Things ain't what they used to be. Kippers aren't at any rate. British smoked being one thing, and British caught and smoked another - which is pretty much a thing of the past.
One of the oldest smokers in the country, L Robson and Sons, is a fourth-generation family business that smokes kippers traditionally and is located in Crasters, a small fishing village on the Northumberland coast where the very first kippers were developed by John Woodger of Seahouses in the 1840s.
Robson's has had to move further and further afield to source the right quality and size of the "silver darlings" because of changing regulations and methods of fishing. For the past four years, even Scotland has failed to deliver the necessary, forcing them to import the slightly larger kippers of Iceland.
Robson's is one of the last remaining traditional smokers, along with those on the Isle of Man and one or two on the west coast of Scotland. The promise is of a plump kipper with an oily sheen, that is nice and firm having been first split and placed in brine, and then smoked for up to 16 hours over whitewood shavings and oak dust.
They contain the bone, head and tail, which makes for a better flavour. As Robson puts it: "The closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat." If the kipper's good, filleting shouldn't be a problem; once cooked, the bone should just pull out to leave you with a mass of salty, smoky flakes, nicely wet with juices and butter. Annie Bell
L Robson and Sons: 01665 576223
This is a story of duck a l'orange. I can more or less remember, and Richard Waller of Long Grove Wood Farm in Chesham has filled me in, that up until the 1960s, ducks were big, fat and called Aylesbury, and were roasted whole for family dinner or lunch. Waller liked them eaten in season with green peas and new potatoes.
Then the fashion switched to serving half a duck on a plate, either a l'orange or with a cherry sauce, and, suddenly, the Aylesbury was too large. Nor was there any way of killing it any younger. With a life of around seven to eight weeks, it is in the last week that it swells to its 6lb norm. Earlier, and it isn't worth eating.
So small ducks such as the Pekin arrived on the scene and the Aylesbury almost disappeared. Waller's father was the only breeder of pure Aylesbury ducks to survive. The smaller ducks proved prolific. "The fertility thing isn't such a problem with small animals," says Waller.
And now fashion has travelled full circle and, once again, the generous proportions of the Aylesbury are back in demand. The meat is fine-grained and light in colour with a delicate flavour, and not overrun with fat.
This is, of course, the pure Aylesbury. The twist to the story is that nearly all ducks sold as "Aylesbury" today, except Mr Waller's, are hybrids. AB
Aylesbury ducks available from Long Grove Wood Farm, 234 Chartridge Lane, Chesham, Bucks (01494 772744). Collection only
Geoff Owen, master butcher in guard, Pembrokeshire, where I ran my first restaurant in the mid-Seventies, has to this day served me with the very best lamb I have ever tasted.
It was a small shop: "tidy", as they say in Wales. The diminutive window was filled with the most beautiful joints sporting creamy white fat, with the legs often wrapped in lacy, caul fat for further lubrication for roasting - a rarity these days, for the dressing up of meat, I fear, is becoming a thing of the past.
I particularly remember Geoff taking a hefty sharp knife to a whole carcass, and splitting it in half with a maximum of four strokes. His accuracy was a constant miracle to me, as I watched the spinal column exactly divide, displaying the creamy white tract within. "Will two best ends do you?" Well, it usually did, because the eye of the meat was so big and dense, a couple of chops would do a main-course serving. This was particularly so if it was late autumn, and the lamb was turning towards a hogget, which is almost young mutton. But the meat was still fantastically tender, and might well have been hung for up to three weeks.
However, pork and beef in Pembrokeshire were never as good as, say, the stuff from, respectively, Suffolk or the West Country, and from Scotland.
The roast loin of pork and the huge piece of roast beef that we enjoyed for an annual New Year's Eve celebration at a friend's house near Bath last year were staggeringly good. The pork was free range and well-fatted (very important for generating a decent layer of crackling), the meat dry and firm, and the resultant flavour deep and porky. It actually almost smelt of apple sauce as it cooked, if you know what I mean.
The beef - I suspect not Scots, but clearly from a fine herd - came from Stringer's, in Midsomer Norton, Somerset (01761 415276), who knows well the requirements of our generous host: a rich layer of crumbly cream fat, truly excellent marbling, supremely well hung and presented proudly with a smile. And, although I have been to Stringer's with my friend on many occasions, I still have no idea what his first name is. The greeting is always, "Morning, butcher!" Tradition and respect upheld to the last. Simon Hopkinson
Having grown accustomed to the likes of plain, brown and strong flour, I never questioned the sanity of the labels until I met John Lister of Shipton Mill in Tetbury. To a miller, this is to classify wine as red, white or rose.
"What does wholemeal mean?" asks Lister. It could refer to wheat or rye flour. And what's strong? It's not a bakers' grade. Brown? Well, that's white with bran in it. Millers are a dying breed and have been for many decades, and the existence of Shipton Mill serves as a reminder of this sophisticated trade.
Lister's job is about blending. He takes wheat from different farms and blends them to create flours with different properties. Whereas a large mill will buy off a computer screen, Lister buys straight from the farm. Being small, he can also rely on varieties that aren't commercially available such as Maris Widgeon, a thatching wheat which has an especially nutty flavour. And the grinding process is all-important: its wholemeal is stoneground, using French burr stones.
Shipton Mill's resident baker, Clive Mellum, is pleased to advise on what flour is right for your baking requirements. They sell three basic types in 2.5kg bags: organic wholemeal, self-raising and white organic. There is another list of more specialised flours such as soda bread, spelt, oat flour, different wholemeals and rye, that come in 1kg bags. AB
Orders from Sue Perrett on 01666 505050.
Neal's Yard Dairy, pioneered by Randolph Hodgson, is the kind of place I travel to France for. Incongruous within the boutique quaintness of Covent Garden, it reeks of farmyard, and I always step into it half-wishing I was wearing wellies and an oilskin.
Hodgson graduated with a degree in food science in 1979 and took a summer job to help open Neal's Yard Dairy. The shop produced and sold its own fresh cheese, frozen and Greek-style yoghurt and ice-cream. But they wanted to branch out and started asking wholesalers to send up cheeses.
And then, says Hodgson: "One day, a sweaty little piece of cheese, tightly wrapped in cling film, arrived in the post. Hilary Charnley had sent us some of her hand-made Devon Garland." It sparked the realisation that cheese-making wasn't all corporate and here was a real person making real cheese.
Hodgson now acts as a market place for small cheese-makers in the British Isles, doing more than just selling their cheeses: he supports their causes and helps campaign against needless regulations.
A large part of his job consists of travelling to farms to select cheeses, and, in so doing, he samples every day's production to ensure he is getting the right cheeses for maturing back at the shop. AB
Neal's Yard Diary, 17 Short's Gardens, London WC2 (0171-379 7646). Mail order
The difference between the profile of Fetzer Valley Oaks Food and Wine Centre in California and Ryton Organic Gardens says a great deal about the difference in attitudes to organic farming in the US and the UK.
Fetzer is lauded and shrouded in glamour, with a cookery pavilion that attracts every big-name chef in the US, while Ryton steadily grows in profile and respect but doesn't have quite the same aura.
The Henry Doubleday Research Association, which runs the gardens, was founded in 1954 on the initiative of journalist Lawrence Hills, writing for The Observer, who rented an acre in Bocking, Essex, and established a club for gardeners experimenting in organic growing.
Today, it is established on a 22-acre-site at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, run by Jackie and Alan Gear. Display gardens illustrate how to make compost and green manure, there is a rose garden, a bee garden and a wildlife garden. And a second site at Yalding in Kent sets out the history of gardening.
Gardener-cooks can benefit by joining the Heritage Seed Library. These rarities cannot, by law, be registered and sold - the way around it is to join as a member, for which you receive a selection of seeds each year to grow. Guaranteed to be vegetables you won't find in the shops. AB
For details of membership to Ryton Organic Gardens and the Heritage Seed Library, contact: 01203 303517
Such is public confidence in Martin Pitt's eggs, I, for one, have continued to eat them raw in mayonnaise or lightly boiled throughout my pregnancy. "I think I am the only commercial egg producer vaccinating against salmonella," says Pitt. It's a cost he passes on to the customer because he recognises, quite rightly, that "a lot of people in this country are happy to pay extra for knowing that eggs are salmonella-free".
The egg-producing industry is so rife with conflicting standards that there are few guarantees that eggs have been produced with integrity. Free-range is an abused terms, and Freedom Foods (an RSPCA standard) condones and recommends the debeaking of chickens on the grounds that it's the lesser evil should the chickens damage each other fighting. Pitt maintains that happy chickens don't fight. And happy hens are essential to good eggs.
The proof is in the eating: a nice, strong shell that breaks open to reveal a thick white that holds its shape. As for the yolk, this is so oily I find it accepts about half the amount of oil standard eggs require when making a mayonnaise. AB
For suppliers, ring: 01672 512035
I salute the defiance of wild foods. They arrive in their own good time, and they go in their own good time. And the consumer is forced to wait patiently each year for the right time to come around.
The British Isles is gradually becoming a Mecca of free food, some of which is proving more popular than others: wild mushroom, obviously, especially morels around April or May. Lucky are they that know a little place in a wood where they grow. One of my own springtime favourites, and easier to find, is wild garlic - hunt where the bluebells grow or simply follow your nose. I like it best chopped into warm potato salad, or made into a soup as you might watercress or spinach.
Not quite so easy to locate, but just as delectable, is samphire, which grows on salt marshes, especially in Norfolk. The best eating is said to start with the longest day of the year and to end at the beginning of September.
Samphire is often the only vegetable a fishmonger will sell, and it does have a particular affinity with fish because of its brackish, salty savour. I'll settle for it in the way of asparagus, blanched and dressed with butter, eaten with a plateful of buttered brown bread. AB
If you have memories, as I do, of visiting a farmhouse in rural Devon or Cornwall as a child, being led into the back room and served a cream tea of home-made scones piled as high as you were tall, the good news is that you can still find exactly that.
There are small producers of clotted cream scattered all over the West Country. One I talked to in Cornwall, keeps Jersey cows, which produce the richest cream of all. As to whether the cream is distinct from one area to another, the farmer said he can recognise the fields his cows have been grazing on from the texture of the clotted cream.
When it was made in the 17th century, pans of new milk were left over a fire for several hours, without coming to the boil - the milk was scalded as the cream set on the surface. For the small producers, the method remains the same.
It settles into three distinct layers. There is the butter crust on top, then some very thick cream below it, and below that a more mobile cream, still thicker than double and so rich it's actually sticky.
It was once eaten with sugar and, incredibly, with more cream. Sometimes, layers of cream were skimmed off the pan and built up to resemble a cabbage, with sugar and rose-water sprinkled in between. This puts the excess of a West Country tea in perspective. AB
Supplies from: Pengoon Farm, Nancegollan, Helston, Cornwall (01326 561 219)
"Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected." This actually refers to hashish fudge in the Alice B Toklas Cook Book, but it might just as well describe a good vanilla. I can withstand the lurid sticks of rock at the seaside, but always fall for the box of fudge.
This is invariably followed by a meandering along country lanes, unwrapping waxy, synthetic sweets, with none of the melting quality of good fudge.
The Toffee Shop in Penrith, Cumbria produces probably the best fudge in Britain, making just three flavours - plain, chocolate and mint - as well as treacle and butter toffee. Made daily on the premises, the recipe and ingredients remain unchanged from the time the shop opened 80 years ago. And the current owner, Mr Bonstead, is giving nothing away.
The fudge comes in thinnish slabs, about half an inch thick, and manages to crumble and melt at the same time. Next time you go to a picturesque seaside resort, it could be worth stocking up beforehand. AB
The Toffee Shop, 7 Brunswick Road, Penrith, Cumbria. Mail order: 01768 862008
Brogdale Horticultural Trust is a national treasure, consisting of over 2,300 varieties of apple, 500 of pear, 350 of plum and 220 of cherry that spread over 150 acres. That doesn't include the currants, gooseberries, nuts, medlars and quinces, or the strawberry collection being created with the help of Safeway.
Brogdale acts as a gene bank for future plant breeding, and incorporates the former National Fruit Trials, which evaluate fruit varieties. In so doing, they are "placing increasing emphasis on natural genetic resistance to pest disease and disorders". In seeking out such varieties, it is performing research that would not otherwise be undertaken in the UK.
The consumer stands to benefit from what eventually finds its way onto the shelves, and those who are even more interested can join the "Friends of Brogdale", which gives members free entry, a quarterly newsletter, and access to the Friends Fruit Information line every Friday afternoon.
A Visitor Centre organises demonstrations and courses, and an Orchard Shop and plant centre offer different fruit varieties and fruit plants for sale. For those who are wondering when spring really starts this year, there is a Blossom and Flower Festival on the weekend 10-11 May. AB
Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent. For more information contact: 01795 535286
We have hamburgers to thank for the continued popularity of piccalilli. And, more rarely, Bruno Loubet's charcoal-grilled mackerel kebabs.
In 1694, the first recipe was described as, "to pickle lila, an Indian pickle". It can include cauliflower, cabbage and celery, carrots, green tomatoes, fennel, peppers and onion, all pickled in a salt and vinegar sauce, coloured yellow with turmeric, and flavoured with ginger, garlic and bruised mustard seeds.
It is one of many chutneys and pickles brought home by the East India traders, together with mustard pickle derived from the new availability of spices. The original was a great deal more vicious than anything modern and would probably be unacceptable to the contemporary palate.
Loubet has demonstrated not only how good this 300-year-old-relish can be, but also that to escape the vinegary onslaught of the gloopy commercial stuff it's necessary to make your own. Or, perhaps, pick up a jar of someone else's home-made in a deli. AB
When the Czechs, Austrians, Germans and Danes perfected lager, the islanders of Victorian Britain remained loyal to the more complex, fruity flavours of ale. We still adhere more than any other country to ale: in our case, the Mild of the Black Country; Bitter from Cornwall to Cumbria; Burton Pale and Newcastle Brown; Yorkshire Old Peculier; malty Welsh ales and Scottish pints of "Heavy".
Other countries may imitate our cask-conditioning, but only in Britain is it a living tradition: unfiltered, unpasteurised beer reaching its peak of condition not at the brewery but in the cask in the cellar of the pub; served by gravity or hand-pump, with no interference from carbon dioxide or nitrogen pressure. If the beer is to develop, the cellar temperature must be cool, not chilly, which means that the beer tastes of malt and hops, not of cold. The natural carbonation means that it does not taste of prickly gassiness, either. No beer can have fresher, more appetising flavours.
The sweet barley malts of the "maritime" flatlands: the Scottish border counties, the Vale of York, East Anglia especially, and Dorset, all lightly kissed by sea air; the hops grown in the clay soil and mildly rainy climates of Kent, Worcester and Hereford (famously, Fuggles and Goldings); the strangely sulphury waters that rise from the gypsum sandstone of the Trent Valley...
No beer is quite as subtly drinkable and more-ish as a pint of British ale. The Scottish examples, especially those from Edinburgh's Caledonian brewery, have a succulent maltiness. There is still a maltiness, but more roundness to Samuel Smith's or Black Sheep's ales, both fermented in Yorkshire in vessels of Welsh slate; and a touch of sea air to Woodforde's or Adnams', from East Anglia.
What best brings together all of these flavours? For my money, the strains of English ale yeast that have lived since the early 1800s in the unique "unions" of linked oak vessels at the Burton brewery Marston's, imparting their own fruity flavours (Cox's Orange Pippins?) to the beer. Mine's a pint of Marston's Pedigree, with a Melton Mowbray pie and HP Sauce. Michael Jackson
Scottish oatcakes are one of the best bets on the shelves of crackers, which tend (even Carr's water biscuit) to contain hydrogenated vegetable oil.
The ancient tradition of such oatcakes derives from the ability of oats to withstand wet highland valleys - they have existed as hearth cakes since Roman times. And, in their home-made form, they sound delectable - who could resist a breakfast of bannocks eaten with crispy herrings, or butter and dark heather honey?
First, a dough is made with a medium-coarse oatmeal, bacon fat, salt and hot water. Rolled out into circular bannocks, these are cut into quadrant- shaped farls and baked on a greased griddle or a heavy frying pan until the edges start to curl. Formerly, they were finished on a toasting stone in front of the fire - today it is more likely to be in a low oven - and eaten warm.
I admit cellophane-wrapped oatcakes may not have quite the same allure, but most succeed in being deliciously chalky and nutty, and the perfect accompaniment to a British cheese. And long may they continue in their purity of ingredients. AB
Between the vineyards of Europe and the barley-growing beer-lands are vestiges of a perhaps Celtic cider fringe. The real thing, made from tannic cider apples rather than dessert varieties or concentrate, is hard to track down, even though there are several hundred producers.
East Anglia, once famous for the drink, still has producers, as does Kent and other southern counties, often making soft-bodied ciders with good apple flavours. Sussex has the English Farm Cider Centre, stocking 200-odd examples (Firle, near Lewes, 01323 811324). But everyone knows that cider comes from Hereford, Somerset and Devon.
Near Leominster, Herefordshire, Ivor and Susie Dunkerton make an organic cider from the Breakwells Seedling apple. This pale gold, aromatic delight has a sherbety tartness and the winey flavours of the region. Try it at their restaurant, The Cider House (01544 388161). Single-variety ciders are tricky to make, because it is hard to balance fruitiness and tannin without blending, but this art is nonetheless on the increase.
There is also the question of the soil. Somerset ciders are said to be especially well-rounded. The part of the county around Glastonbury and down to Yeovil is thought to be a Grande Champagne of appledom. West of Glastonbury, at Burnham-on-Sea, Tom and Vyv Bennett make a dry cider so leafy as to taste almost hoppy.
Devon's ciders can be lighter in body; firm and assertive in flavours. Tom Gray's medium from Tedburn St Mary, near Exeter, has a dry start and a sweet finish. Just like biting into an apple... Never mind Rosie - bring on the pork roast. MJ
Despite the fulsome praise heaped on Chiddingstone's 1988 Pinot, when the Queen served it to President Mitterand on 10 June 1992, most of the brownie points were for history being made: an English wine served to a French head of state. Like Samuel Johnson's dog standing on its hind legs, English wine has a habit of suffering from ritual damnation with faint praise.
This is, in large part, justified by physical limitations. Pleasant and green though England's vineyards may be, there's simply not enough warmth or photosynthetic sunshine here for popular varieties such as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc to flourish. So English producers are forced to resort to second-division early-ripeners, and England has little track record of superior vineyard sites.
But praise where praise is due. While the large majority of the 413 vineyards in England and Wales are run on cottage industry lines, some 20-odd companies run on a commercial scale control the lion's share of production. The need to make English wine competitive has forced the industry to invest in winemaking skills, vineyard management, modern cellar equipment and marketing nous. Six of the biggest vineyards, for instance, Denbies, Three Choirs, Chapel Wines, Chiddingstone, Battle and Barkham Manor, have successfully combined to promote English wines to the trade.
Taking France and the New World as its role model, the best of English wine is mouthwateringly crisp and full of Cox's apple, grapefruit, quince and hedgerow fruit flavours. Quality sweet wines are growing in number. And by using champagne grapes and techniques, England's fledgling sparkling wine industry has taken a giant leap forward.
Short of global warming or a massive champenois takeover of southern counties chalk, English wine will never match the world's winemaking powers, either for scale of operation or depth of quality. But if it can overcome its inferiority complex while still recognising its limitations, English wine will occupy a greater place in our affections if not our cellars. Anthony Rose
Other countries boast of the purity of their vodkas or the elegance of their grapey brandies, but no nation puts its flavours into a bottle quite like Scotland, nor over such a geographical spread.
Start with the melted snow of the Grampian mountains or the Cuillins. Filter it through granite, sandstone or volcanic rock for a hundred years or so, then let it emerge from mountain springs to flow over peat bogs and heathery hillsides. Take barley from the fertile soil by the Moray Firth, steep it in the peaty, heathery, water until the grains sprout, then dry it over a fire made with peat. You have now made peated malt. Introduce your malt to the same mountain water to make an infusion that can be fermented and distilled. Pour the results into oak casks, place them in an earth-floored warehouse and let them inhale the mountain air or coastal brine for 10 or a dozen years.
After a gentle walk, try a sweetish, lightly grassy, malty Lowlander like Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie. Before dinner, a lightly peaty Highlander such as Dalwhinnie or the more flowery Glenmorangie 10-year-old. Afterwards, a rich Glenfarclas or Macallan. With a book at bedtime, a briney islander such as Talisker, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg.
Why so many islanders? Because, right down to their seaweed flavours, these immensely robust whiskies are the very essence of Ecosse. MJ
Juniper, jenever, geneva, genievre, gin... the berries classically come from Italy, the name has an echo of Switzerland, and the northern French, Belgians and Hollanders have the older tradition, but gin crossed the seas. Dutch courage became mother's ruin in Hogarth's London and maritime Plymouth. Sailors first added pink angostura and the Raj siphoned quinine tonic to prevent Somerset Maugham characters from being overwhelmed by malaria.
Gin has a picaresque background; it has been around; it's a bit of a smoothie. In the post-war years, it haunted Mayfair. Should its companion vermouth be French or Italian? "Gin and It" always sounded fun. In summer, it joins the ice-and-slice of Surrey pubs. And it still packs the silver mallet in the martinis of New York's most urbane bars.
There it is, the national spirit drink of England, with every clubby crest and accoutrement, in wealthy looking ads in the American glossies: the drily junipery Tanqueray, the flowery Beefeater, the peppery Bombay Sapphire. Well, the smoothly British James Bond did like a shot, didn't he? MJ
By the time I had acquired a taste for toast and butter piled with bitterly tangy, thick strips of orange peel in a surround of sweet-sour jelly, I had also acquired a taste for Dubonnet. Do any children like marmalade?
Marmalade is good morning Britain - a trend that gradually saw off the hefty fare of kidneys, kippers and cold game pie. Small wonder it was regarded as slimming.
Its roots go back to medieval times when it derived from the Portuguese "marmelo" (quince). I imagine those early marmalades were much like the Spanish quince paste I eat with cheese.
The jam confected from Seville oranges originated in Scotland and has its own "tarte Tatin" style of myth. The wife of a Dundee grocer, Mrs Keiller, resourcefully knocked up the first-ever batch after her husband purchased a large quantity of otherwise inedible, bitter oranges.
Today, the term extends to any number of variants, but only Seville orange marmalade has that true-blue bitterness. The addition of brandy, whisky or Cointreau seems to increase exponentially the further north of the border you go.
Cooper's marmalade is still going strong - another classic that was fondly known as "squish" by Oxford undergraduates. As says Miss Lee in Arthur Ransome's Missee Lee: "We always eat Oxford marmalade at Cambridge. Better scholars, better professors at Cambridge but better marmalade at Oxford." AB
For every person that loves fruit-cake there must be another that loathes it: cake batter laden with dried fruits, nuts and spices. I love it, and can think of nothing nicer than a cup of tea poured from a pot and a slice of fruit-cake. Ideally, beside the fire.
Early forerunners were simply bread doughs enriched with fruit, spices and butter, that were considered too costly to produce at any time other than feast days - it was forbidden by law. The term "cake" only came into being in the 18th century, having travelled through a progression of being leavened first by ale yeast, then eggs, and, finally, chemical raising agents such as bicarbonate of soda and tartaric acid.
One of the greatest modern exponents of the fruit-cake is Meg Rivers who has been baking on a small commercial scale since 1988. In this short space of time, she has gathered a loyal following of devotees, myself included.
She has around 20 different fruit-cakes in a repertoire that includes a Simnel cake for Easter and a range of Christmas cakes. But she began with just four: a traditional, rich English fruit-cake, almond cake, a Christmas cake and a sailing cake.
"I devised this for my sister who does a lot of sailing. We started off with rum, and then decided on the rest of the ingredients. It's loaded with nuts so it's really nutritious and baked in a ring to make it easy for sailors to cut." Whatever the occasion, in Britain there's a fruit- cake to suitAB
Meg Rivers Cakes, Middle Tysoe, Warwickshire. (mail order: 01295 688101). Meg Rivers Cake Shop and Traditional English Tea Room, 2 High Street, Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire (01608 662217)Reuse content