There's an expression for it in France (Michelin France to be exact): vaut le detour. Well, I have been vauting le detour for several years now and always return home with various regional goodies. Wine, of course, but some of the other things I lugged all the way back to Shepherds Bush in August were charcuterie and cheeses from Lyons, fabulous tinned anchovies and white asparagus from a huge hypermarket in a Spanish frontier town, and, from the same source, a magnificent whole Serrano ham. Even in the smallest of French villages, regional produce is in abundance, flaunted actually, and it is irresistible. Markets are probably the best source, but small, specialist shops are just as accessible and easy to find. A bank clerk, the chemist, a policeman even, will all probably know where to buy the best ham, cheese or bottled fruit.
But what about here? Well, it's a little more difficult to know where to start, and the best sources may be more sparsely dotted about than in France, but these pockets of good food emporia are there, ready and waiting. And I presume that is why the energetic and canny Henrietta Green decided to compile a book about where to locate them. The book includes good grocers, bakers, fishmongers and butchers, some specialising in just one or two lines, such as cured hams and bacon. It also lists farm shops where you will find fruit, vegetables and good eggs. Then there are cheeses, which can be bought direct form the dairy, or the farm (telephone ahead). But there is also - and this is a very clever idea - a list of stockists alongside the entry, in case you can't get to the farm yourself.
The book is called The Food Lover's Guide to Britain (BBC Books, pounds 12.99) and a new edition has just been published for 1996-97. The first edition was published in 1993, revised and updated in 1995 and now there is this new, fully revised and expanded edition. There are more than one thousand entries, for England, Scotland and Wales, listed by county. Helpful information includes how to get to each place and at what time, and if it is a farm or smokery, for instance, where there might not be an actual shop, a contact name is given. Mail order information is given where appropriate.
If you are a passionate cook, the buying of ingredients is every bit as exciting as the preparation of the food, and, of course, the eating thereof. I have always believed passionately that a good cook can turn some relatively manky ingredient into something at least palatable. But when the ingredients are as special as, say, a piece of cured ham from a man called Richard Woodall in Cumbria, or fine flavoured pork straight from the farm in Kings Nympton, Umberleigh, in Devon, where Anne Petch rears rare-breed pigs, the results are much more likely to be a success. Without a copy of The Food Lover's Guide to Britain, one might never have known.
Perhaps its best kept secrets, however, are the shops and different specialist purveyors that turn out to be on your doorstep. Just up the road from me in Notting Hill Gate, for instance, there is a woman called Sisi Edmiston who makes the fruitiest fruit cakes, which are "...matured for as long as I can possibly manage... and contain about 98 per cent fruit". You would probably never have known about her without this book. Also (in the opposite direction) there is John and Sons, in Uxbridge Road, which deals in Yugoslavian specialities, including bottles of Napareuli, which apparently, was Stalin's favourite wine.
Roll up, roll up...