Shopping: Over here: the best of British, with a European flavour
Why drink Calvados when you can buy apple brandy? By Hamish Scott
Saturday 15 June 1996
British food producers are increasingly responding to this change by offering home-grown alternatives to many European foods. Some examples, such as Welsh mozzarella, are no more than cheap and cheerful copies, but there are also cases in which British versions of European standards are so well-crafted and delicious as to satisfy even the most demanding Frenchman.
Oysters were a common feature of the British diet until pollution, over- fishing and disease virtually wiped out native stocks. Most oysters farmed today, both in Britain and in France, are Pacifics, which are hardier and faster growing than the native British variety. An exception to this rule is the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm in Port Navas, near Falmouth, where Len Hodges has, with the help of some judicious "seeding", encouraged the return of natives to the Helford estuary. It is not only customers at Mr Hodges' quayside shop who share his belief that these are superior by far to the farmed Pacifics so popular in Brittany; smart restaurants in France and Spain are creating an insatiable demand for native Cornish oysters.
Edible snails were introduced to Britain by the Romans although, unlike the French, we have long ceased to regard them with much relish. In parts of the west country, however, they were gathered for the table in quite recent times and Nicola French, at Beechfield Farm near Langport, now runs one of England's few surviving snail farms. Petit gris, collected in the wild, are fattened up in poly-tunnels on a diet of green salad for sale to restaurants and to locals with a taste for fresh escargots.
An ideal accompaniment to Somerset escargots might be garlic from the Isle of Wight, where Colin Boswell at Mersley Farm produces 100 tons of bulbs each season. The days of British prejudice against garlic are long over, for as a nation we now consume more than 2,000 tons a year, most of it imported from France, Spain, California or even China. Though Mersley Farm still remains the only commercial grower in this country, they already export bulbs to Paris, where they are sold by Marks and Spencer. Indeed the Isle of Wight is so proud of its exotic harvest that a Garlic Festival is held each August, attracting more than 30,000 visitors last year.
English ham is traditionally cooked after a few months of curing, in contrast to continental air-dried hams, which are eaten thinly sliced and raw. Richard Woodall, whose family have been producing bacon, ham and sausages in Cumbria since 1828, was Britain's first butcher to experiment with the methods used in Parma and Bayonne. His hams are cured in salt and saltpetre, along with a few herbs and spices, then hung up to mature for at least a year. The longer they are left, the better they become, according to Mr Woodall, whose one regret is that he must watch his plump and juicy hams slowly shrink to one fifth of their weight during the long drying process. Mr Woodall also make a fine pancetta and he has recently discovered an unexpected market for his dry-cured bacon. The Belgians love to eat it raw.
Air-dried ham is also made by Amanda Streatfield and her husband at Denhay Farm in Dorset. The cure they use is more elaborate than Mr Woodall's, with apple juice and honey added to the brine, and their hams are oak- smoked in the manner of Westphalia. La Grande Epicerie in Paris recently became Denhay Ham's first European outlet.
British cheeses have enjoyed a huge revival over recent years and respectable versions of camembert and brie are now produced in England, particularly in Somerset. For those who like some pungency and tang, however, there are hand-crafted Scottish cheeses that can rival any to be smelt across the channel. Bonchester, made from unpasteurised Jersey milk, ripens to the melting richness of a perfect camembert, whilst Lanark Blue, from ewes' milk, is more than comparable with Roquefort. Rawmilk cheeses are however treated with suspicion in this country. In a recent, protracted battle with health and safety regulations it took expert evidence from French scientists to save Lanark Blue from official condemnation.
When it comes to choosing English wines to accompany such food, Penshurst Seyval Blanc or Lamberhurst Fume would be perfect with the snails or oysters. Matured in old oak casks, either might impress a Frenchman, so long as he was not allowed to see the label. In years when the Sussex climate is sufficiently forgiving, Lamberhurst also make a red wine from a blend of French and Russian vines. As one of England's largest and best-established vineyards, Lamberhurst are now starting to attack the European market through an outlet appropriately sited in the Belgian town of Waterloo.
Whilst the French may favour malt whisky as a digestif, an excellent alternative to Calvados is Somerset apple brandy. Distilled in old French stills and matured in wooden vats, Julian Temperley's Somerset Royal has a fresh clean taste of apples, whilst his Five Year Old is as velvety and subtle as mature cognac. Later on this year he will be launching Britain's first "eau de vie" onto an unsuspecting market. This innocently clear liquid is so potent that a single glass could silence any argument about the quality of British food and drink.
The Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm: 01326 340210; French's Escargots: 01458 252246; Mersley Farm: 01983 865229; I.O.W. Garlic Festival, Island Partners Ltd: 01983 863411; Richard Woodall: 01229 717386; Denhay Farms: 01308 422770; Bonchester Cheese: 0145 0860635; Lanark Blue: 0189 981 0257; Penshurst Vineyards: 01892 870255; Lamberhurst Vineyards: 01892 890844; Somerset Cider Brandy Co: 01460 240782.
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