British deli-cious

Abandon all hope, you greasy croissants: the British delicatessen is back with a vengeance. So settle down for a hearty feast of bacon butties, potted shrimp and fairy cakes - not to mention fine tea and clotted-cream fudge. Sybil Kapoor explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A new gastronomical age is dawning in Britain. A golden era where freshly baked Chelsea buns take on mass-produced greasy croissants, and succulent ham and mustard sandwiches challenge Californian sushi rolls. Ordinary British food is undergoing a renaissance. Not the haute cuisine that you might sample in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but the sort of food you used to buy in a corner shop: the staples of everyday British life such as tea, milk, bacon and a crusty white cottage loaf.

A new gastronomical age is dawning in Britain. A golden era where freshly baked Chelsea buns take on mass-produced greasy croissants, and succulent ham and mustard sandwiches challenge Californian sushi rolls. Ordinary British food is undergoing a renaissance. Not the haute cuisine that you might sample in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but the sort of food you used to buy in a corner shop: the staples of everyday British life such as tea, milk, bacon and a crusty white cottage loaf.

For decades, we Brits have been subjected to ridicule from other nations, who love to tell us that our food is bad and our cooking skills are limited. Embarrassed, most of us mumble an apology, rather than enlighten them on the pleasures of a good pork pie or gooseberry tart. But the British temperament is changing. Five years ago, husband and wife Ian and Safia Thomas, both journalists for Associated Press Television, finally flipped at the constant complaints about British food from the foreign journalists in their newsroom. "We knew that you could eat fantastic British food and decided to set up a shop dedicated to selling wonderful, indigenous ingredients," recalls Safia.

This somewhat radical response led to the Thomases spending every spare moment of their newsroom night-shifts sourcing delectable British goodies such as Yorkshire clotted-cream fudge, Richard Woodall's bacon, Williamson fine tea and Morecombe Bay potted shrimps. They bought a small terraced Georgian house by London's Spitalfield's Market that still had it's old shop front. Living upstairs, they restored the tiny shop and called it "A Gold" after the 19th-century name painted over the door. As office workers strolled past, they couldn't help but notice the large jars of traditional British sweets in the window. Word quickly spread and soon customers were squeezing into the tiny premises. Once inside, they discovered a cornucopia of delicious food ranging from traditional King's pork pies to Banbury cake. "We wanted to create a really useful food shop," says Safia. "We had lived in the area and at that time there wasn't anywhere locally where you could buy really nice staples such as cheese or biscuits."

Nor were the Thomases alone. Across the country, others were also trying to create a niche market in British produce. Jon Campbell, for example, set up deFine Food and Wine in Sandiway, near Northwich, in 2000. "I had lived in France while working for Veuve Clicquot and when I decided to go it alone and open a shop in England, I wanted to sell food that complemented the wine," he explains. "I wanted to support British produce, provided it tasted good enough." He imports certain delicacies, such as Italian olives, but he also sells a variety of British produce, ranging from cheese to air-dried and smoked British beef. "Some customers are still a bit suspicious of artisan British produce," he says, "but I've found that the local farmers' markets are helping to increase awareness of some of the fantastic products that we sell as some of our suppliers sell there too."

The last few years appear to have been a critical turning point in our national culinary identity. The millennium marked not only the rapid rise of farmers' markets across the country, but also a change in farm shops. Tief Davies, co-owner with his wife Jenny of the award-winning Llwynhelyg Farm Shop in Llandysul explains, "We'd been selling produce from our farm for about 20 years. Then in 1999 we decided to get rid of our small dairy herd and concentrate far more on the farm shop. At that time, a lot of farmers needed to add value to their products as prices were so low. It coincided with an increasing number of people, including ourselves, becoming foodies." The net result was a renaissance in small artisan food producers, from bakers to fish smokers.

The shop now has 120 suppliers (including themselves) and sells everything from Pembrokeshire clotted cream to smoked Welsh haddock. "About 90 per cent of our stock is British and of that, 70 to 80 per cent is Welsh - depending on the season," states Tief Davies happily. His customers are both locals and tourists. In the past two years his business has doubled and he already has plans to expand.

A new deli, called Melrose and Morgan, looks set to take British food retailing one step further. It is the brainchild of Ian James and Nick Selby. Situated in a quiet residential street in Primrose Hill in London, the small shop is dominated by its plate-glass windows, open-plan kitchen and glass walk-in fridge. Customers are free to wander into the fridge and help themselves to anything they want, whether it is a pot of freshly made nettle soup or a some organic yoghurt. They can munch a bacon butty, order a fish pie for a party or buy a punnet of pea shoots. They can even chat to the two cooks (Rose Sykes and Sylvain Janois) as they make the classic British dishes on sale, such as cold chicken and asparagus pie.

"We want the shop to be part of the local community," says Selby. To that end, they have developed links with local residents, such as the lady who bakes their carrot cake from home or the two women who formed the Primrose Bakery to make their dreamy vanilla fairy cakes. "We want customers to feel inspired by what they see around them," continues James. It's certainly hard not to think of something for supper when you are surrounded by such wonderful ingredients. Perhaps a few Jersey Royals, a sprig of mint, a handful of salad leaves and a few slices of their delicious baked organic ham.

Customers continue to pour into the shop, so clearly James and Selby's desire to become a part of everyday life in Primrose Hill is already coming true. Hopefully, Melrose and Morgan is just the beginning of a trend that will enable Britons to enjoy superlative food every day.

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