent to Bahrain as a possible replacement for combat casualties. We were fully prepared to be sent into battle and had to write farewell letters to be forwarded on should the worst happen.

“Fortunately, the worst didn’t happen. My next posting was to Northern Ireland. I was attached to a Royal Marine unit at Crossmaglen in South Armagh. It wasn’t safe to leave the base unless you went out on patrol. I was there as a chef but, as it was a small unit, everyone was multi-role and I did my share of guard and patrol duties.

Mark Vines & Isaac

“Cheffing for the military was very good training. You were either catering for large numbers, or for low numbers but with high quality. Money was sometimes thrown at us to make amazing food. At one ceremonial event, I helped cater for 25,000 people over three days. I was assigned to the top table in the officers’ mess, where the lowest rank was brigadier. The Duke of Kent was a guest, and he later came to the kitchens, thanked everyone and stood a round at beer-call.

“Signing up was a good decision, but after seven years I’d outgrown the military and wanted to live a more independent life. I came back to Louth and started as a sous chef at the Kenwick Park Hotel, rising to head chef after 18 months. It’s a busy, intense, high-pressure role but it’s not a complete shock as you work your way into it over time. The job makes you good at logistics. You’re bringing a big bunch of things together on time; coordinating pre-orders, deliveries, ingredients, cooking times and serving times.  We achieved a two-rosette standard for quality of food preparation and service in 2001 and 2003.

“After seven or eight years at Kenwick Park, I took time out and did some travelling in Africa. I started in Kenya and Tanzania, exploring the Serengeti and climbing Kilimanjaro. When I returned, I started a chocolatier business with a friend in Skegness. It went well but turned out to be a very seasonal business which didn’t quite make enough money for two people all-year round. I returned to Kenwick Park, serving as head chef for several years then taking over the club spa as chef manager. By the time lockdown came along, I was ready for a fresh challenge.

home-made cheese

“I’ve always been interested in traditional cheese and how it’s made and I know there’s only one way to do it right. I’m currently looking to start initial production by the end of March. The ‘make room’ will be on site and ready by then. In the meantime, I’m coordinating supplies and studying cheese. The more you read, the more you learn.

“We’ll be making a cheese that represents the values of South Ormsby Estate. It will be made slowly and patiently and will support sustainable agriculture. I’m focusing on the Alpine family of mainly hard cheeses. The estate’s Lincoln Red herd grazes on natural pasture, producing an organic whole milk that is key to a high-quality Alpine cheese. Sileage-fed cattle just don’t yield the right quality of milk. Pasteurisation at high temperatures affects the proteins and means you don’t get curds.

“What goes into the cow definitely comes out in the cheese. Pastured, unstressed and free-grazing cows make for a pure, delicious, raw-milk cheese. There are no shortcuts and we’ll be investing time to finesse the process. You have to balance sour milk with fresh milk, get the enzymes to work, and tweak the temperature and humidity to mature the finished cheese into the right taste and texture.

“It’s early days, there’s a lot to learn and there’s building work still to be done. But this exciting new business will highlight how sustainable agriculture in the heart of Lincolnshire can produce exceptional and attention-grabbing food.”

 

*Banner image courtesy of Eric McGregor via Flickr CC

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