At this time of year, many of us are headed for holidays in places where the food, drink and weather are astonishing. That prospect makes it easy to grumble about home-grown ingestibles, especially if you read a book such as The Food Lover's Companion to Naples and the Campania, by Carla Capalbo (£14.99, Pallas Athene). It's densely packed with details about people for whom perfect tomatoes, olives and salami are something akin to a religion. You look at it and think, how can I possibly eat so well in the UK?
It isn't as easy here as it is in Campania, but you can find good stuff if you know where to look. And the people at UKTV Food are doing their bit to promote the cause. They've recently launched a campaign to find the "Local Hero 2006", getting the public to vote for their favourite small business in the food industry. It could be an independent shop, farm stall, artisan producer, café, pub, whatever. Log on to www.uktvfood.co.uk and follow the instructions for voting. You have to register, but that doesn't take long. Once you've done it, you can nominate your local hero or vote for one already on the list.
In the liquid areas of endeavour, there are several names I would consider nominating for official heroism. Bottlegreen, maker of those sprightly fruit cordials, would be one of them - I've grown seriously attached to its new Elderflower Still Drink (sold by Budgens and Booths). Fentimans, maker of glorious lemonade, ginger beer and the world's best cola drink, would be another. Its drinks, though either non-alcoholic or mild in alcohol, are soft drinks for adults. I'd also nominate James White, principally for its varietal apple juices but also for their organic range and lemonade.
These companies are small in the global scale of things, but are probably too big to be called artisanal. Does this matter? Not necessarily, if you're just thinking about quality. If you do require small-scale production, you are more likely to find it yourself, in your own area, than to come across it in the pages of a newspaper like this one. And that's one reason initiatives like local hero are potentially so valuable. They can alert people to the possibility that a seriously good producer/retailer lurks right outside their door, as it were.
The part played by retailers in promoting quality can't be overestimated. You can make the best drink on earth, but if you can't sell it, then your efforts won't come to much. That's one reason so many of my drink heroes would be breweries. Just as French vignerons used to have a ready market for their wine in local shops and restaurants, British brewers had their own market in local pubs. Needless to say, this diversity is under threat. But it shows remarkable persistence. Iain Loe, Research and Information Officer for Camra, estimates that there are now 500 or 550 breweries in Britain, up from 350 or 400 as of five years ago. People "feel attached to a local brewery", he says, because its products are made locally using local ingredients. And it creates local jobs. The 30 or so members of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain employ around 34,000 people.
Supporting small-scale production is not normally a strength of UK supermarkets, but one of them - Booths - does a more than creditable job. That's probably because it is itself a truly regional outfit, with no presence in southern England at all. I'd almost be inclined to make it a local hero, especially for its belief in, and promotion of, regional beers and ciders. A trio are highlighted above right, one beer and two ciders; you can also order direct from the producers. True heroes? That's not for me to decide. But with a crust of bread and a hunk of cheese, they're certainly the best of companions.
Three from Booths
Addlestone's Cider (£1.89/586ml, Booths)
An odd bottle out, as Gaymers, who make it, are a biggish operation. Who cares? Crisp, clipped russety flavours, and very dry.
St Cuby's Bottle-Conditioned Medium Dry Cider (£4.15/750ml, www.cornishorchards.co.uk)
A revelation for me: a bottle-conditioned cider that adds the yeasty flavours of the lees to the zingy apples. Wonderful.
Academy Ale, Tirril Brewery (£1.55/500ml)
Quite light in attack for a dark ale, and thus a good partner with food. The brewery, in Cumbria, is attached to a pub.Reuse content