A double confession. Goosnargh cake (a buttery, sweet/savoury shortbread with caraway and coriander seeds) and medlar butter is my new favourite treat. What’s more, despite considering myself pretty worldly wise when it comes to more recondite ingredients, both are delectable new tastes for me, brought to my attention by Slow Food UK announcing its “Forgotten Foods” in advance of Slow Food Week from 1-9 June.
“I’m delighted we’ve even introduced you to something different,” says Catherine Gazzoli, Slow Food’s UK MD. “It’s as simple as eat-it-or-lose-it when it comes to rarer foods produced on a modest scale by small producers.”
Slow Food’s way of protecting Britain’s edible biodiversity is to raise awareness of such ingredients with challenging and interesting flavours and to re-awaken demand.
There’s a worldwide “Ark of Taste” network, which counts more than 1,000 products from more than 60 countries and, to date, Slow Food UK has saved 61 forgotten foods.
Slow Food UK’s National Art of Taste Commission, comprised of chef Richard Corrigan, Neal’s Yard founder Randolph Hodgson and food writers Matthew Fort and Charles Campion, identifies which endangered foods are a priority for saving and reviving.
The latest additions are badger-faced Welsh mountain sheep (they have distinctive black stripes); British lop pig (there are only 200 registered floppy-eared breeding sows left in the UK); Cornish saffron cake (a yeast-based cake speckled with dried fruits originally using Cornish saffron grown near Bude); and sea lavender honey collected from coastal mudflats around East Anglia (a hard-set honey with a smooth texture and aromatic taste).
Slow Food’s growing UK Chef’s Alliance is leading the way in showcasing not only the latest forgotten foods but all those within the Ark of Taste when in season. “It’s all about genuine and authentic flavour that has survived the test of time and is produced with care,” enthuses chef José Pizarro.
Carina Contini, of Centotre in Edinburgh, adds: “The special ingredient is always the story. Understanding where ingredients come from and how they got there allows us to connect with our environment and food chain and we love sharing this knowledge with our customers.” Contini likes to support produce from the most rural parts of Scotland. A key discovery has been beremeal, a pure variety of barley cultivated since Viking times.
“The producer is so small and remote that sometimes he has problems with the mill and struggles with his erratic electricity supply,” explains Chris McGowan, head chef at Corrigan’s, in Mayfair, at a truly memorable preview Slow Food lunch.
Such special foods inspire curiosity and are produced with passion. Formby asparagus, with its gorgeous purple tips, produced only on fine, sandy soil dunes at Formby, near Liverpool, by a handful of producers, tastes extraordinarily verdant and gently earthy. McGowan serves up Formby asparagus with fellow forgotten food, Grimsby smoked haddock, wrapped in the lightest of pancakes with a runny pheasant-egg sauce.
McGowan says: “We’re finding that our customers really want to know about such hidden producers. It is so important to make our edible diversity real and not waste our culinary heritage.”
Chef Anna Hansen’s menu for Slow Food Week illustrates how versatile and modern even the most traditional “forgotten foods” can be. It includes einkorn (the earliest cultivated grain dating back to 7500 BC, with low gluten and a distinctive rustic taste) and beremeal flatbreads with raw-milk salted yoghurt and black Jersey butter; cider apples with lemon, spices including liquorice and Jersey cider boiled over an open fire with a rabot/paddle; badger-faced lamb shoulder, seven-spice and pomegranate molasses stuffed with beetroot pilaf and shredded Good King Henry sumac.
Hansen is evangelical: “You can really taste in the texture and deliciousness that these are well-looked after slow-reared, less-stressed animals.”
At Benares restaurant in Mayfair, Atul Kochar has been readily converted to the superior taste of rare breeds introduced to him by Slow Foods. “It’s good to introduce customers to a higher level of quality that really tastes unique. The badger-faced lamb meat fibre is very tender and juicy and superb in Punjabi lamb chops with spinach black cardamom and clove.”
“It’s about far more than simply putting food on the plate,” insists Neil Forbes, of Edinburgh’s Café St Honoré, whose favourite ingredients include beremeal that makes incredible, crisp bannocks bread, mixed with bacon fat and Orkney North Ronaldsay sheep that feed almost entirely on seaweed.
Forbes adds: “I really enjoy doing my homework on the latest forgotten foods, and a large part of what we’re about is teaching about sustainability. It is really important to get young chefs to understand cooking should be fun, convivial and about forging relationships, not just about profits and egos. Traceability and integrity are so important, even in the more austere times.”
Yet surely such hidden gems are not only by their very nature hard to track down but likely to only reach a select diner. John Pratt, chef of Yorkshire’s The Traddock, is optimistic: “We’re attracting a new breed of ‘food tourist’ customers who are after ingredients very specific to the locality that adds to the experience of a stay, and year-round all our menus have forgotten food emblems that encourage diners to ask questions and understand the heritage. Char from Lake Windermere, for example, was popular with the Victorians – there was a special refrigerated train to deliver the fish to London and Fortnum & Mason.”
Reaching out wider still, Restaurant Associates, one of the UK’s top contract caterers, has officially partnered with Slow Food UK for the past six months and is serving forgotten food dishes such as Herdwick lamb Middle Eastern meatballs and Montgomery cheddar Welsh rarebit to around 70 clients, including Google and Citibank.
As I furtively polish off another Goosnargh cake and medlar butter, I recall the gentle admonishment of Glynis Brown of Highways Farm, producer of medlar butter and jelly: “We need to encourage more people to enjoy eating our food history. I don’t want medlar to become a fruit dodo.”
A new initiative for Slow Food UK Week 2013 is to encourage people to host a “leftovers” dinner supplemented by forgotten foods and fresh, seasonal ingredients and charge a £5 donation to Slow Food.
Medlar butter and jelly: Highways Farm, 07887 668445; sea lavender honey: London Farmers’ Markets, lfm.org.uk; goosnargh cake: Tina’s Corner Bakery; 01772782514. Also on sale throughout Slow Food Week at Androuet London, androuet.co.uk. Formby asparagus: booths.co.uk