A monk in a rustic brown cowl handed me a chocolate vodka and whispered: "I'm not from here, I'm from Haltwhistle."
No, I wasn't on a tour of Russian monasteries (or acid). I was at the North West Food Lovers Festival, held in August on the lawns of Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. Next weekend the foodies of that stretch of rolling farmland between Cheshire and Cumbria take their tents and stalls of regional products and haute snacks to Tatton Park, Knutsford, for the final event this year.
If you are near - or hungry - I suggest you go along. The Lakes and big cities, aside, the North-west is too often ignored. This is partly because its "attractions" - Wigan Pier, St Helens Glass Museum and the stuff you see on brown signs on the M6 - don't really attract. But it's also because those who don't live there think of it in terms of (closed) factories, rain and the stodgier parts of the British diet: hot pot, pies, Eccles cake and black pudding.
But the renaissance of a foodie culture, grounded in a local organic revolution born out of the foot-and-mouth crisis, is a fascinating and deeply satisfying way into the region. Deborah Robb, who runs the events, says: "The festivals are great opportunities for producers to sell what they produce directly to the public, and it gives people a chance to chat to the person that made the food and to find out where and how it came about.
"Many of the businesses are very small, making a unique product, which is flavoured by the place where it was created. For example, Cheshire cheese, the saltiness of which reflects the Cheshire plains. Sarsaparilla, which evolved from the Temperance movement in Manchester. And the brown shrimps of Morecambe Bay".
I was born in the industrial end of Lancashire, so my own initial thoughts were: one, this is just going home; and two, I'll recognise all the food. But as much as I'd like to say I was raised on food like that being touted, I have to admit (sorry, mum) I wasn't.
In my first waltz round a marquee, I was given thick slices of smoky ham, chunks of tasty, textured Lancashire cheeses (none of that bland crumbly stuff that doesn't toast) and crisp organic tomatoes from Southport. The bluff grower explained the science behind think-skinned tomatoes and made the case for saving food miles: "These are golden delights, piccolos and babies - it's not hot enough here for beef tomatoes, so let's leave those to the Italians".
Many of the foods I tried were local - from Morecambe Bay seafood to herbs from Chat Moss, Goosnargh duck (big in posh London restaurants) to Garstang Blue cheese. Others were imported items such as teas, coffee and Spanish wines that were packaged and sold by local outlets (often with a fair-trade deal to generate some moral value in buying "locally"). The showcase for many of these was the tent belonging to Booths, a regional supermarket chain that's taking on the biggies (and Waitrose) with savvy sourcing and exclusive food and drink.
Of course, do anything culinary and celebs will show up. I attended entertaining masterclasses by chefs James Martin of Ready, Steady, Cook and Strictly Come Dancing, and Simon Rimmer, born in the region and still very much a presence through his award-winning vegetarian restaurant, Greens, in Didsbury near Manchester. Both chefs seemed amiable and pragmatic, dispensing advice on anything from heating steaks to not washing mushrooms and artistic caramelising. They cooked all their dishes using local ingredients. Rimmer will be at the Tatton Park event, as will Antony Worrall Thompson, Marguerite Patten and Brian Mellor:
But the real foodies were more entertaining. Back in the sales tents, I chewed on some biltong and asked butcher Barry Shaw if this wasn't a South African staple made with meats from wildebeest and the like. "Yes, it can be done with anything," he admitted, "but there aren't many wildebeest round here". I also popped back for a fruit vodka and chatted again to the ersatz monk from the North-east - some intruders from other regions are allowed, though I bet they always have to have "north" in their name.
I made a point of seeing what had happened to the classics of my youth. The black pudding had been reinvented as a delicacy in the same category as chorizo and salami; there was even a vegetarian version. Spuds were still a central theme, but now cooked in duck fat (Rimmer said we would all move from bad, unhealthy eating to occasional unhealthy bites that were too enjoyable to forsake). And the good old pie was now as likely to be filled with venison and red wine or ginger and pineapple as old-fashioned pork or beef.
If you over do it, then head for those Cheshire Marshes to stomp it off. The North-west might be famous for pylons and power stations, but it's actually very green. Not only do you get to eat food from the land, but the land and its beasts are everywhere around you - something you won't get even at the poshest inner-city farmers' market.
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The North West Food Lovers Festival is at Tatton Park, Knutsford, Cheshire from 10am-5pm, 28-29 October (01625 53440;
tattonpark.org.uk; foodloversfestival.co.uk/tatton/enquiries.htm). Admission: adults £5, senior citizens £4, children £2. For other regions go to regionalfoodanddrink.co.uk/ events/index.phpReuse content