About the Book
About the Author
1 The South-West
3 The North-West and the Isle of Man
5 The North-East
7 The West Midlands
8 The East Midlands
10 East Anglia
11 The South-East
List of Suppliers
Bibliography and Further Reading
About the Book
British food has not traditionally been regarded as one of the world’s great cuisines, and yet Stilton cheese, Scottish raspberries, Goosnargh duck and Welsh lamb are internationally renowned and celebrated. And then there are all those dishes and recipes that inspire passionate loyalty among the initiated: Whitby lemon buns and banoffi pie, for example; pan haggerty and Henderson’s relish. All are as integral a part of the country’s landscape as green fields, rolling hills and rocky coastline.
In Food Britannia, Andrew Webb travels the country to bring together a treasury of regional dishes, traditional recipes, outstanding ingredients and heroic local producers. He investigates the history of saffron farming in the UK, tastes the first whisky to be produced in Wales for one hundred years, and tracks down the New Forest’s foremost expert on wild mushrooms. And along the way, he uncovers some historical surprises about our national cuisine. Did you know, for example, that the method for making clotted cream, that stalwart of the cream tea, was probably introduced from the Middle East? Or that our very own fish and chips may have started life as a Jewish-Portuguese dish? Or that Alfred Bird invented his famous custard powder because his wife couldn’t eat eggs?
The result is a rich and kaleidoscopic survey of a remarkably vibrant food scene, steeped in history but full of fresh ideas for the future: proof, if proof were needed, that British food has come of age.
About the Author
Andrew Webb is a food journalist and photographer who has worked for Channel 4 and the BBC. He has also written for Waitrose Kitchen and Delicious magazines. He lives in London.
For Kate and Matilda
The journey that ultimately led to this book began very early one bright April morning in 2008, when I set off from London bound for Land’s End. I had been commissioned by Channel 4 to present The Big British Food Map, I had a creative carte blanche, and as it was just me, a car, a laptop and a couple of cameras, I could do anything and go anywhere. And so, with the roads out of London almost to myself and the satnav set for Cornwall, I began a seven-month, 11,500-mile food tour that took me all the way round the UK. As you can imagine, I met some truly amazing people and saw many tucked-away areas of this wonderful country, which only served to confirm my view that it is far more beautiful and interesting than we often give it credit for. During my tour I learned new recipes and cooking ideas, and gained a much better knowledge of plant and animal breeds. I was constantly impressed by the skill and expertise I witnessed, and even my UK history and geography improved.
Seven months might sound a long time, but they positively flew by, and after my role on the Channel 4 project came to an end in November 2008, I still felt there were areas, products and producers I had missed. So, after taking some time out to get married and become a father, I began researching and visiting more people and places. The result is this book: over 300 entries spanning everything from one-man-band operations that do what they do more for love than for profit to the fascinating histories of much-loved household staples, many of which are nowadays produced by large corporations. Alongside organically reared beef and lamb, and food gathered from the wild, you’ll also find such things as After Eight mints (see here), stottie cakes (see here) and Edinburgh chippie sauce (see here). Why? Well, because they’re eaten and enjoyed and have stories worth telling, and it’s these stories that interest me.
Another reason to include a broad range of products is that food needn’t always be fancy. All too often, supposedly ‘good food’ is presented as part of some sort of bucolic lifestyle that harks back to a bygone age. Complex recipes invariably produce ‘simple mid-week suppers’, while ingredients are described in cloyingly effusive terms like ‘toothsome’, with flavours forever ‘cutting through’ other ones. All these clichés wind me up no end, and you’ll find none of them in this book. But beyond being my personal bête noire, this sort of talk alienates people and doesn’t reflect the way in which we eat. Food shouldn’t be something a few ‘foodies’ are into, but a daily chance for us all to experiment with the abundance that surrounds us, to strengthen our local communities, and to improve our health and ultimately our happiness. It’s important stuff, is eating.
Since setting off on that April morning much has changed in the world, and food production and retail, like the rest of society, have felt those changes. The summer of that year was awful, and I witnessed first-hand the sodden wheat harvests. Then there was the fuel crisis, followed, in 2009, by the financial meltdown. While this did affect some areas of the food sector, particularly those producing organic food, I also spoke to people who had feared an apocalypse and yet were amazed to find themselves not only still in business, but in some cases even growing. Indeed, some restaurateurs I spoke to have positively enjoyed the challenge; yes, it’s been hard, they say, but it’s forced them to offer value and redouble their efforts on service, as well as shaking a lot of dead wood out of the industry. People still go on dates, have birthdays or want to buy, cook and eat good food, and smart businesses still provide that. The food sector today is one of incredible dynamism for those who want to seek, if not their fortune, then at least their own destiny. It’s hard, yes, but plenty of new people are coming into the industry. As Guy Tullberg of Tracklements (see here) told me, ‘When we started you were very limited in your routes to market; now, if I think I’ve made the finest chilli sauce since time began, I can get a pitch at a farmers’ market for £20 and get going.’
Online retail is another key area in which the public has become more experienced. When I was dreaming up The Big British Food Map in the winter of 2007, I thought it odd that, although people were at ease using Amazon and eBay, not much food came via online mail-order services, and few food producers offered their goods that way. Not any more: you can get nearly everything in this book, including lobster (see here), saffron (see here) and sea salt (see here), delivered to your home or work in just a few clicks. As Paul and James from Cocoa Mountain (see here) told me, delivery services in the UK are now so good that they can get a box of their chocolates anywhere in the country within twenty-four hours. Today, any producers worth their salt have a website detailing, at the very least, what the company does and providing contact information. Particularly entrepreneurial producers like Michael Dallaway (see here) are using the internet to help sell a crop before it has even grown. By allowing people to rent one of his cherry trees for twelve months, Michael is guaranteed an income right from the start of the year.
And so today, despite its small size and sometimes clone-town high streets, Britain still remains sufficiently different from district to district and from region to region to make exploring it worthwhile. Most areas now boast excellent artisan cheeses, a local brewer or two, some well-produced meat and unique regional specialities. You don’t have to spend a year travelling and researching like I did; just pick a region, book a long weekend off work, get in the car and you’re away. Take in a farm, some local shops and a good restaurant or pub, and you’ve got your own little food adventure right there. What I hope you’ll find in this book is solid evidence that Britain’s food soul, so nearly lost, is now firmly returning. There are people doing brilliant, creative and exciting things with food all over the British Isles. Go and find them. Just make sure you take this book.
It’s worth taking a moment here to explain a distinction that crops up for a number of the products in this book, namely that of PFN (Protected Food Name) status. European recognition of a product or production method comes in three flavours: PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) covers agricultural products and foodstuffs produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area; PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) is a touch broader, covering agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area; finally, TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed) highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production.
The UK lags behind even Germany in PFN-recognised products, and a long way behind France and Italy. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from Britain having thrown overboard much of its artisanal food-production techniques in the twentieth century, to contemporary Euroscepticism. Even when UK products do have PFN status, it’s mainly beers and cheeses, predominantly from the central region of the country, and meat from breeds of animals at the periphery of farming. Like a teenager’s diet, there’s a distinct lack of fruit and vegetables, although Yorkshire forced rhubarb (see here) has recently joined Jersey Royals and a few others in the scheme.
PFN status really is worth fighting for, as it not only ensures and protects a certain standard of production to an agreed recipe using an agreed set of ingredients, but it also exposes products to European markets where the scheme is better known.
1 | The South-West
Time was, traditional British dishes were under threat. In the 1980s and 1990s we – especially ‘the young’, according to the press – were filling our stomachs with the wondrous produce of the world while neglecting our own food heritage. After seemingly sating ourselves with rustic peasant dishes from around the globe, we began to look anew at our own. A rise in national pride as well as the sharp shock of the economic downturn and you couldn’t move for articles about cheap cuts and wartime austerity and ‘making the most of . . .’ features.
And so just as Bath chaps were about to be relegated for ever to the food history books, along with such culinary oddities as the cockatrice (a medieval dish in which the front of a chicken was sewn on to the back of a pig), they were saved and brought back in from the cold. Perhaps their most well-known evangelist is Fergus Henderson, proprietor of St John restaurant in London, whose nose-to-tail eating ethos sits at the heart of the pride in British cooking.
Bath chaps are made from the pig’s cheeks. If that makes you feel a bit squeamish, it’s worth considering that most cheap mass-produced sausages will contain bits of pigs’ heads as there is a fair old amount of good meat there – the temple (a small nugget that sits behind the eye socket), the snout, the cheeks and the jowl. Bath chaps are made from these last two cuts: first, the meat is removed and brined for a couple of days in salted water. Then it’s boiled slowly for three hours in slightly salted water, flattened, rolled, and chilled. To serve, you can either cut a thick wedge and flash-fry to crisp a little, or slice it very thin on a bacon slicer and treat it the same way as you would ham.
But can you get Bath chaps in the city itself? Well, yes. The world may have shrunk, but Bath is still home to some quality chaps, particularly the Garrick’s Head pub in St John’s Place. Or you could head to the Albion pub in nearby Bristol, where a slice of pig’s face comes with onion purée, poached duck egg and watercress. Chaps are by their nature fatty, and so need something sharp to contrast. If you see them on a menu, try them: they take a lot of effort to prepare and the chef – as well as your stomach – will thank you for it.
See also BURY MARKET, GREATER MANCHESTER (see here); DINGWALL, HIGHLAND (see here); HAROME, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here); HEREFORD, HEREFORDSHIRE (see here); SMITHFIELD, ISLINGTON (see here); STONEHALL COMMON, WORCESTERSHIRE (see here).
Bath’s many buns
The city of Bath is well known for its waters and, to a lesser extent, its buns and biscuits. These take the form of the Sally Lunn bun, the Bath bun, Bath Olivers and the London Bath bun, and their histories – some might say ‘mysteries’ – are as follows.
Sally Lunn buns are, according to the Sally Lunn tea shop, which sells them, the creation of one Solange Luyon, a young Huguenot refugee who fled to England in the 1680s and found work earning an honest crust at a baker’s in Lilliput Alley, Bath. She is said to have baked rich, round and generous brioche-style bread, which became known as the ‘Sally Lunn’ bun. However, there are other theories; one being that the name is a corruption of sol et lune (sun and moon), due to the round, golden shape of the crust and the soft white-as-the-moon interior. Then there is the French brioche-style bread known as solilemmes to consider; this is spongy, enriched with egg and served hot. In all these tales there is a French connection.
In time, popularity of the bun grew and it soon became the thing to nibble on while ambling around admiring the city’s architecture and taking the waters. Moreover, many people in the town seemed to have made products prefixed with ‘Sally Lunn’. Gye’s 1819 Directory of Bath contains an advert for W. Needes, bread and biscuit maker to the Prince Regent. Needes operated from 2 Westgate Street, and his advert proudly declares that he makes not only Sally Lunn cakes, but also Brown Georges, a kind of apple turnover popular in the south of England. Other books and periodicals carried similar adverts, and as the recipe appears in many nineteenth-century cookery books, it seems many producers jumped on Sally’s bun wagon.
Next in the breadline are Bath buns, made with a sweetish dough and often containing caraway seed. These were said to have been invented by Dr William Oliver, who extolled the virtues of drinking Bath’s waters, saying in his 1716 book on the subject, ‘What the ancient Poets feigned of their Nectar, or Drink of their Gods, may be truly said of our Bath-Waters.’ His patients, however, enjoyed his buns rather too much, so he invented the Bath Oliver, made from flour, milk, fresh butter, malt and hops. It is a light, easy-to-digest biscuit, and helped some of his more rotund patients to slim down. They’re still available, though now made by Huntley & Palmers of Sudbury, Suffolk.
Then there is something called the London Bath bun, which is an even sweeter bread made with lumps of sugar and a further dusting of sugar on top. These sugar-rush-inducing buns were sold at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where, according to Fireside Facts from the Great Exhibition, 311,731lb of London Bath buns and 460,657lb of plain old buns kept visitors well fed.
Today the humble bun as a foundation for jam and cream has rather been eclipsed by the scone and the teacake, and the merry buns of Bath are no longer first and foremost in the minds of the public.
See also HOW RECIPES BEGIN (see here); LARDY CAKE (see here); ALBERT EMBANKMENT, LAMBETH (see here); ALDERLEY EDGE, CHESHIRE (see here); BISHOP AUCKLAND, COUNTY DURHAM (see here); ECCLES, GREATER MANCHESTER (see here); HOOK NORTON, OXFORDSHIRE (see here); LLANDEILO, CARMARTHENSHIRE (see here); MANCHESTER, GREATER MANCHESTER (see here); MELTON MOWBRAY, LEICESTERSHIRE (see here); NAVENBY, LINCOLNSHIRE (see here); OTLEY, WEST YORKSHIRE (see here); STANBRIDGE, BEDFORDSHIRE (see here); WHITBY, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here).
Tony Eades, gentleman greengrocer
The Royal Crescent: Grade I listed and the jewel in Bath’s architectural crown. To view it from the front is to behold some of England’s finest Georgian buildings. View it from the rear, however, and you’ll find a tiny greengrocer’s shop made from two garages knocked together. When I visited I met the owner, fourth-generation greengrocer Tony Eades, who told me the story. ‘We used to be a bit further down, but the shop was blown out during the war. My dad just picked up what was left, set the table up in one of the old mews and carried on.’ In the 1950s, the council knocked down the mews and replaced it with garages. They wanted to evict the Eades, but the residents of the Crescent – which at that time included minor gentry – objected and the council allowed two of the garages to be turned into Tony’s shop. It’s been the same ever since. ‘I did want to update it,’ he says, but every time he talks about modernising the shop there’s a howl of protest from his regulars. ‘When people ask, “How long have you been a grocer?” I tell ‘em I’ve got Jaffa printed on my arse! My mother would save the blue tissue paper the oranges came wrapped in to use in the lav.’
Tony Eades picks the flowers from his purple sprouting broccoli
One of the reasons why his produce is so good is that, unusually for a greengrocer, Tony grows some of his own stock in nearby Swainswick. He tends a beautiful spot with a stunning view over the city, which nestles in the valley below. ‘I’ve had offers for it from developers – “Name your price,” they say, but I won’t sell it, ever. It’s important for Bath to keep this hillside green.’ Here Tony grows broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes and, surprisingly, Christmas trees. He has a fairly laid-back attitude to growing: ‘I let crops go to seed: it’s good for the bees, and we need to do everything to encourage them. If I was more intensive I would have ploughed all this back under now it’s been harvested, but it can’t all be take, you’ve got to give something back.’
West Country Farmhouse Cheddar
Cheddar may have hailed from a small village in Somerset, but it went on to conquer the world. Over 50 per cent of the cheese eaten in the UK is Cheddar, and huge volumes are made and eaten in North America, Australasia and elsewhere; Cheddar, it seems, is clearly the world’s cheese. That’s fine if you’re not that bothered what your Cheddar actually tastes like. Sadly, most of the world’s Cheddar is to cheese what poor old plain vanilla is to ice cream: the standard default option and often little more than industrial rubber-tasting gunk.
A proper traditional Cheddar is no middle-of-the-road choice, but a glorious journey through the taste and flavour of the west of England. And though Cheddar is made worldwide, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, and so can only be made in Cornwall, Dorset, Devon or Somerset by a group of producers using primarily milk from their own herd and traditional production techniques.
For one pound of Cheddar, you need approximately a gallon of milk – to which you add a starter culture before heating gently. Rennet, which causes the milk to set, is added, and the semi-solid mixture is cut and stirred. The next step is to drain off the whey (the watery bit), leaving the curds to settle into a layer twenty-five centimetres thick. Then the curds are cheddared, i.e. cut into blocks and turned repeatedly to ensure no moisture remains. After this, they are ‘milled’ (or ground), salt is added, and everything is put into a mould and pressed. If the Cheddar is being made in a round truckle shape, it will be wrapped in cheesecloth that has been greased with lard. It is then stored and aged for a minimum of ten to twelve months.
There are many producers making West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. The ‘big three’ are Keen’s, based at Moorhayes Farm, Wincanton; Montgomery’s in Shepton Mallet; and Westcombe, also of Shepton Mallet. These three producers have formed a Slow Food presidium, ‘Artisan Somerset Cheddar’.
The other ten producers in the region include Parkham’s on the North Devon coast, Denhay in West Dorset and Barber’s in Somerset. There are a host of little subtleties – even down to the mood of the cow – that mean that each company’s cheese tastes slightly different, whether it has a pronounced acidic tang, or is more mellow in the mouth. George Keen believes his Cheddar has a long, intricate, creamy flavour – ‘long’ as in the amount of time the taste lingers in your mouth; ‘Cheese should have miles in it, so the flavour will last several miles down the road,’ says George. Perhaps the best option is to explore a few at the same time.
A final word of advice: whichever Cheddar you choose, it’ll prefer being stored in a cool, damp environment (like the caves that give it its name) rather than the cold dryness of the refrigerator. So think pantry, cellar or garage: a bit of a pain to run and fetch it, but it will taste and keep better, I assure you.
See also BRITISH CHEESE (see here).
Wild boar from the Real Boar Company
It’s thought that British indigenous wild boar were hunted to extinction by the thirteenth century. Subsequently, there have been various attempts at reintroduction, particularly by royalty. James I and later Charles I brought in boar from the Continent for hunting during the seventeenth century, and killing a wild boar was a mark of ascendance to manhood for many a dashing young blade – in part, perhaps, because boar do not die easy. In fact, boars don’t do anything easy, to which wild-boar farmer Simon Gaskell can attest.
Simon started farming on twenty acres of woodland that was a perfect home for boars (luckily, as it suited little else). That was in 2005, and the ‘sounder’, as a group of boar is known, now numbers over 200 animals. Simon tends to leave them to get on with things until they’re needed, at which point he has his work cut out as you can’t really ’round up’ boar. ‘When I first went to gather them in to take to slaughter, it took me nine days,’ says Simon. After years of building up trust, Simon has eventually succeeded in gathering most of them in more quickly by bribing them with food, but they’re an unruly bunch. And the most stubborn, obstinate and downright mean of his charges is stud boar Julian, who will regularly have a gore at Simon, as the scars on his legs prove.
Julian the boar, owner Simon’s nemesis and progenitor of the ‘sounder’
All this pain and effort is worth it, however, when the meat comes back from the abattoir. Boar flesh has an unmistakable smell to it: a sweet gamey tang reminiscent of porcini mushrooms; earthy and natural rather than high or musky. Simon hangs the sides for ten days before even beginning to work with them. The meat is butchered on site, the loin and prime cuts being sold into the restaurant trade and the rest of the animal going into Simon’s salamis and chorizo. There are precious few producers of higher-welfare cured meats in Britain; as Simon explains, historically the British climate lent itself more to hams and fresh meat rather than air-dried products. However, public tastes have changed, and Simon and others are charging forward to meet that demand. He now supplies three of the top five restaurants in the UK, as well as the London Eye – accolades that go some way to soothing the pain Julian inflicts, you’d imagine.
See also ACOMB, NORTHUMBERLAND (see here); AUCHTERMUCHTY, FIFE (see here); BLAXHALL, SUFFOLK (see here); BROMPTON-ON-SWALE, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here); FRILSHAM, BERKSHIRE (see here); KENDAL, CUMBRIA (see here).
EASTON GREY, WILTSHIRE
Onion marmalade from Tracklements
Disney’s Peter Pan begins with the line ‘All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.’ It’s what Guy Tullberg, the current owner of Tracklements, could have said to the officer from trading standards when he told Guy he couldn’t name his product ‘onion marmalade’ as everyone knew marmalade was made from citrus fruits. Instead, Guy and his father William patiently presented twenty-seven pages of notes on historical recipes. Chief among them were instructions for making ‘Marmulate of Red Currants’ from a fantastic book entitled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened. Sir Ken might have served as the inspiration for Lord Flashheart in Blackadder, being very much the Elizabethan swashbuckler, and he also happened to be a bit of a foodie. His closet contains many recipes for mustards, sauces and condiments, as well as advice on roasting meat, stuffing chickens and a large selection of recipes for ales, ciders and other alcoholic beverages; a guy after my own heart then. So thanks to evidence from 1669 provided by Sir Ken, along with French chef Michel Guerard’s twentieth-century recipe for Marmelade d’Oignons, trading standards saw sense.
Tracklements started in 1970 when William Tullberg read a recipe for wholegrain mustard in John Evelyn’s diary. All mustard was wholegrain until the eighteenth century and Mrs Clement’s invention of Durham mustard, which milled the grain like flour (see here). William experimented by part blitzing a batch in a coffee grinder to release some of the pungency, yet keep the grain texture, and the results were good. He made some more for friends, and the local pub said they’d take a few jars. The rest, as they say, is history.
The name of the company comes from a word that William’s grandmother, who hailed from Lincolnshire, used to describe a collection of such things as salt, pepper, sauce and condiments. Dorothy Hartley, author of Food in England (1953), said she invented the word ‘tracklement’, and the OED notes her book as the first citation, defining the term as ‘an article of food, specifically a jelly, prepared to accompany meat’. However, it probably has roots in earlier dialect and meant a collection of things.
Tracklements’ wholegrain mustard is now joined by over fifty other lines, of which the onion marmalade remains the most popular, selling something like 250,000 jars a year. The year 2010 saw their fortieth anniversary, and a trawl through the old order books reveals that the Continental Delicatessen in Devizes has been stocking it ever since the very early days of the company.
One of Tracklements’ other sauces is horseradish, the traditional accompaniment to roast beef. Tracklements believes it is the only manufacturer in the UK using fresh horseradish, without any fillers like turnip. Indeed, the company would welcome new suppliers, as Guy tells me horseradish is not a popular crop with farmers. ‘Once you’ve planted it you never get rid of it. If you do want to grow it in your garden, plant it in a bucket.’ More or less every culture has invented some sort of strong-tasting stiffish substance to flavour food; everything from sweet chilli sauce and wasabi to the classic French sauces. All foods need a blob of something, and when sauces and condiments are done right they enhance the flavour of what they accompany by throwing it into relief. For me it’s almost as if you appreciate the taste of the beef because of the horseradish; it provides an alternative view.
Today Tracklements is still going strong, but for anyone else starting out Guy offers this piece of advice: ‘When we started you were very limited in your routes to market; now, if I think I’ve made the finest chilli sauce since time began, I can get a pitch at a farmers’ market for £20 and get going.’ We’re a nation of tinkerers, testers and fiddlers, and men and women with an ‘I wonder if . . .’ and ‘Mmm, now that’s interesting’ mentality have given us some of our greatest inventions. And so it should be in food. As Guy says, ‘We sometimes see ourselves as a little bit of a trailblazer, but we’re not really doing anything new, we’re just doing it as it’s meant to be done.’
See also BISHOP’S STORTFORD, HERTFORDSHIRE (see here); EDINBURGH, EDINBURGH (see here); FAVERSHAM, KENT (see here); MOFFAT, DUMFRIES & GALLOWAY (see here); NORWICH, NORFOLK (see here); OXFORD, OXFORDSHIRE (see here); ROSSENDALE, LANCASHIRE (see here); ST HELENS, MERSEYSIDE (see here); SHEFFIELD, SOUTH YORKSHIRE (see here); SPENNYMOOR, COUNTY DURHAM (see here); WORCESTER, WORCESTERSHIRE (see here).
Smoked eel from Brown and Forrest smokery
Jesse Pattisson has been the sole owner of the Brown and Forrest smokery since 2007, when he bought the business from founder and old friend Michael Brown. It started up in 1981 with smoked eels and crayfish, and now supplies some of the UK’s finest restaurants, including the Ivy and J. Sheekey, with artisanal smoked salmon. The fish comes from a unique farming operation in Loch Duart in Scotland (see here), and is first brined in water, sugar and a little bit of whisky, then laid flat on racks and cold smoked. Despite the big-name London contracts, you can get a whole side of his salmon delivered for £29 – handy if you can’t get a table at the Ivy.
As well as smoking various kinds of fish, Brown and Forrest produce a very good smoked duck breast
His eels come from closer to home, namely the rivers Avon, Test, Stour and Piddle. They’re brought in to the smokery live and then killed, skinned and placed in the hot smoker, over beech and apple wood. They are available to order too, either portioned or whole. The latter, depending on size, will serve four to ten people. Jesse recommends you serve smoked eel at room temperature to really appreciate the flavours.
‘Smoking is all about the quality of ingredient you put in, then adding a flavour that enhances that ingredient,’ says Jesse. Hot smoking involves roasting the food over a large fire for twenty minutes to cook it, and then adding sawdust to the fire to kill the flames and produce smoke that imparts flavour. Cold smoking is a much longer process, in which the product goes in raw or brined over a slow-burning dynamite-style trail of sawdust. This produces lots of smoke but no heat, and the process can typically last for twenty hours or more. And that’s it: no gas or electricity or firelighters, just wood and flame.
Jesse uses native woods in his smokery: ‘There are some really interesting African woods, but what’s the point in using African wood in an English smokery?’ Attached to the smokery is a small shop and restaurant that allows Brown and Forrest to show off its wares, a combination of wholesale, shop and restaurant that means Jesse’s eggs aren’t all in one basket. I wonder if he’s ever tried smoking an egg?
See also ARBROATH, ANGUS (see here); CLEY NEXT THE SEA, NORFOLK (see here); FINDON, ABERDEENSHIRE (see here); GREAT YARMOUTH, NORFOLK (see here); NIDDERDALE, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here); SEAHOUSES, NORTHUMBERLAND (see here); WHITBY, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here).
Blueberries rather came out of the blue in recent years, suddenly appearing in the late 1980s or early 1990s along with other American imports such as American Football and The Cosby Show. I think I first saw them dyeing the inside of a blueberry muffin an alarming colour. Their commercial history, though, would fit on the back of an envelope. Despite being enjoyed by Native Americans, and known since colonial times, blueberries didn’t really come under the scrutiny of horticulturists until the turn of the last century. As for their first ever entry into the UK, well, if you’ve got an OAP bus pass, you were around when it happened.
In 1951 an advert appeared in the Grower magazine offering 100 free blueberry bushes to anyone who would pay the shipping costs. The late David Trehane, a market gardener from Wimborne, Dorset, responded, along with three other growers from the south-west. ‘The plants were offered by a Methodist minister from Lulu Island, British Columbia, who wanted to add a little cheer to post-war Britain,’ says Jennifer Trehane, David’s daughter. The initial batch took well, and ten years later when the decision was made to start producing them commercially, 1,000 plants arrived on the Queen Mary, with Jennifer arriving dockside at Southampton to collect them with her father. Jennifer, along with her son, also called David, now runs the Dorset Blueberry Company, and with over fifty years and a brace of books on the subject, she may arguably be considered the UK’s leading blueberry expert. The varieties they originally received included Rubel, Concord, Jersey and Pemberton, which are all highbush varieties heralding from the north-east of the USA. Lowbush ‘wild’ variants are grown in Maine, as well as on the Canadian West Coast.
‘Blueberries can take six or seven years to establish and deliver a return,’ says Jennifer. ‘Once they’re in, though, they’re good for sixty or seventy years.’ A fact supported by her father’s original 1957 commercial plantings, which are still producing fruit. The Trehanes now produce about eighteen tonnes a year in a season that runs from mid July to late September. As for buyers, they range from Marks & Spencer and Tesco to farm shops and the public, who can visit and ‘pick their own’.
Today the demand for blueberries is huge, but, according to Jennifer, ‘Twenty years ago people thought these were sloes or something – they’d never seen them before.’ Nowadays, blueberries are fêted as an antioxidant-packed superfood. However, the long establishment time is a problem for would-be UK growers, and consequently some have tried to shorten this by growing in pots under plastic. Bear in mind the fact that any UK grower also has to compete with Dutch and Polish counterparts, as well as those in America, which is still the world’s largest producer, and you’ll see that it’s not the easiest business to get into. The Dorset Blueberry Company doesn’t have to worry about establishing the crop however, thanks to a forward-thinking patriarch and the generosity of a Canadian minister.
See also CORBRIDGE, NORTHUMBERLAND (see here); EGTON BRIDGE, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here); HONITON, DEVON (see here); INVERGOWRIE, PERTH & KINROSS (see here); LYTH AND WINSTER VALLEYS, CUMBRIA (see here); NORTHIAM, EAST SUSSEX (see here); WALMERSLEY, GREATER MANCHESTER (see here); WIMBLEDON, MERTON (see here).
Ahhh, the classic British summer! The thwack of leather on willow, the zip of a frisbee, the pleasure of dozing under a tree or feeling the grass between your toes . . . all of which are no doubt enhanced by a picnic. I like proper picnics: they’re sophisticated and civilised, while often being more fun and less fraught than barbecues. Whether it’s a gang of mates on a patch of grass in a park with everything bought from the nearby mini-mart and a footy to kick around, or a well-planned affair laid out in a picturesque spot or overlooking a majestic vista, when it’s sunny – which is by no means certain – there’s nothing finer.
Of course, if you want to have a sophisticated picnic but don’t have the time to prepare the hamper, you can always let someone else do the hard work. Gourmet Picnics, based in Cornwall, does just that. Rather than just a hamper with a few biscuits and a bottle of wine, each cool bag contains fresh food all made properly by a chef and delivered to your door in twenty-four hours. The company was set up by London-born Sam Sheffield-Dunstan, who met and married a Cornish man while attending art school in the county. Initially she just supplied people in Cornwall: ‘There’s a huge alfresco-eating mindset down here. If the sun’s out, people’ll get on the beach.’ Soon the operation went nationwide, and she now offers dressed Cornish crabs, dressed lobsters, West Country cheeses, Parma ham and melon, and a range of salads, all chilled and packed in biodegradable containers. ‘We get a lot of requests from guys getting ready to propose,’ says Sam. ‘You look pretty cool with your dressed lobster and chilled champagne.’
Dining outside is nothing new: many rural workers ate outside come (frequent) rain or shine. But a picnic isn’t just about eating alfresco. It’s about taking the inside, outside. Though picnics first appeared at the fag end of the Regency period, picnics found mass appeal during the Victorian era, perhaps in response to the ever-stiffening rules of etiquette at Victorian mealtimes. That’s not to say, however, that picnics didn’t have a sense of propriety. Mrs Beeton gives a list of things to take for a picnic for forty: ‘A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, two ribs of lamb, two shoulders of lamb, four roast fowls, two roast ducks, one ham, one tongue, two veal-and-ham pies, two pigeon pies, six medium-sized lobsters, one piece of collared calf’s head’ . . . and that’s just the meat. Outside eating was taken very seriously: if Manet had been British he’d have no doubt painted Le déjeuner sur l’herbe without the lady in the nip and with the addition of Scotch eggs, bottles of beer, cheese, cold chicken, salads, apples, and all the produce and paraphernalia of a proper picnic hamper. He would have also probably painted an ominous-looking cloud on the horizon.
Home-grown peaches from Otter Farm
A harvesting high-point for climate-change farmer Mark Diacono was picking the first peach at his farm on the banks of the River Otter in Devon. Alongside peaches, Mark grows apricots, olives, pecans and persimmon. It’s not all exotics, though he also turns his hand to seldom-seen natives such as mulberries, medlars and quinces.
‘The idea is driven entirely by flavour. I made a list of food I liked, looked into how much of it was realistic to grow here, saw some that was at the edge of viability but with climate change would be more likely,’ says Mark. The aim is to create a virtuous circle: growing commonly imported foods and by doing so reducing the carbon that is associated with those foods in the UK.
When Mark began Otter Farm in 2005, the seventeen acres had formerly belonged to the council. The soil had been farmed intensively for years and was in pretty poor condition. Mark set about restoring the hedges and ditches, and encouraging the wildlife, and the farm now has Soil Association organic status. Everything is produced on the farm in small quantities at the moment, partly because farms and orchards take time to develop; Mark’s oldest tree is only five years old, after all. Gradually, as things become more viable and established, a more formal retail option may emerge. Mark readily admits his farm is a work-in-progress; right now he’s attempting to prove the concept works, whether on a farm his size, on an allotment or even a garden-sized plot. ‘Food is the way into dealing with climate change. It accounts for 30 per cent of our carbon footprint and it may be the single major contributor.’ But what surprises him most is the interest the idea has generated. ‘It’s got people thinking creatively – it almost doesn’t matter whether it works or not. It’s about being creative, adapting as well as mitigating.’
See also CORBRIDGE, NORTHUMBERLAND (see here); EGTON BRIDGE, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here); HAMPRESTON, DORSET (see here); INVERGOWRIE, PERTH & KINROSS (see here); LYTH AND WINSTER VALLEYS, CUMBRIA (see here); NORTHIAM, EAST SUSSEX (see here); WALMERSLEY, GREATER MANCHESTER (see here); WIMBLEDON, MERTON (see here).
Board a train bound for the Home Counties leaving any of the London stations at eight or so in the evening and you’ll see them: office workers who’ve obviously been in the pub since five (or earlier), trying to soak up a skinful with a sausage roll, a pie or, more often than not, a pasty. Their clothing soon becomes flecked with golden dandruff, and they make the whole carriage smell like a bakery; I call these the pasty trains.
Historically, though, the pasty is associated with another kind of worker: the Cornish tin miner. He too needed something quick, hot and filling to eat, and the pasty fitted the bill. There’s been a great deal of ‘hoo’ and indeed ‘ha’ over the pasty of late: where it should be made, what shape it should be and what it should contain have all been hotly debated. The Cornish Pasty Association, consisting of fifty or so of the county’s bakers, defines a genuine Cornish pasty thus: a distinctive ‘D’ shape, with the crimped edge around the curved side. The filling should be chunky, and contain mince or roughly chopped beef (skirt being traditional), diced swede or turnip, diced potato, onion, salt and plenty of pepper.
The association’s aim is to get Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for their product, meaning that if it’s called a Cornish pasty, it’s made only in Cornwall, and in the traditional way. Admittedly, this is unlikely to stop people all over the UK making pasties; it will just halt the perceived misuse of the ‘Cornish’ prefix. Their campaign aims to source the ingredients from within the county itself, supporting farmers, creating jobs and putting a stop to the environmental madness of trucking in a load of raw ingredients, part assembling them, then trucking them out again to be baked and sold.
Of course, the pasty isn’t alone. There is its poorer relative, the hoggan, which also comes from Cornwall and is a blob of pastry with bits of potato or meat pushed into it. On occasion, dried fruits are used instead, and the result is called a figgy hobbin. The spelling ‘hobban’ also appears, and one – or indeed all – of these variants are related to the oggie, which is the name of a Welsh pasty. This too was said to be tough enough to drop down a mineshaft – just like its Cornish cousin.
Why the pasty has become so popular in recent years is, at least in my eyes, due to the fact that the pastry-to-filling ratio is just right, making it easy to eat on the move. When eating a pie – and oh how I love them also – you always run the risk of getting your chin scalded by dripping hot filling, but the pasty’s wide girth spreads the filling load. So it’s perfect if you’re hungry and about to board the 19.55 to Basingstoke from Waterloo.
See also BOGHALL, WEST LOTHIAN (see here); BRIGHOUSE, WEST YORKSHIRE (see here); CARDIFF, CARDIFF (see here); CLACHNACUDDIN, HIGHLAND (see here); FORFAR, ANGUS (see here); MELTON MOWBRAY, LEICESTERSHIRE (see here); SANDY, BEDFORDSHIRE (see here).
KING’S NYMPTON, DEVON
A multi-bird roast from Heal Farm
The ‘Turduken’ is the recent portmanteau creation of New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme; it’s a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, all liberally rubbed with his range of ready-made sauces and spice mixes. It is, however, a mere spring chicken to Anne Petch’s twelve-bird roast. Anne and her husband Richard started Heal Farm in North Devon with a few pigs in 1974. It’s now a fully fledged mail-order food business selling everything from fresh meat and soups to pies, puddings and cakes, and it specialises in multi-bird roasts, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall successfully made one on River Cottage a few years ago for a medieval-themed feast. Anne’s monster twelve-birder feeds around 125 diners, takes eight hours to cook and comes in its own roasting tray and hamper. You will, however, need a catering-sized oven to cook it in.
‘We only sold six in the end, all made to order, but it gave us some great publicity,’ she says. Her more pedestrian five-bird roast is her most popular; it’s a boned farm turkey stuffed with chicken breasts, guinea-fowl breasts, pheasant breasts and boned quail. The reasons multi-bird roasts have become popular are manifold: they make an interesting centrepiece for the Christmas table, there’s something for everyone and it gives people the opportunity to try something different – say pheasant – without upsetting the traditionalists at the table who still want turkey. Moreover, because it’s all boned out, there is very little left over, it’s easy to cook and they’re a cinch to carve. ‘I remember the tension in my father-in-law’s house when anything difficult to carve was brought out,’ Anne says. Unlike the Russian-doll method, where one bird is inside another, Anne’s bird roast contains layers of breast meat with different flavoured stuffing in between, which helps to keep the bird moist.
If, however, a bird stuffed with twelve common game birds is just too pedestrian for you, there is always the roti sans pareil, or ‘roast without equal’. A few recipes abound, though one of the best has to be from Venus in the Kitchen (1952), edited by sexual miscreant and bon viveur Norman Douglas. It calls for an olive at the heart of a succession of boned-out birds, all placed one inside the other. First the olive goes inside a garden warbler, which goes inside an ortolan (a type of finch and already the victim of one of gastronomy’s more sadistic preparations), which goes in a lark, which goes in a thrush, which goes in a fat quail. The quail is then put inside a lapwing, the lapwing in a golden plover, and the plover in a fat red-legged partridge. This, we’re told, then fits inside a well-hung woodcock, the woodcock inside a teal, the teal inside a guinea fowl; the fowl then goes in a pheasant, the pheasant in a wild goose, the goose in a turkey and finally the turkey somehow fits inside the largest bird native to these islands and now protected, namely the bustard bird. After cooking and eating this you can quite rightly expect a visit from the RSPB.
See also GOOSNARGH, LANCASHIRE (see here); HARLOW, ESSEX (see here); HINDOLVESTON, NORFOLK (see here); MAIDENHEAD, BERKSHIRE (see here); THUXTON, NORFOLK (see here).
Bocaddon Farm Veal
It is a fact often overlooked that if you take milk in your morning cuppa or splash it on your cornflakes, you are complicit in the production of veal. To keep the UK’s 1.9 million dairy cows producing the 13.5 million litres of milk that we drink yearly in the UK, they all need to have a calf. Female calves can join the herd, replacing older animals, but the laws of chance dictate that about half those calves will be bulls. Their fate used to be live export to Continental Europe, or, more often than not, being shot soon after birth; not much of a life, then.
It was partly an awareness of this that led Jonathan and Vicky Brown to start Bocaddon Farm Veal. Milk runs in the blood for Vicky: her parents were dairy farmers. Husband Jonathan’s background is rather different: he worked for a jewellery wholesaler before leaving with a dream of becoming a chef. On the way, though, he got diverted: ‘I’d just finished reading Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat book, and discovered it was possible to rear veal nicely. I saw that no one was doing it.’
At Bocaddon Farm, male calves are reared to produce rose veal
And so John and Vicky took six calves from a pedigree Holstein and Guernsey herd and got started. ‘We had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know how big they were going to get, how old to take them, and the really ridiculous thing was we didn’t know how our product was going to taste.’ They finally slaughtered one when they thought it was big enough – about five months old – and were delighted with the results.
But who would buy it? Jonathan began knocking on the kitchen doors of fine-dining restaurants in Cornwall and telling them what he was up to. Being restaurants, they all want the same high-value ‘cheffy’ cuts: the loin, the fillet and the much-prized liver. Even on a small animal like a calf that leaves plenty of other bits, so they got a stall at Lostwithiel farmers’ market selling the roasting joints, escallops, mince and homemade sausages.
As for the public’s perception of veal, Jonathan and Vicky have heard it all. ‘One woman at a farmers’ market came up to me and said, “I think it’s disgusting you’re selling the foetuses of unborn calves,” ’ proving that this particular meat is surrounded by a great deal of misinformation and misconception. Bocaddon’s veal – sometimes called rosé or pink veal – has nothing to do with any of the cruel production techniques from the past. It’s more akin to lamb, in that it’s just the meat of a young tender animal. ‘We’re saving an animal from being shot at birth and being wasted,’ says Jonathan. His calves get to move around inside and out, and they live on a varied diet including milk, cereals and straw from their own bedding.
The diet certainly seems to work, as the veal is extraordinary. I tasted a flash-fried escallop served with picked-right-then wild garlic between two slices of freshly baked bread. It was quite possibly one of the nicest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The raw garlic leaves had a punch, the veal was as soft and delicate as a first-date kiss, and the bread was warm and nutty: as delicious and as rustic a lunch as you could hope for.
As well as bartering saffron for Cornish tin (see here), the Phoenicians are also said to have introduced the process of making clotted cream to the peninsula, which was very generous of them; nice lot, those Phoenicians. This observation is espoused by everyone from Charles Dickens and the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, who in the early twentieth century was something of an expert on Cornish Celtic history, right up to eminent food historian Alan Davidson, so who am I to argue? Other myths and legends about its creation do abound, often featuring hungry giants and unwatched pots on the fire, but in the present day it is worth noting that only in the West Country and the Middle East (where it is known as kaymak) is clotted cream made.
Cornish clotted cream has PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, thanks in part to the leadership of the Rodda family, who for five generations have been making cream in Redruth. There are many other producers in the county though, and indeed all across the south-west. One is the Trewithen Dairy, based in Lostwithiel, where sales manager Paul Worden talked me through the process. The milk comes from one of the seventeen farms that Trewithen work with, all of whom are within a twenty-mile radius. First, it’s pasteurised, then put through a separator which draws off most of the cream. This is warmed in a vat before being transferred to individual pots and baked in an oven at around 80°C for about an hour, which allows the beautiful nutty crust to form. The cream is then placed in a fridge to cool before the lids are put on and it’s ready to be slathered on anything you fancy. ‘In the old days, housewives would milk the cow, and set the pan on the Rayburn overnight. Come morning the cream would be ready to have with your toast,’ says Paul. Which is not a bad idea, and along with the rarely seen Cornish splits (small cake-like buns) is far more traditional than perhaps that modern interloper, the scone.
See also STOURHEAD, WILTSHIRE (see here).
LYME REGIS, DORSET
Baker’s eggs from the Town Mill Bakery
The Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis, Dorset, isn’t hard to find, despite being tucked down an alleyway; all you have to do is follow the waft of freshly baking bread. As the name suggests, the bakery began life in the old town mill up the road, but moved to its current location in an old boatyard in 2007. The larger venue allows for the whole thing – mixers, ovens, shop and eatery – to take place in one open-plan space, so you really get to see the flour flying.
When I talked to Clive Cobb, the aptly named owner, he told me that ‘Baking has become a devalued word. A lot of places that say they’re bakeries are just reheating – it’s like making instant coffee. Very few are making the product from scratch.’ At the Town Mill Bakery they use the classic sponge and dough method, which takes longer but uses less yeast and gives a much better flavour. The white flour comes from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, with N. R. Stoates in Shaftesbury providing the wholemeal and malt flour. Everything else that can be sourced nearby is done so; exceptions are things like olive oil, as unfortunately there is not much of that in Dorset.
One of the best complements to wonderful fresh bread is the humble egg. Like Doctor Who and his assistants these two ingredients have appeared in many guises over time, yet their relationship remains fundamentally the same, namely one of contrasting textures. So there are scrambled eggs on toast, a boiled egg and a regiment of soldiers, and one you might not have heard of: baker’s eggs. This is the name given to a particular egg and bread partnership at the Town Mill Bakery, but it goes by others around the world: egg in a nest, egg in a basket, bull’s eye, or perhaps my favourite, a one-eyed jack.
A range of breads – as well as cakes, buns and muffins – are made daily at the Town Mill Bakery
At the Town Mill bakery they take a decent doorstep-sized slice of bread and cut a circle out with a pastry cutter, then place the bread on an ovenproof tray. Into the resulting hole goes a fresh free-range egg, and the tray is popped into the oven to toast the bread and cook the egg. The difference at the Town Mill bakery is that they bake the dish rather than fry it, giving a less oily and more toasty taste while keeping the barely set dunkability of a fried egg. Finally the cut-out piece of circular bread is toasted alongside and comes served on top at a jaunty angle like a little hat.
You have to feel sorry for lard. It has none of the sweet, rosy connotations of butter, none of the Continental sun of oil, and none of the honest beefy goodness of dripping. This is no doubt because it comes from pigs, and so maintains the pig’s unfortunate baggage of sloth and gluttony. This is a shame, because nearly all our greatest pastry-based dishes feature lard in some way, and none celebrates the joy of lard more than lardy cake. Lardy cake is the heady combination of lard and bread, with a few dried fruits that, at a push, count towards your five a day. It is the sort of pudding that separates those who live to eat from those who eat to live; dieters, the gluten-intolerant and fatophobes recoil in horror at the very mention of it. With lardy cake, though, you at least know what you’re in for: there is no hidden fat here.
To make it, the bread dough is rolled out, spread with lard, sugar, dried fruit and warm spices (nutmeg, cinnamon and such) before being folded over. The process is then repeated several times. Some recipes call for the folded pastry to be rolled into a coil and baked into a round shape, while others maintain that it ought to be kept flat and baked square. During cooking, the sugars caramelise, the fat becomes flavour-some, the bread rises and the raisins become chewy.
The cake’s richness is due to the fact that it was traditionally made as a celebration of harvest, and though it was made all over the UK (wherever there was pig fat going begging) lardy cake’s homeland is the pig-producing counties of Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. The name occasionally changes, too. In Suffolk it’s fourses cake; in Wiltshire it’s sharley cake. Despite having the word ‘cake’ in its name, the finished article looks more like a loaf or bun than a cake. A well-made one is surprisingly tasty, and shouldn’t be greasy as the dough absorbs much of the lard. It should, however, leave your fingers shiny.
Like some reintroduced rare species, lardy cake is establishing a foothold in pubs and restaurants that have come to realise how lovely it can be, and it makes a change from profiteroles and ice cream. You can also find it in good bakeries where they know the joy of mixing the scent of all those spices with the scents of freshly baking bread and melting fat. Two Wiltshire bakeries produce particularly good lardy cake: the Bakery in Great Bedwyn and Marshall’s in Wootton Bassett, which sells both a standard and a deluxe version – the latter basically being the former but with more of everything.
We are constantly told we all eat too much fat, but then, as I’ve said elsewhere in this book, fat is flavour. Lard is surely set for a return, in moderation, as it is essentially a tasty and natural product. Welcome back old friend.
See also BATH, SOMERSET (see here); CHELSEA, KENSINGTON & CHELSEA (see here); SWANSEA, SWANSEA (see here)
The Cornish early potato is one of England’s little-known treasures; like golden nuggets these tiny tubers grow in the rich mineral earth of the Cornish peninsula, aptly named the Golden Mile. They have a sweet buttery taste that is complemented by an almost zincy mineral flavour; all of this packed into something no bigger than the end of your thumb. John Wallis, potato farmer and champion of Cornish produce, goes so far as to describe earlies as the Cornish truffle, and tells of a time, not so long ago, when ‘new’ potatoes really meant something, usually that you’d survived the winter. The very tip of Cornwall enjoys a much milder climate than the rest of the country, meaning that Cornish earlies were traditionally the first potatoes harvested in the UK. With the arrival of the railways, the very first earlies would be sent up to London as soon as they were ready, where they would fetch an excellent price; hard to imagine in these days of air-freighting when it is easy enough to get ‘new’ potatoes all year round.
John Wallis harvesting his crop on Cornwall’s Golden Mile, overlooking Mount’s Bay
See also CORNHILL-ON-TWEED, NORTHUMBERLAND (see here); NEWCASTLE, TYNE & WEAR (see here); SHEFFIELD, SOUTH YORKSHIRE (see here).
The Somerset Cider Brandy Company
The world of cider is a book in itself (and I recommend James Cowden’s excellent Ciderland). The tradition of making beverages from apples exists not only in the West Country, but also in the West Midlands, Kent, Suffolk and Wales. This was no doubt due to the favourable climatic conditions in the south of the country, though in recent times production has stretched as far as Cumbria and Yorkshire, and there is even one producer in Scotland. Uniquely, cider producers are allowed to make 1,500 gallons before paying any duty.
But as venerable as the cider tradition is in these parts of the country, the point at which cider could be said to have become sexy happened sometime in the mid 2000s, thanks to some very successful marketing by the Magner’s cider company. The adverts featured shots of apples, orchards and beautiful people enjoying the drink. The summers of 2004 and 2005 were good ones, and crucially Magner’s suggested serving cider over ice (something we’d only seen previously in the film Withnail and I).
‘What Magner’s did was come to the West Country, steal our ideas of cider, take them to Ireland and say they were theirs. And they did a wonderful job,’ says Julian Temperley from the Somerset Cider Brandy Company. Love it or loathe it, the Magner’s effect introduced a new generation, especially women, to the ancient and revered beverage of cider. Off the back of that, artisan cider producers got much more of a look-in as drinkers began to try different styles and look for new tastes, paying particular attention to organic and premium ciders. In the past ten years it is amazing to think just how gentrified the drink has become. Some producers are even looking to the wine industry and making single-apple varieties of cider – rather than blends – in order to exploit the apple’s different characteristics.
Of course, there is more you can do with cider than simply drink it (as delicious as it often is), and since 1989 Julian Temperley has been making cider brandy. He was the first to restart the process of distilling light frothy apple juice into a crystal-clear auburn spirit. The apple juice is first fermented for six months to make cider, then distilled to remove the colour, creating a clear spirit. Being an apple man, Julian knows all about windfall – when fruit is blown off a tree. A windfall of a slightly different kind happened in January 2007 when the container ship MSC Napoli got into difficulty in the Channel. Washed ashore were several oak wine casks en route to South Africa. Julian obtained a few with the permission of the Receiver of Wrecks. He then matured some of his ten-year-old cider brandy in them for twelve months. The barrels are Allier oak from the central region of France. ‘The low rainfall there gives a tighter grained wood that imbibes a stronger taste,’ says Julian. The result is a strong oaky nose and flavour, sitting on mellow appley back notes. ‘It has all the tale of the wild West Country – apples, cider, shipwrecks and larceny,’ he laughs.
See also AMPLEFORTH, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here).
Julian Temperley and his cider-distilling equipment
Stargazey pie at the Ship Inn
One could say that stargazey pie achieved international notoriety when it was served as the main course at the British Embassy in Paris on the BBC’s Great British Menu programme in 2007. The chef on that occasion was Mark Hix, and his version of the dish featured rabbit and crayfish under the pastry cover, with four of the crustaceans poking through and gazing longingly up at the sky. Hix’s dish was a clever use of two species normally considered vermin. ‘Rabbits and crayfish are doing their fair share to ruin crops and destroy other water life,’ he says in his book Seasonal Food. Traditionally, however, the dish eschews these environmental ne’er-dowells and contains that Cornish staple of old, the pilchard. Dorothy Hartley mentions stargazey pies in her 1953 Food in England. Here there is a small drawing of each individual fish lovingly wrapped in pastry, like a fishy sausage roll, with the heads protruding. The reason she gives for this is that covering the inedible head with edible pastry was a waste of good pastry, yet removing the head let all the oils and juices out. Hartley also describes a large family-sized pie version, and attributes the ‘head-poking-out’ effect to the Victorians, although her fish are all arranged in a circular pattern with the heads lying at the edge of the pie like numbers on a clock face.
The pie is said to have been created in Mousehole (pronounced mow-zul) by one Tom Bawcock, a brave sailor – some say a widower with nothing to lose – who sailed out in violent stormy seas when the village was facing starvation. The fish he returned with were made into a pie and shared among the townsfolk, thus saving them from famine. His heroic deeds are celebrated every 23 December in the town to this day.
The only place worth eating a stargazey is the Ship Inn on Mousehole harbour, although owner and chef Colin Perkin only makes the pies for the Tom Bawcock eve celebrations. His recipe consists of seven types of white fish in a white sauce, on to which is added a layer of chopped boiled egg, followed by a layer of mashed potato. A pastry lid is rolled out, placed on top, then sardines or baby mackerel heads and tails are pushed through cuts made in the pastry. Colin gives out portions of the pie throughout the evening’s festivities free of charge, and the fish is kindly donated by local fishermen.
As for Tom Bawcock, well, it’s pinches of salt all round as to whether the events ever took place. It seems that the townsfolk couldn’t have been that lacking in food if they somehow found pastry, potatoes and eggs to make the pie. But facts be damned. Perhaps he is best left as the inspiration for a great pie and an excuse for the people of Mousehole to have a good old knees-up in the December cold.
See also HOW RECIPES BEGIN (see here); CARDIFF, CARDIFF (see here); CHINLEY, DERBYSHIRE (see here); DENBY DALE, WEST YORKSHIRE (see here); GLASGOW, GLASGOW (see here); GREENWICH, GREENWICH (see here).
NEWLYN BAY, CORNWALL
Albacore, or ‘white meat’, tuna
According to the Marine Stewardship Council, albacore tuna (sometimes called ‘white meat’ tuna) is plentiful, unlike the nearly extinct blue- or yellow-fin tuna, and Quentin Knights – a big bloke with a big smile and big hands like half pounds of sausages – is nigh on obsessed with it. During the summer months Quentin crews on the Nova Spero, a 19.2-metre wooden beamer, and, along with another beamer called the Charisma, goes after albacore tuna. ‘For fifteen years no one had brought the tuna in, not since the end of drift netting. But I’d always wanted to do it. I’d dreamed of it,’ he told me. A study in 2003 showed it to be viable, and in 2007 they went out for a test run. At that point they struggled to sell it back on the quay as there just wasn’t a market for it, but in 2008, thanks to a partnership with M&J Seafood, things worked out much better: the price was agreed before putting to sea, and in 2009 Morrison’s became the first UK supermarket to take it for their fish counters.
Quentin Knights keeps his catch fresh in these ice-filled boxes
I asked him how he can be sure he’ll catch the right species of tuna, and he answers, ‘For one, hook and line is very selective. Your breaking pound of line dictates what fish you can catch, with the average being around six kilos in weight. The breeding stock are larger, but they’re down deeper. We’re just after the juveniles – the teenagers if you like – who are higher up feeding.’ It seems incredible, but he assures me it works. ‘Everything’s so finely tuned. It’s like angling, but on a commercial scale.’
The transformation of the Cornish pilchard into the Cornish sardine is all down to one reason: public perception. Sardines remind shoppers of sunny Mediterranean holidays and delicious barbecues, whereas plain old pilchards remind them of tea at some old auntie’s house that smelled of mothballs. So, seeing which way public opinion was swimming, the Cornish Sardine Management Association (CSMA) was set up in 2004 to do something about it. The renaming was just one part of a drive to protect an age-old tradition and a key part of Cornish maritime life; the association also manages catches to protect stock levels. To earn the new nomenclature, and the all-important accompanying EU protected food status, the fish must be caught within six miles of the Cornish coast.
In the past this was done with a cliff-top spotter guiding the boats via semaphore; now sonar does that job. The fish used to be preserved with salt and packed in wooden barrels before being exported to the Continent, a trade that has been going on since Elizabethan times. The first recorded exports were from Looe in East Cornwall in 1555, and the main buyers were in Italy. Nick Howell is chairman of the CSMA and also runs the pilchard works in Newlyn. He’s been leading the rebrand, having seen the market for the traditional barrel-preserved fish dry up. He made his last barrel in 2005 – ‘One family, the Borzone, had been taking the fish since 1905’ – but Italian tastes were changing. As well as fresh sardines, Nick still offers the classic tinned version, which is landed and prepped in Cornwall before being sent to Brittany for canning. Here, in a small canning firm, the fish are cooked before being placed in the tin. Most canning firms in the UK would place the fish in raw, seal the tin, then cook them, leaving you with a mushy, poor-tasting product.
Now there is protection for the name and the process, and Marine Stewardship Council certification on the way, it’s up to us as consumers to make the most of this wonderful fish. Nick would like to see the season, which runs from midsummer until autumn, become a cause for celebration, much like the grouse season. During this time, the sardine’s flesh is plump and full of good flavourful oils; it really deserves a spot on your barbecue.
See also DERWENTWATER, CUMBRIA (see here); DOVER, KENT (see here); GLOUCESTER, GLOUCESTERSHIRE (see here); HASTINGS, EAST SUSSEX (see here); MARKET HARBOROUGH, LEICESTERSHIRE (see here); RIVER SEVERN, GLOUCESTER SHIRE (see here); SCOURIE, HIGHLAND (see here); SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, ESSEX (see here); WANSFORD, EAST YORKSHIRE (see here); WHITBURN, TYNE & WEAR (see here).
Gin, like other spirits, is produced by the seemingly magical process of distillation, where a liquid is vaporised, then condensed by cooling the resulting vapour back to a liquid. And so while wine or other liquids go in at one end, by a simple heating process, a totally different – and stronger – liquid comes out the other. And perhaps it was this strange new alchemy that led to the thought that gin, along with other spirits, was a magical nostrum for many ills. Pepys tried ‘strong water made of juniper’ to cure his constipation in 1633, and gin was once known as ‘plague water’, guaranteed to protect the drinker from the deadly disease.
Today, according to Sean Harrison, head distiller at Plymouth Gin, quality gin is still distilled, but now cheaper gins are made using the compound method. This sees the spirit mixed with essences of the main flavouring ingredients to produce a cheaper, less interesting and more chemically tasting gin worthy of one of Hogarth’s Gin Lane ladies. ‘Distilling technology is a thousand years old, and it hasn’t needed to change very much because fundamentally nature knows best,’ says Sean. He then tells me about all the ingredients that go into the distinctive flavour, and how every year the firm must scour the world to find the right suppliers. Lemons and oranges are sourced from Spain, coriander from Russia, juniper and orris root from Italy, angelica root from Saxony and cardamom pods from Guatemala.
All of these ingredients add different flavours to the gin. So although juniper is the lead flavour, it is flanked by some sweetness from the orange, and some citrus tang from the lemon, while the roots add drier, earthy tones, and the coriander and cardamom a touch of spicy, pepperlike heat.
Gin has always had a relationship with the military. British troops watched their Dutch allies take a swig before battle, which gave us the phrase ‘Dutch courage’. And when the Admiralty decided that officers must drink something different from the common rum given to ratings, it was gin, not brandy or whisky, that they chose.
The Plymouth Gin brand is now owned by Pernod Ricard, but production began in 1792 in the city when one Mr Coates, a local businessman, began distilling gin on Southside Street. The building he chose had once been the site of a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431, and it was also where the Pilgrim Fathers are said to have lodged before sailing for America in September 1620. It then went through other ecclesiastical hands before Mr Coates got the keys to the place. And though the firm he founded has changed ownership over the years, the gin is still made in the same location to this day, under Sean’s careful eye. At its peak in the 1800s the firm was supplying the Royal Navy with 1,000 barrels of 100 per cent (57 per cent abv) proof gin a year. Its popularity at sea no doubt improved in 1848, when pink gin, featuring a shot of angostura bitters, was touted as a cure for seasickness. The angostura was the element doing all the work, the gin just making the former palatable.
See also HAMMERSMITH, HAMMERSMITH & FULHAM (see here).
Nathan Outlaw’s hog’s pudding
When I first met Kent-born Nathan Outlaw he was cooking at the Marina Hotel in Fowey. There I found his cooking both bold and confident. Each dish was incredibly well presented, without fusions or foams or other cheffy tricks. Of course, it takes a huge amount of skill to make it look that easy.
Since then he has moved to the St Enodoc Hotel in Rock, and a new restaurant split between a twenty-six-cover fine-dining room, and a much larger and informal seafood and grill room that can take up to eighty covers. There is the same ethos and dedication, only this time an even better selection of fish and seafood. ‘The big advantage is our fish and shellfish; I can get better than anyone in the country,’ he says. But what particularly caught my eye was his dish of scallops with hog’s pudding.
Hog’s pudding has been made all over the UK since medieval times, wherever a hog was killed. Eventually it became associated with both Cornwall and Devon, with the two versions differing slightly in seasoning. It was designed to use up the lungs, heart, liver and any other bits of the freshly killed pig, and was highly seasoned with spices such as cumin, coriander and nutmeg. In the past dried fruit was also added, while other recipes include almonds or cayenne. This was all bulked out and bound with bread, maybe an egg or two, and placed into hog skins. A recipe featuring most of the ingredients above can be found in Mary Kettilby’s Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery from 1734, but plenty of other examples exist, some of which suggest adding groats (unpolished barley) rather than bread.
‘I make it all myself, whereas most people buy it ready-made from the butchers,’ says Nathan. He doesn’t make his to a traditional recipe, but uses pork fillet, chicken, bread, thyme, cumin, shallots, cream, salt and pepper, which he cooks in a terrine and serves in slices with the scallops. ‘I’ve made it lighter and a bit less breakfasty for the restaurant – more like a boudin blanc. The dish is completely south-west,’ says Nathan. ‘You’ve got south-west scallops, home-made hog’s pudding, and the garnish is locally foraged sea beet, with Jerusalem artichokes pickled and puréed.’ A local dish from a chef who’s gone native.
ST JUST, CORNWALL
Saffron cake from W. T. Warren & Son
The story goes that saffron, the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower, was introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician merchants who traded it for tin around 1000 BC. This was long before the Romans – who generously introduced, among other things, carrots, turnips and wine to Britain – landed at Dover in AD 43. The story, of course, may be apocryphal. Phoenicia, after all, was located in present-day Lebanon, and that’s a hell of a way to come for some tin. Sir Christopher Hawkins’s 1811 work Tin Trade of the Ancients in Cornwall doesn’t mention saffron, though the ancient Greek historian Strabo states that there was a great deal of trade with Britain for tin. Personally, I think it odd that the tough Iron Age mining men of Cornwall, having hacked tin ore out of the ground and smelted it down, would be inclined to swap it for a few dried flower stigmas but there you go, that’s legends for you.
Many cultures outside saffron’s original homeland of south-west Asia have recipes featuring the precious warming spice; the Swedes, for example, make a saffron-infused Lucia bread in honour of an Italian saint, and saffron-infused cakes and buns have long been baked throughout Britain. Saffron Walden in Cambridgeshire, of course, was named for the spice’s trade, and on the other side of the island the Cornish peninsula has made the bread – or the cake – its own.
There are many bakers, both large and small, who make it, but W. T. Warren & Son are notable for the fact that they won a Great Taste award for their saffron cake in 2009. Their headquarters are still in the Cornish town of St Just, where the business started in the 1860s. The original Queen Street bakery delivered bread and cakes using horse and cart for over 100 years. Their version is made with La Mancha saffron from Spain to a secret 100-year-old recipe, and consists of wheat flour, mixed fruits, lard, vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, peel, egg, butter, salt and the all-important saffron. Jason Jobing, product development manager for Warren’s, recommends eating it either as it is, or toasted and liberally spread with butter. If you really want to gild the lily (and who doesn’t like gold-plated lilies from time to time), you can add a blob of Cornish clotted cream.
See also WREXHAM, WREXHAM (see here).
ST KEVERNE, CORNWALL
A traditional ox roast
In 1953 the Ministry of Food granted applications for communities to roast a whole ox to celebrate the Coronation, but only if they could prove that by tradition an ox had been roasted at previous coronations (154 applications were received; of those 40 were withdrawn, 33 refused and 81 approved).
One such permission was granted to St Keverne in West Cornwall. The community still holds an ox roast every August, although these days it’s used to raise funds for the St Keverne Brass Band, which does great work encouraging children to take up an instrument. The first slice of the done-to-a-turn beef is auctioned off, and the winning bid in 2009 was £350.
The village hasn’t always been so fond of royalty, however. It was home to local blacksmith Michael An Gof, who in 1497 led an army of 20,000 Cornishmen to London in a rebellion against King Henry VII. The Cornishmen were protesting about taxes on tin to fund the war in Scotland. Henry met the force with one greater, and An Gof found his head on a pike soon after.
But back to 1953. The matter of the applications was raised many times in the House of Commons. Rationing was still in place, and getting one’s hands on anything, as well as permission, must have been tricky. On 1 April, two months before the Coronation itself, Norman Dodds, MP for Dartford, asked the Minister of Food ‘why sheep-roasting is forbidden during the Coronation celebrations when ox-roasting is permitted’. Sir Gerald Nabarro, MP for Kidderminster, added that Hallow in rural Worcestershire had roasted oxen in the past, but now, due to a smaller population, wanted to roast a sheep instead. To this the Minister of Food Major Gwilym Lloyd George replied, ‘I am not prepared to extend these arrangements to animals other than oxen.’ After more toing and froing Robert Boothby, MP for Aberdeenshire East, added, ‘In the absence of sheep, will my Right Honourable and gallant friend consider inaugurating a national campaign for the Coronation for the roasting of herrings?’ The wag!
The view of the Ministry on ox-roasting in general remained thus: ‘While meat is still rationed, this is difficult. [We] are reluctant, however, to stand in the way of traditional festivities of this kind. [The minister] has, therefore, decided that any local authority . . . which has made a custom of ox-roasting at Coronations, will be permitted to obtain an ox for this purpose . . . provided the cooked meat is given away free.’
For those unable to get roast ox, there was a ‘bonus’ of one pound of sugar and a quarter pound of margarine, although most thought this a little derisory, especially the Housewives’ League, a right-wing Christian organisation that aimed to act as the voice of the housewife. The nation, it seemed, had had enough, and all they wanted to do was celebrate in front of their new television sets.
A National Trust cream tea
The eighteenth-century landscaped gardens and parkland of Stourhead sit a stone’s throw over the Somerset border in Wiltshire. On the day I visited the weather was bright and sunny, which naturally meant the car park was overflowing into adjacent fields. Hordes of visitors were thronging to the gardens for the annual Festival of the Voice. Upon entering, I was greeted by the sight of a slowly ambling mass of pastel-clad pensioners freshly disgorged from coaches and all cocking an ear to the assembled choir.
As the melodies and harmonies drifted through the air, I paused to think, ‘What could be more English on a summer’s day than a nose round a National Trust property, followed by a nice cream tea? And yet what better represents British food pedantry than the star of that cream tea, the scone?’ This is no humble baked product but in fact a powerful prism for splitting the white light of Britishness into the minute spectra of class, education and social standing.
Jam or cream first?
First there’s the pronunciation. Is it ‘scone’ to rhyme with John, or ‘scone’ to rhyme with Joan? Those who favour the latter – let’s call them Joans – number around 35 per cent according to a 1998 survey by University College London. They are seen as posh and aloof by the other 65 per cent – let’s call them the Johns – who are in turn seen as common and unable to speak correctly by the Joans. As of December 2008 there were fifty-three groups on Facebook all hurling abuse at each other over this very issue. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’
But let’s say you find yourself breaking this particular bread product with someone who pronounces it the same way you do. You’re by no means out of the woods yet. There’s the dilemma of whether to put the cream or the jam on first. Cream on first is apparently the Devonshire way of doing it; jam on first is the Cornish way. However, in my travels I’ve seen the complete opposite of this in both counties. What’s more, Ellen Easton in a 2004 article entitled ‘Etiquette Faux Pas and Other Misconceptions About Afternoon Tea’ declares it ‘improper to slice a scone in its entirety’ and recommends breaking off small chunks and applying jam and cream to these, as one might a croissant. It seems the whole issue exists to beset and befuddle the middle classes. (You notice no one gives a monkey’s about whether it’s the salt or the vinegar that goes on chips first.)
But since you’re asking, I personally favour clotted cream on first – yes, on top of butter – then just a small blob of either strawberry or raspberry jam. The reason why I think this works is that if the cream is on top, it hits your mouth first, completely filling your taste buds like grouting on a bathroom wall. When the jam (which should be at room temperature) is on top, it hits your mouth with that citrus sugar sharpness before the mouth-wide cooling effect of the cream. Finally, I pronounce ‘scone’ to rhyme with John, but that’s just me. No doubt some readers are raising a pitchfork-armed militia against me for my heretical views, but here I call that iconoclastic Englishman Stephen Fry as witness for the defence: ‘If you’re the kind of person who insists on this or that “correct” use . . . abandon your pedantry as I did mine. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be . . . Above all, let there be pleasure!’ Because whichever way you eat it, a cakey, bready bun with some dairy product and preserved fruit slathered on it in a manner of your choosing remains one of the joys of England.
See also LOSTWITHIEL, CORNWALL (see here).
‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,’ said G. K. Chesterton in 1910. The girls staffing Totnes Country Cheeses, on the other hand, can wax lyrical on the subject. The shop was started by Gary and Elise Jungheim in the 1980s when they realised that nearly all the local cheeses were being sent up to London.
All artisanal cheese-making pretty much stopped after the war as milk was pooled, which meant it was bought, managed and distributed for the common good. The only cheese that could be made went by the name of ‘Government Cheddar’, and wasn’t worthy of the name. Still, there was a nation to feed and rebuild, and a bright modern future to strive towards. The world moved on, and in this corner at least, the art of the local artisanal cheese nearly died out, and took decades to return. Gary and Elise started out with a stall on Tavistock Market selling what they could source from the region, and things grew from there. They now have three shops in the south-west and a thriving mail-order service.
Not only are all the 100 or so cheeses in the shop British, but 95 per cent of them are from the West Country. The only out-of-towners are big favourites like Stilton, as you can’t have a British cheese shop without the classics. It’s the West Country ones that hold the most interest, however, particularly ‘Sloe Tavy’ made by Pete Humphries at White Lake Cheeses. This cheese is unique and is only sold in Totnes Country Cheeses and a few other selected outlets. It’s an aged goat’s milk cheese whose rind is washed in Plymouth Sloe Gin. It tastes amazing, with a nutty tang and a slight back-of-the-nose ‘woo’ that no doubt comes from the gin. It’s also a delicate pink colour due to the sloes and is shaped like a heart. Who says goat’s cheese can’t be romantic?
Sloe Tavy is a thing of rare beauty
See also BRITISH CHEESE (see here).
Chris Hall’s fresh unpasteurised milk
Milk, as the 1980s advert featuring two football-loving Scouse kids informed us, is what Ian Rush drinks. And thirty years on, milk is still thought of as something primarily for children, Liverpool strikers aside. For the rest of us it’s simply the ever-present, ever-the-same semi-skimmed white stuff in the fridge, only there for wetting cereal or diluting tea or coffee, right? Well, not quite. There’s that milk, and then there’s real milk in its purest form, unpasteurised and straight from the cow.
Chris Hall has a small organic herd of thirty Guernsey cows on land his grandfather used to farm in the village of Treen at the tip of Cornwall. Those caramel-coloured beauties produce 80,000 litres a year, but Chris can only sell a fraction of that, some 10,000 litres, unpasteurised, and then only from a small hatch in the wall of his milking shed or from a milk round he runs locally. In short, he’s not allowed to sell it in any shops.
‘A Guernsey produces less milk than a Holstein, but it’s of a better quality,’ says Chris. ‘It’s almost golden in colour.’ It did look thicker and perhaps more cream-coloured, but I assumed that was because it had just come out of the cow. That is, until we compared it to some ordinary, shop-bought milk I had brought along for a blind taste test. I took a pint of semi-skimmed made by Robert Wiseman’s dairies, and a pint of Tesco’s own brand full-fat blue top. With something to compare it to, Chris’s milk stands out by a country mile, taking on the golden hue of a Turner sunset, while the contents of the other two glasses had a bluish tinge, as if someone had washed a paintbrush in them after touching up their gloss work.
I began the taste test, despite knowing instantly which one was Chris’s. The two shop-bought ones tasted a little thin and plasticky and had very little depth. Chris’s, on the other hand, goes mental in your mouth. ‘It’s a food, not a drink,’ says Chris. It doesn’t just taste like thicker milk – as that would be cream – it tastes like the sum of all milk, seeming to explode after you swallow it, coating the inside of your mouth with a thin film of butter. It’s complex and intense, and not so much creamy as grassy and fatty.
Spot the milk that’s come straight from the cow
I asked Chris about the future of a product like this: ‘All I want is to be allowed to sell my milk in shops so more people can try it. It’s freedom of choice.’
The Food Standards Agency’s line remains very much that raw milk should not be given to the sick, infants and the elderly. My experience is that if it’s coming from small, healthy, naturally farmed herds, you shouldn’t have a problem. Until the law is relaxed, visiting people like Chris directly is the only way to get it, and perhaps that’s the best way too. But get it you should, and don’t be scared by it – it’s not Japanese blowfish, just really great-tasting, natural milk.
See also WHITLAND, CARMARTHENSHIRE (see here).
WEST BEXINGTON, DORSET
Dorset Naga, the British chilli
Of all the edible plants to come from South America to the UK as part of the Columbian exchange (when foodstuffs were traded all around the globe), some did better than others. Potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate became, after some initial reluctance, part of our food landscape hundreds of years ago. Yet avocados and chillies were practically ignored until very recently. You could say that we’re making up for it now. Though native to hotter climes, in the past ten years a band of commercial producers and growers have sprung up in the UK, mainly in the southern counties and the south-west. And it’s here we find the Dorset Naga, Britain’s only home-grown chilli.
Michael and Joy Michaud established Peppers by Post at Sea Spring Farm in Dorset in 1995. They both have PhDs in agriculture, but started market gardening on the side. ‘The hotter chillies tend to be Capsicum chinense, and are slow growing; on top of that they’re always eaten ripe.’ The Dorset Naga was developed in 2001 from the Naga Morich, which is native to Bangladesh and traditionally sold green, giving Michael and Joy an extra month to sell it.
Though developed from a Bangladesh original, the Dorset Naga is now its own unique variety, recognised as being ‘extensive, uniform and stable’. Joy says they couldn’t have done it without support from the Bangladeshis in the region. ‘They come back again and again to pick our chillies, and we feel confident we’re producing something authentic.’ The attraction is not only the Dorset Naga’s short growing period, but also the combination of heat and flavour. ‘It has a great smell, just one broken in a room will perfume the air. It’s a really powerful, beautiful flavour.’
A chilli’s heat is measured in Scoville units, which tell us how many times a solution of the chilli pepper extract needs to be diluted before the heat can no longer be detected. A red sweet pepper, for example, has a Scoville rating of zero. The Dorset Naga ranges from 661,451 SHU for a green fruit up to 1,032,310 SHU for ripe fruit. Pepper spray, it’s worth noting, is about 5 million, and pure capsaicin has a rating of 15 to 16 million.
David Floyd from Dorset runs the Chile Foundry, a website for UK chilli fans, and says the UK chilli scene is particularly vibrant right now, with many producers developing a range of sauces, pickles and marinades. No doubt there are those who choose ultra-hot chilli and sauces out of bravado, as some test of manhood. The result? People get burned, or rather their innards do. However, there are those who actively enjoy the sensation and who use it correctly and sparingly in cooking influenced by South-East Asian recipes through to native Mexican cuisine.
The Dorset Naga, Britain’s only home-grown chilli
Macho nonsense aside, the chilli deserves a place in the British spice rack as much as anything else. When used correctly it can deliver heat, piquancy and flavour: enjoy a dab of chilli sauce with the traditional Sunday lunch of roast beef, the chilli taking the place of horseradish or mustard; and at the milder end of the spectrum, chilli jams and chutneys go with anything from oysters to toast.
WEST KNOYLE, WILTSHIRE
Willoughby Hedge Café
The old Willoughby Hedge Café on the A303 has a special place in my heart because it was the very first place I stopped on the journey that ultimately led to the book you’re now holding. Its positioning is key: 100 miles or so from London, 80 from Exeter, it’s a natural stopping point for those who want to stretch their legs and have a bite to eat – a tea ’n’ pee stop. Five minutes after pulling up I was washing down the last of egg in a bap with a cup of tea strong enough to creosote a fence.
Unlike most lay-by cafés, Willoughby Hedge isn’t run by an ex-con, a thug or a nutter, but by the charming Dave Thomas, who, as I pulled up, was giving the café a clean with a bucket and sponge. The entire thing – kitchen, counter and seating area – is just a small Portakabin. The current one, which Dave had custom built, is four years old, and there have been a handful of predecessors going back to 1980, when he first acquired the pitch.
Also (perhaps) unlike most roadside cafés, Dave likes to take a bit of care when sourcing his ingredients, aiming for local food where possible. His tea comes from D. J. Miles, a Somerset-based family firm that has been blending tea since the 1930s, and his bread and baps arrive every day at 9 a.m. from the Cottage Bakery in Gillingham. Dave makes no apologies for his café’s menu, nor should he. It’s a caff, and rightly sells your café favourites – egg, bacon, sausage, burgers, chips and the like – all cooked fresh to order.
The place is popular with everyone from truckers and bikers (the field next door used to be a grass racing track) to classic car enthusiasts and famished families. It’s never going to be heralded as gourmet, but it does what a good roadside café should do, namely serve you a big cup of tea and something hot between two pieces of bread that you can wolf down as you stretch your legs, look at the sky and listen to the traffic roll by.
See also GRINDLEFORD, DERBYSHIRE (see here); LLANBERIS, GWYNEDD (see here).
Willoughby Hedge excels at good strong tea and something hot between two slices of bread
Charles Dowding’s leaves
The West Country, in salad-and-leaves grower Charles Dowding’s opinion, is becoming one of the best food-producing regions in the world. Things grow well in Somerset soil. Salad is also one of those crops where the quality starts to decline from the moment it’s picked. Various methods are used to slow this, from sealed bags to ‘living salads’ that you sometimes see in the larger supermarkets. However, you can’t beat the taste of freshly picked, quickly rinsed leaves: the crunch is much more pronounced and the flavours come through swiftly. A blood-veined sorrel leaf’s astringent citric taste shoots across the mouth like forked lightning, then other sweet notes start to play.
Charles grows around twenty-five different types of leaves, including tango lettuce, cress flower, Freckles lettuce, orache (a tallish plant that’s also known as mountain spinach; you eat the leaves), chervil, pea shoots and a bit of dill, and is able to grow salad and greens all year round by carefully choosing varieties that work with the seasons. In summer he grows more basil and endives, and so salads from that time of year are milder and more juicy. Towards autumn he grows chicory, rockets, pak choi and mustards. Then at wintertime it’s lambs lettuce and others, grown under the polytunnel.
Charles is also well known for extolling the ‘no dig’ method, though this isn’t about being work-shy with a shovel. He set up an experiment in 2007 sowing various crops in four beds, two with the manure dug through, and two with it placed on top of the soil. The yield was 49.5kg for the dug, and 54.2kg for the non-dug – almost a 10 per cent improvement. Indeed, soil is where people should concentrate their efforts in the garden: ‘Feed the soil, not the plant,’ is his advice.
See also CHICHESTER, WEST SUSSEX (see here); CRYMYCH, PEMBROKESHIRE (see here); GOMERSAL, WEST YORKSHIRE (see here).
Like snails, gooey cheese and fizzy white wine, truffles may be considered out-and-out French, but they can also be found right here in Blighty. Britain’s last working truffle hunter was Alfred Collins, who tracked down summer truffles with two Spanish poodles in Winterslow, Wiltshire. He retired in 1930, but the truffles are still there, if you know where to look – and, indeed, what you’re actually looking for.
Truffles are subterranean members of the fungus family, growing five centimetres or so below ground. They work in symbiosis with the roots of the tree (often beech, ash, cherry or hazel), extending the roots’ surface area and, in return, taking sugar and glucose in order to grow (as truffles cannot photosynthesise). To germinate, the mycelium coils into the distinctive ball shape and hopes to get eaten by an animal so that it can be spread.
That role was traditionally performed by pigs, who sought them out because a truffle’s odour is similar to boar saliva, and so a real turn-on for your amorous sow. In Wiltshire, what you’re most likely to find is the summer truffle, Tuber aestivum, between the months of July and September. It’s a delicate truffle, not as strong or as pungent as the continental black truffle, which is found later in the year. Pigs are useful for finding truffles, but pooches are better, as they are less likely to eat their finds and, at £200 a kilogram, you don’t want to take the risk. Another option, employed by Michelin-starred chef Roger Jones, patron of the Harrow Inn in Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire, is a twelve-year-old boy, and father and son can often be found, eyes scanning the ground of a Wiltshire wood looking for summer truffles for Roger to use back at the restaurant. Guided, perhaps, by the ghost of Alfred.
See also HEBRON, CARMARTHENSHIRE (see here); LYMINGTON, HAMPSHIRE (see here); LLANGADOG, CARMARTHENSHIRE (see here).
2 | Wales
ABERCYNON, RHONDDA CYNON TAF
Laver bread is as Welsh as leeks, rugby and Tom Jones. Found clinging to rocks all round the British Isles, the seaweed (Porphyra umbilicalis) has been eaten by many different peoples over the centuries, but it’s the Welsh who have taken it most to heart. After washing then boiling it for several hours, what you’re left with is a dark, spinach-like purée with an iodine tang and a saline taste like the smack of a wave. Most people baulk at their first mouthful, and it’s not much to look at (it resembles make-up searching for a face) but it certainly rewards perseverance.
Though it can be served as a sauce with lamb, its traditional form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was as small cakes, coated in oatmeal and fried in the fat of the breakfast bacon. It was just the sort of thing to set you up for a day standing underground waist-deep in water, hitting a wall of rock with a pickaxe. Nowadays it tends to be included in a standard ‘full Welsh’ fry-up, and a tinned variety is available from Parson’s Pickles in Carmarthenshire if you’d like to give this a go.
Laver bread is also being used more imaginatively by a new breed of Welsh chefs. Bryan Webb, head chef at Tyddyn Llan, a restaurant with rooms in Snowdonia, serves wild bass with laver bread beurre blanc. The famous Victorian chef Alexis Soyer suggests laver ramifolle:
Roll out some mashed potatoes to a quarter of an inch thickness then cover with some nicely seasoned cold, stewed laver. Put another layer of mashed potatoes on top, and allow it to get quite cold. When it’s set, cut into square pieces, cover with egg and breadcrumbs and sauté.
Greta’s Wholefoodies makes laver-bread burgers, adding Caerphilly cheese, mustard and fresh parsley as well as oats to the patties – they’re particularly good with a poached egg for breakfast. However, my favourite has to be the special Welsh maki rolls made by Kai and Josephine Chan from Sushi Day in Abercynon, who use laver along with lamb and leeks. If California can lend its name to a Western-style maki roll, why not Abercynon?
See also THE UNITED KINGDOM OF FRY-UPS (see here).
ABERTHIN, VALE OF GLAMORGAN
Glamorgan sausages from Greta’s Wholefoodies
Despite having some of the best lamb and beef in the country, Wales still gave the world the Glamorgan sausage. Skinless and meatless, it’s a combination of leek, onions and cheese coated in breadcrumbs and fried to produce crunchy croquettes filled with a tasty, cheesy, leeky goo. Traditionally, Glamorgan cheese was used, so called because it is made with milk from the Glamorgan cow. Between the 1920s and the late 1970s, this breed was thought to be extinct, but in 1979 farmer and ex-military man Major ‘Teddy’ Savage from East Sussex put his herd up for sale, stating there were some Glamorgans among the stock. Glamorgan County Council bought them, and they’re now housed at Margam Country Park, although sadly there still aren’t enough to meet the demand for Glamorgan cheese. As a result, most modern recipes substitute Caerphilly cheese, as it’s very similar in texture and taste.
As well as sausages, Greta makes laver-bread burgers, great with raw carrot salad and pea purée
The sausage was first mentioned in print in George Borrow’s 1862 book, Wild Wales. He states:
The morning was moist and dripping, and nothing could look more cheerless and uncomfortable than the entire scene. I put on my things, which were still not half dry, and went down into the little parlour, where I found an excellent fire awaiting me, and a table spread for breakfast. The breakfast was delicious, consisting of excellent tea, buttered toast, and Glamorgan sausages.
Borrow had the sausages in the tavern of ‘Y Gwter Fawr’ (‘The Big Gutter’) in the historic county of Glamorgan. The town is now known as Brynamman, and the Tregib Arms in the village is thought to date back to around 1860, so could be a contender for the place where his breakfast was served. Wales may not be quite so wild these days as it was in Borrow’s time, and modern-day explorers in search of a Glamorgan sausage should seek out Greta’s Wholefoodies’ version, available from independent delis and shops in the region. Greta Watts-Jones makes Glamorgan sausages by hand, using local ingredients including Gorwydd (pronounced Gor-with) Caerphilly, made by Trethowan’s Dairy to a traditional recipe with unpasteurised milk (see here).
The original Glamorgan may have been meatless due to poverty as meat was expensive. During the Second World War they appeared once more as meat was scarce. Today, when people are choosing vegetarian products for ethical or dietary reasons, they could do worse than the Glamorgan, the original veggie sausage.
See also SAUSAGES (see here).
Big Pit cheese
Coal was the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and a great deal of that fuel came from Wales. It’s easy to forget, nowadays, just how dangerous mining could be. Between 1851 and 1920 there were 3,000 deaths in South Wales mines alone. The history of this profession is now on display at Big Pit: National Coal Museum. Pwll Mawr, or ‘Big Pit’, was the biggest producer of coal and steel in the nineteenth century, finally closing in 1980 and leaving a massive man-made cave. So what to do with it apart from turning it into a world heritage site dedicated to our industrial past? Well, Susan Flander-Woodhouse thought it would make a great space to mature her Cheddar cheese.
Susan started Blaenafon Cheeses in 2006, and has won nationwide recognition for her business, which has food, tourism and heritage at its heart. At present she sells eight flavours of Cheddar and four varieties of goat’s cheese. Her Cheddar cheeses are made with milk collected from Welsh farms, and produced by First Milk dairy in Haverford West. The medium-strength one she brings straight to her shop in Blaenafon town centre and begins adding subtle and interesting Welsh flavours. But the mature one is taken 300 feet down the pit, where the temperature remains a constant 9.5°C – this is the perfect atmosphere for maturing the cheese. Once a fortnight, 120 kilograms is brought up for sale.
All this came about because the management at Big Pit decided to forge links with local businesses to bring more visitors to the area. Susan had a meeting with manager Neil Walker, who supported the idea, and she then went on to prove to the Environmental Health Officer that the product was safe. Now the twenty-kilogram cheeses are stored in six specially made metal caskets with small gaps at the top and bottom that allow the air to pass through, but keep errant fingers out. ‘It’s the atmosphere down there that really makes the cheese,’ says Susan.
Cave-ageing cheese is as old as the hills above. Cheddar was originally aged in the caves of the Cheddar Gorge; Rocquefort, too, gets its distinctive mould from spending time in a cave. The key to ageing is to provide a constant temperature and humidity. Even at home, cool, moist rooms such as outhouses or garages are much better places to store cheese than refrigerators, which are not only too cold, but also too dry.
It’s nice to see that although the making of the Welsh cheese Caerphilly by Cheddar makers in the West Country has been happening for years now, cheese-making-ideas have not all been travelling one way over the Severn Bridge and there are plenty of dairies and creameries all over Wales now having a go at making Cheddar.
See also BRITISH CHEESE (see here).
BRYNSIENCYN, ISLE OF ANGLESEY
Sea salt from Halen Môn
David and Alison Lea-Wilson have been involved in Anglesey aquatic activities for many years. First they had an oyster farm, then they became fishmongers, then they ran a public aquarium, and now they produce sea salt as well. ‘We knew the waters around here were pure because we were keeping things like sea horses in them, and they’re very particular,’ says Alison.
As the aquarium’s visitors dwindle a bit during the winter months, the Lea-Wilsons looked into salt production. The first batch was made in a frying pan on the family Aga, and subsequent ones were made in a large bath. Now, of course, it’s a much more professional operation, but the process is the same: seawater is heated in a pan until the water has evaporated and a residue is left.
Halen, meaning ‘salt’, and Môn, the Welsh word for Anglesey, gave the company its name. The water is drawn from the Menai Straits and before it enters the facility it has already passed through a mussel bed and a sandbank, both of which work as natural filters. It’s then heated until it becomes a salty brine, which is released into crystallisation tanks where the snow-white flakes form. These are scooped out and left to dry before being boxed. The whole process takes ten days from start to finish.
The government drive against excessive salt consumption has actually helped Halen Môn: ‘People are more conscious about what goes into or onto their food, and are prepared to pay more money for a purer product that delivers more taste for less sodium,’ says Alison.
Part of the charm of sea salt is its crunch, shape and feel in the mouth. Halen Môn salt doesn’t have that mouth-puckering chemical effect that industrial salt can sometimes have. You can get it via mail order, or if you happen to be in North Wales you can even visit the factory and see how it’s made. After that, you can pop next door and admire the sea horses cantering round their tanks and enjoying the salt in its original form.
See also MALDON, ESSEX (see here)
The story of the Clark’s pie would be worthy of an episode of top genea logical show Who Do You Think You Are? It’s a tale of a family business spanning five generations and 100 years. Things started in 1912, when Mary and Arthur Clark opened a pie shop at 93 Donald Street, Cardiff. During the First World War it had to close, due to meat shortages, and things didn’t get going again until the 1920s. Mary made the pies in her own kitchen, and delivered them around the neighbourhood. In 1928 they opened a proper shop in Paget Street, Grangetown, and her daughter Winifred opened her own shop across town in Canton in 1932. It was in 1934 that the trademark ‘CLARPIE’ was registered and stamped on to the bottom of every pie they made, just as it is today. Mary’s other children spread out like mushrooms propagating them selves around Wales and the south-west, from Bristol, Newport and Gloucester to Swindon and Reading. Soon a second world war came, with harsher rationing measures, and some of these shops had to close. Mary’s shop survived the war, however, by switching to vegetarian pies.
Nowadays there are two shops left in Cardiff – one in Canton, one in Grangetown – as well as a shop in Bristol. Ceri Dutch-John is the fourth generation of her family to work in the Canton shop, and the Grangetown shop is owned by a different member of the family. They work closely together, though, and are forging links with their second cousins in Bristol: ‘Although we’ve always had contact, we don’t really have any involvement with Bristol, other than a hello at a funeral or a wedding.’
This history is all very well, but what about the pies? Ceri says they’re simply ‘beef and vegetable pies in a thick gravy, made to a secret family recipe, encased in shortcrust pastry’. A pretty standard pie, then, but with pastry that’s thicker than your average pie casing, meaning the pie comes without the need for a supporting foil tray. ‘It’s sold as an open, unwrapped product that stands by itself,’ says Ceri.
Both Cardiff shops produce about 1,500 to 2,000 pies, six days a week. At the Canton branch they do everything by hand except roll out the pastry, whereas in Grangetown they have a fully automated system. To the trained eye, and indeed palate, there are subtle differences between the Canton and Grangetown versions. ‘People tend to favour the one they were brought up on,’ Ceri adds. Any rivalry, it seems, comes from their loyal customers rather than inside the family.
What’s lovely about the Clark’s pie story is not only the history, but the consistency. They have not been swayed by fashion, nor had designs to take over the world. They have just made pies, decade in, decade out. On the streets on which the Clark’s pie shops stand, particularly the Grangetown branch, you can see there were once lots of little shops. Most have had their fronts bricked up and been turned somewhat awkwardly into homes. But when you hear people say that we’re no longer a nation of shopkeepers and that we’re all now squashed under a carpet of mass retail homogeny, send them to Clark’s pies. As Ceri says, ‘You get generations and generations who come through our door and purchase our product. I’ve worked here since 1997, but it’s taken until now to realise how special and loved our product is by this community.’
See also CORNISH PASTIES (see here).
Sausages from Edwards of Conwy
Ieuan Edwards has seen his business grow over the last twenty-five years from a tiny shop staffed by just himself to a regional institution that employs more than fifty people and supplies most of North Wales with quality sausage and meats. Ieuan is one of the younger sons of a farming family, but growing up he felt ‘the farm wasn’t big enough . . . and I was too thick to go to university.’ So he got an apprenticeship at a butcher’s in Llanrwst where he learned his trade. It was there that he found out that he wanted to be in retail. In the early 1980s a lease came up on a butcher’s shop in Conwy and things grew from there.
From the start Ieuan wanted to do things differently. ‘I saw the sawdust-on-the-floor and blood-on-the-apron approach and I thought, “Why does it have to be like this?”’ So he spent some time researching the Continental approach to butchery. ‘I was amazed how skilled they were in places like Holland, how – because the meat was poorer quality than ours – the butchery skill had to be higher.’ They were also ahead of the game on selling and cooking produce: ‘Over there, butchers seemed to be half chef, half butcher.’ The feeling in the UK at the time was ‘We cut meat, and that’s it.’ You can see the legacy of this research in Edwards today. Ieuan sums it up in this way: ‘I’ve got this product called meat; how many ways can I sell it?’ That’s why he offers everything from traditional cuts to cooked and cured to sliced and in a bun. He’s also been doing mail order for over ten years.
Edwards of Conwy still make all of their sausages by hand
His pork comes from Anglesey, and the lamb is Welsh and seasonal, starting with new-season lamb from March onwards, salt-marsh from May, and Welsh mountain lamb from September. His beef is all female and hung whole on the bone for three weeks before being boned out and sold on the fourth week. This drying and maturing process costs Ieuan several hundred pounds a carcass, but what they lose in weight they gain in flavour.
Moving on to sausages: ‘I believe the perfect British sausage should have a meat content of around 75 per cent,’ he says. ‘Some types of sausage, the borwust or merguez, for example, have higher meat contents, but not the British breakfast sausage, otherwise you end up with mince in a bag. The key is the quality of the meat put in.’ Despite a large demand from his shop, the local area and the likes of ASDA, Edwards still makes all its sausages in small batches and they remain the artisan products they always were. Consistency, it seems, is the key. ‘If for some reason you don’t like my sausage, you won’t like it next week either,’ he says.
See also SAUSAGES (see here); BROMYARD, HEREFORDSHIRE (see here); CAMBRIDGE, CAMBRIDGESHIRE (see here); FORRES, MORAY (see here); LOUTH, LINCOLNSHIRE (see here); MARYLEBONE, WESTMINSTER (see here); MELTON CONSTABLE, NORFOLK (see here); NANTWICH, CHESHIRE (see here); WOODHALL SPA, LINCOLNSHIRE (see here); YORK, NORTH YORKSHIRE (see here)
Organic beef from the Rhug estate
The Rhug (pronounced Reeg) Estate in Denbighshire, North Wales, has passed down the male line of the Wynn family since the 1700s, carrying with it the title of Lord Newborough. The family was originally granted the title for defending the Menai Straits against French invasion. In the second half of the twentieth century, war hero and Colditz veteran Robert C. M. V. Wynn made many improvements to the estate’s farm, and his son, Robert V. Wynn, current Lord Newborough and the 8th Baron, has built on this, converting the farm to organic production in 1998 and gaining accreditation two years later.
The estate lands comprises some 12,500 acres, most of which is let to tenants and put to a variety of uses including rally-car driving, outdoor pursuits and public events. The family once owned Bardsey Island, where whisky was first said to have been invented (see here). In 1971 this was sold to the Bardsey Trust to help meet death duties. The 2,500-acre organic farm – one of the largest in Wales – forms the core of the estate, and produces around 1,000 head of cattle, 7,400 lambs, 2,400 chickens and 400 pigs annually.
The estate supplies Waitrose and Sainsbury’s as well as hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Although the supermarkets’ meat is graded and assessed while hanging on the hook to ensure it meets their requirements, ‘All the chefs are into is taste,’ says Lord Newborough. ‘They couldn’t give a damn what the meat looks like on the hook.’
Rhug now employs forty-three people and has its own cutting plant to allow it to tailor the product for a variety of markets. Chefs, for example, might want larger cuts that they can break down themselves, whereas supermarkets go for consistency, and farm shops like something in the middle. A stall in London’s Borough Market has helped to increase the profile of the company and give direct access to the public.
Lord Newborough is in many ways an organic farming pioneer, and he has great hopes for its future: ‘I do believe it is a sustainable form of agriculture. We’ve gone through the fertility build and now, in our eleventh year, the farm is twice as productive as it’s ever been in my history. I believe that the principles of organic farming are right; the better welfare and standards are important to people and certainly to me.’
One of Lord Newborough’s predecessors once said, ‘Vigorous let us be in attaining our ends, and mild in our method of attainment’ – as sage a piece of advice today as it ever was.
See also UPTON UPON SEVERN, WORCESTERSHIRE (see here).
Micro leaves and edible flowers from First Leaf
Derek Lewis’s farm in rural Pembrokeshire is tiny: about the size of one and a half tennis courts. This pocket-sized plot, however, provides plenty of room for his crop of shoots, edible flowers and micro leaves. ‘You’d be surprised what you can actually eat,’ says Derek. His crop includes rose geraniums, blue cornflowers, rocket flowers, chrysanthemum, even the humble daisy – and all will enliven your salad bowl no end. For the most part, Derek works with wholesale clients: chefs, of course, and also cocktail makers, theatre companies and even London Zoo. ‘They had a new gorilla arrival and wanted a photo of her eating flowers.’ One of the benefits of being a small company with a small product is being able to adapt day by day, and if a customer wants something in particular, Derek can grow it in just over two weeks.
Derek started in 2004 growing micro leaves such as baby basil, chives and sage, which were then the ‘Next Big Thing’ with chefs. These are sold live in the punnet. In 2006 he began to grow edible flowers and pea shoots, which are available mail order all over the UK. Chef Vivek Singh at the Cinnamon Club in London used Derek’s flowers to create a stunning vegetarian garden-themed lunch menu to celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show.
Flowers carry a hint of the taste of the plant they’re from; the tiny lemon yellow broccoli flowers have an unmistakable trace of the mother plant, for example, and are quite delicious. Wild garlic flowers are also stunning, both raw and dipped in a cold tempura batter and deep-fried for seconds. Most of the flowers of things we already eat are edible: horseradish, fennel, the brassicas like kale, broccoli and mustard, onions, even apples and other blossoms are fair game.
Gardeners may have always nibbled on the odd shoot, and the Chinese, of course, have been eating them for centuries, but they’ve really only arrived on our plates in the past five years or so. Of course, what chefs get up to in fine-dining establishments eventually trickles down to the rest of us, and micro leaves have got to be the easiest thing to grow; all you need is a windowsill.
See also CHICHESTER, WEST SUSSEX (see here); GOMERSAL, WEST YORKSHIRE (see here); WINCANTON, SOMERSET (see here).
ELAN VALLEY, POWYS
Elan Valley mutton
In the middle of Wales, in one of the remotest parts of the country, lies Elan Valley. Here Tony and Angela Davies farm Welsh mountain sheep, a breed as hard as the nails on a Welsh miner’s boot and perfectly at home 1,700 feet up a mountain. All of Tony’s sheep have over four years to get acquainted with the gradient, however, as they’re all destined for mutton – some, even, for Angela’s traditional Welsh mutton cawl (see here).
It’s one of our national food hypocrisies that we eschew veal but love lamb, and conversely love beef and ignore mutton; in fact the latter has come in for some real stick over the years. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘a laced mutton’ to describe a lady disparagingly. The sentiment lives on in the saying ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. Founded in 2004 by the National Sheep Association and the Academy of Culinary Arts and launched by the Prince of Wales, the mutton renaissance campaign works to counter this anomaly. It maintains that age is part of the beauty of the meat. From the farmer’s side of the gate it means that they get to sell their older animals as well as the young ones. But proper mutton as endorsed by the campaign isn’t just ‘old sheep’, it’s an animal that has spent time growing slowly and putting on flavour from a diet of grasses and wild herbs. Furthermore, the meat must be matured by hanging for at least two weeks. The best time to enjoy it is in the cooler months, when the animal has had a chance to spend a summer eating and so is at its prime when slaughtered.
As well as the regular cuts like chops, breast and leg, Tony is keen to develop new products. A few years ago he noticed that in Iceland smoked mutton was still very popular, and so he developed ‘macon’ (like bacon, but made with mutton; it was popular in the past in places like Scotland where pigs were in short supply). However, it wasn’t a big hit and has been discontinued. Looking again to Scandinavia, he took a leaf out of the Norwegians’ book and developed his mutton salamis. One hundred and fifty grams of his mutton goes into each hundred grams of salami, meaning a third of the weight is lost to shrinkage as the meat cures. They come in a range of flavours: a traditional one, a spicy one flavoured with paprika, one flavoured with juniper and another with rosemary.
For all this innovation mutton, like veal, remains a niche product, but one definitely worth seeking out. Tony recommends long, slow cooking: ‘Imagine lamb but with a fuller, meatier, more succulent taste,’ he says.
See also ELWY VALLEY, DENBIGHSHIRE (see here); HIMBLETON, WORCESTERSHIRE (see here); THE ISLE OF MAN (see here).
ELWY VALLEY, DENBIGHSHIRE
Elwy Valley lamb
It was once said that there were more sheep in Wales than people, and while this is still true – 8.2 million sheep to about 3 million people – the ratio is reducing. Welsh sheep are some of the finest in the world, often bred and managed by farming families with generations of experience and skill in animal husbandry. This, coupled with the terrain and weather, both of which are perfect for sheep farming, has given Welsh lamb not only a distinct taste and flavour, but also a well-earned PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Welsh lamb is so good, in fact, it’s even exported to France, which took some 22,203 tonnes in 2008, by far the most of any EU country. Its PDO status has much greater resonance with French consumers, and when they see Agneau Gallois in the shops they know it means quality.
It was to Welsh lamb that Jamie Oliver turned when he cooked for the G20 leaders in Downing Street in 2009, specifically slow-roast shoulder. That lamb came from Daphne and William Tilley’s farm in the Elwy Valley, Denbighshire. Their lamb and mutton also graces the tables of many a top London restaurant, and is admired by the likes of chef Richard Corrigan among others.
The animals start out as a blend of Beulah Hill ewes and Blue Faced Leicesters, which gives what is called the Welsh mule (just a name, as the animal isn’t infertile like an equine mule). The results of this cross-breeding are then bred with Texels and Beltex, which give the animals a larger frame and bone structure.
The Tilleys are constantly adjusting the breeding of the animals, refining characteristics and attributes. The most valuable part of any animal is the back and the loin; the shoulder provides the cheapest cuts, but can contain a huge amount of flavour. William Tilley tells me that often it is the better chef who will order the cheaper cuts. This is partly because of the flavour, but also because these cuts need work and skill to raise the meat to a fine-dining level, and that is where chefs make their money.
See also ELAN VALLEY, POWYS (see here); HIMBLETON, WORCESTERSHIRE (see here); THE ISLE OF MAN (see here).