I decided to write a book about British regional food because, as a restaurateur, I found myself increasingly in search of artisan food producers and forgotten traditional dishes from across the country that could enrich my menus. Keen to put British food back on the map, I decided to tour Britain with my friend and colleague, the food photographer Jason Lowe, in order to demonstrate that there's so much more to our culinary heritage than fish and chips and roast beef (excellent though they are).
It's not just about discovering the defining dishes of this country, though; nowadays we all want to find out more about the provenance of the food we eat. And so we should. Because a lot of food isn't appropriately labelled, it's easy for the consumer to end up buying any old pork, beef and chicken.
In recent years our farmers, growers and producers have certainly upped the ante to meet the growing demand for quality produce and make buying decent British food a much easier task. It's not uncommon to have rare breeds featured on menus these days, and increasingly savvy diners expect it, too.
Generally, we are putting much more thought into what we buy and where we buy it. In the process of sharing fascinating discoveries and fine traditional recipes with you I hope I have managed to convey just a fraction of the interest, excitement and real progress being made in producing fine British food across the country.
Whether you're talking about culinary greats such as coiled Cumberland sausages, Geordie stottie cake, Wensleydale cheese, Craster kippers from Northumbria or Lancashire treacle toffee, the North is one of the most dynamic and scenic parts of the country. Our journey begins this week in this region, where I spend a lot of time visiting my daughters Ellie and Lydia, who live in Manchester with their mother. I have got to know many of the best northern producers and chefs - and I have been intrigued to discover the extent that they all network in this part of the country. They include northern farmers such as Peter Gott, Reg Johnson, Graham Kirkham and Andrew Sharp, who all have their own little product niche and sell in farmers' markets across the country, as well as local chefs such as Paul Heathcote, the chef-patron of Simply Heathcotes in Manchester, and Nigel Haworth, owner of Northcote Manor and The Three Fishes in Lancashire. Their passion for food comes across in their outstanding produce and menus.
Paradoxically, alongside the great heartlands of the Industrial Revolution lies some of the most fertile agricultural countryside in Britain. The high level of milk production makes the Midlands a major cheese-making region, giving us Stilton, Derby cheese, Shropshire Blue and Leicester, among others. What's more, I've found two new major cheese producers who have revived an old tradition and who are now well and truly on the map. Fruit and vegetables grow in abundance across the region: the Vale of Evesham turns a shade of green with asparagus in May, and its plums are some of England's finest. Plums are also a favourite in Lincolnshire, where they make plum bread. Pears feature on the coat of arms for Worcester, and the region's cider and perry are celebrated. On the livestock front, the Tamworth pig is the breed of choice for most of the pork products, which include Lincolnshire and Newmarket sausages, pork scratchings, and traditional dishes based on offal, such as faggots.
Perhaps the most British of all meat dishes comes from the Midlands - the legendary Melton Mowbray pork pie. The region is also home to many other totemic British-manufactured food products, such as Worcestershire Sauce and Marmite.
Meet George Taylor, king of the egg shows
Until I met George Taylor from High Farm in Crook, near Kendal in Cumbria, I didn't realise that showing eggs was such a serious business. But he's in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of first prizes that his eggs won in a year. He established his place as a world record holder in 1999 with 536 firsts , and in his 50-year farming career, he's had an incredible 7,300 wins.
George reckons he has one leg shorter than the other, due to all the walking up and down the hills over the years on his 174 acres of craggy land. Four successive generations of George Taylors have farmed and lived on High Farm, and George and his son, George the Fourth, rear sheep and cattle, as well as the 250 or so free-range hens and ducks.
It used to make good commercial sense, because George sold all the eggs locally and premium eggs fetched premium prices. Unfortunately, it seems that the new EU egg stamping regulations have made it difficult for him to continue selling them. If you want equally commendable eggs, try the beautifully packaged Clarence Court eggs at Waitrose. They are sourced from specific farms so that you know their provenance - and the mixed variety boxes are very pretty, too.
The wonder of Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire Sauce is our version of fish sauce or soy sauce. Few of us turn the bottle to reveal the "Vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind, onions, garlic, spices and other flavourings" listed in the ingredients.
When you consider that Lea & Perrins have been knocking out the sauce for more than 170 years, it contains a pretty modern list of ingredients in a sort of East-meets-West combination.
Quite how those flavours first became married in the bottle is down to Messrs John Wheeley Lea and Mr William Henry Perrins. They were partners in a chemists' shop in Broad Street, Worcester, and got their lucky break in 1835 when, legend has it, Marcus, Lord Sandys, called in on his return from a stint as Governor of Bengal. He asked them to make him up a batch of sauce using a recipe he'd brought back from India. Messrs Lea and Perrins got to work on it, but the end product was ghastly. They sent the bottles on to his lordship and, being chemists, kept back a few samples. The sauce did remarkable things in the bottle after two years' maturation, improving beyond all recognition. By 1837, Lea & Perrins Original and Genuine Worcestershire Sauce was in commercial production, and by 1843, 14,500 bottles a year were being sold.
Today, the sauce still relies on a fairly secret recipe. In 1930, Lea & Perrins merged with HP foods, makers of the famous HP Sauce.
Fillet of sea bass with "Samphi", shrimps and cockles
On my shrimping expedition to Morecambe Bay it seemed quite natural that the ingredients available there - bass, shrimps, cockles and samphire (or "samphi", as they call it up North) - should be combined in a dish all of their own. This is what British cooking is all about, not just reviving the classics but also marrying together local ingredients.
Although samphire isn't in season at the moment, you could easily substitute it with baby leeks. The brown shrimps can be eaten whole, as their shells are soft; or, if you prefer, you can buy them peeled. They are the same species as the crevettes gris that you will find on French plateaux de fruits de mer.
4 sea bass fillet portions, each weighing 150-160g, skin on, scaled and boned
A good knob of butter
3tbsp dry white wine
100g samphire, woody stalks trimmed, or chopped baby leeks
60g cooked shrimps, peeled or whole
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Cockles tend to contain a lot of grit in their ribbed shells, so immerse them in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes and agitate them every so often with your hands to dislodge it. Then rinse under cold running water for 10 minutes and drain.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Season the sea bass fillets, then put them in an ovenproof dish and rub each fillet with butter. Cover with greaseproof paper and cook in the oven for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the white wine in a saucepan with the cockles and samphire (or baby leeks), season, cover and cook on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the cockles are all opened.
Add the shrimps and any cooking liquid from the sea bass and stir well.
To serve, put the sea bass fillets on warmed serving plates and spoon the cockles, shrimps and samphire over, with the cooking liquid.
Fried egg with black pudding and duck livers
You can use duck or hen eggs for this dish, or goose eggs if you're feeling really adventurous. And you can buy good black pudding from Peter Gott, who has stalls in Barrow-in-Furness and the Manchester Farmer's Market ( www.sillfield.co.uk).
Vegetable oil for frying
12 slices of black pudding from a small burrie, or about 60-80g per person
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g duck livers, trimmed
1 tbsp chopped parsley
4 duck eggs
Heat a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil in a frying pan and lightly fry the black pudding slices for about a minute on each side, then keep them warm in a low oven.
Season the duck livers and sauté them in the same pan over a high heat with a little more vegetable oil for about 11-12 minutes on each side, until nicely coloured but still pink in the middle. Add the black pudding, butter and parsley, and remove from the heat.
Fry the eggs in a little vegetable oil, transfer to warmed serving plates and spoon the black pudding and livers around, with the buttery juices.
Lancashire Hot Pot
There are various versions of Lancashire hot pot, one of the best-known dishes in the North, but the main ingredients are almost invariably flavoursome cuts of lamb (like the neck, which is traditionally cut on the bone like chops), potatoes and onions. Kidneys - and even black pudding - can be added to the potatoes and onions. Back in the days when they were cheap, a few oysters would be put under the potato, but that is largely a thing of the past, although well worth trying if you like them.
The pot in which the hot pot is cooked is important, and it took me some years to find an appropriately deep glazed terracotta pot that was suitable - and looked the part, too. Amazingly, I eventually found it in a junk shop in Romiley, near Manchester, along with a couple of old cookbooks, all for £3.50.
Pickled red cabbage is the traditional accompaniment to Lancashire hot pot. You may think it a strange pairing, but it works as well with a simple hot pot as it does with a plate of cold cuts.
Salt and pepper
1kg lamb or mutton neck chops, cut into rough 3-4cm chunks
Flour for dusting
Vegetable oil for frying
60g unsalted butter, plus a little more for brushing
450-500g onions, thinly sliced
A few sprigs of thyme
800ml lamb or beef stock (or a good-quality stock cube dissolved in that amount of water)
1kg large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
For the pickled red cabbage
1 litre red wine vinegar
1tsp freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp pickling spice
1tbsp caster sugar
1 head of red cabbage, quartered and finely shredded
It's best to make this several weeks in advance, so that the red cabbage gets nicely soft and pickled. In a non-reactive pan, bring the vinegar to the boil with the pepper, pickling spice, sugar and salt, and leave to cool. Mix the shredded cabbage into the cooled pickling liquid in another non-reactive f bowl and leave it in the fridge overnight.
The next day, pack the cabbage into sterilised jars and top up with the vinegar. Seal the jars and store in a cool place for a minimum of four weeks, or up to 12 months.
When you want to cook the hot pot, pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas 7. Season the pieces of lamb and dust with flour. Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy-based frying pan and fry the lamb, a few pieces at a time, on a high heat until nicely coloured.
Clean the pan and heat another couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil, then fry the onions on a high heat until they begin to colour. Add the butter and continue to cook for a few minutes until the onions soften. Dust them with a tablespoon of flour, stir well and gradually add the lamb stock, stirring to avoid lumps, and then sprinkle in the thyme. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Now you're ready to assemble the hot pot. Take an ovenproof casserole dish with a lid or similar, cover the bottom with a layer of potatoes, followed by a layer of meat with a little sauce, then another layer of potatoes. Continue until the meat and sauce has all been used. Finish the top with a layer of nicely overlapping potato slices. Brush the top with a little of the sauce and cook in the oven for about half an hour, then turn the oven down to 130C/gas 1 and leave in the oven for 2 hours.
Remove the lid from the dish and turn the oven back up to 220C/gas 7. Brush the top of the hot pot with a little melted butter and return to the oven to allow the potatoes to brown for a final half hour.
Serve piping hot with the pickled red cabbage.
Thanks to Borough Market in London, I can now enjoy delicious pork pies without having to travel north. Mrs King's Melton Mowbray Pork Pies is a regular stall in the market there every week, and if you're not from London, you can also buy them via the mail order and online upmarket food producer Forman & Field ( www.formanandfield.com).
The history of the business goes back to Elizabeth King, who started a shop in her name selling pies in Nottingham in 1883. Ian Hartland's grandfather bought her shop when he heard it was for sale and continued in her footsteps; and now the Hartland boys run the highly esteemed family pork-pie business from Cotgrave near Nottingham.
Homemade pork pies are nothing like the ones you buy in the shops. The pastry is easy to make and if you haven't got a mincer at home on your mixing machine, you can just chop the meat up very finely by hand. A helpful butcher might mince the filling for you. You can use various types of moulds for this, including individual open-bottomed soufflé rings, or raise them by hand like the Hartland boys do, but I'm not going to let you into their little secret method... All you do is take a large disc of pastry and shape it round the filling into a bulgy-sided pie, then join it to a smaller circle of pastry at the top by pinching round the edge. You could use this recipe to make two big pies, or even one very large one.
I prefer to eat the pies warm rather than cold, as that brings out the flavour and the pastry tends to be crisper. You can also add other seasonings such as anchovy essence, mace or allspice and a bit of sage to suit your taste - it's entirely up to you.
For the filling
1kg boned shoulder of pork, including 20-30 per cent fat
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the hot-water crust pastry
500g plain flour
1 egg, beaten
First prepare the filling: chop some of the best bits of pork into rough 1cm dice and mince or finely chop the rest. Season it well and mix in the diced meat. Take a small teaspoonful of the mixture and fry it to check the seasoning, then adjust it if necessary. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas 6.
Then make the pastry: mix the flour and the salt in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Bring 200ml water and the lard to the boil, then stir it into the flour with a wooden spoon to form a smooth dough. Leave the dough covered for about 15 minutes or so, until it can be handled.
Divide the dough into 6-8 equal pieces. Take one of the balls of dough and divide it into two balls, one twice the size of the other. Roll the larger piece on a lightly floured table to about 12-14cm in diameter. Use the smaller piece to make another circle about f half the size for the top. Put some of the filling in the centre of the larger circle, lay the smaller circle on top and raise the sides of the larger one up, then pinch the lid and the top of the sides together with your fingers. If it looks a bit of a mess, you can reshape it, as the pastry is quite pliable. Repeat with the rest of the pastry and filling.
Brush the pies all over with the beaten egg and cook them for 35-40 minutes. If they are colouring too much, cover them with foil and turn the oven down.
Serve them warm or cold, preferably with homemade piccalilli.
Boozy baked Worcester apples
These are a rather grown-up version of baked apples. The booze and filling is cleverly contained in the pastry, which also makes them easier to transport. The ideal apple for this would be Worcester Pearmains, but they are not always available, so I would go for a dessert apple such as Cox's, Pink Lady or Braeburn. One appropriate alcohol to use would be cider brandy, if you can find it, which is our version of Calvados. It is marketed down in Somerset as Somerset Royal and pretty good it is too, or you might like to add a drop of homemade sloe gin, or even a mixture of the two. If you have neither, then Cognac, Calvados, sherry or rum work well, and will give a good aroma when you break through the crust.
4 medium-sized dessert apples
1 small egg, beaten
Thick custard or double cream, to serve
For the pastry
250g plain flour
Pinch of salt
1tbsp caster sugar
25g unsalted butter
For the filling
30g walnuts, chopped
30g skinned and chopped almonds
1tbsp ground almonds
6 dates, chopped
2tbsp brown sugar
3tbsp apple brandy
A good pinch of mixed spice
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. First make the pastry: mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Heat 100ml water with the lard and butter in a pan until it comes to the boil, then pour on to the flour and stir in with a wooden spoon to form a smooth dough. Leave the dough covered for about 15 minutes or so, until it can be handled.
Divide the dough into four balls and roll each of them on a lightly floured table to about 14-16 cm in diameter and cut into circles large enough to cover the apples.
Cut the stalk end off the apple and remove the core, making a hole about 1.5cm wide - enough to pour the filling into. Mix the filling ingredients together and stuff into the apples. If any is left over, just spoon it on top.
Put an apple in the centre of each piece of pastry and bring the pastry up the sides of the apple, gathering it up and pinching it together, leaving the top of the apple and filling exposed. Place on a baking tray, brush with beaten egg and bake for 45 minutes or until golden. If the pastry starts browning too much, cover with foil. Serve with custard or double cream.
'British Regional Food' by Mark Hix is published on Friday by Quadrille, £25. To order it at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content