In 2009, she started the School of Artisan Food. Now Alison Swan Parente tells Sarah Freeman how she found herself in a North Yorkshire farm shop, fronting a new television show with Tom Kerridge.
Alison Swan Parente admits that a few years ago her face probably wouldn’t have fitted. In those dark ages of television, older women were rarely seen on the small screen and many assumed that when they hit 45 they would be quietly ushered off into obscurity. The fears were well-grounded. However, with the issue having been placed in the spotlight by Miriam O’Reilly, who was unceremoniously dumped from the Countryfile team, and a succession of women like Joan Bakewell keeping it there by talking openly about ageism, the tide may finally be turning.
“I have no doubt that 10 years ago I would have been considered far too ancient for this particular gig,” says the 69-year-old founder of the School of Artisan Food, who is fronting a new TV series, Top of the Shop. “But TV producers are now much more open to having older faces fronting programmes, so I guess my time has come.”
Alison will make her television debut this week alongside Michelin star chef Tom Kerridge in the BBC series. The premise of the show is simple – each week artisan producers will compete with each other for the chance to turn their hobby into a business.
Rated on the quality of their produce, their marketing campaign and the scalability of their tabletop business, it’s Alison and fellow judge Nisha Katona, a food writer and restaurateur, who are required to deliver some often uncomfortable home truths.
“The most common mistake that new businesses make is marketing,” adds Alison. “There’s a tendency for people to think that if you have a great product it will sell by itself. It won’t. Particularly when it comes to artisan produce, whether it’s a family recipe handed down the generations or a brand new product, you have to be able to tell a story.
“For some, farmers’ markets and food festivals are where they want to be, while others want to be on supermarket shelves. But whichever path you go down, you have to be able to stand back and objectively think why someone would pay good money for your jar of pickle when there is another one right next to it.
“It is hard. People invest so much time and love into the manufacturing process, but they often become blinded as to how it will appeal to someone who hasn’t had that same emotional involvement.”
Alison started the School of Artisan Food on the Welbeck Estate, close to the South Yorkshire border, after setting up her own bakery and realising that traditional skills were in danger of being lost forever.
“After the Second World War we fell in love with convenience food,” she says. “It was a revolution in so many ways and it did bring huge advantages, particularly for women. Along with a number of other social changes, it helped free them from the kitchen, but in the rush for quicker, more convenient food within a couple of generations the recipes and skills which would have normally been handed down began to disappear.
“My mum was a wonderful cook and when I was younger I spent hours with her in the kitchen. It never felt like I was being formally taught some great secret, but at that age you soak everything up.
“When I decided to set up my own bakehouse I quickly realised that there was a real shortage of artisan bakers. The more I looked around, the more I realised that a lot of youngsters would never learn the things that I did and that if we didn’t do something to halt the decline very quickly the art of not just baking, but everything from pickling to jam making and butchery would become obsolete.”
The School of Artisan Food was born and it has now mushroomed into a site offering courses ranging from cheesemaking to brewing and chocolate-making to foraging to both happy amateurs and those looking to turn their hobby into a business. While on paper it couldn’t be more different, Alison also sees it as a natural continuation of her first career as a child psychotherapist.
“I worked with a lot of challenging adolescents over the years,” she says. “But I have always believed that everyone has the potential to be a useful, valued member of society and I also know how food can trigger that change.
“When you show people the magic of transforming flour and water into bread, milk and rennet into cheese and curing raw meats to become charcuterie you see something ignite in them. Taking raw ingredients and turning them into something you can share with other people is really therapeutic.
“At the school our philosophy has always been to promote healthy, sustainable food. It’s surrounded by former coalfields and it’s an area which has struggled with high unemployment, so for me one of the biggest rewards is to see students of all ages from all walks of life producing delicious food in a thoughtful way.”
There has been an explosion of home-grown foodie businesses opening in recent years, but Alison doesn’t believe we have reached peak artisan just yet. Figures released last month showed exports of food and drink produced in Yorkshire soared by 11 per cent in the last year. Now worth £1.14bn, the boom has been attributed to growing demand for artisan foodstuffs among the burgeoning middle classes .
“I definitely don’t think we have reached saturation point,” says Alison. “In fact, I don’t think we are even close. Yes, lots and lots of say artisan bakers, independent coffee roasters and chocolatiers have opened their doors in the past few years, but you have to remember that there was a time when every village had their own baker, sometimes two or three.”
Chris Wildman agrees. It’s his Town End Farm Shop in Malhamdale which acts as the battleground for the Top of the Shop contestants as they try to sell their own products to the regulars who pass through the doors and prove there is a market for their wares.
“Food provenance is more than a passing fad,” he says. “The horsemeat scandal really made people think not only about what they were eating, but how they could be sure that what they were feeding themselves and their family was what it said on the label. People don’t like to feel they have been conned. It was the same when they realised that while supermarkets might package something up as coming from a quaint farm, it was just a marketing ploy.
“I grew up just down the road and as a family we have not only reared our own cattle, but my father was a butcher and so was my granddad. We have always taken pride in that field-to-fork process and when the farm shop came up for sale it seemed like a natural next step.
“Yorkshire has some great produce and sometimes I don’t think we shout about it enough. I am hugely passionate about everything we sell here from Yorkshire chorizo to Shepherds Purse Cheese.
“We want to get people interested and excited about what we do here and hopefully this new series will be a good advert for that.”
Top of the Shop begins on BBC2 on Tuesday, 8pm.