One of the joys of visiting France is to stumble across one of the local markets. They are a celebration not only of food but of the terroir – the environmental and physical characteristics which impart flavour. These characteristics produce distinct, superior products which are celebrated through local festivals. For example Normandy apples, calvados, Camembert and seafood. In the Dordogne – duck walnuts, prunes, and foie gras. Of course, its not just about food – it goes much deeper than that – its a celebration of the earth that the local population live on and it’s ability to produce wonderful things over many generations.
As a nation we have become much more aware of the food we eat. After lurching across the Atlantic in our tastes for a couple of decades, with fast food, TV dinners and quantity/price over taste, there are some encouraging signs that we are returning closer to our European roots and even some of the trends from the East.
There are some obvious signs of this turnaround. On TV there are lots of programmes helping us to cook both the simple and the more complex dishes. Where once there was one celebrity at a time, we now have many every day. What started as an increase in volume to appease a growing interest is now becoming more specialist. There is abundant archive material of food from different cultures but also advice on cooking on a budget, cooking quickly, specialist ingredients and cooking healthily. The fear of cooking is being eroded. Where the emphasis was once on cooking to impress the boss at a dinner party, it is now on enjoying the process – wouldn’t we all like to lean into a table of Jamie’s food, sit on the beach with Rick Stein, or gather round the counter on a Saturday morning. What was once about creating a three course masterpiece for a table of six, is now about cooking for friends whether it is a picnic, “supper”, “nibbles” or a lunch with a friend.
Seasonality is also playing a much bigger role. Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries are a great source of inspiration in this respect. We are restoring our awareness of “what’s good to eat now” little by little. One of life’s pleasures is to only decide what to eat for Sunday lunch during a Saturday morning shop. Like the wily punter keeping his money in his pocket until he’s surveyed the parade ring you can add that little 5% across the plate by waiting. One thing I have learned is that it doesn’t have to be meat and a large selection of veg all the time.
The high street is responding to this too. Ingredients and utensils which were once hard to find are now appearing in the supermarkets and the “ethnic” sections are getting larger. The design of supermarkets is changing to reflect the demand for fresh produce (although there is still way too much emphasis on presentation rather than substance).
As a further extension, I visited Oxford Street recently, for the first time in a couple of years and was delighted to see the little street food stalls in the side streets. This is a fantastic development which I hope to see in lots of other places. Where we used to just have a stodgy burger van there is a developing market of fast food containing good ingredients – one thing, cooked well.
And so to Ashbourne… we are blessed with local Food Heroes producing and selling excellent products and they need your support.
I’ve tweeted in the past about The White Peak Farm sausages. They are the most delicious sausage I have ever tasted. If you haven’t tried them you can do so by going to their shop in Tissington, on-line at http://www.whitepeakfarm.co.uk/default.asp and in Ashbourne at establishments such as Bennett’s tea room. At the time of writing they cost £6.85 per kg which is a pretty good price compared to much of the produce you can buy in the supermarkets for an infinitely better product.
The Oatcake, whether Staffordshire or Derbyshire is to be celebrated. Stoke’s last remaining oatcake shop closed last year at the very time it should have been booming. We should be experimenting with it to see what it can be used for. It’s already excellent in a cooked breakfast but I am sure some of our local chefs could develop the idea and make it haute cuisine as well as street food.
Our butchers are fantastic. They take pride in sourcing good local produce and we should reward their diligence. They are full of advice and are happy to share their expertise. They can also signpost some of the hidden gems – new products, things other customers have said are excellent at the moment – Nigel’s potted meat paste. In particular we are lucky with the amount of game available in the area and we need to learn how to use it better.
We also have some good vegetable producers locally. Fresh Choice is always worth a visit and just to the right of the door as you go in generally has the “specials” – seasonal, local produce.
Peter Dale from the Dining Room bakes some fantastic bread. I love bread with some substance to it rather than the soft sliced loaves. They have a limited shelf life but Pete is producing our equivalent of the French baguette which barely makes it home without bits being torn off and eaten. They can be bought at Cheddar Gorge and Fresh Choice.
Buying good local, seasonal food has huge health, economic, nutritional and environmental benefit. Research suggests for example that food bought from a market is typically 32% cheaper than buying from a supermarket.
I would love to see the supermarkets joining in the local food celebration. It would be a breath of fresh air if every Sainsbury’s store (and every supermarket) had a “Local Food Heroes” section to match the ethnic section they have everywhere. At the moment the chains are seen as destroying our high streets.
Imagine a different sort of competition where the large supermarkets scoured the terroir for local suppliers to differentiate them from each other.
Thanks to the efforts of Michelle Scattergood we now have a Farmers Market on the last Thursday of every month. I would love this to be a roaring success and ultimately merge with the regular Ashbourne Street market every Thursday and Saturday. With the right support from the Derbyshire Dales District Council some of the funding from Bakewell (which has already benefitted from the closure of the Ashbourne cattle market) could rightly support our food economy.
I would love to add good news about other local Ashbourne food suppliers and retailers. All comments welcome.