Food & Drink: Word of mouth - A man for all seasons

Sybil Kapoor meets Mark Leatham, specialist food supplier and dedicated smallholder
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As Mark Leatham sips his Lapsang Souchong with a slice of lemon, it is hard to imagine him stalking deer or hunting rabbits at dusk. Yet place him behind the wheel of a car and, as he tears along the country lanes, his reserved English demeanour dissolves into enthusiastic and hair-raising pointing out of anything edible as it skims past. He can spot and identify a mushroom or wigeon faster than television survival expert Ray Mears. Natural food is his passion, the getting of it his obsession.

He is the man behind Merchant Gourmet, a company which supplies supermarkets including Sainsbury's and Tesco with "quality" ingredients, such as Camargue red rice, sundried aubergines and Mi-Cuit semi-sundried tomatoes. He lives and works in London from Monday to Thursday, but come Friday he escapes to a world dominated by what he can hunt and gather for his wife, Jo-Jo, and children, James, 11, and Charlotte, nine.

Out go any packets of baby vegetables lurking in the fridge and in come his large home-grown squash, parsnips and beetroot. "They don't tell me what they eat during the week," he chuckles affectionately, "but I suspect they are fairly familiar with Waitrose's range of ready-made meals."

Weekend life is ruled by the seasons, daylight hours and what is in the freezer. Fish and game dominate the diet, all sourced through a network of friends and family who allow the Leathams to fish or shoot on their land. "I wanted the children to be brought up as I was, with an affinity to wild and domestic animals," he explains. As soon as they could walk, they joined their father on shoots and were taken fishing. Leatham proudly describes how Charlotte started bringing home partridge at the age of two, and how James was thrilled when they went deer stalking and the bucks came to them when called. Even Jo-Jo, the most diffident towards such activities, shot a stag to prove she could do it.

The garden of their 17th-century home in Oxfordshire is chock-a-block with root vegetables, greens, herbs, fruit trees and poultry. Everything is subjected to the Leatham philosophy, namely that it should be grown from seed whether it is a tomato or a goose.

The chickens and turkeys were chosen for their eating qualities and Leatham has no scruples about swiftly killing, plucking and gutting them. His geese and guinea fowl have been more problematic. The geese lay plenty of eggs, but are hopeless mothers; the guinea fowl are too decorative to eat, so have been given equal status with the pet rabbits and black Labrador.

His choice of game and fish is based on the season and weather. If it's windy, they shoot pigeons; if its wet, they go for ducks; still weather is perfect for deer stalking. Pike and perch are caught in winter, trout and crayfish in summer. Once home, the game is hung in the cool old dairy, protected from flies by a fine gauze mesh. And it is here or on a broad old wall outside, that they will be skinned or plucked before butchering, as the family have banned such gory activities from the house. "My wife can't stand the smell of singeing," he sighs, "but I sneak in while they're watching telly." However, I suspect Leatham is at his happiest savouring a fine Montecristo cigar, replete after cooking his own food: then he is a man at one with the natural world.

Merchant Gourmet 0171-708 2999

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