MARION SAUVEBOIS meets a former chef to the Al Fayed family who is revolutionising the Wiltshire food scene

FOR better or worse, Jan Steele has always been two steps ahead, predicting health-food trends and fighting the corner of organics decades before anyone caught on to them.

Aeons ahead of the raw chocolate craze, the one-time Harrods food designer and personal chef to the Al Fayed family was peddling her sugar-free truffles to goggle-eyed gourmets, peeved at her gall.

And the soothsayer did raise a sea of eyebrows when she shunned processed foods years before they were exposed as the artery-clogging blast they are.

True to form, when she launched her online directory of small producers, Wiltshire Artisans, to fly the flag for home-grown fare she was met by a barrage of scepticism, suspicion and downright resistance.

Undeterred, the indomitable entrepreneur pressed on, biding her time until the market was ripe for the idea.

Three years on, she stands firm that her pet project will soon capture the imagination and pique the interest of independents the county over.

"I really believe in the idea," she insists. "I’ve not given up. I wanted to create this conglomeration of like-minded business people to give them, us, a chance get our names out there and be better known. I think my vision could work and it could take pressure away from people who are too busy with their animals, out farming in all weather or busy building a business. I think it's the right time for it now. I see the benefits it’s had for me."

The principle is simple. For £100 a year, each participating business gets its own page on the Wiltshire Artisan website, promoting its brand and products and signposting prospective customers to the company's own site and/or and online shop. Meanwhile Jan plugs any events, photos, offers or news they may want to share on the directory's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts to broaden their reach, generate interest and drum up business. In essence, Wiltshire Artisans acts as a social media and marketing platform - promotion tools traders often have little time for and neglect to focus on the day-to-day grind of running a cottage industry.

"A lot of them didn't see the point when I explained it," adds the 61-year-old. "I don't understand it. Nowadays everyone has to be online to survive. It's about being proactive." And proactive she certainly is.

Having spent the majority of her career as a one-woman band, the shrewd entrepreneur has cultivated a knack for juggling various businesses and sidelines, adapting and reinventing herself at will.

A self-taught chef, she soon proved her mettle running a private dinning room in Chipping Camden before moving to West Sussex in the 1980s where she was hired as the private chef to Lord and Lady Cowdray on their estate, Cowdray Park. She was later roped in to put on mouth-watering displays at Harrods before being appointed by Al Fayed himself as his personal chef.

Although, she confides, it took some coaxing to persuade her out of her beloved countryside.

"I said I would never work in London," she hastens to add. "But he tempted me away to Harrods," she adds sheepishly.

She eventually launched a quirky cafe cum gallery on a houseboat in Richmond, which she owned for 12 years before settling in Wiltshire in 2013. The avid baker - and passionate painter - now has her own kitchen and studio in converted stables at Great Chalfield Manor, from which she runs her chocolate firm, Trufflesicious, online art gallery Avrioart and now the Wiltshire Artisans website– where she routinely shares recipes and baking tips.

No matter the venture, she has always abided by strict principles. Each recipe must be prepared from scratch and as nutritious as possible, whether it be a Florentine or gluten-free sponge.

Her quest for wholesome yet moreish treats packed with flavour, and crucially carefully-sourced ingredients, was fuelled by the deep-seated anorexia she battled as a teenager.

In fact, this "health meets indulgence" approach to baking and chocolaterie went some way to pulling her out of the vicious grip of her eating disorder, she explains.

"Instead of rejecting food I've found ways to work with it and be healthy - use less sugar, although obviously some of it is still cakes and chocolate," she says. "But I know where the food comes from. I've never bought anything from the shop that's ready-made, which people used to find strange back in the day. My thing has always been to make my own recipes so it's always unusual - but simple. I don't do pretentious."

It is while selling her bakes on the regional market circuit alongside other indies that the concept for Wiltshire Artisans emerged.

"I used to go to all the markets and that's really where it all started off. There were all these people selling goods together and I thought, 'What if we did the same thing, on a website?' I tried to test the waters on Twitter. I posted photo of my pecan and toffee shortcake to see how people responded. Food is very visual, we eat with our eyes. And I realised I could do this. It took time to get the website running. I was the last person you’d ask for IT advice. But I taught myself, went online."

The word is slowly spreading about Wiltshire Artisans, and the feted Wiltshire Liqueur Company has already signed on. But while she is keen to finally get Wiltshire Artisans off the ground and enlist swathes of fledgling businesses and farmers across the region she will not compromise on quality or excellence. Every entrepreneur on her directory must have a unique selling point and use the very best ingredients.

Only time will tell whether her hunch proves right this time around. But she is confident Wiltshire Artisans could be the answer to a united and proud independent foodie scene. “I won’t give up until I’ve given it a really good go,” she booms. “Hopefully people will buy into the idea and it will pick up this time. When you run your own business you have to keep trying, you learn you can’t give up.”

To find out more about Wiltshire Artisans go to or check Facebook and Twitter.