January 01 2012
Sometimes, in the food world, familiarity breeds, well, not exactly contempt, more a kind of cultural longsightedness. If, for example, smart London food halls stocked tiny crustaceans gathered at night by a commune of pescatores in the Venice lagoon, lovingly cooked and preserved in spiced butter by their lace-clad womenfolk, they would fly from the fridge and be cooed over at fashionable dinner parties.
Potted shrimps from Morecambe Bay, however, seem to lack the same exotic allure. Admittedly, the fishermen are burly chaps in yellow oilskins driving old tractors along the waterline, scooping up the brown critters in nets attached to trailers, and the cooks are Lancashire lasses in hairnets, not signoras in Burano lace, but the shrimps, piled lavishly on warm toast, are delicious, the equal of any imported delicacy.
And were the avid food-lover to stumble across a jar of crimson-fleshed fruit, preserved in rice vinegar by Buddhist monks on the lower slopes of Mount Fuji… But sadly, pickled Lyth Valley damsons do not seem to excite in the same way.
There are three pieces of good news for our often neglected culinary heritage, however. The first is that these and many other products – rare breeds of pigs and sheep, artisan cheeses and native oysters, for example – have been incorporated by Slow Food UK into its Ark of Taste project, encouraging producers and publicising their unique wares. The second is that Booths, Britain’s most enlightened supermarket, showcases Ark of Taste products in its 26 stores, giving consumers – in the north of England, anyway – easy access to traditional tastes.
The third reason to be cheerful is that chefs continue to champion homegrown heritage. A few years ago, the gastro-sceptic might have dismissed our new-found pride in Britain’s regional larder, evident in groundbreaking restaurants such as St John and The Anchor & Hope, as a mere fad; now, however, it is clearly a generational change. Take Simon Rogan, whose restaurant-with-rooms in Cartmel, Cumbria, I stayed at before venturing out on an old tractor in nearby Morecambe Bay.
L’Enclume features fiercely seasonal, local menus of consummate skill and beauty. I have only ever used kitchen tweezers to tug out fish bones: Rogan uses them to sculpt masterpieces of foraged herbs and jewel-like flowers… hell, he can even make a carrot look sexy. And his support of small local producers is unwavering. The good news for Londoners is that he has opened an outpost in the capital – Roganic, in Marylebone – which exhibits the same thoughtful approach.
Young chefs are learning old ways with time-honoured ingredients from producers who have kept the faith: happily, the Ark of Taste has plenty of wind in its sails.