Claire Zambuni finds out how JLS’s Jonathan Gill’s transformation from popstar to farmer has progressed over the past four years
Over the years a number of popstars have hung up their glittery microphones and traded the limelight for livestock. Ex-Blur bassist, Alex James, moved to the Cotswolds and discovered a passion for making artisan cheese, while Abz Love, from ’90s boyband 5ive, upped sticks to Wales to set up his own smallholding.
It has been four years since we first met Jonathan Gill, after he announced his exit from global boyband JLS and began his dalliance with deer. During his hiatus from the music industry, JB has been busy building a family, marrying his long-term girlfriend Chloe Tangney and fathering Ace, his adorable son. JB has also been concentrating his efforts on building up his 11-acre smallholding in Kent, rearing KellyBronze turkeys, Tamworth pigs and chickens. But now, the time has come for him to set his sights firmly on becoming a household name in farming.
Unlike his pop-veteran contemporaries, JB is in the process of working with a deer farm in Scotland that rears a 1,000-strong herd, with a goal to establish a venison brand that will function either on its own or will be associated with trusted butchers or supermarkets. Venison is experiencing unprecedented growth in popularity among the British public, with retail sales climbing by up to 400 per cent in just one year. ‘Scotland is looking to set up 400 deer farms in the next decade to meet this increased demand,’ says JB. At the start of this year, Waitrose announced that its customers are buying 41 per cent more venison than in 2015. Increasingly seen as a healthy alternative to beef and pork, the results of research commissioned by the Game-to-Eat campaign concluded that venison is high in protein, low in saturated fatty acids and contains higher levels of iron than any other red meat. JB agrees, ‘The health benefits of venison are second to none.’
Deer stalking is not without its adversaries, however JB believes in the philosophy that if you shoot a deer, it should always reach the food chain, wherever possible. For JB it’s not about the sport. His commitment to the ‘eat what you kill’ philosophy led him to José Souto, author of the definitive book on venison, Venison: The Game Larder. José invited JB for a masterclass in venison butchery and cookery at Westminster Kingsway College to put the ‘field to table’ process into practice.
Breaking down a park-reared fallow deer in one of the seminar rooms of the Victoria Centre, JB was handed a knife and told by José to start skinning the carcass. As JB was given his lesson in butchery, José explained that: ‘Every time you take a knife to the carcass you make it more expensive, so it’s important to know how to get the most out of the animal’. With this in mind, JB was taught how to make carpaccio of venison using roe deer, traditional venison stew, shank of venison with baby beets and chestnuts, epigram – venison breast slowly cooked, cut into cubes and then paneed (coated in breadcrumbs and fried). José also gave JB a lesson in cooking different steaks to give him an understanding of the first and second-class cuts of meat.
JB has truly taken his passion for farming to the next level. Prior to his visit to Westminster Kingsway College, José initiated JB in the world of deer stalking, to give him the opportunity to shoot fallow, roe and muntjac deer on the Houghton Hall Estate in Norfolk. These opportunities provided precious time with industry experts such as Souto and Julian Stoyles, Deer Park Manager at Houghton. ‘One of the main reasons I went out stalking with them was because I think it’s important to understand the practices, so you can weigh up the benefits of each type of deer management and rearing,’ JB adds.
With venison masters, Souto and Stoyles, by his side, JB has come to understand a broad spectrum of everything in the field, from the history of deer and the biology of the different species to the preparation and the variety of cooking methods and recipes. ‘It’s all about showing its acceptance as a good quality meat,’ says José.
Looking back at what has changed over the last three years, JB admits, ‘When I first had the idea about going into farming I was very naïve as to what that entailed. How I saw it was that I had a plot of land and wanted to farm that bit of land. My understanding of farming has developed a lot since that time. I realise that you have to manage the space not just use it. Through what I’ve learnt, I have high standards in terms of livestock management and land management.’
For JB, the process right now is to build a trusted farm brand. ‘I’m going back to basics and building it from the ground up.’ Although, in his typically humble way, JB concedes that, ‘It has been through trial and error. The first pigs I got were rescued. At the time we didn’t know anything about pig farming but through speaking to various experts, we have developed a herd and now have our own breeding stock and produce pigs for the local community.’
One of JB’s biggest aspirations for his farm is to have it as a space that the whole community can use and to give people an introduction into the world of farming. ‘I’ve spent the last few years honing my skills and learning how I can be the most effective in the farming community because I simply don’t have the background in farming that a lot of traditional farmers do. I’m able to be a mouthpiece – being involved in the farming world has opened my eyes to some of the rural issues that I think should be highlighted, celebrated and praised.’
With a series of community projects underway, including opening up his farm for public festivals and visits, JB hopes to provide greater access to the countryside for those who don’t have that luxury. In creating these opportunities for young children, he also hopes to be able to teach them about where their food comes from, whether it’s pork, beef or venison. With that in mind he has recently become an ambassador for The Mayor’s Fund, a charity that gives young Londoners the skills and opportunities to get a decent job, escape the threat of poverty and play a full part in London’s future. Their work focuses on three priorities – core skills such as numeracy and literacy, employment by supporting employers to create sustainable career opportunities for young Londoners and health and well-being, of which nutrition and healthy eating are key areas. Its breakfast clubs have been a huge success and the charity is now focussing its attention on delivering healthy food provision during the school holidays.
‘I’ve sacrificed my home for the sake of the farm and it’s something I’d like my children to always be around and to be involved in. For me it’s about utilising my blessings – everything that I’ve gained from the past and JLS – in this new farming environment and making sure that everyone can be a part of it.’