Join the Ivy league

Finally, you can get your raw ingredients from the same place as the Ivy. One drawback: you'll have no excuse when dinner is not perfect. It's worth the risk though, says David Lancaster
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A chef is only as good as his or her produce. Without the right ingredients, it matters little who's behind the stove - old, stale or badly kept raw material will almost always show through. And if there is a dominant trend in cooking at the moment, it is towards the simple presentation of quality ingredients.

A chef is only as good as his or her produce. Without the right ingredients, it matters little who's behind the stove - old, stale or badly kept raw material will almost always show through. And if there is a dominant trend in cooking at the moment, it is towards the simple presentation of quality ingredients.

The trend is filtering down to us consumers too. We're becoming ever more alive to the ease with which a first-class meal can be prepared if the ingredients are good enough and - to put it bluntly - you don't ruin them. In short, give up trying to cook like Gordon Ramsay, few in the world can, and instead, begin to buy like him.

That's where London restaurant supplier Solstice comes into it. Solstice has been pro-viding the quality raw materials demanded by chefs at A-list establishments including the Ivy, the Fat Duck at Bray and Chez Bruce since 1996. It was set up by former Michelin-starred chef Phillip Britten and Rohan Daft, a Barcelona-based food writer, it started as a sideline when Britten was still cheffing at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge and has now grown into a 45-employee business with premises in New Covent Garden Market and a reputation among chefs for talking their language, being reliable with supplies and being at the forefront of quality produce. And the good news is that Solstice will now deliver to the humble home cook as well.

"Good-quality ingredients are out there," says Britten, "but too often consumers do not have any access to them."

Both Britten and Daft are convinced that, Spain's food is in the ascendant and, so, they buy much of their produce there. "The Spanish are passionate about their food," says Britten. "Just as much as the French or the Italians, but Spain moved from a dictatorship to a democracy relatively recently and its great food traditions were largely protected from outside during Franco's reign. Since then, the Spanish have been intelligent about not losing those traditions."

Solstice's favourite buying haunt is the enormous Mercabarna trade market just outside Barcelona. "It's so refreshing," says Britten, "everyone takes a lot of care about what they sell, and the more you look, the more you see - there'll be six or seven varieties of garlic on just one stall." Either Britten or Daft is here at least twice a week and the Spanish suppliers have now grown used to the sight of two pale Englishmen making their way around the aircraft-hangar-sized hall, prodding, sniffing and tasting the wealth of produce on offer.

With Britten's restaurant experience, and Daft's knowledge of produce and the Spanish language, they make an effective buying machine - ducking and diving between stalls, totting up how much room is left on each of the pallets going to London and doing back-of-the-envelope deals with suppliers.

It's the smaller, local producers - those who load their trucks in the morning and head to market - that the Solstice boys are most drawn to. Because Mercabarna opens at a civilised 9.30am, the suppliers can offer fruit and vegetables that have been taken out of the ground that day. That food will be on a London restaurant plate little more than a day later.

"The Fat Duck is really keen on the Spanish broccoli we get here," says Britten. "And the unwaxed lemons and super, super sweetpeas. The stall holders are full of information on how to cook it too. It's great that a wizened old lady from south of Barcelona is passing on cooking tips to London's top chefs."

Their buying is dictated by what produce is fresh and what can be transported quickly. "If you look at French beans for example, which are from Kenya, they've been hanging around airports and other places for up to eight days. They end up rubbery and tasteless," explains Britten. "Spain is good because it's relatively near, plus, it comes into season before us."

But how - and why - did Britten, 1999 Chef of the Year and proud holder of a Michelin star, decide to hang up his whites for a career with even more unsocial hours than cooking, and none of the glory? This is, after all, a man whose terrine so appealed to the elderly (and never easily impressed) Elizabeth David that she sent a message to him in his kitchen asking whether she could she buy half and take it home.

"I felt I really wanted to learn more about the other side of things," says Britten. "And I was frustrated that you could go on holiday to France or Italy and there would be all this wonderful stuff available but we, in the UK, often weren't able to get it."

Home cooks can lay their hands on delights such as Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese (the traditional soft French cheese wrapped in cloth with a strip of spruce bark for three weeks, giving it a wonderful rich and deep taste), Italian artichokes, Patanegra ham, extra-virgin olive oil, unwaxed leafy lemons and succulent baby artichokes, as well as 60-year-old Lionadi balsamic vine- gar from Italy. All you have to do is select your delicacies from the Solstice website shopping list, e-mail or fax through your order and the items will be couriered to your kitchen, anywhere in the UK, for a flat rate £7 transportation cost.

So what next in Britten and Daft's mission to bring the best produce to home cooks? Well, there's kid - young goat, essentially, milk-fed - again sourced at the Mercabarna market. A new line for Solstice, the kids are slaughtered at just a few weeks old and a whole one often weighs no more than 4kg. It's a delicacy that's enjoying a revival in new-wave Spanish cooking.

So, the next time you see kid on a menu here - as you undoubtedly will soon - think of those two pale Englishmen, patiently, eccentrically perhaps, scouring Spain's markets, and go and order some for yourself.

Solstice, Unit A, 49-52 New Covent Garden Market, London SW8, tel: 020 7498 7700. To order go to www.solstice.co.uk or tel: 0800 328 7701

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