A few months ago I read an article that recounted the origins of some of America's most famous food inventions from the Connecticut home of the hamburger to the Philadelphia diner from whence the cheesesteak came. Inspired, I wondered if it was possible to head to the birthplace of some of Britain's most loved local fast foods? A grand tour, like The Trip, except with more calories.
A bit of research suggested a 600-mile route from London to the North-east and back again could take in plenty of home-grown dishes. The only rules for stopping were: each dish must be intrinsically linked to a certain area and also be a meal in itself.
Leg one: Finsbury Park, London, to Sandy, Bedfordshire
Local delicacy: The Bedfordshire Clanger
With navigator and co-eater Harry in tow I set off for Gunns Bakery in Sandy. There, a sign in the window of the store – which is bustling – proudly boasts that it's the "Home of the Bedfordshire Clanger".
The Clanger is a suet pastry roll filled with slow-cooked meat (ours had gammon and potato) on one side, and a sweet filling on the other (apple). The two, lacking a clear divide, "clang" together in the middle to create a juxtaposition of flavours that used to serve Bedfordshire agricultural workers (and Luton hatmakers) with a meal in several bites. Owner David Gunns' grandfather brought the business to Sandy in 1928 and, he tells us: "We've been making them as long as I can remember." Gunns, he suggests, is now the only place making the Clanger commercially. Satisfied with the concoction, we promise to spread the word and head back to the road.
Leg two: Sandy to Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire via Stilton, Cambridgeshire
Local delicacies: Pork pie (and stilton cheese)
Calories: 750 (est.)
Seeing signs for Stilton, we drop in for some off-schedule cheese buying. At the beautiful Bell Inn we're politely informed that proper PDO-designated Stilton can only be made in Notts/ Leics/Derbyshire so, with that in mind, we break off for one of England's most famous location-specific snacks, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie.
Ye Olde Pork Pie Shop, owned by Dickinson & Morris, who've been pieing since 1851, is the centre of baking excellence in Melton and stands out as a rather incongruous foodie mecca among the town's other rather staid shops. Its cabinets are brimming with bovine delights and we're spoilt for choice.
To make up for our ill-fated Stilton detour, we opt for a freshly baked D&M pie topped with the blue cheese. It is, as you'd expect, glistening with fat, but absolutely glorious, a moist handful of delicious meats, fats and flavour. Which makes it an interesting precursor to our next item, the parmo...
Leg three: Melton Mowbray to Middlesbrough
Local delicacy: The Parmo
The Parmo, a late-night North-east cult dish, is a chicken or pork escalope, coated in breadcrumbs, deep-fried then covered in béchamel sauce and cheese (cheddar, rather than parmesan) then grilled. It is, frankly, preposterous and – as such – our two-man food squad was very excited about trying one.
Mike Featherstone is a multiple "parmo world champion". His chippy, Mike's Return, sits on a residential back street but, as we arrive on Friday evening, it's busy with locals queuing for such curios as a "chip butty splash". But it's for the parmo – the bastard offspring of veal parmigiana – that Mike is renowned.
"We get them from all over the country here," he tells us as our parmos are prepared. He's been making them since he was 15 – he's now 49 – and is often asked to serve up parmo banquets. He's just taken a booking for 200. Featherstone says the parmo became a local legend thanks to his uncle's restaurant, The Europa, which started selling them in the early Eighties. They've soon spread and "now, every takeaway does them. A lot of them only do chicken, but the pork is the best."
We head off with a pork and chicken parmo but perhaps due to being both sober and already full of greasy food, our parmo experience is a tough one. Without cutlery, we resort to nicking sporks from Pizza Hut and eating them in its car park – the pounds of cheese and mushy white sauce are simply too much. Especially as they come with big bags of chips. The oozing fat soaking into the pizza box didn't help, either. Parmos 2 – Food Trippers 0.
Leg four: Middlesbrough to Bury, Greater Manchester
Local delicacy: Black pudding
Calories: 600 (est)
After an overnight stop in Oldham (home of the world's first deep-fat fryer, fittingly), we hot-foot it to Bury Market, the place to get a black pudding from Chadwick's – widely held to be the quintessential Bury Black Pudding. There, a grilled pud, with lashings of mustard, is plonked on to a bap as our brekkie.
But, for me at least, it proves too much. Still reeling from the parmo, the huge globules of white fat in the Chadwick pud leave me retching among the busy hordes of the famous market. An incongruous start to our second day of long-distance dining.
Leg five: Bury to Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent
Local delicacy: Staffordshire Oatcakes
Calories: 300 (with filling)
Much more pleasant are the filled oatcakes we eat at The Hole In The Wall in Stoke. Run by the Fowler family – Glenn, Sue and Rob – for 30 years, it's currently in the midst of a mini media storm because tomorrow it's closing down for good after a lengthy battle to survive.
The shop, the last of its kind, serving oatcakes – a kind of oaty pancake – quite literally from a hole on to the street, gets people queuing up for oatcakes from 6am.
The shop is a local landmark and Glenn takes orders that range from one topped oatcake to hundreds of dozens for people to freeze. The Fowlers were offered money from the local authorities – who are knocking down swathes of the area – towards a new premises, but the economics of building a now Hole in the Wall would have left them saddled with debt. Instead, Glenn, who gets up at 2am each day to make the oatcake mixture, is shutting for good and hoping to sell his recipe on.
"They pulled the rug from under us, in a way, but we're the ones who had the final say," he says, as he cleans up after a day's hectic cooking. "I'm dreading the last day," he continues, "the sadness of it, what people are expecting – they keep asking, 'are you having a party?' How can I do anything like that when everybody wants oatcakes?"
And everybody does want them. Long after the window closes, several people come along and knock forlornly.
Meanwhile, Harry and I have gone for oatcakes stuffed with delicious Cheshire cheese, whose dry tang is a great complement to the oatcakes, a snip at 90p – but most people collect a bagful to use during the rest of the week. The Fowlers are also happy to post them around the country.
Not only are the cakes tasty, but they and the shop offer a sense of local romance and community that corporate fast food never will. The Hole In The Wall gives an area that's taken a battering a real sense of identity that will soon be gone for ever. It's a small tragedy.
Leg six: Hanley to Balsall Heath, Birmingham
Local delicacy: Balti
If Stoke is losing a part of its identity, our final stop is defined by its food associations. The Balti Triangle in Birmingham is named for the 50 or so Pakistani and Kashmiri restaurants that brought the balti dish to the wider British public from the mid-Seventies. Mohammad Arif claims to be the man who gave the balti its name when he opened his restaurant Adil's in October 1977. The origin of the name and the dish are much debated, but Arif claims that balti as we know it comes from his changing of the name on his early menus. "They're called karahi, the dishes, but when we started to say karahi (English) people couldn't pronounce it properly," he explains. "Then when I said balti, they could pronounce it." With the name and the dishes now ubiquitous, I wonder if he's pleased to see it so widely used? "They're just copying!" he laughs.
We're served two quintessential balti dishes, a lamb rogan josh and a garlic butter chicken. They're rich and full of deep spicy colour but, sadly, not that distinct from the curries you'd find in most half-decent balti houses. Still, it felt like a worthy pilgrimage to make.
Indeed our whole trip, all 600 miles and 5,000 calories of it was a greasy, whistle-stop pilgrimage. If places such as The Hole In The Wall might not be around for ever, most of their foods – even the parmo – will endure. So why not test your cholesterol levels and follow in our path?