The Farm Table, Julius Roberts’ debut cookbook, is an ode to the seasons. Written over a single year, the gardener, cook and first-generation farmer captured fleeting moments on his Dorset smallholding, his notes and voice recordings snatched attempts to distil its effervescent nature. Much like the charming vignettes he posts to Instagram, offering small glimpses of pastoral life, all home-grown vegetables, clucking hens and vast pink skies, Julius’s cookbook succeeds in this sublimation. Full of comforting soups, fresh salads and slow-cooked feasts, Julius offers an invitation to approach your days a little slower, in tune with life’s natural rhythm.
Before the mud-splattered early morning feeds and overflowing greenhouses, Julius was living life rather out of sync. Having studied sculpture in Brighton, he moved to the capital and cut his teeth in the high-pressure world of kitchens. “It’s so far removed from home cooking, it’s more like being in the army,” he says. “It’s intense, repetitive, all about cleanliness, efficiency and speed.” He spent time at Noble Rot, the celebrated wine bar and restaurant in Bloomsbury’s Lambs Conduit Street, learning to season, taste, tidy and keep up with the flow of the kitchen. Long days meant “getting up in the dark and leaving in the dark,” losing touch with circadian rhythms, instead “living on Lucozade and coffee.”
“I was given an amazing opportunity and the camaraderie was incredible,” he says, but Julius began to feel the familiar pull of the country. Having spent his childhood between London and Suffolk, he says “the call has been louder and quieter at different points in my life.” His mind wandered to those formative experiences, “hands in the mud, hiding in the woods, foraging with Granny,” and, after a gruelling period, “all of that instinctual stuff just kicked in quite hard.”
At 23, just as his peers were finding their feet, Julius left the strain of the city with a plan to reconnect with nature. After a few months at his parents’ Suffolk home, time spent adjusting to regular waking hours and catering to make ends meet, a seed was planted. The restaurant had fostered a deep appreciation for its host of passionate suppliers who were producing the very best organic and local ingredients, “the juiciest tomatoes you’ve ever seen, trays of thorny artichokes, blue-skinned pumpkins sealed with red wax and whole lambs slowly reared on permanent organic pasture.” The aim was self-sufficiency and this new direction came in the form of four hairy rare-breed Mangalitsa piglets: Snap, Crackle, Pop and Alby.
“I just went for it,” he says. “I was a big River Cottage fan as a child, but I bought self-sufficiency manuals, and, somehow, met the right people at the right time. In order to have pigs, I needed a fence. The builder who fitted the fence casually mentioned that he’d kept pigs for years. Knowledge was given to me in all of these different ways.” Those early days in Suffolk sound like a glorious time, full of happenstance meetings, community building, the curious and characterful pigs, a dog named Loki and becoming attuned to the delicate demands of nature. “It’s a pretty joyous way to live,” Julius admits, “learning as you go and being incredibly present.” Was it always so harmonious? “Not at all. Nature is tough, farming is life and death and the mistakes you make can be quite harsh. The ability to fail is key.”
Julius cites his biggest challenges as elemental, “parasitic worms, weed-ridden compost, frost, slugs - there are a million things that can go wrong,” but it's the relationship with his animals that he speaks most passionately about. Though always a conscious eater, his role as a first-generation farmer and as custodian to a flurry of creatures has seen a radical shift in his views on animal welfare. “When you live alongside them from birth to death, you truly see how multifaceted and individual they are. They’re sensitive and instinctual and their capacity for emotion is vast. We’re all connected and we can learn so much from them. Something is wrong if they’re not living good lives.” A particularly profound experience took the form of his favourite goat, Luna, having a stillbirth overnight. “I went out one beautiful spring morning and she was just licking and pawing at this perfect little kid. She was desperate for it to stand up, udders full of milk, looking around for her older daughter and surrounded by a circle of the other goats. They were all heartbroken. The fact we’re unable to explain and soothe makes it so difficult - you carry those moments with you.”
The extremity of life on the farm, of coping with the acute binaries of birth and death, demands a unique temperament. If a willingness to fail is the first core principle needed to thrive, then solitude is the second. “I was the friend who always missed that night at the pub,” says Julius of his time in London. “The countryside was a natural place for me in that sense. There was never a lonely point in the early days on the smallholding, I really was on my own out there. I’m absolutely tied to the farm but I’m at my most creative in the quiet.” Most vital, though, is succumbing to the seasons. “You have to let yourself slip into a completely natural cycle. They’re so important in my life, they dictate everything I do, from what I wear and work on that day, to what I’ll eat that week. You become a part of the environment.”
Living so in tune with the currents of nature, I wonder how Julius is experiencing the climate crisis. “It’s been unseasonably warm so late this year, meaning the grass is still growing well and we’ve had good vegetables,” he says. “But it’s a warning sign that something is seriously off. Last year was stark, with a late frost that made gardening difficult. I was feeding my animals hay in summer when they shouldn’t have needed a thing. I have more space than I need and I can buy extra feed if necessary, but if I was a commercial farmer I would be very worried. It’s all so out of control, and, as humans, we’re not very good at reacting to change until things get really bad. The climate crisis is real and I’ve felt it, my animals have felt it, my neighbours have felt it.”
Rather than using his platform to deliver dogmatic sermons, Julius instead hopes to show us that small habits are easily changed and have an impact. From growing your own and eating what’s readily available to making the most of leftovers and consuming less meat, “we do have a lot of power. If we all stop buying asparagus in winter, when there’s so much else to cook with, the supermarkets will stop selling it. Collectively, we can make a big difference.”
Having outgrown the space in Suffolk, With trailers full of bees and chickens in tow and bottle-fed baby goats riding in the passenger seats, Julius moved west in the quiet of the early pandemic to the Dorset smallholding he now calls home. The farm had been untouched for a year, “the fields alive with grass and wildflowers and butterflies, the hedges toppled, small woodlands in themselves,” and the first 12 months were spent gradually settling in. Surrounded by intensive dairy farms, Julius’s smallholding is an oasis of biodiversity thanks to the path laid by the previous owner. A fierce guardian of nature, she planted over 2,000 trees and listed the farm under a stewardship scheme with the local wildlife trust. Chemicals or artificial fertilisers have not been used on the fields for over 30 years and there have been 160 species recorded. Working closely with the Dorset Wildlife Trust, “we aim to build on her legacy,” Julius says. “If previously my journey was about creating a space to rear animals, it’s now about asking how I can be the best custodian of this land. I have a duty to continue the preservation and help it thrive.”
You can’t help but think that Julius, too, is thriving out there, living cyclically and in tune with the broadleaved woodland and the buzzards and badgers. “Even in winter, there is so much joy to be found here,” he says. “Between now and April is a tough time. It’s very wet, there’s gruelling work and no pub or theatre to occupy yourself with when it gets dark at 3 o’clock. But in amongst that, when you get a clear winter morning and the grass is frosted and twinkling and the trees are bare and skeletal and the animals are so happy to see you because you’re keeping them fed and warm - it's just so beautiful. It’s my favourite time of the year to cook, too, because you need that food, that sustenance. You’re tired and your hands are cold and that comforting stew will nourish you. When you're deprived of sunlight, these small moments really count.”
Post-pandemic, an increasing number of us are leaving the confines of the city for the country, and it’s hard not to conduct a reappraisal of your life when viewing one of Julius’s virtual postcards from the farm. “I met someone recently who told me that they say to their daughter every morning, ‘It’s my favourite time of year.’ That has really stuck with me. That act of noticing. Whether your dull day looks like lugging out a hay bale for the fiftieth time, or walking that same street on your commute to the office, it’s about stopping to notice. The twinkling cobweb in that tree, a bird piercing the quiet with its song. Really, that’s what seasonality in nature is all about. Small moments and us being there to witness them.”
Cabbage, Bacon & Potato Soup
A robust bowl of steaming broth with smoky bacon, curly leaves of deep green cabbage and yielding potatoes on the brink of collapse. This hearty dish is older than time itself. When the winter weather sets in, with boots caked in mud, fingers stiff with cold and cheeks flushed from icy winds, this is the kind of food you want to come home to. All you need is a stout drink and a hunk of crusty bread and this will warm you to the core. With food this simple, the quality of your ingredients is key – I recommend making your own broth, buying a stunning cabbage and some damn good bacon.
250g smoked streaky bacon olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
3–5 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 large brown onions
2 baking potatoes
A glass of white wine
1.2 litres really good chicken stock
1 Savoy cabbage
A large handful of fresh parsley
Bread and butter, for serving
- Remove the rind from the bacon, cut into jaunty chunks, place in a wide heavy-based pan, drizzle in some olive oil and turn the heat to medium.
- Very finely slice the garlic and add to the bacon along with the thyme sprigs. You want to gently and slowly cook this down, not looking for any colour or caramelisation, just rendering the fat out of the bacon and infusing it with the garlic and thyme.
- While this is frying, finely slice the onions and add to the pan. Season generously with salt and cook the onions until they are sweet and tender, about 10–15 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut into large chunks.
- When the onions are beginning to colour, pour in the white wine and use your wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan and unstick any caramelisation. When the wine has evaporated, add the potatoes and pour in the stock.
- Some cabbages can be huge and some can be small, so it’s difficult for me to give you a precise amount. But just start pulling off the leaves, tearing them into large chunks and adding to the pan. You want quite a lot, more than the potato, as this is the body of the soup. Season again, then put the lid on and bring up to a simmer.
- When the cabbage has relaxed into the broth, remove the lid and let it gently simmer with the potatoes until both are well cooked.
- Finely chop the parsley and add to the pan, grate in the nutmeg, then stir and taste.
- Adjust the seasoning as necessary, and serve in deep bowls with lavishly buttered bread.
Interview by Georgia Murray.
Photography by Elena Heatherwick.
The Farm Table is out now (Penguin)
Julius wears our Donegal Roll Neck Sweater in Black Marl.