Do you know your yacon from your alexanders and your medlars from your cucamelons? What about your Cotswold Leghorn from your Gloucester Old Spot? Heritage and heirloom varieties, and rare and native breeds— these are but just a few of the exciting local ingredients fuelling Britain’s food revolution.
Eating local is a trend in the culinary world— ingredients travel less, arrive fresher and are at peak flavour as invariably they are in season. In Britain, chefs and restaurateurs are making the most of the nation’s own kitchen garden, local farm animals and the sealife caught off its rugged coastline. With traceability and provenance increasingly of prime importance, consumers want to know where their food comes from— what did it eat, where was it killed and, most importantly, how did it live?
At Hawksmoor steak restaurant in London, all beef is British and sourced from herds comprised of no more than 100 cattle. Animal welfare is key with cows growing up naturally, without antibiotics and pastured on grass. Longhorn is the predominant breed, but beef also comes from rare and cross breeds such as Hereford, Shorthorn and Dexter cows, and it is all dry-aged in Hawksmoor’s own farm where the butchery is carried out.
Similarly, the origins of the menu’s seafood are carefully considered with award-winning chef and restaurateur Mitch Tonks lending his expertise. All fish are caught around Britain—order a fish today that was swimming free just yesterday.
Once in the kitchen at Hawksmoor, all produce is prepared simply to allow the quality of ingredients to shine. This is a premise found across the country—innovative chefs are focusing on the best of Britain’s own produce, picked or procured at their peak.
At Thyme hotel, located on Southrop Manor Estate in Gloucestershire, almost all ingredients served up at the hotel and the local pub, The Swan, are grown on the estate. Fertile soils nurtured by the flood plains of the River Leach provide rich land for pasture and produce including the heritage and heirloom varieties that dominate the menus as well as edible flowers grown throughout the year. There are ingredients you won’t find in supermarkets— root vegetable yacon used raw in salads has been a hit and cucamelons, also known as the Mexican sour gherkin with the appearance of a baby watermelon and the taste of cucumber and lime, go into dirty martinis. Cotswold Leghorn chickens provide eggs, along with geese, quail and duck. Orchards are flush with fruit such as apples, medlars, quince and pears. There are black Welsh mountain sheep and Cotswold sheep, too, that spend a carefree life in the water meadows before a 20-minute drive to slaughter, and bees are kept for honey year-round. The provenance of everything is known and if not from the estate it hails from within the county as far as possible.
Thyme is not unique in these responsible practices centred on provenance. Chef Oliver Gladwin of London restaurants The Shed, Rabbit and Nutbourne sources his ingredients locally— all, with the exception of lemons, come from within 100 miles of London, with much from his family farm in West Sussex. There is a focus on foraged produce, British ingredients and sustainable (nose-to-tail), seasonal cooking.
The fine produce of Britain that has found a place in the hearts of British chefs also finds a home at the historic Borough Market in London. There’s Fitz Fine Foods, whose founder Noel Fitzjohn forages the wild fruit, vegetables and fungi of southeastern England for his stall and who was responsible for reintroducing alexanders to England. This thistley vegetable, which tastes like a cross between celery and parsley was once found on the menus of the Romans but was later replaced with celery.
Shellseekers Fish & Game is run by ex-Royal Navy recruit Darren Brown who dives for scallops off the Devon coast and shoots his own game, which he then sells at his Borough Market stall. Game is big in Britain with hare, grouse, partridge and pheasant, as well as venison increasingly found in innovative renditions on menus across the country during the hunting season (mostly between August and April, depending on the species).
At Upton Smokery in the Cotswolds, trout, salmon, duck and chicken are always on offer, but when the time is right, venison, partridge and pheasant are also smoked there. The smokery is just one example of many small artisans making the most of what the local lands produce – some are cottage industries, others are growing into fully-fledged businesses exporting their crafted- in-Britain products around the world.
Take artisanal jam makers The Artisan Kitchen, who have won numerous awards for their marmalades, but also include heritage varieties such as Blaisdon red plums in their preserves, or chocolatier The Cotswold Chocolate Company who may source beans from around the world (ethically), but who incorporate cream from local Donnington herds, lavender from Snowshill in Worcestershire, and Gibsons fruit liquers, made in Oxfordshire, into their chocolates. Cotswold Gold rapeseed oil is crafted by Charlie Beldam on his family farm in Worcestershire where it is grown, harvested, pressed and bottled and has become a popular alternative to olive oil. It is used by some of the biggest names of the British culinary scene including chefs Raymond Blanc, Simon Rogan and Tom Sellers.
Britain is also now doing well what other nations might be better known for. Zak Frost unearths truffles from a secret woodland in Wiltshire. Tregothnan in Cornwall grows and produces its own tea. Its leaves are some of the most expensive on the menu at Fortnum & Mason, at £1,500 per kilo, due to fact that the soil had to be adapted to successfully grow the camellia sinensis. Scotland’s The Wee Tea Company also produces its own Dalreoch white tea, which retails at Fortnum & Mason for an even pricier £2,000 per kilo.
Brewed in Britain
Alcoholic beverages in Britain are also coming into their own. Gin has experienced a renaissance, as it has around the world, but more interestingly, Cotswold Distillery released its first single malt in October 2017, using only Cotswold-grown, floor- malted barley and showing that whisky-making is not a pursuit reserved for the Irish and Scottish.
There are interesting—and distinctly British—liquers, too, such as those crafted by Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery under the Old Luxters label, incorporating English wild fruits such as damson, raspberry, wild peach and wild strawberry. These pair well with everyone’s favourite English desserts including sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick and bread and butter pudding. For a true English dessert experience The Pudding Club, hosted since 1985 at Three Ways House Hotel in Gloucestershire, has become an institution, serving up seven desserts every Friday evening, ranging from roulades and crumbles to traditional steamed puddings that are unrivalled in texture and flavour.
Britain is also producing its own quality wines to complement its food, including sparklings to rival the finest from Champagne. Ridgeview Wine Estate, located in East Sussex’s South Downs, for example, is dedicated to the production of sparkling wine and has won many accolades including ‘Best Sparkling Wine’ at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010, marking the only time the award has been given to a sparkling wine produced outside Champagne.
Britain’s cool climate lends its sparkling wine a racing acidity that is becoming harder to achieve in Champagne because of the effects of global warming. In England, the creators follow the same rules and guidance as they do in Champagne, though with less regulation producers have the advantage of being able to adopt the best processes while also pioneering new techniques. Ridgeview is a leading exporter of English sparkling wine, whose wines have also been served by Her Majesty at state banquets in Buckingham Palace and at 10 Downing Street.
These producers and chefs offer just a glimpse into the wonderful world of new British gastronomy, showing that there’s so much more to British cuisine than the pie or fish and chips that many associate with the nation’s food menu. Fine produce and ingenuity are fuelling exciting culinary exploits among chefs and entrepreneurs resulting in a developing gastronomic scene that deserves some serious attention. This land of plenty awaits discovery.