It’s a long, somewhat motley building (of which more later), but a revelation inside. The currently unlovely exterior is redeemed by the profusion, quality and heady scent of the fruit and vegetables, all in peak condition, that gladden the eye as you enter.
First to greet one in late April are the delicate spears of freshly cut Class 1 Kent asparagus, packed with care in cardboard boxes, loose and therefore devoid of wasteful packaging, each tender stem to be chosen by the customer. And if you want just four spears, say, to enfold in a single omelette with a sprinkling of parmesan, that is what you buy, ensuring that such treats are available to all, even those on careful budgets.
The new season’s garlic has arrived from Italy. The protective skin around each clove has not yet hardened, the flesh is tender and the taste mild. Tiny Jersey Royals are on display, still dusted with the rich soil in which they have grown. Soon there will be Kent hogget (older than lamb but younger than mutton) and Faversham’s wonderful strawberries grown under glass.
Stefano Cuomo, the Managing Director of Macknade Fine Foods, is excited by the surge of interest in this country in the quality of our food and drink. ‘Italy has a wonderful food culture, but it is very rigid. A village might have just three traditional dishes.’ The British, he says, are increasingly adventurous and keen to source good food, away from supermarkets.
The Macknade passion for food can be traced back, Stefano tells me, to 1847 when his great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Neame, took on Macknade Farm on the Sondes estate and made his name as a good farmer. The family no longer farm, but Frederick’s passion for good food has been passed down through the generations, with Stefano now representing the sixth generation of family involvement.
Retailing took off, he says, in 1979, when his father Renato, who came from the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, met and married Patricia Neame and moved to Kent. He took on a 20-acre field with a tent and set up a productive market garden, growing and selling a wide range of produce, including aubergines under polythene. Customers could pick their own or buy in the tent what he had harvested that morning.
Nearly 40 years later, Macknade Fine Foods stocks over 300 varieties of fruit and vegetables. It also has an excellent butchery department specialising in pasture-fed meat. Provenance is important and meat comes from named farms. Head Butcher Roy Campbell and his team are all chefs or keen home cooks, happy to give advice on cooking. Recently, Macknade achieved certification with the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) as a butcher of pasture-fed meat – the only certified butcher in East Kent.
The delicatessen counter offers over 150 cheeses, including the award-winning Kentish cheddar, Winterdale Shaw, the outstanding Colston Basset Stilton and goats’ cheeses from another award winner, Ellie’s Dairy, a working farm just down the road. There is an extraordinary range of charcuterie alongside traditional English raised pies. A staple in my kitchen is the extra virgin olive oil made by Tommaso Masciantonio and his family from Gentile di Chieti olives at their farm on the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo in east Italy. Buy a litre or half-litre bottle and use these for refills. A litre refill costs a remarkable £12.99.
In the grocery section are pasta and pickles, flour, rice and grains, teas, coffees and artisan biscuits (some of my favourites here are Peter’s Yard sourdough crispbread, made in Shrewsbury from a Swedish recipe, and Rubies in the Rubble Spicy Tomato relish, made from fruit that would have been discarded – for over-ripeness or irregular shape.) The drinks department is packed with Kentish apple and pear juice, wines from local vineyards, ciders and beer, including the seasonal ales from Boutilliers, whose brewery is on site in the old Hop Shed. And if shopping for food has sharpened appetite, there is an excellent café, for which the shop provides an inexhaustible larder of fine ingredients, at the far end of the food hall.
Macknade now has more than 200 suppliers and 80-plus staff. It is a successful, pragmatic business, growing by 20 per cent year on year. It is committed to what Stefano calls the ‘Macknade trinity – balancing the needs of customers, suppliers and staff.’ Its ethos is based on the Italian precept of qualita/prezzo, which means that price should reflect quality. ‘We’re looking to be here in 20, 40, 70 years’ time. We’re not looking to make a business to sell, it’s a family business, and we’re here to stay.’
An increase in shop floor space is required, but, stresses Stefano: ‘Any development must be long term and sustainable.’ Since planning permission was granted in 2016, ideas have evolved, and the plan now is for one new building and the refurbishment of existing buildings. ‘We have architects and builders lined up and we hope to start work this year and complete it in the first quarter of next year.’ The work will be phased so that business is not disrupted. Stefano says that the aim is to be more holistic, to offer what he calls ‘experience-based retail,’ which means more opportunities for engagement between suppliers and customers, with butchery demonstrations, for example, showing how animals are cut. There will be opportunities too to help start-up businesses, such as is already the case with Wild Bread (see Faversham Life post for 20 January 2017) and Boutilliers.
‘I bore my friends,’ says Stefano proudly, ‘banging the Kent drum.’
Linguine, asparagus and pancetta
A seasonal recipe that is quick, easy and delicious. All the ingredients can be found at Macknade Fine Foods.
1 bunch asparagus
50g unsmoked pancetta, cut finely from an uncut piece
40g parmesan, freshly grated
extra virgin olive oil
1 Snap off the woody end of the asparagus stems and discard. Cut off the tips and finely slice the rest of the spears.
2 Cook the linguine in plenty of salted water according to packet instructions. Drain and reserve some of the cooking water.
3 Meanwhile, heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large frying pan and gently cook the pancetta and asparagus until the latter is al diente.
4 Add the cooked linguine to the frying pan plus some of the cooking water or additional olive oil to taste. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the parmesan.
5 Serve with extra parmesan for grating on top.
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa
Macknade Fine Foods
Kent ME13 8XF
Tel: 01795 534497