Charles Campion: The organic feeding frenzy

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

There is an "organic" gastro pub in London where the customers are invited to pay over £5 for a bottle of a pretty decent Yorkshire beer. It's not a giant bottle – just 500ml. In fact it's a bottle of beer which you can buy for just over £1 in several large supermarkets throughout the country.

What is going on?

Trends have always been good for the restaurant business; the honourable concept of nouvelle cuisine was endlessly re-worked by aspirational chefs the length and breadth of the country until it meant tiny portions of unbearably fussy food; the British enthusiasm for Mediterranean cuisine quickly established a dumping ground for tons of fake sun-dried tomatoes (shrivelled by industrial kilns all over Italy); the fashion for all things North African had chefs scuffling through their cook books checking the spelling of "tagine" and "harissa".

As soon as the organic bandwagon had rumbled up to walking pace it was bound to carve a path across menus everywhere. But the organic religion is different from all other fads and fancies in that there is a background message of fear. Just when a succession of food scares means that we no longer trust our food to be entirely wholesome, along come these very nice, very earnest people who tell us that we can be wholly confident of anything which they have certified as organic.

What a relief. So we shouldn't be surprised that the most successful sector in the organic food industry is baby food: "It doesn't matter if I eat junk because I am old and gnarled, but only the purest and best foods will do for my little Chloe, and so what if it costs a bit more."

On the organic issue the restaurant industry divides into two camps – there are boastful establishments which ostentatiously proclaim their belief in the true faith and happily charge a fiver for a bottle of beer, and there are restaurants which just go on quietly getting things done without all the razzmatazz. The irony is that long before the "organic dawn", some of Britain's top chefs were already worrying about the provenance of the ingredients that they were using.

Shaun Hill, chef-proprietor of the Merchant House in Ludlow, makes no claims to be organic but he sources top-quality local produce; worries about how the poultry and animals that he serves have been kept; what they've been feeding on; how they have been slaughtered, and all for the most commendable of reasons – such carefully chosen ingredients taste better.

Alex Aitkin, chef at Le Poussin at Parkhill deep in the New Forest, lays no claim to the organic mantle, but will wax eloquent on the merits of local hedgehog mushrooms and wild venison – no growth promoters or antibiotics there!

And in case this all sounds like some bucolic idyll, what about Fergus Henderson chef at St John? Henderson's restaurant is hard by Smithfield Market in London but he chooses to buy his meat from small specialist suppliers up and down the country – the Gloucester Old Spot Chop on the menu may well have come from down Cirencester way, but it will have come from a happy and contented pig that has been well fed and unstressed. St John may not qualify as an organic restaurant but this pork chop fulfils all the tests that certification would impose. Besides, Henderson was thinking about the quality and provenance of his ingredients long before the organic bandwagon passed this way.

 

Charles Campion, a Glenfiddich Restaurant Writer of the Year, reviews restaurants for the London 'Evening Standard' and the 'Rough Guide'

Comments