The new English gastronomy: pasties and barbecued chorizo

An initiative to promote England's regional specialities contains some surprising ingredients. Christopher Hirst takes a food-lover's tour from Cumbria to Cornwall
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Indy Lifestyle Online

An army marches on its stomach, declared Napoleon. According to VisitBritain, the authority on British tourism, so do tourists. Yesterday, it launched tasteEngland, a campaign aimed at encouraging the British to discover their own traditional regional specialities. In a 64-page brochure, celebrity cooks trumpet the gastronomic delights of nine English regions. Rick Stein urges food lovers to tuck into the pasties, cider and, unsurprisingly, fish of the South-west. Clarissa Dickson Wright advocates the bacon, hams and pickles of the North-west. Galton Blackiston celebrates East Anglia's Cromer crabs and fish and chips. Brian Turner champions the "venison sausage and barbecued chorizo" of London's excellent Borough Market.

An army marches on its stomach, declared Napoleon. According to VisitBritain, the authority on British tourism, so do tourists. Yesterday, it launched tasteEngland, a campaign aimed at encouraging the British to discover their own traditional regional specialities. In a 64-page brochure, celebrity cooks trumpet the gastronomic delights of nine English regions. Rick Stein urges food lovers to tuck into the pasties, cider and, unsurprisingly, fish of the South-west. Clarissa Dickson Wright advocates the bacon, hams and pickles of the North-west. Galton Blackiston celebrates East Anglia's Cromer crabs and fish and chips. Brian Turner champions the "venison sausage and barbecued chorizo" of London's excellent Borough Market.

Hang on. Barbecued chorizo? Hardly the roast beef of Olde England, is it? A significant difficulty for tasteEngland is that our national cuisine has become so eclectic or, if you prefer, bastardised that almost anything goes. This is not to say that British food is bad. It is far better than many foreigners, particularly Americans, give us credit for. The problem is that British food is often not British. Some of the world's best Italian restaurants are found in London. Pacific Rim cuisine can be found in restaurants from Leeds to Penzance. The style of cooking known as "Modern European", with its emphasis on Mediterranean ingredients, is easier to find in England than traditional English cooking.

By including top-notch restaurants among England's major gastronomic assets, tasteEngland is missing the point. Oddly, such fancy-pants joints as Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Claridge's or the Spoon restaurant at the Sanderson Hotel, which are both included in the London section, are nothing special. Anyone, as long as they have a sufficient credit rating, can eat much the same quality of food with Joel Robuchon in Paris, Charlie Trotter in Chicago or Thomas Keller in New York.

What makes British gastronomy different is to be found at a much more humble level. In his book Cornucopia, described as "a gastronomic tour of Britain", Paul Richardson insists: "The moment when good food ceases to be news, when it stops needing to impress with its wild cosmopolitan flair, is also the moment of maximum achievement ... We have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness."

Until the time of the industrial revolution, the quality of ordinary British cuisine was a match for the French provincial cookery hymned by Elizabeth David. We still hold our own in a number of important foodstuffs. Our meat, hard cheeses and milk are as good or better than anything found in continental Europe. The same would go for our fish and shellfish, if we didn't export so much to France and Spain. All but a handful of our marvellous cockles and the vast majority of our lobsters are instantly shipped across the Channel in refrigerated containers.

Still, we have fish and chips. Sadly, most of our fish and chips are a fatty, flaccid disgrace. I would never, ever, eat this dish in London. After numerous attempts, I wrote off the capital as a dead loss at the nation's favourite fry-up. Yet, when you order fish and chips anywhere on the east coast, they usually turn out to be pretty good and often excellent. Once in Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, the haddock was so creamy and fresh, the batter was of such tempura-like lightness and excellence, that I could have eaten it until it came out of my ears.

In case this sounds like regional favouritism (I happen to come from Yorkshire), I should add that, in general, the fish and chips from East Anglia are even better. The quality of this dish when trawled from the foaming vats of The Fish and Chip Shop in Aldeburgh merits every minute of the drive down the A12 and the lengthy queue once there.

This same appeal applies to fish straight from the sea. Even the most entrancing section of coastline is immeasurably enhanced by the presence of a good fish shop. Though a pleasant enough spot, Whitstable would not draw me with the same irresistible magnetism if it did not offer the chance of buying a few dozen oysters at 35p a time. Then I whiz to the harbour for a couple of quarts of local cockles and maybe a pound or two of cuttlefish. The reverse applies when a coastal spot does not offer much in the way of piscine comestibles. Once I spent hours stomping round Dover for Dover sole. Not a sniff. Never been back.

Somehow, glorious Blue Stilton tastes better when bought in Melton Mowbray where it is made. This twice-blessed town also produces the best pork pies in Britain - so good, in fact, that the name of the town has been filched for application to pork pies made hundreds of miles away. The Dickinson & Morris Shop in Melton Mowbray, where you can see this triumph of English charcuterie being constructed, is among the top tourist destinations in Leicestershire.

It comes as no surprise that East Midlands Tourism was the moving force behind tasteEngland. Elsewhere in Britain, local products exert a similar spell. I would happily cross the Pennines, possibly also the Alps and Urals, to purchase black pudding from the market in Bury, Lancashire. I'm sure that the Cornish pasties are plumper and their contents are more steamily satisfying when consumed in the county that gave them their name. As is the case with local wines the world over, Kentish wines give of their best when purchased and consumed in the Weald. Same goes for Wensleydale, which undoubtedly enjoys an additional creaminess when purchased in the Dales village of Hawes where it is made.

Cheddar never has quite the same bite or piquant nuttiness unless purchased in the environs of Wincanton. Though you can get them in Waitrose, Craster kippers are best bought in Craster. Clotted cream is hopeless from the stingy little tubs you get in the supermarket. Head for Exeter and get it scooped from the tray in the farm shop. You could enjoy a happy tour of Britain exploring raisin pastries alone. The itinerary: Banbury, Chorley, Eccles. A trip to Yorkshire is enhanced by that county's excellent curd tarts.

There are one or two exceptions. Take Dorset Knobs, a savoury biscuit championed by Rick Stein. There could hardly be anything more traditional. Lovely old packaging. Only made between January and March. Individually moulded by hand. Three separate bakings. Unfortunately, the result is a desiccated, unforgiving sphere that I wouldn't cross the road for, never mind heading all the way to Morecombelake near Bridport. I once bought some, lured by the packet, and they hung around for years.

Traditions need not go back for hundreds of years. I once spent a happy week in Bradford exploring the city's fantastic wealth of Pakistani restaurants. Chapatis never taste the same unless you see them being cooked on the outside of a clay oven. The Indian restaurants of London's Southall should be high on any visitor's list of priorities. My personal ambition is a protracted visit to Manchester's legendary Chinatown. Food may not be the only reason for visiting a place, but it should be high on the list of priorities. And, let's face it, wherever you go, you're going to eat something. It might as well be something good.

For a free copy of the tasteEngland brochure call 0845 330 3663 or visit www.visitengland.com/taste. For a rather more informative guide to the foods of Britain, buy "Traditional Foods of Britain: A Regional Inventory" (Prospect Books) or visit the website of Britain's leading food forager Henrietta Green at www.foodloversbritain.com.

AUTUMN FOOD FESTIVALS, REGION BY REGION

East Midlands

Great Peak District autumn fair, Buxton, Derbyshire, 9-10 October ( www.visitbuxton.co.uk); Nottingham beer and cider festival, 21-24 October ( www.camra.org.uk); Erewash Valley beer festival, Derbyshire, 19-20 November

Yorkshire

Sheffield beer festival, 30 September-2 October ( www.sheffieldcamra.co.uk); Huddersfield Oktoberfest beer festival, 9-10 October ( www.camra.org.uk); Wakefield beer festival, 14-16 October ( www.camra.org.uk/wakefield)

Northumbria

The Rhythm and Brews beer and music festival, 17-19 September; Apple and Pear Sunday in Durham, 26 September ( www.crookhallgardens.co.uk)

North-west

Nantwich food festival, 24-26 September, Nantwich, Cheshire ( www.sustainabilityalliance.org.uk/food/festival); Manchester food and drink festival, 1-14 October ( www.foodanddrinkfestival.com)

Heart of England

The Eastnor Castle festival of food and drink at Ledbury, Herefordshire, on 2-3 October ( www.eastnorcastle.com); Shrewsbury's harvest time festival of local food and drink on 8 October

South-west

The Salisbury food and drink festival, Wiltshire, 18-26 September ( www.salisburyfoodanddrinkfestival.co.uk); Chocolate Unlimited at Exeter, Devon, 10 October ( www.escot-devon.co.uk)

South-east

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, is the venue for The Great British Cheese Festival on 25-26 September ( www.thecheeseweb.com); the Horsham Food and Drink Festival in West Sussex is from 11 September- 3 October ( www.horsham.gov.uk)

London

Chocolate Week, 4-10 October, including the first annual world chocolate awards with events all over London ( www.chocolateweek.co.uk)

East of England

The Christmas food and drink fair, Sandringham, Norfolk, 20-21 November ( www.tastesofanglia.com)

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