A ruse that fooled the Germans and set farm on the path to success

FROM the gun emplacements at Noirmont to the Jersey War Tunnels and the bunkers dotted along the coast, reminders of the German Occupation are evident across the Island.

David and Caroline Leng of Blanc Pignon Farm
David and Caroline Leng of Blanc Pignon Farm

And it was the occupying forces who, in part, also contributed towards the establishment of what is now one of the largest dairy farms in the Island.

The story began in 1942 when the Germans were commandeering land across the Island and attempted to add Tottie Resch’s fields – and three cows – to their portfolio.

‘Realising that three cows wouldn’t be enough to prevent the takeover, Tottie quickly borrowed another three and pegged them out across the field,’ explained David Leng, whose wife, Caroline, is Tottie’s grand-daughter.

‘When the Germans returned to claim the land, they were surprised to see the size of her herd. She asked the soldiers how she could continue to produce essential supplies of milk if she didn’t have any land in which to graze her herd. The Germans were persuaded by her argument and so she – and her original three cows – remained, and Blanc Pignon Dairy Farm was born.’

From those humble beginnings, the St Peter farm has grown and now features a herd of around 140 cows and 360 vergées of land.

A large part of that expansion was down to Tottie’s daughter, Vera Le Cras.

‘She was a very prominent cow breeder and had a real eye for the animals,’ said David. ‘She loved farming and breeding, and it is largely down to her that the farm has flourished. Not only did she increase the size of the herd to its current numbers but, in 1952, she also bought our current site at Brookfield Farm.

‘Vera was very well known in the farming community. I remember that, on the day of her funeral, all of the directors of the Jersey Milk Marketing Board paused their board meeting so that they could attend the service. She was an amazing woman and I hope she’s looking down and smiling to see the way the farm has developed.’

Indeed, for many years, it was Vera’s daughter, Alice, who kept the farm going. She remains a joint owner of the farm, alongside Caroline, but now lives in Australia, where she farms beef cattle.

‘While she was in Jersey, she was very hands-on with the farm and started experimenting with some of the ideas – such as making gelato – which we are now fulfilling,’ explained David.

For David himself, learning to run a farm was something of a shock to the system. Although used to an outdoors life, farming was a foreign concept to him.

‘My background is in arboriculture, and I ran my own tree business in the UK for 24 years,’ he said. ‘Although I’d been coming to the Island, and spending time on the farm, for more than 30 years, I had never been involved. I would help out with the branchage and felling the trees but I knew nothing about cows. In fact, when Caroline and I first moved back to the Island in 2014, some of my questions were as basic as “what’s an udder?” and “why does an udder have four teats?”. They were stupid questions but farming wasn’t in my blood. However, I was greatly excited by the opportunity to learn a new career and I have grown to love it.’

And it is, by David’s own admission, a job that you have to love.

‘You wouldn’t do this job if you didn’t love it,’ he smiled. ‘Trees are much simpler in many ways. They don’t run around. You don’t get a phone call from the Constable saying that one of your trees is loose in the parish. And it is tough. It is 365 days a year. But we do love it and we have a great team, both looking after the animals and in the kitchen.’

And it is in the kitchen that Blanc Pignon is fulfilling some of the long-held dreams of Le Cras family members, with a growing range of products bearing the farm’s distinctive label now in production.

One of the newest products, which the team launched a couple of months ago, is gelato, a frozen dessert of Italian origin made with a base of butterfat whole milk.

‘We had been experimenting with our flavours for about five or six months, getting the right ingredients and perfecting our recipes, which we were initially making in a mini ice-cream maker in our kitchen,’ smiled David. ‘It took a lot of time to get everything right, from the flavours to the recyclable packaging and the labels, which feature an illustration drawn by Vera in 1977 for the World Jersey Cattle Euro Convention, which took place at Blanc Pignon.’

Launching with an initial six flavours, the emphasis is very much on natural ingredients, sourced from the Island, or made by the team, wherever possible.

‘Obviously, the milk from our cows is the star but, with that, our production manager India Thompson has blended a range of ingredients to create gelatos including black butter – using black butter from La Mare Wine Estate – salted caramel, for which we make our own caramel using Jersey Sea Salt, and garden mint using mint from our own garden,’ added David.

As well as securing Genuine Jersey accreditation, the use of local ingredients plays a key role in ensuring both the quality of the product and supporting other Jersey-based producers.

‘Not only are we creating employment and supporting businesses such as La Mare Wine Estate, Jersey Sea Salt and La Croiserie Farm – who supply our eggs – but we are making products which are incredibly fresh and for which the question of food miles doesn’t even arise,’ David added. ‘In fact, we are proud to talk about food metres. There are just 72 metres between where the cows are milked and where the food is produced.’

And it is not only the gelato, which is available from Lucas Brothers, Midland Stores and Classic Herd, which India and her production assistant, Sarah Osborne, are creating at Blanc Pignon.

‘They also make the moolloumi cheese,’ said David. ‘Based on the original halloumi cheese, our moolloumi is rolled in Jersey sea salt and garden mint to give it a unique flavour. This is a great cheese to make, as you only need to allow four hours between making and eating. I’ve tried making cheddar before but it takes all day to make and then it needs at least six months to mature. And everyone makes cheddar. I wanted something different.’

David’s pursuit for something different is also behind Blanc Pignon’s second cheese offering – a Lebanese mezze cheese called Shankleesh.

‘This is a strained yoghurt cheese, which is shaped into balls and rolled in zaatar, a mix of sesame, oregano, thyme and sumac,’ said David. ‘We have only just started making these, but they are delicious.’

Away from cheese, David also makes a natural Greek yoghurt – ‘I make this on a Friday once the churning for the week has been done and I can make as much mess as I like’ – and a probiotic kefir which is, he says, ‘incredibly good for the gut’.

‘Everything we make is on a small-scale artisanal level of production,’ he explained. ‘We are very proud members of Jersey Dairy and we have agreed with them how much milk we are allowed to keep for our own products. The rest still goes to the dairy.’

And, having received a positive response to its dairy products, the team is now experimenting with further ideas.

‘We are developing new gelato flavours. We have a fabulous walnut tree on the property so are keen to add a walnut and maple syrup gelato to the range, and we are also keen to make a selection of flavoured butters,’ added David.

While the dairy products are keeping India and Sarah busy, the Lengs also employ a master butcher, who runs the Blanc Pignon butchery unit.

‘Our beef is pure Jersey rather than an Angus cross and this is something we are very proud of,’ said David. ‘The meat is fantastic and very lean with great marbling in it. Because the Jersey cow is a small animal, you get slightly smaller, but beautiful, cuts of meat with a great flavour, which is perfect for an era in which we are encouraged to eat less red meat.

‘Getting beef to market takes a minimum of two years. This year, we have a small number of animals ready to go and are supplying our burgers to Portelet Bay Café. Next year, we should have more than 20 animals ready to go and, at that stage, we hope that more delis and restaurants will be keen to stock our beef.’

Indeed, local beef on restaurant menus and in Island supermarkets is something which David is keen to drive.

‘The Island imports ten tonnes a beef a week, excluding stock for supermarkets,’ he said, with more than a touch of exasperation. ‘Why? We pretty much have the wherewithal to produce beef ourselves. There has to be a way of supporting this structurally and getting the number right so that more people can enjoy local produce.’

And, with Covid having propelled Island produce into the spotlight, David thinks that there has never been a better time to promote an ‘eat local’ message.

‘I think Covid has made people realise and celebrate the extent of the amazing produce in the Island,’ he said. ‘I am slightly concerned that, as things return to “normal”, people may revert to type but I very much hope that people will carry on supporting those local businesses and artisan producers who are showcasing Island ingredients.’

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