‘I’m known to my friends as Jew Fearnley-Whittingstall” quips Seth Belson. Picture a cross between celebrity cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tom Good (he of 1970s self-sufficiency sitcom, The Good Life) and you will not be a million miles away.
Forty-nine-year-old Seth is an optometrist by day and a farmer/beekeeper in his spare time. Like many, he has been bitten by the grow-your-own bug, but unlike most, he has followed his convictions and gone a long way towards living the dream, like a modern, urban kibbutznik.
“Food is not cheap and people are always moaning how expensive it is to keep kosher,” he says. “But if you grow and make your own, like our ancestors did, then it becomes more affordable.”
He adds: “When I was growing up, we did things like jam-making and pickling. My grandparents kept chickens in Stamford Hill.” His wife Fiona, had a similar upbringing.
The Belsons fell into this lifestyle almost by accident. Both keen riders, they each had horses in livery, which was how they met. He explains that renting stables is a quick way to throw money down the drain. Ten years ago, the couple decided to buy stables instead. “They came with a bit more land than we would have liked, as well as geese and chickens,” Seth laughs. Fiona’s interest in chickens turned into a small operation selling a few dozen free-range eggs a week.
“The Orthodox often prefer to buy white eggs from kosher butchers as they are thought less likely to have blood spots. Those eggs are often from Dutch battery farms,” he says. The Belsons now sell free-range white eggs to their Edgware neighbours.
Seth is keen to make the right choices for the environment in all areas of his agricultural life. Instead of importing organic hen feed from eastern Europe or feeding the chickens soya-based feed which, he says, is grown on razed Amazon rainforest, he gives his hens UK-produced feed together with kitchen scraps and unwanted green vegetables scrounged from his greengrocer. “Certain vegetables contain vitamin K, which helps coagulation and prevents blood spots” he says.
As well as chickens, the stables came with enough land for Seth to grow a large amount of his own fruit and vegetables. He has now grown raspberries, cucumber, mange touts, courgettes, peas, broad beans, artichokes, asparagus and more. If he could find someone to perform the shechitah on his birds, he would eat them.
At Shavuot, the Belsons make their own cream cheese — “kosher cream cheese is really expensive” he says, “so we did it ourselves. It’s back to Jewish basics.” For Rosh Hashanah, his honey needs will be met by the bees he keeps in hives near his Edgware home and on the farmland in Ware, in Hertfordshire. “Bees do very well in suburban areas as there are lots of flowers in gardens,” he says. He sells about £150-£200 worth of Edgware honey to friends and neighbours around New Year.
He is evangelical about his passion, spreading the message in synagogues and schools. “Not everyone can do this but there is a positive mitzvah in teaching your children about nature,” he says. He has taken an apple press into his children’s school and demonstrated how it works. “A class of six-year-olds grinding apples was a messy business, but they wanted to see how it works,” he laughs.
Fiona runs a gardening club at their children’s school in Edgware and has taken chickens in so the children can look after them and collect eggs. She has also taken bee’s wax to the school to make havdallah candles, something she will be demonstrating this year at their synagogue.
The Belsons are not yet ready to take the huge step of moving to their Ware smallholding. “Right now we need to be near the schools and amenities we have in Edgware. Anyway, I’d miss the pizza restaurants,” Seth admits.